As soon as he saw his friend, who had just arrived from back home, in the airport arrivals lounge, he asked him, “Did you bring it?”
His friend gestured to the backpack hanging off of his shoulder as if he was waiting for this question. “You drove me nuts with all your phone calls asking me to bring you a handful of dirt. Do you think you’re the first person to move away from home?” He pulled a bag of dirt out of his backpack.
He looked expressionlessly at his friend who had just come back from the homeland and took the bag of dirt from him. He walked off silently toward the train platform.
He remained silent on board the train as well. He couldn’t hear the creaking of the train’s wheels or the giggling of the young redheads with septum rings or even the shouts of the lads cheering on their football squad. He was staring at the dirt-filled bag in his hands.
The people who walked past him quickly stared at him, thinking he was either drunk or asleep. Even when the conductor asked him for his ticket, he took his ticket out of his pocket and handed it to him without taking his eyes off the bag of dirt. The conductor pursed his lips and scowled as he placed the ticket back into his hand, which was still hanging in the air. It had been three years since he’d left home. In this new country, which would never be home, he’d faced all manner of difficulties. He had spent an entire year in a shelter for refugees and the past two years in a house that felt more like a hovel. He hadn’t had a chance to learn the language of this new place, he hadn’t made any friends, and he couldn’t find stable work that suited him. Days in this new city, which constantly kept him at arm’s length, passed slowly. He’d have gone crazy a long time ago if it weren’t for his mobile phone. His mobile only rang sporadically, but it was a good entertainer. When he dialed a phone number at random, he would instantly apologize: “I’m sorry. I dialed the wrong number!”
“Don’t let it happen again,” the angry voice on the phone would often reply. But it wasn’t a game that he could easily give up. He needed to hear another human being’s voice, if only for a few seconds.
The social services office in the city was pressuring him to get a job, but his first priority was to learn the language, even though there was no one to help him. One day he broke down in the socials services office in front of the social worker whose head looked like a ball with two blue eyes and a sharp tongue. “Please, I’m begging you, give me a chance to learn the language before I start working”.
He took a language class for three months. By the end of it all he could say was “I’m so-and-so, from such-and-such country,” and a few other sentences for everyday life.
Letters from social security began once again rain down on his cold, mute mailbox that only ever contained those dry and emotionless letters.
He had to take a job doing door-to-door advertising. He spent hours walking through the desolate, graveyard-like streets handing out flyers for restaurants, barber shops, and even sex workers. On Wednesdays and Saturdays he distributed the classifieds section too. His toenails turned black and then fell off. The dogs that barked on the other sides of doors as he tried to stuff flyers through the letterbox terrified him. A bitter taste in the back of his throat would nag at him as he continued his route. It wasn’t just the dogs. It was the dogs’ owners, too. They shouted at him, without bothering to look at him or acknowledging his morning greeting: “Don’t put this shit through my door!” Then they would drive off. He would lower his head, bite his tongue, and move on to the next house.
The train stopped at the station before his Some people got off and others got on. The redheads with the septum rings were still laughing as before, but the football fans cheering on their successful team got off the train, holding their beer cans aloft.
He glanced at the girls and then back at his bag. He tightened his grip as though he was worried that someone would steal it from him. The train set off.
He felt alone wherever he went. On trains, in restaurants, at block parties, in crowded shops. He couldn’t bring himself to look other people in the eye. He was worried that someone would speak to him in that language that he couldn’t understand, so he never responded to anyone. He just pretended that he didn’t hear.
He wasn’t speaking his own language either, so he began to worry that he was going to become mute. He started talking to carpets and windows, to clouds and the crosses on top of church spires. He even began speaking to the mannequins in display windows outside shops.
When he got home, he unlocked the door and whispered to the silent dirt lying in the bottom of the bag he was carrying, “Come in.” After he walked in, he said, “I’m sorry for making you leave our country, but I needed you.”
He took the bag into his bedroom and lay it down on his pillow. “No, that isn’t the right place for you!”
He moved the bag into the living room. He didn’t like that either. He was confused now. He tried placing the bag all over his little apartment until he finally decided to keep it in the bathroom. He poured the contents of the bag of dirt onto the cold, humid floor. That tiring, dry, silent dirt, which had witnessed thousands of his footsteps, rose up into a mound on the floor of the bathroom. He could almost hear the dirt wailing as it was poured out, speck by speck, on to that unfamiliar floor.
His heartbeat began to race and tears filled his eyes. He stared at the mound of dirt and as his voice trembled, he said, “I smell the scent of destruction in you, the earth of home.”
He took a big swig from the can of beer he was holding. “It’s been three years since I left you. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten how I used to speak to you. Forgive me if I’ve been rude to you on this dreary evening. Do you remember when the police surrounded our house and then stormed into my bedroom? Do you remember when they broke my pens and burned the pages on which I’d written about my love for you? They did it in front of our very eyes. Do you remember how they confiscated my books and carried them off in dirty bags like frightened rabbits? They handcuffed me in front of your eyes—if you have eyes, I mean—and took me away, kicking me, throwing me like a bag of straw into the back of a Jeep that was almost the same color as you. You stayed silent, Dirt, licking the boots of the security services, failing to feel the pain of my handcuffed wrists!! When they brought me back in the same Jeep a week later, I saw you through the window. My heart almost broke when I saw their tires defiling you.
You watched in silence as the Intelligence Service’s boots drew horrific scenes across your surface as you languished in your soil-silence, your soil-sleep.
Do you remember that autumn when my heart broke?
Yes, of course you do. My darling used to leave a trail across you every afternoon as she made her way to my room. She would put her hands over my expectant eyes and say, laughing “Guess who?” I always played dumb. I traced her hands with my own. They were like two tame pigeons. Then I ran my fingers across her full lips and down to her apple-breasts and her thighs… I’d say, “You’re a fairy!!”
We rolled around like two surging clouds being buffeted by maniacal winds.
My beloved’s footsteps wove a tissue of lies every afternoon. You knew all about the traps that she set out for me, but you never once whispered in my ear: “Watch your step!” You never once said to me, “You fool! Don’t fall for a mirage. Your heart will die of thirst.” You never said, “Put an end to this game. Your heart will be crushed.” We were friends, Dirt. I wrote my best poems about you. I used to smell you as hard as I could. I used to leave your dust on my eyelashes and clothes for weeks at a time, never brushing you off.
I used to say, “This dust is sacred, this is dirt’s dust, the dirt that slumbers outside my front door, the dirt that embraced my suppressed childhood and wasted youth.”
His eyes became redder and redder and the line of beer cans on the mirror shelf emptied one by one, but he continued to stare at the mound of dirt on the bare, silent bathroom floor.
“Now I just drift from place to place. I carry my broken heart with me, but I still haven’t found anyone who can put it back together for me. You’ve seen me bewildered dozens of times—if you can even see that is—but you’ve never once broken your silence. Why didn’t you rise up from beneath my sad footsteps and fly into the sky to tell everyone in this criminal city of my heart’s pain? Why didn’t you warn me about all the traps that were laid out in front of me? I was the one who used to think of you as a mother, as more than a mother.
“I set fire to my house and all my books to protest against my miserable life. I nearly set fire to myself. You observed me silently. Maybe you secretly said to yourself, laughing, “The boy’s lost his mind.”
Protecting you and loving you gave meaning to my life. It used to drive me crazy whenever I heard anyone insult you. I would try to hide you in my eyes and shield you with my gaze. I was ready to give my life for you. But you? Ah. What do you expect me to say now?
“Tell me, what did you do for me when the world came for me and when the mills of hope crushed my heart and made it into a burning paste? What did you do for me when you found me pathetic, miserable, and hungry? I wept for you. I defended you from the wind that wanted to blow you away from my front door. I didn’t sleep so that I could keep the dirt thieves from abducting you and taking you to some unknown land. Tell me—if you have a tongue what did you do for me when I fled to this country that will never be my country?!
“You just watched me—if you can see that is—go from place to place searching for my wandering sense of self, searching for a quiet life, an uncomplicated love. But you couldn’t be home to that life, or to that love.
“You stayed quiet. Just as you are now on the cold, bare floor this silent night. Don’t come to me later and ask, “Why did you bring me to this exile?”
“You’re the one that led me to this sorry state. You’re the one who exiled me. This is all your fault, Dirt. so don’t think that I’m going to put you beside my pillow so that I can smell you every morning and say, “Ohhh, I can smell heaven in your every speck!!” No. No, never. But I will—”
Suddenly undid the buttons of his fly and quickly pulled it out. He began urinating on the mound of dirt; a silent whine reverberated against the cold, moist bathroom floor.
My parents always had visitors. They would come in the evening and sit in folding chairs on the back porch of our small house in New Brunswick. They greeted me—an only child —with the warmth of aunts and uncles. “How are your studies proceeding, Manny? Are you making good progress in school?” Except “good” sounded like “goot” and “school” like “skoo.” I hated the name Manny, after my dead grandfather, and insisted everyone call me Matt, an all-American name for a boy born in 1954, but our visitors didn’t know or remember to do this. Speaking the language was hard enough for them in their accents that thickened on their tongues like cornstarch the longer and more intensely they talked through the night with my parents.
Every summer my mother and I would go to the Lake Kiniwa Hotel in the Catskills, outside Liberty, New York. My father would stay behind to run the grocery and come up on weekends. Dora, my mother, waited on tables at the hotel, and in 1970, when I was sixteen, I worked as her busboy. The guests who had once numbered in the hundreds amounted to less than sixty, two stations worth of customers. Few children stayed at the hotel anymore, perhaps just a grandchild or two coming up on weekends. Some of the guests were the same ones who had visited our house over the years. They would cup my chin when I came over to clear their plates and pinch my cheek for good luck, even though I was bigger than my father, which wasn’t saying much, since he was only six inches taller than my five-foot mother.
I was all too interested in money, according to my parents. My “preoccupation,” as they referred to it, came to a head early in the season that summer of 1970 when Mr. Borwitz, one of our guests, died of a heart attack after dinner. The next day his daughter arrived to claim her father’s things; I didn’t hesitate to mention that it was the end of the month and neither my mother nor I had been tipped for our services. Mr. Borwitz’s daughter, a tall blonde wearing a silk scarf, whipped out two one-hundred-dollar bills, a premium on what we could normally expect. I presented the money to my mother, who was not pleased. “How could you?” she asked. “You run up to a grieving woman with your hand out begging?”
“First of all,” I said, “I wasn’t begging. It’s our money—”
“It was a tip!” my father, Isaac, interrupted; he’d driven up for the weekend. “A gratuity, which, by the way, I don’t agree with. Either you pay someone what they deserve—”
“Second of all,” I said, stopping him before he went off on one of his lectures about the dignity of the worker, “she wasn’t grieving at all. She was all business, complaining about how much crap her father had brought up with him and how would she ever get it all in the trunk of her big fat gold-trimmed Cadillac!”
“Go to your room, Manny!” which was what they called me when they were mad or wanted to make me mad.
“I don’t have a friggin room!” I screamed back. I shared one with my parents on the third floor of the hotel.
“What’s happened to your compassion for others?” my mother implored.
“A khazer,” my father muttered.
I was a selfish person, not quite a goniff, a thief, but close, and although my secular parents scorned religion, the opiate of the masses, after all, they didn’t hesitate to employ old world Yiddish for its unmatched tonal accuracy in evoking disappointment.
“Bad move,” Irwin said, when I told him of the incident. I’d known Irwin all my life. He was the other waiter besides Dora at the hotel, and we’d been neighbors until he went off to college. Twenty years old, he’d just finished his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. He’d gotten a low number in the draft lottery and wasn’t sure what he was going to do; his student deferment would no longer keep him out of the army. “Maybe Canada,” he said, when I pressed him.
“What about being a conscientious objector?”
“That wouldn’t work for me. It’s the conscientious part they might have trouble with—I’m not the most peaceful person.” He looked grim when he said this.
“You should have just pocketed it,” Irwin said, when I told him about getting the money from Mr. Borwitz’s daughter. He gave my shoulder a squeeze.
Every Tuesday, Nick and I—Nick worked as Irwin’s busboy and was a local kid from Liberty—placed newspapers written in Russian on about half the seats of our stations. Though I couldn’t read it, I knew that this was the equivalent of the Daily Worker, only with less stateside news and more of the Mother Country. I can’t say how many of our guests were actually members of the Communist Party, but a number of them spoke Russian as fluently as Stalin, whom they still defended. I’d taken to arguing with Mr. Peach—yes, that was actually his name, though it had been changed from the original Petrosky—about how he could possibly support the killing of millions of citizens. Stalin’s crimes were well known by this time. Hadn’t even Khrushchev changed the eponymous city’s name to Volgograd, for good reason, since Stalin was a mass murderer?
“And what of the attacks on Negroes in this country, Manny? You haven’t seen the news? Fire hoses and dogs, bombings and beatings—you call this democracy?”
“At least we have the right to protest,” I said. “In Russia you’d be arrested and never heard from again.”
“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Peach said, leaning on his cane. “The worst is yet to come.”
He tapped his cane on the hotel porch. Ten feet from us a card game went on, but no one paid attention to our argument. “I tell you this country will be ripped in two.”
I don’t think Mr. Peach was referring to the Vietnam War or racial strife. Rather it was his dream of the revolution: workers pouring into the streets and freeing the masses from capitalism, of which, sadly for my parents, I was its chief exponent.
I CAME close to drowning that summer. I’d gone down to the lake in the evening after I served dinner and shortly before dark. No one went to the lake anymore. Only frogs and water bugs disturbed its glassy surface. Dragonflies buzzed above me as the sun started to set behind the white oaks and birch trees, their branches casting shadows across the water. I hadn’t bothered bringing a bathing suit because I wasn’t planning to swim—just paddle a canoe around until I got tired and could sleep through my father’s snoring.
I took off my shirt and paddled in one smooth motion, enjoying the burning in my muscles. An old handball wall and a sagging badminton net stood on the opposite shore, nearly overgrown with chokecherry bushes. When I got to the lake’s center, I sat a moment, listening to the crickets and watching the flreflies come out, eating the handful of blackberries I’d picked on my way down the path. I lay back in the canoe, closed my eyes, and then opened them a minute later to see how much darker it had become. My hand strayed below. I thought about Sheri Savitz who had bent over to pick up her pencil in civics class. Her pink sweater had risen above the waist of her skirt and revealed the top of her matching pink panties. Not good—not up here at least, without any girls my age and only a summer of frustration ahead, so I stopped and stripped off the rest of my clothes and dove in the water to shake myself free of the memory.
I tried to exhaust myself swimming as furiously as I could in no particular direction. And when I wearied of that, I dove down to the slimy bottom of the lake, grabbed a hunk of muck, slapped it against my chest, and then shot back up like a missile piercing the water’s surface. I must have done this about fifty times. Finally after almost an hour and now tired enough to sleep, I looked for the canoe, but it was gone—having drifted back to the far side of the lake, a good hundred yards away. I turned on my back and tried to float and stay calm. I’d completed a Red Cross swim class, in case I wanted to be a lifeguard at the hotel, but of course our elderly guests rarely swam in the pool and the camp for kids had long ago been disbanded. So I knew what I had to do, yet when I looked behind me I saw that I’d gone in circles. In the dark I’d lost my reference point on the opposite shore. And then I got a terrible cramp in my leg that was so painful it affected my whole right side. I used my left arm, but that only made me go in even tighter circles. Panic set in. I started breathing faster and took water in my mouth from favoring my left side too much. You’re a strong swimmer, I kept telling myself, stay calm, breathe evenly. But when I checked my progress and saw how far I still remained from shore, fear washed over me. My leg, aching with pain, threatened to pull my whole body under.
“Hey! You okay out there?”
My body stiffened immediately. It was a girl’s voice, familiar but too distant to recognize.
“No,” I said.
“What’d you say?”
“HELP!” I shouted.
“Coming!” the voice said. I didn’t think about being naked. I didn’t care that I had no idea who was coming for me. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the seconds passing. Then I heard the other canoe and grabbed hold of its solid bow.
ABOUT Irwin. We’d both come up to the area since we were young, attending the red-diaper summer camps and belting out the words to “Joe Hill,” “Union Maid,” and the “World Youth Song.” Once, when I was eight and Bobby Melk teased me about being skinny—he had called me Road Map because the veins showed through in my chest—Irwin, twelve years old, the same as Bobby, punched him in the nose. Irwin was “confined to quarters,” but when pressed as to why he had punched the boy, he wouldn’t say. He didn’t want to be seen as heroic in defending me, because this somehow diminished my stature, and he didn’t want to rat on the kid, because this diminished his. So he would only explain he’d done what was necessary. I finally told the counselors the story myself. Then we had a long group meeting at the baseball field about all of us being brothers and sisters and sharing beliefs in the common good and “from those with the most ability to those with the most need,” a variation of a speech I’d heard all my life. Bobby Melk mumbled an apology to me. Irwin was asked to apologize to Bobby—in front of the group. Irwin stood up and though we could have expected anything, he put two fingers in his mouth and blasted a whistle, at which Rusty, the camp’s Irish setter, came racing down the hill and sat at rigid attention in front of Irwin, an astonishing show of canine fealty.
“Irwin,” the counselor said, not knowing what to make of Rusty’s sudden presence, “don’t you have something to say to Bobby?” But Irwin snapped his fingers and Rusty twisted in the air like a hooked fish. Then Irwin put his hand out flat and motioned down, and Rusty put his snout on his front paws and crawled toward Irwin as if in jungle combat. We red-diaper campers cheered; Irwin must have been training him all along. The counselor’s plea for self-criticism and apology was drowned out, and Irwin, who had forgiven me for telling what happened, waved to us over his shoulder as he bolted into the woods with Rusty.
He was sent home the next morning to his parents, our neighbors. Of course that made him a martyr and started a movement of its own at the camp: Why had Irwin, our young comrade, been “expelled”? Why did he have to apologize to Bobby Melk, the camp bully (who later that summer wound up getting caught stealing)? Didn’t Irwin represent all the good things the camp was trying to teach us about fellowship? Indeed, just being associated with Irwin shot up my prestige at the camp, and in the absence of the real person, I mythicized his exploits, and invented some, by flashlight late at night.
So it was a great surprise to discover that my rescuer proved none other than Irwin’s fourteen-year-old sister, Julie, who’d just arrived that evening with her parents. She’d been sitting alone on the bank of the lake.
“You’re shivering,” she said when she reached me. “Get in.”
True, I was shivering, but not from cold as much as embarrassment at being saved by a fourteen-year-old girl who’d had a crush on me for the last several years. “I’m good here.”
“Don’t be silly, Manny.” When she leaned over I smelled peppermint chewing gum on her breath. I tried to rest my elbows on the side of the canoe, as if we were just having an idle conversation at the edge of a swimming pool. “I won’t look,” she promised, but there was more chance of me walking on water than getting into that boat naked with Julie. She’d obviously been watching me swim around, perhaps even followed me to the lake, and grateful as I was to be alive, I was irritated too.
Eventually Julie gave up trying to persuade me and paddled, as I held on to the stern and kicked along. When we got to shore, I asked her to turn away while I got my clothes from the other canoe, which had drifted to the lake bank. I had the distinct feeling she failed to obey my request as I streaked toward the boat, my buttocks flashing white in the moonlight.
THE next morning my mother fainted while serving breakfast. She dropped her service tray of twelve bowls of oatmeal. In the kitchen, I heard the loud crash and rushed out. I’d worried this would happen. For weeks, I’d pleaded with her to let me carry the tray, but she insisted she was strong enough. She would not, or could not, carry it one handed above her shoulder and had to hold the wide tray in front of her as if presenting a big birthday cake. Her face would turn red, she’d huff and puff, her back would creak under the strain, and she’d barely make it to the tray stand. I would chase after her, but she’d shoo me away: “This is my job, Manny. If I can’t do it right, I shouldn’t do it at all.”
“Don’t be stubborn,” I told her. But she wouldn’t listen. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone, even her son. For years she’d schlepped at the store helping my father, cashiering and pushing around stock. She was her father’s daughter, my grandfather a Russian Jew from Odessa, who’d made his living as a tailor and hadn’t stopped working even in his seventies when nearly sightless he could only sew by touch.
Irwin was already at my mother’s side when I got there. She’d recovered enough to sit up. All around her were the shattered bowls, the metal lids, and gobs of oatmeal. Seeing her there dazed, her white apron between her spread legs, terrified me.
“Mom,” I said, kneeling down. “What happened?”
