Saugerties, a sleepy Hudson Valley town with big shop windows, narrow streets, and an old-fashioned movie theater, surrounded by large tracts of farmland, was known as “the place time forgot.” Two hours north of New York City, it was too far for commuters, so it felt like a world away. This was where I planned to grieve, heal, and write. I rented a garden apartment in this small, obscure town, basing my choice solely on the fact that the landlord was a jazz musician who referred to himself in third person as “Sattan from Manhattan.”
In an attempt to make a living, I conjured up an extravagant plan that would rocket-launch my writing career and catapult me into fame and stardom. I had already had a few children’s books published, but now I was going to focus on a new humorous memoir about dating. Lord knows I had enough experience. I had spent years primping, plotting, and, yes, even praying, driven toward the one unequivocal goal of marrying and procreating. The thought of being an “old” bride was more than I could bear.
My family and my Jewish community had pressured me into getting married for so long, I wasn’t even sure if I was doing this for them or for myself. All I knew was I had put so much thought into seducing my future husband and father of my child that I had enough material to write a book titled The Ten-Second Seduction. The premise was that when you meet a man, you know within ten seconds whether or not you feel that electrifying zing—the one that says you must absolutely see that person again . . . naked. Ten seconds doesn’t sound like a lot, but I was efficient. Every chapter would be named after a single identifying characteristic of a man I had dated. There was, for example, Mr. Spirituality, who thought sex could only happen on a higher spiritual plane. (I didn’t have that kind of time to learn to levitate.) Then of course there was Dr. Broccoli, who had an unnatural fear of the vegetable, Motorcycle Man, Military Man, Green Underwear Guy . . . The list was long. My plan was to transform myself into the comic seduction expert of Ulster County.
Every writer has their props. Sometimes it’s a much-loved teacup or books about writing, a special pen, or a poster with a meaningful quote. Mine was a faux diamond–studded tiara.
I’d whip that baby out of its box, place it on my head, and begin crafting my prose.
Overall, things were going well, and after a year of adjusting to life in a small town, though I was barely making it from one paycheck to the next from freelance-writing gigs, I was building a life for myself.
I would like to say that I was so engaged with my writing I forgot to eat for days at a time, but the truth was, I had a bad habit of spending the little money I had on books and shoes rather than on decent food. It had gotten to a point where I was eating Cheerios sandwiches on white bread with Russian dressing for breakfast. One morning, as I sat in front of my computer, I stopped and looked at my sandwich, Russian dressing dripping down the side of my wrist. A half hour later I was standing over a row of fruit in the produce section of the grocery store when a tall, muscular man wearing a baseball cap appeared to my right.
“You don’t want those grapes,” he said, picking out his own.
“No?” I was intrigued. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the curve of his bicep and his long limbs. I stood up straighter and hoped to God I didn’t have Russian dressing stains on my sweater.
“They’re rotten. You can tell by the dried-up stems.”
I scanned the vegetable section to make sure this man didn’t have a wife standing over by the asparagus, and then I tilted my head toward him. Our eyes connected for a split second. I smiled. And then he pushed his cart off in the direction of the dairy aisle. My gaze fell on his broad shoulders and his blue T-shirt clinging to his delicious trapezius muscles. It took restraint, but I did not run up behind him, jump on his back, wrap my arms around his chest, and bite the flesh just below his neck.I scanned the vegetable section to make sure this man didn’t have a wife standing over by the asparagus.
It was complete infatuation at first sight; clearly the man had just saved me from consuming bad fruit and dying from some, well, bad fruit disease. I owed him everything. I know. The produce section. How cliché. This was so going in The Ten-Second Seduction: Produce Man.
As fate would have it, I met up with him once again in the tomato sauce aisle. This time I was prepared.
“Arrabiata or Alfredo?” I asked.
“Depends what you’re making. Don’t spend too much, but don’t sacrifice quality.” He reached over and grabbed a jar of sauce to examine the ingredients.
I nearly swooned.
We discussed the merits of pasta sauce until the conversation turned personal. He lived in the Bronx but was upstate visiting his ailing father, which explained the older man with a bandage around his head circling the aisle with a shopping cart. The third time his father came around, grazing his cart into Produce Man’s heels, he told me he was sorry but he had to go, and he asked for my contact information.
