The stories collected here span the years 1988 to 2002, during which time Lesléa Newman wrote six volumes of short stories: A Letter to Harvey Milk, Secrets, Every Woman's Dream, Out of the Closet and Nothing to Wear, Girls Will Be Girls and She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not. In Newman's prize-winning story "A Letter to Harvey Milk," Harry Weinberg, a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor, takes a writing class in which he unearths memories that force both him and his writing teacher, a Jewish lesbian, to see their lives differently. "Right Off the Bat" is a monologue by a 12-year old girl whose lesbian mothers have been gay-bashed. "Eggs McMenopause" tells the story of how a sleep-deprived butch finds a unique solution to the trials and tribulations of menopause. In "The Babka Sisters," a women's studies student interviews a nursing home resident and hears a tale the woman has never told anyone: the story of the girl she fell in love with in high school. And in "Mothers of Invention," a couple tests their relationship when one woman decides she wants to have a baby and the other woman does not. Newman's stories covers a dazzling array of themes pertaining to contem-porary lesbian life, including long-term relationships, one-night stands, family-of-origin angst, motherhood, friendships with gay men, AIDS, breast cancer, aging, loss and bisexuality. Many of these stories explore Jewish identity as well. Each story in this collection is told with Newman's trademark wit, honesty, talent and compassion.
Lesléa Newman's literary awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the -Massachusetts Artists Foundation. Six of herbooks have been Lambda Literary Award finalists. A native New Yorker, she currently lives in western Massachusetts.
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About the Author
Leslea Newman is the author of many children's books, including "Too Far Away to Touch" and "Thea's Throw." Her literary awards include the Highlights for Children Fiction Writing Award and a Parent's Choice silver medal.
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THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF Lesléa Newman
A Letter to Harvey Milk
The teacher says we should write about our life, everything that happened today. So nu, what's there to tell? Why should today be different than any other day? May 5, 1986. I get up, I have myself a coffee, a little cottage cheese, half an English muffin. I get dressed. I straighten out the house a little, nobody should drop by and see I'm such a slob. I go down to the Senior Center and see what's doing. I play a little cards, I have some lunch, a bagel with cheese. I read a sign in the cafeteria: writing class, 2:00. I think to myself, why not, something to pass the time. So at two o'clock I go in. The teacher says we should write about our life.
Listen, I want to say to this teacher, I.B. Singer I'm not. You think anybody cares what I did all day? Even my own children, may they live and be well, don't call. You think the whole world is waiting to hear what Harry Weinberg had for breakfast?
The teacher is young and nice. She says everybody has important things to say. Yeah, sure, when you're young, you believe things like that. She has short brown hair and big eyes, a nice figure, zaftig like my poor Fannie, may she rest in peace. She's wearing a Star of David around her neck, hanging from a purple string, that's nice. She gave us all notebooks and told us we're gonna write something every day, and if we want, we can even write at home. Who'd a thunk it-me, Harry Weinberg, seventy-seven years old, scribbling in a notebook like a schoolgirl. Why not, it passes the time.
So after the class I go to the store, I pick myself up a little orange juice, a few bagels, a nice piece of chicken, I shouldn't starve to death. I go up, I put on my slippers, I eat the chicken, I watch a little TV, I write in this notebook, I get ready for bed. Nu, for this somebody should give me a Pulitzer Prize?
Today the teacher tells us something about herself. She's a Jew, this we know from the Mogen David she wears around her neck. She tells us she wants to collect stories from old Jewish people, to preserve our history. Oy, such stories that I could tell her shouldn't be preserved by nobody. She tells us she's learning Yiddish. For what, I wonder. I can't figure this teacher out. She's young, she's pretty, she shouldn't be with the old people so much. I wonder is she married. She don't wear a ring. Her grandparents won't tell her stories, she says, and she's worried that the Jews her age won't know nothing about the culture, about life in the shtetls. Believe me, life in the shtetl is nothing worth knowing about. Hunger and more hunger. Better off we're here in America, the past is past.
Then she gives us our homework, the homework we write in the class, it's a little meshugeh, but all right. She wants us to write a letter to somebody from our past, somebody who's no longer with us. She reads us a letter a child wrote to Abraham Lincoln, like an example. Right away I see everybody's getting nervous. So I raise my hand. "Teacher," I say, "you can tell me maybe how to address such a letter? There's a few things I've wanted to ask my wife for a long time." Everybody laughs. Then they start to write.
I sit for a few minutes, thinking about Fannie, thinking about my sister Freida, my mother, my father, may they all rest in peace. But it's the strangest thing, the one I really want to write to is Harvey.
