Sunday dinner at the Parmesan Palace was a ritual Ivan and Sandy had faithfully maintained for four years, dating back to their undergraduate days when the student 20-meal plan forced them to forage for food on Sunday nights. The Parmesan Palace had the twin virtues of being walking distance from the dormitories and the only half-decent eatery open on Sunday nights. Now that both lived in Collegetown apartments, it was still the only walkable option.
They made an odd-looking pair. Ivan was a gangly six-foot-three, with curly light brown hair that seldom met a comb it would work with. He seemed slightly uncomfortable in his body – an Ichabod Crain if Ichabod’s parents had been Polish Jews. Walking beside him, taking three steps for every two of Ivan’s, Sandy had straight dark hair, a trim moustache, gold wire-rimmed glasses, and a body that had stopped growing at five-foot-four. Seeing them from afar, more than one pedestrian had wondered if they might be Simon and Garfunkel.
Ivan gave a perfunctory glance at the menu to see if anything had changed – in four years, nothing had – and then ordered “the Special.” Sandy did the same. “The Special”, a veal parmigiana with spaghetti, was the only dish the kitchen could be counted on to turn out consistently above average. All attempts to sample other menu selections had been disappointing at best.
“So how was the holiday with the family?” Sandy asked.
“It was everything I expected.”
“That bad, huh? They can’t find it in their hearts to forgive you?” Ivan had started law school after graduation, but one year of it was enough for him to know it was a mistake. He was still casting about for what to do next, while part-time tutoring assignments and a small inheritance from his grandmother allowed him to maintain a subsistence lifestyle.
“They don’t understand it,” said Ivan. “They think something’s wrong with me because I lack ambition. They want to know when I’ll start a real professional career.”
“I thought you said your parents were socialists.”
“That was my grandparents. My parents rebelled by getting rich.”
“And now here you go rebelling against them by staying poor.”
“I suppose. It’s too bad my grandparents aren’t around to argue my case.”
“You might say your grandmother took your side – knowingly or unknowingly – when she left you that tidy inheritance.”
“It was knowingly,” said Ivan. “She was a terrific lady.”
“Well God bless the child that’s got his own. It seems to me that if you’re not asking your parents for money to live on, they don’t have much say in how to live. It’s your call.”
“They can’t blackmail me financially. Emotional blackmail is another story. My mother didn’t invent Jewish guilt, but she’s perfected it.”
“What are you guilty of?”
“Perhaps you didn’t know this, but I am totally responsible for my mother’s happiness,” Ivan said, “and I am not doing my part.”
“That’s a new one.”
“Not for my mother it isn’t. Let’s talk about something else. What did I miss while I was gone?”
“The Orphans’ Thanksgiving, of course,” said Sandy, and he related the highlights. “But then, not four hours after I went to bed, I get a call from the office to cover a fire in Collegetown. Katharine must sleep with a police scanner by her bed.”
Sandy stopped when he saw Ivan’s face turn pale and his lips trembling. “Ivan, are you all right?”
Ivan lifted a water glass and brought it towards his mouth, but his hand shook so violently that some water spilled. With difficulty, he took a sip.
“I think I just had a flashback,” Ivan said.
“Oh, my God. I’m so sorry! I wasn’t thinking,” said Sandy.
Last May Ivan had secured a 12-month lease on a great house not far from Sandy’s apartment. But on Memorial Day, only a week before he intended to move in, a fire gutted the entire house. Ivan, who had difficulty with change even under the best circumstances, took it hard. It was too late to find a summer-only rental and too soon for a long-term lease. Ivan was stuck. Sandy, who had no summer roommate lined up, offered to share his apartment with Ivan until he could find permanent accommodations. Knowing that Ivan much preferred living alone, Sandy tried to make the arrangement as painless as possible. Ivan moved out in late August when he signed a one-year lease on his current home on the west side of Collegetown.
“I’m okay now,” Ivan said after a minute. “Tell me the story.”
Sandy brought him up to date with the fire, and the work of Martha and the other Crisis Center Hotline volunteers. “It just goes to show that sometimes, this community really pulls through,” he said.
“Something bothers me about the fire,” said Ivan.
“What about it?”
“I don’t know yet. I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
“Fire’s one of the risks of living in these old houses,” said Sandy.
“True,” said Ivan. But in the back of his brain he noted that something was out of place. If he kept thinking about it, he was sure, whatever was nagging him would float to the surface.