“I got dizzy, Matty.” She never called me Matty. Manny, or maybe Matt when I reminded her. “I saw stars—just like they say! ” She tried to make a joke out of it, but nobody was laughing. The guests had gathered around.
“Please give Dora some air,” Irwin asked. They shuffled back a few paces.
“She needs a doctor,” said Mr. Drach. “Anybody a doctor?”
No one answered. They were all communists, no high rollers here.
I got up and went to the serving station and poured a big glass of water. I held it to her lips. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said. “I must be dehydrated.”
“You ready to stand up?” Irwin asked her. My mother nodded. Irwin motioned for me to get on her other side to help. Although my mother was a small woman, I was surprised at how heavy she was when we tried to lift her. Dead weight. She didn’t have any strength in her legs. We supported her until Mrs. Fishman pushed a chair under her, and she sat down again. “Just give me another moment,” she said. “Then I’ll be ready to go.” She drank some more water.
Irwin went to the kitchen for a mop. I kept my eye on Dora while the chef started to dish up more oatmeal. After a while, she stood up on her own. “I’ll take over, Mom,” I announced. I’d expected her to protest. I was only sixteen. But Miriam, the owner, who had come in from outside, nodded her consent. My mother didn’t argue.
SHE rested during the afternoon, while I served lunch without a hitch. Irwin’s busboy, Nick, the local kid from Liberty and sixteen like me, hustled between our stations and kept up with both jobs. But of all times, Miriam insisted that Nick and I polish two bus boxes full of flatware, a messy, smelly job. “Dora is ill,” I complained to her. “Can’t this wait?”
“It’s been waiting all summer. There’s nothing you can do for your mother right now. Let her have a good long rest.” Talk about your lapsed socialist. I’m not sure Miriam gave a damn for the Movement. She’d hosted the group for years, and despite their dwindling numbers, she counted on their core business. My mother was supposedly a distant cousin of hers, but we weren’t exactly treated like family. We had a small and hot room (I’d gotten two fans from the storeroom and put them near my mother to keep her cool) and were asked to work seven days a week. This was no union job. I didn’t care because I was young and glad for the work, any job, but I worried for my mother. It was no secret that my father’s grocery, in an increasingly downtrodden and crime-ridden section of New Brunswick, was barely making it, squeezed out by the larger supermarkets that had opened in the suburbs. His customers were the poor and elderly who walked to and from the store. They paid in food stamps, and when those ran out at the end of the month, my father extended them credit.
He prided himself on never being robbed and informed me the best protection a person can buy is generosity, but this didn’t keep his shelves from growing sparser, his creditors from leaning on him, and the other merchants from going out of business like swatted flies.
As Nick and I worked away at the silver, Julie came into the dining room, a moment I’d been dreading. She was wearing a red bikini and looking for a can to curl her hair. “You have one?” she asked pleasantly, her voice bright, her green eyes shining. I said I’d check in the kitchen. I dawdled a moment looking through the trash for an empty vegetable or fruit can the right size.
“Here you go,” I said, when I found one and came out with it.
“Thanks, Manny.” I shrugged. Matt, Manny, what did it matter? I’d almost drowned and was standing in front of my bikini- clad savior, her breasts substantially larger than when she used to come to my house and ask if she could play golf with me, a capitalistic sport if ever there was one that I’d taken up and devoutly played every Saturday. Or she’d come over with a plate of cookies. Or a quiz she wanted me to take in a teen magazine to determine if I was more a feeling or thinking person. This had been going on for the last two years, and now she was, as they say, developed, curvaceous and tanned, her lips a frosted pink. Nick dreamily rubbed a silver cream pitcher as he stared at her. Technically she and I, at this time of year, were only two years apart—her birthday in May, mine in July—but we were miles apart otherwise: I was going into eleventh grade, she into ninth, a huge gap in teenage time. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d watched her set up her stuffed animals in the backyard with nametags while she practiced gymnastics in front of them.
“I’d better get back to work,” I said.
“See ya,” Julie said. Barefoot, her hips wriggling in her low-slung bikini bottom, a scalloped shell of sun-bleached downy hair fanning out from the small of her back, and trying to balance the can on her head, she made her way out the door.
“Wow,” said Nick.
“She’s fourteen,” I said. “Just.”
Nick smirked. “Just right, you mean.”
“Not cool,” I warned him. I was grateful Julie hadn’t mentioned anything in front of Nick about saving me from drowning. “Let’s quit polishing,” I told him. “We’ve got to set up for tonight.” The hotel, more from tradition than demand, kept kosher, separate plates for lunch and dinner, no flayshadig with milchedig. And we had a few guests, mixed among our fellow travelers (and even some of those), who were observant. I set out the dinner plates and silverware, folded the linen napkins like swans tonight—I could do hares and doves too—and nestled them in the goblets, then I went to check on my mother.
BUT before I could get there, I became distracted by loud voices on the porch. Irwin, who had just come back from picking up clean tablecloths for breakfast because the laundry delivery truck had broken down, was going at it with Mr. Hower, also one of our visitors in New Brunswick, but someone I’d never cared for. He often drank and became loud and argumentative—obstreperous, my father called it. I’d gone to a number of protests with my parents, until I told them I didn’t want to go anymore, and Mr. Hower was always out in front. Usually we’d join a larger group, farm workers, strikers, civil rights marchers, and fit in alongside them, beefing up their numbers, until someone, specifically Mr. Hower, would unfurl the Communist Party banner. People would suddenly part from us as if the Red Sea had opened. Mr. Hower would inevitably call them weaklings or cowards or phony baloneys, or on one occasion, though my father disputed it, “proletarian pussies.” I knew I’d heard right. And I didn’t trust him.
Mr. Hower had stormed off and Irwin was breathing hard, as if he’d been in a fistfight, not just an argument. Mrs. Krantz and Mrs. Lieber, both widows, squinting up through their thick lenses at six-foot-two Irwin, were telling him not to pay any attention.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“What were you yelling about?” I wasn’t going to let it go. Between my mother’s fainting, my near drowning, and now this nasty argument, things were getting out of hand, especially considering the hotel’s usually arthritic pace.
“It was about those shootings,” said Mrs. Lieber. She meant Kent State, which had happened in May.
“What was Hower saying?”
“He thought the students were expendable,” Irwin said.
“If they had more sense, they would have made themselves part of a larger movement, been better organized and kept their focus on the greater good. No one should mistake themselves for being indispensable. What bullshit. He was trying to bait me. And I let him.”
“No surprise you lit into him,” I said.
Mrs. Krantz said, “He’s a very pushy man.”
“Yes, he is,” Mrs. Lieber agreed.
“He likes to get people’s goat,” Mrs. Krantz added.
“Does he ever!” Mrs. Lieber echoed.
“We’ll stick up for you,” Mrs. Krantz said, “if anyone gives you the business.”
They adored Irwin, who had grown a beard at school but had shaved it off to work at the hotel, as well as cut his dark curly hair. He’d promised his mother that he would help out Miriam, though he could have made more money at one of the bigger hotels, the Concord, Browns, the Flagler, the Pines, even Grossingers.
“Er toig nit,” Mrs. Lieber said, which I understood well enough to mean Mr. Hower was a loser.
I SERVED dinner that evening while my mother rested. As soon as I’d swept my station, I went up to see how she was doing. My father, who’d just arrived, a day early to be with my mother, was sitting in bed with her, both of them in their stocking feet. “See?” my mother said, patting the top of her head as if it were a good puppy. “All better.” She looked pleased, and the color had come back into her face.
My father wiggled his toes at me like sock puppets. “We’re very proud of you.”
“We are,” my mother said. “People stopped by and told me how well you’ve been taking care of them.”
“You’re growing up, son.”
They looked tiny, if happy and relieved, sitting in that small double bed (I slept on a cot the size of a strip of bacon). They’d surely forgiven me for whatever disappointment I’d caused them over Mr. Borwitz’s daughter.
“Sit, sit,” my father asked. “Tell me what you’ve been doing all week.”
“You know,” I said, looking at my watch, “I think I’m going to take a walk.”
“You just came upstairs! It’s getting late.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m not sleepy yet.”
“I’m sorry, son,” my father said. “We should have insisted on getting you your own room.”
“That’s okay.” I knew they’d done it to save money. One room was free, a second would have meant a deduction from our meager pay. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I told my mother.
“Thank you, darling. You were a wonderful help.”
I went downstairs to the kitchen. Sometimes I would sneak into the walk-in refrigerator and just sit on a covered plastic bucket of floating pear halves and eat everything in sight: hardboiled eggs, salami, herring, grapefruit, olives, potato salad, cheesecake . . . I was always famished. My face had become leaner, my shoulders and chest broader, and I could barely close the top button of my white shirt to snap on my busboy’s bow tie. Like any growing adolescent I was on intimate terms with a refrigerator, in this case an entire walk-in, and considered it my rightful compensation for seven days of labor at seventy-five cents an hour, which didn’t include set-up time.
But when I sat there this evening, chilled as a beer glass, the cooler’s fan silencing any noise outside of my own thoughts, I didn’t eat. I just wondered if my mother would ever be able to stop working and if my father had expected this hard life, striving all hours of the day and justifying it by always saying he was “just one of the little people” trying to survive. It was as though he secretly believed his life meant more if he suffered as an example than if he succeeded as an exception. But who was I to blame them for the life they’d chosen? Sitting next to each other in bed, sharing some grand dream of a better world, planning to picket for fair housing, debating excitedly whether they should fork out the cash to print leaflets this time around or use a mimeograph machine, my father the treasurer, my mother the secretary of a nearly penniless and shrinking organization . . . and could I ever have made them happier, with any academic accomplishment or extracurricular achievement, than when I came home in second grade and reported that I’d refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it contained the words “one nation under God”? Who was to say their illusions were any worse than the ones I would collect over the years and lose? I felt too young to know something so disappointing, but I did.
I went outside and walked in back of the hotel to the casino, closed years ago. Julie and Irwin were there talking in the dark. I sat down next to them on the peeling wooden steps of the casino. Bats regularly flew around inside; pounds of guano were rumored to be above the rafters.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just talking,” Irwin said. Julie was wearing white shorts, all the better to show off her tan legs. Not one to be out of step with the times either, she had on a blossom-bursting, tie-dyed tank top.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“We’ve pretty much wrapped it up, right Jules?” If her sulking look was any indication, Julie didn’t seem to agree.
“Really, I can leave,” I offered.
“Stay. In fact, you kids talk,” Irwin said like an uncle. “Give me a hug, Jules?” He put his long arms around her and she weakly reciprocated. He got up and left.
“What was that about?” I asked. “You look crushed.”
“He makes me so mad.” She put her head down between her knees.
After a long silence, I said, “Are you going to tell me why?”
“He won’t tell me what’s going on. He’s arguing with Mom and Dad about not going back to college. He’s got more important things on his mind than college, he says. So I keep asking him what’s wrong, and he goes, ‘Nothing’s wrong, Jules.’ ‘Is it the draft?’ I ask him. ‘No.’ ‘Did you get a girl in trouble?’ He grunted. I guess that meant no. He’s always told me everything before, everything.”
“Maybe he’s just trying to figure things out for himself.”
Julie lifted her head and looked at me. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “About the lake.”
Now that she’d brought it up I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. “I was embarrassed out there. I could hardly face you, let alone thank you.”
“You would have made it. I just gave a lift, was all. Anyway, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I almost drowned once in Cape May. Irwin had to pull me out.”
“He’s good at saving people too. You’ve got a regular family franchise going.”
“Stop it,” Julie said, slapping my arm, but letting her hand linger there. “Don’t tease. I’m not in the mood for it. My brother’s treating me like a complete child. Everything’s so ‘personal.’ He actually used that word when I asked him what exactly his plans were for next year. He’s never been like that around me.”
I was listening, but I was also wondering if she was right. Would some survival instinct have finally propelled me safely to shore on my own?
“My parents are bugging me, too,” she said. “They won’t let me go to Long Island for a week. My friend Cindy’s parents have a house on Fire Island. We’d be there by ourselves for a couple of days while her parents traveled. I made the mistake of telling my mom that part, too—dope that I am.”
“It does sound a little unsupervised.”
“I knew you’d say that.” She brushed the ground with the toe of her sandal. Her nails were polished a pearly white. “Forget it,” she said. “Everyone’s turning against me anyway.”
“Nobody’s turning against you. Irwin’s in a bind, worried about being drafted—”
“He won’t even discuss it. He just keeps saying to leave him alone. He has to figure out what to do. Go to a psychiatrist and get a letter, I told him. ‘I’ve never been saner about things,’ he told me, but he was incredibly angry when he said it.”
I thought about Irwin’s explosion on the porch today. Julie was right about his anger, but I’d seen something else too—fear.
She put her hand on my thigh. “Let’s stop talking about my brother,” she said. “How’s your mother doing?”
“Better, thanks.” She let her hand drop further over my thigh and leaned her head on my shoulder. I thought about her lining up the stuffed animals in her backyard. She was still a skinny little girl then, using a deodorant can as a microphone to sing to those same stuffed animals, and though that shouldn’t have mattered now, our bodies having regenerated their cells several times over according to my tenth grade biology book, I couldn’t do what every new cell and engorged muscle in my body wanted to. “It’s getting late,” I said. “I’ve got to get up early and serve breakfast.”
“I don’t eat breakfast,” she said. “I don’t give a damn about breakfast.”
“I have to,” I said. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Then go. Leave. Desert me like everybody else,” she said, pouting and pointing her finger away, as if casting me out from the garden.
IN the morning, my mother was back at work, with my father’s help. At one point, they both carried the tray out, Mother on one side, Father on the other, as if moving a sofa across the room. “Come on, let me do that,” I said.
My father took me aside in the kitchen. “Leave your mother alone about the tray. She doesn’t want to look helpless.”
“But that’s exactly how she looks carrying it like that.” “Please,” he said, “she wants to do it this way.”
So I kept my mouth shut. Irwin went about serving, but I noticed during a lull he was standing at his station drinking coffee, which we weren’t supposed to do. After breakfast, he took me aside. He looked as if he’d lost weight since he’d first gotten here.
“What did my sister tell you last night?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Just that she was worried about you.”
“She didn’t tell you anything else?”
“No. What’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer me. Not directly at least. “I want you to do something for me. If I’m not here tomorrow . . .”
“Wait—what do you mean, if I’m not here?”
“Just listen. I want you to tell my parents I’m okay. Can you do that?”
“Where are you going? Is this about the draft?”
Irwin took me to the end of the porch. Mr. Abrams, who once had to “disappear” for a few weeks after being subpoenaed during the McCarthy hearings, was playing a game of solitaire and occasionally glancing up at us. Irwin lowered his voice, just a bit. “I’m going to South America, all right? But you can’t tell anyone. I’ll be fine. I’ll contact people as soon as I can.”
“What are you talking about? Where in South America? Are you in trouble?”
“Take it easy,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just as he had his sister last night, and hugged me hard. “And take care of everyone, okay?”
“Julie’s very upset—”
“Keep an eye out for her most of all.”
“Irwin, you just can’t leave—what about your guests?”
He laughed and shook his head. “You would worry about that. The least of my problems, Matt.”
By the next morning he was gone. Everyone was looking for him. Miriam told me to check his room to see if he’d overslept, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. When there was no answer, she got a key and opened the door—an empty room, all his stuff missing. “What’s going on?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
His parents came down next. Mr. Winterstein was a tall man, like his son, and Irwin’s mother was built more like her daughter, curvy; the ever-creepy Mr. Hower had always leered at her when she came to our house. I told them the same thing I’d told Miriam, and now my parents too, who had lined up in the hallway outside Irwin’s room: I knew nothing. But Mr. Abrams had mentioned I’d been talking to Irwin on the porch and that we were “whispering.”
“You must tell us,” my mother said, “if you know anything.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“Why would he take off like this?” Irwin’s father asked. “We were arguing, yes, about his going back to school, but this isn’t like him.”
Meanwhile, our guests were clamoring for breakfast. “We have people waiting,” I told the group jamming the hallway as if we were in a Marx Brothers movie. “I’ll take over Irwin’s station,” I announced, and that’s what I did, for the rest of the summer.
JUST before the season ended on Labor Day, we had a visitor at the hotel, a balding man with thick black glasses, wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt. He spent time speaking with Miriam in her office. I was down by the pool, cleaning it, and thinking that I wouldn’t come back next summer, that I didn’t want to work with my mother and see her sweating and grunting over this job, and that if I refused to return, money or no money, maybe she would too. My name was paged over the PA system: Manny Heffer- man, please come to the hotel lobby.
“This gentleman would like to speak with you, Manny,” Miriam said. My father was back in New Brunswick, and my mother had gone shopping in Monticello. “He’s with the FBI.”
“My parents aren’t here,” I said.
Ken Boyer, that’s what he said his name was, clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s just talk for a couple of minutes. No big deal, Manny, right?” The term “super-friendly” came to mind, not in a good way.
“Why don’t I sit in too,” Miriam said. For once she seemed to be on my side and concerned about me.
“Sure, no problem,” said Agent Boyer—as I would later refer to him. “But I think Manny’s a big enough fellow to have a private chat. Aren’t you, Manny?” It felt patronizing, his appealing to my pride and maturity, as if he were talking to a child, but there was a threatening edge to his good cheer that also backed Miriam down, and she left us alone in her office.
He placed a legal pad on the desk in front of him and laid his fountain pen—gray with marble swirling—across it. “So how’s your summer going, Manny? You enjoying working up here? I understand you’re a waiter now.”
Since I was only sixteen and there were limited numbers of hours I could work, I just nodded vaguely.
“Got some good fishing around here, too, I hear. You fish down at that lake?”
“Used to,” I said, “when I was five.”
“Brookies, bass, walleyes . . . how’s your friend Irwin doing?”
“Irwin. You and he are buddies, right? Heard from him lately?” Agent Boyer spun his marbled pen on the pad, a big smile on his face.
“I haven’t,” I said.
“I was hoping you could help me out, Manny.” It bothered me that he used my name so much. “He spoke with you before he left here, didn’t he?”
“Who told you that?”
“All I want to do is talk with your friend.”
“I really think I should have my parents here. They wouldn’t like me meeting alone with you. I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m only sixteen—”
“Seventeen,” Agent Boyer corrected.
“Just a few days ago.”
“You’re not a kid who lies, are you, Manny?”
“I’m not lying—”
“You just did about your age.”
“I forgot . . . I’m so used to being sixteen.”
Agent Boyer rubbed his hands together as if trying to start a fire. “A little cold back here,” he said. “Fall will be around before you know it. So what was it exactly that Irwin told you before he left?”
“He didn’t say anything.”
“I think he did, Manny. In fact, we know he did.”
It was the first time he’d used the word “we,” and it sent a shudder through me. “I want to call my father.”
“You want to get your father involved in this?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
He smiled without amusement, his eyes flat. “Just what I said.”
“My father had nothing to do with this!”
“With what? Oh, you mean with this?” Agent Boyer opened his briefcase and laid out a photograph of Irwin in a crowd of college students. He was holding a rock in his hand and facing a row of police with gasmasks on.
“I don’t know anything about it,” I said, and I didn’t.
Agent Boyer nodded agreeably. “Okay, how about this one?” He slipped a larger glossy photograph out of a manila envelope. My breath caught. It was a photograph of Irwin talking with my father outside his grocery in New Brunswick. Irwin had a beard then that dated the photograph, but I didn’t know how far back. It could have been as much as a year. “Irwin was our next door neighbor,” I said. “He came to the store all the time. Where did you get that picture?”
Agent Boyer put the photographs away without answering and knit his fingers into a ball. “You seem to know a great deal about his whereabouts, Manny. I’m sure you can think harder about them now.”
THE following winter my mother died. She’d had several more dizzy spells. Her doctors had advised her just to rest. It was most likely her diabetes or high blood pressure, they said. But one night after we all went to see the movie Mash, and allowed ourselves a good, if dark, laugh on a cold evening, she curled up in the back seat of our Plymouth on the ride home, claiming she was suddenly tired. She let out a sharp whimper that we thought was a sleep noise. By the time we reached our driveway, she’d died of a brain hemorrhage.
