Dating Mike Epstein
Saturday afternoon, February, 1955. In front of the Gateway Restaurant, on State Highway 53, about halfway between Ribbing, Minnesota, and Duluth. My father and I wait for the Greyhound coming from Eveleth. It is bitter cold; that morning the temperature dipped to minus 40. The car is warm. My father and I listen to the radio; Kay Starr sings “Wheel of Fortune.” I have my overnight bag packed. In it, my navy silk dress with the white lace around the neck and the navy heels. I’m on my way to make expiation for growing up Jewish in a small mining town in northern Minnesota, on my way to Duluth to go out with Mike Epstein.
My Aunt Rose had arranged the date with Mike. She arranges all my dates. She likes to do this—it gives her a reason to call the most prominent families. She sees herself doing a mitzvah. Everyone agrees that unless I go out with Jewish boys when I’m young, I’ll never know how to marry one. (In Hibbing there are none my age suitable for practice.) It is thought to be like acquiring language. If you don’t learn how to do it during certain critical years, you’ll never catch up. I hate Mike Epstein. I hate Jewish boys. I hate leaving my friends for a Saturday night.
My father has taken me part way as an inducement. I know he is sorry. This is not his idea. It is his part of the bargain he made with my mother for not moving me to a big city so I could more easily learn how to get a Jewish husband. Every few minutes I jump out into the cold to see if I can spot the bus, since we are not at a scheduled stop. I finally see its lights through dimming day and swirling snow. Flag it down. Hug my father good-bye. As if they were sending me from Karlik to Minsk.
I’m 17, dark curly hair and blue eyes. Smart, too, though that is irrelevant. I am considered a good date for a Jewish boy from Duluth. There’s even something exotic about a girl from the “iron range.”
Aunt Rose picks me up from the bus depot, takes me to her house on Superior Street. I bathe and put on my navy-silk-dress-and-navy-heels costume (in Hibbing, I’d be wearing familiar clothes—crinolines, cinch belt, white bucks). Mike picks me up, makes small talk with Aunt Rose and Uncle Jack. He is good at small talk. You can tell— unlike Hibbing boys, he has never been in a fight, never fallen down drunk, never stolen anything, never played football. He takes my arm, leading me down the steps to his new Buick. All the Duluth Jewish boys drive new cars. Their immigrant fathers have made it big in “used metal.”
Mike takes me to the Flame Restaurant (as had his cousin, Billy, Jake Stein, Pete Diamond, Alan Freeman and all the others). It is where the Duluth Jews, young and old, go on Saturday night. The Flame is on the edge of Lake Superior. On one side of the dining room you can look into the black night, maybe see ore boats loading and unloading. On the other side, you can see a mirrored reflection of the same scene. The room is buzzing. A lot of people make points on the nights I show up. Aunt Rose, for showing her clout and connections, Mike Epstein’s parents for having their son show up with a comely Jewish girl, my parents (most everyone knew them—”Be sure to say hello to your dad for me, that Izzy, what a terrific guy”).
There is the steak dinner and dancing. I pray they won’t start again with the rumba and samba (in Hibbing we go crazy with the polka). The first time I heard this strange rhythm and watched these people bob madly around the dance floor, I was stunned. I had no idea what they were doing. They wouldn’t do anything like that in Hibbing. In fact, in Hibbing boys only asked a girl to dance for the last dance—they then got to take her home and kiss her, maybe more (unless she was Jewish).
Mike holds me close when we dance the slow ones. I hate the feel of his fine worsted suit. His clean-nailed hand in mine. I hate dancing. I miss my friends.
Later, on the way back to Aunt Rose’s, we park at Park Point overlooking Lake Superior. He puts his hand on my breast, tongue in my mouth. He is Jewish, I have no choice.
I am the bait. I am the bargain. The recompense for a long series of someone else’s mistakes—my grandfather ending up in northern Minnesota (tough old bastard); my mother, Iowa village girl not finding a big city boy she wanted to marry; my father for not moving away from Hibbing when I was 13 (he had promised, my mother told me).
The next day, I make the return trip by bus—through Eveleth, Virginia, Chisholm, finally Hibbing. My father picks me up. I call Joanne and Marsha to find out what great parties I missed the night before. Who got drunk and passed out, who started going steady. Did anyone ask about me?
That was my last such trip. Not long after, my father died and my mother got her wish; we moved away. I was back in Duluth last summer, the first time in decades, to bury my mother next to my father in Addas Israel cemetery. We went by the lake—the Flame is gone.
Diane Lutovich is a poet and a partner in a training and consulting firm. Before having this article printed in Lilith, her claim to fame was dancing at Bob Dylan’s bar mitzvah (born and bred in Hibbing, Minnesota).