One afternoon when I was fifteen, I found a letter on the front porch, by the door. It had no stamp or postmark, and it was addressed in a foreign hand to my aunt, using her maiden name, Naomi Haimovici. My aunt Natalie, who lived three blocks away, had just gotten married. She always used her “English” name.
It must have been fall, because the sky was that clean blue color so rare in Philadelphia, that shows up in October if at all. The sun had left our side of the street, but there was still a bright glow from the white stone houses on the other side.
The letter was in a long, pale blue, thin paper envelope, with blue and white stripes along the edges. Instead of a return address, there was in the upper left corner of the envelope a name — if it was a name — Ben Jassy. The envelope was heavy; there must have been many sheets of paper inside. I knew better than to open it, so I was busy examining it every way I could from the outside. But Charlie, my older brother, came home from work just then, wrestled it out of my hands, and, having no interest in it himself, took it in to Mom. The last thing I got to see on the envelope was some sort of footnote on the back: “**I believe the correct value is √3 + √2.”
I followed my brother inside, to see what my mother would make of this strange thing. Mom was careful not to show concern, but I knew she was bothered by the letter. She called her sister immediately. She spoke Yiddish during the call — I understood nothing, except the word shlissel, key. Afterward, my mother refused to explain it to us. Aunt Natalie came over a few minutes later, and they began again in Yiddish. Aunt Natalie opened the letter and read it, all the time batting Charlie and me away with her hand; we were trying to catch a look at it. The conversation was loud, and both my aunt and my mother used their hands to emphasize whatever it was they were saying. They never did that when they spoke English. They told us nothing at all, not even who wrote the letter, or how the sender figured out to put it on our porch. I’m not sure they knew.
Charlie went off to take a shower, and then down the street to talk to friends, or maybe to pursue what he called his ‘love life.’ I, on the other hand, hadn’t reached puberty yet. The guys in my class seemed to be going crazy, sometimes wildly excited, then unreachably depressed five minutes later, all because they got a date, or didn’t, with someone I was supposed to drool over. I envied them so much.
I was always asking Charlie about sex. He’d say, “You’re okay, you’re just slow, man. So was I. So was Dad. Don’t worry.” But still I asked, what was it like, how would I know when I got there? He laughed. “One day a girl will walk by and you’ll forget who you were talking to. I promise.” Still, I doubted him.
I went up to my room. In my stamp collection, I found an old postcard. It was addressed to my grandmother in English, but the whole message side was in Yiddish. The card had a 1909 postmark from Jassy. They spell it Iaşi these days, but it’s pronounced Yaash. That’s where my grandparents had come from, in Romania. The cramped Hebrew letters made reading difficult, and I could spell out one word only: shvester, sister. So it must have been about my grandmother’s sister. Which sister? Was it the one who stayed in Romania? We figured that she had died in the pogrom in June of 1941. Or the one who went to Argentina? I looked up Argentina in our out-of-date encyclopedia, and saw the picture of the blue-and-white Argentine
flag. In fact, wasn’t there some printing on the edge of the envelope? Did it say AEREO? I ran down to confront my family.
“It’s from your aunt in Buenos Aires, isn’t it?”
They stared at each other for a moment, and then Aunt Natalie turned to me and said, “Do you have to know everything?”
I heard myself say, “Yes!” and knew as soon as I did how foolish it was to speak such truth.
“Chaya,” my aunt said, “tell your son to butt out where it’s none of his business!”
“You tell him!” my mother said, but I was already beating a retreat to my bedroom.
My aunt left soon after, taking the letter with her. When my father got home, my mother mentioned the letter briefly, and told him dinner would be a little late. He just shrugged his shoulders.
Usually, we had meat for dinner, maybe some kind of roast, but that night was milchig: a cottage-cheese-and-spinach concoction that I did my best to keep down, baked potato, rye bread and butter, and — to keep my father happy — a large pickled-herring salad that served as a centerpiece, with peppers, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and vinegar.
