From the author: When Miriam sculpted The Perfect Man, she intended for him to stay put. Now he's missing, putting her future as an independent artist in jeopardy. Figures that she couldn't even get her Perfect Man to stay with her, never mind her ex-boyfriend. Now she has to figure out what to do with the naked stranger who's suddenly appeared in her loft, claiming he can help her find her Perfect Man.
SHAPED BY YOU
by Debra Jess
“Ack, he’s naked!”
Miriam peeled open one eye from her supine position on the cold floor. Her gaze scraped past the unfinished ceiling of her loft to the object of her sister’s astonishment.
“Yes, he’s naked.” She pushed herself up, only to have an empty wine bottle roll off her chest and onto the floor. It kept rolling until it hit the other empty wine bottles lined up against the wall, knocking them over like bowling pins.
“Is he supposed to be naked?” Rivka asked.
Miriam winced. Foghorn Leghorn had nothing on her eldest sister when she was excited. “That’s how I sculpted him, so yeah, he’s naked.”
Her sister hung up her winter coat and walked over to the clay statue, her hand not quite touching the bulging muscles of his arms. “You’ve got chutzpah, that’s for sure. I mean, does the mayor know he’s naked? Is that how he ordered him? I thought you were supposed to sculpt a soldier for the new memorial?”
“A broch tzu mayor.” Her anger scorched through her hangover.
“Well, you did sort of did curse him when we were all in high school and you had him arrested for stealing tzedakah money out of the charity jar.”
Rivka had the memory of an elephant.
“Yeah,” Miriam said. “Now he’s the mayor and he’s going to be the death of me.”
Rivka circled around the statue, careful to keep her dress from brushing against the soft clay, admiring the fine details of Miriam’s creation—and she had left no detail spared. The eyes were wide and ox-shaped, the nose smooth with a touch of a flare at the tip, the cheekbones sharp, the lips were plump and perfect, and a light dusting of chest hair to keep it all real. As for the rest of him—
“It’s been seven years and the mayor’s juvenile record was sealed. Are you sure he’s targeting you?” Rivka asked, interrupting Miriam’s musing.
“Yes, no—I don’t know.” Miriam started picking up the empty wine bottles to keep herself from staring at her creation. That’s how she always thought of her sculptures—they were her creations to share with the world. Except this one. This one she created for herself. “He declared a budget freeze three days ago. Which means I won’t get the first payment for the soldier the city council asked me to design for the new memorial until April. If I’m lucky.”
Miriam winced again as she dropped the bottles into the blue recycle bin. “Yeah, a week after I’d already ordered the clay and started the sculpture. I have one package of clay left in the chest.”
“Sounds more like bad timing than a vendetta against you.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad, except two of my private clients haven’t paid me for the commissions they hired me for this past summer.”
“You’re kidding? Have you put them into collections?”
“Of course, but I can’t force them to pay.” The tears started at the corner of her eyes. As long as she was on a roll, she might as well confess the rest. “My landlord is also doubling my rent January first. I had to scrape the bottom of my savings account just to make this month’s rent. The whole gentrification of Main Street has made it a hot property. Even the tchotchke shop downstairs is going out of business. I’m going to get kicked out of my home.”
Rivka hugged her just like when they were little girls, arms secure around her shoulders. “It’ll be okay. We’ll fix this.”
“No, no, no. There’s nothing you can do.” Miriam pulled out of her sister’s embrace.
“I’m a lawyer, there’s always something I can do. Do you have your rental agreement?”
Miriam sighed and pointed to the small kitchenette she’d taken out a loan to build when she first moved here. “Top drawer, next to the sink.”
This loft had been her dream—open, airy, with huge windows that overlooked the main street below. It had been a series of offices until she’d renovated it. She could even see the town green where the statue was supposed to be installed. Secretly, she’d hoped to buy out the tchotchke shop herself and convert it into a gallery for her smaller sculptures.
She’d always been the family rebel. Instead of following her sisters into college, gotten a career-focused job, gotten married, and having kids, she put her sculpting before everything else. Now, everyone would know she was a failure in art, in business, in life.
“All right.” Rivka shoved the rental agreement into her purse. “I’ll look this over in the morning. In the meantime, let’s get you cleaned up and get out of here.”
