Hey! Today I have a really special treat: for the the Valentine’s Rewind Blog Hop, a bunch of authors are taking a look back at some of their favorite characters. This is one of the last stops on the blog hop, but if you need to catch up you can find the complete list of participating authors, and links to their stories, over at Tamsen Parker’s blog! Be sure to read and comment on each story for chance to win the grand prize package!
Today I’m checking in with my favorite activists, Ivan and Sofie, from Let It Shine in The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology! Here’s the blurb for their original story:
Sofronia Wallis knows that proper Black women don’t court trouble by upending the status quo, and they most certainly don’t associate with roughneck Jewish boxers like Ivan Friedman. But it’s 1961 and the Civil Rights movement is in full swing. Change—and love—are coming whether Sofie is ready or not.
Twelve years have gone by and Sofie and Ivan are still fighting for what they think is right—but at what cost to their marriage? I hope you enjoy catching up with them as much as I did.
No Valley Low
February 14, 1973
Ivan fought the monotonous lullaby of the Ford Falcon’s engine as the car rumbled through the invisible barrier that separated Shaker Heights from the other Cleveland neighborhoods. Fatigue was pushing at him from all sides, like a flurry of jabs while he was pinned up in the corner of the ring. Or maybe it was the bits of his past packed into boxes that clinked and rattled in the back seat that gave the car an oppressive air.
He cranked down the window down and let some of the icy winter air smack him in the face to revive him for this last stretch of his trip. He’d been driving for ten hours, through snow and over icy roads, leaving Richmond and the memories that had kept him company for the last three weeks in his rearview mirror.
His father was settled in his new wife, Mrs. Edelman, whose years of doting on the widower Friedman had finally led to a second chance at love for them both. Ivan was happy for his father, even if it still felt slightly uncomfortable, like he was being forced to wear a necktie to work. Ivan’s childhood home had been emptied of everything that connected him to it and put on the market.
So it goes, he thought.
The trip had been hard, but good. He’d had a chance to check in with Jack, his old boxing coach, who’d retired and now spent his time doting on his grandkids and bugging Ivan to open his own gym. He’d spent a few nights with his father in law, arguing politics and religion. He’d even helped his father around the shop like he had when he was a kid, and had the shock of his life when his dad asked him how he kept things going strong with Sofie.
“What with the look?” his father has asked, incredulous. “I haven’t been married since Eisenhower was in office.”
Ivan wasn’t sure he liked having his father ask him for advice instead of giving it unsolicited, but he’d rattled off some tripe about staying interested, about making sure to be there for your wife. Now he was heading home to Sofie, and he couldn’t stop wondering if he’d been describing the husband he was or the husband he wished he could be.
There had been distance between him and Sofie in the weeks leading up to his departure. Months if he was honest. A quick smooch in the hallway as she ran to emergency meetings at the Women for Women clinic. A note left on the kitchen table before he headed out to another rally anti-war rally. There’d been sex; satisfying, but more perfunctory than passionate. They’d just been too damn busy. At least that’s what he told himself.
But now the Peace Accords had been signed and the war was over. Roe v. Wade had meant a victory for women all over the US. Their battles were seemingly done, and they were left to face the unspoken thing they’d buried under newspaper, protest signs, and piles or paperwork over the last several months. Now they’d have to face each other without the padding of politics.
Maybe everything would be different now. In the past three weeks, the world had changed a hell of a lot. There was no reason that shouldn’t be the same when he stepped over the threshold into their home.
Under the noise of the engine, Ivan heard the familiar strains of guitar and reached for the radio’s volume knob just in time to catch Marvin’s smooth voice keen,
Ain’t no mountain high,
Ain’t no valley low,
Ain’t no river wide enough, baby.
Ivan felt a little tremor go through him when Tammi Terrel’s sweet voice countered with, If you need me, call me…
It was funny how life with Sofie had changed him. Back before he’d met her, the only music that’d mattered to him was the chime of ringside bells, the syncopated pummel of glove against skin. Now, he listened closely to the singers when a song came on. He caught the intake of breath before an explosive burst of sound. He traced the emotions that could be expressed by how many times a long note trembled. And now he knew what Sofie sounded like singing along to all the pop songs of a decade plus; listening without her wasn’t the same.
