The things you do for love | Fiction | Almost Fresh Soup
The story behind this story might be stranger than the story itself. Every year, I put a lot of effort and a lot of anxiety into my wife Shira’s birthday. Effort—because I love her. And anxiety—because I’m one of those people who attribute no importance to birthdays and I’m profoundly clueless about what to do on them. In April of 2021, the birthday angst reached new heights: with the Covid pandemic and lockdowns in the background, and Shira’s fiftieth coming up, I felt like a deer in the headlights. Shira, who must have picked up on my stress, suggested that instead of celebrations and surprises, I write a story for the occasion.
This story first appeared in Small Odysseys, an anthology published in honor of a different birthday, the one being celebrated by “Selected Shorts,” a program I love almost as much as I love Shira. And there will soon be an audio version of the story, as part of the program, narrated by someone else I love, the wonderful actor Liev Schreiber. The story was illustrated by Hilit Shefer, yet another person I love. The question remains: how did all that love result in such an acerbic story?
For her forty-ninth birthday, Schleifer bought her forty-nine gifts. They each came from a different country: perfume from France, saké from Japan, a hairclip from the Ivory Coast. He wrapped each present separately, in the colors of the respective country’s flag. On the morning of the birthday he got up early, arranged everything on the coffee table, and between the curtain rod and the chandelier he hung a silk banner on which he’d embroidered her name in forty-nine gold-threaded hearts.
When Aviva woke up and walked into the living room, her eyes welled with tears of joy, and within seconds he was weeping too, with happiness and relief.
Schleifer’s surprise birthday production became the talk of the town. Several people complimented him for being so creative and industrious. Even the busty cashier at the grocery store, who never said anything more personal than “it’s buy one get one free,” smiled and asked him where she could get herself a husband like him. Schleifer gave her a nonchalant wink and remarked self-assuredly, “If you’re going to celebrate, you may as well go all out.”
But not everyone was supportive. “Dude, you dug us all into a hole,” Haimon grumbled. “You raised the bar so high, there’s no way I can get away with buying Lizzy a bunch of flowers and a card at the gas station anymore.” And when Schleifer stopped by the nursery (greenhouse?) for some fertilizer, Albert snorted: “Bro, if that’s what you came up with for her forty-ninth, I don’t even want to think about the production you’ll put on for her fiftieth.” After a minute he put his calloused hand on Schleifer’s shoulder and asked, “Are you ok? You look pale.”
Like a prisoner who digs a tunnel from his cell and discovers it ends up in the prison yard, like a warrior returning triumphantly from the battlefield only to be sent back to the front, like a gazelle that narrowly escapes a forest fire straight into a pride of hungry lions—that’s exactly how Schleifer felt when he got home from the nursery(greenhouse?). Aviva’s birthday was a grueling challenge that he’d managed to complete, a character test he’d passed while knowing that even the slightest deviation from the fantasy she’d concocted would lead to sorrow and bitter disappointment. Yet through all the months during which he’d clambered up that steep and slippery mountain, he hadn’t given so much as a moment’s thought to the fact that after he conquered the summit, awaiting him beyond it, only one year away, there would be another one, far higher and more precipitous.
“Then leave her,” said Yana in her indifferent tone, as if she were scheduling him for a dentist appointment. That, by the way, was how they’d met. Yana was the receptionist for Dr. Miklos, his and Aviva’s dentist. The first time he met her at the clinic she’d told him a really dirty joke, and when she laughed loudly, as if it were the first time she’d heard it, she revealed two rows of glistening white teeth. Clean teeth and a filthy mouth—was there any sexier combo? “I asked you to help me think of a gift,” Schleifer grumbled and pulled on his pants, “not give me couples counseling.” “Okay,” Yana said and inserted a long fingernail between her teeth to pull out a pubic hair, “then buy her some expensive jewelry. Or a luxury hotel getaway. She’ll love it.” “Aviva doesn’t like jewelry,” Schleifer said as he finished tying his shoelaces, and on the way out he added, “and when I suggest a vacation she always says going abroad is for people who aren’t happy at home.” “Yeah,” Yana called after him, “and are you?”
That night, after Aviva fell asleep, Schleifer sat with his laptop for almost five hours, searching for something special. While in the past he’d made do with stale search terms like “gift,” “surprise,” or simply, “expensive,” he was now savvy enough to try concrete things like “endangered animals” (a clouded leopard could have made her happy, but since it was a feline she might be allergic), “illegal cosmetic treatments” (he found a hospital in Albania that offered innovative surgery to lengthen your legs by two inches, but whenever Aviva had gone under anesthesia she’d suffered terrible nausea), or “blissful orgasm” (a Latin robot-lover sounded interesting, but if he knew Aviva, she’d view that as an attempt to shirk his duties. And besides, with all due respect to Latins, they excelled in many areas but robotics was not one of them). Finally, after all other efforts had failed, he typed in “asteroid” and discovered that for thirty or forty thousand shekels you could get one named after you. Schleifer copied down the phone number with the US area code and decided to look into the matter. At first he imagined Aviva, perfectly in character, saying “This is what you got me? A piece of rock?” But he also knew it was important to her that the gift be original and imaginative, and there was no denying that having an asteroid named for you was not the kind of gift you got every day.