Miriam frowned. “Where are we going?”
“To the Chanukah party at the shul.”
“Oh, come on—“
“No arguing. You need to get out of here. Breathe some fresh air. Give Ennis a call. He can join us.”
“How do you know, unless you call?”
“I do know, because we broke up three days ago.”
Again with the voice, that pitch. Miriam looked back over at her sculpture. It had been so lovely to carve him out of clay in an alcohol-induced haze and forget about how badly she’d been screwed in less than three days. “Ennis showed up here with a Christmas tree.”
“But, didn’t you—“
“Yes. I told him I was Jewish, and he said it was fine. He didn’t care. Religion wasn’t a big deal to him. We’d been having fun together. He’s a painter and enjoys the art museum as much as I do. Then he showed up with the Christmas tree and insisted I had to have one. I mean, the mezuzah on the door wasn’t a big enough clue for him?”
“Oh, Miriam.” Rivka dropped her purse to pull Miriam into another hug.
“I thought he understood. He never questioned why we never went out on Friday nights, or why I never ate ham, or unpacked my menorah. He just showed up with a Christmas tree figuring it didn’t mean anything.” The tears wouldn’t stop. “We had a huge fight about it. In the end, he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want one. He said I could call it a Chanukah bush—we could celebrate both religious holidays. I said no, so he left, and he hasn’t called me since. He chose the tree over me.”
“What a putz.”
Miriam laughed through her tears and pulled her head off her sister’s shoulder. “I’m never going to find anyone.”
“Nonsense. We’ll find you someone. A nice Jewish boy—”
“I’ve dated all of the ‘nice Jewish boys’ in town. They don’t understand me either. They treat my sculpting like it’s a hobby. They either want me to get a real job or stay home, barefoot and pregnant.” The hiccup caught her off guard. “I’m going to have to, you know. Get an 8-5 job sitting behind a desk all day.”
Rivka pulled a tissue out of her pocket. “You are definitely going to the party tonight. Go wash. We’ll light the candles and still get downtown before all of the latkes are gone.”
Miriam followed her sister’s instructions with all of the cheer of a worn-out wallflower. Rivka managed to find the one party dress she owned while she put on a little makeup in the half bath next to the kitchenette. Her bedroom was just a corner next to the front windows with a lay-z-boy, a bookshelf, a futon, and a television.
Rivka circled the statue again while Miriam dressed. “Well, he’s certainly well endowed. And what a shayneh punim. What are you going to call him?”
“The Perfect Man.” Miriam didn’t even have to think about it. “He listens to everything I say, he doesn’t interrupt, never criticizes, and he’s hot to boot.”
Rivka laughed. “He’s certainly is. The alter kockers at the foundry are going to have a field day when they create the cast for him. Once he’s set in bronze, he’ll be a knockout.”
Miriam tugged on her winter boots before she stood beside her sister, both of them admiring the man—her perfect man. Miriam couldn’t help herself—she reached out to gently pat her perfect man on his all too perfect tuches—she didn’t want to disrupt her handiwork. “All right. Let’s light the candles and get out of here before I change my mind.”
They chanted the prayers and lit the first candle with the shamash. At the last minute, Miriam remembered to turn on her TV. The city was safer than most, but it didn’t hurt to let anyone sneaking around think that someone was home.
She spared one last look at statue standing vigil in the middle of her loft. He really was perfect from head to foot. In her imagination, he would hold her in his arms as they danced across the floor and in her bed. She would be his source of love, joy, strength, and desire. He would love her without trying to change her. Her perfect man would see her as perfect too, and not ditch her in favor of a blinged tree.
Not for the first time in the past three days did she wish with all her might that he was real.
The wind blew, and the snow fell from the dark sky. Locals turned up their coat collars and rushed through the sudden onslaught of white on their way to their cars. Visitors laughed and reached up to touch the snow as the flakes enlarged and raced past their faces and down the street. It was as if they had never experienced such a rapid change in the weather before. Perhaps, they hadn’t.
If any of them truly paid attention, it would appear that the only building affected by the rapid change of weather was the one with the souvenir shop on the first floor. The lights from the second floor were dark except for what appeared to be a glow from the windows.