Sofie’s mood ring made a tinkling sound in the little receptacle below the radio as it rolled against some pennies. She’d taken it off after that trip to the doctor all those months ago, saying she didn’t need a damned ring to tell her how bad she felt.
Ivan turned the volume up a bit more.
You don’t have to worry, Tammi sang, her voice radiating comfort.
No matter how many times he heard the song, it always took him back to one moment in time. It was back in their first apartment together, the one Sofie had made bright and cheerful despite the occasional swastika or racial slur scrawled on their door. He’d come home after a bad day of sparring at the gym. His reflexes had been slow, his opponent faster. For the first time, the fact that maybe he had a peak, and that he’d reached it, occurred to him. That boxing wasn’t a career a man like him could support a family with, and that maybe the odd construction jobs he took on would soon be everyday life for him. Resentment had filled him, left him angry at anything and everything, but then he’d walked into their apartment at just the right moment. He’d heard Sofie’s muffled voice, singing as usual, as he turned the key in the lock, and when he walked in she’d turned to him with all the love she felt for him shining in her eyes and finished the last line of the verse.
You don’t have to worry.
The words hadn’t magically changed his world, but they’d washed over him like the truth. That had been enough until he figured out his next step.
When was the last time she sang for me? Or I made her smile?
Ivan clenched his big hands tight around the steering wheel, glancing at the flowers and chocolate in the passenger seat. He and Sofie had made it through so much. Marches against injustice. The splintering of the movement. X, King, Kennedy. The years of worry that his draft number would be called and he’d be sent to die in a jungle, or to jail for refusing. His trips criss-crossing the country for the anti-war movement. Hers ferrying desperate women all over, sometimes to Chicago, sometimes to New York—anywhere they could receive help that was safer than a wire hanger. When was the last time they’d taken a moment to just enjoy the act of being together?
Being an activist wasn’t easy, and being a married activist was a hell of a lot harder.
Ivan sometimes wondered how many hours they’d given to other people; he was sure Sofie kept a running tally, along with the other lists that had become a part of his everyday life: Monthly Organization Meetings; Draft Dodger Resources; Women’s Health Center Networks; Days since Last Period.
He glanced at the flowers and candy again once. Maybe he should have gotten her jewelry, too? He was no good at this. He knew Sofie didn’t care about Valentine’s Day, but he wanted to make her happy, dammit.
The familiar oak tree that was growing up through the sidewalk in front of Mr. Lyons’s house was illuminated by the light of his car. Almost home. Dirty snow clung to the curbs of the suburban street. One of the neighborhood kids had outlined a crude penis in the snow that dusted Mrs. Davidson’s windshield. Or maybe it had been Sofie; the woman was the only one in the racially mixed cul de sac who insisted on making her prejudices known.
The rude neighbor was forgotten as their small aluminum-sided house appeared in front of him, and a familiar feeling threatened to overwhelm him. He wasn’t good with words, but he didn’t think there was one in English to describe it, or Yiddish either. It wasn’t love, or lust, or anything pedestrian like that. It was knowing that Sofie was close and soon he’d see that familiar smile, her deep brown eyes, and maybe the crease that formed between her brows when he said something just to push her buttons. That crease had prefaced a lot of good times for them. Ivan hadn’t teased it into appearing for months now, though.
He sighed, struggled with the door, and then grabbed the flowers and candy on his way out. The bags and boxes of memories could wait in the car. He was more concerned with the future.
He opened the door and was greeted by a crown of dark ringlets bent over a pile of blocks in the hallway. At the sound of his footstep on the hardwood floor, the head popped up and he was met with a drooly, snaggletoothed grin.
“Hi.” The greeting was said with the cute nonchalance of a human just learning to speak that slayed Ivan every time.
“Hey, buddy,” Ivan said as he hung up his coat and started down the hall. He suddenly wished he was wearing something nicer than a white t-shirt and jeans, then remembered that Sofie said she preferred him in denim because the rear view was better. He grinned.
The voices of two women could be heard from the kitchen.
“He’s been so withdrawn.” Not Sofie, thank goodness. “Sometimes it’s like he’s still out in the jungle for all the response I can get from him. But I’m just glad he’s alive.”
Ivan paused next to the toddler, his leg serving as a support as baby Paul wrapped his arm around Ivan’s calf and pulled himself to his feet.
