Tag : fiction

January 20, 2015 by

Sweet Charity

“Do you know Aimee Rothstein is dying?”

My heart flutters as if tickled. Or maybe it is only the lamb nuzzling my palm as it searches for food.

“What?”

“Cancer,” Penny says. “Bone cancer, they’re thinking. How old do you figure she is, anyway? I’m guessing she’s around our age.”

Aimee Rothstein dying. The news can’t be trusted. Does it fit with my impressions of Aimee, the few times I’ve met her before? No, the diagnosis is not in sync with my concept of any young mother. No we all look life in the eye, unblinking, while dressing our babies, feeding them, planning their next days and years.

The lamb gives up and returns to its own mother, a sloe-eyed ewe. Deprived of the comforting moistness of the animal’s breath on my skin, I step away from the pen and search for the children. Penny’s son is standing near a vending machine that will not give up its feed, while my daughter edges too close to a ram standing on the other side of the gate.

“Shoshie, move away!” I cry, throwing up my hands to ward off an assault.

It’s a futile gesture, but I get my daughter’s attention.

My glance lingers until Shoshanna steps back. Only then do I call out to Penny, “How do you know?”

“Her husband phoned school the other day to talk with the principal. I took the call,” she fires back. As she rummages in her purse to find more quarters for the feeder, she adds, “He started weeping, Sarah. Then he told me the whole story. It’s so sad.”

“You shouldn’t gossip,” I scold. “I don’t know Aimee well enough to hear this news.”

Penny’s eyes go wide. “I just assumed Shoshie and her daughter were in the same kindergarten class.”

“It’s a big school,” I remind her. “And no, we hardly know them at all.”

It is startling to see Aimee Rothstein in the park a week later, as I guess I’d expected illness to hide her away. Yet here she is, looking much the same as ever as she sits on a bench in a red cape, the hood falling in scalloped folds across both shoulders. An elderly woman wearing a gray woolen coat tries to cope with Aimee’s daughter on the swings nearby.

I briefly hope Penny has exaggerated Aimee’s story. Since hearing the news, I have found myself imagining the horror of calculating days leading to death in the same way most people count down to birthdays. And then my thoughts always veer off onto one shameful, unutterable truth, Thank God it’s not me.

I notice Aimee’s child is acting particularly rotten to the elderly woman. With each swing, she kicks at pebbles under her feet and throws dust. Yet imagine what the child’s going through daily, and forgive, I remind myself. A wind comes up, clanging a red sign tacked to the fence that lists SAFETY RULES. Useful warnings if you know how to read. But what about my own daughter Shoshie, struggling with her phonics? And what about this Rothstein girl? Aimee’s daughter had to constantly hear adults whispering about, in slightly hysterical tones. All these strange words had to be knocking like wind chimes over her head: malignancy, terminal, radiation. No child could begin to guess why such fierce winds were blowing, or from which direction.

Shoshie had abandoned me at least fifteen minutes ago for her friends at the Tower, but now I need her.

“Shoshie?” When I crook my finger, my daughter pivots from the Tower’s second level to the ground, and reluctantly comes over.

“Isn’t that girl in your class?”

Shoshie eyes her then declares, “No.”

“But she’s in kindergarten too, right?”

Shoshie shrugs, begins to rub at her nose.

“Don’t pick,” I say. “Here.” I retrieve a crumpled tissue from my coat pocket and hand it to her. Then I add, “She must be in the afternoon class,” I say. “You should invite her to play fort. C’mon.”

As we walk over, Aimee Rothstein glances at me in a curious way.

“Hi. I think our girls might know each other from school.”

“Your daughter is in Mrs. Harrison’s class?” Aimee asks.

“No,” I say. “She goes in the morning. But we’ve seen you around, maybe at the library reading program? Anyway, my daughter wanted to come over and say hi. Shoshie.” I squint up my eyes to prompt. “Can you say hi to —?”

“Emma,” Aimee offers. “That’s her Grandma Lyla with her.”

“Emma, of course,” I say, nodding to Lyla at the same time. “Do you want to play with Shoshie and her friends, Emma? They’re building a fort by the Tower.”

Emma’s ready to accept my invitation. She shoves off the swing, then moves a few steps away from her grandmother’s oversized shadow in the dirt. With Aimee’s nod, our children run to the Tower together. I smile too then ask, “Does your daughter take a dance class at the Academy?”

“She has.”

“That’s where I’ve seen you before,” I lie. “Well, it’s great to meet you. Maybe they’ll be in dance together next term.”

Aimee tucks one lip under the other, doesn’t respond.

“You know,” I continue, as casually as if I’d just come up with the idea. “Why don’t our girls get to know each other before the new season starts? How about a play date at my house? Your daughter’s welcome any time.”

Aimee doesn’t reply, but her mouth goes small. I can guess what she’s worried about, recompense, and so I say, “We’ll just try it one time and see how it goes. You’d be helping me out. I don’t think my daughter will know anyone else in dance next year.”

Aimee’s breath comes fast, and I wonder how much her illness has already advanced. Yet then she reaches for her purse and says, “It’s a very nice offer. Let’s exchange numbers.”

When the bell rings, a barking Beardsley gets to the door first. He’s followed by my daughter, dancing barefoot in her anticipation. Both have to wait for me to turn the lock and then Beardsley wedges his nose up onto the screen, terrifying Emma and Grandma Lyla.

“Down Beardsley,” I scold. As I pull him back by the collar, I try to explain, “He’s harmless, really, useless as a guard dog. He mostly patrols for squirrels.”

Still, Grandma doesn’t take her eyes off our St. Bernard as she steps into the hall with her charge. Emma looks as if she’s confronted yet another wolf in this strange forest. I force a laugh to calm everyone down.

“Do you like costumes, Emma?” I ask as Shoshie pushes past me to smother her newfound friend in a hug. “Shoshie has plenty.”

Emma nods and they head upstairs, ready for a session of make-believe to see if the friendship will prove real and true. I’m left behind with Grandma, who demands in the heavily accented words of someone whose first language is presumably not English, “What time you want me back?”

My glance falls to the car keys she’s holding. Truthfully, I’m relieved not to have to play hostess, even if this nervous visitor deserves all my attention and concern. More than likely, this woman will be burying her own child soon; laying out clothes for her funeral much as she did when sending her off to school decades ago. That’s her cursed fate and a reality so unbearable that, this close, I find myself full of irrational superstitions. No I’m not proud of these thoughts, but I’m normally lousy with the elderly and so terrified to invite into my home this sad-eyed woman who carries about her smells of old age and imminent tragedy.

“Let’s say two o’clock?” I say. “That will give the children some time together.”

“Two, yes.”

Still eyeing the dog, Grandma Lyla backs down our bricked walkway. I latch the screen, release my hold on Beardsley. Upstairs, I can hear my daughter chattering, “You be the witch and I’ll be the princess.”

“You girls okay?”

In reply, I hear a clicking of play heels, then Shoshie’s face appearing behind stair railings. Her red-brown hair is twisted in a messy bun and she is wearing her pink princess gown.

“We’re good.”

“You let Emma wear whatever costume she wants, witch or princess,” I instruct. “ Now, are you girls hungry for a snack or do you want to wait?”

There is a rustle of netted skirts and then a blonde-haired witch comes alongside my daughter. Emma’s chosen the darker costume, but I’m guessing she’s the cherubic one when it comes to coloring and temperament. Still she seems so unsteady in her black sequined getup and inch-high play shoes, I warn, “No heels on the stairs, Emma. It’s not safe.”

Even as I say the words, practically trill them, the girl’s lips start to scrunch up with worry she’s done something wrong.

“Well, aren’t you hungry?” I ask, making a joke. It works. Emma’s face relaxes even if her tongue continues to poke about in her cheek.

“I had lunch,” she informs me.

“Okay. I’ll just make snacks. Go play.”