The rest of the street beckoned shoppers with bright colorful lights strung across doorways and wrapped around lamp posts, showcasing everything from cafes to shops to arcades to banks. None of these buildings were touched by the weather, so it came as a shock when a bolt of lightning screamed from the sky and torched a transformer in front of the darkened building.
The lamps shattered up and down the street as the lightning spread, touching the loft and dancing across the roof.
Inside, the walls shook. From the shelf where Miriam kept her tools, a small oil lamp fell to the floor, spilling its contents. The oil pooled until it touched the drop cloths surrounding the statue, then spread across toward the kitchenette.
A second rumble shook the walls. This time, the menorah fell, the shamash candle’s fire touching the oil and setting it aflame. The flames traveled along the oil to touch the drop cloths. The fire spread, until the flames kissed the statue’s feet, climbing higher.
The clay should have melted, deformed, which might have spared the rest of the loft by smothering the fire.
Instead, the statue blinked.
Sick dread greeted Miriam the second she opened the door to her loft, her arms heavy with a sack of Chanukah leftovers. The faint smell of smoke pierced the freezing air. The lights from above, which she’d thought she’d turned off, created harsh shadows from her bookcase and supply shelves. The TV chattered in the background, but she ignored it because the windows were wide open, when she was sure she’d locked them, and the space where her perfect man had stood was empty.
Someone had broken in and stolen her sculpture! All of the grease and sugar from too many latkes and sufganiyot congealed in her stomach. She’d have to call the police. She’d have to call her family. She could see the headlines now: Goniffs Run Loose in Street with Naked Statue. Everyone would laugh, and she’d never get the clay back.
Her sister would once again try to be supportive. She’d nudged Rivka all night to stop her from telling all who would listen about her rent and clients.
“Stop embarrassing me,” Miriam had hissed. “No one else needs to know about my tsores. I’ll find the money somehow.”
Maybe it was because she grew up in household where everyone was in everyone else’s business. She thought she could hear whispers behind her back, but maybe the voice was only in her head: She’s the youngest sister and oy, an artist. How is she supporting herself?
She dropped the food on the flimsy card table that doubled as her dinner table, the plastic tablecloth scorched around the edges. The menorah lay next to it, the red and blue candles melted onto the scratched unfinished floor. It was her own fault. She should have put the menorah in the sink where it couldn’t fall. She wanted to clean up the mess but decided it would be best to call the police first. She walked over to the empty stand where her statue was supposed to be and pulled out her phone.
She screamed and dropped her phone. The deep voice came from the corner of the loft, lit only by the TV screen. A man was sitting in her favorite—okay, her only—comfortable recliner. He stood, the shadows from the bookcase playing with the fine definition of his abs as he walked toward her. Miriam backed away because not only was this guy huge, he was naked.
Her back against the art supply shelf, she reached behind her and found her sculpting knives. This guy might have her outclassed in the size department, but she’d at least draw blood before he got his hands on her.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Of course you’re not. I’ll hurt you right back if you try.”
He smiled, which paused her plan of attack. Why did he look familiar?
“I’m sorry I scared you. I wanted to air out the place before the fire triggered the alarms and sprinklers.”
He stood there for a second, blocking her way. Waiting for her to say something? What did you say to goniff? She tightened her grip on the knife.
“Let me turn off the TV,” he said. “Then we can talk.”
Talk. Talk to a naked guy who’d broken into her home, set it on fire, sat in her recliner watching her TV, and had stolen her statue while still remaining in her loft? Right. There wouldn’t be any talking tonight. There would be yelling, maybe even shrieking, and a lot of it. Once she got her voice back. Once she stopped staring at his—
“Here. Why don’t you sit down and relax. You’ve had quite a shock.”
He motioned her toward her recliner, like it was perfectly natural for a nude thief and probable rapist to make his victim feel comfortable in their own home. Her brain said run, but her legs walked over the chair and she sank down on the soft cushions anyway. The cushions were still warm from his body.
Instead of looming over her, the guy sat on the edge of her futon a few feet away, his long legs pulled up to his chest to hide his—
Stop thinking about that.
Because he’s a thief and he’s going jail.
But he has a perfect p—
Posture. He has perfect posture, nothing else.
She flipped on a lamp over her shoulder, ostensibly to get a better look at his face.
“Who are you?”