You had to go get yourself killed for being a faygeleh? You couldn't let somebody else have such a great honor? All right, all right, so you liked the boys, I wasn't wild about the idea. But I got used to it. I never said you wasn't welcome in my house, did I?
Nu, Harvey, you couldn't leave well enough alone? You had your own camera shop, your own business, what's bad? You couldn't keep still about the boys, you weren't satisfied until the whole world knew? Harvey Milk with the big ears and the big ideas, had to go make himself something, a big politician. I know, know, I said, "Harvey, make something of yourself. Don't be an old shmegeggie like me, Harry the butcher." So now I'm eating my words, and they stick in my throat like an old chicken bone.
It's a rotten world, Harvey, and rottener still without you in it. You know what happened to that momser, Dan White? They let him out of jail and he goes and kills himself so nobody else should have the pleasure. Now, you know me, Harvey, I'm not a violent man. In the old country, I saw things you shouldn't know from, things you couldn't imagine one person could do to another. But here in America, a man climbs through the window, kills the mayor of San Francisco, kills city supervisor Harvey Milk, and a couple years later he's out walking around on the street? This I never thought I'd see in my whole life. But from a country that kills the Rosenbergs, I should expect something different?
Harvey, you should be glad you wasn't around for the trial. I read about it in the papers. The lawyer, that son of a bitch, said Dan White ate too many Twinkies the night before he killed you, so his brain wasn't working right. Twinkies, nu, I ask you. My kids ate Twinkies when they was little, did they grow up to be murderers, God forbid? And now, since Twinkies are so dangerous, do they take them down from the shelves, somebody else shouldn't go a little crazy, climb through the windows and shoot somebody? No, they leave them there right next to the cupcakes and the doughnuts, to torture me every time I go to the store to pick up a few things, I shouldn't starve to death.
Harvey, I think I'm losing my mind. You know what I do every week? Every week I go to the store, I buy a bag of jellybeans for you, you should have something to nosh on when you come over, I remember what a sweet tooth you have. I put them in a jar on the table, in case you should come in with another crazy petition for me to sign. Sometimes I think you're gonna walk through my door and tell me it was just another meshugeh publicity stunt.
Harvey, now I'm gonna tell you something. The night you died, the whole city of San Francisco cried for you. Thirty thousand people marched in the street, I saw it on TV. Me, I didn't go down. I'm an old man, I don't walk so good, they said there might be riots. But no, there was no riots. Just people walking in the street, quiet, each one with a candle, until the street looked like the sky all lit up with a million stars. Old people, young people, black people, white people, Chinese people, you name it, they was there. I remember thinking, Harvey must be so proud, and then I remembered you was dead, and such a lump rose in my throat, like a grapefruit it was, and then the tears ran down my face like rain. Can you imagine, Harvey, an old man like me, sitting alone in his apartment, crying and carrying on like a baby? But it's the God's truth. Never did I carry on so in all my life.
And then all of a sudden I got mad. I yelled at the people on TV: For getting shot you made him into such a hero? You couldn't march for him when he was alive, he couldn't shep a little naches? But nu, what good does getting mad do, it only makes my pressure go up. So I took myself a pill, calmed myself down.
Then they made speeches for you, Harvey. The same people who called you a shmuck when you was alive, now you was dead, they was calling you a mensch. You were a mensch, Harvey, a mensch with a heart of gold. You were too good for this rotten world. They just weren't ready for you.
Today the teacher asks me to stay for a minute after class. Oy, what did I do wrong now, I wonder. Maybe she didn't like my letter to Harvey?
After the class she comes and sits down next to me. She's wearing purple pants and a white T-shirt. "Feh," I can just hear Fannie say. "God forbid she should wear a skirt? Show off her figure a little? The girls today dressing like boys and the boys dressing like girls, this I don't understand."
"Mr. Weinberg," she says.
"Call me Harry," I says.
"Okay, Harry," she says. "I really liked the letter you wrote to Harvey Milk. It was terrific, really. It meant a lot to me. It even made me cry."
I can't even believe my own ears. My letter to Harvey Milk made the teacher cry?
"You see, Harry," she says, "I'm gay too. And I don't know many Jewish people your age that are so open-minded. So your letter gave me lots of hope. In fact, I'd like to publish it."
Publish my letter? Again I couldn't believe my own ears. Who would want to read a letter from Harry Weinberg to Harvey Milk? No, I tell her. I'm too old for fame and glory. I like the writing class, it passes the time. But what I write is my own business. The teacher looks sad for a minute, like a cloud passes over her eyes. Then she says, "Tell me about Harvey Milk. How did you meet him? What was he like?" Nu, Harvey, you were a pain in the neck when you was alive, you're still a pain in the neck now that you're dead. Everybody only wants to hear about Harvey.
