When the bus first carried Tina and her mother into the desert, past the oil fields of west Texas, Tina felt somehow that they had passed a point of no return. The land itself became sinister, barren even of oil wells and sage bushes higher than her knee. It was as different from Georgia as a place could be, and everything under the hot, flat sun seemed to speak to her: From now on you are different. From now on you are ours.
Her mother, Madge, already liked it here. She had gotten even fatter on the trip out, living on corn dogs and snow cones and fried eggs and bottled beer that she sneaked back onto the bus from every convenience store they stopped at. Madge was a talker, and this, along with her great size, made strangers like her, especially after they heard her laugh, a laugh so beautiful that it startled, so deep and husky and glamorous, it made you think she could sing, even though Tina knew Madge could not sing at all, not even in church. Madge had made friends with everybody on the bus: the salesman from California, the two Mexican girls from San Antonio, the retired cop from New York on his way to the “sun and fun,” as he put it. Tina didn’t speak to anybody. She wasn’t much of a talker, just fourteen and small even for that age, an elf next to her mother. A troll. The only person she spoke to was the driver, whose seat she liked to sit behind because it was the farthest from her mother. The driver never looked at her but would speak occasionally, pointing out the names of mountains as they passed them. “San Diablos,” he would say, and point a thick finger at some dirty tan peaks. And then he would say nothing for an hour or more.
Once, when they were in New Mexico where the interstate swept far south near the Mexican border, a lone figure waved the bus down. The driver pulled over and a man got on, so covered in yellow dust he might have been buried alive. He held a red bus ticket in his hand. The driver stopped him.
“Can’t get on wearing those clothes.”
“They’re all I’ve got.”
The bus driver said nothing for a moment. Tina waited for him to speak again, amazed that he could utter anything but the names of mountains.
“Shake off,” he said.
The man stepped down quickly, back onto the road, and started to slap the dust off himself. After two minutes of slapping, he climbed back up, not noticeably cleaner than before, and the driver said nothing. The man, carrying a duffel bag, sat in the seat across from Tina. He leered at her, his face yellow with dirt but with teeth white and straight and clean. Tina looked away, then got up and walked back to Madge just as the bus started off again. Madge slept through it all, snoring softly with her head bouncing against the plastic window.
Tina had only recently come to notice that men watched her. The boys at her high school never paid much attention to her, but older men did, especially ugly ones. It had started just in the past year or so, even though she could discern nothing different about herself, about the way she looked or acted. It was as if someone had painted a word on her forehead that only others could read, and it made her even more afraid around people, made her stutter more, avert her eyes.
Still, she dreamed sometimes that this new power might save her, that someday an older man would come to rescue her. Her fantasies consisted of several variations on this theme—in one, a police detective would come and arrest Madge for something and then sweep Tina off her feet. The man was always strong and noble, and never funny—Tina did not trust funny people. And always the first thing out of his mouth was: “You’re beautiful, Tina. You’re beautiful.”
The bus stopped at a concrete diner in Las Cruces. (“The Crosses,” the driver said as they entered the city limits.) Tina ate between Madge and the retired cop. Madge had found out so much about the cop’s past that a stranger listening might think they were married.
“Is there any chance of the tumor coming back?” Madge asked. “Cancer’s how we lost Tina’s father, so I know all about it.” She patted Tina on the shoulder.
“I’ve been clean for three years now,” the cop said. His name was Irv, and he was very old, too old for a girl Tina’s age to even guess. “I go to Oshners once a year for a full looksee. Never came back so far. Keep my fingers crossed though.”
“You can never play it too safe with cancer. Isn’t that right, honey?” She patted Tina again.
“Well, I plan to take it easy from now on,” Irv said. “Hope everything’ll be easier once I’m in the sun and fun. Out of that effing zoo New York.”
Tina ate her hamburger. New York. Even the name sounded wonderful to her. She could not imagine anyplace more different from where they were now than New York City. She wished she were there, right that second.
When she finished eating she went to stand outside in the dirt parking lot. The lot was empty except for the bus, and Tina stood there for a moment, looking out at the horizon. Two weeks earlier she had been a sophomore at Newton High in Lamont County, Georgia. Madge had worked in the cafeteria at Newton High, and Tina had been known by everybody in the school as the fat lady’s daughter. Then one day Madge had been fired for stealing money out of the register, and that tight she told Tina there was nothing left for them to do but head out West and stay a while with Aunt Mattie. Things would be different out there, her mother said. Everything was bigger and better in the West.
So there Tina was, standing alone in the middle of the parking lot, the wind burning her hair. She looked up at the bus and saw the driver still sitting in there, imprisoned behind the tinted glass. She couldn’t tell if he was watching her or not, but she waved anyway.
“Y’all headed to Tucson?” a voice called out from behind her. It was the dirty man, standing across the lot and behind her, at the pay phone, the receiver pressed to his ear.
“Yes,” Tina said.
He hung up the phone. “Nice place,” he said. “Hot as hell. But nice. What’s your name?”
She said nothing.
He nodded as if her silence were an answer.
“You got a joint on you?” he asked.
She shook her head. He faked a pained expression in a way that startled her because it was funny. It made her think that the dirty man had been a popular boy in high school once, like the boys who never spoke to Tina in school. The dirty man was one of those boys. You could even see that he had been handsome, once. He had a strong jaw and skin that was clear, though now deeply lined.
“Listen, you want to play a trick?” he said. He said it in a way that she knew it was the grown-up equivalent of a dare. He reached into his pocket with a hand scarred all around the back and fingers, the fingernails smashed black. When the hand came out, there was a ten-dollar bill in it.
“You see that?” he asked.
“I’ll give you this.”
“I want you to say my name.”
Tina shook her head.
The man went on. “All I want you to do is call me from this phone. I’m gonna call someone in a minute, and after I speak for a little bit, I want you to stand right where you are and call me to you. Like you and I were in a room together. A living room.”
“I have to go,” Tina said, and started to turn. She imagined the bus driver stepping out of the bus to rescue her.
“Twenty dollars,” the man said.
“Aw, come on. Twenty dollars for one sentence. Here, take it.” He reached back into his pocket and got out a twenty, then thrust it out at her. “Please?”
“Who are you calling?”
“You don’t need to know that,” he said, and his eyes narrowed. But there was desperation in them also—this was more than just a prank. And it was this desperation that made Tina brave.
“I won’t do it unless you tell me,” she said.
He sighed, then closed his eyes and rubbed them hard with his fingertips. “It’s a guy I left in Mexico. I told him I was going to Tucson and that I’d be there by tonight, and when he finds out I’m not there he’s going to be pissed off. I mean really pissed. So I have to fake him out. You’re going to be my wife. All you have to do is when I point at you, say, ‘Chris, dinner’s ready.”‘
“Are you really married?”
“Of course I’m not married. You can be my girlfriend, if you’d rather. The guy will never know the difference. Okay?”
Tina started to say no again, but as soon as she did, he dialed the phone and immediately started speaking Spanish. She couldn’t follow a word, except “Tucson” and “Phoenix” and “Si” and “Gracias.” He was standing differently now, straight up, more formal, as if he were afraid of whomever was on the line. He would speak a sentence or two—what Tina thought was a sentence—and then listen for a much longer time than he had spoken. She was not sure what she should do. Finally he said “Si, si,” about ten times. She caught her breath when he pointed to her.
“Chris,” she called out, not yelling it but talking loud. “Dinner’s ready.”
The man said nothing. After a minute, he waved at her, telling her to do it again.
“Chris,” she said. “The chicken’s getting cold!”
He gave her the thumbs up sign, but didn’t smile. He said “Gracias” several times more, then listened, then said “Gracias” five or six more times and hung up. He lit a cigarette and smoked it as if relieved, then handed her the twenty. His smile was gone.
“Thanks,” he said. “I liked the chicken thing. That was worth the extra ten.” He started to run his fingers through his hair, which was long and blond under the dirt. He behaved as if some physical danger had passed for the moment, which of course might well be the case. He seemed to have forgotten her presence altogether, and started to walk away. Then, at the last moment, he turned to her.
“But honestly, you’ve got to be more careful. When a man offers you money and you’re this far out in the desert, you should just run like hell.” He smiled at her, a different smile, more honest, softer. “Just a word of advice. I appreciate the favor, though. You’re a really gorgeous kid.”
And with that he walked to the bus, tapped on the glass door, and the driver let him inside.
Tina went back into the diner, where her mother stroked the back of her head in a way that made her cringe.
“I saw you were making friends outside,” she said.
“Ma’am?” Tina said.
“I told you that you shouldn’t talk to strangers. I won’t have you getting raped and killed out here in the middle of nowhere.”
When they got back on the bus, the dirty man was asleep in the very back, his jeans jacket covering his face. Tina was disappointed—she had hoped for some acknowledgment that they were partners in crime. But it didn’t really matter now. She went to sleep for a while and dreamed that she and the dirty man really were boyfriend and girlfriend. They were on the run together, hiding out in cheap desert motels, running from the evil Mexican gangster they had tricked on the phone. She dreamed that they really were lovers, his stubble rough on her cheek, and his skin hot to the touch.
Madge woke her then. “Wake up, lazy,” she said. “We’re almost there.”
Tina blinked and sat up. She didn’t know how long she had slept, but when she looked behind her the dirty man was gone. Tina felt neither disappointment nor fear, nor even the quiet rage that usually poisoned her very blood. She walked up to the front of the bus and sat directly behind the driver, across the aisle from the young black girl whose name, Madge had learned, was Viola.
“Hey,” Viola said to her. “You’re Madge’s daughter, right?”
“Listen, you can tell me. Your mom’s … she’s a little, you know, wacko. Isn’t she?” Viola twirled her finger around her temple when she said the word, “wacko.”
Tina hesitated. Then, after a moment, she nodded again.
Viola slapped herself on the knees. “I thought so! I could tell that hag was crazy as soon as she opened her mouth.” Viola looked Tina up and down then, apparently searching for some slight deformity that would only show itself on close examination. Finally she said: “You seem okay though. You want some gum?”
Tina took a stick and popped it into her mouth; the sugar hurt her teeth. But she was “okay.” She smiled at Viola, and Viola smiled back. Then Tina looked forward, past the driver’s shoulder and through the windshield. The sun was setting over a new group of squat, tan, vivid mountains in the distance straight ahead, mountains that Tina sensed were near Tucson. And without knowing why, Tina was glad to see them. Absently, she reached down and patted her ankle, feeling the slight bulge in her damp sock where the twenty was folded, tucked deep where Madge would not find it, not even if she searched when Tina was asleep.
Perhaps the West would indeed be bigger and better after all, though not in the way Madge had guessed. Not at all.
“Catalinas,” the driver said, as the sun dipped beneath the highest peak. Tina nodded, and said the name to herself, whispering it so no one else could hear.
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Benny Padilla wasn’t Marty’s first one. The first one was a big-toothed boy with fingers like sausages he pistoned inside her until both of them fell away aching. This on the afternoon couch in the boy’s living room, the parents at work. Marty not at her dance lessons and not expected home until dinner.
Out of the Garden
This essay was a winner of the 1997 Editors’ Prize.