The girls kalump-kalump back to Shoshie’s room. When I leave the chilled hallway, Beardsley trots obediently behind. As I push open the door leading to the kitchen, I’m feeling proud and why not admit it, if only to myself? My offer to watch Emma has to be of real comfort to Aimee while she’s struggling. In this house, we will nurture through normalcy, a routine playdate — and no hint of hushed conversations, tears being wiped on sleeves whenever a child enters a room. None of that for Emma today.

I open the refrigerator and retrieve a milk carton, give a brief sniff to make sure the milk is fresh. Yes, today, I’d done it right. I’d helped people and not in my usual ineffectual ways of being charitable, surrendering to phone solicitors or signing up for fundraisers that offered up hefty tax deductions as incentives.

I reach into the pantry and then rush a bit while I spread peanut butter and jelly onto crackers, not sure how long everyone’s amiable moods will last. I pour milk into two Sippy cups and set them on the table.

“Girls, snacks!”

As I head upstairs, I notice Shoshie has closed her bedroom door against all intruders, mainly me. Behind the door, I can hear her cry out, “Scribble Scrabble!”, and Emma’s laughter in response, a sweet baa-baa riff.

“Girls, snacks,” I repeat and push on the door. As I do, my glance shifts to the child-size mezuzah we’d hung on Shoshie’s doorframe, a gift from her baby-naming, and again, I think a bit irrationally, yes see, Emma safe’s here.

They are on Shoshie’s bed. My daughter stands in full princess regalia, holding a marker in her left hand. Emma sits cross-legged near the pillow, markers held in both fists. Lines of blue, green and yellow trail out along the sheets. What they’ve drawn is not clear. But to me, the lines look like chalk marks used to sketch victims’ bodies at crime scenes and so, of course, I scream.

Shoshi just glares, furious that I’ve walked in and ruined their fun. Emma, however, launches into a volley of tears and wails. Downstairs, Beardsley barks in nervous accompaniment.

“Emma, don’t. It’s okay,” I mumble.

I close my eyes, scribble scrabble all those lines from sight. Remind myself about non-toxic markers, how they’re made to erase with a sponge.

“All right. It’s time for a snack. I think we need a break,” I announce. Using the door knob for balance, I turn to leave. Behind me, I hear one last loud sniff from our guest and Shoshie’s bell-toned reassurances. “It’s okay. Don’t cry.”

She needs to cry, I think. Let her cry, Shoshie. The sheets are probably a total loss but all this is fixable. In her home, nothing is fixable anymore. So have pity.

I return to the kitchen and glance at the clock in an entirely different mood than moments ago. It’s not even twelve-thirty. I have an hour and a half more to go on this play date. The girls trail in a few minutes later, back in their clothes. I can tell Shoshie’s already forgotten the incident upstairs, but Emma hesitates when she notices my gaze upon her.

“Here, Emma, sit,” I say softly and pull out a chair at the table. The girl eyes the plate of crackers then pretends to be fascinated by the lamp hanging overhead. One, two, three, I watch her mouth as she counts the bulbs.

“Emma, is anything wrong?”

“I don’t like peanut butter and jelly,” Emma whispers to Shoshie, avoiding me altogether.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Is there anything else I can get you —?”

Beardsley has found his way under the table and my daughter pries open a cracker sandwich, offers it to him.

“Ahh, you’re so gross!” she screams as the dog’s tongue licks her palm.

For the first time since she’s entered the kitchen, I hear Emma laugh, that baa-baa riff. I’m startled into action. Maybe this play date can be saved, after all.

I grab the dog’s collar. Showtime, Beardsley.

“Do you want to pet him?” I offer. “He’s really gentle.”

It’s not so much an invitation as a bribe and Emma squints, rightly suspecting my intentions. Still she rises from her chair and holds out her hand. I grab her palm, lay it on the brown furry tufts between his ears.

“This is his favorite spot,” I confide. “But he can’t get to it himself. He loves when someone helps.”

Scritch, scritch. Emma’s fingers start to move and Beardsley pants his appreciation. His jowls pool with saliva and then he can’t help himself; he starts to drip.

Shoshie bursts out laughing. With a smile, I release the dog and pull a tissue from my jeans pocket.

“Let’s make a potion,” I say. “Dog drool’s the first thing we’ll need. Come here, sweetie.”

I pivot the dog’s massive jaw into my hand, and wipe. Startled, he backs off with a growl. Emma steps back and not willing to lose the moment to her fear, I retrieve another tissue, turn to my daughter.

“Blow.”

Shoshie takes the tissue, snorts like an elephant at a watering hole.

“We’ll grease down a bowl with dog’s drool and kid’s snot,” I cackle in my best witch’s imitation. I drop both tissues on the counter, rummage through cabinets. “And what else, what else?”

I open my refrigerator and see items I’ve let sit for days, even weeks, past their labeled expiration dates. A pint of grape tomatoes, paunchy in their skins, a browning head of lettuce. Two slightly cracked hard-boiled eggs, a quart of milk.

“Here. I’ve got smelly eggs, leaking tomatoes, rotting skull lettuce.”

Both girls start to giggle, enchanted with my sorcerer’s turn. Not even a costume nearby to help in the transformation, so they’re impressed.

“And how about some nice, sour milk to blend it all together?”

“No! No milk!”

I turn to see Emma’s tongue working her cheek like a thermometer.

“My Grandma says sour milk makes you sick. If it’s bad, throw it out!”

Sick, that word. How fast noises in the room fly away with that word.

Emma’s eyes move frantically, to find Beardsley. But no longer the center of attention, he’s left the room. It’s Shoshie who comes over to dab with her finger at a few milk drops pitched into the table slats.

“How does milk get sour anyway?” my daughter asks.

“You don’t know when it happens!” Emma shrieks before I can reply. She tries to control herself, as if someone has warned her not to behave this badly in someone else’s home. Still her fingers clench, her cheeks purple in anger.

“You can’t see anything! But it makes you real sick if you drink it. You could die!”

You could die. It is a phrase she understands beyond all other words that swirl lazy as dust motes in the air. She’s found them in her mother’s closets, under her bed.

Between lavender-scented sheets that, despite all their washings, can’t hide the stink of illness.

I look at the milk already poured into pink plastic cups, focus on its whiteness in contrast, how pure, how clean. And I am surprised by this child’s fierce insistence that the world only gives us something else: decay, decay.

“You’re right, you wouldn’t want to drink milk that’s gone sour,” I manage. “It doesn’t taste good. But milk’s not bad when it turns. It’s just…different.”

I take a glass from the cabinet and set it on the counter, start to pour until this new milk’s almost rimming the top, threatening to spill. I pick it up carefully and move to the girls at the table.

“It’s not sour. I was just playing before. Really, this milk is fresh from the refrigerator. You don’t have to be afraid that it’s going to change so fast you won’t know.”

Shoshie leans in, interested, but Emma’s face doesn’t give over a clue that she hears anything I’m saying.

“Come and taste it, you’ll see.”

My daughter inches forward, yet Emma’s glances stubbornly sweep about, frantic to unearth landmines buried in this kitchen. Sour or not? Death or not? And what is there to trust, after all, when only the unknowable can be counted on in this room, in our words, in the very air?

“Come here, Emma,” I repeat, my tone rock-steady. “Take a sip.”

Her gaze shifts to mine, over the glass. When she blinks, an eyelash falls to her cheek. We are so close this is what I see, and I am nearly distracted.

But then I can feel her breath, wet, on my knuckles as her lips touch the rim.


 

Michele Merens is a Puffin Grant winner for her full-length play “The Lion’s Den.” She is also a member of the Dramatist’s Guild.

 

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October 7, 2014 by

The Lives Under the Stones

Illustration by Hila Peleg
Illustration by Hila Peleg

To get to the Jewish cemetery, you have to go underground. This is true for the living as well as the dead, although it’s been an eternity since fresh ground was broken here. Space was always at a premium; there are only so many bodies you can pack into two acres. They stacked them up like cheerleaders, one on top of the other, knees resting on shoulders or balanced precariously on skulls, but they still ran out of room. Gravestones cracked and toppled under the pressure. By the time the Emperor granted space outside the City, the skies were already darkening. When the storm was finally over, the handful of survivors floated away on floods of tears.

