Yoel Dovid hurriedly bobbed and weaved through the stream of pedestrians on the sidewalk. He didn’t need to check the time; he knew he was quite late. He hoped his date would understand that his hectic school schedule sometimes inconvenienced him and often frustrated his shidduch opportunities. Thankfully, he had found a spare block of time to get away and focus on his search for a wife, now entering its sixth year. Turning the corner, he saw the restaurant’s sign glowing in the fading light of the evening. He quickly checked right and left then dashed across the street, flung open the door and waded inside.
The head waiter looked up from his smart phone and offered his most polished smile.
“Do you have a reservation, sir?”
Yoel Dovid pulled his scarf away from his chin and cleared his throat. “Yes, Sandler, table for two.”
“Ah,” the other man skimmed the list on the computer screen in front of him. “You’re late.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Do you still have an open table?”
“Why of course,” the waiter smirked. “Is your entire party here?”
Yoel Dovid searched the restaurant, hoping that his date hadn’t gotten fed up with him and left already. “Yes, I think that’s her right over there,” he gestured toward a tall woman with shoulder-length auburn hair standing by the sushi bar with her back to them.
“Do fetch her then, and follow me,” he replied in a haughty tone.
Yoel Dovid practically ran over to the lone woman. “Hello! I’m terribly sorry,” he greeted her in his most congenial, yet apologetic voice. “I should’ve texted you, but there wasn’t service in the tunnel on the way from school, and I-”
“It’s about time, Yoel Dov-” She whirled around and froze midsentence.
“Leah?” he inquired, lifting an eyebrow in confusion.
“Joel?” Her eyes widened in disbelief. “Is that you, Joel Sandler?”
“I go by Yoel Dovid now,” he briefly looked at his feet. “But, yes, it’s me.”
“I can’t believe it!” Leah fought to keep her surprised ire under control.
“Me either. I never would have thought in a million years I’d find you here.”
“Yeah, I never thought in a million years I’d ever set foot in this place with you again,” she snapped.
“If anyone should be upset, it’s me, not you,” he retorted, narrowing his gaze.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Leah demanded with a terse whisper.
“As if you could forget! After all, you were the one-” Yoel Dovid felt a firm, annoyed tap on his shoulder.
“This way, please,” the maître d' curled a long finger in the air, beckoning the couple forward.
“R-right,” Yoel Dovid stammered.
“Sure, thank you,” Leah added as they quickly followed behind the server.
Upon reaching their destination, Leah and Yoel Dovid both stopped short and furtively glanced at one another.
“Here is your table,” the head waiter gestured with a flourish.
“Is there any chance you have another one available?” Yoel Dovid requested anxiously.
“No,” came the curt reply. “Please sit.” He thrust two menus in their direction and stormed off. The next few moments passed in silence as they sat down and intensely poured over the potential selections. The tension built to a crescendo and both Leah and Yoel Dovid simultaneously peeked over their respective menus. Noticing the other’s stare, they quickly jerked the menus back to their protective place.
Leah released a pent in breath, folded her menu and placed it flat on the table.
“This has got to be some kind of cosmic joke.”
Yoel Dovid dropped his menu with a clunk. “What do you mean by that, exactly?”
“This,” she gestured around them with a circular motion. “Us,” she continued, alternatively pointing toward Yoel Dovid and herself. Yoel Dovid sighed softly, biting back a potentially insulting remark.
Leah wasn’t relenting. “I just don’t understand how this could have possibly happened,” she paused for a moment to think, eyes falling toward her lap. “Ok, I can see how I messed up, since you’re using your Hebrew name now, and I’ve gotten so jaded with dating that I don’t really call references anymore,” she looked up and glared across the table. “But how in the world didn’t you know it was me?”
“Well,” Yoel Dovid began, calmly linking his fingers in front of him. “It’s been a while since we last went out, if you’ll recall. I did happen to go out with another Leah Schwartz around six months ago, so I made sure when the name came up that she wasn’t the girl being suggested.”
Leah opened her mouth to speak, but Yoel Dovid held up a hand to silence her. “And if you’re wondering, as I know you were about to mention, why I didn’t think about you when I saw the name ‘Leah Schwartz,’ it’s because I’ve worked hard to forget about you,” he exhaled slowly, letting the point sink in. “Thinking about us is not something I tend to reminisce about.”