We emailed back and forth for about two weeks—this was before texting—and I learned that Produce Man worked for a hedge fund in New York City but often came upstate on the weekends to stay with his father. When I mentioned I had just purchased new hiking boots, he asked if I’d like to join him for a day in the Catskill Mountains. I wasn’t sure I wanted to head into the woods with a complete stranger, so I suggested we meet in a public place—the mall. I hadn’t met a boy at the mall since I was sixteen.
My very first date with Produce Man landed on the second anniversary of my father’s death. I took this as a sign that my father had sent him from the heavens and it was bashert, the Jewish term for “destiny.”When I finally saw the fruits of our labor in the tiny budding sprouts of kale and radish, I knew our relationship had catapulted to the next level.
We had planned dinner and a movie. No grand gestures here, but I was surprisingly content with this. We never made it to the movie, instead talking well into the evening. He was soft-spoken and refined and looked no older than twenty-five, even though he was in his thirties. He told me that after college he had lived in Brazil, competing professionally as a jiu-jitsu fighter, and then went back to school years later to get a master’s of science with a focus in chemistry from Columbia University. He wasn’t Jewish, but he lived with someone who was—a wealthy elderly woman in Riverdale who had rented him a room in her mansion in exchange for errands and the security of having another human being in the house.
“You keep kosher?” I asked when he told me they often ate meals together.
“Rent in the city is pretty steep. Small price to pay.”
“And being kosher is no problem for you?”
“Nope.” He was a man of few words, but that was okay because I had so much to say.
“I’ve never met a kosher Christian before.”
“You have now.”
By the end of the evening, this beautiful man was sitting in front of me practically reciting the laws of kashrus. Not only that, he was already used to taking care of a little old Jewish lady. One day I would be a little old Jewish lady!
Sitting in his own car as he watched me settle into mine, he leaned out the window resting his chin on crossed arms, smiling at me with his boyish grin. I drove away thinking, Quiet, maybe, but I bet I could make him talk.
By our third date, though he swears it was our second, I had invited him into my apartment. Within moments we were sliding across the length of the kitchen counter, knocking over cups, unaware of the paper towel roll unraveling across the floor, my legs wrapped around his strong body as he hoisted me up to eye level. I playfully bit his lip. This guy was reserved, but I could see a passion simmering beneath the surface.
“Would you like a drink?” I said, and then shimmied out from under him, hiding my flushed face in the refrigerator as I pretended to rummage around for a beer.
That was when I began referring to Produce Man by his real name, Chris. I even allowed myself to entertain the slightest possibility that perhaps my book The Ten-Second Seduction would culminate in one resounding, triumphant chapter where I had found “him” at last.
And so I had.
Spring arrived and we planted a huge garden in the backyard of Chris’s family home in Accord, New York, a forty-minute drive from Saugerties. His father had succumbed to leukemia, and Chris had inherited the old dairy farm nestled in the woods. When Chris was young, his parents divorced, so he had never lived on the farm, but since it had been in his family for generations, he had spent many weekends and holidays there. Now he was brimming with plans to make it his own.
The house was sturdy but needed tlc. We began by building a garden fence—that is, I told Chris where I thought the posts should go and picked out the size of the chicken wire. Then I went to the local hardware store and bought seeds based on the colors of the packaging.
“How do these work?” I said mostly to myself, ripping open a packet. Chris was busy digging out a stubborn root.
“Horseradish,” he said, holding up his victory prize.
“Horseradish is red. That would not be on my Seder plate.”
“Add beets.” He tossed the muddy, twisted root at me. I stepped back, watching it land at my feet.
“I’m not touching that.” I nudged the top of it with my foot. Chris bent over and picked it up.
“Good stuff.” He dangled it in front of me, the piquant odor driving into my nostrils.
This was a root vegetable on steroids. Chris went back to digging and I went back to breathing and reading my seed packets. I refused to admit my lack of expertise when it came to planting seeds, so I began just sprinkling them all over the place, hoping he didn’t notice.
The more delicate ones didn’t make it, but weeks later, when I finally saw the fruits of our labor in the tiny budding sprouts of kale and radish, I knew our relationship had catapulted to the next level. If you plant a garden with someone, you are basically saying to that person that you plan to be around to share the bounty.
Chris was still spending weekdays in the city, and I loved that I could visit him there. We went to Broadway shows together and strolled around SoHo. He took me on shopping sprees along Fifth Avenue, buying me purses and books, and we checked out hot new restaurants. At the end of each date, before jumping on the subway, we’d find a park bench in Union Square and people-watch.