Many of the same visitors who’d come to our house over the years attended the funeral. Mr. Peach was there and Mr. Abrams, as well as Mrs. Lieber and Mrs. Krantz, although Mr. Hower was notably absent. They talked amongst themselves, offered their condolences, and told me how wonderful a person my mother was —not an enemy in the world. They drank the coffee and ate the knishes and kugel we had put out for them. My father, who hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah (that I’d insisted on, not for the least of reasons being money), sat shiva and asked me to join him. He was worried about me, a seventeen-year-old boy and only child losing his mother. I smoked my grief away, and when cigarettes didn’t do the trick anymore, I took up grass and kept myself stoned for my year of mourning. If anyone asked how I was doing, I said great, and believed it.
Julie and her parents were at the funeral, of course, but not Irwin. No one knew where he was. People suspected Canada, but I’d perhaps thrown the FBI off the track by telling them South America. “You haven’t heard anything from him?” I asked Julie.
“No, nothing, zip,” she said, and dropped her head. I could see the clean pink line of her parted brown hair that hung straight down her back now. She looked sophisticated in her black dress and a single strand of gold around her neck. Her parents were sick with worry about Irwin and still believed I was holding something back.
“Are you?” her eyes pleaded. “You can tell me now, if you are. It would give us all some peace of mind, no matter what.”
“He said he was going to South America—the same as I told the FBI.” I didn’t tell her that I feared for my father and mother if I didn’t cooperate, and that Agent Boyer had made it clear he knew everything about them—and me—and that he somehow knew, too, this was my greatest childhood fear: my parents would be taken away and executed like the Rosenbergs. I’d never quite outgrown it.
I turned away from her eyes, which were wide open with expectation. “He’s fine,” I said.
Julie put her hand on my arm, a steadying touch for her. “What are you saying?”
“Just that Irwin could always take care of himself. We both know that.”
“I want him back,” Julie said. “I can’t stand not knowing where he is and if he’s okay. Sometimes I feel crazy. Oh, God, your lovely mother just died and look at me going on about my problems.”
I put my arm around her shoulder. She kissed me lightly on the cheek and said to stay in touch, such an adult phrase. I was almost—or yes, I was at that moment—in love with her. “I’m so sorry about your mother, Manny.” It didn’t matter now. Irwin was the only one who remembered to call me Matt, anyway. I would be Manny from hereon, the name my mother had died calling me. Honor your name; name no names, my father had always told me.
I got a scholarship to a small liberal arts college in the Northwest. The summer of my freshman year I went camping with a student group in the Three Sisters Wilderness. One night, I wept uncontrollably for my mother. A girl from my economics class, Sandra, sat by me, and didn’t ask what was wrong, for which I was grateful. She seemed instinctively to understand I couldn’t do anything but weep, after years of not doing so. In the morning I decided when I went back in the fall I’d switch majors from marketing to history and would become a high school teacher.
Years later, when I was married to Sandra and living in Portland with our first child, a daughter named Daria after my mother, my father called to say he’d heard from Irwin’s family, who had moved to Florida. Julie had gone into broadcasting and was an anchor on a New Jersey TV station, married to, my father didn’t fail to mention, a lawyer for the ACLU. “You won’t believe it, Manny. Irwin’s been right above us all this time.”
“Canada! Under an alias. Michael Winn. All these years and his parents didn’t know a thing!” Irwin was coming home to serve an agreed upon sentence for the bombing of a ROTC building on campus. No one had been hurt in the incident, but it was a federal building and he would have to face the consequences. Amnesty had been granted to those draftees who fled to Canada but not to radicals who took action into their own hands. My father didn’t approve of such violence, but he could certainly understand the frustration that led to Irwin’s act.
I felt enormous relief, mostly because I could stop hiding what I’d kept secret all these years, telling no one, not even Sandra —that I’d been sending Irwin money from the part of my mother’s life insurance left to me. Nor was it for purely educational reasons that I’d gone to college in the Northwest. I’d cross the border into British Columbia, zigzag through the province, and meet him in remote places to bring him any news I had of the family. When the war ended and the threat of discovery and prosecution lessened, we eventually lost touch and I destroyed the phone numbers I had used to contact him.
That day on the porch at the hotel, after mentioning loud enough for Mr. Abrams to hear that he was going to South America, Irwin had whispered the first of these numbers and told me to memorize it, swearing me to silence. “Remember me,” he said. He bent his head down and rested his damp forehead on my shoulder, adjuring me to forgive him for what we were about to do.
*Steven Schwartz, “The Last Communist” from Little Raw Souls. Copyright © 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org
The Western train had just arrived at Redfern railway station with a lot of ordinary passengers and one swagman.
He was short, and stout, and bow-legged, and freckled, and sandy. He had red hair and small, twinkling, grey eyes, and — what often goes with such things — the expression of a born comedian. He was dressed in a ragged, well-washed print shirt, an old black waistcoat with a calico back, a pair of cloudy moleskins patched at the knees and held up by a plaited greenhide belt buckled loosely round his hips, a pair of well-worn, fuzzy blucher boots, and a soft felt hat, green with age, and with no brim worth mentioning, and no crown to speak of. He swung a swag on to the platform, shouldered it, pulled out a billy and water-bag, and then went to a dog-box in the brake van.
Five minutes later he appeared on the edge of the cab platform, with an anxious-looking cattle-dog crouching against his legs, and one end of the chain in his hand. He eased down the swag against a post, turned his face to the city, tilted his hat forward, and scratched the well-developed back of his head with a little finger. He seemed undecided what track to take.
The swagman turned slowly and regarded cabby with a quiet grin.
“Now, do I look as if I want a cab?”
“Well, why not? No harm, anyway — I thought you might want a cab.”
Swaggy scratched his head, reflectively.
“Well,” he said, “you’re the first man that has thought so these ten years. What do I want with a cab?”
“To go where you’re going, of course.”
“Do I look knocked up?”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“And I didn’t say you said I did… Now, I’ve been on the track this five years. I’ve tramped two thousan’ miles since last Chris’mas, and I don’t see why I can’t tramp the last mile. Do you think my old dog wants a cab?”
The dog shivered and whimpered; he seemed to want to get away from the crowd.
“But then, you see, you ain’t going to carry that swag through the streets, are you?” asked the cabman.
“Why not? Who’ll stop me! There ain’t no law agin it, I b’lieve?”
“But then, you see, it don’t look well, you know.”
“Ah! I thought we’d get to it at last.”
The traveller up-ended his bluey against his knee, gave it an affectionate pat, and then straightened himself up and looked fixedly at the cabman.
“Now, look here!” he said, sternly and impressively, “can you see anything wrong with that old swag o’ mine?”
It was a stout, dumpy swag, with a red blanket outside, patched with blue, and the edge of a blue blanket showing in the inner rings at the end. The swag might have been newer; it might have been cleaner; it might have been hooped with decent straps, instead of bits of clothes-line and greenhide — but otherwise there was nothing the matter with it, as swags go.
“I’ve humped that old swag for years,” continued the bushman; “I’ve carried that old swag thousands of miles — as that old dog knows — an’ no one ever bothered about the look of it, or of me, or of my old dog, neither; and do you think I’m going to be ashamed of that old swag, for a cabby or anyone else? Do you think I’m going to study anybody’s feelings? No one ever studied mine! I’m in two minds to summon you for using insulting language towards me!”
He lifted the swag by the twisted towel which served for a shoulder-strap, swung it into the cab, got in himself and hauled the dog after him.
“You can drive me somewhere where I can leave my swag and dog while I get some decent clothes to see a tailor in,” he said to the cabman. “My old dog ain’t used to cabs, you see.”
Then he added, reflectively: “I drove a cab myself, once, for five years in Sydney.”
What, is she actually going to buy the tickets herself? This puts me to shame. Isn’t this guy looking at me, this bald-headed Russian, I mean? And this woman has her eyes fixed squarely on my face, too! Yes, and this guy puffing on a cigar, he’s looking at me now as well. They’re all looking at me. Well, all right, I know what they’re thinking. They’re a little bit contemptuous of me. No, more than that, I think they are actually sneering at me.
I don’t know why on earth she had to insist on buying the tickets… surely she must know what an awkward spot this puts me in? I am a man, a gentleman — and whoever saw a man escort a lady (a “lady” of whatever degree) to a cinema, and the lady going up to buy the tickets? Never; at any rate I’ve never seen such a thing.
My face feels hot. I’ve probably gone as red as a beetroot. Isn’t there a mirror around here? If there is one, I’ll look at myself in it. Oh! This guy is actually laughing openly at me! How dare you mock me, sir? Surely you must have seen her suddenly lunge toward the ticket window. I couldn’t stop her, how could I? Who would have expected a thing like this to happen ? Oh! I don’t think I can stand this any longer. I have an urge to turn and run out of the door. Oh, let me just stand outside on the steps for a while…
What, she still hasn’t managed to buy the tickets? It’s so crowded in here! And that’s another thing; why in Heaven’s name would she want to fight her way through such a crush to buy the tickets, when that should have been my job? Perhaps she didn’t want me to be the one who was doing the inviting?… But, in that case why did she in fact agree yesterday evening to come to the cinema with me? Yes, why did she, yesterday evening when I escorted her to her door, consent to my taking her out tonight? Surely she didn’t think that today would be her turn to take me out, did she? Humph, well, if that’s what she was thinking, the best thing for us to do is break it off completely, and have none of this “you invite me, and then I invite you” nonsense, in my opinion. Did she think I had invited her to come and see a film so that I could get a return invitation from her? Well, maybe she thought that it would be awkward for me if she let me do all the treating? So she decided that, she should buy the tickets today? To save face, perhaps? Yes, that was probably it! Women are always getting such ideas into their heads. They also get rather haughty ideas from time to time…
Now what’s going on? She still hasn’t bought the tickets. Why don’t I fight my way through this crush and buy them for her? How can I be expected to just stand here and put up with the mocking stares of all these people? I’d better go up there. She probably hasn’t managed to buy the tickets yet. What do they cost here, anyway?… Down- stairs, 6 jiao, and upstairs? I wish this idiot would get his head out of the way. I can’t see the price. It looks like 8 jiao. Oh, here she comes! She’s got the tickets at last. Strange! How come I didn’t see her buy them? Where did she buy these tickets?
Well, never mind. Let’s go in. But why is she giving me both tickets? Oh, these are circle tickets! Why did she splash out on such expensive tickets ?… I think I understand; she is showing her displeasure at my buying seats in the stalls the last time. This is even more of a slap in the face! Oh, no! I’m not standing for that. I’d rather break off our friendship. I certainly can’t accept these tickets. No, I never want to take her to the cinema again. Not only that, no more strolls, no more ice cream. Never again!… Ah, now what’s she saying?
“All the upstairs and downstairs tickets were sold out, so I had to buy fancy seats.’’
Oh, pardon me. I almost made a blunder there. Why was it that I couldn’t see that the window where they sell the ordinary seats has a sign saying “Sold out”? The crowd is dispersing, isn’t it? They must be disappointed, though I can’t imagine why this film has so much appeal. Oh, that’s right, today’s Sunday… Well, we have to go upstairs. But… she gave me both tickets. What was the meaning of that? What a narrow staircase! Not like that big wide one at the Grand Theatre. Hardly wide enough for two people to walk up side by side. Has the film started already? I can hear music. Here is the usherette. Oh, now I understand. She wanted me to be the one to hand over the tickets, to make it look as though I had bought them. That’s right! She didn’t want me to lose face in front of the usherette. Let me have a look behind, to see if any of those people who saw her buy the tickets are following us…. No, it looks like we’re the last in. What about that bald-headed Russian who was mocking me downstairs? And the woman in the skimpy qipaol? And that cocky fellow smoking the cigar? They must have failed to get hold of tickets and gone home, I suppose. Serves them right for sneering at me, doesn’t it? Now, what are our seat numbers? Seventy-four and seventy- five. I can’t tell what kind of seats those are.
Good, now we’re in, and the show hasn’t started yet. In fact, the lights are still on. Just a minute, where’s this flunky taking us? We bought circle tickets. Good Heavens! We’re in the third row. The back row of the circle! Why do we keep going round the side? Are these two seats ours? This is no good; we’re right at the very end. We’ll be squinting sideways at the screen all the time. Well, I suppose I’ll have to let her sit on the inside.
God, it’s stuffy in here! Packed out with people, too. Where did that German guy get that foul-smelling cigar? I’ve never smelled a worse cigar in my life… Now what’s she giving me?… Oh, it’s a programme. Of course. Why do I have to be so muddle-headed all the time? Why didn’t I pick one up in the foyer? But that’s funny! I don’t remember seeing her pick up a programme. Oh, it was probably when I was looking at the seat numbers…. UFA (Universum-Film AG). Of course. I knew that this film was made by UFA. The Paris Cinema often shows their films. They’re not bad, either. I wonder if she noticed? I should tell her.
“ This is another UFA films. ”
What’s the matter now? She’s just staring at me. Perhaps she doesn’t know UFA. I should explain, but I ’ d better keep my voice down.
“UFA is a leading German film maker. They turn out some excellent films. They’re my favourites. I think they’re better than anything that comes out of Hollywood.”
No reply. Just nods her head. I wonder if she thought my explanation was a bit impertinent? She probably thinks I’m implying that she’s ignorant of the cinema world and she’s nettled at that. Now she’s bent her head and is engrossed in reading the programme. What should I say to her now?…
Let me see if there’s anybody I know here. If anyone saw the two of us come in and spread the story around it would be embarrassing to say the least. But, on the other hand… embarrassing? Did I use to think like that? There’s nothing secret about what we are doing, surely? Can’t I take a girlfriend to the cinema? Am I still afraid to do that, even now? The lights have all gone out, and the film is about to start. Good, nobody will be able to see us now! Did she finish reading the programme? She was not that last; she probably read only half of it. We were a bit late getting here. Well, that was her fault. She refused to take a bus and would insist on walking along that tree-shaded path — God knows why.
These seats are too small. They ’re really uncomfortable. Has she put her arm on the armrest, on this side? Yes, she has. So I’ve only got this side to lean on. Oh, well, I’ll just have to sit sideways and relax a little. Good Lord, that’s a nice perfumy smell! It must be coming from her. I detected it on her the other day when we were sitting in the park, only not so strong. Now I remember… just after dinner she spent an awful long time upstairs, and I almost fumed with impatience, didn’t I? She must have been dressing up, and making up, or whatever. I guess she must have changed her outfit completely. Right down to her underwear. That’s enough of that… don’t be cheeky. What’s she laughing at? Oh, everybody’s laughing! Surely they didn’t all realize what I was just thinking about in my wild imagination!.. No, of course not. They were laughing at that elephant getting his trunk stuck in a crack. Not a bad cartoon!
Why did she nudge my arm with her elbow? It did feel like some kind of a nudge. Was it deliberate or accidental? If I could only see the expression on her face I’d know. Unfortunately the screen’s too dark right now and I can’t see clearly…. She doesn’t look as though anything had happened. Her eyes are fixed on the screen and she has a perfectly solemn expression on her lace. In fact she looks completely oblivious of the fact that she is sitting next to me in a cinema. Well if she had not forgotten all about me what would she have been doing? Flashing glances at me all the time. Ha! Don’t be ridiculous! What was I thinking? Oh, I found out this time! She’s really smart; without moving her head at all she swivelled her eyes and gave me a glance.
What does this mean? Clearly she was secretly thinking about me and felt that I was looking at her. She is lightly pressing her lips together, obviously trying to suppress a smile. How is she really feeling, deep down? I just can’t guess. What really is our relationship now? Have I fallen in love with her? I can’t fathom myself why I should be so happy going out with her. These past three days my mind’s been in a whirl, as we’ve been gallivanting all over Shanghai, just about. I certainly never felt so warm even towards my wife. I really feel sorry for her, but it can’t be helped; I can’t control myself. She lives in the country-side. She’s a gentle and rather pitiable creature. Right now, she’ll probably be already asleep. I wonder if she’s dreaming about me and a woman watching a film together!…
Phew, it’s hot in here! I can feel beads of sweat on my forehead. Where’s my handkerchief?… That’s strange! It’s not in my back pocket. Oh, now I remember; I spread it on a bench for her to sit on in Hongkou Park, and when we left I forgot all about it. Well. That, I’m afraid, is destined to become just a secret, faint memory. What was it she had said, sitting there on that bench and holding a willow leaf that had dropped onto her shoulder? “If only I could have known you earlier!” Didn’t she say that?… That’s right. I had said that to her once; “If only I could have known you earlier!” I don’t know why I said that then. What did it mean? Surely it wasn’t some kind of hint, was it? Ah, it’s lovely in Hongkou Park on a summer’s evening! I can almost see it now — the golden moon reflected in the pond. It really was attractive. But anyway, perhaps her meaning was that if she had known me earlier, then … earlier, meaning when? Obviously meaning before I was married…. Is that what I was hinting? How strange! The truth is probably that I was just mumbling some vague thought. I shouldn’t say such ambiguous things to an emotional young woman. Now, I’m sure she’s got the wrong impression. She must think I’m in love with her. And she’s not entirely wrong, either. I really am a little bit in love with her as a matter of fact. I really don’t understand how all this came about, and I don’t know whether I ought to come right out with it and tell her or not. For example, when we were sitting in Hongkou Park a little while ago if I had told her I loved her how would she have reacted? Burst into tears, perhaps?
…Yes, I know that when women find themselves in such situations their only response is either to sob or hang their heads in mute tragedy, as if there is nothing else they can do. Then, what ought I to have done? Comfort her? Would she have let me kiss her then, like those passionate heroines on the cinema screen? I’m afraid not… no, definitely not! The circumstances are different; for, of course, she knows that I’m married…. What’s she doing now? Seems she’s not very settled in her seat. She’s pushing her arm further along the armrest. I can even feel the warmth of her skin…. Now, she’s turning her head. Is she going to speak to me?
“What’s his name?”
Who ? Who ’ s she talking about? Someone on the screen? She probably means the fellow playing the adjutant? Who is he? I just can’t think of his name. It’s on everybody’s lips; how is it that I can’t recall it all of a sudden?… He’s a leading Russian film star, I know that much. Well.
“Do you mean the chap playing the adjutant? That’s Ivan Morodin. He’s a famous Russian film star.”
“Oh, that’s right! Ivan Morodin. I remember now. I’ve seen lots of his films. I really like him.”
What? She really likes him?… How can a Chinese woman like someone as stem and cold as Morodin? No, I don’t believe it. If it were someone like Vrontino, then perhaps! Women go for anyone who plays the part of a handsome young hero. That’s true enough? But there’s no danger from a celluloid rival. And anyway, if it’s a foreign film you can forget such a thing completely. So, you like him, do you? But how would he ever know that you like him? Look, he’s kissing another woman. Aren’t you jealous? Ha, ha…. Quelle folle!
I can feel her looking at me, but not in that sideways manner she was using just now. She has turned her head round towards me. Now what does this mean? Shall I swivel my eyes to meet her gaze?… Perhaps not. That might embarrass her. But she’s obviously smiling. Oh, yes! I can definitely feel her smiling at me. What is there about me to smile at? I wonder if she can read the funny thoughts running through my mind…. That would be quite a joke. Why don’t I just turn my head quickly and look her full in the lace? I could catch her looking at me before she has time to avert her gaze, then I could ask her what she finds so funny about me….
“What are you smiling at?”
Aha! I’ve caught her! She looks embarrassed, doesn’t she? Let’s see what she says.
“I’m smiling at you.”
What? Is that all? She’s smiling at me. I know that already — you don’t have to tell me that. What I want to know is why you are smiling at me. What is it about me that you find so funny? So I’m going to ask her another question.
“Why are you smiling at me?”
“I’m smiling at the way you’re watching the film — staring blankly at the screen with your mouth open.’’
What a strange thing to say! Staring blankly with my mouth open, indeed! I never do that, and I certainly was not doing that just now! Definitely not. Not a bit of it. Lies, all lies! Women are accomplished liars, of course. It was a clever retort, but that was definitely not the reason she was smiling at me. No, I think the real reason was that she thought it was a bit pointless just sitting there gazing at the film. For people in our situation it would be unutterably dull just to sit glued to the screen all the way through. Anyway, the reason for coming here in the first place was to take advantage of the dark, that’s all. There are lots of actions and words that require darkness. Look, she’s leaning nearer me. Now she’s let the cat out of the bag! If the seat is too far to one side to see the screen properly she should be leaning the other way, to her right. She is definitely snuggling up against my shoulder. I’ 11 lean my body up against her a little bit and see if she pulls away…. Heavens, she hasn’t budged! Did she feel me move up against her? Is she in love with me too? I suppose so; these past couple of days she hasn’t resisted any of my advances. Why don’t I dare go any further? I’m too timid now. I love her! I’ve fallen in love with her! But, how can I tell her? Can she love a man who’s already married? I’m afraid that if I told her, even hinted at it, she would run away from me. She would never see me again, not even a flicker of ordinary friendship would remain.