My grandmother crouches in the garden, dress flecked with mud and grass stains, pulling weeds and telling stories. I am seven and frightened; I can’t always decipher her accent and my father has disappeared. “Tomates,” she says, and she means “tomatoes.” She looks up toward the house. “Where father go?” she says, meaning “Where did your father go?” I am alone with her. “What?” I am always asking, “What?”
Suddenly she is talking of soldiers, waves of armies. “Farm in Europe,” she says, meaning Eastern Europe, Lithuania, her uncle’s farm. “Prussians then Russians,” she says, “stomp through fields, take food, take animals, take garden.” I picture men in green fatigues marching over hills—scenes from the World War II movies my stepfather watches on TV. “Then must make bread,” my grandmother says, “put in jar.”
She is on her knees now in the straw-covered row between the tomato plants, intent on her weeding. The plants rise up to my waist. I snap a small shoot, lift it to my nose, and smell. Pungent, like the tomatoes picked fresh from her garden, but with bitter undertones. I drop the shoot so she won’t see that I’ve broken a plant, and raise my fingers to my nose to catch the lingering fragrance.
“In night,” my grandmother says, “run through fields to forest, bury jar in bushes.” I picture the forest. It is dark, primeval, like the forests in the illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales my mother reads to me at night. “Then cook in dark,” she says. She stands up and wipes her hands on her apron. She wears a dress, always a dress, small floral print this time, tiny pink flowers against a cream background. “Hard to cook in dark,” she says, “but soldiers don’t see smoke.” I move closer to her, the way I edge over to my mother when she is reading, when Puss in Boots almost gets caught, when the giant spies Jack’s beanstalk. My grandmother looks at me hard. She lifts her glasses, closes her eyes, pinches and rubs the bridge of her nose. We are nearly eye-to-eye, for she is stooped from years of gardening, and even at full height she is barely five feet tall. She sighs. “But you are an American,” she says, “you don’t understand.” Her words stun me. Silently, she returns to her weeding.
But I do understand, I think, following along so closely when she tells me stories, imagining myself there in the woods, hiding from soldiers. And because of her stories, I frown every time we drive past the intersection where men from Eastern Europe have parked a flatbed truck full of mock gravestones, one etched with the name “Lithuania.” But now I stand accused of being an outsider to all that pain. And I had thought that she was the stranger. People who know—my father, my mother, my other grandmother—call her an immigrant, alien, even peasant. Although they speak in praise of her hard work, stamina, and all that she has endured, it’s clear that my grandmother is the one who doesn’t belong.
I’m confused. In my first grade classroom I rise each morning to say “The Pledge of Allegiance” and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with my classmates. Each spring, I go to the Memorial Day parade and watch marching bands, row after row of battered veterans from World War II, all the while anticipating the baton twirlers and the chance to buy a bright balloon, happy for shorts and the arrival of spring. One minute, being an American means being part of a crowd. The next, it means being a stranger, cut off from my grandmother’s stories, thrown out of the garden.
Dusk now, and we move inside. My father and grandfather sit at the round kitchen table, the silver rim, the gray and white Formica are scrubbed clean with homemade soap. My grandfather nods, rises silently, and leaves the room. My grandmother makes tea, pours me some milk, and then we sit in awkward silence with my father. “Tell her how we came to America,” my father says. Either he hates the silence or knows I like the stories.
My grandmother’s hands lie quiet on the table. She looks past me, but she tells it again, the story I have heard in bits and pieces. In it, my grandmother is the young woman in the picture over her couch, dark hair pulled back, mouth pressed in a firm, grim line, holding two frightened children one cold January in 1930, first crossing borders in a train, then descending into a lower berth of the S.S. George Washington. Storms brew on the Atlantic, and she heads into the future dizzy, sick, and tied to the bed in that rocking ship. She farms out the daughter to other emigrants and ties her son to the next bed. My father crosses the Atlantic bound and abandoned, seeing his mother but unable to reach her. As for my grandmother, any thoughts she has—when she’s not too sick to think—would light upon the husband waiting across the Atlantic, a man she hasn’t seen for three years. The ocean rises and falls, the boat pitches, she spins and spins; this is the only passage her husband can afford after three years in a New England rivet factory. She is still Elena Sophia Bartoska Bartkeciene—a name that bespeaks her past—lying between lives in the hold of the ship. She tosses and turns in that wretched cocoon, about to emerge on the far shore as Helen Bartkevicius—a name that means nothing, a mere replica of her husband’s. She is so shaken by the waves and the stench that, poised between a small familiar village in Lithuania and a small industrial city in Connecticut, her only desire is death.
But the ocean liner docks at last. Dry land calms her stomach, restores her practical mind. When my grandfather brings her to Railroad Avenue in Milford, Connecticut, a neighborhood where other women speak Lithuanian and Polish, she quickly learns the ways of her new soil: how much lime to sprinkle from her stocking to keep insects off young plants, how newspaper can substitute for straw in garden rows, what mushrooms grow down behind the railroad tracks near the stream that runs through the woods. Soon, she can go out into a field and come back with dinner. She picks through poisonous mushrooms and fills her apron with edible varieties. She grows potatoes for pancakes. She grows horseradish to grate and mix with vinegar, and serves it with pan-fried eels bargained for at the dock. She scoops seeds out of fresh tomatoes, boils the pulp into juice, and carefully dries the seeds on the windowsill for next year’s garden.
She makes soap from fat, pan drippings, and lye. She feeds her family all year on a backyard garden, a few chickens scratching between rows of vegetables, a couple of trips to the small market and docks.
For years she carries on just so. And then World War II breaks out. While the neighbor women do laundry in wringer washers and stir up Betty Crocker cake mix, my grandmother cans bread and runs out into the night to bury it beneath the trees.
We move to her scratchy gray living room couch, and I open the photo album. Faded, gap-toothed people stand before unpainted weather-worn buildings, hungry-looking hounds beside them. An old woman poses with her arm around a gravestone. A handsome young man sits rigidly in a military uniform. “Petras, brother,” my grandmother says, noticing my interest in the picture. “Die in war.” I ask her to tell me the story, but she tells another: “We sleep in field,” she says, “by horses, legs tied, hobbled. They walk, we wake, bring back.” Her clipped words and sentences never change. I forget that in the garden she called me an American who would not understand.She becomes the stranger, and I sit at the kitchen table saying, “What? What?”
In the deepening dusk, in the forest, my father drives too fast down narrow Transylvania Road, winding along the edge of a cliff. It is summer, 1967, and my father is going back to the land and taking me with him.
For an hour, we followed a river the color of his Marine fatigues, heading north out of industrial southern Connecticut. The river’s wretched smell permeated the closed-up car. “Tire factories,” my father said. I looked outside and saw a thick, oily layer of green along the river, smokestacks in the distance. Soon we left the highway and followed a narrow, winding road west, away from the river, away from the smell. Factories and strip malls tapered off, and we raced past farmhouses and open fields. Now, I look down on treetops as he speeds toward some farm up for sale, talking about living far away from the factory, about putting money to work. At the bottom of a long hill surrounded by tall grass and bushes, he slows down. “The pond must be in there,” he says, consulting a hand-drawn map. At the hairpin curve he realizes we’ve passed the overgrown driveway and backs up fast, transmission whining. He turns in; plants and rocks scrape the floorboards.
We wade through waist-high grass between a bramble of berries and a crumbling stone foundation. “The house burned down,” he says. We walk between a dull brown barn and sheds barely visible in the fading light. Bats and swallows swoop in and out of a gaping hole in the top of the barn. I reach for my father’s hand. It’s spring and crickets chirp, much louder than in Milford. A higher chorusing joins them as we walk, a sound I don’t recognize, for the frogs that must once have inhabited the marsh behind my mother’s house have been gone for as long as I can remember. My father lets go of my hand to open the barn door. He struggles against the rusty horseshoe-and-wheel contraption until the door slides open. Musty damp smell, the sweet redolence of decay. He steps tentatively into complete darkness, then immediately withdraws. I hear a noise down the hill near where the pond should be: something walking, parting grass. My father walks toward it, hushing me. The remaining sunlight fades to nothing. He holds a flashlight but won’t turn it on.
I take his hand again. Tall grass clings to my pants, scratches my naked arms. Stars become visible in a sky I’ve never seen before. At home, lights come on at dusk—streetlights, house lights, headlights, factory lights, landing lights on low planes descending to the airport across the marsh. But here, in the deep dark of the country, as we walk down the hill toward the pond, I can’t see my father even though our hands are touching. I can’t tell if my eyes are open or shut.
My father buys that hundred-acre farm and lives there for the rest of my childhood, in a small log cabin built from native hand-hewn logs. He trades in his gold Mustang for a sky blue Chevy pickup and makes a red and white label for the dashboard: Transylvania Farm. “‘Transylvania’ means ‘through the forest,'” he tells me, “‘trans’ is through, ‘sylvania’ is like ‘sylvan’—forest.” But to me, Transylvania means Bella Lugosi, blood-sucking bats, the dark mysteries of Eastern Europe.
At the farm, my father becomes the Marlboro cowboy with an Eastern European twist; he follows a ’60s hippie impulse with the flourish of an ex-Marine. He buys cowboy hats and boots for both of us at Dan’s Western Supply Company. He scares off copperheads to draw water from a stone well, and when I ask for the bathroom—until he gets the electricity connected and the water pump going—he points to the old oak behind the cabin. He buys a miniature John Deere tractor with a sickle bar and cuts wild grass around the barns and cabin. He buys two hard-mouthed, half-wild, former rental horses from a Connecticut cowboy with a Western drawl. He buys a machete, and I walk behind him picking up the young trees, weeds, tall grass, and bushes he hacks down to clear trails to the pond and through his woods. He buys lumber for split-rail fences and spends a weekend wearing dirty Marine pants and a sweat-drenched undershirt, slamming the posthole digger into the earth. Over and over, around the barns, down the hill to the stone wall at the pond. He measures carefully, then digs, measures then digs, before setting pine posts into the holes. I help him guide the long rails into post notches. At the end of each day, our blistered hands smell of pine.
He gets a cattle farmer with a real tractor to cut and bale hay and takes a quarter of the yield. Prickly hay pierces my skin, and sweat stings the tiny punctures as we stack forty-pound bales into the back of the truck. I ride on top, higher than the pickup’s cab, swaying over uneven ground as my father drives to the barn. Afterwards, we jump into a river a few miles down the road, climb the banks to soap ourselves, and jump back in again. We pick blackberries for breakfast and eat them on the cabin’s back porch, horses sniffing us through the screen. I run around barefooted with country neighbors who teach me to climb a rope swing and tell ghost stories in their dark shed. I learn to ride horses and to race them. We don’t hobble the horses or sleep in the fields beside them, but we do tend them, filling buckets with grain, using long, slender pneumatic pumps to coat their bodies with insecticide. Horseflies subside, but botflies fat as hummingbirds persist, laying yellow eggs in the horses’ fetlocks. I swat the flies and comb and pick at the tiny eggs. From the tall roan’s back, I nearly swat a hummingbird as we ride through high lilies. My father shoots woodchucks to keep the horses from stepping in their holes. To protect the hay from droppings, he teaches me to shoot bats with a BB gun. I learn to love animals and to kill them. I learn to love the wild woods and to hack it down.
