Mary Corbin

Chasing Feinman

I've been chasing Feinman since I was twenty-one. By that I mean beyond the man himself, the ideal of true love and all its promise.

I met Jakob Lee Feinman in 1979 when I was just nineteen and waiting tables at a neighborhood bar, The International. Two years older than me, Jake was pre-Med in his last year of school at Washington University in St. Louis when our paths crossed. It was all quite by chance, really. It saved my life. And, it sort of ruined it, too. Ruined me. For anyone else who came along after Feinman, that is.

Paulina, our bartender who was majoring in dance at the same college as Jake, introduced us. We loved working together and made a great team. One slow night at the bar, Paulina was schmoozing a threesome of young men at the far end of the bar. I was hanging out at the front of the room chatting with the band on their break between sets when she waved me over to the service station area of the bar where we waitresses would pick up our drinks.

"My friends from school are hanging out. Do you see the handsome guy in the middle in the gray sweatshirt?" she asked.

I glanced over, then looked back at her with a nod.

"He thinks you're really cute and wants me to get your phone number."

“OK, I guess. If he has your endorsement."

"He's phenomenal," she said with a smile as she slid a bar napkin across the bar, pulled a pen from her topknot and handed it to me.

At the other end of the bar then, Paulina leaned into her friend.

"See that waitress over there? She thinks you’re really cute and asked me to give you her phone number," she said, wagging the napkin with my scrawled digits on it before depositing it squarely in front of him.

I got a new four-top and sort of forgot about the whole thing. Just before midnight, I caught sight of Jake and his friends putting on their coats. I dropped an order off at the bar station and made haste to them. I touched Feinman on the arm.

“I just wanted to say ‘Hi’ before you leave."

He turned his whole body towards me, glancing down at my hand on his arm, which I removed promptly, realizing it had lingered there perhaps a bit too long. He looked up and into my soul at that moment with a warm smile and golden-brown eyes.

"I'm Jakob—or Jake—so good to meet you," he said, offering his hand.

I blushed, placing my hand into his warm palm. His friends by now were in their coats and edging towards the door. Jake stood and pulled on a wool cap.

"I’ve got to go — my ride. I'll give you a call. Maybe Sunday we can have a beer or something?"

I nodded and ran off to get my bar order.

The rest of the week passed inside my busy social life. I was getting ready for a surprise birthday party for the guy I was sort of dating for the past three months, Skizzy. He was seven years older than me and ran with a crowd he had known since grade school, guys that were dyed-in-the-wool South St. Louis boys of German descent, like so many in that town. They loved women, beer and the St. Louis Blues — the hockey team I mean, though the music style too. But mostly they were all disco and Motown, where that was concerned.

The party was set for Saturday night and my sister Annie and I were going as she was dating one of Skizzy's friends, Mike. Around nine o'clock, we got word that Skizzy was on his way. Lights were turned down and a giggly hush filled the room. Imagine my consternation when the door opened, the lights came on and everyone yelled surprise — but the surprise was actually on me. There stood Skizzy with a pretty blond on his arm, kissing him in excitement. I edged in close enough to hear some of the banter around him, enough to glean that the blond was Skizzy's real girlfriend, and everyone knew that but me. I searched the room for Annie, but she was nowhere in sight.

She and Mike had slipped away. She had the car keys and I had no cab fare so I was stuck for the duration. An endless night faded into black and the next thing I knew I was waking up to daybreak on a couch. My contact lenses were pasted to my eyeballs. I blinked rapidly to bring moisture to them and clarity to the situation. I was humiliated and hungover and miserable, wondering when I might finally get home. Annie appeared moments after that thought, coming down the staircase looking apologetic.

"Let's get out of here and get some breakfast at the Majestic. It's on me,” she said.

Over strong coffee and greasy eggs, I suddenly remembered "Jakob—or Jake." Today was Sunday, the day we were supposed to go out. I told Annie all about it but felt doubtful it would even happen.

"How could I possibly go out with him anyway after the night I just had," I said.

The bill came and we headed home to our parent’s house to sleep it all off.