Leah swallowed hard, and Yoel Dovid could tell he’d bruised her ego.
“Perhaps you can now understand just a little what it felt like to be me all those years ago.”
Joel was bouncing with excitement. Tonight was the night. He’d reserved a table at their favorite restaurant and informed the staff about his special plans. As soon as their waiter saw the predetermined signal – Joel returning from the restroom with his hand in his right pocket – the staff would get ready for the big moment.
Leah looked gorgeous. She even wore that dress of hers that he liked so much. Joel had made sure to wear his contacts, since Leah thought he looked more handsome that way.
“I can’t believe we’ve been going out for nine months,” Leah gushed. “Time really flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it?” She grinned.
Joel smiled back. “Especially when you’re with someone you care about.” He glanced over her shoulder and noticed their waiter walking to a nearby table with a tray of food. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”
“Sure, no problem. See you soon.”
Gentling tucking his chair under the table, Joel scurried off to the men’s bathroom. Inside, he turned on the water and splashed a handful on his face. He checked his cell phone and found it to be almost fully charged. Joel knew they’d soon be making a lot of phone calls and sending out rounds of text messages, and he didn’t want to end up like his recently engaged friend whose phone died on him at that most inconvenient moment.
Joel closed his eyes and attempted to calm himself down by taking a few deep breaths. Why should he be nervous? He knew things were going really well, and Leah’s best friend told him that lately Leah had been chatting her up about her own engagement, seemingly indicating that Leah was ready. He bought the ring with his savings, along with some help from his parents, who adored Leah. It was the exact design and size Leah had always dreamed of, or so her sister informed him. Joel had already met with her parents and asked Leah’s father for permission to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The Schwartzes also liked Joel a lot, and wished their future son-in-law hatzlacha, telling him that they looked forward to planning the engagement party.
This was it… It was finally going to happen. He’d met the girl of his dreams and he was finally going to propose. Nothing could be better at that very moment. Steeling his nerves, Joel left the restroom, his hand firmly clenching the small velvet covered box in his right pocket.
Nearby, he caught their waiter’s eye and offered a confirmatory nod. The waiter discreetly flashed a double thumbs up sign and went to the kitchen to prepare for his role. Joel sat down at their table and steadied his bouncing knee with his free hand.
“Did I miss anything interesting while I was gone?” He asked casually.
“Other than me eagerly awaiting your return, nope.”
Well, it was now or never. Joel inhaled deeply and steadied himself.
“Leah,” he began, fixing his eyes on Leah’s own. “These past nine months have been wonderful. I always felt unsure if I’d ever meet someone like you, someone who complements and completes me so perfectly. You’re caring, considerate,and loving…” Joel waited briefly to gather his thoughts.
“You have a tremendous love and respect for Torah, mitzvos observance and chesed, and I believe with all my heart that I could find no one better to be my partner in life,” Joel let the words linger so he could catch his breath. He quietly got up from his chair and kneeled in front of Leah.
Fumbling slightly, he retrieved the velvet box from his pocket, opened the lid, and held it out for her to behold the sparkling contents within.
“Leah Schwartz, will you marry-”
“Joel,” Leah interrupted, an uncomfortable look on her face. “I don’t think-”
“Ah, I apologize,” Joel interjected, and quickly returned to his seat. “It didn’t occur to me that you might be embarrassed to be proposed to in such a public place-”
“That’s not it,” she shook her head rapidly. “It’s just that-”
“Congratulations!” Beamed their waiter, and presented Leah with a bouquet of bright red roses cradled in the crook of his arm.
“Th-thank you, that’ll be all,” Joel said tersely as he snatched the flowers and slipped the man a five dollar bill.
“Oh, but what about-“ The waiter turned to indicate the other servers who were rapidly approaching with a bottle of champagne, two long necked champagne flutes, a fancy cake that said “Mazal Tov” in icing on the top, along with Joel’s camera. Leah looked mortified.
“Not now,” Joel insisted, holding out a hand, fingers splayed. “Please give us a moment.”
“But of course!” The waiter chirped. “I’ll let you enjoy some privacy first.” He spun on his heel and shooed away his fellow employees.
Joel stuffed the flowers beneath the tablecloth and let them fall onto his shoes. He sat up stiffly, licked his lips, mouth suddenly dry and managed to ask, “What’s wrong?”
She refused to meet his eyes, her brow was furrowed with worry.