I’d never dated a man who could work a chain saw and ride a tractor, all while explaining quantum mechanics. He dropped money like he had plenty of it, but wasn’t wasteful, and he was introducing me to haute cuisine, which was vastly different from Cheerios sandwiches with Russian dressing. He was sexy and exotic. I knew he must have flaws, but I didn’t want to see them just yet.
Back on the farm, aptly named Cricket Hill, we’d sit outside on rickety metal rocking chairs late at night, gazing at the stars. With the cacophonous chirping of crickets and cicadas, the howling coyotes and hooting owls, I thought it odd that the country was considered a place for quiet contemplation.
“So, what is it you like about me, anyway?” I asked one night. He paused a moment. “You talk a lot.”
“People don’t usually consider that a good quality.” What about my blue eyes, my sparkling wit?
“I don’t know. I’m pretty quiet. It’s good to have someone fill the silence.”
“Anything else?” My golden hair? My thirst for knowledge? My ass?
“You’re a spitfire. You moved up here all by yourself without knowing anyone. That’s pretty brave.”
Nobody had ever complimented me for speaking my mind and being courageous. This was big. I wondered if he would always feel this way.
Cricket Hill was made up of acres and acres of lush green land, and that night Chris promised to build me a castle, one with a tower, so I could lean out the window and call to him.
It was fun, silly talk, but somehow, in the haze of this affair, I believed it. We talked about our future and how many children we were going to have. “Six for me,” I said, and though I could see the look of shock flit across his face, he simply replied, “We’ll talk about it.”
Late Sunday evenings Chris escorted me to my car and we lingered in the driveway, kissing and chatting, before he headed back to the city and I returned to my little apartment in Saugerties.
Around this time, it was becoming more difficult to sustain myself on my writer’s salary, and although I had almost finished the first draft of The Ten-Second Seduction, I was only just starting to contact agents and publishing houses. I also had a moral dilemma now. It was one thing for Chris to date a yet-to-be- revealed self-proclaimed comic seduction expert, but would he want the whole world to read about her previous exploits? Perhaps it was time for me to hang up my tiara. I would holdoff sending out any more queries.
Though I longed for Chris during the week, and money was tight, the real problem was centipedes. They were taking over my apartment. One morning, as Chris and I sat on my steps soaking in the unseasonably warm November sun, I mentioned I was thinking about going home to Brooklyn to find an office job. You know, because there are no vermin in Brooklyn.
“I need to make more money. I’m signing the lease over to the centipedes.”
“Don’t let the centipedes win.”
“This isn’t just about the centipedes. I’m done here. I mean, not with you. I like you. Just with this apartment.” It was half bluff, but we’d been dating for about a year, and it was time to make a move. Chris had this mostly empty house, and I was always there anyway. So after long discussions about arthropods and our future, we decided to both move into the farmhouse full time.
Chris became animated as we planned the details; he hated the soulless hedge fund work. He would quit his job and look for employment upstate. Maybe he would invest in a small business, something he had always wanted to do. We spoke tentatively, excited about putting down roots. My father’s voice echoed in my head: “Try not to screw this one up, would ya?”
My old ’94 champagne Honda was packed to the hilt as I drove down the desolate country road that led to Cricket Hill. Like many New Yorkers raised on mass transit, I mistrusted my driving abilities. But it was with pride that I claimed this as my road, my home, my new life. It didn’t matter that the house was dusty and old, that it was filled with generations of furniture and bric-a-brac. I loved the house for its character, for the future it represented, and I marveled at the view of the rocky blue Shawangunk Ridge.
Saugerties had been a booming metropolis compared to Accord. There, I could walk to a small grocery store and a coffee shop; here, the only thing within walking distance was the mailbox across the road. But on the afternoon I moved my belongings into the house, I stood on the deck overlooking the huge three-level field and saw endless possibilities for swing sets, swimming pools, farm animals, and boisterous family gatherings. We quickly fell into a domestic routine, and on Sundays, after stacking wood, weeding, and beginning the long, arduous process of putting the gardens to bed in preparation for winter, we drove around the county looking for llama and alpaca owners to see if owning them was a feasible idea (there turned out to be only one, so we stalked him until he agreed to talk to us). I took this as a sign that a marriage proposal was imminent.