He smiled again but looked down as if shy. No longer in shadow, she could see his face. He had wavy dark brown hair, brown eyes, high cheekbones. A plague on the sense of familiarity dogging her. She should have been looking for a way to escape, but his legs were so long, he’d catch her before she made it to the door.
“I don’t have a name yet.”
“What do you mean, you don’t have a name? Everyone has a name. What kind of shmegegi doesn’t have a name?” If she could get his name, she could let the cops know—if her phone wasn’t smashed to bits by this gorgeous specimen of a man and if she could grab it and convince this guy she needed to use the bathroom where she could call 911.
“You haven’t named me yet.”
“Me? What kind of nonsense is this? Why would I name you? Why would I even know your name?”
“You should. You sculpted me.”
She glanced over at the empty space where the statue had used to stand. Then back at his face. The wavy hair, extra thick on the top, just like she’d styled it.
“This is—” She closed her eyes. “I drank too much. I knew it. A three-day bender—I fell asleep and never woke up. I’m unconscious and I’m imagining this whole conversation. You’re not alive, you’re not here, and I’ll wake up tomorrow and you’ll be a statue again.”
“I hope not. I like being alive.” He was a baritone to boot.
“Yeah, me too. Being alive, that is.”
They stared at each other.
“It’s late,” he said. “And, I can see that you’re tired. Why don’t you get some sleep? We’ll try this again in the morning.”
He stood up, his full glory right at face level. Miriam had to admire her own work. If this was real—which it wasn’t. It couldn’t be real. A living, breathing golem. She wondered what his skin felt like, but she wasn’t about to touch him. Touching a dream would make this perfect man disappear along with her logic. If she had to choose between logic and a dream, why not choose the dream?
You chose the dream of living in a loft, creating art. Now you’re going to lose it all because it was a stupid dream. You can’t handle your clients or the mayor or your landlord. You should have gone to college like your sisters.
He held out a hand to help her stand, but she deflected the gesture.
“Look, I can’t sleep here with a strange, naked man in my room. Why don’t I go get you some clothes at least? I won’t be long, just a few minutes.”
Her purse lay on the kitchenette counter. She managed to squeeze past him without touching him and grabbed her phone, which has fallen on the drop cloths, and her purse before making her way to the door. He watched her, his eyes following her every move.
“I’ll be back soon, with clothes. Don’t go anywhere. Don’t touch anything. Don’t—just don’t leave.”
Call the police.
Dial 911. It’s not hard.
Your phone is still working.
You should call the police.
She didn’t call anyone. The local 24-hour Shop-Mart didn’t offer much in the way of fashion, but it was cheap and it provided the basics: jeans, sweatshirts, underwear, socks, and shoes. It wasn’t like she had to guess at his size. She knew his exact size. She’d formed his body with her own hands, molded his feet so they matched, scraped away clay to make his fingernails even and round, smoothed the definition of the muscles along his biceps and thighs.
The beep from the teller reminded her to remove her credit card from the machine. At least her card still had some wiggle room, but not much. It wouldn’t matter, she kept telling herself, because this wasn’t real. She wasn’t shopping for clothes for a golem, spending money she didn’t have for a guy who wasn’t real. Tomorrow, she’d check the computer for open calls. Then she’d remold the clay for a new commission. Whatever the client wanted, that’s what they’d get. No more naked men for her.
“Merry Christmas!” The cashier called as Miriam grabbed the plastic bags.
“You too,” she replied. It was automatic at this point. Correcting people all the time made her weary and most didn’t want to hear it anyway.
Back at the loft she fully expected to see everything back in its place: no fire, no melted candles, no golem. She was wrong. Her perfect man had closed the windows and sat in her recliner watching Die Hard.
“I have clothes.”
He stood up and looked in the bag. Piece by piece he removed the clothes, admiring everything, even the underwear. “These are perfect. Thank you.”
“You don’t even know if they fit.”
He looked at her with a gaze that hooked her soul. “I know they’ll fit.”
What she’d been thinking earlier, her hands on him, forming him—he was thinking it too.
“I’ll change in the bathroom. Why don’t you get into your pajamas and get into bed?”
Her stomach froze over. “Um—”
“I’ll sleep in the chair,” he said, guessing her question before she could even ask.