My grandparents’ house becomes increasingly remote. Our time is filled with long drives out of Milford, the work the farm demands, and rural adventures (riding horses through the woods, searching for fossils, scouting out animals, like the muskrat swimming beneath the ice of the frozen pond, the woodchuck in the oak tree, the bobcat in the field). But when we make time for a visit, I watch my grandmother read through a stack of tissuey letters with foreign stamps, incomprehensible words. I’m mystified by the newspapers and conversations in that strange other language that my father knows too—though he responds in English. I ask for lessons and they teach me a greeting: what sounds like “Kapetowanis” How are you. And the appropriate answer, something like “Garrday”—Fine. Everything is fine, and they keep the rest to themselves.
Though I don’t know the language, I practice the accent, and when my mother overhears the imitation, she urges me to perform for her. “No,” I say shyly. “Come on,” she says. And so I parody my grandmother’s accent and her work ethic too, the way she objects to my small frame (a legacy of my mother’s family). “Too teen,” I say, instead of “too thin.” When my mother laughs, I’m inspired to exaggerate her praise for my bulkier cousins: “Beek, strrronk like bool. Vwerrrk many hours in fielt.”
Though they seldom turn to such mocking, even my grandmother’s own children, intent on being Americans, shun her ways. They wear store-bought clothes with a vengeance, and refuse to plant gardens, cook potato pancakes, make homemade kielbasa, or bake cookies without sugar. They eat steak and potatoes with salad. “Ma!” they say, and roll their eyes because she’s once again saved every scrap of fat trimmings for her homemade soap. They urge her to get a private phone instead of a party line, to get a hot water heater, to buy prepared food at the supermarket, to live an easier life.
Three names on a plaque near my grandparents’ doorbell: Bartkevicius, Bartkewicz, Barker. “Barker is for convenience,” my father says. “Use it to make reservations, drop off your film, talk to people you don’t really know.” Bartkewicz is harder to explain. With a serious expression he tells me a story I can’t really follow, all borders, politics, betrayals, and allegiances. I ask him to teach me Lithuanian—he went to kindergarten with a neighbor’s note pinned to his shirt: I do not speak English. But now, while he can understand his parents, he has lost his tongue for it. “Kapetowanis,” he says. “Garrday.” I beg for more, and he teaches me a little Polish rhyme about a boy who tells his mother about droppings in a chicken coop.
At school, kids tell Polack jokes, and my Polish schoolmates blush silently. I force a smile and worry. I know that Poland borders Lithuania, that of the three names under my grandparents’ doorbell, one is Polish. But no one from school goes to my grandparents’ house. And I take comfort in my schoolmates’ ignorance of geography. “What kind of name is that?” they ask occasionally. “Lithuanian,” I answer, and watch them shrug.
All that summer, the Summer of Love, I move between two places: my mother’s house in Milford (and the nightclub she helps my stepfather run) and the woods of Transylvania, a place lit by stars, moon, and fireplace or not lit at all, a magical darkness once frightening but now increasingly familiar. At Transylvania Farm, I leave behind what seems to me the essence of Milford: poisoned beaches, factory smoke, trucks, cars, trains, planes. I revel in the difference, playing Joni Mitchell and Neil Young albums, all about getting ourselves back to the garden and country girls. I wear patched jeans and ride into the forest on horseback or race the paint horse through the pasture at night.
On long walks through the woods, my father and I try to name what we see. Silver and white birch. Pine. Frogs and toads. Deer in the woods and fields. Raspberry bushes along the old foundation. Horse chestnuts, inedible. Apples, full of worms. Blackberries, thick and tart, on thorny bushes along the edge of the field. Field mouse in the grain bucket. Copperhead in the well. Black snake sunning itself on the stone wall. Chipmunk disappearing into loose piles of fieldstone. Woodchuck in the field, bat in the barn, both doomed to be shot. Barn swallows sweeping the evening sky.
The next autumn, my grandfather dies in the hospital elevator on the way to have his chest pains examined. I am in a church play that day, and I sense my father’s uneasiness, but he waits until the play ends to tell me what’s wrong. The funeral is stiff and awkward, everyone sitting quietly in black. Afterwards, I follow my grandmother out to her garden. I want something, but don’t know what it is. When she moves around to the side of the house to trim the bushes and trees, I thrust myself into a spectacular yellow rosebush. My eyes fill with yellow and I can almost feel the flowers’ roundness. She coaxes me out, and I let her soak the infected foot I’ve refused to let anyone else touch. I watch quietly as she mixes powders and herbs in a bucket. She rolls a thick needle over the infected bulb of pus, then pierces and drains it. She hands me a little silver piece, a New York subway token from years past. I don’t ask what place it holds in her memory, but accept it as some kind of promise, a gift whose value I will someday understand.
When the sun sets we sit on her front porch, gently rocking together in her green metal glider, watching the cars race by and the street lamps light up, listening to ambulances rush past.
In Milford, I stare out the window of my mother’s car and dream that underneath beer cans and broken bottles lies a clean white beach, that underneath concrete, asphalt, and block buildings is a vast farm with fragrant black soil. “What do you do at the farm on a Saturday night,” my mother and stepfather tease, “throw rocks in the river?” I laugh, but their comment stings. I know how they love their nightclub, how they believe that “civilization”—lights, cocktails, and music—means excitement, while “wilderness” means animals and boredom. The closest they get to nature is driving the Buick to the coal dock on the Housatonic River and parking between the tall cement towers that elevate Interstate 95 and the railroad tracks. Together, we sit on the hood watching power boats and barges. Or we go clamming and stand waist deep in salt water where the sun sets behind POISON signs posted along the shore. When they tease me about the farm, I feel a torn loyalty to my father’s place. I miss high school dances and parties when I go to the farm. I miss Saturday nights dressing up to work at the nightclub—live jazz, jokes, dancing, dazzling lights, money to make and people to watch.
Saturday night at Transylvania Farm we read and sit by the fire. In the morning, we ride the horses for miles. We ride into town for ice cream, and on the way back take the horses swimming in the river.
Just after Woodstock, even my father’s small town crackles with excitement. The oldest neighbor kids have gone to Woodstock and returned with long hair, leather pouches of pot, and stories the rest of us hang on. Even my father is intrigued, and he considers a proposal from local concert producers to run a similar event on his farm. The small town doesn’t want to be a second Woodstock, and it suits my rebellious streak to see our name in the local newspaper.
My father revels in the stir. He plans out the concert; he wants to use a local motorcycle gang as bouncers. We talk it over on horseback, returning from the river. About three miles from the farm, we cross a neighbor’s land. The owner comes out, pretends to admire the horses, and gets right to the gossip. “Listen Mr. Barker,” he says. “have you heard about that Polack down the road who wants to run a rock concert?” (These more distant neighbors have never heard our real last name.) My father pauses—for effect, perhaps, or to wrestle with his conscience. “I’m that Polack down the road,” he says, turns his appaloosa, and rides away. I smile, half meek, half bold, and turn the roan and follow: Hopalong Bartkevicius and his little sidekick riding off into the sunset.
When our concert doesn’t come off—too much opposition, expensive insurance—we distract ourselves by finally planting a garden. My father digs up hard soil with a long spade, and I dig compost from the bottom of the horse manure pile. We plant carrots, onions, and tomatoes. When the tiny green plants appear between rows of hay, instead of spraying insecticide, we shake lime from a stocking as my grandmother does. I carry my organic carrots to school and crunch them theatrically in the lunchroom while the cheerleaders eat tuna sandwiches and make comments about “that girl with the carrots.” When it’s cold I wear a fringed leather Western jacket. When it’s milder I wear my father’s Marine jacket with a peace sign sewn on. Transylvania Farm becomes the vehicle for my adolescent rebellion against my Republican hometown. I tell stories of my father and his log cabin, of our brush with rock-concert celebrity. We could have been the second Yasgur’s farm.
In my back-to-the-land fervor, I ask my reticent, elegant mother if she breast-fed my half-sister and me. She gasps and looks offended. “That’s for animals,” she says. Stung, I retreat with the sketchbook I’ve kept since childhood, and look over old portraits of my mother, sketches of cartoon characters, and a series of drawings of the yard. A birch tree sketch brings to mind a similarly disappointing exchange with my mother. Halfway done with the drawing, I’d noticed wires running from the utility pole through the tree and to our house. I asked her if she would draw the wires. “Of course I would,” she’d answered, “they’re there.” Suddenly my decision was clear: I would not draw them. “You’re a Romantic,” she’d said, as if it were something bad.
In Milford Center, in the fall of 1973, I’m hanging out downtown with my best friend, Joan, talking about high school graduation, wearing faded, patched dungarees and army jackets. In school we’ve just chosen slogans for our yearbook pictures. Mine is from Easy Rider:“Like a true nature’s child, we were born to be wild.” Stripped of the raucous music and vision of motorcycles racing down the street, it loses much of its appeal; roaring rebellion is reduced to a sentimental rhymed couplet. But I haven’t been able to think of anything else. I like the incongruity—flower child with the flourish of a biker gang member—which I don’t recognize as a legacy of my father. I like how it will irritate the cheerleaders I’m so bent on opposing.
Suddenly, just ahead, my grandmother appears—the first time I’ve seen her away from her house or yard. She is tiny, frail, formal, and foreign, a little old woman in a dull cloth overcoat and kerchief tied babushka style. “Grandma,” I say. She stops, turns, and looks up at me. Jeans and tie-dye dresses hang in the shop windows behind her. Cars race by. Joan chuckles softly. My grandmother and I stare at each other as if we were strangers, and trade forgettable pleasantries.
As she walks toward home, and Joan and I head the other way, I turn and look at her over my shoulder. She has a short stride, a slight waddle. I watch her disappear. “That was your grandmother?” Joan asks.
In all the years my father owns the farm, my grandmother never comes to visit. She likes home and the circle around it: the market, a friend’s house, church. She never learns to drive. Nor do I ever see her in a car, although I know she gets rides from the Polish neighbor who, like her, prays daily at St. Mary’s Catholic Church several miles away. Long after her neighborhood has turned commercial, she maintains the house she and her husband bought a few years after her arrival. While long-time neighbors sell to doctors—Milford Hospital is just a block away—my grandmother hangs on to home and walks to the Grand Union, to Cumberland Farms, to the post office, to Grants Department Store. As office buildings rise up around it, her small brown house looks like a relic of the 1930s, increasingly frail and diminished.
Before I leave for college, my father and I sit in her spotless kitchen, and I look down at the burnt orange linoleum floor everyone says you could eat from. She serves her specialty: thick, nearly sugarless cookies, something between sweet biscuit and dry cookie. She busies herself making tea, moving from the table to the old-fashioned, deep white sink, to refrigerator, to stove. “Tell me about Lithuania,” I say. She repeats the familiar stories: sleeping beside the hobbled horses; putting bread in jars, crossing the Atlantic. But she is in a good mood, mischievous. She rummages through her pantry, finds a Mason jar she’s saved since World War II and sets it on the kitchen table. I look at the bread inside—not the thick, homemade bread I’ve imagined, but thin slices of store-bought bread, Wonder Bread, perhaps. “Yes,” she says, “I make when war start, like in Europe. I think same. Neighbors laugh. I stop.” She laughs and turns the jar. The bread is pure and white, not a trace of mold.