It is a fact that if you are looking to raise llamas with another person, you are seriously considering a lifelong commitment to each other. These animals can live over twenty years. You do not want to battle in court over the custody of a llama.
When I mentioned what my weekends were like to my closest childhood friend, Rachel, she amped up her displeasure about my relationship.
“I don’t like that you’re living together,” she said bluntly.
“It’s okay. I’m hoping to get engaged soon,” I replied, thinking that was the issue.
“Oh,” she said.
I had dated non-Jews ever since I was a teenager, and it had been a sore subject. Upon having my first kiss at fourteen, I ran home to call Rachel with the details, and though she was interested, she prefaced her inquiries with whether or not the boy was Jewish. But now we were talking high-stakes lifetime commitment.
“I really love this guy.”
“You can really love a Jew just as easily. You have an obligation to marry within your religion.”
This was true for Rachel, since as an Orthodox Jew, if you marry outside your religion, your community disowns you. I couldn’t even pretend Christopher was Jewish. He had the word “Christ” in his name, for crying out loud.
“Aileen, if you marry him, I won’t come to your wedding.” I had been a bridesmaid in Rachel’s wedding, and though I figured she probably wouldn’t be standing at my chuppah, it hadn’t occurred to me that she wouldn’t even show up. I knew that once Rachel threw down the gauntlet, many of my other Orthodox friends would follow suit.
I was in love and happy, but Rachel could not see the beauty in it. To her it was as if I had poisoned somebody or committed murder, but all I had done was open my heart. I was making a choice, and I chose love.A chance encounter, a fairy-tale romance, and a Great Gatsby-style wedding, and I was on my way to baby-making bliss.
Fortunately, I had one friend who stood by me. If there were ever a male version of myself, Watson was it. We’d met years before in a creative writing class at Brooklyn College taught by a professor who was always drunk by 10 am. Watson’s real name was Ed, but our teacher had a penchant for Sherlock Holmes references. I looked over at Ed one day and decided to change his name. We spent hours talking about writing, life, and of course how bad our professor was and, in the process, became lifelong friends. He was married now, two kids, nice house in the suburbs, but none of that had dulled his sharp-witted tongue.
So when I told Watson, who was also a Conservative Jew, about Rachel’s reaction, he said, “This Chris person, do you love him?”
“Of course I love him.”
“Every time you meet someone you tell me you’re in love. What’s so great about this one?”
“Well, he’s . . . kind.”
“He’s kind? What bullshit is that?”
“No, really kind. And he fixes things. And he’s smart, but humble. Plus, he said we could get a puppy. I’ve always wanted a puppy.”
“But that’s the thing! There’s no drama. I’m sick of so much upheaval. I quit my job to become a freelancer, which is really stressful by the way, because apparently I like eating more than I thought; my father’s dead; my mother and I drive each other bonkers. Chris offers me solace. He’s funny, too. Other people can’t read him, but I can. They ask me, ‘What does Chris think?’ Or, ‘What does Chris want?’ But no one will ask him because he’s so quiet and also maybe because he can kill you with some fancy one-fingered jiu-jitsu. I like that. He shows this stoic side to the world and saves his heart for me. He provides me with peace and protects my solitude.”
“Okay, I’m vomiting. But that’s what I wanted you to hear yourself say.”
“So, how do I give up Rachel and a whole community of people I really like?”
“Look, I don’t know what your definition of a true friend is, but my friends want what’s best for me, not what’s best for them.”
I knew Watson was onto something, but a part of me felt that pleasing Rachel also meant pleasing God, as if she were middle management.
So I did what any self-respecting Jewish girl would do when she is thinking of finally getting married. I called my mother.
“Will you keep kosher?” She had stumped me with the first question. I always assumed I’d keep a kosher home, but I had yet to discuss it with Chris.
“I guess that’s a conversation Chris and I still need to have.”
“Well, he’s not Jewish, but what is he exactly?” She knew I was getting serious with Chris but had saved up her pressing questions until now in case he turned out not to be the one.
“What are his parents?”
“Don’t know. His dad spoke Germ—I think his family were Austrian farmers.”
“You’re dating a German?”
“He’s not German. He’s Austrian.”
“How do you know? They moved the borders every other day. One day you’re Austrian, the next day you’re calling yourself the Führer and killing an entire population. You couldn’t date an Italian?”
“Because Mussolini was so nice to the Jews, Ma? The war is over. His family came here to escape the Nazis. He’s never even been to Germany.”