No matter how dry the day is, the stones sweat. Now that the rest of the City hovers a good five feet above, it’s like standing below sea level. Once past the entrance, you spiral down a long, rickety stairway. With each step, the metal squeaks and groans. At the bottom, you’re greeted by a ticket kiosk and a security guard. In the absence of live Jews, the local delinquents have taken to beating up dead ones. Keys, Swiss knives, even nail files are checked into tiny lockers to prevent further damage, although your presence, your mere breath, wreak havoc on the ancient stones. Stray sunbeams rain down, turning the dust mites and gnats into tiny, fluttering jewels, but for the most part, it’s dusk-dark down here. You grab onto details to stay afloat: sculpted colonettes and triglyphs, curlicue arabesques and rolled scrolls, praying hands and lions and fish. Every stone tells a story. The stories press against each other, fighting to be heard, but you only have time for one or two:

Rachel Blumele, 1632 – 1674, her name spelled out in a flower. Beloved wife and mother. A life lived in kitchens and bedrooms and trips to the market. She spent most of her adulthood tucked inside a cotton apron that became tighter and tighter with each pregnancy. After her fifth lying in, the faded check pattern stuck to her like a second skin. She was a good cook, able to turn barley noodles and potatoes into a feast. A magician with liver dumplings, she could make less than a pound of meat feed seven. She saved her best tricks for the market, where she bargained down even the toughest vendors with a look or a plea.

“Here you go, ten zlotys for the apples.”

“Fifteen.”

“Really? I was sure you said ten. I only have twelve. Take two back.” A sigh like an expiring bird. “I guess little Sarai will have to go without.”

Unable to deprive little Sarai/Avram/Natan, the fruit seller/ dairy man/butcher almost always gave Rachel her price.

In another age, Rachel might have been an accountant or a lawyer. Or not. Maybe she loved her kitchen-bedroom-market life. Rachel and her husband regularly made love on their single bed, their slippery bodies somehow managing to click into the right place at the right time, like the workings of a clock. Her wig slept on the shelf so her auburn hair could be free for a few hours. Loose strands framed her prematurely aged face. Dead at 42, she could have been sixty. Eight pregnancies had loosened her taut belly. At night, when the five who had survived infancy were asleep on their bed on the other side of the curtain that divided the room, Rachel’s husband rolled over and massaged her stretched flesh. Stateless, this was his country, the only place he was at home. She smiled as his fingers slowly crept lower. Reluctant to intrude further, you move on.

Salome Karpele, 1744 – 1810. Like everyone else, the first thing you noticed was her beauty. Who could resist those pillowy, pink lips and heavy lidded black eyes? Not the Baron of Ludlovy, who plucked her out of the ghetto at fifteen and installed her in a suite of rooms in the center of town. Her attractions were obvious, but her thoughts were harder to read. After years of playacting, it was possible that Salome no longer knew what she was about.

You check her surroundings for clues. After all, we are what we buy, and Salome was a connoisseur. Only the finest Meissen ware graced her table, although she rarely had more than one guest and the Baron couldn’t distinguish Sevres from Chinese import. Her furniture was French, her pianoforte Italian. Tucked beneath her bed was the expensive magnifying glass she had ordered from the finest craftsmen in Amsterdam so she could check her diamantine face for any flaws. The shelves of her kitchen were lined with jars of the olive oil she used to soften her skin. The pantry was well-stocked with bottles of the finest champagne, which kept her hair bubbly.

At the Baron’s suggestion, she went to Church every Sunday where she prayed for the preservation of her beauty, but the Mysteries remained a mystery. She took communion once, out of curiosity, but felt nothing. How could a tasteless wafer be the body of God? And if Christ died for our sins, what was the point of confession? Only limbo made sense to her; neither Jew nor Gentile, wife nor servant, she knew what it was to float between worlds. She refused to be baptized for fear that the water would wash away the otherness that was as much a part of her appeal as her dainty pointed chin, thin ankles and torrents of wavy, red hair.

“Say something in Jewish,” the Baron would whisper in bed on the nights when his little soldier refused to stand to.

“Kush meer in toches.” “My little Jewess,” was her cue to release the moans that assured her commander that the battle had been won. Since beauty turned as quickly as fine wine, she was determined to acquire other skills to hold onto her Baron. Veiled, she snuck back into the ghetto from time to time to learn how to make the chicken soup and stuffed cabbage that had glued her parents together for so long. Belgian lace failed to hide her charms and groups of boys, fresh out of cheder, would inevitably fall into line behind her, announcing the arrival of the Sabbath bride.

Once she was safely inside her old home, she slipped a stained smock over her silk finery and sank her hands into mounds of grainy chopped liver and squishy small intestines. For a few, brief hours, she breathed in the smells of her childhood and bathed in the comfort of knowing her place. When the late afternoon sun lit up the crumpled paper stuffed into the hole in the window and the chipped brown paint on the walls, she knew it was time to go. Her mother looked away as Salome reached into her bag for a small purse and tucked it under the challah cover. Bending down, she kissed the top of her mother’s head and returned to the house that was not quite her home.

Kartoffeles and liver dumplings bought her some time, but as her thirties bore down on her like a rabid wolf, Salome knew the Baron would get restless. Since jealousy was the strongest aphrodisiac of all, she invented a lover. When she heard the tap of the Baron’s walking stick climbing the stairs to her landing, she had her maid undo her bodice and refasten the buttons out of order. She imprinted the ghost of her ghostly lover in the furniture by spraying cologne on the chairs and divan. The Baron’s nostrils flared the instant he stepped into the apartment. When he noticed the unhooked buttons on her bodice, he insisted on undoing the rest of them himself.

Hoping to catch her in flagrante, he increased his visits. And since no respectable patron arrived at his mistress’ lair empty handed, Salome became one of the wealthiest women in the quarter. When the Baron died and his heir ordered her to leave, it took a full week to pack up her things. Over time, her past was largely forgotten. To the new priest at St. Gundula, she was a respectable, gray-haired lady devoted to Christian charity, but her Jewish roots came out when she died and she was shoved into the old cemetery with the other members of her tribe.

You brush your fingers over the fish sculpted into Salome’s headstone. The rectangular block is capped by a fancy gable. A pair of scrolls frame praying hands. Praying for what, you wonder. Your curiosity twists and turns on itself like an insomniac unable to sleep — did Salome love the Baron, what happened to Rachel’s children?

Back on the crowded street above the cemetery, strangers bump into you, cursing you for getting in their way. “Kush meer in toches,” you whisper in a language you don’t speak as you head for a “kosher style” deli that serves liver dumplings to a non-existent Jewish community.


Amy Bitterman’s fiction has appeared in The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Kerem, Switchback, Jewishfiction.net, Poetica and other publications. She teaches at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark.

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July 15, 2014 by

Recounting

Your first kiss will be on a dance floor. He will be taller than you; you won’t see it coming. You will be fifteen, thinking you will always remember this number for this reason. You will remember this number, but only because your Bubbe will call you in August saying, “Sweet sixteen and never been kissed —true or false?” and you will smile to yourself and think, false.

Your second kiss will be so bad that you will believe for the rest of senior year that you are gay. Whenever you doubt this, you will remember how soft and wet his lips were, how poorly aimed. For some reason you will remember your porch light, the dead moth flattened against it, above the mezuzah he doesn’t recognize. You will conclude that your eyes were open.

Your third kiss will be on a couch after Rosh Hashanah services your freshman year. It will move to a bed, but it will stay just a kiss. Because you expect this, you will not be grateful for it.

Your third kiss will kiss you two hundred times before you lose track.

Your fourth kiss will balance you on the railing of your best friend’s parents’ fire escape. It will be your nineteenth birthday. His breath will smell like cabbage. You will cry. He will knock on the bedroom door once you’ve closed it against him. You will be dialing your third kiss; your best friend will say, Leave her alone.