After a silence, she says, “Story about father.” He glances up from his newspaper. “Second baby,” she says, nodding her chin at him. “Cry, never stop. Old woman with a stick walk from village to village, my baby cry and cry, my husband work in America to send money and she walk and walk many days to farm. Old woman says, ‘you miss husband.'” Hwahsbund, my grandmother pronounces it. She pauses and looks at her hands. “Old woman says, ‘Miss husband, sadness goes into milk. Baby feeds at breast, sadness goes into him. Do not feed from breast when miss husband.'” My father blushes and leaves the room.
She shakes her head. “Another one,” she says, and speaks of a distant moment held in memory: A young Prussian soldier rides his horse up to her gate. “I am thirsty,” he says, in her language. Young, unmarried, alone that day near the house, she dips into the well to get him a drink. Even though he might come back in the night to pillage and kill, she brings him a pitcher of water. She stands at the gate as he drinks, mounts his horse, and rides away.
More memories rise up; I can tell from her hands, moving slightly on the table. Her eyes shift, she lifts her glasses, strokes the bridge of her nose. The stories lie behind there, just beyond reach. When I ask, she waves her hand, waves me out of her past. Her hands, spotted and old, strong and callused, have ceased tending the garden out back, ceased canning anything, making kielbasa or other fresh foods. The cookies are the last of the old ways, and soon they will stop, too. In years to come, when my grandmother starts to speak of dying and my father and I remind her that her own mother lived to be 104, she shakes her head. “That was Europe,” she says, “Difference, all difference.”
And her illnesses come on like a prophesy.
In a prefab log cabin, in the winter of 1990, I sit across from my grandmother in the mild terror that has gripped me since childhood whenever I’m left alone with her. It has always been the same: my father and I arrive for a visit; he leaves the room; I am alone with her accent and small voice, afraid the words will die between us.
“Did he brinck machine?” she asks.
“What?” I say.
She has moved, and we sit in her special day room at the side of my cousin Donna’s new house. Donna is abundance, a big woman, a Madonna in the making, pregnant with her third child, in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies. With the wide bones and round face of my grandmother’s early pictures, my cousin looks Lithuanian. My grandmother sits upright on the scratchy gray couch that stung my legs when I was a little girl. Beside it, in the old house, was a polished cherry end table with a green glass ashtray rimmed in silver. But now no one smokes anymore, not in houses, anyway, and there is nothing beside the couch.
Above her hangs a wedding portrait: she and her new husband sitting for a photographer in Lithuania. Stern-faced, they do not touch. The photographer has added peach to cheeks and blue to eyes. My grandparents look bright and ruddy against the steel-gray background that obliterates all sense of place. But even in art they are not happy. And in the photographs in her album, bound by black-cornered triangles to thick, yellowing pages, they are still not happy. In the portrait, as in the snapshots, my grandmother stands upright, stiff, to her full five feet. She is young, has not yet left her home-grown foods, has not rocked and pitched her way across the Atlantic, has not tasted pesticides and herbicides, has not eaten white bread. Now, at ninety-three, when she pushes herself up from the couch, her spine, though still straight, tilts forward fast. Her torso and head fall, and her chest is parallel to the floor unless she catches onto something. She sits back on the couch. Her legs do not reach the floor.
“Did he brinck machine?” she asks again.
“The machine?” I ask. I can decipher more sentences than I could as a child, but now she asks unanswerable questions.
“Father say he get machine so I walk again by myself,” she says. I try to imagine what she could mean.
“He did?” I ask.
“Yes, for Christmas.” She rolls the r softly. She blushes.
“I don’t know,” I say, “Let’s ask him when he comes in.” It doesn’t sound like she means a walker or even a wheelchair, but I’m afraid to ask, and she’s afraid to ask him. I wonder if she is afraid of him or of disappointment. Is there some part of her that no longer trusts her own memory? She sits up straight, back propped against the chair. Her glasses are thick; I can’t read her eyes, or see them, even. I remember, or imagine, them as blue.
She holds out a Whitman’s Sampler because this is America and because, anyway, she can no longer stand up in the kitchen to make her confections. “And you,” she says. I think the words are part of the offer, but even after I take one and bite into the dark chocolate, she continues. “And you, you want my bread.”
“Yes,” she says, “you need for stories.”
I figure she means the bread from World War II, that one jar she’s saved. I don’t know if it’s an offer or an accusation. But my father comes back in, and we can work on the machine. “Grandma wants to know if you’ve brought a machine to help her walk,” I say. The words are ridiculous once he’s in the room. Of course there is no machine. So I pass the blame over to her, make it something between the two of them. “She said you’d promised to bring something.”
“No Ma, you dreamed it,” he says. “There’s no such machine.” With her severe osteoporosis, she wants to become a cyborg, a woman with a brand-new back. It should be possible here, in the industrial belt of the Northeast. My father works at the aircraft plant, building engines for military planes. Why should a small portion of a back be any more complicated? But my father settles into his usual strategy with her. Where I evade, he refuses. There is no such thing; you imagined, you dreamed, I’ve heard him say, crushing her belief, whether in magic (Lithuania) or technology (America). She has a look of disappointed diffidence. Glancing down, child-like, she laughs. “Oh,” she says, “dream,” with her nicely rolled r.
It’s not magic she wants, just what was once hers: straight posture, a smooth walk. “I can get you a walker, Ma,” he says. “Walker?” she looks hopeful. “You know,” he says, “a metal stand you hold yourself up with.” She shakes her head. “No, no, no,” she says, “for old people.”
By the time my grandmother dies, my father has sold Transylvania Farm. High tension wires were slated to run through it. And anyway, it was the season—as The Byrds sang, turn turn turn—the end of the ’70s, the beginning of the ’80s, the end of the garden, the beginning of investment property and zero-lot lines. The horses are gone, our garden dies out, and the cabin stands empty. The barns begin to fall apart, and the grass grows tall again. In Milford, my grandmother’s house is gutted by a doctor who builds an office and turns her long back yard into an asphalt parking lot. The downtown council considers turning the town green into a parking lot, too. And at the beach nearby, houses are torn down to erect condominium complexes, and POISON signs line the shore.
Just before my grandmother died, when I asked to see her photo album again, she couldn’t find it. Though my cousin says she has never seen it, some of the old photos hang on her walls, valued, it seems, for their sepia color; valued like the Americana she buys at antique stores—old signs, baskets, photographs of people she’s never met—things my grandmother called “junks” and spent a lifetime getting rid of. For a while, I imagine that because what I’ve wanted from my grandmother is stories, my notion of value is somehow superior. But I catch myself romanticizing. In an effort to move closer to the Catholicism that was so much a part of my grandmother’s everyday life (but that I was not raised in), I buy a rosary in an antique shop on the premise that it belonged to somebody’sgrandmother. I buy a guidebook on Lithuania, which claims that of all Europeans, Lithuanians held on most tenaciously to a “pagan past,” a magical notion of place. It tells the story of Vilnius, a capital founded and named for a dream of a wolf. When I buy the book, I have recently dreamed of a wolf myself, and I imagine it is a prophesy—a magical connection with a land I have never seen.
Over her lifetime, in addition to her stories, my grandmother gave me a plastic biscuit cutter, an old New York subway token, two chiffon scarves, and, in a gesture I never completely understood, when I married, some of her clothes—skirts and sweaters that, given the difference in our sizes, could only have been symbolic of some sad divestment. The meaning of these gifts, like the meaning of her stories, lies somewhere just out of reach.
In the Midwest, in the fall of 1982, I learn to backpack and canoe, portage and hike, sleep under the open sky. In the forest, on a remote and narrow trail, I realize that I am a stranger in this world. To compensate, I carry small guidebooks in my increasingly heavy pack: guides to North American trees, wildflowers, mushrooms, animal tracks, birds, mammals, weather, the night sky.
A few years later, on Isle Royale, an “international biosphere” and wilderness area, I sit on a boulder sketching a wildflower from a guidebook. The day before, in a storm, I crossed Lake Superior by ferry, and while the other hikers huddled in the cabin’s warmth, I stood alone on the deck in the rain, leaning over the rail to be sick. As the waves rocked the small boat, I became increasingly dizzy and disoriented, and leaned over the side until the spray of the waves hit my face. Rain poured down on my body. I thought of my grandmother on her passage across the Atlantic, and knew for the first time what it means to be so nauseated that you begin to dream of death.
Dry land calmed my stomach, and now ten miles into the island, I am alone. My friends and I hike separately, at our own paces, meeting each evening at designated sites to set up tents and cook. For miles I walk alone, stopping frequently to observe and sketch. I page through my guidebooks and struggle to identify the unfamiliar trees, mushrooms, flowers, and birds. I finish sketching an eastern columbine, pluck a small sample to put between the pages where it appears in the guidebook, put everything in my pack, turn to go, and wonder which direction I’ve been headed. Even with a compass and a stack of books I am lost in this world.
I hear loons chorusing on an interior lake. At a turn in the trail, I surprise a fox, who immediately jumps into the air like a cat, tries to stare me down, then turns to run. A pair of pileated woodpeckers lands on the tree above me (I recognize them by their call, like Woody Woodpecker’s laugh). At dusk, I step out of the tent and walk into the path of a circling bat whose wings lightly brush my ear. Moose stomp around our campsite but run off when they see our shadowy shapes. In the middle of the night we hear a howling that could be loon or wolf. Gray wolves are present, but remain hidden. In the morning, a snowshoe hare darts out before me on the path. I hike past berry bushes that resemble the blackberries on my father’s farm. I am weary of the dried fruit I carry, but even with my books, I can’t identify the berries with certainty. And so I pass them by. I kneel before a bright orange mushroom, but don’t dare even to touch it.
After a week of hiking, we return to the edge of Lake Superior, near the ferry pickup. That night, a ranger leads us to the edge of a clearing, and we stare into the darkening forest at a woodcock. The bird flies straight into the sky and flutters back down in swooping circles, emitting a haunting call. The ranger talks softly as we wait for the woodcock’s next flight. “If you ever get lost in the wilderness,” he says, “remember that nearly every part of the pine tree is edible.” The woodcock flies again, and the ranger is silent. But after a while, he begins pointing out stars and constellations, rattling off Latin names I find vaguely familiar. After another flight of the woodcock, the ranger starts in with new stories and names, drawing lines between different stars, attributing this new cosmology to several Indian tribes. I confess that Orion is the only constellation I can recognize, having seen it on a grade school trip to a planetarium. “Why don’t you make up your own?” he says. “Why accept the sky of the ancient Greeks or Romans or even American Indians? Draw your own lines,” he says. “Make up your own stories.”
Later that night, in my sleeping bag, I think of my grandmother. I envy her ease in the forest. Yet I must remember how that ease came from violence; being tied to the land meant being forced out of your house, beaten back into the forest, desperate for survival. I look up at the night sky. There are no lights for hundreds of miles, and the sky is darker and filled with even more stars than at Transylvania Farm. I locate Orion. But the rest of the sky is an unknown sprinkling of planets and stars. I am lost in it. I can study scientific guidebooks or even stories of the night sky handed down by one or more cultures. Or I can invent a fictional cosmology of my own. But the fact remains: I can negotiate a grocery store, but not a forest.
