The rabbi wept as we sat in the cupola, watching the end of a gorgeous tropical sunset. He sat with his back to the sun. Ruth and I were across from him. Ruth looked at me; I shrugged. The Finches, Tom and Edith, were downstairs, making supper. We could hear kitchen sounds and cheerful voices below.
"You see," the rabbi said, "I'm weeping. Like a child."
"Don't worry about it," I said. "It's fine." The sun was gone now, and the wind was whipping through the screens. It had been a perfect day, but it was January, and the night would be chilly. It was our last day on the island. I stole a look downward and was pleased to see the contrast between my beige sweater and the dark skin of my hand.
"Why don't you talk about it?" Ruth said. "Maybe it would make you feel better."
"I feel so ashamed, sobbing in front of people I don't know." He lifted his heavy black-rimmed glasses and wiped his eyes. "What can you think of me?"
I opened my mouth, then closed it. The wind whipped without ceasing. Across the bay, a single star flickered in the dark blue over the last red strip of horizon. Ruth was staring at her nails, probably thinking the same things I was thinking. We had come down to her uncle's place for the sun. The first few days had been precariously fair, warm when the sun was out but cold when it went behind clouds. Now, at last, the weather was breaking. And we were leaving. The Finches had just arrived, yesterday, to open up their house. The rabbi had come with them, for a week's visit.
Tom came up the stairs, grinning. He had a face like a leprechaun, and big, white teeth. "What can I get you folks to drink?" he said.
There was a silence; Ruth and I deferred to the rabbi.
"Bernie?" Tom said. "How 'bout a nice vodka tonic? Set you right up."
"Nothing for me, thanks, Tom," the rabbi said.
"Bernie, now come on. I'm getting you a drink whether you want one or not. You just tell me what kind."
"Whatever you say."
"Vodka tonic sounds great," I said. Ruth nodded, just a little too vigorously.
"All right, don't anybody go anywhere," Tom said. "Wasn't that a great sunset?" We nodded. "I'll be back in a jiffy," he said, and went downstairs.
"I feel a little better," the rabbi said to us, rubbing the corner of his eye. "Tom always cheers me up. Please forgive me. I've had just a wretched week."
I tried to think of something to say about bad weeks, but our week had been too good.
"My wife has left me," he said. "After 22 years of marriage. Three children." I was looking at his wrist. He was wearing a very large gold Rolex. It fit him loosely, as if he was not quite at home with it.
"My God," Ruth said. "No wonder you're crying."
"And that's not even the worst of it," the rabbi said.
Tom was coming up the stairs with a tray of glasses. "Who wants a drink? he said. "Bern? Here's a nice one."
"Thank you, Tom."
We took our drinks. Either mine was pretty stiff, or it hadn't been mixed: I felt it immediately. It was dark out now, except for a paleness in the west. I could see Ruth and myself reflected in the window, light clothes and brown skin. It felt good to be safe and warm in the cupola, while the wind blew.
"Well," Tom said, after sipping from his glass. "How's everybody doing?"
"I have been burdening these young people with the treachery of my wife," the rabbi said.
Tom's boyish face turned serious. "That's a terrible thing," he said, frowning. "Terrible." He shook his head. "But you remember what we agreed on, Bernie. We were going to try and not think about all that for a couple of days. Just try and relax."
"It's very difficult."
"I know, Bern."
"Tonight of all nights."
"I know, Bern. But please -- let's try. Okay?"
"Good. Now," and Tom's face changed back again, "you guys getting hungry?" He looked at us and rubbed his hands together.
"Sure," I said.
"Ravenous," said Ruth.
"Just be a couple of minutes now. I'll give a yell," he said, and went back downstairs.
"Tom is a wonderful man, but psychologically, a bit naive," the rabbi said. "It reminds me of the story about the man who thought of an elephant. Do you know which one I mean?" We shook our heads. "The man who would get all the gold in the world if, for just three minutes, he would agree not to think about an elephant." He opened his hands. "My wife is the elephant."
"Do you want to tell us about it?" Ruth asked.
