The story Bernie never tired of telling was that my little brother, Barry, lost his shoes at the beach and asked him, a stranger, to carry him home. Bernie carried my barefoot bro all the way home on his shoulders. With me walking beside them, our shadows on the sidewalk became a shifting triangle, curly-topped.
The part that Bernie didn’t add was that my brother had no brother, just three sisters. Since my father was always at his grocery store, Bernie became the male in Barry’s life. He took Barry to the ballfield and played catch with him. He included Barry in a lot of our outings without any complaint. Barry became so attached to Bernie that our first Valentine’s Day, he cried when Bernie didn’t give him a valentine, too.
Bernie, coming home from college at Columbia Pharmacy, got off the subway at a stop that would require quite a walk to his house because he was hoping he’d see me outside walking my dog, Topsy.
I can still see myself sitting on the carpeted steps of my parents’ home, the coiled wire of the black wall phone coming through the banister to talk with Bernie. He called me at least once a day, sometimes more. Often, we were just sat quiet, listening to each other breathe until someone yelled, “Get off the phone already, why don’t you?”
Bernie shot up a whole foot in the year after his bar mitzvah and it took him a long time to realize where his body ended in relation to what was around him. Whenever he came to visit me, he was so eager to see me that he’d dash into the hallway, forgetting my mother’s chandelier. Crystals shattered on the tile floor.
“That chandelier is from Czechoslovakia,” my mother would cry. “The Commies took over the factory. I’ll never be able to get more.”
Knowing that I was deeply invested in art, Bernie, who knew nothing about art, began taking art books out of the library and studying them to have more in common with me. It was Bernie who looked through the Times each week to find what was showing in museums and galleries. I would watch him stand in front of a painting, staring at it with as much concentration as he watched the Yankees play.
As a small boy, Bernie showed his lifelong taste for adventure. While his mother, Relly, was battening down the hatches in their apartment in Wavecrest by the sea, she looked out her window and saw Bernie at seven leading his four-year-old brother, Bobby, by the hand to watch the storm come in. She ran out of the apartment, shouting their names. When she got them home, she gave Bernie a talking-to that rattled him like the wind on their windows.
Once when we were dating, we were at the beach when the sky darkened, and the birds began flapping madly away.
“A storm’s coming,” I shouted, but Bernie refused to leave.
The wind came on so strong that it lifted me inches from the sand. Bernie grabbed my hands and hung onto me and I knew then he would always hold onto me.
And he proved it. When we were engaged, we had a big argument. I can’t recall what it was about, but I do remember that I threw my engagement ring at him and told him I never wanted to see him again. I wouldn’t answer the phone when he called. I told my mother to turn him away at the door.
The next day, he drove to my college, Queens College, where it took at least an hour of circling Kissena Boulevard to get a parking spot. He stood on a footbridge overlooking the campus that was teeming with students, among them Simon & Garfunkel, and somehow, out of everyone milling along, he spotted me. He got down on one knee, proffering the ring, and asked, for the second time, “Will you marry me?” People stopped to watch. It was like a live romcom.
“Yes,” I said, and we were back in each other’s arms. The onlookers applauded.
Bernie always held my hand as we walked, my lifeline pressed against his. As we got older, people would call out to us, “Good to see you are still in love.”
And that love grew with the enjoyment of our grandchildren. Bernie would do anything to see them, drive in any weather, face any traffic snarls. And if you knew how Bernie drove, you would be astonished that we got there and back safely. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of a passenger in our rearview mirror, mouth hanging open with shock and covering their eyes. I learned to read while Bernie drove which helped our romance.
Bernie was the left side of my brain, my NorthStar. Where would we have gotten without him? In the days before the GPS, we wrote directions on paper. While we drove to the Storm King Art Center, Bernie said, “Where do we turn?”
I read, “broccoli, tuna, chicken wings, tomato sauce, cottage cheese…” and the rest of the shopping list that I hadn’t been able to find while we were shopping.
Whenever I misplaced something, which was always, all I had to do was say, “Bernie, where is…” And before he answered, I saw it.
We fit together like a hand in a glove. Now I wish I could ask him where my gloves are.