Susan was writing a story about a teacher who almost lost everything when she had an affair with a married man, the father of one of her students, and Susan’s best friend Frannie, a sixth-grade teacher, was sure the story was about her.
“Oh my god, Susie,” Frannie moaned. “How could you do this to me?”
In Susan’s story, the teacher rendezvoused with her lover at the beach during summer vacation. They made love in her dank motel room while his family slept peacefully in their cottage down the road. Frannie had just returned from a weekend at the beach with her married lover. There was a healthy pink blush across her cheekbones and a crop of freckles on her shoulders and down her slender arms.
“You know he never had a kid in my class,” Frannie said. “But if you write it, they’ll believe it. Anyway, he’s going to tell his wife. He’s going to leave her this time. So then what we’re doing won’t be so… ”
“Likely to get me fired is what I was going to say.”
“He said so?” Susan asked. She was tearing up lettuce for salad, sweating between her breasts.
“I can tell,” Frannie said. “So does it have to be the beach, Susie? Everyone knows I go to the beach every July. Couldn’t you write about a ski vacation? Your lovers could be schussing down the Alps. Wouldn’t that be romantic?”
“I can’t help it,” Susan said. “My characters only wear mittens when I’m cold. When I’m hot, they wear bathing suits.”
“So get central air,” Frannie said. “What have you got to eat? I’m starving.” She opened the refrigerator.
“Dinner’s in half an hour.”
“I’m hungry now. I can’t help it if I have to eat when I’m stressed. Don’t you have yogurt? I’m on a diet.”
“You know I don’t like yogurt,” Susan said.
“But I do,” Frannie said, “with blueberries.”
“My parents used to grow it.”
“No, yogurt. In jars. On the kitchen counter. I never told you this? About the Swedish friend who gave them a starter culture? You had to feed it all the time. When we went on vacation, they had to hire a neighbor kid to baby-sit their yogurt. Once we went cross-country for the whole summer, to the national parks, and the yogurt died. By then, the Swedish friend had moved back to Sweden. Frannie? Are you listening?” Frannie’s head had disappeared into the refrigerator. She was bent over, rearranging the mustard, the pickle jar, looking for non-existent yogurt. Her rear end, the body part that always gave her so much grief, protruded into the kitchen.
“Speaking of your mother, how are the love birds?” Frannie emerged from the refrigerator empty-handed.
“Don’t ask.” Susan rolled her eyes. Her father had died last Thanksgiving of a heart attack while on line for pies at the bakery counter at Sam’s Club, and her mother was planning to remarry – on Labor Day weekend, in Susan’s back yard – to a man she’d met playing duplicate bridge. They’d both needed new partners after losing their spouses. “Now they’re shopping for diamonds,” Susan said. “She already has a diamond from Daddy. I suggested a nice sapphire, but Fred insists.”
“Be happy for her,” Frannie said, retrieving a package of chocolate covered grahams from the cupboard. “You know you’re happy for her.” Frannie’s own parents were both dead, and her only sister Judith had married an Israeli and moved to Jerusalem.
“I am?” Susan said. “I should be making Annie’s wedding, not my mother’s.” Annie, her oldest, had just graduated college and moved in with Bryan up in Boston, no wedding in sight.
“Leave Annie alone,” Frannie said. “And promise me,” she added, waving a graham in Susan’s direction, “you’ll only send that story to one of your unknown literary tracts in Montana or Idaho. You won’t publish it anyplace where someone might actually read it.”
“Just because the woman’s a teacher doesn’t mean it’s you,” Susan said. “If I wrote about a Swedish woman, my mother wouldn’t call me up and ask why I’m writing about her old friend.”
“She would if your Swedish character grew yogurt,” Frannie said. “Is she going to get fired, do you think?”
“Who? My mother?” Susan said. “The Swedish friend?”
“No, dummy, in the story.”
“I doubt it.”
“That’s right, I forgot,” Frannie said. “Nothing bad ever really happens in your stories. Oh, Susie-Q,” she sighed, slumping against the refrigerator. “What am I going to do? He’s never going to leave his wife.”
“I know,” Susan said. She was always surprised at how much easier love was in her stories, characters falling in and out of bed with each other as naturally as breathing.
Just then the back door slammed, letting in a huff of hot air and Emily and Adam carrying groceries. Or rather Adam, who was fifteen, carried the groceries, and Emily, just out of high school, carried the car keys. Susan had sent them for milk, fresh corn, and any junk food they needed.
“Thanks for slamming the door in my face,” Emily said.