“Intermission”. The intermission already? That means the film’s half over. Well, that was quick! I haven’t seen any of it yet. What about some ice-cream? Yes, that would be nice; I’m really hot. But I wonder what she would like? Ice-cream? A soft drink? I’d better ask her.
“Would you like some ice-cream or a soft drink, or something?”
“No, nothing, thanks.”
Why does she have to be so polite today? The last couple of days she hasn’t been like this. Why doesn’t she want anything? Doesn’t she feel hot? Yesterday evening at the Carlton she ate two cartons of ice-cream, didn’t she? Why is she so adamant about refusing today? I find that a bit annoying.
“Two chocolate ice-creams, please.”
Surely she’s not going to refuse, now that I’ve bought them.
“No, honestly. I really don’t feel like eating ice-cream today.”
…Oh, I see. Well, if that’s the case…. She’s blushing slightly, isn’t she? I suppose I shouldn’t insist; it will only make her feel more embarrassed. Normally, she wouldn’t have refused me like this. Never. Didn’t she say that she didn’t feel like eating ice-cream today? All right, I’ll eat them. Ooh, that’s cold! I don’t think I can eat two cartons all by myself. I hope I wouldn’t upset my stomach. She’s turning round to look at something; what is it? Is she looking for someone? Or is she afraid that someone has seen us? As a matter of fact, now I hope that someone actually has seen us. It might be a good thing if they spread the story around. I’ve got chocolate all over my fingers and they’re all sticky. It’s such a nuisance not having my handkerchief. How about wiping them on my programme? Yes, and where is my programme? It was on my knee just now. It must have fallen on the floor. It’s probably got a lot of muck on it. Damn! What am I supposed to clean my hands on?
She’s passed me a handkerchief. She must have been watching me the whole time. It’s a little handkerchief, warm and moist. She must have mopped her brow with it. Well, there! I’ve wiped my fingers clean.
Hold on! I want to know what it smells like. I can pretend to be wiping my mouth; that way no one will see that I’m taking a sniff. Mmm? Very nice. This is her fragrance right enough. Perfume mixed with her perspiration. I feel an urge to lick it, to find out what it tastes like. It must be a very interesting taste, I think. I can wipe the handkerchief across my mouth from the left to the right, and as I do so I can stick my tongue out and lick it. I could even suck at it and no one would know. Wouldn’t that be nice? Ah, good! The lights have all been dimmed, and the film’s continuing. This is just the right time for me to give it a really good suck. It’s really salty here. Must be sweat, I suppose. What’s this here, the part with the pungent smell? That must be mucus and saliva. No wonder it’s so sticky. This really is a new delight. I can feel a delicious tingling sensation on the tip of my tongue. Strange, it feels as though I’m holding her naked body! I couldn’t keep this handkerchief, could I? What would she say if I suddenly put it in my pocket? Even if she didn’t say anything she would still think it was a bit improper. I couldn’t do such a base thing. I must hand it back to her. And I’d better hand it back right now.
She didn’t hold it in her hand, but stuffed it straight in her pocket. She probably sensed what I had done, because the handkerchief was wet through from my sucking it — as if I’d mopped my clothes after a summer shower. Ah, what a beautiful fragrance! A beautiful fragrance for sure! If only I could suck on her tender lips and behind her ears my whole body would start trembling. Oh, Heaven! I want to know right now how she would react if I were to reveal my secret love for her…. It would be enough if she would let me know that she would not spurn me. I don’t understand why I am so helpless in this situation. Shaoyan has had lots of love affairs, but I bet he has a different technique from mine. I wonder how he handles it when he tells a woman about his love for her and she turns him down…. If I only knew that, I would be all right. But, there again, would any woman turn him down? He is so handsome, so socially poised. In fact, he’s a real Flash Harry.
Perhaps women are unwilling to hurt people’s feelings… but however she handles the situation, even the slightest hint of a refusal will devastate me, I’m sure.
Anyway, let me think this over in more detail. What reason could she possibly have for turning me down? Isn’t she happy every time she goes out with me? Doesn’t she always strenuously oppose it every time some third person wants to go with us? Doesn’t she always disappear whenever she hears that my wife is coming to Shanghai? And when we go out to dinner, doesn’t she always insist on sitting in a private booth? Whenever I’m careless, doesn’t she just hang her head patiently? Oh, and there’s something else, too that enigmatic gaze she fixes me with from time to time. Sometimes it can last as long as one or two minutes. What does all this add up to?… So, it seems that, apart from the feet that I’m already married, she can have no reason at all to refuse me.
But, there again, it is not absolutely out of the question for a woman to fall in love with a married man. On the contrary, it happens often enough. And to look at it from another angle, if she wanted to turn me down she would have drifted away from me a long time ago. Surely she can’t be serenely unaware of the inevitability of my bothering her with such a matter! No, it’s impossible. She’s the sort of person who’s looking for a love affair, and if she were prepared to turn me down she would have been wasting her time seeking me out as a companion, now wouldn’t she? Ah, it’s a puzzle, after all. At least it’s a puzzle I can’t solve.
Now what’s happening on the screen? He’s taken his former wife’s ring off and thrown it away in front of that woman, hasn’t he? Morodin’s got a fine expression on his face. Look how anguished he looks! It must be very difficult to manage an expression like that. But, what was the story before now? I can’t really make it out. I’ve never watched a film so absent-mindedly before… Isn’t this my wedding ring? If I should throw away the ring my wife gave me right now, what would be her reaction? Would she, in fact, see me do it? And if she did, would she say anything? Right, I’ll give it a try. It’s coming off now. And now I’m holding it between my finger and thumb…. She must have seen me by now, I’m sure. What was that, a sigh? Who breathed a sigh? Is the whole of the audience sighing? Ah, they’re embracing. The heroine has finally thrown herself into the adjutant’s arms. Why isn’t she watching the screen? She’s still paying attention to me. Let me just turn and have a look at her. She’s looking at the ring I’m holding in my hand, isn’t she? What did she say?
“What are you doing?”
What am I doing? Did she really ask me that? What a barefaced question! How does she expect me to answer? Ha, ha, what does she mean? Did she mean my taking the ring off or did she mean my turning round and looking at her? Well, I’ll just give her an equivocal reply, like this:
“I’m not doing anything.”
Now she’s embarrassed, clearly uneasy. Why has she turned her lace away and hung her head? Now what are her feelings? Bight, I really have to find that out. But, if she does not tell me I will have no way of finding out. Women can keep their own secrets for ever, right until they die. But, sometimes they feel remorse.
Everybody is standing up. Oh, the film’s over. The lights have been turned on and they’re dazzling my eyes. What a crush of people! We have to go down by that staircase over there. What did she say? I didn’t catch it.
“I said, how do you feel?”
How do I feel? What does that mean? Oh, she must mean, what did I think of the film.
“Oh, very good. Yes, not bad.”
That’s a joke. I hardly even glanced at it! Oops, be careful!… Mind how you walk. How could she miss her footing on a perfectly ordinary set of stairs. She must have done it on purpose… deliberately… so she could lean on my arm, I bet. My arm is completely round her now. Should I withdraw it? No need, we haven’t got to the bottom of the stairs yet, and she might miss her footing again.
Oh, it’s chilly outside! It’s only when you come out of the Nanjing Theatre that you feel a warm breeze. That’s an air-conditioned theatre. Now I should remove my arm from her. What time is it? Eleven-forty. But my watch is ten minutes fast, so it’s only about 11:30. Still early! I should ask her to go for a snack.
Why is she standing so much on ceremony today? Why did she so steadfastly refuse to go for a snack? She wouldn’t even let me see her home, but instead flagged down a taxi and went off by herself. I was ready to take her all the way home. Did she suddenly go off me? Probably so. Today she must have finally grown tired of me. But… but then why did she get me to promise to fetch her tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock to go to Fanwangdu Park? I don’t understand.
A poet leaves his house in haste, heading toward the harbor. In one hand, he carries a book of poems; in the other, his keys. The man then boards a British ship that takes him from Haifa to Acre; and then from Acre to Beirut, Damascus, and other places. Can we imagine what these keys look like?
As a child, I had never heard of Abdul Karim al-Karmi—whose nickname was Abu Salma. His name was never mentioned, neither at home nor at school. When we were little, we learned how to recite and declaim poetry for rhyming competitions at school. Each competition started with the opening verse of a poem, which we coined “al-Miftah”—the key-verse. Our Arabic teacher used to start class with a key-verse taken from Abu Salma’s poetry: “the grievances of slaves about slaves, are delivered on the flare of a poem”. He always insisted on this one, although he never bothered telling us about Abu Salma. The truth is that we were not interested in him either, as we were busy recalling tricky verses that ended with a tough Arabic letter, such as the “Dal”.
Our history teacher, on the other hand, gave in to our pressures, and agreed to replace a dry history lesson with poetry competitions. However, he insisted on a different key-verse: “The Arabs are the noblest nation in the world, and whoever doubts it is a heretic.” To this day, I do not know who the author of this line was, since the teacher never told us. In fact he did not complete the school year with us. One day he disappeared without notice; and we were told that he had been removed from the school and had left the country to wander between Egypt, Libya, and Jordan. Our teacher never returned to his homeland, and we were left wondering: are the Arabs really the noblest nation in the world? Perhaps one day, when he returns, he will share with us his lessons about the nobility of the Arabs—whether they be among the faithful or the infidels. I have no doubt, and God is my witness, that after his long examination of the Arab people he will repent and apologize. Not for heresy, god forbid, but for the naive faith he had in those days.
My late father was a poet, and I became a poet as well. I used to write love sonnets and brag about them to the other schoolkids, who labeled me “the poet”. Everything was going very well until the schoolmaster got his hands on my sonnets, and gave me detention in his office. He stared at me and asked me with a stony face: “To whom did you write these sonnets, Ya Amar ibn Abu Rabia?” Abu Rabia was one of the greatest love poets from the pre-Islamic era; and at the time, I foolishly thought that a poet was free to express his passion and yearning for love. I believed that in the twentieth century I was entitled to announce my love in public just like the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah poets. When I confessed and named a girl, he seemed agitated. He circled me slowly and said sarcastically: “I suggest that we find her family. Let us see if they support your flirting with their daughter. If they do, I will let you go. However, if they do not, I will let them cut off your head and make you a martyr on the altar of poetry—you, the great poet Abu al-Tayeb al-Mutnabi. ” He kept me locked in his office for five long hours. I sat on the chair staring at the window, trembling with fear, waiting for the hangman to come. Eventually, I decided to save my head and gave up. I was willing to admit that I was too young for love and that the whole episode was foolish, inappropriate, etcetera. He then let me go. Ever since then, I have not written any love sonnets. I turned my back on them, renounced my desires, and abandoned the notion of love altogether.
After this episode, the headmaster started summoning me to his office every year, requiring me to compose a poem for the Independence Day ceremony at school. The headmaster would correct my syntax and grammar and worked on the intonations of my readings. Everybody would attend the ceremony: village residents, Education Ministry inspectors, government representatives, the military governor, and even the director of nearby Damun Prison. When I would finish reading the poem, everybody would applaud along with the school headmaster and the officers of the military government.
Many years after I graduated from high school, our Arabic teacher appeared suddenly at my door. Worried and down, he asked me if I had kept those Independence Day poems. Apparently, a person from our village had denounced him to the police, claiming that he had been rousing Pro-Palestinian feelings among the children. As the headmaster had been removed from school, he wanted to bring my poems to the police as proof of his innocence. He needed evidence of his loyalty, of the fact that he was instilling joy of the holiday and love for the state in us. I handed him the poems and said to myself: If my poems have become certificates of innocence for the police, I should probably stop writing poetry.
Although I loved poetry, I never heard of Abu Salma while in high school. I still recall the painful memory that gripped me when I realized that I passed by his house every day for four consecutive years without ever having imagined that our national poet lived there. The truth is that at the time I did not know what the term “national poet” meant. The Hebrew teacher had planted in our minds the idea that Chaim Nachman Bialik was our national poet, and that no national poet could ever be born to any nation like Bialik had been to the Hebrew nation. Funny enough, it was only as I grew older that I was able to go back and ask the questions that only little boys dare to ask—namely, why do we not have our own national poet, as they do. I so much wanted for my father and the history teacher to become national poets.
I met Abu Salma in the summer of 1980 in Sofia, a few months before he passed away. I went there to study communism and he arrived to recite poetry. All he talked about was Haifa. At the time, I spent most of my days squeezed inside a small room in the editorial office of the communist newspaper Al-Ittihad. In one of the offices, there was a thick wooden desk that once belonged to Abu Salma, who used to gain his living by being a journalist. His desk vicariously kept us in touch with him, and he kept in touch with us through the keys to his house —like lovers Who converse under the moonlight – it is there, but far, far away.
He described a different Haifa, very different from the one I knew. He asked about al-Malukh Street, and about al-Hanatir Square, and said that his house was on al-Bassatin Street—in the German neighborhood. He asked: “Do you know the house? Is there anyone who looks after it?” Abu Salma scolded us for not watching the house, for being satisfied with his desk as a substitute. We did not dare to reply: “And you, why did you leave?”
He talked and wept. We cried together. “I left the house with the keys in one hand and a book of poems in the other. The poems fell and sank into the vast sea, and only the keys remained because they were tied to my waist.”
On my way to the Balkan Hotel, I saw a gypsy sitting on the pavement with a small baby in her lap; and next to her stood a boy of about seven years old, with his hand raised and his face like a beggar. I wanted to give him some coins, but the Bulgarian woman who accompanied me was reluctant. She said: “No. They really do not need it. The state gives them a whole lot and they reject it!”
“What kind of a talk is this in a socialist country, comrade?” I asked her with indignation.
And she answered:
“The Gypsies reject what the state offers and prefer begging in the streets! This is their way of life! We built apartment buildings for them and handed them the keys. They abandoned the apartments and sold the keys in the market. And then they scattered in the streets singing, dancing, and begging.”
“What are you saying?”
“Are you laughing at me, comrade?”
“Please take me to the Balkan Hotel where I am meeting with the Palestinian gypsy sheikh. He is our national poet. Do the gypsies have a national poet?”
“Bulgaria has its own national poet!”
Comrade Nana said this as she accompanied me to the hotel where I met with Abu Salma. When I embraced Abu Salma, who was waiting in the lobby, I heard nothing but his gentle weeping and the rattling of keys held by a hotel staff member who then disappeared into the spacious lounge.
The trip to the Balkan reminded me of those legends that are passed on from generation to generation. They are always woven with beliefs in blind fate, fruitful coincidences, and nostalgia. At the heart of these legends is the story of a man thrown into his own fate—just like this old poet who keeps dreaming about a return to his house. He could describe it in detail, corner by corner, stone by stone; he would ask about the condition of the stairs, about Said’s room, and about the courtyard; and he would reprimand us for not watching after it.
The poet started his long journey with a fairy tale: the legend of a young shepherd from Tel Radwan, who used to sing and play his flute to communicate with the buffalo flock. One day the young man fell in love with the daughter of the tribe’s sheikh and asked her hand. The sheikh was furious, his blood boiling at the insolent shepherd who dared to ask him for his daughter. In return, he ordered the shepherd’s fingers to be cut off. It was the harshest possible punishment for a young man who used to make the buffalos dance in the pasture with his fingers. The following morning, the flutist shepherd did not show up and the buffaloes refused to leave their pens. There was no choice but to make him new fingers out of wooden sticks. The shepherd played the flute once more and the buffaloes returned to the meadow. And in the end, he also married the sheikh’s daughter.
Abu Salma admitted that “Al-Miftah” was derived from this legend. It was a source of inspiration, much like the inspiration that filled the buffaloes when the shepherd played the flute again, with his wooden fingers. Is it possible to open the door into a new world, whether material or spiritual, without a key??
During the Nakba, tens of thousands of keys disappeared. Countless remained stuck in the wide-open doors of houses. Many others were lost in the arid paths or sunk into the sea, unless they had been attached to peoples’ waists. Their owners have been sitting and waiting for many years with a supreme and endless patience. They believe that patience is their real “al-Miftah” and have replaced the iron keys of their houses with the keys of hope. The spark of hope awoke in them the moment the bulldozers had finished demolishing their houses.
Yuda is banging the wall with his pillow; Moishe is switching the lights off and on again. I lay silent, not involved in the nightly disturbance. “He’s coming!” calls Zvika, the sun-shield watcher. We get under our blankets, pretending to be asleep. The door is opened, and my father peeps in. He stands silent in the doorway, listening. A loud girl’s laugh is coming from the room by the showers. He leaves the door open and rushes there. Moishe goes to the door, looks left and whispers: “He’s in the girls’ room.” Zvika takes off his blanket, stands up and signals Hai through the sun-shields that it’s their turn now. The stamping of the iron bed’s legs on the tiles thunders and then stops abruptly as my father’s footsteps rush there. I can visualize the ongoing signals through the sun-shield. “Give up, please.” I send a telepathic plea to my dad, “for the both of us.”
My father is on duty tonight, for the first time in this building, trying to enforce the “all lights out” policy. It’s a thankless job, trying to overcome 24 nine year old kids in six rooms who are not willing to go to sleep yet. In addition to the numerical advantage and youthful energy, the sun-shield advantage is on our side. It’s an elongated niche along the entire building. Blinds were probably not available at the time, so they built a concrete casing around the windows to keep away the sunlight. They did not realize that they created a back door corridor for us to send signals and crawl on all fours from one room to another.
In the short silence I pray that the revolt will end. My father has no chance against us. We the kids have already defeated: Berman, the smart electrician, who pulled out the fuse, Waxman, the lenient, who left after five minutes, and even Zuckerman, the cruel, who had no dilemma about tweaking someone even without a proof. Some fathers use a moment of silence to give up and leave, but my father is strict. Zvika checks the sun-shield and whispers: “It’s our turn now.” The room is dark but I can feel the looks of my three roommates. “Come on,” Yuda whispers. I feel bad for dad, but I have no choice. Any kid who does not take part in the disturbance when his father is on duty is boycotted for an entire month. Esther is the only one who does not have to participate in the nightly disturbances. Her family joined the Kibbutz only six months ago. Every night, when everyone finally goes to sleep, she cries in the sun-shield. She knows that her parents reside nearby and surely can hear her cry, and she can’t understand why they are not coming to comfort her.
I get out my whistle, tucked between the mattress and the wall, and blow my short angry contribution. The blinking light through the sunshield confirms that my signal is received in the girls’ room. I put the whistle back and pretend to be asleep while my father’s steps rush there. After a few silent minutes my father returns. He pauses in the doorway before he comes near my bed. My eyes are shut and my breathing is slow, but my heart beat is wild. Dad leans over me, straightens my pillow. His right hand presses hard on my left shoulder. I grit my teeth to stand the pain while my dad leans closer and whispers in my ear: “I know that you took part in it.” He leaves the room and closes the door. A minute later I hear the entrance door slammed.
A few minutes later all the lights are on and the hustle is everywhere. Pillows are flying, faces peep from the sun-shield and the yelling and ball thumps from the corridor declare that a “Stanga” game is on. Tonight, I don’t feel like joining the celebration. I ignore the noisy buzz around me, silently lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.
My mother said to me: ‘You must go to school, or they will lock up your father.’ There were five of us children at home, four girls and one boy. The eldest was my sister, then me, one year behind her. But I was stronger than her. And naughtier. So my mother said: ‘You will be the one who goes to school, because at home you only make trouble.’ My sister was to stay at home with the little children. She carried them around on her back, washed their nappies, wiped their noses and their little bottoms, and swept and cleaned the house. Everything had to be done by the daughter who was at home, because mothers went into the village to work for the gadjos, and only came back home at night. That was what our mother did, too. Our father went to make bricks. If there was no work, he would work for the gadjos for some food.
In the morning, my mother woke me up: ‘Get up, Little Bighead, go down to the stream and have a wash.’ A little stream passed by about thirty metres from our house. That was where we went to wash, every morning and every night. At night, I would run down to the stream on both feet, but when I came back I hopped on one foot. I never had shoes, and so I wanted at least one of my feet to stay clean. In winter and summer we went barefoot. I only had one set of clothes, which my mother had begged from the gadjos. As for knickers and petticoats, we did not even know what they were.