“Okay.” She watched him walk all the way to the half bath, the rolling muscles of his backside heating her up again. What else could she say? He was here. He was hers. She was responsible for him and she hadn’t even given him a name yet. She should kick him out, but it was cold and snowing and he was—well, he wasn’t naked anymore, but still...the thought of kicking him out made her feel as if she were kicking out a kitten.
She needed sleep. And a therapist, but she could only afford sleep right now. Real or not, if he was as perfect as she thought he was, he’d give her the eight hours she needed.
Though the alcohol had left her system from the rush of adrenaline the night before, she still slept like a cat in sunlight. Next thing she knew, she was awake with her golem—now dressed—sitting in the recliner reading one of her art books.
“You’re still here?”
He looked up, surprised. “Did you think I would abandon you?”
“I didn’t think you were real. I still don’t think you’re real.”
He closed the book. “You were dreaming of me.”
“I’ve dreamed of you often enough before I created you.” She stretched and pushed off the covers. “It wasn’t until I was too drunk to care that I actually constructed you.”
“I’m glad you did.” He leaned over the chair’s arm, getting closer but not too close.
“I don’t understand any of this.”
“What do you need to understand?”
She thought about that. “English? I mean, you’re made from clay. How do you know English?”
His lips twisted in concentration. “You talked a lot of while you were sculpting. I learned enough of social niceties and to hold a basic conversation. You also played music. While you were out with your sister, I read each of your dictionaries and thesauri. I read the rest of your books while you were sleeping.”
Miriam looked over her shoulder at the bookshelf against the wall. She had an ereader somewhere, but art books were still best to keep in print, as was her Chumash and Siddur. The bottom shelf contained a few history texts and her favorite-oy-romance authors. If he read those then, oh boy. Her body heat rose along with the sun.
If he noticed, he didn’t say anything. Instead he reached out to help pull her off the futon. “Why don’t you take a shower. I’ll get breakfast started.”
“You know how to cook too?”
He reached over and pulled a cookbook from her bookshelf. Right. This was getting too real, even though it couldn’t be.
A super-hot shower scalded her to consciousness without the need for coffee. She didn’t bother with makeup but used her flat iron. If this guy was perfect, he wouldn’t care what she looked like, right? She still changed in the shower room, though, pulling her best jeans and nicest sweater out of their drawers. Modesty might be pointless if her perfect man had already seen her drunk and stupid while she was sculpting him, but it mattered to her.
Had he, though? Seen her naked?
Back in the kitchenette, the sweet smell of latkes frying in the pan reminded her of the leftovers from last night. Her fear of him trying to create a gourmet meal out of her meager offerings dissipated. He’d warmed up the latkes, dabbed them with sour cream and apple sauce, added two jelly sufganiyot, and a tall glass of orange juice.
He portioned out a second dish. He eats! His Adam’s apple even bobbed up and down as he swallowed.
“This is amazing. The flavors and the textures are just incredible.” He sipped the juice. “I can’t believe how sweet orange juice is.”
It took her a second to realize he’d never eaten anything before. “I’ll let the Sisterhood know you enjoy their food.”
He eyed the rest of the latkes on the counter. She shoved them at him. A guy that big would need a big meal. He scooped some onto his plate, but also onto hers. She didn’t argue. He didn’t seem to mind if she stared.
Not only didn’t he mind, he even did the dishes. What did she do to deserve all this? The more pressing question: what should she do with him now?
“Maybe we could go for a walk?” he asked.
She loved walking in cold weather, when there was no wind and snow was piled high. It also didn’t cost anything, like a movie or the cafe next door. Was he a mind reader too?
The town square had the usual assortment of gazebos, benches, small gardens at either end, and, of course, memorials with statues. The oblong walking path encircled the whole ensemble, about a half mile in whole. Her winter coat and hat kept her warm enough, but her perfect man only had an extra sweatshirt to keep him warm. She hoped it was enough.
There were so many questions she wanted to ask, but now, walking around the path she had tread hundreds of times since she was a child, she didn’t want to ask them. Did she really want to know more than she did? He said she created him, but she wasn’t stupid enough to think that other than giving him a body she had anything more to do with it. She knew Who had given him life and questioning that wouldn’t end well for either of them.