“I-ben.” Paul held up his small hand and Ivan took it. He tried not to squeeze the soft little mitt hard. Tried not to remember Sofie curled up into a ball in the center of their bed, sobbing for a loss he could never feel as keenly as her. He felt like a part of them had been left in their bedroom that day, when he’d struggled for the right words and had found only found silence. Now that things were calm, he hoped they’d be able to retrieve whatever it was, or to form something new, stronger, to replace it.
The reticence and fatigue he’d been feeling dropped away when he stepped into the kitchen, replaced by the deep-rooted nostalgia and heady hit of new appreciation he always experienced when he hadn’t seen his wife for a while.
She was leaning back against the counter, arms crossed over her chest and head tilted in that way she had of making people feel like she was really listening to them. Her green corduroy pants belled out at the hem, but the flare at her hips was more than a trend: it was all Sofie. A tan blouse, tucked in and belted, completed the look. Her hair was pulled up into the afropuff ponytail style he thought made her look even younger than her years.
She was nodding at their neighbor, Marjorie, when her gaze swung to him. A bright smile lit up her face and suddenly they were dumb kids again, or even dumber teenagers. Her smile faltered when she glanced at his hand clutching Paul’s, but she shook it off like a boxer acting as if a jab hadn’t left him dazed for a second.
Marjorie’s gaze swung between Sofie and Ivan and a conspiratorial grin lit her face. She brushed a shock of blond fringe out of her eyes. “Welcome home, Mr. Friedman. I’ll be on my way now. It’s almost bedtime for this little guy and his daddy is supposed to tuck him in.” She was through the kitchen in a few steps, then swooped up her little boy, blowing a raspberry on his brown belly that sent him into a fit of giggles. “Later, Sof. I’ll leave you two to…catch up.” She winked at Ivan and then trotted down the hallway.
“Bye, Marj,” Sofie called out after her, but a gust of cold wind and the slamming of the door signaled they were alone.
She stared at Ivan and he wished he could read her as well as he could the opponents he used to fight. Then, he’d been able to tell when a blow was coming, even if he couldn’t dodge it. But he couldn’t understand the flash of apprehension in her eyes now that they were alone. She’d had time to think over the last few weeks, too. What if her thoughts had led her to a different conclusion?
She finally walked over and gave him a kiss on the cheek; behind all her dynamite moves she was still shy with him sometimes. Sometimes it felt like a good thing, but Ivan wasn’t sure this was one of those times. When she took his hand and led him to the love seat in the living room, he let himself relax a bit.
“How’s the old man?” she asked. “Or old men, rather. Did you give your dad my housewarming gift?”
Ivan laughed, remembering his father’s expression when he’d unwrapped the small framed print that said “I’m black and I’m proud.” His dad had laughed, and Ivan had been glad that his wife and his father were friendly enough to joke about things now. It hadn’t always been that way.
“Oh yeah. It’s hung in a place of honor. Right next to the picture of Nixon.”
Sofie grinned. “I know your father has his issues, but even he wouldn’t torture himself like that.”
“Not him. My stepmother apparently thinks Nixon has a certain sex appeal.”
Sofie’s eyes widened. “No.”
“I wish I was joking,” Ivan said. He frowned. “I certainly didn’t need to hear the words ‘sex appeal’ from the mouth of a woman who used to pinch my cheeks before temple.”
Sofie let out a peal of laughter, and the sound allowed Ivan to relax a bit more. “‘Nixon’ and ‘sex appeal’ shouldn’t be in the same solar system let alone the same sentence, but I’ll try to reserve judgment.”
There was a silence as they looked at each other, appreciating the novel lightness of the atmosphere. They examined each other, taking in the changes of the last few weeks. The last few months. There was a lot to talk about, but Ivan had spent the last few weeks drowning in memories. Every part of Richmond had reminded him of Sofie, and now he was readjusting to her as she was in the moment: beautiful, strong, and still crazy enough to stick with a schmuck like him.
“Are those for me?” She motioned to the gifts he was clutching in his other hand and it was only then he remembered it was Valentine’s Day, not Goddamn My Wife is Gorgeous Day.
“Oh yeah.” He handed them over. “Nothing but the best for my woman. These were purchased at the finest Texaco in all of Ohio.”
“What a lady killer,” she said in a faux breathy voice as she accepted. She sniffed the flowers. “Diesel? You shouldn’t have.”