“I didn’t exactly have a free hand,” Adam said, dumping the groceries on the counter. It seemed like yesterday he was asking to be picked up, and today he could carry three grocery bags in one arm. “They didn’t have your skim milk, Mom, so we bought chocolate milk instead.”
“Hi, guys!” Frannie’s face brightened into a grin of white teeth and laugh lines. She had a way of greeting people with startled pleasure, as though she hadn’t seen them for months.
“Hey, Frannie.” Adam waved, heading for TV with a glass of chocolate milk.
“What’s for dinner?” Emily said. “I’m starved.”
“Salmon on the grill,” Susan said. She was snapping the ends off green beans. “Go ask your father to light the fire.”
“Come give me a hug first.” Frannie held out her arms.
“Dad!” Emily hollered, taking a cookie from the package in Frannie’s hand. “The grill!”
“That’s not what I meant,” Susan said. “Dinner’s in half an hour.” She went outside to light the grill herself. When she came back, Frannie and Emily were husking corn, their heads leaning together over the trash pail, matching manes of brown hair falling over their faces, Frannie’s lightly streaked with gray.
“I like the blue skirt with the white tank top,” Frannie was saying. They were discussing what Emily would wear to the wedding.
“You have to cover your shoulders,” Susan said, “at least during the ceremony.”
“Take a chill pill, Mom,” Emily said. “This is the 90s.” Then she turned her attention back to Frannie as if Susan had left the room. “Will you be back in time to help us with the rugelach? We have to bake two hundred.”
“What about the caterer?” Frannie asked.
“We need rugelach without nuts,” Susan said. “I’m not taking any chances.” Emily was allergic.
“I’ll help when I get back,” Frannie said. Every August, she visited her sister in Jerusalem for two weeks. “Just tell me one thing, Susie-Q. How’d your mother ever get two guys to marry her in one lifetime?”
On a weekday morning at the end of July, while Susan was screening her calls, working at her laptop at the kitchen table, she heard Frannie’s frantic voice on the machine – “Susie! I know you’re there!” – and picked up.
“You have to meet me for lunch,” Frannie said.
“I’m working,” Susan said. The teacher in her story had just decided to break up with her lover. When she confronted him over a farewell dinner, he promised (not for the first time) that he’d leave his wife, and the teacher threw a glass at him, splashing red wine down the front of his white shirt.
“So am I,” Frannie said. She had a week of classes on values-based education for her continuing-ed requirement. “We have lectures right through lunch, but I’ll sneak out. He told her. And you said he never would.”
“I thought that’s what you wanted,” Susan said an hour later over Greek salads at the diner.
“I thought so, too,” Frannie said, pushing olives around on her plate. “But I’ll lose my job.” Her lover’s wife Marsha was on the school board, a past president of the PTA. Frannie and Susan had once worked with her on the rummage sale for the shul sisterhood. She was short and wiry but unexpectedly strong carrying bundles of old clothes up from the shul basement.
“Does he want to marry you? You could finally have that honeymoon in Paris.”
“Maybe we could double honeymoon with your mother,” Frannie said. “She already invited me to double wedding with her, if he ever asked. All four of us in your back yard. She said you wouldn’t mind.”
“Fred’s taking her on a bridge cruise through the Panama Canal.”
“A cruise is romantic.”
“Romantic? My mother gets seasick on the Long Island ferry.” Susan’s father had only been able to afford Niagara Falls for a honeymoon. “Let’s order cheeseburgers,” Susan said. “You have to eat.”
“Nah,” Frannie said, raking the hair back from her face, smoothing the wrinkles across her forehead like an instant face lift. “I lost two more pounds. At least that’s one thing I can control.”
“Do you want to get married?” Susan touched Frannie’s hand across the table, the skin still honey-brown and warm as if she’d just stepped off the beach, a thread of blue vein pulsing up her wrist.
“I don’t even know if I want coffee after lunch.”
“False alarm,” Frannie whispered into the phone late the night before she was leaving for her sister’s, whispering although no one was sleeping at her house.
“He didn’t tell her?” Susan really had to whisper, with Howard asleep in bed right next to her. “He’s such a liar.”
“I went to the Book Barn today, and guess who was there buying Fodor’s Paris for her? And it wasn’t a going away present. How come you’re always right?”
“Tell that to my mother,” Susan said, “and Emily, and Annie.”
“So I told him it’s over.”
“Mazel tov,” Susan said, with a little too much fervor. Howard rolled over.
“You’re supposed to say you’re sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” Susan said, “again.” The last time Frannie swore she’d broken off the affair, her lover won her back by composing a mediocre love sonnet. “Maybe now I can stop trying to think of a word that rhymes with Frannie.”