It was four a.m. when Schleifer dialed the number. He went out to the balcony, so as not to wake Aviva, and was surprised when a deep, gravelly voice answered in a heavy southern accent. The man on the other end of the line introduced himself as Galileo, and when Schleifer asked if that was his real name, the guy snickered and said, “No, genius, it’s not my real name.” Galileo explained to Schleifer that the whole field of naming astronomical objects was still wide open and that outer space was “the twenty-first century’s Wild West.” Officially, it turned out, astronomical bodies were supposed to be named for their discoverers, and the authorities were strongly opposed to commercializing things. But gravelly Galileo knew how to get around that. “By your wife’s fiftieth birthday,” he promised Schleifer, “I guarantee I’ll find a new asteroid and give it her weird name.”
“It’s not a weird name,” Schleifer said defensively, “Aviva is a very acceptable name in Israel. Common, even. It comes from the Hebrew word aviv, which means—”
“Honestly?” Galileo cut him off, “I don’t give a shit. Just get the ten thou’ ready, yeah? Because from the minute I locate the asteroid, everything’s gotta run like clockwork so I can register it fast. Neither of us would be thrilled if while I’m waiting for you to come up with the 10k, some fucking Chinaman cuts in and names the asteroid after his granny.”
The next eleven months were calm. They were not, however, uneventful. Aviva’s parents both died of COVID-19, and Schleifer’s business suffered a blow when his partner, Francois, skipped the country leaving a pile of debt behind. Yana left him too, and started going out with a fitness coach who’d trained half the commandos in the army’s elite squads and could have sex for eight hours straight without stopping for a second, not even for a glass of water. Or so Yana claimed. But when it came to the preparations for Aviva’s fiftieth birthday, Schleifer felt supremely calm. It was as if that brief, peculiar phone call in the middle of the night with a man who lived on the other side of the world and called himself Galileo, was more reliable than the bank account emptied out by the conniving Francois before he disappeared. Thoughts such as “maybe he won’t be able to find an asteroid in time,” or “he might just be a crackpot American who likes lying to people on the phone” never even crossed Schleifer’s normally-skeptical mind. Perhaps it was because Galileo had sounded so confident, or perhaps because Schleifer’s facade of serenity was hiding such colossal terror that he was afraid to let it crack.
His second talk with Galileo was also at four a.m. This time it was Galileo who called. Aviva woke up when the phone rang, but Schleifer told her it was a Canadian lawyer who was trying to help him sort things out with Francois, and she went back to sleep. Schleifer stepped out onto the balcony, and Galileo informed him that he’d found the promised asteroid and that Schleifer was lucky he wasn’t charging by weight, because this one was almost as big as the moon. Galileo said he would text Schleifer his bank account info, and as soon as the wire transfer was confirmed he would register the asteroid in Aviva’s name. Schleifer thanked him and was about to hang up, but Galileo said there was one more little detail—“full disclosure,” he called it: “When you find an asteroid, it’s not enough to know where it is now. Those fuckers are always in motion, you know, so you have to calculate their course.”
“And…?” Schleifer asked when Galileo’s silence stretched out.
“And the thing is,” Galileo went on, “that based on my calculations, this asteroid is on track to strike Earth. This isn’t going to have any bearing on the naming, see? Our transaction is unaffected, but still, I felt I should share this information with you.”
“Okay… So when exactly is this supposed to happen?”
“When did you say your wife’s birthday is?”
“April thirtieth,” Schleifer replied.
“Great. The asteroid should only collide with us the next day. For a second there I was afraid it would work out exactly on her birthday, which would, you know, put a damper on the party.”
“And this collision… could it be serious?”
“Serious?” Galileo snorted. “Hombre, based on the tragic fate befallen by our friends the dinosaurs, I’d say that when an asteroid this big hits Planet Earth, it’s pretty serious.”
On the evening of April twenty-ninth, when he stopped to fill up the car, Schleifer went into the empty convenience store and bought a frozen Swiss roll and a card. Aviva was still in her year of mourning over her parents, which absolved him from the need to organize a party or even make reservations at a restaurant. She’d loved her parents dearly. So had he. They were standup people, people from the pre-scum era, and they’d really loved each other. Aviva told him once that they’d never celebrated birthdays when she was growing up, and that’s why she’d always felt deprived. Her dad used to say, “What would you prefer—one day with parties and lots of attention, or for us to love you year-round?” Every time her dad said that, little Aviva had felt stupid and guilty. But when she grew up, her therapist explained that the need to celebrate birthdays was universal and ingrained, like needing sleep or food, and that she shouldn’t feel bad about never forgiving her parents for it.
The birthday card Schleifer bought had a picture of a shooting star, and underneath it said in gold letters, “Make a wish.” He added in his lopsided handwriting: “For the woman who has (almost) everything.” Aviva found the gilded card and the Swiss roll with a lit candle on the kitchen table on the morning of her birthday, and right on cue, exactly as she and Shleifer were biting into the cake, a news flash on the radio reported that the asteroid called “Aviva” would reach Earth in less than twenty-four hours. Schleifer sipped his coffee and waited patiently. The first two times they said the name of the asteroid, Aviva didn’t seem to make the connection. But when the newscaster relayed predictions of tens of millions of casualties from “Aviva” and then outlined various catastrophic scenarios, she looked at the shooting star on the birthday card again and a faint smile came to her lips. “You nutcase,” she said in a shaky voice, and put her warm hand on the hairy back of his neck, “you really shouldn’t have.” Instead of answering, Schleifer shut his eyes and submitted, like a cat, to the touch of her hand.