Love was in the air. I sensed it all around me. A record was spinning around on the gramophone, releasing one touching note after another, making me ache with desire.
Dark or light, deep in this heart of mine
There’s a crazy beat pounding ‘cause oh, just for you I pine
And its agony won’t be through
Till you let me give myself, give all of me to you
I pine for you, dark or light
At the far end, the elevator doors opened. I thought of dashing over there to surprise Natasha. Instead I ended up taking a step back, because out came her Mama.
Mrs. Horowitz locked eyes with me at once, and it took all my concentration not to take another step back.
She clomped in my direction, then plonked herself down on the oversized couch that stood on one side of the elegant rug. Waving her hand at me in a commanding gesture, she pointed at the matching couch that stood on the opposite side.
“You,” she said. “Sit down. We need to talk.”
“Where’s Natasha?” I asked.
“She’ll be down shortly,” said her Ma. “Now sit.”
Narrowing her eyes, she leaned over to ask, “What’s that thing you’re holding?”
I rose to my feet and passed the box to her. Wrapped in beautiful paper, it was an artwork in its own right, designed to look like a miniature chest of drawers, in which sweets were stored.
The women licked her colorless, wrinkled lips, and turned the thing over and over, examining it carefully under the lights of the huge chandelier. At last she returned the box to me, somewhat unwillingly, as if she hated to part with it.
“So,” she said. “Maybe I’ve misjudged you.”
I looked at her in surprise.
“Really, Mrs. Horowitz?”
“I said, Maybe.”
“Never mind about me. Have you given any thought to my offer? Natasha has told you about it, hasn’t she?”
“She has, but I’d like to hear it directly from you.”
“Take it as an invitation: the two of you can move into my father’s apartment, as soon as you like, and at no expense to you, make it your new home.”
Leaning forward on her elbow and cupping all three of her chins in her hand, the old woman studied me at great length. At last she said, “It’s more generous than anyone can imagine, to the point that it makes me wonder.”
“About your wisdom, naturally! Because if you’re clever then I must worry about your intentions, and if you’re not, then I must worry why Natasha would fall in love with such a nincompoop. Either way I must protect her.”
“Protect her you must, and the best way to do it is by making sure she is in a safe place.”
She kept looking at me searchingly over the rim of her glasses, as if she could not put full trust in the optical lenses when it came to studying an unusual scientific specimen such as me.
Growing tired of it I said. “Well? Don’t make me beg. Will you accept my offer?”
“Maybe,” she said a third time, still reluctant to commit.
“I see,” said I. “This is a definite possibility.”
“What I can say at this point is this: I‘m somewhat more willing than before to get to know you, young man, not only because of this chocolate box, and not only because of your offer, but most of all because—contrary to all expectations—you keep coming back, time and again.”
“So you respect how persistent I am?”
“More precisely, I hate it.”
To which I said, simply, “Mrs. Horowitz, I love your daughter.”
She raised an eyebrow, but avoided the temptation to poke fun at a poor suitor. Instead she turned her attention to practical matters.
“So now, let me understand in more detail,” she said. “The rent is paid?”
“For six months.”
“And the place is ready?”
“Yes. This morning I threw the old mattress away. It was the last thing there. And I painted the place. It’s clean and fresh.”
In a flash, I imagined the fancy, carved furniture Mrs. Horowitz would acquire anew to bring in, all those Russian accents and the gilded frames and knickknacks, all of which would create a mini-palace of sorts. At the thought of it, a smile escaped my lips.
In turn, she gave me a severe look.
“One thing must be clear between us,” she said, wagging a finger at me. “This is not to be treated as a handout. If we take you on your offer, it’s going to be nothing more than a business arrangement.”
“Of course, Mrs. Horowitz.”
“I’m going to pay you back every penny, and that’s a promise you can take to the bank.”
“No need for formalities, Mrs. Horowitz.”
“We’re going to treat this not as a favor, but as a loan. Do we have an understanding?”
“Yes. We do.”
“When will you vacate the premises?”
“I already did. And I’ve brought the key with me, Mrs. Horowitz. You can have it.”
I fumbled in my pocket, took out the key, and presented it to her. She took it. And as it exchanged hands, Natasha came out of the elevator. She was wearing a scarlet sweater blouse with a soft bow at the neck, and a black skirt that played out her delicate curves.
At once, the conversation changed its tone.
~Aaron P. Lazar, Author and Audiobook Listener