"What's there to tell? It's a very uninteresting story. Not even another man. She has simply decided to declare her independence from me, and tonight -- the Sabbath! -- she is giving a party, in our house, to proclaim the fact. To proclaim her availability." He drew the word out. "God only knows what kind of party it will be."
"That's terrible," Ruth said.
"Terrible is too mild a word," the rabbi said. "The two of you are married?"
I looked at Ruth. "No," she said.
"Ah," he said. "So much the better. Does that sound like odd spiritual counsel, coming from a rabbi? It's what I tell all the young people I know. Look around a little. Try things out. I'm a fine one to give advice. A rabbi with a congregation of 2,000, books, magazine articles, a radio show even, running away to a desert island the moment trouble starts on his own doorstep."
"You need some time to think things over," I said.
"What is there to think over? My wife is a headstrong woman, with a point to prove. She will prove it. Tonight." He sighed deeply and stared into the space between Ruth and me. He was a handsome man, with a strong nose and jet-black, curly hair. He was wearing a windbreaker, a flowered silk shirt, blue jeans, buckled loafers. His drink sat at his side, untouched.
"Soup's on!" Tom called from below.
Ruth and I got up and carefully walked down the narrow staircase. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, was shiplike: snug, clean, well-designed. Like the rest of the house, on an island without telephones or paved roads, it was a marvel. There was a dishwasher. There were enough canned goods in the grocery closet for a year. Below, on the ground floor, was a deep-freeze, with its own small generator. The big generator, across the driveway, thrummed powerfully, under the sound of the wind. The light in the kitchen was bright and steady. Edith Finch, a short, apple-cheeked woman, was putting platters on the table. She and Tom had each been married before, had each been widowed. Both had grown children; both had money. Now they had found each other, and they were happy.
"Where's Bern?" Tom asked me. At that moment, the rabbi descended the stairs from the cupola, his tread deliberate and heavy.
"Tom, Edith," he said, "please forgive me. I'll just go to my room. I don't seem to be very hungry."
"Bernie, why don't you just sit down and talk with us?" Tom said.
"No, Thomas, please. My gloomy face will spoil your appetites. No. Please. I really just want to be alone." And he went to his room.
We sat down. "Isn't that an awful thing, about Bernie?" Tom whispered, and we all nodded. But the moment of silence was as perfunctory as saying grace: There was fresh grouper on the table, conch salad, home fries, peas from the deep-freeze, and we were all very hungry. I had thirds of grouper. We ate and talked and laughed -- I was sometimes conscious of how loudly. Tom and Edith looked wonderful. They glowed. They sat close together, and, during dessert, Tom put his arm around his wife. The wind blew. Underneath the table, I put my hand on Ruth's leg.
The rabbi still hadn't emerged when we said goodnight under the yellow porch light. It was quite cold out; you could almost see your breath. The night was moonless, and the stars were astonishing. The zodiac paraded across the middle of the sky. The horizon, all around, was black. We were far out at sea. Ruth and I walked home silently, each with a hand in the other's back pocket.
The next day was bright, cool, windy, and, like all days of leave-taking, unreal. I kept feeling as if someone had died, but it was only that we were leaving. The green sea, shimmering through the trees, would no longer have us. We drove Ruth's uncle's jeep back down the five miles of dirt and rock and hardpan to the airstrip. The drive was slower than we'd anticipated: When we got to the runway, the little plane was already waiting. We put our bags in the nose, and got on board, and the rabbi was sitting there, wearing sunglasses. He nodded to us. There was nothing to say. The engines started, we took off, and Ruth and I watched out of the windows as we flew over miles of transparent blue-green shallows and white sand bars. Sometimes I thought I could see big fish moving through the water. Then the blue-green changed to the dull green-gray of the Gulf Stream, and I began to think about the work I was going back to, keys, telephone calls. Ruth read a magazine. From time to time, I glanced across at the rabbi. He sat stiffly in the same position, facing straight ahead, his eyes hidden by the glasses. He had pulled his window shade down before we took off.