“Joel… we can’t do this. I can’t do this.”
“What do you mean?” He leaned forward, his voice faint.
“This isn’t going to work,” Leah slowly shook her head. “I know we’ve had a great time together, but I don’t see this going anywhere in the long run.”
“Well, this is a bit sudden, isn’t it?” Joel raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“It really isn’t,” her jaw tensed and she looked up. “We’ve talked about this before.”
“Talked about what, exactly?”
“Where we’re going in life. I know what my plan is, and I’ve been accepted to grad school-”
“And I’m going to go to medical school! You know that. And if you’re suddenly going to say you can’t handle marrying a future doctor, I know you’ve considered that already since your father is a doctor, and-”
“That’s not it, Joel,” Leah bit her bottom lip. “You’ve been saying that you want to go to med school since we started dating, but you’ve barely made an effort to start studying for the MCAT, and I know all about that bad chemistry grade that might foul up your application chances.”
“I have every intention to ace that test. I even bought a study guide last week. And that grade won’t mean a thing once they see my overall GPA, the research and my impressive MCAT score.”
“Joel, you don’t even have an MCAT score. You graduated college almost a year ago and you’ve just been working as a lab tech. To me, that doesn’t show serious commitment or the ability to support a wife and family.”
Joel winced. “But-”
“No buts, Joel. We have talked about this before, and you definitely should know I’ve been worried about you,” Leah pursed her lips. “But I can’t keep being your cheerleader as I progress in life and I don’t see any effort on your part to make good on your promises.”
“Leah,” Joel briefly closed his eyes. “You’re right, I did say I was going to start studying three months ago, but then things got busy at work, and we’ve been going out a lot, so I-”
“Joel, please stop with the excuses. I really like you and I can tell you like me. But, it takes a lot more serious commitment to make a marriage work, from both the practical and emotional standpoints.” Leah stopped, seemingly unsure what came next.
“Well, this is a fine way to break up with me,” Joel barked sarcastically. “In our favorite restaurant, on our anniversary, no less.”
Leah recoiled as though she had been struck. “Look, you were the one shoving a diamond ring in my face without ever bringing up the subject of getting engaged,” she fired back, her voice wavering with exasperation. “You can’t just assume that since we’ve been dating for close to a year that we’re going to get married!”
Joel moved an elbow onto the table. “If you’ve been thinking about ending things, then why have you been all cheery and smiling tonight? Have you been faking it, waiting for the right moment to break my heart?”
Leah’s upper lip trembled. “How could you say that Joel? I had no negative intentions coming into this date. I wanted to have a good time and celebrate our anniversary,” she wiped back a tear. “And now you spring this whole surprise proposal on me, almost making a scene in the restaurant, and accuse me of breaking your heart?”
“That sure seems like what’s happening from this side of the table.”
Leah sniffed and dabbed at her eye with her napkin.
“And if you were so darn sure that I would never change, why are you still going out with me?”
Leah inhaled deeply, trying to compose herself. “Because there is a part of me that really believes in you, cares about you… even loves you,” the tears trickled down freely. “I couldn’t bring myself to do anything decisive, I was scared. We had spent all this time together, seemed to get along so well, but this major red flag wasn’t going away, no matter how hard I tried to encourage you and believe that things would change.”
“Leah,” Joel began, his tone softening.
“No, Joel… it’s over. I knew that deep down this couldn’t work without me believing in you, or the possibility of our future – a secure future – with all of my heart. I’m not going to sit around waiting for you to make the right move and prove yourself, I’ve done that enough already.”
“Leah,” he repeated weakly.
“I… I have to go. Goodnight.” Leah pushed her chair back, swung her coat around her shoulders and hurriedly went out the door.
“Leah…” Joel murmured aloud to no one.
“Oh, has the future missus gone to the restroom to adjust her makeup?” The waiter inquired, suddenly reappearing with the cake on a tray and Joel’s camera dangling from his wrist.
“No. She left,” Joel said, not even bothering to look up at the man.
“Ah,” he pulled at his collar uncomfortably. “I’ll just wrap this up then and bring you your check.”
Under the table, Joel's foot stomped the bouquet of roses.
Leah and Yoel Dovid sat in silence.
“I never would have thought you’d actually be in med school,” Leah remarked casually.
“I never thought you’d still be single,” Yoel Dovid countered, his voice even. “I would’ve bet you’d be married by now with a few kids.”
