The Only Miracle
by Debra Ginsberg
Daniel was surprisingly hungry. He’d eaten a decent lunch—a sandwich with pickles and a side of slaw—and planned only a light supper but his stomach was twisting with desire for food at 5 PM and wouldn’t let up. It was the first night of Hanukah and the December sky was ablaze with the gold and scarlet sunset that only bad Los Angeles air can produce. In search of sustenance, Daniel found himself rambling aimlessly down La Cienega Blvd, another anomaly since he rarely walked to begin with and especially not on that street. Perhaps, then, given the already unusual circumstances of his unnatural hunger and decision to walk, it wasn’t so odd that he stumbled upon a diner he’d never seen before, wedged between a florist and a trendy bakery-slash-coffee-shop that appeared to specialize in toast.
Inside, the diner looked every bit the dream that one would conjure if one were called upon to create the perfect retro 1960s set. This being Los Angeles, that experience was not only common but almost expected. So it was with ease and a sudden release of tension that Daniel seated himself at the counter.
Much later he would wonder which he’d noticed first—her or the little menorah tucked away on a small shelf next to the coffee pot. In his memory, the two were always blended; the small flicker of light as she set a match to the first candle and her face as she turned to him afterwards. The same glow was present in both—the candle and her pretty eyes as she leaned forward slightly, the faded pink fabric of her uniform brushing the steel edge of the counter.
She smiled at him and said something that he assumed was a greeting but that he couldn’t make out over the sudden rush of blood in his ears. Only when she said, “I’m Jenny,” did he begin again to make out individual words.
“Jenny,” he said stupidly. “Is that your real name?”
What a thing to say! Daniel didn’t even know where such a thought had come from. But Jenny didn’t seem at all perturbed.
“Yes, of course it is,” she said and Daniel felt his face break into a ridiculous grin.
“I suppose you want a grilled cheese sandwich?” she asked. “Maybe some coffee?”
She tucked an auburn curl behind her ear and Daniel thought his heart might stop.
“Grilled cheese…” he repeated stupidly.
She pointed at his hand and only then did Daniel notice that he had somehow grasped a laminated card advertising the diner’s specialty grilled cheese sandwiches and was holding it in a death grip. “Right,” he said. “Grilled cheese it is.”
In the days to come, Daniel would try, unsuccessfully, to remember what the sandwich tasted like or even whether or not he’d eaten it. But that memory was to remain out of reach. What he would always remember, though, was the conversation. Because that was the first time they—he and Jenny—discussed miracles.
“I noticed you have a menorah back there,” he said. It was an idiotic gambit, but he knew immediately that Jenny was a forgiving sort so he allowed himself to appear conversationally clumsy.
“Ah,” she said, brightening, “it is. It’s probably some kind of fire code violation, but the owner doesn’t mind that I keep it here and light the candles. You’re the first person to notice it. Of course,” she added after a pause, “it’s only the first night.”
“Are you…” Daniel searched his cramped brain for the right words. “Are you religious?”
“Not at all,” she said. “But there is something irresistible about miracles. And Hanukkah is all about miracles, isn’t it?”
“Most religions allow for miracles,” Daniel said.
“Maybe,” Jenny said. “But there’s something special about this one. It’s because of the lights. The miracle of light. It sounds silly when I say it, but…” She looked over at the menorah where the two candles – the shamos and the candle marking the first night — burned on without so much as a flicker. “Do you believe in miracles?” she asked him.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “It depends on how you define ‘miracle.’ It’s a nice story, the oil burning for eight days and all that. And I do believe in the power of a good story to make people happy. But I think…”
“Maybe you think too much?” Jenny said, smiling sweetly.
“Maybe I do,” Daniel said. But he was thinking—already thinking, as it turned out—I could fall in love with you, Jenny.
What Daniel did not need to think about was whether to go back to the diner the next night. Something—was it superstition?—made him wait until the exact time he’d gone the previous evening and he set off again, on foot, pondering what he might order from Jenny, what he might say in fact, to make himself appear slightly less of an idiot than the previous night. As he approached the building, he felt a small shudder of fear. What if she wasn’t working? Irrationally, he decided that she must be. It was the second night of Hanukkah, after all, and who else would light the little menorah? Ridiculous, he told himself as he pulled open the door. To his almost knee-buckling relief, he saw Jenny standing behind the counter, the last rays of sunset turning her hair a shiny copper.
“You’re back!” she said as he parked himself in front of her. “Just in time. I was about to light the second candle.”
“I’m so glad,” Daniel said. And he meant it—possibly for the first time in his life. “Tonight I’m going to have pie,” he said. “I’ve decided.”
“What a wonderful idea,” Jenny said and reached for the menorah. “I’m glad you’re here,” she added, and fished a book of matches out of her apron pocket. “Let’s do this together.”