I hated fish. I still do. Lox, gefilte fish, herring, you name it. At the Sunday morning Father-and-Son Minyan, I got to hear about it far too often. After prayers, with the tallis and tfillin back in their velvet bags, we’d all sit down to breakfast, and it was always lox or herring. Someone’s father would joke: maybe I wasn’t really M.O.T., a Member Of the Tribe. “Hey, Mel,” they’d ask, “wasn’t this from when you were in the Navy?”
“Get your eyes checked,” he’d answer, and that would seem to be enough. I look just like my father.
I didn’t upchuck on the cottage cheese, and Mom didn’t mention that I wasn’t eating any herring. She asked my father something in Yiddish. Dad understood Yiddish, but he didn’t speak it. He stopped eating for a minute, then shook his head and said, “Look, hon, it’s your money; I can’t tell you what to do.” Charlie looked at me for real, as if I was supposed to know what was going on.
After dinner, Charlie went back out and my aunt called back. It sounded like my mother wanted to change Aunt Natalie’s mind about something, but she wasn’t having any luck. I just knew my aunt was saying, “You’ve got to be realistic.”
When they finished, my mother was close to tears. Dad said, “I wonder if Maury knows what he’s gotten himself into.” Uncle Maury was the man Aunt Natalie had just married. Dad always liked to lighten things up a little, so he was reminding Mom that my aunt was always going to be that unstoppable force of nature. Mom wanted to be angry with him for not taking the whole thing seriously, but she ended up laughing with Dad and me.
It was hard not to think about the letter that night. The postcard was the only thing I had that was from another country. Except for some stamps, of course, but they didn’t count since I had bought them. And the postcard was fifty years old. This was right here right now.
And what about the strange things written on the envelope? “Ben Jassy.” And “correct value.” And the square roots. That, at least, I knew something about. The previous summer I had gone to a math camp; it had been my aunt’s idea. The number, √3 + √2 , has a conjugate, namely √3 – √2. If you multiply a number by its conjugate, all the square roots disappear, and you get a whole number. “Conjugate” sounded so much like “conjugal,” married. No, not quite married, more like having a True Partner, like being able to reach out as far as you wanted in one direction (+√2) because you knew your other hand was holding onto your conjugal conjugate, who was balancing you — keeping you whole — by leaning just as far out the other way (-√2).
The letter filled my dreaming. I kept coming back to √3 + √2. At some point, asleep or not I don’t know, I realized something: When these conjugates were multiplied together, the result was not just any whole number; it was 1. One. The two conjugates were related to each other in a new way, the way two is to one-half, or three to one-third: they were inverses. What a close relationship! What would it be like for me to have such a relationship! Was there someone on earth I could be that close to? I knew it wouldn’t be Charlie’s version, but I was thrilled at the thought of having a bashert somewhere.
I got out of bed and turned on the goose-necked desklamp, damping the light with a pair of jockey shorts around the bulb so my parents would not be alerted. (This practice came to an end a few months later, when a pair of underwear began to smolder and char.) I looked up the square roots in the back of my algebra book: I calculated the conjugates. The numbers had so many decimals – just the way I felt so difficult to define myself – but when they were multiplied together they produced the simplest number there was, one. Again, I felt a thrill.
I turned off the light and went back to bed. My sleep was turbulent. I dreamt about the messenger who had left the envelope. Surely it wasn’t my grandmother’s sister; she was far too old. My mother’s cousins? Or maybe someone of my generation. Or a shaleeyach, one of the professionals who had been running such errands since the Middle Ages. Like the man from the orphanage in Israel, the one I sometimes met down at my uncles’ shop, where my Aunt Natalie worked, and now my brother, too.
That guy with his long beard; who knows how old he must have been? So nonchalant about his mission, even though it was to save destitute orphans. In fact, he didn’t seem to care whether or not anyone sent back money. I wanted to believe that “our” shaleeyach was different, that he thought what he was doing was important.
