“Icebreaker” By Lila Rabinovich

Nathan had been expecting the call. Not necessarily today, at this hour, but sometime in the very near future. He knew his sister would lose her apartment, again, and would call him asking for help. It was a little dance they did on a regular basis, whenever she lost a home, or an appliance broke down, or her cellphone was stolen, or new medications were needed. The reason for the request for money varied but the routine was the same. There would be a phone call late at night, the warm-up small talk, the smooth pivot to heavier topics, the exasperated tale of undeserved woe, the request for a loan, the offense when initially denied. Sometimes, she would skip the small talk. Other times, there would be threats.

Miriam had lived in this apartment for a long time, almost six years, a record for her. At age seventy-one, six years was the longest she had lived in a single home in her entire adult life. But it was a rental, as all her other homes had been, and therefore inherently vulnerable to the whims of the landlords. In this case, the rental agreement had been oddly stable for a long time. But then, one night during a family dinner, Miriam mentioned that her landlord was thinking of selling the apartment. It was a large place with several small, dark rooms, a tiny kitchen, and a single bathroom. Its one selling point was a massive terraced balcony, which overlooked some ginkgo trees and the quiet street below. “I will miss the terrace,” she concluded at dinner, and then changed the subject.

No one prompted her further about this unwelcome news that night, but Nathan was anxious. He could sense what was coming. He worried and fretted and anticipated for days and days. When the phone rang that night at 11:00 p.m., he sighed almost with relief that the wait would now be over.

“Miriam.” He said into the phone in lieu of ‘hello.’

“Hi, Nathan. Did I wake you?”

Nathan sighed again. He expected he would do a lot of sighing during this phone call. “I was up.”

Miriam was quiet for a moment. Nathan could hear her tap rhythmically with a pen on a book, or possibly a table. He wondered if she was sitting up in bed, or on the ratty couch in the living room, perpetually covered in cat hair.

“My landlord, Mr. Hughes? Remember him? He lives in the building too, top floor, not quite what we would call a penthouse, but definitely the nicest apartment in the building from what I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few of the apartments over the years, you know, from befriending some neighbors and so forth…” Another pause. “Anyhow, Mr. Hughes is selling my apartment. Also, his own. Moving to the country. Just like that. I mean, OK, not quite just like that, he did tell me about a month ago of his plans, but to be honest I didn’t think he’d follow through. At our age, who wants to make a move of that magnitude?”

“You told us at dinner last week. About the apartment.”

Miriam tried to sound casual. “Oh yes, that’s right. I did mention it. Glad to see someone listens when I talk!”

Another sigh from Nathan.  “So, what’s your plan then?”

Nathan felt defeated even before any actual request or demand had been made. The weight of all the previous requests and demands suddenly materialized and felt heavy on his shoulders.

“My friend Maura, from bridge, she told me her ex-husband has a rental apartment I could probably take. It’s closer to you than my current place, so that’s a plus. One bus ride instead of two. This is what I think would be best for me. I called him already, turns out the current occupants may be leaving in the next couple of weeks, he’ll let me know.”

“That’s convenient.”

“Very. Now, he said I’d need to pay him two months’ rent in advance, of course. Standard practice, you may not remember since you’re a homeowner, not a renter!” Miriam forced a little chuckle that sounded resentful despite her best efforts. “The thing is, I won’t get back the deposit on the current apartment because of the damage the cats did on the floor and the walls. Which, if you ask me, is not altogether fair. That’s just normal wear and tear from having pets. Wouldn’t you say? But regardless.”

Nathan thought back to his childhood home, into which Miriam was in the habit of bringing stray cats and dogs of all sizes and dispositions. Their mother, a long-suffering homemaker with an erratically employed, mostly absent husband, had stopped trying to argue about the pets with her strong-willed daughter. One dog, a Shepherd-Labrador mix, had boundless energy and an extremely strong chewing imperative. In one night, he destroyed three pairs of shoes, the legs of two chairs, all of the cushions on the sofa, and a wicker hamper. In the morning, Miriam had looked at the devastation, then at her despairing mother, and said, coldly: “Well, this is what dogs do.” That same morning, Nathan dragged the dog to a quiet street corner a mile away, tied him up to a post, and left.


“Oh, yes, so I was hoping you could lend me the money. I’m a bit short, and I really don’t want to miss this chance.”

Nathan couldn’t hear the tapping of the pen anymore. “How much is it?”


“I don’t have that kind of money lying around.”

“Oh please.” Miriam’s tone swiftly shifted to bitter.

“I don’t… I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Nathan, when was the last time I asked for anything from you? When? When?” She raised her voice. Nathan did not want to answer this question. He didn’t want to sound as if he was keeping track. But he was. The last time was three months ago, he thought. I gave you $600 so you could go see your goddaughter in Memphis. A goddaughter you don’t even really like.

“Miriam, please, let’s not.”

“I will pay you back.”

“No, you won’t. But that’s not the problem. I just don’t have the money.”

“So, what am I supposed to do then? You know I don’t have that kind of money either. I have nothing!”

Miriam was on the verge of tears of indignation. Nathan knew she was right. She had nothing. No savings, no buffer for any kind of emergency at all. And no one other than him—no children or close friends—to ask for help. She had taken after their father in the worst possible way. Both had been unable to hold onto jobs for long and shared a total lack of interest in the finer points of retirement preparedness. Their father had died penniless. Miriam was trotting briskly towards a similar fate.

Nathan had struggled for long with the dilemma of his sister. As the gainfully employed, responsible sibling, it had fallen on him to aid her as the need arose. But the frequency and magnitude of this need grew in their older age. Nathan was not rich. He had some savings, but he also had two children he wanted to help financially from time to time. His sister was a burden, financially and emotionally, he no longer wanted to bear. But he was saddled with the knowledge that if not him, no one.

“I don’t know”

“I will be homeless, Nathan!”

“Miriam, I cannot give you $4,000.”

“You’re washing your hands off this problem. OK then. I’ll just… I’ll just…”

Nathan knew what she’d just.

“I’ll just hang myself. You won’t have to worry about me anymore.”

This threat, Nathan had heard before. The first time, many years earlier, had made him drive frantic across town at 2 a.m. in his pajamas, barefoot, to her house. The second time had made him fly back early from a vacation with his wife. The third time, he had stayed put for twenty-four hours, which took all his strength and willpower, then driven over. She was having tea in her kitchen, watching the afternoon soap on television. Subsequent times, with a knot in his stomach and a feeling of doom, he had ignored her.

“OK, go ahead, but you know what they say.”

Miriam took a moment to adjust to this turn in the conversation.

“What? Who? What do they say?”

“They say, if you hang yourself, your bowels may go loose and then when they find you you’re covered in your own shit, dripping down your legs and onto the floor. It doesn’t sound like a dignified way to go.”

Miriam was silent, which encouraged Nathan.

“Actually, this is true of a lot of methods of suicide. Pills? Shit yourself. Meth overdose? Shit yourself. Carbon monoxide poisoning? Shit yourself. Head in oven? I’m sure you can guess.”

Miriam smiled despite herself. Nathan couldn’t see it, but he knew.

“This is what I would recommend. You go to the metro station, wait for a train to come and then… No, forget that one. It’s terribly inconvenient for too many people, all the delays…”

Miriam exhaled loudly. A proxy for a chuckle.

“Well, anyhow, we’ll think about it. I’ll get back to you with some ideas in the next few days. You do the same.”

Nathan was spent from the conversation, from trying to maneuver his sister away from the threats and despair while at the same time not ceding to her request. This is how he felt every time. He wondered if this was what it felt like to captain an icebreaker in a frozen ocean, pushing heavily through sea ice, all arduous paths and difficult turns and uncertain outcomes. He wasn’t sure if his older sister was the ship or the ice.

“Miriam, we will work something out.”

He closed his eyes. A picture of his sister as a child of eight or nine formed in his mind. She was wearing shorts, a dirty blouse, sneakers without socks. Her knees were bloody and she had a scratch on her face as if a cat or a child with long nails had attacked her. Knowing Miriam, both were equally possible. She had lost the bow pulling her hair into a ponytail. Her hair fell matted onto her face and shoulders and she kept blowing it off angrily, her hands in tight little fists pressing against her thighs. Nathan had watched her come in from the street, slam doors behind her, and lock herself in her room. Now, the phone still against his ear, he shook with the recollection, so clear and pertinent. His sister as a walking wound of sorts, perpetually slamming doors behind her in frustration.

He never knew what, or whom, his sister had fought that day.


Lila Rabinovich is a public policy analyst who writes in her spare time. Her fiction has appeared in JellyFish Review. She grew up in Argentina and lived in England before settling in Alexandria, VA. She lives with her husband and three kids.

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