“Don’t try to make me laugh,” Frannie hiccupped. “What am I going to do, Susie? I love him.”
“Maybe I’ll just stay in Israel with Judith and never come back.”
“You better come back,” Susan said, “and before my mother’s wedding.”
On the day the caterer was coming to finalize the wedding plans, Susan worked all morning in her steamy kitchen fiddling with the end of her story, trying to capture her teacher’s bittersweet relief that the dangerous affair was finally over, sorrow and yet freedom at being once again alone. She had the teacher in bed on the Sunday morning after the breakup, reading the sections of the Times in any order she wanted, ripping out a Lord & Taylor ad even though there was part of an article about Rwandan genocide on the back.
Susan closed her laptop when the doorbell rang and her mother and Fred arrived holding hands. Fred kissed Susan with old-man’s breath. “You don’t know how happy this makes Ruthie,” he said. Susan’s father called her mother Ruth.
The caterer wore a funny blond toupee over a fringe of gray hair around his ears and neck. “We’ll get rid of all the furniture,” he said, sweeping his hand across Susan’s living room, “and bring in round tables. The ceremony can be in the yard, unless it rains. Then we’ll have the ceremony in the living room, and people will have to eat in the family room, on their laps. Either way, the living room furniture has to go.” Susan tried not to look at his toupee, focusing instead on his nose as he spoke.
They decided on cold poached salmon with noodle kugel; Susan’s mother didn’t like cold pasta salads. For dessert, fresh fruit and a real (although small) wedding cake along with Susan’s rugelach. No champagne, because Fred didn’t drink. Susan wondered for a moment if he could be an alcoholic. Shouldn’t she know these things about the man her mother was about to marry?
After the caterer left, Susan offered coffee, but her mother was in a hurry. “Fred’ll just close his eyes on the couch for a minute,” her mother said, “and then we have to go shopping.”
“More shopping?” Susan decided to start coffee anyway. She needed a cup.
“A new bed,” her mother whispered, following her into the kitchen. “I’ll just have tap water. You have ice?”
“That’s nice,” Susan said, measuring grounds into the pot. “A fresh start.”
“Actually, Fred doesn’t like Daddy’s and my twin beds. Last night they somehow spread apart, and he fell right through the crack. I woke up, and he was on the floor.”
“Mo-ther,” Susan said.
“I shouldn’t be telling you this,” her mother said. “Don’t you laugh at me.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“You know, if Gloria’s bursitis hadn’t been acting up that day, I never would have been paired up with Fred.”
“I know.” Gloria was her mother’s condo neighbor and occasional bridge partner after Susan’s father died.
“It was meant to be. Like it was written.”
“I know, Ma.”
“But don’t you write about me,” she wagged her finger at Susan. “Don’t you put this in one of your stories.” When she laughed, the wrinkles on her cheeks seemed to smooth out, gathering around her eyes.
That night, Susan wrote a long letter to Frannie, hoping she’d get it at her sister’s before leaving to come home. Maybe Frannie would call.
Frannie didn’t call.
On the third Tuesday in August, the sixth day of her vacation, Frannie was killed by a bomb on a bus in Jerusalem. When the phone rang in the middle of the night at Susan’s house, she thought it must be Frannie. What time is it in Jerusalem? she wondered in the dark.
“Susan?” Frannie’s voice, but not Frannie. Susan, not Susie-Q. Frannie’s sister Judith, whom Susan had met several times, once at Frannie’s house for a Passover seder, once in New York when the three of them spent the day at the Modern. She was a younger Frannie, the same startled smile, the same gentle hand gestures as she spoke, as though capturing words out of the air.
“She died in an instant,” Judith said. “They promised.”
How long is an instant?
Susan waits until quarter to eight to call her mother, when she knows she’ll be up. She doesn’t want to get Fred on the phone half asleep.
“Do you want me to come over?” her mother says. “I’m coming over.”
“Don’t come over,” Susan says. “I have to take Adam to the dentist this morning, and you and I have the florist at three.”
“Don’t be silly,” her mother says. “I’ll cancel. When’s the funeral? I want to go to the funeral.”
“Me, too,” Susan says, “but her sister’s burying her in Israel. She’s practically buried already.” The time difference is fuzzy and confused in Susan’s head.
“I could come over.”
“I know, Ma.”
Susan sits with the newspaper spread across the kitchen table. The photograph is on the front page, a color photograph, yet mostly shades of gray on grainy newsprint. On the right side is the crumpled shell of a bus. The text below tells that there were two buses – did the bomber wait until the second pulled alongside, to kill more Jews? – but if there were two, they are now melted into one, sides ripped away, tattered seats exposed, windows shattered, frames bent and mangled. The drivers’ seats and steering wheels are gone altogether, vanished, vaporized – the bomb was near the front. The only color in the photo is orange – the bright orange vests of the Chevra Kadisha, the Orthodox Jews whose job it is to search for body parts, to scrape up bits of flesh, to ensure that every fragment that once was human is collected for burial.