In the morning, we make breakfast on a portable Coleman stove. We light fuel with a lighter, boil water, and mix in instant oatmeal with raisins. Though we’ve dipped into the lake for water, we have carried in packaged food. As I eat from a metal bowl, I feel a tug on the back of my shirt. I turn, expecting to see one of my friends. Instead, a red squirrel stands on the rock I am leaning against, begging for scraps. In the island’s interior, where few hikers venture, wildlife fled when they heard us coming, but here along the shore, closer to civilization, even the animals aren’t quite wild. Like the red fox that stood in the near distance as we cooked the night before, this squirrel would rather share our processed food than scavenge on his own.
I stand up, turn my back to the lake, and look out into the forest. I am hungry, but I don’t know what I hunger for. Before me is a forest floor with medallions of mushrooms, but I don’t know which ones I can eat.
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When I left that picturesque ignorance we often mistake for innocence, I did so with guides who gave me an education in the sensous. Yet we avoided the pitfalls that dominate many recent memoirs and headlines and court cases, and I had more than a sexual awakening.
To Love Big Dog
YOU ARE NOT JUST ONE of the girls. Wait until your senior year in high school, when you know about love, to fall for Mr. Brinkly like the other girls.
The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception High School is something like going to school in a dungeon. All girls. Except for Mr. Brinkly’s religion class. Mr. Brinkly calls himself “Big Dog,” never enforces the uniform code, has Ms. Cullen banging on the adjoining wall when the laughter in his classroom gets too loud. Every Christmas he displays his Disney figurine collection in glass cases on the top library shelves. He is the tallest person you have ever known. Mr. Brinkly’s in charge of the talent shows, the slide shows, the spirit rallies: all of the things the other teachers avoid organizing. Sister Heloise, the principal, adores him. Every teacher should have his energy.
Listen to Mr. Brinkly’s liberal lectures on world religions and psychology. Learn, through rumor, that he did drugs in the ’60’s that he dated an ex-student six years back. Know you have a chance. He’s a bachelor. Exactly twice your age. Remind yourself, for courage, that after this year your age difference will diminish, sort of. Prepare a strategy. Raise your hand in class and politely disagree with whatever he’s saying. Challenge him.
Begin staying after school to help Mr. Brinkly prepare Friday liturgies, but not as much as the obvious girls. Share with him the letter of resignation you’ve written your pastor, filled with observations about the corruption in rectory life as seen through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old student receptionist. He’ll laugh and slap you on the back. Three days later he will stop you in the hallway and mention he’s been thinking about the letter. “Soledad,” he’ll say, “I admire your clear sight, your fearless heart.”
Break up with your boyfriend from St. Augustine’s because he’s pressuring you to have sex and takes too much time away from ballet practice. When Mr. Brinkly takes other girls on day trips to San Francisco and Grateful Dead concerts, know he’s not some kind of pervert because he always obtains parental permission. Tell yourself he doesn’t invite you along because you’re not a drooling girl; you have a life of your own. Consult him about your religious crisis, the vague reasons you and your ex-boyfriend reached an impasse. Know, in a peripheral way, that there are few things as seductive to an older man as a young girl seeking guidance. Have him tell you that certain songs remind him of you, your youth, your earnest struggle to understand life. Love songs will surely come next.
The day he kids you in front of the entire class that the girl he marries someday will have your smile, try not to turn red. Whenever he makes self-deprecating remarks about not being able to get a date, whenever he says he’s married to the school, know he’s simply lonely. Once, he’ll call on you by the name of the ex-student he dated: Hope. Know that you know more than he. Smile.
Around Christmas, write some sad poem about a rising and setting sun that never meet on the canvas of the sky. Break down and confess the depth of your feelings to your best friend Gabby, whom you’ve known since you were six. When she tells you that if anyone has a chance it’s you, make her promise not to tell anyone. Gabby will go on to speculate about whether he’s a virgin or not: he was in the seminary three years but there must be a reason he left. Accept her opinion that he’s not and tell yourself you can understand it. Hope in your heart that he is. Cry at night because there is always the possibility that everything is an illusion. ‘Maya,” he says the Hindus call it.
Give up, mostly. In your mind think of him as Dominic, The Name By Which You’ll Never Call Him. Permit yourself to say it quietly out loud just before you fall asleep: “Dominic.” In class, sit and singe under the gaze of his blue eyes, but act indifferent when you see him in the halls. Eventually, he’ll ask what’s going on in that mind of yours these days. Discuss Jungian psychoanalytic theories for two hours after school. Let him interpret your dreams. Decide to major in psychology next fall.
On Valentine’s Day he will give you a small statue of Bambi with a butterfly on his tail. He’ll say that, like Bambi, you have been through hardship in your life but you’ve managed to retain your joy and vigor, that you remind him of a butterfly which must first endure life in the cocoon before emerging. Exactly, you think to yourself.
Take a friend to Senior Ball. Become Senior Ball Queen. Wish Mr. Brinkly were your date. As a chaperone, he takes pictures of you at the dance. Surely, you think, you must remind him a little of Snow White dancing with a dwarf. When you appear in his end-of-the-year slide show more times than any other girl, Gabby will mention this to you. Squeeze her hand.
Cry at graduation, but not for the same reasons as everyone else. He’ll tell you to keep in touch, not to get carried away by all those college boys who’ll want to sweep you off your feet. Buy the Fantasia soundtrack that’s just come out and sit in your car at the mall parking lot because there’s no other place as anonymous in which to cry. After that, whenever you hear Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” remember this day. Be grateful your younger sister will enter Immaculate Conception in the fall. Go back to the mall. Buy her things.
Go to college across the causeway: far enough so that you don’t have to live at home, close enough so that Dominic is still a possibility. Room with Gabby. Compare versions of what the public school kids are like. Meet Chip and Chuck who live next door. When they find out you both come from Immaculate Conception, Chip will say to Chuck, “Catholic school girls are the best. Think of all that repression.” Then they’ll laugh. Tell them, “It’s not like we’re naive.” Gabby will nod in agreement. Wonder if you are. Get drunk. Smoke pot. Go to the best Halloween party ever.
Classes are big. Teachers don’t know your name. There’s no room in your schedule for ballet. In Religious Studies class, find out there is increasing evidence that God does not exist. At night, listen to Chip or Chuck having sex on the other side of the wall. Eat alone in the dining commons. God does not exist.
Monday mornings Gabby repeats that it is good for both of you to be attending a public university, meeting the challenge, breaking away from your safety nets. As you pass her the Kleenex she’ll say, “This was all such a mistake.” These are the best times. These are the worst times. When you phone your house, your sister will say that Mr. Brinkly asked for your address.
In November, when the steel wool sky looks like you feel, you’ll get a letter from Mr. Brinkly. Smell it, breathe it, do a little dance. The letter will include a drawing of Snow White surrounded by the Seven Dwarfs. He will have written your name above Snow White and “college boys” above the group of dwarfs. Do another little dance. Gabby will examine the handwriting on the envelope, then stare at you silently, holding her breath.
Several letters will pass back and forth, each one longer than the last, but equally uncompromising, before you phone him in April. Talk to him for twenty minutes, then break down and tell him about these feelings that have no place, that have not gone away in fourteen months. Admit that you’re embarrassed, that you never thought you’d tell him. He’ll say you’re going through a time of transition, that these feelings are natural between students and teachers, therapists and patients, that it’s okay to feel that way, that he understands because he once went out with an ex-student and it ended when it had outlived its purpose, but they had truly cared for each other, and now she’s in medical school. He’s on his way to take pictures for Junior Prom, but if you’re coming home for Easter, he’ll take you out to dinner, and you can talk about it more. Sniff, thank him, take a mental count of the days left until Easter.
When you announce your dinner plans to your mother she’ll be intuitive and say, “I always knew you had a crush on him.” Of course, she’ll ask you questions, but be as vague as you’re entitled to in this last year of your adolescence. Be glad, for once, that your mother is religious, that she’s always been platonically in love with the parish pastor.
Over dinner, Mr. Brinkly will ask you to call him Nick. (Nick. It was more than you ever hoped for.) Both of you will try to be rational: you’ll tell him you have an emotionally absent father, he’ll say his mother is a dominant woman; you both know about Freud. Then he’ll roll up his sleeve, point to a knot in his arm, and say, “This is three years of my fife! Three years of being a junkie! You don’t even know me.” Sure it surprises you a little, but he was only in high school, and the past is the past, and you know he’s just trying to scare you. He is, after all, the responsible adult, and you know you must be the initiator. Quietly say, “It doesn’t scare me, if that’s what you were trying,” He’ll grin a goofy grin and say, “Well, it was supposed to; don’t you see I’m nuts?” Of course he is, and so are you. “Sometimes,” you tell him, “I dream I can only dance in ballets with wild boars.”
After dinner, in his car, before he takes you home, he will give you a small box containing a porcelain figurine of a girl with butterfly wings hugging a rose as big as she. His fingers will absently stroke your hair before he himself realizes it, and as you stare into each other’s eyes, you’ll thank him, and he’ll say, “Don’t you understand, Soledad? You’re the gift. What am I supposed to do with you?”
When he drops you off that night he’ll look off into the distance and say, “Promise me that in December we’ll be sitting in this car, on my street, watching the Christmas lights on the houses.” Before he drives away he’ll get out to look around under his car, and when you ask him what he’s doing he’ll say he always checks to make sure there aren’t any cats underneath. He is more sweet and considerate than you ever imagined.
After you begin dating him, you will lose some of your old friends. Find out who your real ones are: you have two and a half left. Gabby, your half-friend, manages to ask you about him with a tight smile on her face. She never quite believed you had it in you. Know the rest of the girls are simply jealous.
Some mornings Nick calls and wakes you up, howling over the phone, “BIG DOG THINKS LOVE IS GREAT!” You laugh, still half asleep, while Gabby groans from under her pillow. Congratulate yourself on your honesty with each other, on your awareness; you’ve both told your families. For the first time, your mother has seen the will in your eyes.
Nick has great taste in music. He plays the Kinks’ “Paranoia” and the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” You love old songs. You always knew you were born too late. Go with him on trips to Berkeley, to San Francisco, to Grateful Dead concerts. Stand on the end of Pier 39 and look down at a half-submerged starfish, clinging to the side of a wooden pole, as he laughs and says, “See, Soledad. Most people look at the stars in the sky, but we watch the ones in the sea.”
Nick quotes Heidegger: “All things are sent.” Enter the world of didactic literature and conversation. Impress your friends and professors with your insights. They’ve always thought of you as mature. Hold each other in moments of angst. Kiss. Know the girls in high school never had this much fun.
One night, when you press against him fully clothed and feel breathless, you will know that even if you were never to marry him, he is the one you want to be with, that you have met The Right Person and it will soon be The Right Time. He will warn you that projection is a powerful thing and pull away from you as if he were angry or frightened and ask, “How can you give yourself so easily?” Think of how wonderfully intense it all is with him, how much larger than life. Everything is magical. You are the luckiest girl.
Of course, people in restaurants will sometimes stare at you when they see you holding hands. People from high school will say untrue things, that he is using you for sex, but you’ll know it can’t be true because you haven’t had sex. Your mother will see the dull hurt in your eyes. She’ll tell you, “Jesus said feed the hungry. So if they talk about you, think of it as feeding the hungry. There are many kinds of hunger.” Your sister will get questions and comments at school, and when you call home she’ll scream, “You are ruining the best years of my life!” Be patient with her because she’s too young to know what she’s talking about.