Still, maybe if she avoided the big existential questions, the Big Guy won’t get too offended.
“How long can you stay?” she asked as they rounded the town green closest to the post office. “I mean, you look like you’re in your mid-twenties. Will you live a normal lifespan?”
“I don’t see why not. No point in being here if I’m anything other than a normal human.”
“So, no superpowers? Beside super-fast reading and learning comprehension.”
“I don’t think so. I won’t know until I try.”
“Will you get sick? I mean, I bought insurance through the state’s exchange, but it won’t cover you unless—”
Whoops. She really should have kept her mouth shut. “Unless we get married.”
He was quiet for a minute, the sound of their boots crunching snow breaking the silence. “Do you want to get married?”
Could a woman have an even less romantic marriage proposal? Is that why she sculpted him? Not for giving the city the middle finger and showing the world that she was a great sculptor, but because she was lonely? Because she was jealous of her sisters and their families? Because she wanted someone who thought of her first, last, and always?
“I don’t know.”
They kept circling the town green. Four, five, six times. He asked her questions. So many questions. What type of material had she used to sculpt him? What brand of wine did she drink? Who was her favorite artist? She answered, and he listened, never interrupting her, never arguing with her. It was exactly how she had described him to Rivka: not just the perfect man—he was the perfect gentleman.
“What’s that building over there?” He pointed to west, where the rising sun hit the solar shingles of an attractively designed roof.
“The art museum.”
He stopped. “Can we visit?”
“Now?” She checked her watch. It was almost noon. They’d walked far longer than she had intended.
“Unless you’d rather go back home?” His brown eyes invited her to say whatever she felt. Home. Her loft. His loft, too? But, she loved the museum. She had splurged for a one-year membership. A mistake, when she should have been saving her money. She’d been a fool, but as long as she had the pass, she might as well use it, even if she had to pay for a day pass for him—her creation without a name.
“Sure, let’s go. It’s not as far away as it looks.”
He held her hand the entire time they walked to the museum, as if this were a dream date. Maybe it was, because Miriam still had difficulty believing her statue had come to life. If it were a dream, though, would her hand warm while clasped by his? Would she feel so secure when they crossed the street together and he jumped so his body stayed between her and an oncoming car? She explained stop signs to him once they got to the other side.
They couldn’t visit every floor or collection in one day, but they saw enough to satisfy the itch she got if she didn’t visit at least twice a month. For once, she could talk about what she knew about the exhibits to someone who really listened, and wasn’t just humoring her.
“Looks like they’re getting ready for a new collection,” he said, pointing to a stanchion rope draped across a door to one of the rooms.
“The sign says Regional Decorative Arts.” She sighed, wistful. She couldn’t afford to renew her pass next year. “That would have been lovely to see.”
He leaned close to whisper in her ear. “Maybe you’ll see your art here some day.”
She blushed at the rush of heat from his breath on her skin. “They do have a small collection of local artists. I’m just not quite ready yet.”
Truth was, she’d avoided the local artists collection this time, not wanting to see what she could have been, if not the city’s budget mistakes. She could approach the museum with some of her smaller pieces, but the city’s memorial would have given her a real name in the art world, and put her in a spotlight.
They strayed into the cafeteria for lunch. Her pass got her a discount, but even so, the cost of a couple of sandwiches reminded her of the problems she’d been trying to avoid.
She watched him take a small bite of his turkey sandwich. The vendor made them fresh every day, so the lettuce made a crisp crunch as the thick tomato tried to squeeze out the other side.
“I think I like turkey,” he said, after chewing and swallowing. The simple enjoyment of each bite of food reminded her of how little she’d thought about the food she ate, especially over the last three days. Looking at her own chicken salad sandwich, she tried to drum up her own enthusiasm. No, there was no enjoyment there. She preferred to watch him eat, her heart filling with a joy she hadn’t felt in a long time.
“The thing is,” she said, putting the receipt in her pocket instead of eating. “I’m about to lose the loft. I have a stack of bills and the rent that won’t get paid because of the city’s budget freeze and prior clients that won’t pay. Most of my commissions are small, they paid for the basics. The city job was supposed to cover everything through the end of the year and boost my career. Now, I’ll have to move back home. My parents are tolerant, but not tolerant enough to let you move in with me.”