Howard stands behind Susan, rubbing her shoulders. He has made her tea with honey as if she is sick with the flu.
“It was in the paper yesterday,” Susan says.
“It hadn’t happened yet,” Howard says.
“I saw it in the paper.”
“This is today’s paper,” Howard says, pressing strong thumbs against her spine.
“The time difference, Howard. I’m not crazy. There was one paragraph in yesterday’s paper. A bomb in Jerusalem. No further information. I saw it and didn’t pay attention. Then I went to Marshall’s to buy Emily underwear for college.”
Now Susan sees Frannie in unexpected places, in strangers’ faces – something about the swish of a skirt, the movement of a hip, the angle of a head. She thinks about Frannie when she’s in the car, when she’s washing dishes, when she’s standing under the hot piercing needles of the shower where she can pretend she’s not crying.
“I could come,” Annie says on the phone from Boston, as if she is the mother.
“I knew she shouldn’t go,” Emily says. Emily the Worried Frannie used to call her in a way that made her laugh rather than storm out in protest.
“But who’ll teach sixth grade now?” Adam asks.
Susan puts aside the story she was writing, afraid to turn on her computer, afraid to sit so still. Whenever her mind isn’t fully occupied, Frannie fills it. Sometimes, she’ll start out to do errands, as though the day were normal, and then suddenly she’ll catch herself thinking, Here I am in the Stop & Shop squeezing melons, and Frannie is dead. Then she’ll go home for another shower.
Her car takes to driving past Frannie’s house on her way to anywhere. Once, when the threat of rain has turned the air heavy and dark, she parks and lets herself in with the spare key that Frannie left in case of emergency – isn’t this an emergency? She walks the echoing rooms, waters the plants. In the bedroom she leans into Frannie’s closet, just to smell her. Cool Indian cottons brush her cheek, her forehead, her eyes, the only sound the onslaught of a summer downpour pummeling the roof. Then she stands outside in the rain without an umbrella, as good as the shower
At the memorial service at shul, Susan turns away when Frannie’s lover walks past her down the center aisle to a pew up front as though he has nothing to be ashamed of. At least he seats his two children between himself and his wife. He killed her, Susan thinks, HE killed her. Goddamn greedy using son-of-a-bitch. She feels better, for an instant. When the rabbi starts to lead prayers, Susan doesn’t open her book, can’t bring herself to say the words, can’t even mouth along silently as the congregation praises God.
After that, she avoids the bank and the coffee shop, places where she knows she might run into Frannie’s lover. Howard picks up the slack with the banking without asking questions.
At night, she dreams about bombs in familiar places – the dry cleaners, the post office, the mall. Then she wakes Howard to make love in the dark, then gets out of bed to check on Emily and Adam, to be sure they’re still breathing, like when they were babies. She could phone Annie to be sure she’s safe in her bed up in Boston, but Bryan might answer. Downstairs, she flips through TV without turning on a light – she and Frannie could learn to tighten their butts from infomercials at this time of night. Where’s Johnny when she needs him? Retired when she wasn’t paying attention, when she slept through the night and thought she always would.
On the Sunday before Labor Day, Susan’s mother comes to Susan’s house to marry Fred. The caterer’s men arrive early to haul Susan’s sofa and coffee table down to the basement. Then they set up round tables in the living room with white cloths and ice cream parlor chairs, white roses in bud vases in the middle of each table. Susan walks around sweating in her bathrobe, directing traffic. They’re lucky with the sunny weather, but at the last minute her mother decides to have the ceremony indoors anyway. She doesn’t want her high heels sinking into the grass. So the men push the tables aside to make room for the chuppah.
While Susan is upstairs changing, the caterers put out a plate of mints and mixed nuts on each table. As the guests begin to arrive, Susan rushes around with a black Hefty bag tossing in the mints and nuts, plates and all. What if the caterers have ignored her instructions not to cook with nuts on account of Emily’s allergy? Last year there were two stories in the newspaper about college kids, away from home for the first time, who ate things they were allergic to and died. In a few days Emily will go off to college. Susan knows the things you read about in the newspaper can come true.
Susan’s mother wears a beige brocade suit, her hair freshly rinsed to a complimentary silvery beige. She looks happy and almost young, although Susan swears her own hair will never be that color.