I went to the stream and washed my feet and my face. My hair was full of feathers, because Romani beds were nothing but feathers and straw, which came out of the mattress and the dirty old quilt. I went to school. I had no bag, I had no readers, no pencil, no exercise book – nothing! I had never had anything of that kind.
I went through the village, and the village was still sleeping. There was no one outside, only two or three gadjos going to the fields with their horses. No one even looked at me, it was as though I were not there at all. I knew where the school was, because when I used to go into the village with my mother, she said to me: ‘This is where you will go to school, so I will have some peace and quiet, Little Bighead!’
I pushed hard to open the heavy school gates. It was dark and cold, and I was half-naked and barefoot. No one was there at all. Only one old gadjo, who looked at me and said: ‘What do you want here?’
‘Well, I’ve come to school. I want to learn things.’
‘You?’ He started to laugh. ‘Look at that skirt on her! Why haven’t you washed? Why haven’t you combed your hair? Where’s your bag? You have nothing, you don’t even have a bag! How will you study?’
‘I will study! I will come to school, I will!’
The old man laughed, and he shoved me into a classroom. I sat in the front desk. I looked all around me. I was alone, all by my little self. The old gadjo started to sweep the floor. I just sat there, thinking to myself how I was going to be somebody! I would know everything. All knowledge would come into my head if I just sat in school – that was what I believed. But then I looked at my bare feet, and my heart sank within me. How could a poor Romani girl become somebody? I closed my eyes, and saw myself in a pink satin dress, embroidered with gold roses. Then I believed again that I would be that clever woman who would pave the way for other Roma. Already as a little girl, I knew that we Roma were the last of the last. No one said a kind word to us. If I wanted to go out from the settlement, my mother said to me: ‘Don’t you dare go into the village! The other children will beat you up.’ And so I only dared to go into the village when there were several of us, or when the older boys came with us, to stand up for us.
It was half past seven, and the bells rang in the church. One after another, the boys and girls filed into the class. Their mothers brought them. Two or three mothers came into the classroom, and seated their little girls in the front desk. They looked askance at me. But I stayed where I was, because I wanted to become clever. I was just waiting to become clever. More and more gadjo boys and girls kept coming in. They were finely dressed, everyone had a bag, and the little girls had ribbons in their hair.
At long last the teacher arrived. She saw me in the front desk. ‘Who put you there?’ She dragged me up, and sent me to sit at the back. ‘That’ll be your place.’ In the first desk she sat the rich little gadjo girls. Then came the poorer ones, and the very back desk was for the Romani kids. ‘The gypsy desk.’ Next to the cracked window, separated from everyone else. I felt like an orphan. Why did I have to sit there all alone? It was hard for me, when there was not a single Romani child with me, and I was afraid. I would have felt stronger, if only someone had sat next to me. But I was alone, all by myself.
The first day in school went by. I learnt nothing. None of that knowledge went into my head, the only thing that forced its way into my mind was how poor I was. When I arrived home, no one asked me: ‘so how was school?’
‘Mummy, the teacher said that I needed a reader, an exercise book and a pencil.’ My mother slapped me. ‘Run away! There isn’t enough to buy bread, and you want a book from me! Just keep on going, so they don’t take your father and lock him up.’
The next day, I washed my feet again and I combed my hair and put on my old clothes and went to school. And that’s how I went to school every day. A month went by, and the teacher did not ask me anything, but just looked to see that I was there. She did not know that I was listening to all that she said. When she asked one of the other girls or boys, in my mind I said along with them what they were supposed to say. I liked doing maths. The seven-times table was my favourite. At night, I was unable to fall asleep because the seven-times table kept dancing in my head. I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me: ‘Go on, count!’ And I counted very well. Again, the teacher asked: ‘What do they cultivate in Hungary?’ I knew. Peppers, melons.
‘You are not stupid,’ said the teacher. ‘If you had a reader and an exercise book and a pencil, you could learn something. Why doesn’t your mother buy you a reader?’
‘My mother has no money.’
‘Why do you go around so dirty? You don’t even have proper clothes!’
‘There are many of us at home, and there is no work.’
Then, one day, I did not go to school. ‘Where were you?’ asked the teacher when I returned.
‘You told me that my clothes were dirty, so my mother washed them for me.’ The teacher’s eyes popped out. ‘I couldn’t go out of the house until my clothes were dry.’
Then the teacher bought me an exercise book and started to give me little pencils, which the other children had thrown away. My fingers hurt from holding them, but I was glad to have them.
One day an order was given that all ‘gypsy’ children must go to school. That’s what the village mayor said. Among the Roma there was great horror, great panic. They ran up and down, the women tore their hair, what will they do with us? What will they do with us? The village guard came to the Romani settlement and began to drum, and the men ran out of their huts, half-naked, their hair full of feathers, and the women were screaming at the children: ‘Go to school! They’ll lock up your father if you don’t go! Who’ll support us?’
The children went. They all put on their ‘very best’ clothes – their mother’s skirt, their father’s trousers – and off they went to school. The village official went on his bicycle, and we chased after him. ‘Go on, run, you gypsy rabble!’
He took us in to the headmaster. I had never seen the headmaster before. He was short, fat-bellied and bald. He had onion eyes and a big moustache, which jigged up and down above his lips when he spoke. He only had two teeth, and God knows where the other teeth had gone. When he looked at us, his big eyes bulged out. He started to tell us off for being lazy Roma, who did not want to learn anything, who did not want to become real people! He cursed us, but you could see that he was a good man. ‘How will I divide you up? Filthy rabble! All the teachers are scared of you,’ he said, kindly. So he started to count: one, two, three, four, five. There were fifteen of us. He said: ‘You go there, you there, you there ’ So he divided us up among the classes. My sister Beži, who was a year older than me, also had to go to school. My mother cursed and cried that there was no one to be with the children when she went out to work.
We went into the classroom, and the teacher was scared of us. ‘Where will I put you!’ At the back were three desks, and she sat us there. We were separated from the gadjo children so that we wouldn’t fight with them. We couldn’t study.
Once, I was very hungry. It was just when there was a fair in the village. The gadjos were baking and boiling – the Roma were hungry. The teacher asked each of us what we had eaten, including the Romani children. Black Pot said: ‘I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. We only eat when my mother gets home from the village.’
Bango said: ‘We don’t eat in the morning, either,’ which was true. Our first meal used to be in the afternoon, when our mothers came back from the village and brought potatoes, cottage cheese and milk, which the gadjo women gave them if they chopped firewood, cleaned the manure out of the stables, or wiped down the stove.
The teacher said to me: ‘What have you eaten?’
‘Wow!’ my eyes opened as wide as stars. ‘If you could see what I ate! Biscuits with cottage cheese, soup, buns and cake …!’
‘How is it that you have eaten, while there was nothing for your sister to put in her mouth?’ the teacher interrupted. ‘Why are you lying? Stick your tongue out! You’ll get something to make sure you don’t lie next time!’
I stuck my tongue out, and she hit me across it with a ruler. It hurt so much, I could not even speak. But when I came to myself again, I said to her: ‘I was not lying! I was eating all night long! I dreamed of eating, I ate in my dream.’
The teacher went red, said nothing and walked away.
A year went by. Everyone said I was not stupid. I did not fail. They let me move into the second year. I received my school report. There wasn’t a single C grade on it. And I was very proud!
I ran home, jumping up and down for joy, and shouting from far away: ‘Mummy, I only have As and Bs.’
‘I’ll give you ‘A’s! Do you think we can live off your A grades? A grades, A grades – at home you do everything to avoid working! At home you couldn’t care less about work!’ That’s how she cut me short. It was hard for me. The little gadjos got books, watches or money for good school reports – but what was there for me? Cursing. There was no one I could pour my heart out to.
Three Romani boys went up with me into the second year. I became friends with those little boys, and the Roma said of me that I was stronger than a boy! Whatever the boys said, I said it too, and what they did, I did too. When they were beaten, I was beaten too.
One time the circus came to the village. I was mad about dancing. I knew how to put my leg around my neck. And so Šulo and Bango and Tarzan – those were the names of the three who went with me into the second year – said: ‘Listen, you go to the circus – and whatever you see there, you can tell us about it afterwards!’
I said: ‘How can I go, if we don’t have any money?’
And they said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some money somehow. Come with us.’
We went over to the church. In front of the church was a statue of Saint John. In the morning, when the gadjos walked by the church, they threw money at it. And Šulo said: ‘What does a statue need money for? You can keep guard, to make sure the priest or the verger doesn’t come, and we’ll collect the money.’ They made some clay with slime and spit, and made a kind of sticky paste, which they put on the end of a stick, then they poked the stick through the grating towards Saint John. They wanted to raise the money from the dead. ‘Bango, do a wee in the clay, wee in it, it will be better,’ said Šulo. And sure enough, he caught a sixpence on the stick. But the priest was coming!
‘The priest is coming!’ I shouted. The boys stuck the sixpence in my mouth. ‘Swallow it! Get it down!’ I swallowed, and started to choke. I choked, retched, spat, turned red, and the boys were thumping me on the back.
‘What are you doing here, you devils?’ said the priest.
‘We came to pray to Saint John – look, she almost choked,’ lied Bango.
Of course, the priest did not know that I was choking on stolen money, and he said: ‘Come here, let me give you a bit of holy water.’ He poured some into my palm, and so I washed down the stolen money with holy water.
Bango said: ‘We need to think of a way of getting the money.’ But how? What? Where? I used to go to work for one gadjo who had chickens. ‘Do you know what?’ the boys said, ‘You go into the hen-house, take the eggs from under the chickens’ bottoms, and we can sell them to the Jew.’
I did not know what to do. ‘Bango, you go!’ I said.
‘Alright,’ the boys said. ‘You go up the tree, up the pear-tree, and you can pick pears. Bango can go for the eggs.’
I climbed the pear tree – the dog didn’t bark, because it knew me. The boys were in the hen-house, and the hens made no noise, because Šulo and Bango knew what to do. But who should be coming? The gadjo! And I was up the tree! He came straight for me. ‘Is that how you thank me for giving you work?’ He picked up a big stick, the kind you use to knock down nuts, and he went for me! I looked to see whether Bango and Šulo would run out of the hen-house. I saw them jump over the gate, and then they were gone. The gadjo saw nothing. Good, now I could come down from the tree. So I jumped, straight onto a nail. Luckily, it didn’t go into my leg, but it tore my skirt at the back. I ran for it, and the torn skirt flew in the wind, while my naked bottom shone out like the moon.
The boys were waiting for me. They turned me round and round. ‘We need a patch to sew it up!’ said Bango. But where could we get a patch from?
‘Do you know what,’ said Bango, ‘you walk in front of me, and I’ll walk right behind you, and then no one will see your bottom.’ So that is how we walked. My mother was watching from a distance. ‘What on earth is that? Look! She’s with a boy! Stuck right up against him! Does an honest girl walk like that?’ (I was about seven or eight years old.) As I came nearer, my mother said: ‘Is that how you go about, my girl?!’ She beat me until I could not get up from the ground. My mother was wailing: ‘You have one set of clothes! And you’ve torn them up! How can you go to school?’ We never had cloth for a patch at home. My mother said to me, ‘Wait, we’ll do it somehow.’ She took a kind of apron, which was supposed to be tied to my front, and she tied it behind me. My naked bottom could not be seen.
As soon as my mother had tied the apron to me, we went to sell the eggs. The Jew said: ‘What kind of chickens do you have?’ Their shells were very thin. ‘You can see straight away that it’s a Romani chicken.’ The Jew would not buy the eggs from us.
Now what? How could we make money to go to the circus? I said: ‘Oh! I am so disappointed! I’ll never go anywhere. I’m going home.’
‘Aha!’ said the boys. ‘So you swallowed the money and now you want to go home!’ Šulo caught me by the ear. ‘Have no fear. Wherever you try to go, we’ll follow you, because that Saint-John sixpence is not just yours! It’s ours, too.’ But what use was the sixpence to us anyway, when the circus cost one crown twenty!
‘Let’s go and see what we can do,’ said Tarzan. We went to the place where the circus was, and it was already full of circus wagons. Bango went to ask whether he could go and carry wood, or help in any way. What the circus manager said was: ‘Yeah, I need nappies washing, and you can wash them if you want.’ Bango ran for water, Šulo washed, and I just stood there as if I was their princess. Bango said to the circus manager: ‘Let her go in! She can go and see the circus!’
The circus manager pushed me forward: ‘Hop in! Run off, then!’ I went inside, and the boys went on and on washing the nappies.
I was inside the circus! The acrobats swung on the bars, walked on the rope, and the clowns fell off bicycles – most of all, I liked the snake woman in the golden skirt, who did somersaults in the air and walked on her hands. In my mind, I did everything alongside her. I’d show the boys a thing or two!
I went home, glowing like a star. I was beaten by my mother for gadding about! I went to sleep in tears and hungry. As soon as I closed my eyes, I imagined myself as that circus lady, jumping through the air, walking on my hands, with the golden skirt shining on me like the sun.
It was not yet light when I got up secretly and disappeared off to the cemetery. There was a large lawn there, beautiful and soft, so that I would not break any bones. I did a crab. I could do that. I put my foot around my neck. I attempted a handspring. I fell crashing down on my back. No sooner had I recovered a little than I tried to do it again. I spun through the air. Good, now I could do a flip, as well. There was one thing I couldn’t do – I could not walk on my hands. I fell and fell again. I was broken and bruised. Everything hurt.
The bells were ringing in the church, and I fled to school. My first lesson was catechism. The priest came into the classroom, saying: ‘You were at the circus, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, I was.’
‘You go to the circus, but you don’t go to church!’
I said: ‘The floor is cold in the church, and I don’t have shoes.’
‘Tell me how our great God was born.’
‘I can’t tell you how God was born, but if you want I can tell you how my little sister Ili was born.’
‘Come out from behind your desk! You’ll get your bottom smacked for having no manners!’
‘Oh no! I can’t have my bottom smacked!’ I cried. The priest pulled me out of my desk, the apron flew open, and my naked bottom glowed like a full moon. The boys started to laugh. The priest sent me home. And finally my mother brought me some worn-out clothes from the village.
A week later, when I was not so bruised, I said to the boys, during a maths lesson: ‘Come with me.’ I put my hand up and said I needed to go to the toilet. The boys did the same thing, one after another. We had a modern school, with three flushing toilets and a corridor in front of them. In the corridor, I began to show them what the circus was like. The teacher started to wonder where the Romani boys were. Where had they gone? No one had come back from the toilet. The teacher came after us. And when she saw us, I was walking on my hands, spinning through the air and twisting my face like a clown.
‘So that’s what you’re doing! You’re teaching them circus acts. Wait here!’ I was beaten again. How many times had I been beaten for one circus! And what had I gained from it? One swallowed sixpence. When it came out of me again, I hid it in the cemetery. It’s buried there to this day.
A new teacher came. He was tall and young. He looked at us. ‘Are those all the Romani children? Are there no more of you?’
‘There are more of us, but the others don’t come to school. If there were more of us, the teachers would be scared!’
‘So I will take all the Romani children!’ said the new teacher. ‘But none of you will interrupt me or disturb me!’
The next day, what should we see but the new teacher, riding his bicycle into the middle of our settlement. He had come among the ‘gypsies’. Not a single gadjo had ever visited us, apart from the village guard. The teacher called out: ‘Every child who is supposed to be going to school, come outside!’ He even said ‘aven avri’, ‘come outside’, in our own language!
We ran out of the shacks – the teacher had a stick in his hand. ‘Get going, get going, run along to school!’ When we got to the classroom, he asked: ‘Hands up if you haven’t combed your hair.’ He didn’t need to ask, he could see that none of us had combed our hair.
‘Why haven’t you combed your hair?’
‘We don’t have any combs.’
‘Have you washed?’
‘We don’t have any towels.’ One after another, we started to tell him everything that we did not have.
‘Good. Tomorrow you can come to school one hour earlier! If not, I’ll give you what-for!’
The next day, we really did come an hour early. The teacher was already waiting for us. He had brought towels, soap, a washbowl and combs.
‘Who hasn’t eaten anything?’
We all put our hands up. The teacher sent Bango for bread rolls. He bought a roll for each one of us. Then he said: ‘Well, now we can start learning something! Today you can all stay in school for the afternoon, too.’ At midday, he bought food for us again, bread and margarine. He asked us: ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’
‘I want to dance and sing!’ I said.
He slapped me. ‘You won’t earn a living that way. You need to study, then you can dance and sing.’ Then he grabbed the boys by the hair. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Me – a blacksmith.’
‘Good, you will be a blacksmith.’
‘I want to be a musician like my dad.’
‘That’s all fine, but you must still know how to read and write.’
Then he gave us pencils and exercise books and we really did start to learn something.
There was a fair in the village. The teachers chose good pupils to recite poems. So our teacher said:
‘Just wait and we’ll show them what you can do!’ He asked me: ‘Do you know how to sing?’
I sang a very amorous love song from a film. I must have been about eight years old.
‘Who taught you that?’ the teacher asked.
‘My father sings that to my mother at night,’ I said.
‘Which of you can recite a poem?’
‘Meeeeee!’ I shouted. I recited a patriotic poem which I had heard from the gadjo children. My face was red and my eyes shone – he stared at me.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘you can recite a poem, and then you can all sing and play music.’
The boys brought violins and basses and whatever they could from home. But we had nothing to wear, we had no smart clothes. The teacher said: ‘Oh my God, if I was not so poor! How I could help you all! Look what beautiful hair you have! Would you like ribbons in your hair?’
‘Wow! I’d love that.’
‘Look, boys and girls, you have to study so that you won’t be stupid! So that the gadjos can’t do whatever they want with you. If you study, you will be cleverer than your parents. You will hold your heads up high, you will know how to find your own place among the other people. Study, and pay no attention if I shout at you, or if I box your ears. I cannot get angry with those who treat you in such a way, so I have to vent my anger on you. Oh God! When I see how the gadjo children eat so well and bring bread with dripping, and you eat your hunger, how the anger rises in me! How am I supposed to help you? Grow up good and honourable, so that the gentlemen see that your poverty is not your fault but theirs.’
And we took an oath that we would never again be naughty or bad, that we would not steal money from Saint John, and that we would study.
We went to the celebrations. No one expected the Romani children there. The gadjo children were there with their mothers and fathers. They put on a play about a princess and a cobbler.
Then our teacher stood up. He said: ‘Now let me introduce my pupils to you.’ The boys began to play. The old men started pulling at their moustaches big and small and started tapping their feet, it made them so keen to dance! Then I recited the poem. The gadjos were astonished. Then I took a plate, as my teacher had told me to, and went to collect money. ‘We want to study, too, but we don’t have readers or exercise books.’ Everyone gave some money.
I did not go to school for long. The war began, and Roma were not allowed to go into the village. They did not allow us to go to school. I did three years of school.
*This Story is taken from: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.
“Where do you want the marquee put, mother?”
“My dear child, it’s no use asking me. I’m determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest.”
But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.
“You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.”
Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn’t possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
“Good morning,” she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, “Oh—er—have you come—is it about the marquee?”
“That’s right, miss,” said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her. “That’s about it.”
His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue! And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too. “Cheer up, we won’t bite,” their smile seemed to say. How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning! She mustn’t mention the morning; she must be business-like. The marquee.
“Well, what about the lily-lawn? Would that do?”
And she pointed to the lily-lawn with the hand that didn’t hold the bread-and-butter. They turned, they stared in the direction. A little fat chap thrust out his under-lip, and the tall fellow frowned.
“I don’t fancy it,” said he. “Not conspicuous enough. You see, with a thing like a marquee,” and he turned to Laura in his easy way, “you want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me.”
Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him.
“A corner of the tennis-court,” she suggested. “But the band’s going to be in one corner.”
“H’m, going to have a band, are you?” said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
“Only a very small band,” said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much if the band was quite small. But the tall fellow interrupted.
“Look here, miss, that’s the place. Against those trees. Over there. That’ll do fine.”
Against the karakas. Then the karaka-trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?
They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom… And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, “Are you right there, matey?” “Matey!” The friendliness of it, the—the—Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.
“Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!” a voice cried from the house.
“Coming!” Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch. In the hall her father and Laurie were brushing their hats ready to go to the office.
“I say, Laura,” said Laurie very fast, “you might just give a squiz at my coat before this afternoon. See if it wants pressing.”