Aunt Natalie called during breakfast. I answered the phone, but she wouldn’t say anything to me. She and my mother talked for a few minutes. Something seemed to have changed. This time Mom’s voice was quiet. She said “Okay” a few times. She kept her voice down, as if she didn’t want to embarrass my aunt. They had decided on something. Charlie was not supposed to go in to work. In fact, Mom sent me out to catch him before he drove off. He was already out of the driveway, and I had to yell down the street at him till he stopped. He came back in huffing and puffing, and sat down hard on the sofa, crossing his arms over his chest and staring at my mother, who was still on the phone. Finally, Mom told him, “You have to drive me downtown. They’ll wait for you at the shop.”
After she hung up, I said, “Well, maybe Uncle Maury changed her mind.”
Mom looked at me a little strangely. Then she said, “No one changes Natalie’s mind but Natalie. Maury asked her to marry him I don’t know how many times. Your father used to ask her, ‘Nat, what’re you waiting for?’ She kept saying, ‘I’m not sure yet.'” I nodded; I knew that.
“When she finally was sure, she called up Maury and told him, ‘Now or never.’ They went to the rabbi that day, and your father and I went with them. The rabbi didn’t like the idea of such sudden marriages, so your father stood up and told him, ‘Rabbi, those two have been going together since Hector was a pup. If you don’t get them married now, they’ll forget why they wanted to in the first place.”
When I left for school, my mother was getting dressed to go into town. I thought my brother would ignore me the way he usually did, but he gave me a thumbs up and said, “Be good, kid.”
The high school was at the end of the Route 52 line. Most of the routes had gone over to buses by then, and few of the remaining streetcars were the double-enders that they ran on the 52. After I got down off the old, square, two-headed trolley, it slid over into the track going the other way. The motorman came out and pulled down the aerial connection from what had been the back end of the streetcar, and put up the other one. He made sure there was a good connection with the overhead wire, and went in to carry all his punches, transfers, and cash from one end of the car to the other. He turned on the headlamp.
I stayed to watch, even though I was late. The streetcar was its own conjugate; there was something strange about an animal that could turn around without turning around. Was I destined to be my own conjugate, was there no one else out there for me? I shuddered.
I figured Aunt Natalie and my mother were down at the bank by then, in the safe deposit vault. Wasn’t that the key, the shlissel, that they had talked about? I didn’t know what the vault had in it, though. Whatever it was, it had to be worth something. And yet, it had never been used till now – at least as far as I knew – even when we were behind on our bills.
What kind of emergency was facing my family in Argentina? Poverty? Illness? I remembered the phrase I had heard about the Jews of Buenos Aires: “Sitting on their packed bags.” What with the number of “retired” Nazis welcomed in Argentina, was it some kind of persecution? Did my distant relatives need to leave the country?
And what about the formula? No one had shown any interest in it. True, my family was uneducated, but I knew that wasn’t the reason. Maybe the formula was only a way of saving face, of lessening the pain of begging, something to say, “We’re not irresponsible deadbeats; we’ll use your money wisely.” I had been reading the wrong clues. Whatever it was that moved Mom and Aunt Natalie, it had nothing to do with any square roots. Except that these people, so far away, were also a kind of conjugate of my American family, each branch leaning toward the other.
By evening, the shaleeyach, or maybe a cousin I might never see, would be on his way back to Argentina. Maybe; I would never find out. About the mystery of finding conjugates I would eventually learn my share, but it didn’t happen the way Charlie promised; instead one morning I felt like I was in love with one of Charlie’s buddies. Later on, in college, we actually connected, if only briefly.
I never learned anything about the letter. Many years later, I would ask my mother about it, but she would be unable to recall the incident. It was just another of the mysteries in my family’s lives that I was destined never to know.
The streetcar inched backward, forward. The heavy old thing seemed to take forever to get going. At last, it gathered speed and crossed back in front of my path. The motorman knew I was late for school; he scowled at me as he passed.