. . .

I nearly missed Jake’s call. Trapped in a dreamscape of delirium, I heard a voice calling out to me. It was Annie's voice. Urging me to wake up.

"Go away . . ."

"No! Wake up. That guy — he called you. You have to get up now and call him back," Annie said.

"Who? What?"

Our older sister Katie had answered the phone and told him I wasn't home and she didn't know where I was or when I'd be back, scribbled down his phone number and hung up. Annie was coming to the rescue, putting the wheels in motion.

"Get up. Go call him back. Now!"

I stirred out of my slumber well enough to realize my eyes were supremely dry and my mouth even dryer and a sense of urgency was doubling back, waiting for me to catch up to it. Shaking off the grit and dismay of the night before, I took the piece of paper with the phone number on it from Annie’s hand, sat up and stuck it in my back pocket. I paced around with an ugly gut and finally mustered up the courage to call.

"So. You have time tonight?" he asked.

. . .

That’s how it all started. A near miss. That turned into a perfect love. After our first date, I felt like I had a chance at real happiness. I was walking on air. My senses had been awakened. New sights, new smells, new tastes erupted all around me. I was a newborn emerging from the darkened womb into a world I previously did not know existed.

“So, you finally met a guy that treats you right, huh?”

My older brother Donnie and I were in the kitchen putting scoops of ice cream onto slices of mom's peach pie the night my family met Jake for the first time.

“I was startin' to worry about ya, girl,” Donnie added.

Back at the dinner table as we finished up the last of the coffee and dessert, Donnie couldn't help himself. He stared at Feinman.

“Thank you, man. You're the best thing that's ever happened to my sister. You wouldn't believe the cast of characters she usually dates!”

“Donnie, please! Don't pay any attention, Jake,” I said.

Donnie turned his head swiftly to me.

“What? What did I do?”

Then turned back to Jake.

“No, really. I mean it,” Donnie said. “I'm really glad you two met. That's all,” he said, dropping the last forkful of pie into his mouth.

“I'm really glad, too,” Feinman said, red in the face.

I snuck a glance in the direction of mom and saw her staring at me. She nodded her head almost imperceptibly in a kind of bridled yet cautionary agreement, then looked at Donnie as she stood.

“Help me clear the plates, Don?”

. . .

Our love blossomed over the next several months. We loved cooking together or going to our hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on Grand run by two Italian men who barely spoke English. We took walks through campus with his dog, Layla.

He liked my friends and the bar and the parts of the city he had never known before meeting me. We never had a single argument. If we appeared to be in slightest disagreement about something, Jake would say this one sentence.

“Let's have a glass of something.”

He was a diplomat. A gentleman. A non-reactive Buddha. A sophisticate and a bon-vivant who saw no point in wasting time on being discontent. We had the same temperament and shared an ironic sense of humor. We loved the same books and movies, having fun in nature, playing with dogs, hanging out with friends. Not a beat was missed.

There was just one thing, though. But I’ll get to that later.

. . .

Jake and I discovered we both had a brother in San Francisco and started planning a summer trip. Two days before we left it was my birthday and Jake and I sat in the backyard drinking cold mugs of beer. He went inside to get a couple more and returned with a small box.

“Happy Birthday, babe,” he said.

I took the box from his hand.

“What's this, Jake?”

I pulled slowly at the little pink ribbon to untie it from the box, letting it fall into my lap as I slowly lifted off the top. I pulled apart the leaves of tissue to find a brilliant ruby stone, set into a gold heart shaped pendant with eleven small faux diamonds dotting the outline of the heart.

“Oh, my goodness, Jake! This is beautiful!” I said, looking up at his beaming face.

“You like it? I would have put twenty of those sparkly things on but it wouldn't fit so I told them to put eleven because it sounds like ‘Lovin.’ And 11 is like the two of us standing side by side.”

He looked at me expectantly.

“But they did engrave the number 20 on the back. See?” he said, as he stepped in closer and turned the pendant over in the box to reveal the etched number. Underneath 20, in small script were the letters “RJF”— our combined initials with our shared J in the middle.