“I will,” said she. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. “Oh, I do love parties, don’t you?” gasped Laura.
“Ra-ther,” said Laurie’s warm, boyish voice, and he squeezed his sister too, and gave her a gentle push. “Dash off to the telephone, old girl.”
The telephone. “Yes, yes; oh yes. Kitty? Good morning, dear. Come to lunch? Do, dear. Delighted of course. It will only be a very scratch meal—just the sandwich crusts and broken meringue-shells and what’s left over. Yes, isn’t it a perfect morning? Your white? Oh, I certainly should. One moment—hold the line. Mother’s calling.” And Laura sat back. “What, mother? Can’t hear.”
Mrs. Sheridan’s voice floated down the stairs. “Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday.”
“Mother says you’re to wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday. Good. One o’clock. Bye-bye.”
Laura put back the receiver, flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall. “Huh,” she sighed, and the moment after the sigh she sat up quickly. She was still, listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.
The front door bell pealed, and there sounded the rustle of Sadie’s print skirt on the stairs. A man’s voice murmured; Sadie answered, careless, “I’m sure I don’t know. Wait. I’ll ask Mrs Sheridan.”
“What is it, Sadie?” Laura came into the hall.
“It’s the florist, Miss Laura.”
It was, indeed. There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
“O-oh, Sadie!” said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
“It’s some mistake,” she said faintly. “Nobody ever ordered so many. Sadie, go and find mother.”
But at that moment Mrs. Sheridan joined them.
“It’s quite right,” she said calmly. “Yes, I ordered them. Aren’t they lovely?” She pressed Laura’s arm. “I was passing the shop yesterday, and I saw them in the window. And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse.”
“But I thought you said you didn’t mean to interfere,” said Laura. Sadie had gone. The florist’s man was still outside at his van. She put her arm round her mother’s neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother’s ear.
“My darling child, you wouldn’t like a logical mother, would you? Don’t do that. Here’s the man.”
He carried more lilies still, another whole tray.
“Bank them up, just inside the door, on both sides of the porch, please,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Don’t you agree, Laura?”
“Oh, I do, mother.”
In the drawing-room Meg, Jose and good little Hans had at last succeeded in moving the piano.
“Now, if we put this chesterfield against the wall and move everything out of the room except the chairs, don’t you think?”
“Hans, move these tables into the smoking-room, and bring a sweeper to take these marks off the carpet and—one moment, Hans—” Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama. “Tell mother and Miss Laura to come here at once.
“Very good, Miss Jose.”
She turned to Meg. “I want to hear what the piano sounds like, just in case I’m asked to sing this afternoon. Let’s try over ‘This life is Weary.’”
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose’s face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then… Good-bye!”
But at the word “Good-bye,” and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.
“Aren’t I in good voice, mummy?” she beamed.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.”
But now Sadie interrupted them. “What is it, Sadie?”
“If you please, m’m, cook says have you got the flags for the sandwiches?”
“The flags for the sandwiches, Sadie?” echoed Mrs. Sheridan dreamily. And the children knew by her face that she hadn’t got them. “Let me see.” And she said to Sadie firmly, “Tell cook I’ll let her have them in ten minutes.”
“Now, Laura,” said her mother quickly, “come with me into the smoking-room. I’ve got the names somewhere on the back of an envelope. You’ll have to write them out for me. Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant. Do you hear me, children, or shall I have to tell your father when he comes home to-night? And—and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you? I’m terrified of her this morning.”
The envelope was found at last behind the dining-room clock, though how it had got there Mrs. Sheridan could not imagine.
“One of you children must have stolen it out of my bag, because I remember vividly—cream cheese and lemon-curd. Have you done that?”
“Egg and—” Mrs. Sheridan held the envelope away from her. “It looks like mice. It can’t be mice, can it?”
“Olive, pet,” said Laura, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, of course, olive. What a horrible combination it sounds. Egg and olive.”
They were finished at last, and Laura took them off to the kitchen. She found Jose there pacifying the cook, who did not look at all terrifying.
“I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches,” said Jose’s rapturous voice. “How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?”
“Fifteen, Miss Jose.”
“Well, cook, I congratulate you.”
Cook swept up crusts with the long sandwich knife, and smiled broadly.
“Godber’s has come,” announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.
That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.
“Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl,” ordered cook.
Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn’t help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.
“Don’t they carry one back to all one’s parties?” said Laura.
“I suppose they do,” said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. “They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say.”
“Have one each, my dears,” said cook in her comfortable voice. “Yer ma won’t know.”
Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.
“Let’s go into the garden, out by the back way,” suggested Laura. “I want to see how the men are getting on with the marquee. They’re such awfully nice men.”
But the back door was blocked by cook, Sadie, Godber’s man and Hans.
Something had happened.
“Tuk-tuk-tuk,” clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans’s face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber’s man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
“There’s been a horrible accident,” said Cook. “A man killed.”
“A man killed! Where? How? When?”
But Godber’s man wasn’t going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.
“Know those little cottages just below here, miss?” Know them? Of course, she knew them. “Well, there’s a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed.”
“Dead!” Laura stared at Godber’s man.
“Dead when they picked him up,” said Godber’s man with relish. “They were taking the body home as I come up here.” And he said to the cook, “He’s left a wife and five little ones.”
“Jose, come here.” Laura caught hold of her sister’s sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. “Jose!” she said, horrified, “however are we going to stop everything?”
“Stop everything, Laura!” cried Jose in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
“Stop the garden-party, of course.” Why did Jose pretend?
But Jose was still more amazed. “Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”
“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
“And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman,” said Laura.
“Oh, Laura!” Jose began to be seriously annoyed. “If you’re going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life. I’m every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic.” Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,” she said softly.
“Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, “I’m going straight up to tell mother.”
“Do, dear,” cooed Jose.
“Mother, can I come into your room?” Laura turned the big glass door-knob.
“Of course, child. Why, what’s the matter? What’s given you such a colour?” And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.
“Mother, a man’s been killed,” began Laura.
“Not in the garden?” interrupted her mother.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me!” Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
“But listen, mother,” said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. “Of course, we can’t have our party, can we?” she pleaded. “The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbours!”
To Laura’s astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously.
“But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?”
Laura had to say “yes” to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother’s sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
“Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?” she asked.
“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It’s made for you. It’s much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.
“But, mother,” Laura began again. She couldn’t look at herself; she turned aside.
This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.
“You are being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand,” said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan…
Lunch was over by half-past one. By half-past two they were all ready for the fray. The green-coated band had arrived and was established in a corner of the tennis-court.
“My dear!” trilled Kitty Maitland, “aren’t they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf.”
Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.
“Hallo!” He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. “My word, Laura! You do look stunning,” said Laurie. “What an absolutely topping hat!”
Laura said faintly “Is it?” and smiled up at Laurie, and didn’t tell him after all.
Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans’ garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
“Darling Laura, how well you look!”
“What a becoming hat, child!”
“Laura, you look quite Spanish. I’ve never seen you look so striking.”
And Laura, glowing, answered softly, “Have you had tea? Won’t you have an ice? The passion-fruit ices really are rather special.” She ran to her father and begged him. “Daddy darling, can’t the band have something to drink?”
And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.
“Never a more delightful garden-party… “ “The greatest success… ” “Quite the most… ”
Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over.
“All over, all over, thank heaven,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Round up the others, Laura. Let’s go and have some fresh coffee. I’m exhausted. Yes, it’s been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!” And they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.
“Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone. He took another. “I suppose you didn’t hear of a beastly accident that happened to-day?” he said.
“My dear,” said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her hand, “we did. It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off.”
“Oh, mother!” Laura didn’t want to be teased about it.
“It was a horrible affair all the same,” said Mr. Sheridan. “The chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say.”
An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father…
Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted. She had one of her brilliant ideas.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s make up a basket. Let’s send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be the greatest treat for the children. Don’t you agree? And she’s sure to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all ready prepared. Laura!” She jumped up. “Get me the big basket out of the stairs cupboard.”
“But, mother, do you really think it’s a good idea?” said Laura.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
“Of course! What’s the matter with you to-day? An hour or two ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now—”
Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by her mother.
“Take it yourself, darling,” said she. “Run down just as you are. No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.”
“The stems will ruin her lace frock,” said practical Jose.
So they would. Just in time. “Only the basket, then. And, Laura!”—her mother followed her out of the marquee—“don’t on any account—”
No, better not put such ideas into the child’s head! “Nothing! Run along.”
It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn’t realize it. Why couldn’t she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, “Yes, it was the most successful party.”
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.
Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, “Is this Mrs. Scott’s house?” and the woman, smiling queerly, said, “It is, my lass.”
Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, “Help me, God,” as she walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those staring eyes, or to be covered up in anything, one of those women’s shawls even. I’ll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan’t even wait for it to be emptied.
Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.
Laura said, “Are you Mrs. Scott?” But to her horror the woman answered, “Walk in please, miss,” and she was shut in the passage.
“No,” said Laura, “I don’t want to come in. I only want to leave this basket. Mother sent—”
The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. “Step this way, please, miss,” she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.
She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.
“Em,” said the little creature who had let her in. “Em! It’s a young lady.” She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, “I’m ‘er sister, miss. You’ll excuse ‘er, won’t you?”
“Oh, but of course!” said Laura. “Please, please don’t disturb her. I—I only want to leave—”
But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn’t understand why Laura was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor face puckered up again.
“All right, my dear,” said the other. “I’ll thenk the young lady.”
And again she began, “You’ll excuse her, miss, I’m sure,” and her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.
Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.
“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,”—and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet—“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
“Forgive my hat,” she said.
And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.
He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”
“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”
“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.
“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.
Laura shook her head. She was.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”
“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie—” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life—” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.
On the night before her last spell in the hospital, Dawn was haunted again by that old dream about the stone men. As always, she woke the moment she couldn’t stand being terrorized any longer. She opened her eyes and sat up. Her heart raced frantically; her face was drenched in cold sweat. She was still partially entangled in the throes of the nightmare when she realized she wasn’t alone in the room. Julia was sitting on the edge of the bed, glancing at her from the dark.
“What’s going on?” asked Dawn.
“You probably had a nightmare,” Julia said softly, “I want to hear all about it, angel.”
Dawn was about to tell Julia about her dream but wound up saying: “I don’t remember.”
“Here we go again,” Julia huffed. “You never tell me anything anymore.”
“Why are you sitting there like that?”
“It’s my last chance to look at you while you’re sleeping,” Julia explained, “you’re walking out on me.”
Dawn struggled to settle her breathing. Julia slid over on the bed and gently caressed Dawn’s closely shaved scalp.
“Angel,” she whispered in her ear, “please don’t leave me.”
Dawn emitted a helpless sigh. Her eyes were half shut by a persistent veil of sleep crust. She was still overwhelmed by the stone men. With great difficulty she uttered: “I’m not walking out on you.”
“Right, you’re abandoning me.”
“You know I have to do this.”
“No, I don’t.”
“We talked about it a thousand times.”
“You talked, you decided, as always. You never gave me a chance.”
Dawn lowered her head, evading Julia’s irresistible feline green eyes. She didn’t know what to say. Once again she was stunned by the ease with which Julia molded reality to fit her desires. And yet Julia’s conviction seemed to be so absolute and genuine and therefore reassuring, that Dawn felt tempted to believe that this was really how things had transpired. “Stop it.”
“Stop what? I don’t understand. You don’t need this shit.”
“I already explained…” Dawn pleaded. “Daphne says that…”
“Agghhh! I can’t listen to this anymore! So she says! So what? What is she, like, fucking God?!
“Can’t you see she’s evil?!
“Don’t talk about her that way.”
“You know how much she helps me.”
“No. What I do know is that she wants to take you away from me. And if you can’t see it you’re fucking blind.”
“Do you have any idea how crazy you sound?”
Julia shot Dawn a cold look. After a moment of dead silence she said: “You’re in love with her.”
“I knew it…” muttered Julia. She got up and started walking around the room nervously.
Julia paused. “Yeah? Weird, you didn’t used to talk to me like this.”
“You used to appreciate everything I did for you.”
“And I still do, babe, you know that,” Dawn implored, finally managing to unglue herself from the top of the bed and cautiously approach Julia.
“Who do you love more, me or her?”
Dawn couldn’t bring herself to answer.
Julia threw herself face-down onto the bed and burrowed her face in a pillow, muttering, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
Now she seemed so tiny and fragile that Dawn was flooded with compassion. She felt the need to apologize for something. She wrapped her bony arms around Julia and stroked her long brown hair. “Please don’t be angry with me, babe,” she said, “I don’t have a choice…”
“But you have me!” cried Julia, turning her head up from the pillow, “You’re my life!”
The love and helplessness in Julia’s words and eyes almost had Dawn caving in. For a brief moment she thought to herself, No one’s ever going to love me so powerfully, what am I doing, giving this up? But she shook the thought away.
“I’m twenty-eight years old,” she said. “I can’t keep doing this.”
“Doing what?” Julia sat up. “You’re the most amazing thing in the universe! I was sitting here for an hour thinking I must be blessed by God if He gave me such a perfect angel. It’s only because of you that I know I’m good. Without you I’m nothing.” Julia took hold of Dawn’s chin and tilted her face towards herself, saying, “And you know what else I was thinking? What if I covered your mouth and pinched your nose while you were sleeping? Then you wouldn’t ever leave me.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Scaring you my ass!” said Julia, disengaging abruptly and jumping off the bed. “I’m protecting you! I love you! I’m the only one that truly loves you! Get that through your thick skull!” she shouted, waiving an accusing finger at Dawn’s face. Then she lowered her voice. “That’s it,” she said decisively, “You’re fucked. You’re like a different person now. I don’t recognize you anymore.”
Dawn found herself crawling to the edge of the bed, pleading, “Please don’t be mad at me, babe, please. I just want to be normal.”
“Fuck normal! There’s no such thing! It’s all men’s definitions! They just want to control us!”
“You know what?” Dawn sputtered. “Today, before you came back from work, I was so fucking scared of tomorrow that I took half a pack of Ex-lax!”
“So, what else is new?”
“Does that seem like the kind of thing a normal person would do?”
Julia crossed her thin arms against her lean chest, walked to the window and looked outside. “So I understand your decision is final.”
“Yes…” Dawn mumbled.
There was a moment of tense silence before Julia erupted: “Fuck you! When Daphne kicked you out, who did you come to? Huh? Me! Like a dog you came, crawling! And I let you live here, rent-free, I let you drive my car, I bought you cigarettes! But you?! You never really loved me! You lying whore!”
“That’s not true! Please!”
“You don’t know how to love. You’re evil. You’re a goddamn heart of stone.”
Dawn froze. She could have withstood anything Julia threw her way, anything but those last three words. Tears started flowing from her eyes. “I can’t believe you just said that…”
“I guess it’s true what they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Julia took a few steps back towards the door. “Oh, and you can forget about a ride tomorrow!”
“But you promised!”
“But how will I get there?”
“Take the bus; call a cab.”
“You know I can’t.”
“Uber then. Get some woman to drive you. I’m done with you.”
When Dawn woke up the next morning she found the apartment empty. Julia was gone, without even a note. It wasn’t uncharacteristic of her to pull off this kind of disappearing act in a moment of rage. This time, Dawn had no time to waste pondering Julia’s whereabouts.
Good thing she prepared her suitcase yesterday, before swallowing all that Ex-lax. Now she could dress quickly and call an Uber, insisting on a female driver, as always. Unfortunately, on her first day back in the hospital, there was no escaping a similarly dreadful situation. She had to go through the chief of the eating disorders unit, Dr. Katz.
She had met him during her first hospitalization, nearly a decade ago. Over the years she had repeatedly described him as the devil incarnate. She called him a “misogynist” and a “woman-hater.” His most horrific attribute as far as Dawn was concerned was that she couldn’t even venture a guess as to how he felt about her. So she assumed he hated her.
When she entered his cramped office he didn’t make the slightest gesture of recognition. Dawn took a seat in front of his desk while morphing into her usual character—the good, compliant girl—that was so far off from who she really was.
During the short interview, which felt like a small eternity, she performed sweetness and adorability like a pro. She threw everything she had at him. But Dr. Katz remained chillingly serious and correct. He did not respond to her futile attempts at goofiness. He did not smile or laugh at her jokes. He did not even take his eyes off the computer screen while asking his routine questions. And when he typed in her responses, there were stretches of torturous silences which she strove to eradicate by flooding the room with grand declarations of her high motivation and promises that this time would be different.
“I even broke up with Julia,” she said, “Daphne helped me understand that she’s no good for me, that she colludes with my…” she paused to clear her throat, “with my pathology.”
Dr. Katz was obviously unimpressed by her deployment of professional jargon. He took off his glasses and leaned back in his armchair, his lengthy gaze invading Dawn, squeezing her heart in its pincers.
“Did you break up with her, or did she break up with you?”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Why are you dismissing it? Do you have any idea how hard it was?”
“Oh, I’m sure it was hard. But I have a vivid recollection of the kind of bond you two formed here. You would never have initiated a separation.”
“My relationship with Julia is another way for me to harm myself,” Dawn recited Daphne’s words.
“And I don’t want to harm myself anymore.”
Dawn met his beady, dispassionate eyes with desperation. “I’ll be honest with you, Dawn,” he said, “I didn’t want to admit you.”
“Good. It would be your seventh time here. Not a rare occurrence, unfortunately, but who knows better than you the resources we invest in our patients. You get an APRN, a social worker and a dietitian. You get individual psychotherapy twice a week, participation in a psychodynamic group, CBT group, DBT group, art therapy, dance therapy, occupational therapy…”
“I know all this…”
“So you understand, we provide you with every opportunity to thrive. But I don’t like investing so much in someone who doesn’t want to get better.”
“But I do!” Dawn protested.
“I think you’re saying what you think I want to hear. But all I want from you is the truth.”
“So what’s the truth?”
“The truth is that I don’t see any indication that you are truly willing to give up your illness. Daphne thinks you are. It’s only because I value her judgment so highly that I agreed to give you another chance.”
She dropped her gaze involuntarily to the floor.
“But…” said Dr. Katz as he leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table, “since you are here now, I do hope you’ll prove me wrong.”
Dawn forced her head up. What she saw was a smug monster of a man.
“I understand that we have a plan set up then,” he continued, “You spend three months here. If you make it, you go back to the rehabilitation home and continue your recovery there, just like you and Daphne decided.”
Dawn stared at him bleakly.
“There’s one thing that Daphne and I agree on: you still haven’t made up your mind about wanting to live.”
Dawn began to shiver for no apparent reason. The space seemed to be shrinking. Faintly, she said: “I do want.”
And that was that.
When she left Dr. Katz’s office and looked around at the gray corridors of the unit her head began to spin. She felt sick to her stomach. Her vision blurred. She wanted to run away and not be—here, or anywhere else, for that matter. A familiar voice snuck in, whispering: You don’t stand a chance.
Dawn spent the first weeks in the eating disorders unit re-familiarizing herself with everything she hated about the place. The strict regimented routine drove her crazy. Between meals she sat in the common room like a junky in withdrawal—agitated, biting her nails.
She couldn’t believe she was back in a place where she wasn’t allowed to take a shit without asking for permission and, to add insult to injury, without being escorted by a staff member. Although she knew all the unit’s policies by heart, she sounded surprised when she complained about them to Daphne in their weekly phone conversations. She ranted about how they forbade her to close the door completely or to flush the toilet before it was checked for signs of vomit. She went on and on about how hurtful it was to be so mistrusted.
She also hated the greasy food, telling Daphne that “It kind of puts me off balance.” But what she hated even more was hearing the other girls complain about it not being “healthy enough.” They didn’t understand that if they could survive this crap, there’s nothing in the world they wouldn’t be able to eat.
The close surveillance during meals annoyed her, but not as much as the comparative, competitive, envious looks the girls gave one another. It was also hard to see them chewing and swallowing so incorrectly, as though they were never taught the basics of proper eating or had simply forgotten after a long period of self-starvation.
Dawn was still outraged by all those little tricks they pulled to minimize the amount of food they’d taken or deprive themselves of any pleasure, God forbid they learn to enjoy eating. Zoe, for instance, cut her chicken breast into a hundred tiny pieces. Myriam ate her morning yogurt with a fork, inevitably spilling most of it. And there was that breakfast when Sharon poured ketchup into her Special K.