You will forget your fifth kiss. You will not remember his name. You will not remember his face, even.

Your sixth kiss will be thinner than you are, and you are thin. He will take off your bra as you stare at the ceiling, deciding not to help him with the clasp. He will walk you home at midnight —home to your third kiss, though he won’t know that. When he asks you out to coffee, you will say yes, but you won’t show.

Your seventh kiss will be a friend. You will set down your drink and slide your arms around his neck. You will act surprised when he kisses you, but you will not be surprised.

You will remember your eighth kiss as laughter, as tricky to pull off because neither of you could stop, as if you were kissing laughter. Your eighth kiss will disappoint you in all ways but this. In this way, he will be your favorite.

You will walk the perimeter of the club where you meet your ninth kiss, being watched. You will be watched because you feel powerful. You will feel powerful because you are watched. Your ninth kiss will take a lollipop out of his mouth next to the DJ booth. You will lick it.

You will want to forget that lollipop. You never will.

In your memory, you will mix up your tenth and eleventh kisses. One of them will be the son of a minister. One of them will be younger than you thought he was. One of them will call you beautiful.

The moment he walks in, your twelfth kiss will push you against your closet door. You will want this part to last forever, but it will only last a second.

Your thirteenth kiss will glide his hand along your hip for an hour before you turn to face him. He will say, How long were you going to pretend to be asleep? You will tell him he’s damn lucky you were just pretending.

You will be grateful then that your third kiss stayed just a kiss.

Your fourteenth kiss will be very late at night, and exquisite. You will walk to the bathroom on wobbly knees, wearing his boxers. As you are kissing him, you will be wanting to kiss him again. You will be dazed for days.

You will meet your fifteenth kiss early in the morning, as you are walking home on wobbly knees.

When it rains it pours, you will think.

Your sixteenth kiss will give you the flu. You will turn away the chicken soup he makes you from scratch. You will start to worry about the things you can get from the people you kiss.

Just before Passover, your seventeenth kiss will give you a neck- full of hickies. “Take your scarf off at the table,” your Bubbe will say. You won’t. You’ll touch the knot too often, feeling owned.

You will get tired of remembering kisses. You will skip some. You will feel bad about skipping some, feel bad that just remembering makes you tired. You will wonder if they remember you. You will wonder if it makes them tired.

You will believe that you could have loved your twentieth kiss. When you step off the karaoke stage, he will touch your hip and say You look good in a red dress, and for years afterward the memory of this will make you fidget. It will be a mistake, telling him about your third kiss. You will try to make up for it. You will leave a gift outside his door. Thumbtacks, because his walls are naked. Thumbtacks, so when he hangs pictures of other people, he will still see you.

Your twenty-third kiss will be older than you, and married. He will leave his wife for you, is what he’ll say. There will be a photo of you, eyelids shimmering, earrings dangling to your shoulders, not looking at the camera, because you are searching the party for him.

Your twenty-fourth kiss will be wearing a shirt that says Can I Help You? He will be Muslim, the president of the graduate student body, leading your first day of orientation. After his talk, you will slip through the swarm of students and lean against the podium at the front of the lecture hall. You will say, Yes. He’ll knit his eyebrows, and you’ll say, You can help me.

You will feel bad about your twenty-eighth kiss, because it will happen in a metro station below the earth as your twenty-seventh kiss is standing just above your head, waiting for you.

Over drinks, your thirtieth kiss will say: Never get involved with someone in your cohort. You will talk about your shared advisor until he leans on the bar and kisses you, doesn’t even hold your face in place. He will gather your gloved hand and his gloved hand together in his jacket pocket. Later, you will hate him for not grabbing your face. You will hate him for assuming you would sit there, frozen, and let him kiss you whenever he amassed the whiskey and the nerve.

A year after your thirty-first kiss, you will meet again at a Christmas party. He will be tall and smartly dressed, thick- framed glasses and a tie. You will be drunk. You will introduce yourself. You will think, Better to be the forgetter than the forgotten.

You will think that, but you will not be sure.

Your thirty-fifth kiss will walk to his bathroom for a condom. You’ll say no, for secret reasons of your own, but he’ll say, Not for that. Just to be extra safe, for any kind of touching. He’ll mean it. You’ll feel suspicious and suspected, dirty though the two of you are uncommonly clean.

You will start to lie. You will say you have kissed fewer people and slept with more.

Your thirty-seventh kiss will be thinner than you are, but you are not thin anymore. He will read to you from The Waste Land. You will rest your head on his shoulder and believe you could love him, but the feeling will fade by the end of the page. You will wonder what your third kiss is doing now.

You will realize with shock that your third kiss was only your third kiss.

Your fortieth kiss won’t know you’re somehow still a virgin. You will be too ashamed to tell him. You will be grateful to him after- ward, when he walks you home at midnight—home to your third kiss, you will have spent years imagining. Home to no one, really. 

You will sleep with your forty-first kiss the night you meet him, feeling the freedom more than the deed. You’ll assume he won’t call you again, and you’ll be right, but that will not have been the point.

You will know that your fiftieth kiss is your fiftieth kiss. You will feel like a Russian doll, your former selves stacked ever smaller and deeper inside you. You will let the smallest of these kiss this one, just this once. Her delighted surprise will make her foreign to you: a stranger. A lollipop from someone else’s tongue.

Your fifty-first kiss will want to hear about your third kiss. You will remember funneling thumbtacks into a glass jar, and you will know not to tell him. He will tell you his equivalent, instead. You won’t like it. You will kiss him in the dark foyer of your apartment, hoping even as you pull his head to yours that your memory of this moment will be monochrome, fuzzy and flat.

From a single photograph, your Bubbe will identify which of those men was your fifty-fourth kiss. It will comfort you, that you can still be so transparent to someone.

Your Bubbe will die then.

One week after the funeral, your housemate will move out and a boy you’ll believe you could love will move in. He will be the first Jewish boy you’ve looked at since your third kiss. You will stand in the supermarket aisle, comparing the labels on the one-a-day multivitamins you want to buy him. You will take a break from kissing for so long that he will finish the whole bottle. He will not be your fifty-fifth kiss.

Your fifty-sixth kiss will be a way of kissing your housemate. It will not be the way you want. It will taste bitter, though you will both drink peach martinis with sugar on the rim.

You will wonder if any kiss will ever be the way you want again. You will tell your fifty-eighth kiss that your contacts are just bothering you. Standing at the bathroom mirror, you will try to calculate the number of times your third kiss kissed you. Ten thousand, you will conclude. A hundred thousand.

You will try to remember every one. 

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July 15, 2014 by

Behaviors from Generation to Generation

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek famously criticized the way fat-free chocolate and decaf coffee have allowed us to rid ourselves of our guilt in today’s consumerist culture. Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom extends this dystopian vision in her new novel Textile (The Feminist Press, $18.95; translation by Dalya Bilu), where housing developments are built with no ecosystem, homes are established in brand-new apartments with no past, family members try to forget their ties to each other, and even the body undoes the effects of time.

Castel-Bloom weaves together a multivalent and sprawling text, set mostly in a lavish but hygienic Tel Aviv suburb and the isolation of upstate New York. The narrative focuses on a wealthy suburban family of four, who revolve around each other without real intimacy or responsibility.

At the heart is Mandy, Amanda Gruber, a judgmental mother figure absorbed in her own efforts to look younger and anesthetize herself while her son serves as a sniper in the Israeli army. Meanwhile, her genius husband, a somewhat famous scientist in Israel, is absorbed in efforts to invent a special suit to protect the body from terrorism. The outlier, and inheritor of the family pajama factory, is young Lirit, who just broke up with her boyfriend and is beginning to fill her mother’s shoes.

With a keen eye for class and gender politics, Textile moves from one character to another and still feels like a quick read. The author often takes us back three generations to trace the way languages and behaviors get passed down l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. The text itself is multilingual, with bits of French and even Yiddish thrown in, and always in transition, reflective of the “third millennium” of history and critical of it. Everyone is an exile in some sense, trying on new tongues and wardrobes, trying to adapt to a new environment. 