I pulled it from the box and asked him to clasp it around my neck and he did. I took the pendant into my hand and rubbed it softly.

“I love it, Jake, I just love it. And I love you.”

I stood up then and gave him a kiss. We embraced for what seemed like eternity.

. . .

Everybody knows when you are a tourist in San Francisco. You’re the one in shorts and a tank top in the middle of a fog belt wondering could it really be July. Mark Twain wasn't kidding when he said, The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco. Truly.

We had two superb guides, my brother the musician and his brother the outdoorsman, and went to music and comedy clubs, world class beaches and hiking trails, fantastic restaurants and coffee houses and bakeries tucked away in cool neighborhoods. Jake's brother worked for an outdoor recreation outfitter and set us up with all the stuff we needed for the second leg of our trip, an ambitious plan to hitchhike and camp our way up the coast to Portland, Oregon and back. Our compatibility did not waver as we found our bliss together riding in the back of pick-up trucks, camping under dripping redwood trees and gazing out at windswept coastlines. We were floating along in a dream and over dinner our last night, Jake asked me to move in with him.

I think you know what my answer was.

. . .

About that necklace. I've worn it every day of my life. Putting it on with great care every morning and touching that ruby softly each time, I would ritually wonder the proverbial “what if” in the later years of my life. Because, you see, things didn't work out for Feinman and me.

Walking back to our apartment after getting ice cream, I turned to Jake.

"Ya know, all my friends really love you, Jake."

He smiled at me with his whole face.

"But. I feel. Well, I feel like your Jewish friends don't really like me as much as your non-Jewish friends," I continued. "Am I just imagining that?"

There was momentary silence as he fully absorbed the weight of my question.

"Hmmm. Well. I know it's . . . it's like this. Jewish people are ‘The Chosen People.’ I mean, we are a tribe, we see ourselves as special."

I didn't understand and asked if that meant I was not special. He stopped and turned to me, putting his hands on my shoulders.

"You are special, of course. So special,” he said.

“But it's a whole big thing. It's like, we survived so much as a people and there is both a sense of pride and a responsibility to that,” he explained.

It was then that he shared with me the remaining words his brother had spoken to him. He dropped the big reveal right there on the sidewalk. Two blocks from home. I could feel the beginning of an end as he spoke.

“My brother said if we carried on our relationship into a marriage, he would never speak to me again.”

I was shocked and dismayed, my eyes started to well up, my heart pounded in my chest. Jake was my best friend wrapped up in a love beyond any definition I had ever thought possible. What was happening right now? I tried to weather the blow, but my emotional body was coming forward through my skin. Past bones and blood and soft tissue, right to the surface.

“What does that mean, exactly? What if we want to get married — I mean I'm not even thinking about . . . but what if we did want to . . .” I said, an ascending shrillness in my voice.

Feinman looked down at the ground.

“We can't.”

He tried explaining further.

“It’s not just my brother, my whole family – they love you – but. They would not approve of it and I have to do right by them. You see . . .”

I couldn’t see. I was incredulous. Mostly I was dizzy. Dumbfounded. Disconsolate. Blue. His words barely audible in the swirl of my swelling confusion and grief.

“What if I converted?” I offered, tears starting down my cheeks now.

“We can't. My family has told me that wouldn't be enough.

“Listen carefully,” he went on, holding my shoulders in both hands with the purest intention.

“I want to have a family and my children — have. to. be. Jewish. By blood.”

He looked down then looked up at me.

“So, we do things our own way,” I said.

He shook his head.

“That's just craziness,” he said in a hushed tone.

I was fully dissolving by now.

“I don't understand, isn't love all that matters? I've never felt like this before with anyone.”

What was this forbidden love? Maybe love is not all that matters.

Feinman grabbed my arm in his.

"Let's walk. We can talk about it when we get home."

Neither of us spoke the next two blocks to our apartment and I made a beeline to the bathroom when we got inside. I peed, blew my nose. I splashed some cold water on my face. When I emerged, Feinman was standing in the kitchen facing the bathroom door, waiting.