During the summer, when you move back home, your mother’s friend will tell you she always dated older boys because they knew what they wanted. Consider this: she is married to a cardiologist fifteen years her senior. Your mother will tell you she married him for the money, that he is always on call. Point out that you’re not dating Mr. Brinkly for his money because he doesn’t have any, that you pay for half of almost everything, that if you were dating someone your own age you’d be contributing, too. Your mother will insist you shouldn’t be paying.
Another one of your mother’s friends will ask her, “Don’t you worry about the age difference?” Know that her daughter’s boyfriend snorts cocaine. Tell your mother this. Have her see your point.
Meet Nick’s cousin, Bill, who calls him “The Kid,” confirming your idea that you wouldn’t go out with just any older man. Be comforted by the knowledge that now there is another teacher from your high school dating an ex-student. You can’t be sure what it is they see in each other but you know better than to judge now. Enjoy being the center of a scandal. Think of your well roundedness. Revel in your compassion. By the end of the season you will have outlived the other couple. Tell each other you are made of stronger stuff.
When you return to school in the fall, Nick will give you a small figurine of Mowgli sitting on Baloo’s stomach, “just because.” Nick says he’ll never end things, that someday you’ll outgrow him, just like Mowgli outgrew the jungle, just like Hope outgrew Nick. Reassure him that you won’t. Tell him that this year you have your own room, and your summer curfew is over and now he can spend the night whenever he wants. He’ll smile and nod absentmindedly, and you’ll think how it really is a good thing that he doesn’t just jump into things, how good it is that he can be strong when your hormones take over. That’s what Sister Magdalene used to say, anyway.
During your six-month anniversary dinner at Spenger’s Fish Grotto he will reach for your hand and ask, “The question is, how long will I have to wait to ask you to marry me?” You’ll smile mysteriously and try not to look too hopeful, wondering if he can hear the rustling of butterflies in your stomach and if he is serious as he laughs and says, “Of course, you’d keep your own last name because I believe in women’s rights.” Although you think you might like to take his. He’ll fold his napkin carefully and make one of your earrings disappear, then reappear in it. As he hands it back, he’ll tell you how lucky you are because he doesn’t easily give away his heart. On the way home he’ll hum Rickie Lee Jones’ “Last Chance Texaco.”
Gabby will eventually ask you, “So are you Serious?” and you’ll know she’s trying to figure out if you’ve had sex with him. “Yeah, kind of,” you’ll say in a vague way, wondering whether you are or not. Nick tells you he never slept with Hope because she “wasn’t like that.” When he asks what you tell your friends about him, explain that they don’t really understand. He’ll say, “Okay, Sol. You don’t have to tell me. I know how girls talk.” Prove him wrong. Don’t talk. Realize that a mature relationship should be kept between the two of you.
As the leaves begin to turn, Nick lets you know that he’ll be especially busy in the upcoming weeks because there are the dance-a-thon, the senior retreat, and the crab festival to plan. Tell him, “Yeah, well that’s okay because I have a midterm and a paper and a group project due.” Nick will remind you that he doesn’t want to take you away from your friends. Wish that he would do things with your friends. Go to frat parties. Keep up your social life. Stop going to frat parties so you can see him more often.
The dinner conversation at his parents’ house will never interest you, but part of a relationship is doing things you don’t always feel like doing. His sister will give you a kind but pitying smile. “Nick’s just being Nick,” she says with the same smile on her face when Nick sings in a loud voice, making her baby cry. His cousin Bill will take you aside and ask, “Does he still crawl down under his car looking for cats, and all that weird stuff, even when it’s zero degrees outside?” Laugh politely, not sure what he means by it.
Begin to notice that every couple of months Nick dyes his hair, but don’t call attention to it. You would be implying that he is growing old, and he is, after all, trying to look young for you. Say his hair looks nice. Ask him if he got a haircut.
Often when you make out at your apartment, he’ll get a sudden cramp in his leg, get up and walk around the room, embarrassed, saying that sometimes this happens to him. He’s a little theatrical about the whole thing, but try not to mind in order to spare his feelings, his male ego. He’ll tell you that he doesn’t want you to end up taking care of him in his old age, and you’ll tell him that you wouldn’t mind. When he whispers, “You are so exotic,” know he meant to say, “You are so erotic.”
When you take Abnormal Psych and study obsessive-compulsive behavior, Nick will get defensive and warn you about the stigma that goes along with labeling, the theory of self-fulfilling prophecies. When he takes you to see Beauty and the Beast, he’ll pound his chest and laugh saying, “I’m the beast!” He’ll quote Jung and tell you that you are his “worthy opponent.”
Refuse to go to a high school friend’s Christmas party when you find out she has invited everyone and their boyfriend except Nick. Nick will say you give up too much for him, that he is undeserving of your love. The night of the party you will sit in his car in front of his house and watch the Christmas lights together, just like he said you would. He’ll say it’s sickening that he’s nearly forty and still collecting Disney figurines, that after this Christmas he really will sell his Disney collection. On Christmas Eve his cousin Bin will tease, “So how much is the collection going for this year?”
In January, go with Nick to Napa. When he feels guilty that you drank wine, tell yourself he is considerate, a man with a conscience–although you don’t feel guilty, although at the frat parties you always drank plenty of beer.
On nights when he says he’s had a long day and that he’s too tired to make out, tell yourself that you are, too. Even though you’re not. He’ll feel you turn away from him. and then he’ll say he knows that it’s not fair, that any young, red-blooded American guy wouldn’t be able to get enough of you. Tell him you don’t want anyone else. Tell him that you even turned down Gabby’s friend, Todd, when he asked you to his frat formal last fall. “Todd,” Nick’ll muse. “That’s nice: Todd. I know how it is, Soledad. I know how things start.” Argue that it’s not like that, that it’s not like that at all. He’s Gabby’s boyfriend now. Tonight, when you searched for your earrings in her jewelry box, you found condoms instead.
When your mother asks if you are having sex with Nick, you will tell her that you’re not. When she says it’s not you she trusts, but him, look away, ashamed that she is right.
“Why do you refuse to do things with my friends? Why don’t you take me to faculty functions?” you’ll ask. He’ll remind you that family’s what’s important. When he checks under his car for cats, ask him what he’s doing, as if you’d forgotten. “I’m checking for cats!” he’ll snap.
Take a dance class winter quarter. Find room in your schedule no matter what. Your first ballet teacher once told you that ballerinas develop their muscles even more than football players, although they are less defined. Remember that the trick of grace is to make things look effortless.
When you yank out your old pair of leg warmers from a box, you will see the small figurine of the girl hugging the rose fall out from them and smash on the wooden floor before you can catch it. As you try to glue it back together, you’ll want to kick yourself for having forgotten you’d wrapped it in them during the last move. Wish you knew less about symbolism.
Dance, dance. Feel the way the rosin grounds you, the way the fluidity and line of your body is beginning to change. Think of making an audience breathless someday.
Stay over at his house one night and in the morning, wake up alone. Nick will say the single bed was too cramped for both of you. He will take a shower and then you will take a shower, although you wish he’d agreed to take one together. When you’re done, he’ll clean the bathroom with a lot of bleach. You’ll remember how the night before, he pulled away from you, saying, “You like sex don’t you?” as if it were amusing, as if you were pressuring him to have sex, as if you had brought a base element into a divine relationship all by yourself. You had been pulling him close to you, and in the dark, in all the warmth and wetness, he saw that you were willing. Now, while holding the Sunday paper high in front of you, not reading the lines of print, your vision blurred by a toast crumb in your eye, you’ll think to yourself, “Hope must’ve been a prude.”
“Funny how much bleach I use,” Nick says and laughs, unable to look at you. You won’t get rid of the smell in your mind for days.
During Spring Break, Nick will take you, your sister and your cousin to Disneyland. Just as you get up to the ticket counter, he’ll abruptly switch lines, pulling all of you along before you know what’s happened. You’ll have to wait at the end of a line all over again, and your sister and cousin will look at him, and he’ll get defensive and say, “Didn’t you see the clerk? He had blood all over his hand!” But you know the clerk didn’t, and that it’s just Nick being Nick, and your sister is thinking he’s weird and rolling her eyes at your cousin, and neither you nor Nick will bring it up for weeks but a seed will have planted itself in your mind.
When you ask him if he’s ever seen someone professionally, he’ll say that he did for several years starting in college, right about your age, and that there’s only so much you can analyze, only a certain level of awareness you can reach, after which you have to go on with your life because you can’t psychobabble endlessly. “And see,” he’ll add, “You really will leave me in the end, and I’ll be okay because I never really expected more.” Can’t you see I’m nuts?
Even when you’re late for movies he’ll insist on checking underneath his car before driving away. “Hurry up!” you’ll want to yell, but won’t, as you wait for him to get in the car and turn on the heater. He has done well for himself: the safety of a small girls’ school, a principal who wouldn’t know what to do without him. He’s intelligent in a way you never imagined. I know how girls talk. Prove him wrong. There is no one to talk to.
Find out Jungian theory is somewhat of a crock in the view of modern psychologists, but influential in the arts and humanities. Read Skinner and learn that the more erratic the reward, the longer the behavior will continue.
Break up for a month. Run into him at the mall and have him say, “Oh, Soledad, don’t you see this is for life?” When you get back together with him, he’ll see you’d taken down the pictures of him in your room, and he’ll mutter, “Boy, you sure had little faith,” as he pops small yellow pills and confesses he’s been having trouble sleeping since you left. He’ll suggest you try some, and when you watch his face to see if he is serious, he’ll laugh and say he got your goat, but it will feel cruel somehow.
Take a break from ballet and enroll in a Latin dance class. Learn salsa, merengue, cumbia, the lambada. Nick’ll laugh and say, “So now you’re dancing the forbidden dances.” When your teacher says you have quite a bit of talent, consider believing him. “Girls, ladies, women: I’m not trying to be chauvinistic,” he’ll say when he explains that a man must ask another man’s permission in order to dance with his date, “But you’ve got to know the rules if you’re going to go to a club.”
On your one-year anniversary, Nick will cancel dinner at the last minute saying “Something’s come up at school,” though you persuaded Gabby to leave your apartment for a few hours, though he canceled plans last week, too. You’re left with dinner and what Gabby calls a generous heart when she returns home and finds you hidden in your room, trying to blow your nose noiselessly. You are the luckiest girl.
Break up. “I think you’re right,” he’ll say. “I don’t want to hold you back. I’ll be okay; this happened before with Hope.” Go back. Break up. “Little pup needs you,” he’ll say. Go back. He’ll never end things.
It will be the first night that feels like summer when you finally leave him. The heat will have eased up off the pavement and he’ll say, “Wendy’s grown up.” He always liked to put things in illusory terms, to have the last word. He’ll say this as you lie beside each other in his backyard on top of his trampoline, watching the meteor showers.
Friends will begin to grow slowly like new skin. In the fall, join a small student dance company and meet an older woman named Alma who’ll tell you she not only dated her high school gym teacher, she ended up marrying him for three years. She’ll laugh and say you got off lucky. Be unsure whether to hate Nick or feel sorry for him. Hate him. Feel sorry for him.
Buy a new pair of toe shoes. Begin seeing Brian, the guy with the nose ring that makes him look a little like a bull, but in a cute sort of way. He’s in a band and he writes you songs, and he says he’s named after a leprechaun king. Find out what it’s like to be loved by a young, red-blooded American guy who can’t get enough of you; the fluidity a give and take between hips, the pleasure of nothing in between. Feel guilty for not feeling guilty.
