They were finally packed and dressed and on their way. The children traded Lifesavers in the back seat (“I’ll give you two oranges for one green”) and she treated herself to the twin luxuries of FM radio and cigarette. Uncomfortable with machinery, she had domesticated the car, tamed the beast, through sheer neglect. Beach sand danced in vinyl grooves, the dog’s wet nose had traced intricate patterns on the windows. She was grateful for an hour’s ride between home and airport where her ex-husband, Ken, was meeting them.
She looked at the children in the rear-view mirror. The boys were fair, like their father. They looked borrowed, as though someone had loaned them to her to ripen within her body. She often felt like an eccentric aunt, or even a babysitter. She and the children were each attractive, but they lacked symmetry. She was brittle, glamourous; exotic with her dark nail polish and strange clothes. The children were solid and athletic, bright-eyed, like kids in Corn Flakes ads. She looked like she should be draped over a sports car. Her own car, an old Volvo, shivered. She was speeding again, and her hands, gripping the steering wheel, were white with tension.
Driving frightened her. Years before, she had been in a car accident. Ken was driving, Mark an infant; they’d had to wait for an hour for the ambulance. She had drifted in and out of consciousness. Each time she awakened, the lonely stretch of road had become more crowded, more noisy. A tourist bus stopped (it was a Sunday in Muir Woods).
In the months of hospitalization that followed, she’d become obsessed with the idea that her son had died in the collision. She turned to the wall when they spoke of him. The doctors finally allowed her husband to bring the child to her. She played happily with Mark, but when he was taken away, she insisted that it had been the wrong baby, that they’d tried to fool her.
She’d seen a psychiatrist. He told her she was projecting fears about herself. He told her she had irrational guilt about the accident. She said little, she dreaded car trips, but she ceased complaining. She no longer trusted fate, or God, or Ken, or whatever had kept her safe. It was liberating, giving up trust, perhaps that was why she drove too fast.
After a while she became aware of a steady silence.
“Well, Mark, this is it. The beginning of the big trip.”
“Mommy, can we go on the airplane before it takes off?”
“I hope so, Gabriel. Mark, we’ll miss you. Try to send us a postcard.”
“I said I would.”
It was like pulling teeth. He didn’t want to talk, was wary of the whole adventure. Mark was going to Israel. She was moved and disturbed by this destination, she was surprised how much it mattered to her. Her parents were taking him; it was a tenth birthday present. She knew that to her parents Israel was just a sunny place, a new land to visit. They never talked about their Jewish-ness. When she’d married a gentile, they barely noticed; perhaps they were relieved. As a child she’d asked questions, but her parents had been laconic, seemingly bored with the subject. She went to shul, without her parents’ blessing. Once, knowing her first sentence in Yiddish, she called her grandmother (“Grandma, vas is dein nomen? Mein nomen is Zorah!”) She liked her new name. But her parents, who named her after a poet, did not. Religion, at ten, was romantic to her. Any religion. She’d wanted to be a nun after seeing Hepburn in “A Nun’s Story.” Later, she would try to be Holly Golightly. Actually, she’d spent most of her teenage years, gangly and miserable, trying on identities. But this question of being Jewish had remained a small knotted inner confusion. And a fascination. It was as mysterious as sex and as hidden. Now, she was aware, she had the luxury of choice. She didn’t look Jewish or have a Jewish name. Then why couldn’t she forget it? Why this ambivalence—this resentment and yearning?
Mark’s trip had given her an excuse to learn more, to try to understand. She chose to tell her son the story of Masada. She told it like a fairy tale: Once, long ago, a group of 960 Jews—men, women, and children—lived in an abandoned Roman palace. They were at war with the Romans. For nearly ten years they held off thousands of warriors from a high, flat rock, called Masada. When they knew that there was no hope of relief and none of escape, they ended their lives in a mass suicide. They chose death over slavery.
At night she would think of those Jewish families, people caught up in domestic life, unaware that they were heroes, the stuff of legend. She thought of them at dinner (“If we ever get off this damn rock, that’ll be the last you see of me. I’ve had enough nagging and whining to last a lifetime!”) She saw the children run from the table, run to distant corners, nooks in the Roman baths, sobbing.