“So did I,” Leah replied meekly.
The quietness engulfed them again.
Unexpectedly, Yoel Dovid chuckled to himself.
“What’s so funny?” For some strange reason, Leah’s own mouth puckered into a slight smile.
“This,” he waved around the room. “Us,” he pointed alternately at himself and Leah.
“What do you mean by that?” She stifled the unexpected giggle building in her throat.
“What are the odds that we’d meet back here, five years later, just a few weeks short of what would have been the night we got engaged?”
Suddenly, Leah’s mind was reeling. Had it really been five years?
“And at this very table, no less,” she said, looking down. When she raised her head, she was actually smiling. “I thought you said you don’t reminisce about us from back then?”
“I don’t,” he licked his dry lips furtively. “But that doesn’t mean I forgot you completely,” Yoel Dovid gazed deeply into Leah’s eyes. “No matter how hard I tried to.”
“Well, I still remember how romantic you used to be,” she grinned. “I guess you haven’t lost your touch over the years.”
“So,” Yoel Dovid twiddled his thumbs.
“So… what?” Leah noticed his awkwardly busy hands and laughed to herself.
“What have you been up to since the last time I saw you?”
Leah felt barriers she had built up inside her crumble and come crashing down. Walls she had erected to keep out certain feelings and lock others away turned to dust and vanished in a puff. She felt freer and more at peace than she had in a long time. Judging by the way Yoel Dovid was playfully smirking, she thought he might have experienced a similar cathartic release.
Taking a deep breath, Leah launched into her recent life story, full of its own ups and downs, woes and joys. Yoel Dovid listened intently, throwing in the occasional comment or joke, and in turn recapped his own history from the past five years. Leah was absorbed with his exposition, and began to feel as though they were the only two people in the entire restaurant.
Before they knew it, they were laughing and smiling together like old times.
“Do you remember that time Avi tried to get you to set him up with your friend Ally?” Yoel Dovid asked in between mouthfuls of pasta.
“Man, what a disaster that was!” Leah put her fork down, trying not to choke as she cracked up from just thinking about Avi pining after Ally.
“Ahem!” A loud voice declared, almost causing both of them to jump from their seats. They whirled around to face the maître d’, who stood next to them with a ramrod straight posture holding an index finger to his wristwatch. He tapped it three times with great annoyance.
“We are closing in ten minutes,” he indicated the otherwise empty room. He reached into the pocket of his apron and flung a leather bound folder onto the table. Yoel Dovid quickly snatched it up, extracted a credit card from his wallet, and returned both to the waiter. “Thank you, sir. I’ll return shortly,” he quipped, spinning on a heel and retreating to the register.
“Well…” Yoel Dovid grinned ever-so-slightly as a wild thought popped into his head. “Want to go see if the old ring still fits?”
Leah was flabbergasted. “What do you mean…?! You still have it?”
“It’s funny, actually...” He leaned back in his chair and stared absently at the ceiling.
“W-what’re you talking about?”
“It’s been sitting in my glove compartment for five years.”
Leah’s jaw dropped. “You’ve been driving around with that expensive thing right there, ready to be stolen all this time?”
“I threw it in there that last night we went out and never wanted to see it again. I guess I forgot about it and kept piling other things on top of it,” he lowered his gaze to Leah’s face. “Like I was trying to bury the past.”
“And you randomly thought of it just now? That seems like a little too coincidental for me,” Leah crossed her arms over her chest.
“The truth is, I finally started cleaning out my car this week after my last date complained how messy it was. It just happened to be that today’s cleanup project was the glove compartment.”
The waiter reappeared with the check and set it down with a belligerent harrumph. Yoel Dovid quickly calculated the tip and signed it before turning back to his date.
“I figured that while I was in the city I’d take the ring to a pawn shop and get rid of it after my date was over.”
“I really can’t believe that, you know,” Leah winked slyly.
“That’s exactly what happened!” he exclaimed defensively. The outburst faded into silence, and neither one could manage the courage to look at the other. Swallowing hard, Yoel Dovid’s eyes lifted and focused on Leah’s.
“What do you say?” He asked, an edge of excitement creeping into his voice.
Leah hesitated and bit down on her lower lip. The fire in Yoel Dovid’s eyes began to fade.
“Yes. I’d like that.”
Yoel Dovid’s face lit up in the biggest grin Leah had ever seen.