Fickle Grapes

Ann Tinkham

According to some, he was one of those Oreo guys—black on the outside, white on the inside. He was resilient, witty as hell, and played people well. Poverty had made him strong. She was a Jewish mainliner, neurotic, unmedicated (unlike most other Jewish mainliners), with chaotic hair, and a Jewish butt. Privilege had made her soft.

Her Jewish relatives made sure she never forgot those who perished in the concentration camps. They could be kibitzing at a deli, and Auschwitz would make its way in between the bagels and lox. She learned to carry her guilt in her tote bag. She could strike a guilty expression in two seconds flat. No one ever suspected that it was faux-guilt.

Rachel hadn’t yet told her parents that Thomas was black. They knew he wasn’t Jewish, which was bad enough. She had been programmed from conception that the only suitable boys were the Stewart Cohens, Bruce Bermans, and Ron Kleins of the world. Of course, she was never the least bit interested in the boys in her Hebrew class; she had always been drawn to boys and men of color. First, it was Ricky Alvarado, a Hispanic. Then it was Ethan Lee, a Chinese-American. Now, it was Thomas James, a man with two first names from North Philadelphia—a neighborhood like Harlem before its renaissance.

When her parents saw her fondness for boys of color, they pulled her out of her diversity-tolerant Friend’s school and put her in a Jewish school for girls. This gorging on all things Jewish made Rachel feel that if she added one more Jewish element to her life, she would die of a Judaic gluttony.

The truth, according to her grandmother, was that any boy who wasn’t Jewish was the enemy and would eventually side with the next Hitler of the world—because there was going to be one. Many Jews believed in the return of Hitler the way Christians believed in the rebirth of Christ. To Rachel, the lines between Hitler and the way Christians saw Jesus, were blurred. Rachel tried to remind her grandmother that Hitler was Aryan, not black or Hispanic. This didn’t seem to help. Every non-Jewish boy was a Hitler candidate. And any time Rachel dated a Hitler candidate, her grandmother sat anticipatory shiva, as though she were expecting Rachel’s imminent death.

Rachel had intended to tell her parents many times about Thomas—after her cousin’s bar mitzvah, after Seder dinner, at their family gathering at the Jersey shore, but there was never a good time. Her parents first approached the problem of the non-Jewish boyfriend by making innocuous suggestions. “You know, Danny Aaron is single again. I can set you up; just say the word,” her mother would say. When that didn’t work, they tried guilt. “Your Uncle Abraham, God rest his soul, would have wanted to see you with a nice Jewish boy.” Why “nice” and “Jewish boy” were always coupled, Rachel didn’t understand.

When all else failed, her parents tried scare tactics. “Rebecca Horowitz married a cockamamie WASP, who abducted the children during their divorce. They were found abandoned in the woods behind a trailer park in Alabama. A Jew would never do that. For God’s sake, a sane Jew would never set foot in Alabama.”

Rachel had had many conversations with herself—first motivational, then shaming, about breaking the news before the face-to-face meeting. She had let time slip through her fingers as she devised and rehearsed various angles. An angle would seem perfect, but would fall flat during the rehearsal. “Remember the song, Ebony and Ivory? Well, that’s like me and Thomas.” Nope, too cheesy, like the song, she thought.

Then Rachel imagined pairing race with comments about the Rendell Administration. “Thomas was the first African-American appointed to the Rendell administration.” Or perhaps this: “Thomas was the first black student from North Philly High to get a full scholarship to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy at Princeton.” Good angle, she’d slip it in among the accolades. She managed to tell her parents all his accomplishments, but she sidestepped the racial bomb dropping.

As Thomas and Rachel approached her parents’ door, she felt the sudden need for a panic attack dog. These were dogs that accompanied a person stricken by panic disorder. They would sense the oncoming panic attack and remove the panicking person from the scene. Where was her dog when she needed it?

If Rachel had let herself think rationally about the situation, she would have realized that Thomas was exactly the kind of man her parents had hoped she would find—accomplished, witty, cultured, and compassionate. But she was certain that her parents would object to the packaging. They always had a way of making her feel like she was doing the wrong thing; she never felt that they saw who she truly was. Around her parents, Rachel felt invisible.