He turned thoughtful, using the napkin to wipe a spot of mayonnaise on his upper lip. How she wanted to be the one to lick that same spot herself. Oooh, there was that pesky lust again. She needed to cool it, or she’d embarrass herself.
He must have noticed though, because he reached over to stroke her cheek. Just his touch brought it all home. She could be herself around him. She could let her emotions free to fly wherever they would take her and not hide inside the responsible adult everyone expected her to be all the time.
She could fall in love in less than a day, and he wouldn’t think her odd for doing so. But, did he feel the same?
“I could always get a job.”
He shrugged, his massive shoulders looking as if they could carry the weight of the world for her. For a moment, she believed he could. “I’m not sure. We should check the want ads and see what’s available.”
Her laugh sounded as bitter as her tears. “You don’t even have a name yet, never mind a social security number. You’ll need both to get a legitimate job.”
He frowned. “Lots of people work without documentation. I saw it on the news.”
“Yeah, and they’re getting deported, which is why they’re in the news in the first place. If you get caught, where would the government send you? You’d go to jail and stay there.”
He couldn’t answer that. “Maybe I could be an artist too?”
“It’s not that easy.” She’d answered this question a lot over the years. “I’ve been creating art since I was a child. It takes a lot of hard work. You can’t just sculpt something and expect someone else to buy it. It’s taken me years just to get to the point where I could afford my own place. Or, at least I thought I could.” Her tears started again. “That’s why I’m going to miss next month’s rent. That’s why I had to accept leftovers from last night’s party. I gambled I could make this work. That I could be just as successful as my sisters without having to follow in their footsteps, always be in their shadows.”
He wiped her eyes with a napkin and encouraged her to eat her sandwich and drink her juice, but she still had no answers by the time they’d finished. Only after they returned to the loft did she remember to turn on her phone. She always turned it off when she visited the museum. Messages immediately flashed across her screen.
“What is it?”
“Messages from my sisters.” This many messages usually meant there was an emergency, someone was sick or injured. She didn’t even bother to listen to the recordings. She called Rivka first.
“Who is he?”
Miriam pulled the phone away from ear. No point in insulting her by asking he who? “He’s a friend.”
“Don’t toy with me. Sarah saw you two walking together this morning.”
Sarah was one of her other sisters, the school principal. The high school was half a mile from the town green.
Rivka kept talking. “And Orna said she saw you cutting through the parking lot heading to the museum. She almost had one of her nurses run out and get you, but then she saw you walking with a man. She called me right away.”
Orna was an OB-GYN and her office was in a small complex between the main street and the walking path heading toward the museum.
“He’s—a model. He’s the model I used for the statue.” True enough in an odd way. He was the model of her perfect man, the model she’d kept in her head and in her dreams since she was a child.
As if realizing he wasn’t going to be able to help with this conversation, her perfect man winked at her before heading toward the kitchenette. He put the kettle on for tea while Rivka squeed.
“What’s his name?”
As if speaking to a five-year-old, Rivka repeated. “Yes, what do you call him when you are talking to him?”
Her mind raced. The entire day, she hadn’t called him anything. As if sensing a problem, he looked over his shoulder at her.
“Aish. His name is Aish.”
“Fire? Who names their kid Fire?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t ask.” Her defensive shields made her voice harsher than she intended. “Aish Tevet.”
“Tevet? Like the month?”
She could hear the scratch of a pencil. Her sister was plotting something or else why would she write down his name? “Yeah, like the month.”
“Not criticizing. Maybe his grandparents were hippies. At least he’s Jewish.” More scratching from the pencil.
While her sister plotted, Aish turned to face her with a thumb’s up sign. He liked his new name. Miriam’s stomach unwound until Rivka started talking again.
“Okay. You’re both having dinner tomorrow at my place. The whole family is coming over, so we can meet him. In the meantime, I got your contract reinstated. You should get the first installment by tomorrow.”
Miriam almost dropped her phone again. “What? How?”
“I bullied my way into the mayor’s office this morning. You know, he’s completely redecorated that office from the last time I was in there? So, I said I would be performing a line-item review of the budget for the rest his administration. I want to make sure the money he was saving on your contract was being used for city services and not for ordering new office furniture.”