When Daniel arrived at the diner the following night, it was already dark and he was wound tight with anxiety. He felt sure that the deviation from what had, for him, already become a pattern that shaped the content of his day would mean that Jenny was either not working or, worse, wouldn’t be able to talk to him, or, worst of all, wouldn’t want to talk to him. His anxiety turned into a lead ball of fear in his gut when he walked in and seated himself at the counter. She wasn’t there. He turned his head. She wasn’t anywhere. Behind him, a few people sat scattered among the diner’s small tables. They’d clearly been waited on since there was food in front of them and they appeared to be eating it, but there was no waitress. No Jenny. Daniel was stunned by how bereft he felt. Staring straight ahead, trying to decide whether or not to wait or to leave, Daniel’s eyes found the coffee pot steaming with fresh coffee. And then, just next to it, almost hidden on that small shelf, the menorah, its third candle lit and burning steadily with the others. He slumped with the relief that flooded through his body. And when he was finally able to pull himself up again, she was standing in front of him, having appeared without a rustle or the slightest displacement of air.
“You’re here again,” she said, smiling. That beautiful smile of hers. “It’s a miracle. Ha ha!”
“Jenny…” Daniel said. He stopped, clasped his hands together in a gesture of thanks, and leaped off the cliff.
“I love you,” he said.
In the days and weeks and months that followed, Daniel would try very hard to reconstruct the conversations he and Jenny had that night and for the next four nights. Mostly what would come to him, though, were disconnected images and snatches of speech. Sometimes he could summon with perfect clarity the tilt of her chin as she looked at him straight on with her clear green eyes but not what she was saying when she did so. Sometimes he could hear only her smooth sweet voice telling him that he couldn’t possibly love her because love itself could not be known.
On the fifth night they argued, he remembered that much. It was the kind of argument only two people who have known each other for years could have. The kind of argument that contained sentences like, “Well, you always think of things that way…” But he could not remember the content of the argument. He remembered the candles—one more each night—but not lighting them. He remembered thinking at one point that as small as it was, the blazing menorah was going to set the diner on fire. He remembered begging her to come away with him but not the words that he used or even if he’d done something as dramatic as get down on his knees on the dirty black-and-white checked diner floor. He remembered thinking that he had lived a lifetime in those seven days, but like the memories of childhood, the specifics of that lifetime were a colorful but faded wash of hope, disappointment, light, shadow, and desire. Where the memory was clear to him—as if a film had finally come into focus—was on the night of the seventh day.
He was sitting in his usual place at the counter, an uneaten plate of french fries and a glass of water in front of him, and Jenny leaned so close to him that he could smell the faint scent of white flowers in her hair and see her pulse beneath the skin of her throat.
“Okay,” she said.
“Come back tomorrow and we will leave together, you and I. I’ll be waiting for you, Daniel.”
It took Daniel a full five minutes to respond. He felt as if everything he’d ever worked for in his life had led him to this moment. Finally, he managed to get out one word.
“Why?” he said.
“Because,” she said, placing her cool hand on top of his hot one, “I believe you.”
“I love you,” he said. Jenny smiled wryly and then Daniel said something that, within the next twenty-four hours, he would come to think of as his biggest regret.
“I’d call it a miracle,” he said, “but I’m still not convinced that they exist. This? This is close.”
Jenny gave a little sigh. “Tomorrow,” she said.
Maybe Daniel already knew what he would find when he ventured out on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah. There must have been at least a twinge of foreknowledge because as he walked, step by step down La Cienega Blvd., he could actually feel his heart grow heavier in his chest. The thumping weight of it slowed his pace so much that the walk took him twice as long as usual. So long, in fact, that he felt he had managed to wander off course despite his almost frantic desire to get to the one place he now knew he had belonged forever. But no, as Daniel looked around, he saw that he had arrived at the exact spot where he was supposed to be. The exact place where, every night for the past seven, the diner, Jenny, and her hopeful bright menorah had lit up the space surrounding them.
But there in front of Daniel stood not a diner but a large dirty wall that appeared to serve no purpose other than to monolithically destroy all of Daniel’s hope. He looked down, he looked up again. He turned around, walked a few paces back the way he’d come, and prayed that his eyes had somehow deceived him. But of course they hadn’t. No, Daniel thought. Forever no. He stared blankly through the hazy Los Angeles air until the tears that filled his eyes fell and his vision cleared enough for him to see that someone had taken a can of red spray paint to the wall. He read the words scrawled there and blinked once. And then again. Finally, after several minutes, Daniel turned away and walked home.
Behind him, the wall continued to broadcast its dripping red message.
It said, “Love is the only miracle.”