Birthday Ice Cream
Miriam had fancied Ismael since she was a little girl, eavesdropping on Pop’s meetings. He was the epitome of the perfect man—second only to Pop, of course. So handsome, with that curly black hair cascading over his expressive brows, and that well-manicured mustache. A rosy, smooth face that never showed a whisper of a beard. Those kind, laughing eyes. What if we’re going someplace where my school friends will see us? The thought excited her even more.
“Miriam, my little princess,” he crooned to her at the Levines’ threshold. “You are a glorious vision of womanhood. Good afternoon, Moishe, I shall guard your darling with all of my might. Never worry. We’ll go to Schrafft’s on Washington Street. We’ll be back by suppertime; although, Miriam will eat all the ice cream her heart desires, so she might not feel hungry at all.”
Miriam giggled at his exuberance. Gallant Ismael escorted her down the rickety steps of the tenement building as if they were on the ornate staircase at the Bijou Theatre.
“Schrafft’s has got the most luscious ice cream in all of Boston. Come, my girl, we’ll promenade together through the Common.” He entwined his arm in hers.
“I’ve looked into Schrafft’s windows when we go to the movies on Washington Street, but I’ve never been inside. Pop says it’s an ice cream parlor for the rich.”
“But you are rich today, my dear one. You’re rich in opportunity. Opportunity to be and do whatever you want. And now that you’re sixteen—sixteen! So grown up—you can do anything, anything that pleases you.”
They entered the colorful ice cream parlor, pink, red, and black in its decor. Little round tables with wire chairs filled the spacious room. Most of the tables boasted dressed-up young ladies flinging their crimson nails about as they jabbered.
Miriam strolled to the player piano while Ismael ordered at the counter. The piano was decorated with carved and painted panoramas of people eating ice cream all over the world. Where are these scenes? Miriam wondered.
They looked like the pictures in Mrs. Cabot’s house that Pop said were from the old country. But Mrs. Cabot’s pictures were dark and gloomy, whereas these were rainbow-hued and projected about half an inch from the background. She wished that she had a coin for the piano, but Ismael beckoned her as he received their two enormous ice cream extravaganzas on a bright pink tray from the costumed waitress.
Miriam dove into the sundae without even thanking Ismael. She elevated her little finger in imitation of the other young ladies. Her mouth watered as she tipped her spoon into the rich, creamy vanilla mixed with the most potent chocolate. The grated walnuts and mountain of whipped cream provided rare taste bud stimulation. It was scrumptious. As she swallowed each spoonful, she thought, I never want to be anywhere else but right here.
Two girls were sitting next to them. They seemed to be whispering and giggling about them, Miriam thought. She was momentarily embarrassed, feeling a bit like Henry VIII as she gorged herself on the sweet dessert. But, always enjoying people’s attention, she briefly gave them a spectacular smile.
She wanted to tell Ismael how luscious the ice cream sundae was. How grateful she was to be here. What a way to celebrate my day-after-birthday. Especially after yesterday. But he interrupted her reverie.
“You’re going to have a career, you tell me, not to be a traditional Jewish girl and kowtow to a husband, yes? Of course not, not for Miriam to be a conventional girl—to do what’s expected. No, indeed, not for you. So, tell me all about your dreams, my sweet. What do you propose to do after you graduate from Latin School—with exemplary honors, I presume?”
“I tried to tell Ma and Pop yesterday, on my big birthday. But Ma, she wouldn’t hear of it. You know, Ismael, how I love the theater, how Pop takes me almost every Saturday—sometimes even on Sundays too—to the Yiddish theater. It’s in my bones. The gorgeous palaces, the stage with all the lights, the music. Everything about the theater I’m in love with. I want to be an actress, a performer. More than anything in the world.”
“Whoa! You are serious, yes? And how do you propose to do such a thing, I ask?”
“I’m going to have a talk with my teacher, Miss Marbles. Maybe there’s a theater department at Radcliffe. But really, the best thing to do—this is what I know from the Peabody House people—is to go to New York City to be a performer, to be on stage like those beautiful girls with the long legs.” She noticed Ismael’s look. Is it disbelief?
“Yes, I know, my pop will be so disappointed. He’ll be afraid for my safety. And Ma, she’ll have apoplexy. I just have to stand a yard away from her when she hears about it, in case she hits me again.” Miriam didn’t mean to divulge all this. But now she’d blurted out her dream, the admission so long kept inside, waiting for the perfect moment. After an interminable pause, Ismael spoke.
“I’m pondering all this that you tell me, Miriam. I am. I’ve never met a girl like you—such aspirations. So unusual. New York? I’m twenty-six years old, I have a good job in a law firm. Even I never have set foot in New York City, even though I have people there, relatives I’ve never even met. It’s a big city—not so safe for a girl alone, I don’t believe. And perform on stage? Aren’t those dancing girls usually not so . . . not so . . . Well, this is a big piece of news for me to take in.”
“Do you believe in me, Ismael? Don’t you think I could do such a thing? I’ve dreamed about it since I was three or four, honestly. I’ve practiced every day—dance routines, singing like Fanny Brice. It’s just right for me. This is me!”
Ismael patted her arm, but he looked strained, even as he licked at his spoon, overflowing with vanilla ice cream. Miriam was apprehensive now. Will he try to dissuade me? Will he ridicule my passion? Maybe she oughtn’t to have confided in him.
The girls at the next table followed their conversation intently, leaning towards them, awaiting Ismael’s response. Ismael was deep in thought, it seemed, and oblivious to the young ladies. They looked away quickly when Miriam glanced at them.
Finally, Ismael said, “You say your ma, she didn’t take it so good.”
“I didn’t even get to tell them all this yet. Not about my future. Ma, she went crazy. She hit me for the first time in my life! I only told them that my teacher Miss Marbles wants me to audition for The Wizard of Oz, that her friend is directing next spring. She thinks I’d be terrific as Glinda, the Good Witch—do you remember The Wizard?”
“Yes, yes, of course, one of the most famous children’s stories. So, what’s wrong with that? Your ma, she’s not so happy in herself, I see that. Performing in a little children’s production maybe will give you a better idea of what it’s like to perform onstage. So, you’ll know more if you really want to do such a thing. Maybe it’s not so wonderful as you believe, Miriam. Who knows? I don’t know anything about the stage. I’ve been to the theater, even the movies, maybe five times in my life. So, who am I to advise you?”
“It’s not a ‘little children’s production,’ Ismael. It’s a real, grownup theater troupe that’ll perform down here, in a real theater. I’m going to audition next week. Do you think I can get the part? Do you?”
Ismael recovered his usual air of gaiety and his teasing manner. He squeezed her hands together as he bent close to her, almost touching her nose with his. She could smell that lovely, apricot cologne of his. The gesture and his wide smile, showing those straight, alabaster teeth, infatuated her once again.
“If anyone can realize her dreams, my darling, you can. I’m rooting for you. I’ll be there, right in the front row with your pop, gazing at you with adoration. As will the whole audience. I’m certain of it. You’ll be the sensation that you are right at this moment, with your enthusiasm for your future. I believe in you, I do, absolutely!”
One of the girls applauded, and then her face reddened and she said, “Sorry.” Miriam was so thrilled about Ismael’s response that she was generous in her acknowledgement of the apology. Well, an audience made the conversation even more real.
Someone put a coin in the player piano. It played “There Never Was a Girl Like You,” sung by Harry MacDonough, as Miriam and Ismael walked out, arm in arm. Ismael had given her a gift. He gave her the courage to face her parents again. To tell them of her dreams.
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