Yet these insubordinations were only the tip of the iceberg as far as the girls’ covert operations were concerned. Some girls went about it like fucking morons. Others were unbelievably adept transgressors. The staff person on duty had no chance of detecting every little thing that went on. But when a girl was caught red-handed, there were immediate sanctions, going all the way from extended post-meal detention to—and this was the girls’ worst nightmare—being forced to drink Ensure.
Dawn saw everything, and because she felt these misdemeanors came at her expense in some way, she was tempted to snitch. In another sense it made her feel better about herself, more advanced than the other girls. She was now able to look back at the year she’d spent at the rehabilitation home and realize it hadn’t been, as Julia kept telling her, a complete waste of time.
This feeling built Dawn’s confidence, but every day, in the shower, all that confidence peeled off and went down the drain. Outside the hospital Dawn used to go weeks without showering, even in summertime. She walked, ran and kick-boxed, wearing the same long sweatshirts and sweatpants, almost suffocating in her own foul stench, skillfully exterminating any chance of a man being attracted to her enough to come dangerously close.
But here she was forced to take better care of herself.
Taking off her clothes immediately filled her with self-loathing. She showered as quickly as possible, scrubbing herself with a thick sponge so she wouldn’t have to touch herself. She would look straight up at the ceiling, thus avoiding encountering her ugly fat belly, her disgusting plump hips, her repulsive cow-thighs, her repugnant wide shins, her abhorrent everything. She even forced herself to sing or whistle just to distract her mind from her body.
After showers she always felt a sudden urge to call Julia. But Julia never answered her calls and text messages, and Dawn felt too ashamed to tell Daphne about it. Eventually, though, she did, with tears falling from her eyes, at one of their usual phone conversations.
Daphne asked, “why are you doing this to yourself?”
Dawn knew the answer all too well. And yet she could not bring herself to say it out loud. She felt so weak she almost dropped the phone.
In her lowest moment, she even called her mother; the equivalent of cutting herself seeking some concrete, comprehensible pain that would alleviate, if only by means of replacing the dreadfully ambiguous pain that flooded her. But she hung up the moment her mom’s hoarse voice roared, “yeah?!”
That, she did not tell anyone.
Dawn had often described her hospital experience to Daphne as taking a walk on the edge of a cliff: constantly afraid of falling, secretly wishing it would happen already. Now two things restricted her impulse to push herself off: knowing it was her last chance to do things differently, and her fear of disappointing Daphne.
She showed up to meals on time. She followed through with her diet without shenanigans. She cooperated with her nutritionist and tried to be as open as she could in her sessions with her social worker, Erica. She steadily gained weight—1.5 pounds a week—according to plan.
At first, this made her feel anxious. But Daphne helped her see how this time around she was more afraid she would not gain weight than she was afraid she would. This, as Dawn had agreed, made all the difference in the world.
In group sessions she behaved herself, participating without dominating. She tried to be mindful of her most common pitfalls she’d fallen into, at least partially willingly, in the past. Like when she met Julia. Now she refrained from mingling with the other girls.
It was the loneliest period in her life–lonelier than her first days in the rehabilitation home, almost a year and a half ago. Every day ended exactly the same: Dawn stuffing her face in her pillow, crying herself to sleep.
After a month, Dawn was ready to raise the white flag. The voice that encouraged her to keep fighting was no longer superior or even distinguishable from the other, nefarious voice that was tempting her to throw up, starve herself, give in.
It was an unrelenting war of survival, and it drained Dawn completely when the finish line was hardly in sight.
And then Ronny was discharged and she found out that she was getting a new roommate.
Ronny was the classic anorexic girl: a timid, anemic creature who was too afraid of her own shadow to even dare speak to anyone, and thus kept to her diary. This had made her the perfect roommate for Dawn. Their room had been an exemplar of a symptom-free zone, a quiet and relatively safe space, a sanctuary.
In spite of everything she knew about the eating disorders unit, Dawn somehow deluded herself into thinking that Ronny’s bed would miraculously remain empty. As the days passed, her conviction became stronger.
She found out just how badly mistaken she was one morning when Dr. Katz summoned her to his office and dryly informed her of the change in her living situation. Dawn wept, begged and negotiated. Then she exploded with fury. She threatened to leave the unit immediately. Her screams echoed outside so everyone could hear. She gave it everything she had, but to no avail. Dr. Katz sat there calmly, waiting as she went through practically every stage of grief before his eyes, allowing her to complete her tantrum with a whimper while his decision stood.
Dawn ran straight to call Daphne to report the atrocity, hoping that she would pull some strings for her. After twenty minutes of complaining and crying, during which time Daphne tried to show her things weren’t as bleak as Dawn is portraying it, she offered to delve deeper into this subject in their weekly conversation that was scheduled to take place three days later. Dawn said “I get it, you don’t have time for me,” and hung up.
The new roommate arrived after lunch.
Dawn was killing time with some of the other girls in the lounge area outside the common room. They sat in clear sight of the entrance to the unit. A tall silver-haired man wearing a fancy blue suit entered the building. Radiating success, this was not your ordinary visitor. He was followed by a short black-haired young woman wrapped in a black hooded sweatshirt.
Dawn immediately realized that she knew this girl, but the circumstances of their acquaintance were lost on her.
The successful man turned to the information desk and, following a brief exchange with Nurse Tammy, proceeded to Dr. Katz’s office with the young woman following behind.
As they waited to be seen by Dr. Katz, the young woman studied her surroundings in the most cryptic fashion. Her gaze had a primary quality to it, as though this was the first time she was exposed to reality and was still taking in nothing but amorphous shapes and shadows.
It wasn’t immediately apparent that she was unwell. Her face was pale, but pretty. The dark circles around her eyes could have been explained by sleep deprivation or some kind of allergy, and her black sweatshirt with the Jolly Roger on the back almost reached her knees, camouflaging just how skinny the body underneath it was.
As she observed the new girl from afar, Dawn tried to retrieve the memory of their past encounter. The other girls were measuring her up as well, whispering with gleeful fascination. And when finally one of them said, “her name is Chelsea Craft,” Dawn’s heart quivered and she immediately got up and raced to her room to call Daphne. But Daphne didn’t pick up, so she went to Erica’s office, entering without knocking and sitting down without asking for permission. She told her that she couldn’t possibly live in the same room as Chelsea Craft, that “hateful creature.”
“What is it about Chelsea that stirs all these intense feelings in you?” Erica inquired empathically, but Dawn just repeated the same tune: Chelsea is “despicable and rotten from within.”
Then Erica made a few sensible suggestions of ways in which Dawn could protect herself while sharing a room with Chelsea, but Dawn dismissed each and every suggestion Erica made while rolling her eyes. Eventually, when Erica was in the middle of a sentence, Dawn got up and said, “I don’t like this conversation, you’re not helping me at all,” and left.
She found Chelsea sitting on her new bed and approached her with the most intimidating walk she had in her repertoire.
“You don’t talk to me,” she said, waving her finger, “you don’t look at me. To me, you don’t exist. You got that, Eva?”
Chelsea’s thin, colorless lips morphed into something resembling a smile, but the smile faded before it fully appeared. Her grayish freckles seemed to be dissipating in the hazy fog of aloofness that masked her almost transparent complexion. When she finally spoke, it was with a deceitfully suspended voice, like a late reminder of a matter long overdue.
“Yes,” she said, “I completely understand where you’re coming from.”
Dawn looked straight at those black eyes that were as distant as the eyes of a dead person. Dawn’s eyes wandered toward other parts of Chelsea. She noticed the little dark hairs sprouting above her lips and on the edges of her cheeks; her extremely bony left clavicle sticking out of her rising sweatshirt and her even bonier wrist joints. Then Dawn turned to the open window and walked over, looking outside. Chelsea immediately drifted after her.
“I weigh 61.72 pounds,” Chelsea said, yawning. “How much do you weigh?”
Dawn turned her glance on her with a swift, destructive motion. Her body began to tremble uncontrollably, her furious blue eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. “One more word and you’re dead, you hear me?!”
“Sure I do. I’m sitting right here, aren’t I?”
Dawn turned and rushed out of the room. She was already at the door when Chelsea’s feeble voice caught up with her.
“I have cigarettes, by the way,” she said. “Feel free to bum some.”
Dawn froze, took a long deep breath, and continued her journey out.
Throughout that day Dawn wandered the unit, shaking with almost ecstatic rage. When Chelsea didn’t show up for dinner, she felt herself about to combust. Some of the girls went to visit Chelsea in their room. They gathered around her bed as if around an idol. They bombarded her with questions, to which she replied with condescending impatience.
Dawn felt trapped outside. Every couple of minutes she looked in to check if they were still there. Finally, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she stormed in.
“Everybody out, now,” she commanded.
They left right away.
That night she couldn’t find peace with Chelsea lying next to her, breathing.
Suddenly, a voice emerged from the darkness of the room. “Your name is Dawn, right?”
Dawn didn’t answer.
“You’re Dawn, am I correct?”
“I’ve heard of you. I’m friends with Sacha. I understand you worked together at the Viper. I think I saw you there once. You’re very pretty.”
“I’m sleeping,” moaned Dawn.
“My apologies then; I thought you couldn’t sleep either.”
“I’m trying to sleep, and you’re bothering me.”
“Oh, sorry. I promise I’ll be quiet. I just wanted to let you know that I find you very pretty.”
The following night Dawn couldn’t sleep again, and again she knew she wasn’t alone.
“It’s not your first time in here, I take it.”
Don’t answer her, don’t give that bitch anything.
Don’t answer, don’t answer.
“Dawn, are you awake?”
“Well, it is mine; my first time, I mean. But you probably know that already. I’ve been told that the E.D. unit is the end of the road. What do you think?”
Dawn opened her eyes and stared despairingly at the ceiling.
“Honestly, I think it’s baloney,” said Chelsea, and after a short pause added, “And you know what else I was told? That it’s like being in prison. Once you’re here it like gets you to identify with your disease or something. That’s what my therapist told me, anyway. But I think she’s just jealous. She’s obese. What do you think?”
“I think that you should shut the fuck up.”
“Interesting,” Chelsea said drily. And what else do you think?
“About what my therapist said.”
Dawn couldn’t hold it any longer. The ignoring tactic had completely collapsed under the burden of her wrecked nerves.
“Are you here to make me angry?”
“Goodness, no, I’m here because they made me come here.”
“So you don’t want to get better?”
“Better than what?”
Chelsea gained instant notoriety throughout the unit. Even Dr. Katz had to admit that in all his years in this profession he had yet to encounter such vehement resistance to treatment. She refused to put food in her mouth and swallow it. The staff had to resort to the kind of radical measures that hadn’t been implemented at the unit for years.
At first they tried using enteral nutrition, but Chelsea simply took the tube out and threw it away. Then they attached it to her nose, but she tore it off, injuring herself. Finally, they restrained her to the bed for feeding time. This was a girl who was barely able to keep her own head lifted, she was so weak. And yet she fought so wildly, at the risk of breaking her calcium-deficient bones. It took three staff members to get the job done.
In group sessions she didn’t speak. She refused to take off her hoody and just sat there, tucked within herself, projecting disinterest, her gaze wandering outside the window.
Dawn couldn’t stand this.
They didn’t interact and just passed each other in the hallways of the unit without a word. All their communications took place during the night, and Chelsea was always the one to initiate them. And yet Dawn had the feeling that Chelsea was everywhere, conspiring against her, wishing her ill.
One night Chelsea asked her: “So you do want to get better?”
“Better than what?”
“Than the instinct to ruin my own life.”
“Interesting… so… you want to stop?”
“But then you won’t be so pretty anymore.”
“What will you do then?”
“I’ll live. Leave me alone.”
“What makes you think you’ll succeed this time?”
“Shut up,” said Dawn, turning her back to Chelsea and vowing not to listen to her. But a few seconds later she turned again and asked, “Who forced you to be here?”
“My physician said if I keep at it I’ll be dead within a year from cardiac arrest, so my parents got scared, especially my dad. He raised hell to get me hospitalized. He’s a very powerful man. But they don’t get it.”
“What don’t they get?”
“My body, they don’t understand it. It doesn’t need food to live.”
“You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“That’s because you’re jealous.”
Dawn went to see Erica first thing the next morning. She said she couldn’t take it anymore. Chelsea was driving her insane, she was evil, pure evil. And she was torturing her.
“What has she been doing?” Erica asked softly.
“You don’t understand,” Dawn said impatiently. “It’s not what she does, it’s like, she’s just there, you know? She wants to ruin it for all of us.”
Erica started to say something but Dawn cut her off.
“You have no idea how sick this girl is.”
“What do you mean?”
Dawn took a long breath before letting out the secret she had been carrying ever since Chelsea joined the unit.
Although she was only nineteen, she said, Chelsea was kind of a big deal in the anorexia and bulimia community. She gained quite a reputation as a Pro-Ana celebrity. In her blog she preached self-starvation, offered advice as to how to purge efficiently and promoted the emaciated beauty ideal by, among other things, posting nude pictures of extremely anorexic women.
“She calls herself Eva X.”
“Do the other girls know that it’s her?”
“It’s obvious that they worship her for being the skinniest girl on the unit, and I heard some of them mentioning the name Eva X, but I don’t think they make the connection.”
“And how do you know it’s her?”
“We met once.”
The next few nights were terrible. Dawn didn’t sleep. She was afraid of everything – that Chelsea would speak to her again or that her heart would suddenly fail and she would find a dead body lying next to her in the morning.
She was constantly exhausted and nervous. She barely got out of bed in the mornings. She had to drag herself to the cafeteria. She made multiple visits to the nurse’s office, complaining about migraines and stomach aches. She begged her nutritionist to go easy on her diet, meaning, less food; fewer calories.
During mealtimes she was tempted to reduce her intake, but she knew that if she was caught that would be the end of it. Only once, when she couldn’t contain herself, did she put a ridiculous amount of salt on her rice, but she immediately regretted it.
The daily weighing made her more and more anxious, only now she couldn’t tell if she was more afraid of gaining weight or of not gaining weight. At any rate, she did gain: exactly 1.5 pounds a week, according to plan.
Suddenly she started to feel a familiar wish creeping inside her: she wanted to cut herself and alleviate that excruciating pain that poisoned her soul. But she didn’t know how to do it; as if all those tricks that she had once mastered had been completely wiped out of her memory.
And every time she took a shower she wanted to stick a finger down her throat and puke her guts out. But she was convinced that Dr. Katz was just waiting for an excuse to kick her out of the unit, and she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction.
In groups she was quiet and uninvolved. When she was asked a direct question, she mumbled that she “didn’t feel like talking.”
More and more she considered, with genuine anguish, her lowly state; drowning in despair regarding her chances of ever being able to create “a life worth living,” as Daphne, who knew better than anyone how to paint a rosy horizon for Dawn, used to put it. And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to call her.
She also stopped calling Julia, because being just ignored wasn’t enough anymore. She wanted to get really hurt. So she called her mother, knowing that conversations with her always ended badly.
And her mom didn’t disappoint. They hadn’t spoken in over a year. But now, after Dawn had told her where she was, her immediate response was “they let you in?! ha! You ain’t skinny enough!”
One morning, Dawn visited Eva X’s blog. She was astounded to see that she was still posting her demented preaching from inside the unit. Her blood began to boil. That day, she arrived at group session in her most explosive state-of-mind. For half an hour she sat there silently, her body trembling and her thoughts running amok.
At some point, Erica asked her if there was anything she wanted to say.
“Are you sure?”
“Dawn, what’s going on with you lately?”
And then Dawn caught fire.
“What’s going on with me? I’m fucking disgusted by what’s happening here, how you all grovel before a person that couldn’t give a fuck about you!”
“Dawn,” Erica said.
“What? Is it my fault that everyone here is fucking blind?! If she wants to ruin her life, fine! But she doesn’t have to ruin it for others.”
“Dawn, I’m asking you to calm down.”
“Fuck that! She can die for all I care.”
“That’s not how we talk here, Dawn.”
“I don’t care.”
“Dawn, I want you to leave, please.”
“I want that fucking bitch to die, you hear me?!” Dawn shouted and got up and hurled her chair at the wall. Then she approached Chelsea, towering over her. “Die already!” she screamed, “DIE!”
In those moments, all life was sucked out of the room. The girls refrained from looking directly at Dawn, except for Chelsea, who didn’t take her hollow eyes off her.
That night, Chelsea spoke to Dawn as if nothing had happened.
“Do you remember I was telling you how my dad was the one who forced me to come here?”
“So it’s very hypocritical of him, because if there’s a problem, and I’m certainly not saying that there is one, then he’s to blame; and my mom too, but especially him. Do you have a dad?”
“How about a mom?”
“Where’s your dad?”
“Gone as in deceased, passed away?”
“Oh gosh. When did it happen?”
“A while ago.”
“How old were you?”
“Oh dear, that’s teeny-tiny. Do you have any memories of him?”
“Please tell me.”
Dawn turned and faced Chelsea, who looked at her curiously.
“My mom used to call him ‘heart of stone’.”
“It wasn’t a joke.”
“Oh, my apologies, then why did she call him that?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“And how did you feel when he died?”
“I’m just curious to know.”
“Why? We’re not friends.”
“I’m just interested in those kinds of things, you know, like, how do people feel when someone close to them dies.”
“You’re really fucking sick, you know that?”
“It’s a matter of perspective.”
“Please tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“How you felt.”
“I was glad! You happy now?”
“Interesting… may I ask, why were you glad?”
“All right, I respect that… so it’s basically you who did it.”
“Killed him, killed your dad.”
“If you were glad that he died, that means that you were hoping for it, probably even praying to God for it to come true. The obvious conclusion one would be compelled to draw is that you made it happen. You have powers.”
Dawn didn’t respond. For some time she lay in bed, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. Finally, she sat up and asked: “Chelsea, why are you here?”
“Pardon me?” Chelsea said, sitting up and positioning herself exactly like Dawn.
“You stir up all this shit when it’s obvious you don’t want to be here. So why are you here? Why don’t you just walk out?”
Chelsea’s ponderous eyes gleamed in the dark.
“Well, Dawn, what you have to realize here is that I was hospitalized, and—”
“That’s bullshit,” said Dawn, “You enjoy this.”
“That is simply incorrect.”
“Oh, I think it is correct. You enjoy the fight; you enjoy it when they force you to eat and tie you all up and shit, because you’re fucking deranged.”
“Yeah? prove it, here’s a window, we’re on the first floor. You can open it and crawl out.”
“Is that so?”
“It’s easier than you think,” said Dawn.
Chelsea got up and approached the window, her footsteps making no sound. She studied the escape route at length before turning towards Dawn with dumbfounded eyes, as though seeking her final approval.
“You’re not a kid anymore,” said Dawn, “No one can force you to live.”
“Interesting,” said Chelsea, and returned to bed.
That night, Dawn dreamt again about the stone men. As usual, the dream was preceded by that singular sensation, inexplicable by words, which she had never experienced in any other situation, ever since she was a child. Something small grows horrific; a slight rustling inflates into full blown night terror.
She tossed and turned, moaning meekly.
Suddenly, Dawn is thrown out of some void into that familiar image, long past. She sees a lake nestling at the foot of the mountains, the snowy-white summits glimmering in the peaceful water.
The wondrous silence surfs freely on the chilly winds filling the fresh air, until it is shattered by the sound of rowing. An ancient wooden boat appears from the mists hovering over the center of the lake, and in it Dawn sees the stone men. At the bow of the boat she sees the biggest stone man of them all. He is wearing scale armor and carrying a huge spiky club. He is roaring in the most dreadful voice, shrieking in a primitive language only Dawn can understand.
He is shouting at his stone men to row harder and faster.
And she alone knows that they are coming here, to raid the town that lies at the foot of the snowy mountains, that they are coming to plunder and pillage and rape all the women.
And the oars tear through the water, the foamy ripples spreading all over.
And the noise grows louder.
And she is twitching and groaning, quivering and convulsing, as if one of her limbs was being amputated in the pre-anesthesia age of medicine.
And as always, when the stone men hit land, she wakes up.
She opened her eyes, everything was blurry.
She was all terror and water. But a soft, cold wind stroked her cheeks. The window was open. The curtain was moving gently.
It was a new morning, and the room was awash with bright sunlight.
And finally, finally, the bed next to Dawn’s was empty.