"Let's have a glass of something," he said.

I nodded and he grabbed a bottle of Chardonnay from the fridge and pulled two glasses off the shelf. That was one of his signature things to say, as I said.

Let's have a glass of something.

He liked to say it whenever something was in need of resolution. Or there was a need for a new look at a thing, a new angle. He'd utter it when receiving sad or happy news, to begin the planning of some new adventure or idea, and of course, it was also always uttered when it was time to celebrate.

But this was not a time for celebration. It was a time of mourning. At least for me. Surely, he had always known it would be this way and had anticipated this moment, this very conversation. He was prepared and I was not. He began to explain to me some basic tenets of his religion. I sat across from him at our kitchen table just staring into his face, listening with every fiber of my being.

“Having said all that, I feel the same as you, like this is a one true love that I never have felt before and may never know again,” he said.

But it wasn't his decision. Decisions were made by and for the whole family — no, an entire tribe — to support an ethos, a tradition, a way of life that simply could not be violated. It would be like knowingly throwing water onto the eternal flame, but to me, the flame wasn't “my people.” It was our love. Our once-in-a-lifetime-this-happens, monumentally grand, vibrantly awakened, sacred love. And his words were coming down on that flame in a slow but steady rain. I mean, what was this, Romeo and Juliette, for fuck's sake?

. . .

Then, it was a year later. Jake was in Chicago preparing for Med school. I sat at the bar after a long night of work sipping on a warm "glass of something" thinking about him. It was two in the morning and I was waiting for Marcie, my best friend who I was living with now in the apartment I had shared with Jake. I realized I was sitting on the very stool he was sitting on the night I first laid eyes on him, the night I had placed my hand inside his warm palm. An image of a trip to Chicago we had taken in the early days of our romance surfaced. That perfectly cool breeze that glides across you on a summer afternoon while driving around Lake Michigan. Windows rolled down, birds chirping, sun shining. Now. I was in the pentimento layer of a painting that was covered up. Sitting just beneath the surface of a newer, less defined, less exquisite rendering by the artist, trying to peek through to the light. Calling out to be found. Restored.

The next afternoon, Marcie and I were at her parent's house, sitting in the backyard post-brunch, her dog Muffin sitting in her lap.

“You seem somewhere else lately, what's up with you, lady?" Marci asked.

I nursed a cold can of Bud Lite, a squished-up lime wedge sitting on top.

Marcie knew me so well, like a sister. We had been best friends since we were twelve, knew everything about each other's thoughts and feelings. We shared everything with each other: intimate details about our "firsts" with guys, our dreams for getting out of St. Louis, our crappy day at work stories, our disappointments and our triumphs. We were as close as two girls can be. I had even dated her older brother Frank for three months in the tenth grade.

I shrugged my shoulders and looked at Muffin, so content, nowhere else she would rather be than in Marcie's lap.

"I'd like to be as happy as that Muffin dog there.”

“Well, it might help if you gave a little attention to your love life, girl,” Marcie said. “Did you ever see that guy who was so hot after you . . . what was his name, Johnny Sumpter? Frank's bowling buddy."

I stared off and dropped it just under my breath.

"Sumner. Joey Sumner. Nope," I said.

"Why the heck not,” she posed. “He's in awe of you. That's not a bad thing," Marcie said.

She grabbed the atomizer filled with ice water, spritzing her face with it. I drained the last of my beer and set down the empty can with a definitive finish.

"Well, Marcie, it's like this. I will never top Jake. He was the best I will ever have. My one true love. Anyone else is not worth my time."

Marcie listened without interrupting, a particular trait I loved in her then spoke with a puzzled look on her face.

"Jake? Who’s Jake?"

"I've got to pee," I said, ignoring her question, walking off towards the screened in porch and into the kitchen where her folks were playing a game of gin rummy at the table.

Iced tea in aqua colored melamine tumblers sat resting in a cold sweat. A sandbag ashtray filled with erect, filtered butts, the day’s sports page and stacks of pennies littered the flowered vinyl kitchen tablecloth, a deck of cards holding court squarely at center. It was an image frozen in time for me, one I’d seen so many times before.