“Premium, baby,” he said, sliding his arm over her shoulders. He let the familiar curve of her into his side, of them into their couch, take hold of him. Things felt…normal. He hadn’t realized that normal would be way more important than exciting in the grand scheme of life. “I want to take you out for dinner, but this will have to do for now.”
Sofie pressed herself closer to him by a fraction of an inch. “I’d rather stay in, if you don’t mind. I feel like we haven’t done this in forever. Just sat and…existed. Together.” His arm rose and fell as she sighed deeply. “I’ll have a chocolate, though.” She pulled off the top of the shiny red cardboard heart, and Ivan watched as her features pulled into the same helpless expression she always wore when she fought against emotion. Her gaze flew to his.
“Where did this come from?” She settled the box on her lap and grabbed up the picture on top of the stack of photos that had replaced the chocolates at the center. She stared at the photo in awe, and all the heaving and sweating and muscle-straining of the house clearing Ivan had done was worth it in that moment.
“I found them in a box of my mom’s stuff in the basement,” he said. “I don’t remember this day at all, do you?”
“No,” she said, smiling as she shuffled through. “We were always making up games like this.”
His mother had probably snapped the photos of young Sofie and Ivan playing in the Friedman’s backyard after she received the Kodak Tourist camera from his dad for her fortieth birthday. She’d fancied herself a photographer for a few weeks in the summer of ’54, taking photos of everything—apparently, sometimes without the knowledge of her subjects.
Ivan watched as Sofie examined each photo of them, a smile tugging at her lips. In one, they both had their arms spread as they ran, like birds taking flight. In another, they appeared to be in conversation with an invisible person who was much shorter than them.
Ivan rested his free hand on Sofie’s thigh as they flipped through the memories because even though she was tucked against him, he still needed more of her. “We were pretty cute, huh?”
“You still are,” she said, glancing at him with a sweet smile. “Sometimes.”
He squeezed her thigh and she giggled. Ivan liked that sound. He didn’t want another few months to pass before he heard it again.
“These were taken before you chipped your tooth, so we’re what? Ten?” She shuffled to the next photo, and her hand began to shake a bit. In the picture, a young Sofie held a long stick pointed toward a young Ivan. Her eyes were squinted against the sun as she issued some command. Ivan had his hands in the air and was smiling at her like she was the best thing since sliced bread. Stepping into the frame was Sofie’s mother, his family’s help back then, a look of amused exasperation on her face as she reached for the stick from behind Sofie.
In the next photo, Ivan was chasing Sofie out of the frame. Her mother was staring straight into the camera, stick in hand, sharing a knowing smile with her photographer.
“I really look like her,” Sofie said. “Don’t I? Here, in the cheeks and eyes?”
“You do,” he agreed, rubbing her leg a bit.
“Sometimes I forget what she looked like.” She took a deep breath, then placed the photos neatly on the small table beside the couch before turning and kissing him on the lips. She was soft and warm and smelled of the Raveen hair product she used that he wasn’t allowed to touch. He’d once bought a jar of the pomade while on the road, just to get a whiff of her. He hadn’t told her that, though—he’d said it was on sale so he picked it up for her. A man had to have some secrets from his wife.
She pulled away and looked at him like he was the alpha and the omega. “Thank you, Ivan. This is…well, I know I told you Sidney Poitier was the perfect man, but maybe, just maybe I was mistaken.”
“I think he’s perfect, too, but I’m a pretty swell consolation prize,” Ivan said as she stood and walked to the other side of the room. He leaned back against the soft pillow of the couch, watching her. “It’s funny, the games we used to play when we were kids. We were always fighting against injustice—invading aliens or evil kings—even back then. I guess we really are a perfect match, huh?”
Sofie was walking back to him now, a flat gift-wrapped box in her hands.
“Guess?” The crease formed between her brows.
“Let me try that again,” he said. He lifted a forearm in playful self-defense as she sat beside him again, then slid his hand behind her neck, holding her in place as he looked into her eyes. “We really are a perfect match.”
“Damn right, we are,” she said.
Ivan felt the lightweight box drop onto his lap, and then Sofie’s brows rose expectantly. He brushed his lips over her, softly, slowly, before pulling his hand away.
He unwrapped the perfectly tied ribbon, then ripped through the carefully taped and folded wrapping paper. Her fidgeting leg shook the couch a little as he removed the lid and stared down at the silky gold boxing shorts decorated with white trim.