David stared at Mimi’s picture, taken at his bar mitzvah twenty-five years ago. She was his cousin, a second cousin, and she and her family had come out to Milwaukee from Brooklyn for the occasion. He remembered being smitten at the ceremony. She had dark silky hair and large brown eyes flecked with gold. Slender and tall, her face had an oval shape like a prized portrait, and her hair was tucked behind her small, well-articulated ears—carved as if from soap. Her throat had a long white curve, and she sat very still in the second row of the synagogue as he read from the Torah and led the congregation in blessings. At the end of giving his bar mitzvah speech, he’d thanked his parents for being so supportive and then thanked all his relatives and friends for coming. He looked at Mimi and said, “And thank you.” It was a bizarre and spontaneous moment for him in a life so far of calm, reasoned, and practiced application. Nevertheless, she just continued to stare unwaveringly at him on the bema. But he was a goner. It was his first experience of painful desire, a fervor that threatened to swallow his flesh. Nor did it hurt that he was just entering puberty, and Mimi, fifteen, was obviously there already.
She had hung back at the reception while he danced the box step with skinny and mostly undeveloped girls from his seventh-grade class, and Mimi’s remove and mystery gave her a kind of regal aloofness that only worked him into more of a frenzy. She had declined to dance with him, explaining, “I’m not a good partner. I like to lead.”
“That would be fine.”
“Thanks, but no.”
At one point, he saw her standing alone by the presents and went over to her. “Pick one,” he said.
“You can have one.”
She smiled at him, straight white teeth, free of braces. “You’re silly.”
“I’m serious.” He felt desperate to give her something.
“I can’t take your presents.”
“You are serious.”
And then her father, uncle Irv, had come up and congratulated David on his excellent reading of his haftorah, and that was the end of the exchange. He’d been ready to give up his newly gotten gains to her, the tower of gifts and gelt for becoming a man. My kingdom for your hand. I’ll marry you someday, he thought.
He’d seen her a couple times afterward, at a wedding and then an anniversary party for her parents where she wore a wool plaid cap, like a cabbie, and baggy corduroy pants, and seemed inappropriately dressed for the occasion. Still, he couldn’t deny that every time he saw her the same feelings flared up, though evidently not on Mimi’s part. Her eyes, almond shaped and impenetrable as to her own thoughts, remained curiously distant. And soon he lost touch with her.
Now he was driving to the Denver Hyatt. Mimi was coming in from New York for a social workers conference. David himself was a psychologist with a practice in Denver, which would give them something in common after all these years. All that was good. He had brought with him the picture of her at his bar mitzvah. Of course this was twenty-five years later, and she was now a he. Miles. Mimi had been gone for two years.
Miles told him he would be wearing a blue short-sleeve shirt and yellow tie and David had spotted him right away standing beside the fountain. He wouldn’t have thought for a moment Miles stood out from any other man, professionally attired and waiting to meet a lunch partner. With his dark cropped hair, he was shorter than David remembered him as Mimi—a taller girl but on the shorter end as a man. Above all he appeared neat. Well groomed, spotless nails, and with a firm handshake in place of a hug.
“My mother has been a lot better about it than my father,” Miles said when they sat down at lunch. He had ordered a steak to David’s Caesar salad and was taking sturdy bites. “Irv can’t really look me in the eye, but Mom asks me how I’m doing. She never says anything specific such as ‘How’s the hormone treatment going?’ or ‘Your voice is getting deeper,’ but she does remember to call me Miles, which my father won’t. He just avoids my name altogether. I think fathers have a harder time giving up their little girls. A mother just accepts her child regardless.”
David thought of his own daughter, Leah, twelve, and indeed he did have a problem imagining her transforming herself into Leon. He craved her daughterness.
“You just learn to live with people’s reactions—those who knew you when. Actually, I have more confusion with people I meet now. Do I tell them about the before? Or is the before no longer me? Will they feel tricked once they find out? Or worse. I had at least one person in my caseload who learned I’d undergone reassignment. This individual, who was a bit unstable anyway, threatened me.”
“What’d you do?”
“I forwarded a copy of the letter, which said some godawful things about making me back into a woman, to the police. I can’t say it didn’t shake me up. In any case, I have to consider every time how relevant it is to explain about my past. This may be the hardest part of gender reassignment—others.”
“I can only imagine,” David said. He searched Miles’ face, with its thin shadow of hirsute, to see if he had any inkling of what David had once secretly thought about him as a her. He’d been riveted by Mimi, by her elusive sylph beauty, her slender jaw and sinuous lips that reminded him of graceful Arabic script. He could still see a delicate handsomeness in the man now.
“And how about you?” Miles asked him. “Did you bring pictures of your family?”
“I did,” said David, and took out the leather folio and showed him photographs of his wife, Rose, and of Leah.
“You have a gorgeous family,” Miles said.
“We’ve been trying to have another child,” David told him. He had no idea why he’d admitted this to Miles. They rarely told anyone. After so much time the pursuit no longer felt new or promising. And they were thankful for just having Leah when he knew many couples who weren’t even that lucky. Though he knew, too, that Rose felt more frustrated than he. For him, Leah’s large and sometimes histrionic personality more than filled the house. She was enough. Just as he had always chosen to believe that he, an only child too, was enough for his parents. But Rose had spoken of the joys of a large family, having four sisters herself, and lately the subject, as she turned thirty-eight like him, had become a line signifying their places on opposite sides of a stubborn marker. More than once he’d indicated he’d like to have a vasectomy and be done with it. “It,” of course, was the pressure of making a baby, which had lately morphed into the pressure of performance.
“I’d like to have a family someday,” Miles said. “That was the hardest part of my decision. Bye bye to my reproductive organs.” “I can only imagine.” David realized he’d uttered these words twice now and must have sounded like a dazed observer at a side-show. He should have been less unsettled by Miles’ bluntness—what had happened to his professional training after all? He’d worked with gay men and women, even transvestites, though not someone who’d undergone a sex change. Yet he felt a personal reaction to everything that was being said. As if he were channeling the family’s regrets.
“I’d be glad to adopt, if I met the right woman. Of course, that’s a problem in itself.” Miles smiled broadly. “I mean, am I a straight man now who dates heterosexual women, or a man, formerly a woman, who still likes lesbians? And would any of them have me?”
“You had a partner before?”
“Helena.” Miles bent his linen napkin into a frown that drooped from his mouth. “End of a five year relationship.”
“You must have wanted to do this very badly.” “What you’re really asking is do I have any regrets?” David smiled. “You’re a good therapist, I can see.”
“I am, more than I get paid for. But to answer your question, well, let me put it this way. I’d look in my closet at the pantyhose I was supposed to put on for corporate America before I became a social worker and it would make my skin crawl. I never felt comfortable in women’s clothes or a woman’s skin. And frankly, I’d always wanted a penis. Now I have one. Would you like to see it?”
“Pardon?” David said, flushing.
Miles reached out to touch David’s hand. “I’m only fooling with you, cousin. Consider it transgender schtick.”
But was he? After lunch, Miles suggested they go for a swim. The hotel had an indoor lap pool. “I love to swim,” Miles informed David. “That’s the one sport I used to do competitively. Why don’t you join me?”
“I don’t have a suit.”
“I always bring an extra.” They were standing in the atrium of the hotel under the vast open glass panels, surrounded by a mauve forest of sofas, chairs, and wall hangings. “Unless you have to get back right away.”
“No,” said David, because he didn’t want to seem… What? Rude? Uptight about swimming with a transsexual? “Sure, let’s do it.”
They went up to Miles’ room, discussing the conference on the way. Miles’ presentation tomorrow was part of a panel called “Living with your (non) transgender Parents.” His own experience with his parents’ semi-denial was not atypical, he said. “I can certainly understand,” he admitted. “How would you feel about your child becoming a different gender in the middle of her life? For one, you’re asking parents to give up any illusions about carrying on the family name in a genetically natural way. It’s one thing not to have children; it’s quite another to willfully, as in my case, undermine the very capacity to do so. No wonder so few doctors will do the operation. They’re asked to perform an irrevocable procedure that is based entirely on a state of mind, something they’re supposed to believe in called gender dysphoria, that either removes the sex organs or constructs entirely sterile ones. I mean, I have a respectable penis, thanks to the wonders of phalloplasty, but heaven help it to squirt out a single sperm. I sympathize, I do, with my parents, with the doctors… With everyone. Do you want to change in the bathroom?” Miles asked, starting to get undressed. He threw David a suit.
He did. He hadn’t prepared himself after all. Not for the forthrightness of Miles’ remarks. If anything, he thought he’d have to draw Miles out, as he would a struggling client, a gentle questioning to establish trust. But Miles was a runaway train—I have a respectable penis. Had David ever said anything like this to anyone? And how big was Miles’ penis anyway?
In the bathroom, David held up the suit, small, but he could fit into it. At least it wasn’t a Speedo.
“You okay in there?” Miles asked.
“Fine,” said David.
David pulled at the crotch of the tan nylon trunks. “Just great.” When he opened the door, Miles was standing there in the hotel’s white bathrobe cinched tight and with flip flops.
“Not bad,” Miles remarked, eyeing David’s suit. It was almost as if his cousin had been expecting this moment.
Miles, as he’d hinted, proved to be an excellent swimmer. David watched him glide effortlessly back and forth in the pool, making smooth flip turns at the wall and then shooting forward with submerged musculature into the next lap, silent as an eel. Meanwhile, David stood in the water’s deep end supporting himself with his elbows on the ledge. Rose, a strong swimmer herself, had tried to encourage him to go with her to the community pool. He agreed that he needed exercise and too often got stuck in his head, the profession’s occupational hazard, and that he should follow his own advice to clients to get out there and stir up some endorphins.
“Want to sit in the hot tub?” Miles called to him from across the pool. They were the only ones in the pool. They’d come down on the elevator and passed through a throng of conferees registering for the conference. David had followed Miles assuming he knew the best way to the fitness center, but now he wondered if there hadn’t been a more direct—and private—route. In the popularized argot of the profession, he would have considered his cousin’s behavior—the eagerness to change clothes in the openness of the hotel room, the strolling through the lobby, the offer to view his respectable penis—an exhibitory overcompensation for his fears of being insufficiently masculine. the catch was that overcompensation or not, it was making David feel like the lesser man.
“Sure,” said David, and boosted himself out of the water. The trunks clung to his thighs. It was odd… He almost felt as if he were thirteen again, wearing this small suit, self-conscious about his changing body. Except presently his body was changing against his will—or lack thereof—into a sedentary salute to middle age. Miles, by comparison, showed all the signs of rejuvenation, if not outright youth.
In the hot tub, he got a good look at Miles’ chest, which had just a little extra padding, as if filled with a layer of down, but not so much that you’d think I’m staring at a former woman’s chest. He could see no signs of scars. The nipples appeared a bit asymmetrical and larger than they might (although compared to what? he had to ask himself). In a moment of strange elevator intimacy, David had confessed on the way down to the pool that he’d had a crush on him—on Mimi, that is. He hadn’t gone into the extent of it via his hormone-erupting, thirteen-year-old psyche at a religious rite of passage overseen by a God in whom he’d stop believing. Or that he’d mentally unzipped her pink dress and never dreamed he’d have to unzip her skin to find the real person. He’d simply said, “I had a pretty good crush on you as a teenager.” And Miles, standing up straight and thoughtful in his terrycloth hotel robe with its Hyatt insignia and his navy blue knee-length swim trunks, as if he were a boxer having a centering moment before he entered the ring, turned to him and said, “Admiration accepted. And returned.”
Miles caught him staring and smiled. David quickly turned away, embarrassed by his curiosity and gawking. “Enjoying yourself?” Miles asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh. I am,” said David. He had to keep flattening down his ballooning trunks.
“Is something troubling you?”
“No,” he said, though he knew from his own experience with clients that he’d responded too quickly to be credible.
Miles extended one leg—hairy, David noted—and tapped his big toe against David’s chest. “Sure?”
“Well, we’re struggling a bit right now. Rose and I. But it’s nothing serious.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“I think it’s about the direction of our lives.”
“Sounds like a traffic problem.”
David laughed. “In a way. Rose would like another child, as I said.”
“Actually you said you both wanted a child. Is that not accurate?”
“She more than I. I think she believes this is the way to move forward. I’m not so sure.”
“You’ve been married, what? Fifteen years?”
“So that’s a lot of time together. I envy you. It’s an investment worth guarding.”
“That it is,” said David. And then thought how strange to be talking with his cousin in a hot tub about the intimacy of his marriage, his cousin who had just told him he had a respectable penis, and with whom, ironically, he felt completely honest in a way he rarely enjoyed these days. “I guess we’ll just have to see what happens next.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Miles said. “I’m a poster boy for what comes next. And you want to know something? It’s always a work in progress. Somehow the definitiveness of next, despite my certainty of its permanence each time, still eludes me.”
They went upstairs to change, and again David used the bathroom, while Miles dressed in the less private confines of the room. David looked at his shriveled penis in the mirror, always to be counted on after swimming, but especially in a tight suit. He stretched the appendage, but it quickly retracted into its accordion mode like the face of a preternaturally wrinkled Chinese Shar-Pei dog.
“All right if I just rinse off in here?” David called through the door.
“Go ahead. I’ll do the same after you finish.”
He saw Miles’ travel kit on the back of the tub once he opened the shower curtain. He knew all about confidentiality. What could be more important in his profession? You went to jail, after all, to protect a client’s privacy. Or told yourself you would, if it ever came to that. Yet, he couldn’t stop himself from looking in the bag and picking up the prescription bottles. Lexapro, Trazodone, Ativan, Paxil… the whole gamut of depression and anxiety treatments. it didn’t surprise him. What did was the sudden pang of tenderness he felt for Miles and his vulnerabilities. He could recall when he’d first seen Mimi, and she looked so alone, maybe the loneliest and prettiest girl he had ever seen, a deadly combination for someone like him who was keen on others’ wounds and on his way to becoming a psychologist, the seed watered.
“You need anything, just take it out of my toiletry bag,” Miles said, and David drew his hand away quickly, as if Miles could see him. “I mean, deodorant or something.”
“Want to shower together?” “Huh?”
“David, David,” said Miles. “Just kidding.”
“Oh, yeah,” David said. “Transgender schtick. Right.”
He showered and dressed, and after Miles did the same they went down in the elevator. He was already planning what he would say to his parents who’d want to know how the visit with Mimi went, wondering if he would tell them the truth. He still couldn’t believe uncle Irv hadn’t told them about Miles. Oh, yes, he could. Repression could be a formidable force. He’d once had a client who, in trying to convey the degree of denial in her family, explained that when she was fifteen she’d had a miscarriage, literally in front of her parents. They’d all been sitting on the sofa in the living room watching TV. Four months pregnant and wearing baggy shirts to conceal what she’d been starting to show, his client, faint and weak, had gushed out a bloody clot. She’d run to the bathroom, but there was no mistaking what happened— the back of her shorts soaked, the blood right in front of her mother and father. They’d said nothing. She’d quietly cleaned up “the mess,” and that was the last ever spoken about it.
So it was no wonder Miles was still invisible and Mimi would live on in the family memory until the generation died out. David still had the sense that he was on a mission, a counteragent to the family secrecy. And Miles seemed grateful. He’d thanked him profusely for taking the time to meet.
“Of course,” said David. “I want to keep in touch.”
Miles tilted his head. “I’d like that.”
When he got home, the lights were off inside. Rose had left him a note that Leah was at a sleepover and that she herself had gone upstairs to think—code for napping. His wife adored naps. Whereas such naps led to insomnia for him, Rose could wake up from a luxurious repose, stretch happily, murmur indolently, and be asleep four hours later without interference. Disturb me, the note said.
He went into the bedroom. The sound machine whirred away. They’d gotten hooked on white noise, operant conditioning: as soon as the machine went on, they both became sleepy and reported to their dream quarters. It all seemed like such normalcy now after seeing Miles.
He lay down and curled up against her, and she pushed back into him. He felt the warmth of her buttocks through the thin fabric of her nightgown. He pressed his lips to the soft nape of her neck and then kissed her shoulder, biting her lightly until she said “Mmm.” Then she turned around and faced him. “What was it like?”
“Your father called. He wanted to know how it was seeing Mimi. If she’s married yet or has, as he put it, a beau. He doesn’t have a clue, does he?”
“No,” said David, “And I’m not sure I’m going to tell him. If Miles’ own father wants to keep it a secret, why should I say anything to my parents? It’s unlikely they’ll ever see Miles again, and everyone will go to their graves—this older generation— content with the perceived status quo.”
“what’s he look like? Like the photograph still?” He had shown her the picture of Mimi at fifteen and explained his adolescent crush. She’d had similar sentiments for one of her boy cousins, but nothing had happened there either… well, nothing, except a game of strip poker. Rose won, cousin lost, end of story. As much as she remembered at least. It was her first sight, given her family of four sisters, of a penis, which had a dampening effect on her crush: her cousin’s angelic face came with one of those?
“I can still see her in him.” He thought of the way Miles canted his head as they were saying goodbye—much the way Mimi had looked at him when he was thirteen and sent his heart then, and another organ, soaring, as if she wanted to study David from a cockeyed angle and to look pretty while doing it.
“You smell like chlorine.”
“We went swimming. I guess I didn’t get it all out of my hair.”
“You went swimming? With Miles?” “And I showered in his room afterward.”
“Oh, my.” She was unbuckling his belt as she said this, her hand slipping under the band of his underwear. He remembered standing in front of Miles’ bathroom mirror, examining himself and his manhood, trying to decipher what it meant that Mimi had once been the object of his earliest masturbatory fantasies when he was thirteen. And those weren’t the only ones. In the related category of his rescue fantasies, he’d saved her from burning buildings, muggings, sexual maraudings, and, ironically, considering Miles’ prowess as a swimmer, drowning. Her eternal gratitude was his dying reward. Breathless, sacrificing himself, he’d come. Le Petit Mort, as the French called orgasm, so willing with their philosophical fatalism to commingle sex and death at any opportunity.
Had he always wanted to save people?
“Ohh,” Rose cried.
“You all right?”
“Yes, yes, go… don’t stop.” He’d thrust into her hard, skipping their usual foreplay, bunching her nightgown up around her neck, and with his fingers splayed across her chest, pinning her down. Her cries echoed through the empty house. So rarely did they have it all to themselves. He heard his own moans, too, reverberating in his throat, his breath coming faster, his desire swift, heedless and unstoppable, and then Rose slapped him across the face, the resounding bite of her hand stinging his flesh, and he came instantly.
He rolled off her. They lay there next to each other, spent and looking up at the ceiling. He was reluctant to speak, and Rose’s breathing filled the silence. Finally, he asked, “Why’d you do that?”
“You said his name.”
She had never slapped him during sex or any other time. It was so unlike her. So unrestrained. He’d burst forth at the touch, but now he couldn’t tell if the slap had been simultaneous or if his coming had preceded it. “I think you imagined that,” David said. “Just because we’d been talking about him.”
“I didn’t. You called his name. It bothered me.”
“I wasn’t thinking about him.” Or was he? Was he thinking that he hadn’t told Rose about Miles’ bragging about his new penis or about the sudden kiss on David’s cheek that took him completely by surprise as they were saying goodbye and how he couldn’t get over how soft it was, Mimi’s kiss, as if Miles purposely had turned himself into her for a moment just to confuse him.
David propped himself up on one elbow and looked at Rose, her flushed face and chest, her still erect nipples, her eyes a green bemused cloud. “Well, whether I did or not, I’m sorry.”
“Me too. Did I hurt you?”
“No. I was just… surprised.”
She kissed the tips of her fingers and touched them to his cheek. “I wanted your attention. On me.”
The phone rang. He got up to answer it because it might be Leah. One day, when she was older, he wouldn’t feel the need to jump for the phone every time, but now he imagined terrible scenarios in the span of milliseconds. It was a hang up, a Denver number on the caller ID, and he wondered for a moment if it might be Miles.
When he came back to bed, Rose was lying on her back with her knees pressed against her chest. The doctor had told them this position didn’t help. If she was going to get pregnant, if they were going to have another child after trying all these years, the little fellas would swim up in her regardless and do their job, the doctor said. But Rose did it out of habit or superstition and David allowed her the practice without comment. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” Rose said now, speaking into her knees, “If after seeing Miles, it finally did happen?”
David lay down beside her and placed his hand on her flat belly after she unfurled herself. He felt the warmth there, felt something stirring, felt, he was sure, a magnificent and mysterious transformation taking place. And he felt, too, Miles’ faint lips against his cheek, the same cheek that Rose had slapped, as if to startle a new life into being, neither him nor her but faceless creation.
*This story was published in: Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz, Autumn House Press. Copyright © 2013 by Steven Schwartz.