So I tell her. I tell her how I came into his camera shop one day with a roll of film from when I went to visit the grandchildren. How we started talking and I said, "Milk, that's not such a common name. Are you related to the Milks in Woodmere?" And so we found out we was practically neighbors forty years ago when the children was young, before we moved out here. Gracie was almost the same age as Harvey, a couple years older maybe, but they went to different schools. Still, Harvey leans across the counter and gives me such a hug, like I'm his own father.
I tell her more about Harvey, how he didn't believe there was a good kosher butcher in San Francisco, how he came to my shop just to see. But all the time I'm talking, I'm thinking to myself, no, it can't be true. Such a gorgeous girl like this goes with the girls, not with the boys? Such a shanda. Didn't God in His wisdom make a girl a girl and a boy a boy-boom they meet, boom they marry, boom they make babies, and that's the way it is? Harvey I loved like my own son, but this I could never understand. And nu, why was the teacher telling me this, it's my business who she sleeps with? She has some sadness in her eyes, this teacher. Believe me, I've known such sadness in my life, I can recognize it a hundred miles away. Maybe she's lonely. Maybe after class one day, I'll take her out for a coffee, we'll talk a little bit, I'll find out.
It's three o'clock in the morning, I can't sleep. So nu, here I am with this crazy notebook. Who am I kidding, maybe I think I'm Yitzhak Peretz? What would the children think to see their old father sitting up in his bathrobe with a cup of tea, scribbling in his notebook? Oy, my kinder, they should only live and be well and call their old father once in a while.
Fannie used to keep up with them. She could be such a nudge, my Fannie. "What's the matter, you're too good to call your old mother once in a while?" she'd yell into the phone. Then there'd be a pause. "Busy-shmizzie," she'd yell even louder. "Was I too busy to change your diapers? Was I too busy to put food into your mouth?" Oy, I haven't got the strength, but Fannie, could she yell and carry on.
You know, sometimes in the middle of the night I'll reach across the bed for Fannie's hand. Without even thinking, like my hand got a mind of its own, it creeps across the bed, looking for Fannie. After all this time, fourteen years she's been dead, but still, a man gets used to a few things. Forty-two years, the body don't forget. And my little Faigl had such hands, little hentelehs, tiny like a child's. But strong. Strong from kneading challah, from scrubbing clothes, from rubbing the children's backs to put them to sleep. My Fannie, she was so ashamed from those hands. After thirty-five years of marriage, when finally I could afford to buy her a diamond ring, she said no. She said it was too late already, she'd be ashamed. A girl needs nice hands to show off a diamond, her hands were already ruined, better yet buy a new stove.
Ruined? Feh. To me her hands were beautiful. Small, with veins running through them like rivers and cracks in the skin like the desert. A hundred times I've kicked myself for not buying Fannie that ring.
Today in the writing class the teacher read my notebook. Then she says I should make a poem about Fannie. "A poem," I says to her, "now Shakespeare you want I should be?" She says I have a good eye for detail. I says to her, "Excuse me, Teacher, you live with a woman for forty-two years, you start to notice a few things."
She helps me, we do it together, we write a poem called "Fannie's Hands."
Fannie's hands are two little birds
that fly into her lap.
Her veins are like rivers.
Her skin is cracked like the desert.
Her strong little hands
baked challah, scrubbed clothes
rubbed the children's backs
to put them to sleep.
Her strong little hands
and my big clumsy hands
fit together in the night
like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle
made in Heaven, by God.
So nu, who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? I read it to the class and such a fuss they made. "A regular Romeo," one of them says. "If only my husband, may he live and be well, would write such a poem for me," says another. I wish Fannie was still alive, I could read it to her. Even the teacher was happy, I could tell, but still, there was a ring of sadness around her eyes.
After the class I waited till everybody left, they shouldn't get the wrong idea, and I asked the teacher would she like to go get a coffee. "Nu, it's enough writing already," I says. "Come, let's have a little treat."
So we take a walk, it's a nice day. We find a diner, nothing fancy, but clean and quiet. I try to buy her a piece of cake, a sandwich maybe, but no, all she wants is coffee.
So we sit and talk a little. She wants to know about my childhood in the old country, she wants to know about the boat ride to America, she wants to know did my parents speak Yiddish when I was growing up. "Harry," she says to me, "when I hear old people talking Yiddish, it's like a love letter blowing in the wind.
Excerpted from THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF Lesléa Newman by Lesléa Newman Copyright © 2003 by Lesléa Newman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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