“Thanks, baby, but these are a bit small, don’t you think?” he asked with an incredulous laugh as he lifted the tiny, meticulously sewn shorts out. “These are small enough for a—”
Everything came together as he read the words stitched below the waistline: BABY FRIEDMAN.
His head turned to her, whiplash fast. “Sof.”
Her name caught on something in his throat and his heart thudded so hard in his ears that he almost didn’t hear her shaky exhale. This wasn’t the first time they’d sat like this, her sharing the happy news with him. The part of his brain that remembered what happened later, that dark day in their bedroom, the part that remembered their crushed dreams, fought against the joy that surged through him. But his fear was nothing against the love and happiness that crashed through him.He rubbed the slippery material of the shorts between his fingertips.
“Sof.” He said her name again because he still couldn’t find the words.
“I didn’t want to tell you until…until the odds were better.” She was crying, but not tears of sadness. He was crying, too, he realized, and he couldn’t wipe away the tears because suddenly both of their hands were joined tightly between them. When had that happened?
“I thought maybe I’d missed a couple of months because of the stress and the travel and the work. I chalked the nausea up to stress, too.” She shook her head. “Maybe I didn’t want to know, so I could handle it better if nothing came of it again. But I went to my doctor last week, and we’re three months along.”
“Sofie.” He pulled her against him and hugged her, tight. He didn’t know what to say, still, but he’d learned that sometimes it was what you didn’t say that messed everything up. Being silent wasn’t an option this time. “I love you. And, look, I know I messed up last time. I’m sorry I didn’t know what to say when you were in pain, back then. I was paralyzed, and I wasn’t there for you. And then I felt like I couldn’t get you back because of it. But I’m here no matter what happens this time. I won’t let you down again.”
She pulled back, confusion etched in her expression. “What do you mean? You were there for me. You held my hand. You brought me tea and brushed my hair, and made sure I was comfortable. I wouldn’t have gotten through it without you. After–after it was over, you left me little notes every day, even. You tried. I was the one who didn’t want to talk, who couldn’t look you in the eye. I felt like a failure. Or like I’d been punished, or our baby had been punished for me.”
She sucked in a breath. “I didn’t even really know I was thinking that until I said it.”
Ivan’s heart twisted that she’d been in such pain and he hadn’t known. It had never even occurred to him that she might be feeling guilt instead of disappointment in him. “I’ve never thought you were a failure,” he said, cupping her face and brushing a thumb over her cheek. “Not ever. Come on, you’re amazing! It’s so obvious to me that maybe I haven’t made it as clear as I should have.”
They stared at each other for a moment as the events of the last several months realigned themselves in the light of their new understanding. The awkward silences. The stiff kisses. The stuttering conversations. And then they burst out laughing. It was morbid, inappropriate, and exactly what they needed in that moment.
“Seriously? You mean, all of this time?” Ivan heaved between breaths.
“We were both blaming ourselves?” Sofie finished for him with a high-pitched squeak.
They let out a howl of laughter, one that purged the guilt and the fear as everything that had been wrong between them slowly shifted back towards being right.Towards figuring out the next step.
“This is gonna be one lucky kid, you know,” Ivan said when they’d finally calmed down and lay slouched against each other on the couch. He eased a hand down to rest on her still flat belly and she laced her fingers through his.
“Why? Because his parents will fight anyone and everyone to make the world a better place for him?” she asked.
“Well, that,” Ivan said with a shrug, “but I was thinking she’ll get to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. And have the best shorts in her gym class.”
Sofie gave him her creased brow look and swatted at him. “You’re incorrigible.” Her full lips pulled up into a smile that said she didn’t see that particular trait as a problem. “And you’ve also been gone three weeks.”
She stood and began walking toward the stairs that led to their bedroom, her fingers busy with the buttons of her shirt. Ivan didn’t move, watching the coordinated sway of her hips as she walked up the steps.
Sway. Button pop. Sway. Button pop.
When she was out of sight on the upstairs landing, her shirt came fluttering down over the banister to land in a heap on the living room floor.
I am one lucky chump, he thought as he stood and hustled toward the stairs.
“Are you going to keep me waiting, Mr. Friedman?
“You don’t have to worry about that, Mrs. Friedman.”
He took the stairs two by two.
I hope you enjoyed! The next stop on the hop is the amazing Suleikha Snyder! Check out her story and remember to comment on each story for a chance to win!