The air in Miriam’s lungs froze over. She should have been happy, ecstatic. From the kitchenette, she could hear the teapot whistle. Rivka, of course, just kept talking.
“He scrambled and swore he would find the money for your contract before January 1st,” Rivka continued, unaware that she’d just made Miriam’s world so much worse. “How much you want to bet he’s going to single handedly find the city’s missing money and unfreeze the budget before the new year as well? Anyway, I can’t do anything about your landlord or your clients, just yet. It’ll take time, but you just get that naked statue dressed and ready for the foundry. Once he’s installed on the green, everyone will think you’re brilliant.”
Miriam managed to stammer a thank you before she disconnected. She looked over at Aish, amazed at how quickly his name had become a part of him. She’d named him. She’d given him form. She hadn’t given him life though, so where did that leave her, his future? Them?
“What’s wrong?” Aish guided her over to her recliner so she could sit.
“My sister has managed to get my contract reinstated. I’m going to get the first installment check tomorrow.”
Aish looked confused and she couldn’t blame it. “That’s good isn’t it? You can pay the rent and some of your bills.”
“No, I can’t. I don’t have a statue anymore. I’ll need it to buy more clay and I still won’t be able to pay my bills.”
Aish pulled away from her. “There’s an easy way to fix that.”
She watched as he pulled back a curl of hair from his right temple. She saw the Hebrew lettering hidden there spelling the word truth.
“No.” She stood up to face him.
“Yes. It’s the fastest way to save you. You don’t have much time. If you erase the first letter, the aleph, I will turn back into clay.”
“You’ll turn back into clay because without the aleph the word becomes death. I’m not killing you.”
“You have to.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Don’t look at me like that.”
He looked away. Good.
She took a deep breath to calm her pounding heart and to turn herself away from temptation. “I don’t want to hear another word about turning you back into clay. You’re a man now. More importantly, you’re my man, and I’m not giving you up that easily.”
He looked back at her, sorrowful now. “If you’re not giving me up, how are you going to get enough clay without using the check? How will pay your rent?”
Miriam returned to the large chest holding her supply of clay and pulled out the last package. “I’m going to pray for another miracle.”
Miriam did as she promised. She called her sister and begged off the family dinner because she needed to sculpt. Rivka was disappointed, but kept the guilt to a minimum, so long as Miriam promised to bring Aish to dinner next week. Then she prayed, and then set to work. For the next four days she sculpted, pausing only for Shabbat, then continued until the last day of Chanukah. Every time she returned to the chest, there was another identical package of clay sitting there. It didn’t matter how much she used, there was always more clay.
Aish stayed by her side, making her meals, cleaning her kitchen, doing her laundry, going to the bank to deposit her check, and even reminding her to light the Chanukah candles every night. She worked sixteen, sometimes seventeen hours at a time. She styled the last bit clay into the collar of the third not-quite-as-tall, not-quite-as-handsome, but fully clothed soldier.
She stood back to admire her work. She figured by giving the city more than they expected, it would ease the sting of the city budget having to pay her in the first place. Maybe she was destined to create something incredible, but this project was not it. She would figure it out, however, with Aish by her side.
“You did it.” His arms circled her waist.
“I did.” She turned around in his arms. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“I have something for you.” He pulled an envelope from behind his back. “Happy Chanukah.”
She took the envelope and slid her nail under the sealed flap. Two cards fell out. The print and icons unmistakable. Aish had somehow managed to find time to run to the museum and renew her pass. He also bought one for himself. Did that mean he was going to stay with her?
“Oh, Aish. This is incredible. How did you—“
He smiled that same shy smile he’d graced her with whenever he was up to something. “I’ll be working as a cashier in the cafeteria for the foreseeable future.”
He pulled out a social security card from his pocket. “I prayed with you. You got your miracle. I got mine. The why can wait until tomorrow.”
She kissed him. Really kissed him, not the light pecks on the cheek he’d been doling out as rewards for sleeping and eating when he asked her to.
She pulled away from the kiss. “We’ll talk about tomorrow, tomorrow. Right now, I just want to be with you. My man of fire and of clay. I love you.”
“I love you, too, my woman of heart and soul.
Copyright © 2018 by Debra Jess.
This story originally appeared in Heart's Kiss.