There’s an orchid bridal bouquet and corsages for Susan and the girls, Susan’s pulling a tiny hole in the tissue linen of her blouse, Annie’s lost in the rush of her late arrival from Boston. Emily wears hers on her wrist, because there’s no room to pin it to the narrow strap of her white tank top, the one Frannie told her to wear. Adam’s new blue blazer is somehow already too small. “Do I have to wear this tie?” he keeps asking. When he hugs Susan’s mother, his chin rests atop her head so she has to swat him away, laughing, to save the pouf of her hairdo. When did her tall mother get so small?
Now her mother stands with Fred under the chuppah, while Susan is thinking about Frannie. She knows this is wrong, sacrilegious; she should be thinking of her mother, so lucky to have a second chance with this Fred. Or she should at least be thinking of her father, honoring his memory – Sunday mornings when he used to don her mother’s apron to cook pancakes and forbidden bacon, the time he surprised Susan with tickets to the Beatles at Shea Stadium, then sat beside her with his fedora and newspaper while she prayed at the temple of Paul. But instead she is thinking of Frannie bursting through the front door into her living room at this very moment. Frannie coming to help, oddly dressed in the French maid’s costume with the little organdy apron that she once bought on sale after Halloween and then wore to shul the following Purim, even though the only other adult in costume was the rabbi in a rented metallic Elvis jumpsuit. Frannie will help Susan pass hors d’oeuvres, pick up empty cups. And when everyone else has gone home, Frannie will still be in the kitchen washing dishes, her hands protected by Susan’s bright yellow rubber gloves. She knows where Susan stores the big platters in the cupboard above the oven.
Susan stands a few paces behind her mother at the chuppah, where her mother won’t see her weeping. Howard sees and lends her his handkerchief. Fred is slipping the ring on her mother’s finger, carefully repeating the Hebrew words after the rabbi – syllable by syllable, like a special-ed child. But Susan is seeing her front door swing open – over and over – and each time Frannie steps through, with her sudden smile. “Hi, Susie-Q!”
After all the guests have left, Susan and her mother sit in the kitchen with their shoes off, watching waitresses stack glasses in plastic crates.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Susan says.
“I know,” her mother says, turning her hand this way and that to admire her new diamond. Susan knows her mother isn’t thinking of Frannie. “Maybe I could wear this suit again on Rosh Hashanah?” her mother says, smoothing the skirt across her knees. “Do you think it’s too dressy?”
“Ma,” Susan says, thinking of the Rosh Hashanah prayers. “Last year… do you think… do you believe… Daddy wasn’t written in the Book of Life? And that’s why he died? Because of some sin… something he did?”
“Don’t be silly,” her mother says. Her eyes look blurry behind her trifocals. “It was his time. That’s all.”
“So what about Frannie?” Susan says, her voice reduced to a hoarse whisper. “It wasn’t her time. You don’t think… it couldn’t have been… because of… you know… the affair?”
“You know what I think, Susan?” Her mother reaches to clasp Susan’s hands in her own. Even on such a warm day, her mother’s hands are cool. “I think Frannie’s in heaven with Daddy, and with Fred’s wife Ida, and right now they’re asking around for a fourth for bridge.”
That night, Susan takes the newspaper photograph out of her night table drawer, where she keeps it under her diaphragm box. In the foreground of the photo lies a body under a sheet. Susan likes to think this is Frannie’s body, whole, no scattered bits to be collected. The text says the body of the American was found intact. One bare arm extends out from under the sheet, flung back gracefully across the pavement. Susan strokes her finger over this newsprint arm and thinks that it is Frannie’s arm, scattered freckles and sun-blond peach fuzz hairs, neatly clipped oval fingernails shined with clear polish.
When Susan gets back to her writing, she will give the teacher in her story a happy ending. Maybe she’ll win a trip to Paris, or get promoted to principal, or start a new career selling homemade yogurt.
The newspaper says Frannie was on the second bus, the one that happened to pass at just the wrong moment. She would have been sitting near the front, closest to the bomb, chatting with the driver, practicing her Hebrew. She might have been laughing, head back, mouth open, teeth glittering in the sun.
“Playing Bridge in Heaven” is part of a collection of related stories titled The Same Map. Stories from this collection have won the Lilith Short Story contest and the Lawrence Foundation Prize and have been finalists for the New Letters Literary Awards and two Glimmer Train contests. The title story was published in Passages North after nomination to Best New American Voices. Forthcoming publications include American Literary Review, second-prize winner in their Short Fiction Contest, and The New Haven Review of Books. Elizabeth Edelglass is Director of the Department of Jewish Education Library of Greater New Haven and a past Fiction Fellow of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts.