Challenge: Write a romance in 1,000 words or less, set in an aquarium, and include a jalapeño pepper. Result:
Synopsis A young couple, rebelling against the strict rules of their religious community, go on a date to the Warsaw Zoo in 1937. Despite the risk, they become engaged while visiting the aquarium exhibit.
Since it was imperative that no one in their community see them together, Malka and Shmuel decided to meet at the Warsaw Zoo. According to the secular Jewish newspaper Shmuel secretly read, an aquarium was the zoo’s newest exhibit. “It will be fun to see fish that will not become dinner,” he said. She added that if they saw anyone they knew, those people couldn’t report them without admitting they had been in a place that wasn’t halakhic. It would be perfect.
Malka’s heart thumped when she saw Shmuel at the entrance gate. Tall, with brown curly hair, sparse eyebrows, and a pointed nose, she could not imagine anyone more handsome. Only recently had he shaved off his bushy beard, and she yearned to run her fingertips over his naked chin. She flushed, then shook her head slightly, willing the impure thoughts out.
He noticed her and smiled. “Hello Malka,” he said, and his cheeks reddened. “You look lovely.”
She swooned. “I borrowed this dress from my friend,” she said. It was purple, with short sleeves and a scoop neck. Her mother would have a heart attack if she saw her dressed so immodestly.
Shyly, Shmuel took her hand. The heat from his sweaty palm seemed to run up her arm, spreading to her neck and chest. Malka tried to concentrate on the animals as they passed the Monkey House, Polar Bear Run, Hippopotamus House, Seal Pool, and Elephant House, but his skin against hers was distracting. They were Adam and Eve in a miniature garden of Eden. She smiled. He grinned back.
Finally, they reached the aquarium. It was dark and cool, with large tanks lining the walls. Another couple huddled at a display across the square room. Malka tiptoed to a glass façade filled with tiny blue fish. For a few minutes, she watched them swim to and fro as if they had no cares. “If only we could float away with them,” she said.
Shmuel looked at her with anxious eyes. “I don’t know how this will work,” he stammered, and her heart plunged to her feet. She should have known this was too good to go on. She closed her eyes and leaned against the glass. How could she go back to her previous life, now that she had seen the wider world and tasted love?
Shmuel continued, “I’ve been thinking… I don’t want to be without you, Malka. Ever. I’ve only known you for a year, but it has been the best year of my life. You make me look at the world in a new way.” She opened her eyes and blinked a few times to focus. From under his bangs, Shmuel stared at her. He took a deep breath. “I think we should get married.”
“Married?” Malka repeated. She was not sure she had heard him correctly.
His face fell. “I thought you’d be happy,” he said so quietly she strained to hear him.
Malka grabbed his hand. “Of course I’m happy! Here I thought you were going to end our relationship, but instead my wildest dreams have come true! Yes, of course I will marry you!”
Shmuel reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a small box. “An engagement present!”
Malka pulled the red velvet ribbon off the box. She would have loved to give it to her younger sister to wear in her hair, but of course everyone would demand to know where she got it. Why did things have to be so complicated? With an inaudible sigh, she stuffed it in her pocket and opened the box. Inside was a thin gold necklace with a small heart-shaped locket. She looked up at Shmuel, uncertain of what to say. No one had ever given her something so valuable. “It’s beautiful,” she said in a whisper. “Thank you.”
His head bobbed with excitement. “See, I wanted to get you something, but I knew no one could know about it until we figure out how to tell our families the good news. This is perfect because it will stay hidden under your blouse, close to your heart.”
Malka embraced him and kissed his cheek. She longed to kiss his lips, but the Hasid in her was too embarrassed. What if that couple saw them, even if they didn’t know who she was? She didn’t want anyone to think she had loose morals. It was sort of funny, when she thought about it. When they were married, she hoped she would feel free to show affection to him in public, just like other women she passed in the streets did with their men.
Shmuel was no less prudish, so he held her in his arms just a moment longer than he felt comfortable because this was a special occasion. They remained holding hands as the other couple approached to see the blue fish.
“Did you hear that Trotsky is in Mexico now?” the man said.
“No! What’s he doing there?” his companion replied.
He gestured at the tank. “Enjoying his freedom, watching colorful fish, eating spicy food, and plotting the defeat of Stalin with a jalapeño pepper,” he said. They laughed, then looked cautiously at Malka and Shmuel before hurrying out of the building.
“Baruch Hashem! It’ll be hard enough to explain our engagement as it is. All we need on top of this is to be arrested as communist conspirators,” Shmuel muttered.
“Think of it this way: We are beshert. If our families disown us, we can also flee to Mexico, enjoy our freedom, watch the fish, eat spicy food, and learn what this dangerous pepper is. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”
Shmuel squeezed her hand. “It could always be worse.”
Laughing, they moved from tank to tank in the aquarium, studying the fish. The details of their plan they would work out later. Now it was time to be happy together.