Not only is the book international but it also feels slightly futuristic, in the way that the lifestyles of the elite always seem some- how at the cutting edge of civilization and closer to its end. The only control group in the experiment is Mandy’s inherited business, the Nighty-Night pajama factory, which serves the ultra-Orthodox community and stays unchanged, according to her mother’s dying wish.

Though the opening inscription from Leviticus warns us of the law of Shatnez, not to wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material, Textile explores what happens when worlds are forced to collide, how we try to protect ourselves and our bodies from life.

“History is a load. A burden,” an Israeli-expat masseuse tells the famous Israeli scientist on his first night in Ithaca, New York. And yet, “It’s no good being the first in a certain place. It gives rise to anxiety,” the scientist declares later in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

Caught in contradiction and paradox, dissatisfied and desperate for happiness, and painfully incapable of communicating with each other, these characters shop or work or read or get plastic surgery instead. Underneath it are relentless pangs of guilt and shame and past trauma, triggered by layers of the very history and relationships they can’t bear.

Though Castel-Bloom, author also of Human Parts and Dolly City, has something of a reputation in Israel for daring and macabre themes, this book is both readable and relatable, a testament too to Bilu’s seamless translation. Textile is a sharp and engaging study of individual psychologies in an age of anxiety and consumerism, and Castel-Bloom is a masterful storyteller for these interesting times.

 

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July 15, 2014 by

From Russia, with Narrative

I read Panic in a Suitcase, the debut novel by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, by the ocean. At Brighton Beach, in fact—the fertile backdrop for this chaotic family saga. Reading the story on the shores of the Atlantic, it was easy to imagine the sundry oddball siblings stalking across the streets and into the bodegas and bakeries of Brooklyn’s “little Odessa by the sea.”

The remarkable corporeality of this vision emerges thanks to the surprising and vivid detail in Akhtiorskaya’s writing. In this novel of hectic depths, a Russian Jewish family of dissatisfied misfits emigrates from Ukraine to Brooklyn. The characters are characters indeed, trying to make a home for themselves on Coney Island Avenue, “a street where cars had many lanes but still bunched together and tiny people on the tiny strips of sidewalk seemed to be crossing a desert.“

In the Nasmertov family, every generation is unsettled in its own way. There’s the linchpin, the distracted Pasha—a spacey poet of indeterminate success who can’t decide whether to remain in Ukraine or finally join his family in Brooklyn. His sister Marina, who is fired from her job cleaning houses when she gives pepperoni pizza to the son of her Orthodox employers. Pasha’s father (who had no temper to lose) and mother (“Prisoners in labor camps hadn’t exerted themselves at an equivalent level of intensity for such hopeless durations”). And his niece Frida —poor Frida: “Impressive applied to Frida meant that she wear a dress and sit at the table. No one expected smiles, precocious conversation, grace.” The Nasmertovs are never quite at home in Russian-speaking Brooklyn, yet are far removed from their family and friends in Ukraine, and perhaps farthest of all from the Manhattan right above them.

In Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a gorgeous graphic novel by the celebrated artist and author Anya Ulinich, the path from Russia to New York (and back, and forth) fades a bit more into the background of the winding story. Here we have one central protagonist —a warm, smart, wounded woman who emerges from years of cold or abusive relationships with two children and a lifetime’s worth of sexual confusion.

She embarks on a quest to find love (or is that sexual fulfillment? intimacy? stability?) while juggling single parenthood and a precarious yet successful enough career as a novelist. “I became a tourist in the country of men,” she writes, “or at least in the New York metropolitan area of men. I was like people who, when they felt like a road trip, shut their eyes, pointed to a random spot on a map, and drove…”

Lena’s insecurities and narcissism are deeply sympathetic. She berates herself—“What is it with you immigrants? Why are you so afraid of yourselves? … For all your proclaimed affection for Dostoevsky, you’re an excellent immigrant child, Finkle, a.k.a. a smart drone!” Lena traces her life in relationships, marks time by counting men, and avoids her work by browsing on OkCupid.

The imperfect, floundering characters in these two novels are deeply relatable. They leave you with the distinct impression that each person, each family, is no more or less unhinged and absurd than any other. In the midst of these distinctive migrations, it is the emotional familiarity of these characters that makes each one so compelling.

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April 9, 2014 by

In the Desert

By the time Ilana arrived in the Berns’ lobby for their Passover seder, she had at least three blisters and counting. The bouquet of daffodils she’d picked up looked as thirsty as she felt; she failed to plump the droopy leaves with her fingers. Another night of remembering the Jews’ escape from slavery, another Passover at her boyfriend’s apartment, her third in a row doing it the Berns’ way.

Each step towards the elevator bank caused a wince. Why had she chosen today to break in her flats? She sat down on the bench beside the elevator and slipped out of the shoes for a blissful moment, a period she used to cautiously press her fingers against the raised circles of fluid that had appeared so quickly. But then she hastily got up, lest she seem too idle, a New York faux pas. Mike and his friends always told stories about “stooping it,” whiling away hours on the steps of brownstones with sodas and cigarettes in their halcyon youth. But all Ilana saw now was the way they jogged up the subway steps and stepped out of elevators with phones open, scheduling each other in for lunches and dinners — and for spiritual matters, too, like seders, as if holy days were just holidays, diverting items to tick off on the social calendar.

Even her non-Jewish colleagues had bordered on aggression today as they anticipated seders. They were planning on drinking all four glasses of wine, eating matzah piled with pungent horseradish, they warned. Manischewitz hangovers, am I right?

Ilana felt her phone buzz through her purse. She guessed the message came from Mike, tardiness its contents, encouraging her to bond once more with his family.

Routine, but with stakes: last night they’d had, at his initiation, the DTR talk. Define the relationship. She needed to make up her mind soon, in his words, about “what path she was on.” Was she going to stay in town, buckle down on the music thing? She should consider, he said, whether her plans would make room for her to stand with him under the chuppah. Was his family aware of this ultimatum? She hadn’t dared ask.

At last year’s seder, such choices didn’t loom. But that had been before Mike lost a classmate to an unspeakable tragedy, before he decided that living life to the fullest meant “getting serious,” programming a trajectory into his metaphorical iPhone instead.

So now Ilana was like the Jews in the desert. Free, yes, but wandering, thirsty, blistered. Worse, she had no clue where the promised land lay, if it existed. Mike knew she could return to Iowa, take up where she’d left off. She had a spot waiting for her teaching music at her old Hebrew school; the university’s orchestra would surely find room for the daughter of her parents, the humble professors.

Doris Berns greeted her with a hearty kiss on the cheek and the usual once over, and whisked the daffodils off to get “perked up.” Pour some water on me, Doris.

“Mike’s late, poor baby,” Doris said. Of course he’d contacted mommy. No need to check her own phone.

Ilana hobbled into the living room. Mike’s uncle and a partner of Doris’s suspended their debate about health care to greet her.

“Great to see you. We were arguing about whether the individual mandate and Obama’s…” she stopped listening, kept nodding. The chopped liver on the coffee table looked like dog food, but it was the Jewish foie gras, Mike swore, usually before he shoveled down an overwhelming pile of it.

Politics and chopped liver were always on the menu at the Berns apartment. If something controversial hadn’t been brought up by the main course, Mike’s father Ed would say, “so what do we think of the Senate’s take on” a given foreign war, a verbal melee would ensue and they’d love it. At the end of the meal when they said “next year in Jerusalem” they didn’t mean it, because their Jerusalem was here, on West End Avenue. And they wanted Ilana’s to be, too.

At her own family seders, no appetizers were served.

“What do you think?” Ed asked Ilana, and she gulped. “Do you think Obama’s ruined things with his plan?”