For a while you’ll participate in all the dance company’s performances presenting themes dealing with rape, incest, and betrayal. Eventually the visiting choreographer from New York, Lucas, will ask, “Wouldn’t you like to try something new, perhaps a little cheerier?” as if he believes you might. He’ll say he was hoping you’d audition for the lead in a modem version of Swan Lake planned for the upcoming spring. He’ll say this as he bounces his little two-year-old son on his knee.
On opening night, music will fill the auditorium with the sacred unintelligible words that resonate like the blood-river in the heart. Your movements are the cries of birth, the first and the last cries, the never-not-uttered cries. Around you is the fury of wings, tendon and bone, blocking, unblocking the light. Yet, not yet, yet, not yet. Now. Here. Then footsteps alone, and Alma comes up to grip your wrists, welcoming you to a place. A feeling will rise in your chest as you meet Alma’s eyes, and you will emerge from the thickness of a forest.
Things you picked up from Nick will stay with you for a while: a year after you’ve graduated from college and moved to New York City to work as a dance therapist, you’ll run into Lucas, the choreographer who encouraged you to take your first lead. You’ll tell him that in a way he was Dumbo’s feather to you, the one you needed so much in order to find out you could fly without it. You’ll realize you sound somewhat silly and that he thinks so, too, but he’ll smile and congratulate you on your moderate success.
Whenever your mother teases you about Dominic, that neurotic teacher you used to date, defend him. Remember the time he took you on the tour of Alcatraz, how he put his jacket around you to protect you from the wind and said, “Imagine what it was like to be a prisoner, to see the city across the bay, the lights, the life, shimmering just outside your reach.”
A Night Different From All Other Nights
The day before, Hannah Vredenburg and her younger brother Tobias watched their father let his partner’s pigeons go, back to their home in Antwerp. One by one, wafting between each for safety, he released them from the attic coop when the early morning was still foggy so no passing officer might see and note the house number. The decree against Amsterdam Jews keeping pigeons-their own or somebody else’s-was eight months old and Hannah knew it was getting too dangerous to disobey. Surrendering them this late at the German police station, as the decree had ordered, would result in repercussions.
“Quickly, Hannah, before Tobias comes up,” her father had said, and handed her the paper and pencil in hands trembling too much to write. “Here, write this. Write small.” It was the message to be placed in the tiny canister of his partner’s last bird. “Kill my pigeons,” he whispered, pausing between sentences. “I can’t expect you to feed them for the duration. Don’t endanger yourself and don’t release them, but let them eat their fill first. Leo with the purple-edged wings likes lentils best. Henriette, the blue-barred female, likes to have her head rubbed. This will be the last message until it’s over, God willing. We are well. May you be safe.”
That last! Even as she squeezed those last four words onto the little paper, she felt a frantic fluttering against the inside of her rib cage.
“Do I sign your name?”
She folded the paper just as Tobias came up the ladder in his pajamas.
One by one Father scooped up his partner’s pigeons, held them gently so Tobias could stroke them one last time, cupped his hands under their breasts and swung his arms upwards to launch them into the air. She handed Father the folded message which he slipped into the canister of the last bird. She watched him kiss the back of the bird’s head, a small moment with closed eyes, and then he flung the last pigeon skyward.
She watched that last free flapping of wings as the bird rose over the peaked roofs to his home in Antwerp. Escape that was no escape. Antwerp, Amsterdam-what difference did it make?
The next day, coming home from school, she saw Henriette, Leo and their two others fly under the gable and peck around the roof trying to get into their own home coop. She felt her breath leak out and leave only blackness: The message got there too late. Her father’s partner had already released their own pigeons. She hurried inside, up the ladder stairs and let them in the coop. Their messages told of the German takeover of the diamond trade in Antwerp. A chill spread over her fingers and up her throat as she removed the canisters. She knew at once what must be done. It was only a matter of time. How long before Tobias would realize it too?
That night she stood on the ladder looking into the attic coop watching while her father, crosslegged on the coop floor, crooned to his birds, and to Tobias. “Leo. Leo. Such a bird. A bird that could carry a two-carat stone in his canister and never feel the weight. Remember that faithfulness, Toby.”
She cried then, holding tight to the top rung of the ladder so she wouldn’t make a sound. That might tell Tobias what had to be done. He wouldn’t be told to remember Leo if Leo could live. She watched Tobias search Father’s face a moment. Then he went back to stroking the gray breast feathers of the pigeons, feeding them barley out of his palm. But he didn’t giggle as he usually did when Leo’s rose-colored toes tickled his arm. She crept back downstairs.
It was awful they couldn’t just be freed. That would be fitting to do on Passover, but they’d be bewildered by freedom, she thought, frightened of the prospects of finding a speck of food in South Amsterdam. They’d only peck around the gable of the house to get back into the coop. It would make it obvious that this was the house where they belonged.
The next morning at breakfast, she asked, “Will it be today?”
“Soon.” Father gently placed his big palm on the back of her head for a moment.
The whole house waited, breathless, while Passover approached, the night different from all other nights. Mother and Grandmother Hilde had been cleaning kitchen cabinets, the pantry, the oven, the icebox, and now were cleaning shelves in the sideboard and putting away the silver tea set in order to make room on the top for the Passover china. Hannah sat looking at the painting above the sideboard. It was of a girl her own age looking out a window while sewing. The way she leaned forward, intent on something, and the longing in her eyes cast a spell over her every time she looked. The girl wasn’t working, at least not at that moment. Her hands were lax, the buttons on the table like flat pearls yet to be sewn on, because what was going on in her mind was more important. Hannah understood that.
It was on an excursion with Father, just the two of them, a couple years earlier that he bought the painting-1940, just before her eleventh birthday. He’d been going to meetings of the Comite voor Joodsche Vluchtelingen, Jewish refugees from Germany, in the Rotterdam Cafe next to the Diamond Exchange and had taken her to an auction where families had donated paintings, vases, jewelry and Oriental rugs to be bid on by other families as a means to raise money for refugee support. It was essential, he’d said, that the government not bear the expense of the Jewish poor. When this painting came up for bid, she gasped. The face of the girl in the painting almost glowed, her blue eyes, cheeks, the corners of her mouth all bright and glossy, the light coming right at her across the space between them. She seemed more real than the people in the room.
When Father cast a bid, Hannah sucked in her breath, astonished. He bid again. He grasped her hand when the bidding got above two hundred guilders; she squeezed his back when it passed three hundred. The higher the bids, the tighter she squeezed until, when he cast the bid that bought it, she cried, “Papa!” and didn’t let go his hand all the way home. Father buying it seemed to honor her in a way that made her feel worthy.
The moment they walked in with the painting, while it was still wrapped, Mother straightened up and looked from her to Father as if she could tell something significant had happened. Hannah remembered feeling light-headed as she walked through the rooms choosing a place, until she settled on the dining room above the sideboard. She unwrapped it and held it up. “See Mamela, how lovely?” Sifting bolt upright across from it at the dining table, just where she was sifting now, she was the last to go to bed that night.
Tobias came in through the front vestibule. “Hannah, isn’t this interesting?” He had in his hand a new spring leaf. “On this edge there are 24 spikes but only 22 on this,” he said. “Why?”
At nine years old, Tobias was full of questions. He loved spider webs and the sound of crickets, kept moth and beetle collections, a small green turtle, a rabbit named Elijah, a notebook where he drew his observations from nature. In his mind, the four years between them made her ultimately knowledgeable, but she never knew what to say. She couldn’t answer his passion with hers. “I don’t know, Toby. Some things are different, I suppose.”
Just then Mother asked him to clean the coop of hametz, which meant all barley, peas, lentils, any grain that would leaven when moist. Ridding the house of leavening was an act of remembrance, for Passover. Mother gave him only a couple dried potato peelings as alternate food for the birds since she used those in soup nowadays.
In the momentary silence, hearing only the coos of the pigeons echoing down the open air vent and her mother’s damp cloth whooshing across a shelf, Hannah watched bewilderment descend on Toby’s face. He stared at the peelings in his hand, then looked up at her,
“What are they going to eat tomorrow?” he asked.
It was another question she couldn’t answer.
His eyes darkened, his smooth forehead furrowed, and for a moment she imagined him, impossibly, as an old man. He knows it’s only a token, she thought. If he didn’t want to see them suffer, it would have to be done quickly. She saw confusion weight his shoulders and slick over his eyes. She reached out to put her arm around him. He drew away. Sobbing, he flung himself down the hallway and clambered up the ladder to the attic coop. She felt some nameless thing clutch at her heart.
As soon as he left Hilde said to Mother, “It’s terrible to make a child cry so.” Whenever someone left the room, Hilde always had something to say about the person. Hilde drummed her fingernails on the sideboard for emphasis. “Let Hannah clean the coop.”
“He loves those birds, Hilde. Let him be with them. Let him grieve. This year he’ll understand the Passover story.”
Mother fairly attacked the sideboard shelves. In fact, she seemed to scrub everything more ferociously this year. Unbelievable that somehow she continued to clean.
Sputtering, Hilde swung around at Hannah. “Why don’t you help your mother?”
Hannah shrugged and dangled a crumple of paper on a string in front of Toby’s cat. The boiling of the silverware, the cleaning of the kitchen, the cooking, none of it interested her now.
“That’s not an answer.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Want to, she says. What’s to want? You just do.”
“Everybody does a little, Hannah,” her mother said. “Won’t you help boil the utensils?”
“Everybody works,” Hilde said. “That’s what life is. Work and a little play and a lot of prayer. Your great-grand mother Etty worked on the drivewheel you know. Walked the crank in a circle for 30 years until she wore a groove in the floor to power her husband’s polishing scaife. She worked without a complaint until 1867 when she was-2
“Replaced by a horse. I know. You told me the last time you came.”
“Well? Helping your mother is nothing compared to that. You want to be married, don’t you? You’ve got to learn how to do these things. Or do you want to end up an old maid working in a sweatshop? Edith tells me you don’t do your lessons either. That you don’t like school. Unthinkable. You want to go back to the crank?”
Hannah shrugged again. It might not be so bad. If nobody pestered her.
“What do you think we’ve worked hard all these years for, so you can become a cigar maker? A peddler? That’s what happens, you know, to Jews who don’t work hard.”
Hannah looked at Hilde’s gray wool bedroom scuffs aimed at her like two tailless rats.
“First generation your father is, to be a diamond merchant and not a polisher. That doesn’t mean something to you?”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw her mother cringe. “Will you at least go to the grocer for the parsley and the egg?” Mother asked. “Sal Meyer is saving a shank bone for me. It’s a lovely day out. The lime trees along Scheldestraat must have new spring leaves by now. Brush your hair and go.”
Without a word Hannah put on her unraveling maroon sweater with the stiff new star, but she moved so slowly after Mother gave her the money that Hilde raised up in righteous outrage, her glare passing from Hannah to Mother and back again. For a second, she dared glare back before she stepped into the vestibule and left the door open a crack to listen.
Hilde wafted only a few seconds. “That girl! She never works. She never talks. Can’t you get her to talk?”
“How to make her talk. Tell me. I’m sure you know.”