“Another beer, hon?” Marcie's mom offered without looking up, putting a cigarette up to her lips, eyes steady in concentration on her playing hand.

Marcie and I had both turned twenty-two that year but cold cans of anything brewed in St. Louis from her parent's basement fridge were sanctioned in their home since we were seniors in high school. This question played out as routine.

So, indeed. Who is Jake?

Maybe I invented him in a moment of desperation after Skizzy's surprise party. Was an idyllic romance born out of the haze and humiliation of that night? Had the past two years of my life really played out differently while I imagined a better life? What if Jake didn't even exist? Maybe he was just an invention from the deepest recesses of my heart and soul. I sat on Marcie's parent's toilet pondering the possibility of such a grand delusion.

I picked up the June issue of Glamour Magazine at my feet and leafed through it.

"Get Your Best Swimsuit Body in Three Weeks"

"The Ten Things Men Want to Hear"

"Dating Tips for Single Mothers"

Good grief. No wonder I'm delusional. What sort of paradigm are we trying to live up to, anyway?

. . .

I was ruined by Feinman, you know? I told you that at the beginning. It was like chasing cocaine. It's never going to be as good as that first hit, that first euphoric moment that you spend the rest of the night trying to recreate. And try as you might, you will fail. No, he was worse than that. He wasn't readily available in pure form anywhere and the alternatives were loathsome: either not potent enough or downright soul numbing. That is how it felt to date other men after Jake, I'm not exaggerating. The years have passed, and sure, I have had several men in my life. I met a lot of guys at the bar and my friends were always trying to fix me up.

The closest I got to tying the knot was with Brian Mason. I was thirty-three then. Brian was my friend Joanie's cousin from Maplewood. She invited me to go to one of his adult league softball games one summer evening so we could meet. He was a handsome guy who kept in shape. He had thick brown hair and kind eyes, a good sense of humor and solid beer drinking skills. Brian hit a ball out of the park that night, knocking it clear over the heads of all the players who watched it sail by in disbelief as if it were a UFO.

We all went for pizza at Farotto's after the game and sitting at a booth together, Brian courted me over cold mugs of Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap. I found out that night that Brian was the middle child of three, had two sisters, Janie and Sarah, both married with kids. He worked in construction, right hand to the foreman, and did pretty well for himself. He had a black lab named Magic and a roommate who was an airline pilot who was rarely at home.

So, I kept an open mind and things went pretty well for a while. He told me he loved me three months into our relationship, on a rainy Sunday afternoon at his apartment. I was cleaning up the breakfast dishes, and he came up behind me and kissed my ear, whispering those three little words every woman wants to hear. I turned around to face him and just smiled and kissed him on the lips. It would take me longer to get there but I felt like I might. Brian was great and everything. He just wasn't Jakob Feinman.

Brian had big plans and he was just so happy I was part of it. Don't get me wrong, I loved him in my own way but it felt confining to me, a done deal, the end of the road. Somewhere on that road, I was sure, was a detour back to Feinman, if I could only find the right map. At this point, though, I really had no idea where Feinman was. In Chicago. Married. In private practice. That was all I had heard.

By the Fourth of July, it was over with Brian. It wasn't even dark yet as he walked me to my car, well before the big fireworks display. He wanted a real future, he explained. His faith and hope in me had completely fizzled out like a dud firecracker, with a little hiss and a pop, leaving barely a wisp of smoke.

After Brian, it was a series of failures and I couldn't allow myself to go through all that with yet another guy. I could be quite decisive, when it came to who was deserving of my time, therefore my life. If a guy made it miraculously past the six-month mark, I knew it was just a matter of days before I’d find a reason to end it. At age thirty-seven, I bought the bar. George, the longtime owner had decided to retire and offered it to me and I had been there so long it felt like I owned the place anyway.

. . .

A guy walks into a bar . . .