“Oh,” said Ilana.. “Well there have been so many times Mike and me” — shit, shouldn’t it be Mike and I?–“kept thinking Obama had messed up, but then he’d end up being savvy, pulling out a victory.” She cleared her throat, hoping she’d acquitted herself. The truth was, with Mike, she could talk about healthcare: single payer, public option, individual mandate, but the Berns living room felt like a tribunal, as she’d told a colleague at happy hour last night, the happy hour she had to go to because it was rude not to.

New York was a series of oral examinations.

At her parents’ house they read the Haggadah, intoned the prayers, quoted the diary of Anne Frank. Ilana’s heart twisted. She saw her mother’s wrinkled face and the housedresses she still wore when she cooked, her mother the prestigious professor making brisket in a schmatte. She imagined the Berns’ seders piling up behind her, and her mother growing further away, closer to the dark end of the tunnel of years.

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” said Doris, arriving in the doorway with a tray of water glasses.

“Oh — I should have been helping!” Ilana jumped up; pain surged through her heel.

Mike always declared that the key to Doris’s heart was kitchen duty.

“Are you limping?” asked Doris, as Ilana stoically distributed water.

“Blisters,” said Ilana.

“Oy,” said Doris. “But you wear such sensible shoes, never clomping around in stilettos. That’s why we love you, dear. Me, I wear old lady orthotics. They’re expensive, they scream ‘middle age’ but do they last. Oh, I remember our heels — back in the 70s, sturdy platforms, not so wobbly.” She reminisced with obvious longing.

Doris’ stout but compact figure was impeccably clad in one of her trademark silk blouses tucked into sharp trousers. “That’s why we love you;” how easily Doris applied the phrase. Was it possible? Ilana could barely squeak out “I love you” to Mike, whom she’d followed out here, who used the “l-word” routinely. Maybe Doris, Mike and their family were programmed to love with ease. Maybe it was fake.

Ilana’s earlier image of her mother came back to her, scolded her: “They’re so nice to you. How can we repay them?” She must be gracious and cease the internal kvetch session.

“In New York, everyone looks at your shoes before they look at your face,” she confided in Doris.

Doris clucked. “When they do look, they’ll see a gorgeous punim without makeup smeared all over it.”

The Yiddish intoxicated her, Ilana had to admit, as did Doris’s premature motherly pride, but she wondered if Doris would say this to any nice Jewish girl her son brought home, or sent to his home without him. Sometimes when she hadn’t seen her in a while, Ilana couldn’t even picture Doris in her mind — she just imagined what-was-her-name, that beautifully plump actress perennially cast as the New York Jewish mother. If Doris said “punim” one more time, she’d be too much of a cliché to be true.

Mike had arrived unheard; he slipped into the chair beside Ilana’s as they sat down at the table, muttering an apology. “Ilana, I’m sorry,” he kissed her just above her ear and whispered. “They’re working overtime to woo you I see.”

They blessed the candles and the wine. Doris grew misty-eyed and spoke about absent family members, the grandparents and Mike’s sister Erica studying in Florence.

“And one person in particular, Mike’s beloved classmate Rina, we lost in such a tragic accident this year.”

Silence descended on the table — a rarity.

Ilana glanced at her partner’s suddenly-still face. Mike felt he had to sprint to the Promised Land; he was scared of being mowed down before he got there. She squeezed his hand. Poor baby, Doris had said.

Doris’s voice took on a lilt; she added “and of course, dear Ilana’s family. May we celebrate Pesach together someday.”

Mindful of Mike and her mom’s imaginary exhortation, Ilana said, “That sounds lovely!” She pictured her straight-backed parents beaming as Ilana and her sister sounded out the Haggadah’s Hebrew. Back home, the kids hid the last piece of matzah and made it into a contest for the adults instead of vice versa as they did here. Her parents set out an empty chair for those they had lost, a wordless tribute.

Ilana closed her eyes and thought about the seder’s four questions, really one: why was this night different from all others? She leaned on Mike. They were in the desert.

They listed ritual foods: Matzah, the bread of affliction. “It afflicts my digestive system,” shared Doris. Ilana rolled her eyes. Mike elbowed her.

Ilana yawned. Early that morning, she had woken to a bird’s noisy reveille outside their bedroom, the remnants of happy hour — or the remnants of her talk with Mike — pushing at her skull. She’d thought, I should go for a run, but instead curled up into a giant fist, clenched for some unknown fight.

In his sleep this year, Mike had whimpered and yelped, he had fretted “where are you?” In the mornings, he never remembered his dreams.

Now Mike gesticulated and Good Lord, spittle was forming in the corner of his mouth. “That’s why I’m thinking that the Zionist project is misguided,” Mike said.

“You’re thinking that?” asked Ilana, wide-eyed, prompting laughter. Mike turned the color of the beet-dyed horseradish on the table.

She slid her blistered feet back into her shoes, again, and recalled an evening when she was a small girl. She had said, “Oh, so and so from my class is stupid.” And her mother, in that floral-print house dress she put on after a day training medical students, had sat her down: Sweetie. We respect people, even when we don’t like their actions. Ilana saw the peas on her fork, the touch of her mother’s hand, her own shame. Mike would have said, your mom’s wrong. Some people are stupid. She would have laughed.

“What if Exodus reinforces Zionism, though?” asked Ed, professorially. “A parable about how the Jews aren’t safe on strange land, maybe?”

“It’s an allegory, not an imperialist directive,” said Mike.

“Okay, back to the Haggadah!” said Doris, casting a wary look at Ilana. She was worried her son would push Ilana away. Well, she should be. But could it be that Doris had once suffered misgivings before she became a Berns? Perhaps she was just remembering.

Later in the kitchen with the matzah balls, Doris asked how Mike “seemed.” Ilana said “better” as if the two women had previously agreed he was ailing. Ilana mentioned neither his dreams nor his ultimatum.

They bore soup bowls into the dining room. Doris asked “And you, Ilana?” over Mike’s head, wondered how Ilana’s cello auditions were coming — which smarted because they weren’t at all.

“She’s so talented,” said Mike, as they slid back into their chairs. “I wanted her to bring the cello to the seder, but she wouldn’t.”

Ilana pinched him.

Then it came, from one of the cousins clustered around the parsley: “So when are you going to pop the question already?”

A few long milliseconds of collective held breath ended when Mike, ever ready, snorted, “When you get a girlfriend — oh, that would be never.”

Ilana forced a chuckle and gulped more wine. She had been here for three years and the Berns clan possessed zero ability to keep their mouths shut. It must be genetic.

“Hush,” said Doris. “Poor Ilana!” They moved on to singing “Dayenu,” Ilana’s favorite part, the only part when her own family loosened. She sang with gusto, even a grin.

She surprised herself by giggling and declaring, “Doris, you’ve outdone yourself with the brisket,” as they reached the main course. Mike lit up at her words. His desires were so uncomplicated on the surface — act happy to eat Doris’ food. Join in.

“I spent too much time sampling it during the cooking,” said Doris. “My diet starts tomorrow, I always say.”

Ilana laughed freely. Doris’ plumpness in the midst of reedy female lawyers: that, at least, reminded her of home.

She had downed two full glasses of Manischewitz, and felt soggy, not unpleasantly so. The pain from her feet, and her irritation were both buried beneath brisket and bitter herbs. Maybe it would be fine to come to seder here every year, walking click-clack down West End Avenue, blisters be damned. To schedule things in: happy hours, lunches, ritual observances, the future.

Maybe she could let the words “love you” trip past her lips the way Mike and Doris did (but not her family, who saved those words), and rant about the election and like Doris, produce a passel of children who argued for sport.

She reached around Mike’s shoulder, glass in hand, and gave him a kiss. “Let’s help your mom clear up,” she said. He looked at her as if she’d parted the Red Sea all by herself.

After dessert thick with matzah meal flour, Ilana shook herself awake to finish the Haggadah. She declined the third cup of wine and said to Doris, her voice loose, “I think we’d better consider mine symbolically refilled.”

“I think Ilana’s getting into the Berns seder swing,” said Doris.