Her father threw the door open.

“Dad, this is Thomas.” Rachel’s heart was skipping beats and racing simultaneously.

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you Thomas,” her dad said without a hitch.

“You as well. To finally meet you after all the great things I’ve heard is my pleasure.” Thomas was calm, using his most polished public policy persona.

“I’m sure the reviews have been mixed, knowing Rachel,” her father winked. “Hannah, they’re here,” he yelled down the hallway.

Rachel’s mom scurried toward the door with a potholder in hand. She greeted Rachel with a peck on the cheek and then said, “Where’s Thomas?” looking for another person beyond the landing.

“This is Thomas, mom.”

Her mother stared at Thomas, as though she could will him to change into the person she had imagined. She clumsily shifted her potholder from one hand to the other and reached out to shake his hand.

“It’s true. I’m Thomas. It is wonderful to finally meet you, Mrs. Frisch.”

“Oh, well, do come in.”

The foursome shifted and organized themselves awkwardly, the way people do when they’ve just met and questions are begging to be asked.

“So Rachel tells us that you worked for the Rendell administration. You know, he was Jewish. Don’t you?”

Oh no, here it comes, Rachel thought. The Jewish theme already.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I would like to see him become the first Jewish president of the United States.”

“Oh, wouldn’t that be a miracle? It’ll never happen in my lifetime. Americans would more sooner elect Arnold Schwarzenegger than a Jew. I still have to pinch myself when I think the Terminator is running Calyfornia,” her mother said, mocking Arnold’s thick German accent.

“No kidding. When I first heard he was running, I thought my friends were playing a joke on me.”

“When I first heard it, I thought I was having a senior moment. Like when my poor mother with advanced Alzheimer’s saw Reagan on the cover of Time magazine. She said, ‘What’s he doing on the cover? He’s a B-rate movie actor.'”

Thomas laughed a deep, hearty laugh. Rachel followed suit nervously.

“Mrs. Frisch, which do you think will be first: a Jewish, female, or African-American president?” The foursome laughed nervously. Rachel felt they were creeping into potentially dangerous territory. “I’d put my money on a woman.”

“How about some wine? Do we have any Californian pinot noir? It’s Thomas’s favorite.” Rachel whisked her mom away to the wine cellar to divert any potentially controversial subject threads—such as race, religion, or politics.

“Why didn’t you tell us, Rachel? Talk about putting us on the spot. You probably did this on purpose, so you wouldn’t get an earful. But surely he’s just transitional,” her mother chastised her as soon as they were out of earshot.

“Transitioning from what to what? From someone I like to someone you like?”

“From someone less suitable to someone more suitable.”

“To someone Jewish, you mean.”

“Or Anglo.”

“In a matter of minutes, you’ve expanded the acceptable dating pool from Jews to white men?”

“Mulatto children have such a difficult life.”

“Who said anything about children?”

“Well, I just think it would be easier all around for you to marry a Jew.”

“Easier for you, you mean.”

“I want what’s best for you.”

“You mean, you want what’s best for you to be what’s best for me… What’s best for me is Thomas.”

“You’re doing this to hurt us. Aren’t you?”

“God, mom. Why would I choose someone just to hurt you?”

“All I ever wanted was…”

“This isn’t about you. For once in your life, can’t you see that? Thomas is the first man I’ve ever really loved.”

Her mother disappeared into the back of the wine cellar. Rachel started to wonder if she would emerge again before the evening was over. She called out to Rachel, “What kind of wine did you say Thomas liked?”

“California pinot noir.” Rachel could hear her mother picking up bottles, looking at them, and then placing them back into their slots. Clink, silence, clatter. She must have considered a dozen bottles before finally selecting one. She re-emerged with two bottles and held them up for Rachel to see. Rachel nodded, but she didn’t know anything about wine, except for general categories, like merlot, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon. They ascended from the darkness without speaking.

Her mother presented the two bottles to Thomas, announcing, “Kistler Cuvee Catherine Vineyard Russian River 2002 and 1992.”