No. Wait. Let me start again. I'm sixty-four now and a stale joke is not the way to go with the end of this story. Or is it just the beginning? Time is a funny thing, ya know? Not always linear in our memories. I sold the bar three years ago, which gave me a nice nest egg. Right now? I'm on a train to New York City for a week as I do every June to visit old friends who once worked at The International in the 90s. The train is starting to slow down to a gentle, hypnotic pace. I'm lost in a distant reverie, feeling the words of the song playing in the air. Or is it just playing in my soul?

Dixie Chicks.


You know it? There’s a part that goes, How long do you want to be loved? Is forever enough?

I get sort of lost in it.

The train has slowed to a stop now and I hear the conductor over the loudspeaker:

“Chicago, folks, Union Station. We'll be here for fifteen minutes.”

I'm sitting in the crowded bar car, fully immersed in a cheese plate and a glass of chardonnay, voices mingling around me. People are boarding, others gather up their things having reached their destination. A revolving door of lives in transition.

I hear a voice asking me a question.

"Is this seat taken?"

I look up and my eyes meet the face of a handsome man of my age, leaning in close to let others get by him in the aisle. My mouth is full of cracker and Havarti, so I nod and extend my hand towards the seat across from me. We begin to trade small talk and I can see he doesn't want to just sit quietly, nodding off to the sound of the rails. He wants connection. He tells me all about his years of being a pediatrician. Married with four grown kids, divorced.

“She was never the right woman for me — only in theory, how my family wanted it. A girl from a good family, same background, you know — same values.”

I nod, silent but attentive, swallowing the last of my chardonnay.

“She always wanted to be a famous actress, but she gave up her career to raise the kids. She probably blames me for getting in the way of her dreams. Sometimes I think . . .”

He paused, staring off into space. Then he looked me right in the eye.

“You know what they say. You always wonder about the one that got away,” he said.

"Things seldom turn out how we expect them to,” I say to him.

I realize I am revealing very little about my own life to this stranger, speaking in generalities, dwelling safely in the gray area. Listening mostly. Content to receive. But something is resonating in his story. Something. Things shift in a split second, internally. Like being suddenly stirred awake from a deep sleep after a long night of drink. You know, after the kind of night we’ve all had.

My mouth is a bit dry. My eyes, too. I blink a few times, realizing just how supremely dry they are and my mouth even dryer and a sense of urgency is doubling back, waiting for me to catch up to it.

“It's a little warm,” I say.

I begin to remove my cardigan.

He reaches over to help with my sleeve. As I'm leaning forward to receive his assist, my ruby necklace swings forward a bit and catches the light. And his eye.

I sit back.

“That's a beautiful necklace,” he says.

I press my hand to the ruby, hold it in my palm for a few seconds as I’ve done a million times before, then position it against my heart and tell him, Yes, it is. I tell him it was a gift from long ago. That I have worn it every day since the day I got it.

He nods.

“I bet someone who loves you very much gave it to you.”

He looks at it again.

“Is that a ruby?” he asks.

I tilt my head to the left.

"Yes. Yes, it is. Like my name. I'm Ruby,” I say, extending my hand to him realizing we hadn't yet exchanged names.

I blushed, placing my hand into his warm palm.

We were held in that moment in time, staring infinitely into each other, like God's thumb was pressing on a larger-than-life TV remote suspending us in freeze-frame. Is this happening now or a fragment on a circular wheel of life? Block universe.

“Let's have a glass of something,” he says.

I nod. He calls a waiter over and orders two glasses of champagne. We sat in silence then as we waited for the waiter to return. Not an awkward silence, mind you, but one that sort of blanketed us in a familiar comfort . . . Like a perfectly cool breeze that glides across you on a summer afternoon as you drive around Lake Michigan. I thought I could even hear birds chirping.

The champagne arrived and we lifted our glasses to each other.

“It's a good life,” he said.

I agreed.

Mary Corbin is a writer and artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area and a graduate of California College of the Arts. Whether in words or paint, she creates strong narratives with relatable characters, contrasting gestures of the ordinary with the mysterious layers that lie beneath the surface. This contemplation is her constant source material.
previous page     contents     next page


Post a Comment

<< Home