“We’ve converted her. From Judaism to Bernsianism,” said Ed. “No pressure.”

The truth of it — their own religion — struck Ilana. The one time Mike visited her he’d been bewildered: “Do your parents ever, you know, talk about politics or their feelings? You sure they’re Jewish?” and she’d retorted “Christ, Mike, Upper West Siders aren’t the only Jews.” They’d flown back in silence.

Ilana rifled through her bag to check her phone. The message she assumed came from Mike had been from her mom, like a parody of a parent trying to text: “Happy holiday dear Ilana. Be good. We miss you. From, Mom.” The word “love” was absent, the sentiment present in abundance.

The final songs had layers of repetition. Even at home, Ilana found this warbling wearying. The cousins banged their spoons. Someone yodeled. Ilana tapped her foot until she felt a sharp squeeze as her biggest blister popped. It was raw where the skin had been, where the fluid had gushed out. Suddenly she wanted to cry. She was going to cry.

She felt this was her last Berns seder. Her last seder in New York.

So as everyone shouted “Next year in Jerusalem,” she dashed from the table, telling Mike her foot was bleeding, and ran through his childhood room to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet lid, peeled off her shoe and saw the mess — torn skin, a smear of blood. She dabbed at it with a paper towel and sobbed.

A gentle tap came on the door. Ilana swallowed, wiped her eyes and said, “Come in.”

Doris stood in the entrance to the bathroom with a box of cotton and a familiar-looking bottle of hydrogen peroxide and she said, “Your feet are all cut up. You should have said.”

Ilana sniffed. If Doris had been played by that actress, Ilana would have said, “I am lost,” and Doris would have said, “you’re a long way from home, bubbeleh” and made a remark about the seder, or the Exodus, or her own life, that told Ilana where the path lay to the Promised Land.

But Doris seemed tired, exhausted even, and she said nothing of the sort. She simply propped Ilana’s foot over the bathtub and curtly — but not unkindly — said, “this will sting.”


Sarah Seltzer is a fiction writer and journalist in New York City. She tweets at @sarahmseltzer.

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April 8, 2014 by

The Young Suffragist’s Diagnosis

In the spring of 1913, nearly a decade ago, I was asked by a colleague to undertake the analysis of his niece, a young lady of 19 years, whom he described as suffering from neurasthenia complicated by chronically recurrent dyspepsia of an hysterical origin. My acquaintanceship with my referring colleague, a prominent Pest physician specializing in disorders of the kidney and urethra, was of long standing and fair intimacy. He was a fellow member of the board of governors of the Magyar Israelite Medical Association and also a fellow alumnus of the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna. My final year at that august institution was Herr Dr. S.’s first, and we both lodged at the Pension Wettendorfer, which had the distinction of being one of the few pensions serving Jewish medical students to be furnished with an indoor commode. I was less well acquainted with Herr Dr. S.’s brother, though we traveled in similar social circles. Prior to assuming her treatment, I had on a few occasions the privilege of meeting the charming young Nina S. She had impressed me as a psychically normal girl, though perhaps inclined by virtue of her high intelligence to neurotic excitability when in stimulating company. The S. family is of fine reputation, possessing among its members a number of wealthy financiers, attorneys, and at least one court councillor. It was thus with great interest, even pleasure, that I anticipated Nina S.’s arrival in my surgery on the morning of May 5, 1913.

I wish I could say that Miss S. greeted our appointment with similar optimism and good cheer. On the contrary, when she entered the room, she was irritated, even angry. Her dress, of the reform style, uncorseted and loose flowing, was of winter wool, gray and gloomy in color, matching her demeanor. The day itself was fine, a harbinger of what I hoped would be an especially pleasant spring, and I could not help but notice that her attire stood in marked contrast to the sprightly floral muslins that my own daughters wore that day. Though Miss S. denied being warm, I nonetheless opened a window to give her the benefit of the pleasant lilac-scented breeze.

Miss S. refused to take her place on the analysand’s couch, despite the cheerful nosegay of the season’s last violets that my wife had thoughtfully placed on the small table by the head. Instead she perched stiffly on a chair, her mouth drawn into a thin line, quite a feat considering the generosity of her plump lower lip.

“How can I help you, my dear?” I said, my tone far more avuncular than forensic. Over the previous few years, as I had progressed in my own analysis with the brilliant Sándor Ferenczi and learned from him the utility of empathic reciprocity in the analyst/analysand relationship, I had begun to treat my patients with the love and affection they often lacked and craved. Though I know the S.’s to be devoted, even overindulgent, parents of their three children, I was confident that Miss S., like all my patients, would respond better to affection than to formality. However, my concern aggravated rather than consoled her, and she bristled.

“I am afraid, Dr. Zobel,” she said, “that you have been misled by my father and my uncle. I am not, in fact, in need of your assistance, at least not medical.”

“Ah!” I said. “But you are in need of another kind of assistance?”

“The only thing I need is for you to convince my father that I am not in the early stages of dementia praecox.”

“Surely your father has no fear of such a drastic diagnosis. You uncle certainly expressed nothing of the kind to me.”

Miss S. was fair, with yellow hair and a porcelain complexion uncommon in people of our race. Her delicate skin showed her every mood, and her cheeks and throat now blushed pink. “Do you know what inspired my father to insist on this appointment?” she asked.

“Your uncle raised the possibility of neurasthenia.”

“Do I seem neurasthenic to you?”

She was hardly enervated; rather she radiated energy. This alone did not, however, disprove her uncle’s diagnosis. Fatigue, though generally a primary symptom of the disorder, is not always present. Depression and anxiety can and often are expressed as precisely the kind of agitation and irritability that Miss S. was now exhibiting.

In a soothing voice, I said, “Your uncle also told me that you suffer from a pain in your stomach.”

“He told you that this pain was dyspeptic and recurrent?”

“You are well versed in the terminology, I see.” I was not surprised at Nina’s facility. Familiarity with medical jargon is characteristic of a certain kind of hypochondriacal patient.

“I should hope so,” Miss S. said. “I am preparing to enter medical college next year.”

“Are you? I was not aware.”

“Yes, I am, despite the fact that neither my father nor my uncle approves of women physicians.”

Since the ministerial statute of 1895 allowed for women to enter the Faculty of Medicine here in Budapest, there had been a great influx of female students, though I myself had not yet been forced to confront them in my neurology and psychiatry lectures. Though I did not confess as much to my patient, I am obliged to admit to having possessed an ambivalence about the presence of young lady students in my chosen profession. There are areas, such as the fields of hygiene, pediatrics, and even obstetrics, that are in many ways suited to the female mind and sensibility. Women are naturally predisposed to care for the family, children, and the means of reproduction, and there are certain classes of women who can perform these functions competently and perhaps even more sensitively than men. However, I had concerns about exposing young ladies of class and discernment both to the rigors and to the harsh physical realities of modern medicine. Many of the common and necessary parts of a student physician’s training would be offensive and disturbing to such young ladies. I think I can be forgiven for rebelling against the image of girls like Miss S. or my own daughters, girls from conservative and proper Jewish homes, examining the pustulating papules of a patient suffering from secondary-stage syphilis.

I could not help but sympathize with Mr. S.’s antipathy to his daughter’s choice of profession and was relieved that my own daughters had shown no such inclinations. In fact, on that very morning, my wife and I had determined to accept on behalf of our eldest daughter, Erzsébet, the marriage suggested by an elderly relative who made her living facilitating such arrangements. The young man in question was himself a student of medicine, and while considering Miss S.’s ambitions, I for a moment entertained the ludicrous notion of Erzsébet meeting her intended for the first time not in her mother’s parlor but rather in the autopsy theater, their hands mutually immersed in the viscera of a diseased corpse.

I determined, however, not to alienate my young patient by allowing her to see my doubts about the suitability of her ambitions. I said, “Do you, as a fledgling physician, agree with your uncle’s diagnosis of your symptoms?”