“Well, I’d like to meet him.”
“So, does this mean you’re okay with me marrying someone who’s not Jewish?”
“Does this mean you’re going to let me meet him?”
“Maybe I should get the ring first.”
“Listen, of course I want you to marry a Jew,” she said. “But more important, you should get married. And you should be happy. What would your father say?”
“Well, Chris has a lot of patience, and I’m pretty sure Dad would think that was a requirement to marry me.” I believed that in some cosmic way he had chosen Chris.
“Will your kids be Jewish?” She’d given up on my salvation but figured she could try again with the next generation.
“It’s not like I’m giving up Judaism.”
“As long as your kids are Jewish and you love him, it’ll be fine.”
Between Watson and my mother, I had my answer. Now, if only Chris would ask the question.
A few months later, Chris and I were visiting the Saugerties Lighthouse when he sat down on a cornerstone and pulled me onto his lap. It was a cloudless August day, and together we gazed upon the horizon, listening to the sound of water crest gently over the shoreline. He turned me to face him, and I could feel his body tense and then relax. It’s one of those moments a girl remembers for the rest of her life. He looked into my eyes as I held my breath and said, “Stacy, will you marry me?” I paused only for a brief moment. I didn’t know who this Stacy chick was, but I really wanted to get married, and the sparkle on the ring Chris had just pulled out of his pocket was bouncing off the blazing summer sun like a kaleidoscope. Just a quick glance and I could see right away: platinum band, one carat, round, near flawless. In other words, a really nice rock.
“Did you want to maybe rephrase that question?”
He asked again, using my correct name this time. It would be a better story to say that I never did find out who this Stacy person was, though it would also be really disturbing, but Stacy is my middle name, and Chris, it turned out, had planned to say my whole name, but being so nervous, he got ahead of himself.
Stacy is also the name of one of my good friends, but I prefer to stick to the former explanation for my own mental health. We set the date for the following May. Chris had no qualms about incorporating Jewish tradition, as long as all he had to do was show up. I had everything under control. Not surprising since I’d been planning this wedding since I was four years old. The only hitch was finding a bona fide rabbi who would perform an interfaith marriage. I turned to the one person who had an underground network that ran across the entire United States, through parts of Europe, and directly into the Holy Land. My mother set off in hot pursuit, and two days later I had a name.
“So what do you like about one another?” the rabbi asked us as we sat in the living room of his 18th-century restored farmhouse, a two-hour drive away. Chris looked at me. “She has a beautiful smile. It was the first thing I noticed. Plus, she smells like a peach.” It was really St. Ives jojoba conditioner, but who was I to correct him?
Then it was my turn. I had my answer ready. “He’s kind,” I said. Chris rolled his eyes. The rabbi tilted his head, waiting for more. Why does this answer always elicit the same response? Is it so wrong that I just want someone to be nice to me? “And he’s intelligent and patient,” I added.
We were all set to sign on the dotted line—until he told us his fee, saying, “I’ve done weddings for free for a variety of reasons, but you two are intermarrying.” I was being swindled for marrying a Gentile, but we were out of options, so I cut the check.
On the day of the wedding, as my mother took my arm to walk me down the aisle, a slight breeze lifted my veil and I heard my father’s voice: “You’ve got this.” I could almost see his unruly hair neatly combed to one side. He would have been as nervous as I was. I imagined that before leaving me halfway down the aisle for my groom to take me to the chuppah, my father would flash his crooked smile, lingering for a second too long, not entirely sure he was ready to let go. And then, to make me laugh, he’d whisper, “Don’t shtup too much tonight. Remember, you’re still my little girl.”
I placed the ring on my groom’s index finger, as is tradition. On the inside of his band I had inscribed: “Guardian of My Solitude.” Then it was his turn. Inside my band he had engraved: “Forever Your Smile.”
He smashed the glass and we danced the rest of the night to a fourteen-piece swing band. When he carried me over the threshold to our bridal suite and threw me on the bed, I fanned out my silk wedding dress, poofed up my veil, and embraced the joyful satisfaction that swept over me.
A chance encounter, a fairy-tale romance, and a Great Gatsby-style wedding, and I was on my way to baby-making bliss. Even if The Ten-Second Seduction never saw the light of day, it had already fulfilled its goal as a self-help book for at least one person.
This excerpt has been adapted from Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir, available now from University of Nebraska Press.