“Excellent,” said Thomas. He smiled and winked at Rachel, “Pinot noir is my favorite variety—even though it’s a fickle grape. It is sexy but temperamental and can be an unpredictable performer: it is difficult to grow, and is finicky about the climate it is grown in.”

“Yes, yes. A fickle grape. I like that! My favorite pinots come from the regions around Santa Barbara and the Russian River,” her mother added, while opening the 2002 bottle. She handed the cork to Thomas, who smelled it and nodded with approval. She poured his glass and waited for his reaction. He sipped, swished, and swallowed.

“Sublime, Mrs. Frisch.” His reaction dismantled her wrinkled brow expression; her face lit up.

“Don’t you think that once you’ve tasted a great pinot you’re hooked for life?”

Rachel felt an urgent need to escape, her blood still boiling from the cellar talk. With a tilt of her head toward the stairs, Rachel summoned Thomas upstairs to her childhood bedroom as Mrs. Frisch walked back into the kitchen to finish her dinner preparations.

“Are you okay, Rach? You seem tense. Your parents are charming.”

“Yeah, you should have seen the charming scene down in the wine cellar. My mom is freaked out about us. This is going to be a long evening.”

“Well, she must not be that freaked. That pinot goes for $300 and $400 a pop.”

“What? You’re kidding.”

“Nope, it’s top of the line.”

Rachel’s eyes widened with astonishment. Her mother didn’t part with her high-end bottles of wine easily. They only made their appearance on very special occasions, such as engagements, bar mitzvahs, and anniversaries. Rachel took Thomas’s hand, and together they descended the steps. Rachel breathed easily for what felt like the first time that night. She started to believe that she wasn’t going to have to make an impossible choice.

The pair re-entered the dining room as her mother was filling the wine glasses with the 1992 vintage, the higher-end bottle. Thomas took the chair next to Mrs. Frisch.

“Shouldn’t we let it breathe?” Rachel asked, glancing at her mother and then Thomas. “That’s about all I know about red wine—that it has to breathe.”

“Actually, in this case, no.” Thomas winked at Mrs. Frisch. “Some older wines become fragile with age and may release their spirit very quickly after the cork is popped.”

Rachel reached for her glass, ready for a swig.

“Ah, ah, Rachel. Not until we’ve had a toast,” her mother said with a twinkle in her eye. She was in her element when the focus was on her fine wine collection. Rachel pulled her hand back and shrunk into her seat.

“If you had a young wine, you’d want to let it breathe to make up for the oxidation that occurs with fine wines as they age in the cellar. When it comes to wine, there’s no substitute for aging.” Thomas explained as his eyes caught the sparkle of the liquid grapes in the crystal glasses.

Her mother looked up at Thomas with a knowing smile and then filled his glass half full, twisting the bottle so as not to lose a drop. He grasped the stem of the glass with his long fingers and held it up to the light to admire its ruby red color. He then swirled the wine in the glass to release the aroma.

“Go ahead, Thomas, give it a try.” Her mother couldn’t wait until the toast to have him sample one of the premiere bottles from her collection. Thomas swirled the wine once more and took a sip. He then took a slightly larger sip and aerated the wine in his mouth, making a slight slurping sound. Thomas closed his eyes and sat in silence, his fingers still wrapped around the stem. Rachel looked at her mother out of the corner of her eye. She was literally on the edge of her seat. The kitchen clock tick-tocked five times.

Thomas opened his eyes and said, “Soft, velvety, with a superb richness and depth. Like liquid silk.” Her mother’s face beamed, and then she leaned toward Thomas and touched his shoulder.

“Did you detect the black cherry?”

“Red berries and violets. What a brilliant finish.”

Rachel could have sworn that her mother almost clapped in glee. She rolled her eyes, embarrassed by her mother’s giddiness over the wine tasting with Thomas. No one noticed.

For once, Rachel didn’t care that she felt invisible.

“I live in Boulder, CO and am an instructional designer. I have written 30 online courses in business, medical, and safety topics. I am working on a nonfiction book, LESSONS FROM BAD GIRLS, and a novel, ANALYZING ABBEY. My short story, “The Era of Lanterns and Bells” will appear in an upcoming issue of Wild Violet.” E-mail: timmytink[at]

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