“No. The pain, while recurrent, is not dyspeptic. Nor do I suffer from abdominal ulcers. I suffer from” — here she hesitated and flushed but continued — “I suffer from nothing more than severe menstrual cramping.” I could see that she was doubly embarrassed, both by the topic and by her own shame in discussing it, and this affirmed my feelings about elegant and cultured women and the medical profession. A young girl’s pretty flush when referring to such matters is understandable, even desirable, but a doctor can feel no such compunctions.

Miss S. rushed on, “It’s only that my father does not understand that most women experience these symptoms. It’s not a disease. It’s normal.”

Maintaining a dry and direct tone of voice in order to assure her that I found our conversation to be utterly benign—an analyst, after all, must speak without indignation or revulsion on all topics, even the most bizarre of sexual perversions, and certainly something as commonplace as menstruation—I said, “Some cramping is normal, I agree. However, it is not uncommon for intense pain during the menstrual period to be hysterical in nature, not physical, and thus resolvable with treatment and analysis.” I refrained at this moment from addressing the most likely source of her pain, excessive masturbation and a consequent shame response. There would be time, once she grew trusting of me, to lead her toward this logical conclusion. I continued, “How intense is your pain?”

For a moment Miss S. did not reply, but then, grudgingly, she said, “Very.”

“Wouldn’t you like it to be less so?”

“Of course.”

“Well, then perhaps I can help you. Here is what I suggest. Let us meet a few times to explore this pain of yours, to consider if it might have a genesis traumatic rather than physical. If we are successful in ameliorating it, then that will be wonderful. If not, then what will we have lost but a few hours of time, time spent in one another’s surely not-unpleasant company?”

She frowned and said, “I won’t be hypnotized.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t wish to be.”

“Well, then I shall not hypnotize you. Though I must say, by precluding hypnosis you do remove one of the analyst’s most artful tools. Perhaps you’ll change your mind.”

“I won’t.”

“There are many other means to our mutual end of relieving your pain. Conversation, exploration, massage.”

“Massage?”

“Dr. Sigmund Freud has had marvelous results with gentle massage in the treatment of hysteria. This is something we might explore together. Again, only if you are willing.”

She was silent for a few moments, weighing, I imagined, the unpleasantness of her monthly pain against the indignity of ceding to her father’s insistence on treatment.

Finally, she said, “Dr. Zobel, there is one thing I ask of you.”

“What is that, my dear?”

“I ask only that if you determine that there is no psychical remedy for my symptoms, but that they are, rather, purely physical and normal, in short, if you find me to be sane, you tell this to my father.”

“Of course. It is my obligation as your physician to inform your father of my diagnosis. I would do nothing else.”

“Good.”

“Earlier you mentioned that you believe your father to fear that you suffer from dementia praecox. Why is that?”

“My father is a great reader.”

“Is he? He has this trait in common with his brother, then. Your uncle and I have often shared books with one another.”

“Recently he received a book by someone named Alexander Pilcz.”

Miss S. said, “Pilcz’s book has convinced Papa that I, like so many Jewish women, am doomed to fall ill with dementia praecox and spend my life wound up in restraining sheets in an insane asylum, screaming obscenities and tearing out
my eyelashes.”

I laughed at the hyperbole of her image, and she graced me with a small smile. I was delighted to see how easily Miss S. adopted my own playful attitude. Despite herself, the young lady was enjoying our conversation. Though modesty usually prevents me from saying so quite so blatantly, I would be remiss in not alerting the reader to my facility with this kind of patient. Young women have always responded well to treatment with me. They flourish under my care because I am comfortable with them, having daughters of my own. I have a natural affinity for the young of the gentler sex, and they for me.

“Would you like to know what evidence he has for this?”
she continued.

“I would.”

She ticked them off on her fingers. “Number one, that I insist on studying medicine, a sure sign of pending insanity, don’t you think? Number two, and this is probably an even-greater offense in his mind, that I refuse to consider marrying the boy he and my mother chose for me when I was still in swaddling clothes.”

I interrupted. “You are betrothed?”

“No, I am certainly not betrothed. It is only that Mama and one of her cousins have been scheming since we were babies for their children to marry, and Papa is, if anything, even more eager for the alliance.”

“Do I know this young man?”

“Probably. It’s Ignác E.”

“The son of Baron Móric E.?”

“No. The son of Jene and Berta E. of Nagyvárad. A lesser cousin of the baron’s. Though they are certainly wealthy enough, as my mother never tires of telling me. Shall I continue presenting my father’s evidence for my dementia, or has my refusal of the proposal of a member of the illustrious E. family, no matter how minor a branch from how minor a distant city, convinced you that my father is right?”

I could sympathize with her father’s frustration at his daughter’s refusal to acquiesce to the match. The object of my Erzsébet’s pending betrothal, while a fine young man from a family in good standing in the community, was nowhere near as illustrious as Nina’s potential husband, yet were Erzsébet to take against him, I would be most annoyed. Still, dementia praecox? Hardly.

“I will reserve judgment on the suitability of the young E.,” I told her. “Pray continue.”

“The third evidence of my supposed insanity is that I refuse to lace my corsets so tightly that my eyes bug out from my head, like other girls my age. The fourth is that I spend my own allowance to subscribe to the journal Women and Society. The fifth, that I not only attended a lecture by Mrs. Rózsa Schwimmer but dared to suggest to my father that he might consider joining the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage . . .”

At this I could not restrain a bellow of laughter. The idea of the pontifical fogy Marcus S., vice president of the Israelite Congregation of Pest, a man ever attired in sober black, never plaid, morning coats, who’d sooner wear a boot on his head than replace his top hat with a stylish bowler, petitioning the king to give the women of Austria and Hungary the vote was, perhaps, the most amusing idea I’d heard in months.

“And finally,” Miss S. said, acknowledging my laughter with a raised eyebrow, “number six, that I have befriended Gizella Weisz, who is not merely a feminist and disciple of Mrs. Rózsa Schwimmer but also a dwarf.”

“A dwarf?”

“Yes, a dwarf. And what of it? Half of my father’s own friends are certified imbeciles, so why should he view my friendship with a dwarf as a sure sign of insanity?”

“You’re being a bit harsh on your parents’ society, are you not? Though not a friend, I certainly consider your father a fond acquaintance. Perhaps I am an imbecile, too?”

“Perhaps you are, Dr. Zobel. I’m afraid I don’t know you well enough to say yet.”

The clock in the hall chimed. “And I’m afraid our time together is up,” I said. “But we shall continue this discussion tomorrow, yes? Shall we say ten o’clock?”

She sprang to her feet. “All right. Yes. We can meet again. But I have an appointment with my tutor to prepare for my matura in the morning, so it must be in the afternoon.”

How well I remembered the strain I underwent during my own final examinations from gymnasium. No fewer than three young boys in my class attempted suicide in the days immediately before. Given that she was in the midst of this arduous preparation, Miss S. struck me as remarkably composed. And though I knew neurosis to be an expert masquerader, still for a moment I could not help but think that the girl, though probably neurasthenic, was as sane as I.

“Of course,” I said. “I will have to adjust my calendar, but I shall send word first thing in the morning.” Though my afternoon clients, women of leisure, would not object overmuch to being shuffled around, I would refrain from telling them that it was for the sake of a busy young girl studying for her final exams. That they might not have tolerated so willingly.

Miss S. extended her hand, and I kissed it.

“Thank you, Herr Dr. Zobel,” she said. “This was not as miserable an experience as I had expected it would be.”

“My dear, Nina . . .” I waited for a moment to gauge whether she would take insult at the familiar use of her given name. As she appeared unoffended, I continued, “If we accomplish nothing more than alleviating such unpleasant expectations, then I will consider our time together to be well spent.” 

Ayelet Waldman is the author of the novels Red Hook Road, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits and Daughter’s Keeper, as well as of the essay collection Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace, and the Mommy-Track Mystery series.


Excerpt from Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman. ©2014 by Ayelet Waldman. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Mary Evans Inc.

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