“She has no interests. No friends. Last night I asked what she’d been doing this winter and she said ‘nothing.’ Does she even think?”
“Hilde, don’t be cruel. We may never know what she’s thinking, but surely she does.”
“You should get her to participate.”
“You think because I am her mother I can remake her? You’re her grandmother. You have a try. She is what she is.”
“Lazy and apathetic.”
“I suppose when you were her age you never felt like you just wanted to sit and think? You think I don’t already ask myself before sleep mercifully takes me what I did or didn’t do that made her this way? What I failed to say to her at one unknown, privately crucial day? Tell me, Hilde how haven’t I loved enough? Tell me.”
Hannah couldn’t breathe. She peeled paint off the woodwork around the inner door.
“All I know, Edith, is that you’ve got to do something or she won’t have the strength. Why do you let her be so sullen?”
“Let her? You think I don’t worry, every single night, that she doesn’t want anything enough? You think I don’t know what that means now?”
Hannah turned to go and closed the outer door loud enough for them to hear. She didn’t
It wasn’t true. She did want things. That is, she wanted to want things, even to love things, as much as Toby loved every living thing. Only she couldn’t say what. It was too impossible now. Wanting anything seemed crazy.
And she did have a friend. Marie.
Marie passed notes to her in school all last year. The last note was that Marie could not go walking with her after school because she had to tend her baby brother, but the day after they didn’t either, or ever did again. Now they were in different schools, and once when she saw Marie on a street outside the River Quarter, Marie pretended she didn’t recognize her. Now Hannah never left the River Quarter just so she wouldn’t see her and have to repeat the moment. She did too care about some things.
At least Mother stood up for her. A little. Except when she said that about what made her this way. As if something wasn’t right with her. What was missing?
She let out a long, deep sigh. She needed to blow her nose but had no handkerchief with her so she just sniffed and wiped with her hand.
The lime trees did have new leaves that were just unfurling. What for? she thought. She kicked a pebble on the sidewalk, and then saw two German officers coming the opposite way. For a moment the whole world stopped except the pebble which clattered on toward one tall black boot. Her heart turned to ice. A wetness moistened her underpants. Talking loudly, the men didn’t seem to notice the pebble, or even her. They made no move to accommodate her on the narrow sidewalk. At the last second she stepped off the curb to let them pass, and twisted her ankle.
Things were happening. Bigger than preparations for Passover. Beyond the candle glow there were things. There were things. Nothing was the same. Hilde acted as if it was Greatgrandmother Etty’s time,
But Father didn’t. He knew. Maybe that was why he was softer with her. She knew she exasperated him when she didn’t do her lessons, but by Sabbath afternoon, he had forgotten. He took long walks with her, leaving Toby and his talkativeness at home, along the canals of the River Quarter, buying her a pickle from the wooden vat at the corner of Vrijheidslaan and Vechstraat, or to Koco’s ice cream parlor. Or he’d take her to Sunday concerts at Middelaan Plantage, or to the Rijksmuseum. And, that one wonderful day, to the auction. Walking along, he would ask her about her schoolmates, her lessons, to try to get her to talk. She tried to tell him about Marie once, but she couldn’t speak the words. He always seemed so tired afterwards, letting his shoes fall to the floor in the bedroom, saying, she heard once, “Maybe a little progress, Edith.”
Now it became clear to her what made her love the girl in the painting. It was her quietness. A painting, after all, can’t speak. Yet she felt this girl, sifting inside a room but looking out, was probably quiet by nature, like she was. But that didn’t mean that the girl didn’t want anything, like Mother said about her. Her face told her she probably wanted something so deep or so remote that she never dared breathe it but was thinking about it there by the window. And not only wanted. She was capable of doing some great wild loving thing. Yes, oh yes.
Hannah lingered doing the errands, not wanting to go right home. In the grocers’ shops there were queues all the way out to the street even though less was displayed than last week. After four shops, she stepped out into the boulevard again,
Then she saw them.
Another family of yellow stars carrying suitcases was being herded down the middle of Scheldestraat. Why them? she wondered.
Westerbork. That place.
As they passed, for the flash of a second a little boy looked at her with frightened eyes. She dipped her head and walked on. A pain shot through her chest. Ignoring it seemed the same kind of betrayal as Marie’s. She turned onto Rijnstraat and hurried home so fast she had a side ache.
She accidentally let the door slam when she came in. “No parsley, so I got celery, but no egg anywhere.”
“No egg? Did you go to Ivansteen’s?” Mother asked.
“And to three places on Scheldestraat.”
“What’ll we do? And those poor homeless refugees coming and not even a full Seder plate.”
“It won’t matter. In a matter of time, it won’t matter at all.”
“Hannah! Never say that. Don’t let me ever hear you say that.”
“What happened?” Hilde took the shank bone from her hands to examine it. “What happened out there on the street?”
Hannah slapped the celery onto the sink counter and turned to leave. “Nothing, Oma.”
Hilde followed her. “What did you see out there?”
“Nothing. Just children jumping off porches holding open umbrellas. Playing parachutes. They do it whenever they hear planes. Haven’t you noticed?”
She watched Hilde and Mother look at each other in puzzlement. No, of course they hadn’t.
That evening with the house darkened, after her parents hid ten pieces of hametz around the house, Tobias did the ritual final search for hametz by candlelight. Using a feather, he brushed the crumbs into a wooden spoon with a seriousness Hannah couldn’t remember from past years when it was more of a game.
“Where’d you get the feather, Toby?” Hannah asked.
“It’s Leo’s.” He held it up and twirled it. “Look how it’s purple on the edge. And wider on one side than the other. It came out in my hand as I was holding him. I didn’t mean to.”
No. He could never do the birds harm.
Father put the crumbs, the feather and the spoon into a paper bag to be burned the next morning. After Toby went to bed, when she thought he’d be asleep, she drew back the curtain that divided their bedroom and looked at him awhile. The boy in the street had the same curly hair as Toby. Bending to pull the blanket over him, she breathed the musty, innocent smell of rabbit and crayon and pigeon.
Before breakfast the whole family gathered on the porch and Father struck a match and touched it to the edge of the bag.
“Two places, Sol,” Hilde said. “To give it a good burning.”
Hannah watched the black edge creep sideways across the bag, like the front line of an army, she thought, bringing a small wall of orange flame behind it until it touched the other black edge advancing to meet it. The Red Sea closing in instead of parting. Eventually the wooden spoon was a bone of dying cinder on the bricks of the porch. Hannah stamped it out.
In the afternoon Father went walking with Toby, Hannah didn’t know where, but she knew they’d end up at the Rotterdam Cafe in order to bring home for Seder dinner two of the refugee families who were living upstairs.
Except for the slow rhythmic crunch-crunch of Mother chopping nuts for the charoseth, and the coos of the pigeons echoing down the open air vent, the house was quiet. With everything nearly ready for the holiday at sundown, it seemed to Hannah that the rooms breathed expectation, as before a death, or a birth. She thought about that for a while, feeling it settle as she sat sideways in her father’s chair at the dining table, fingering idly the scalloped edge of the white tablecloth.
Hilde wedged two candles in the silver candlesticks, arranged the Delftware basin and pitcher on the sideboard for washing the hands, dug a dust rag one last time into the sideboard carving and flicked it along the lower edge of the picture frame.
“You know what she’s looking at out the window, don’t you?” Hilde said. “Her future husband.”
Naturally she’d think that, Hannah said to herself.
“What do M think?” Mother asked from the kitchen doorway.
“Pigeons. Just pigeons,” Hannah said.
“Pigeons? What do you mean by that?” Hilde said.
“I mean it doesn’t matter what she’s looking at. Or what she’s doing, or not doing.” She looked Hilde dead in the eye. “It only matters that she’s thinking.”
“is that why you like her?” Mother asked in surprise.
“And because I know her.”
Hannah stood up, went down the hallway and up the attic ladder. Leo was closest, dozing. She grabbed him first, and in a frenzied flapping of wings, twisted his neck until its tightness released under her fingers. Squawks of the others rang in her ears. She lunged to catch Henriette and skinned her knee. Two, three, four, each time that same soft popping underneath the feathers.
She came down the hallway staring straight ahead. Her hands trembled so much Mother noticed. Hannah looked down too and saw a wisp of feather underneath the nail of her forefinger, the smallest bit of gray breast down. She flicked R away. Mother and Hilde gaped at her, apparently unable to move. Hilde’s lips pinched into a purple wound.
“Go wash your hands,” Mother murmured.
Hannah turned, caught her foot on the hall runner, and went into the bathroom. She heard her mother’s voice. “This is one time, in your son’s home, you will say nothing, Hilde. Nothing.” Hannah turned on the water. She didn’t want to hear what would come next. She washed up to her elbows, and her skinned knee. After a while she slipped into her room and lay on her bed. When she heard through the air vent Mother sweeping the coop, she felt a trickle of moisture creep toward her temple. She waited for the chop-chop of the charoseth. Then she changed her dress and gave her hair a good brushing.
When Father and Toby came in, she couldn’t look directly at them. The two German families were awkward, not knowing where to put themselves. A boy younger than Toby stood wordless and clinging to his father. Mother had Toby introduce each guest to Hilde, had him pass out the Haggadahs, had him bring the white kittel to his father to put on. She had him arrange on the Seder plate the celery, the shank bone, the charoseth, a withered root of horseradish, and a small peeled potato carved narrower at one end to look like an egg, and then she asked him to watch on the porch for sunset in the western sky. All this, Hannah knew, so he wouldn’t think to take the little German boy upstairs to show him the birds.
Mother rummaged in the sideboard and brought out the old Delftware candlesticks. “Here,” she said to Hannah. “These were your great-grand mother Etty’s, but tonight and forever, they’ll be yours. Wash them and put them on the table.”
And Hannah did.
“Sunset’s coming,” Toby announced from the porch. “The sky’s all goldy.”
Her mother struck a match and held it to an old candle stub until a flame rose, touched it to the two tapers in the silver candlesticks and handed it to Hannah. She did the same with hers. Watching her candlelight illuminate the girl in the painting, she knew why this night was different from all other nights. Real living had begun.
The Mind of God
This story is not currently available online.
It has never occurred to me to say no to The Numbers; they chose me, and I’ve accepted them. Totally. Now, almost every afternoon when I come home from my office in the city, they let me know in advance precisely how many automobiles will drive past me during my short descent down the hill to the little lane where I turn left and finish my walk home.
Poetry Feature: George Looney
Featuring the poems:
- True North
- Prayer and the Pain of Backs
- Darker Without the Herons
An Interview with Andrei Codrescu
This interview is not currently available online.
Interviewer: How did you come to the United States?
Codrescu: Let’s see. I swam across the Danube through miles of barbed wire….I ran into people holding hand grenades…No, I came on an airplane with my mother in the mid-sixties, 1965. We left Romania. We were bought by the state of Isreal, which at the time was happily buying freedom for Jews from Romania for the princely sum of five thousand dollars a head. The government paid ten thousand dollars for my mother and me. We were supposed to go to Isreal, but we never did.
Winner of the 1997 Editors’ Prize for Fiction.
This story is available via the PDF link below.
In the twentieth century I believe there are no saints left, but our farm on Boght Road had not yet entered the twentieth century. At that time, around 1908 it would be, I had a secret I could tell to no one, least of all a saint or an arsenic eater.