She wanted a space around herself. It was so cluttered, so messy, being Jewish. She felt stifled by centuries of ghetto mentality. Exclusive and defensive. “Oh! I didn’t know you were Jewish, too!” An unwelcome welcoming, a secret club, the way blacks talked to each other when no outsiders were near.
Jewish history. All those centuries in hot, hostile countries; islands within islands. At times she felt exhausted, dragging constellations of the past, rattling and whining, wherever she went. It seemed like the entirety of Jewish history was spent arguing around the dinner table; milk and honey and bile.
Tell me, my son, my hybrid, my half-breed, come back and tell me what you’ve seen.
“How much farther?”
“We’re half way there. Soon we’ll see airplanes landing and taking off.”
“Will Daddy be there?”
“Yes. We’re meeting him.”
She’d told Mark other stories, too. Stories of Moses and Esther, Entebbe and Munich. Mark had listened and was thoughtful but eventually he’d start twitching, anxious to return to television or a ballgame. He squirmed to be free of her seriousness, of her intensity. She realized, finally, that she was pushing too hard; he was, after all, still a child. He couldn’t project himself into another, and unimagined, place. His thoughts, like an infant’s, rested most comfortably and most pressingly in the present. “What’s for dinner?” he’d ask, interrupting her impassioned descriptions.
This afternoon communication had completely broken down. Mark was sullen and silent, his face pressed against the window. Gabriel, who was six, felt left out of the excitement and lonely. Mark felt rejected, as if he was being given away to his grandparents. He’d dressed slowly, playing on her impatience, exerting his power. Finally, there had been a big blow up. After she sent him in to shower she could hear him mumbling about her. Then a crash from the bathroom and he cried to himself “Oh no! Now she’s really going to kill me!” He’d broken her bottle of shampoo and stood, wet and shivering, his feet covered with blood.
Somehow, the process of stopping the bleeding, with countless pieces of yellow tissue, had comforted them. She cared for him lovingly and silently. The shattered glass, the bleeding, were understandable and could be managed. They were known terrors, and mother and child were relieved by each other’s calm.
The pressure was building again.
“What’s the matter with you guys? You’re both so quiet.”
“Well, you’re quiet, too.”
“I was thinking, and concentrating on the road. Do you want to play geography or some other game?”
“We’re going to get something to eat with your father.”
Their father. She realized she was still annoyed that Ken was meeting them. He had announced that he would be there.
“I’m the one who got the passport, who ironed the shirts, who did all the work to get him ready. You always show up for the dramatic conclusion, for the gravy. Mister generosity once the work is done.”
“This is the way you wanted it. You chose not to have me around. Now don’t try to tell me that I can’t even see my own son off.”
“It’s just that you haven’t earned it! I know that sounds ridiculous….”
“You’re damned right. You want the whole number to be yours. You don’t want to share them.”
“You make me tense. And I’m nervous already about the trip, and your parents have all the money, but it’s mine who spend it on the kids, who even want to see them.”
“Is that any reason why I should be excluded?”
“I resent your presence there.”
“You resent my presence everywhere. Remember? That’s why you wanted this divorce.”
“Look, it’s been three years—and that’s not why, anyway. Can’t you stop harping on ‘this’ divorce. It’s a fact. Stop making it sound like it was all my fault. Come, all right? I can’t take any more self-pity today. Just one thing, let’s try to get along and make it nice for the boys. For once, let’s not ruin something.”
“You’re the one who started it.”
He was right, about one thing, anyway. She did like it all to herself. Especially in public places. Playing to the grandstand. They were a handsome family; people always noticed them. Gabriel, even missing several teeth, had a sweet expression. Lately he was dealing with profundities, trying to get to the root of things. Last week, at the Burger King, he’d asked, “When God and the presidents made the earth, which one of them made bricks?” Mark, her rationalist, had taken this as his cue to patiently explain evolution, but Gabriel, like a good Fundamentalist, was having none of it.
“We did not come from fish and monkeys. God made everything.”
“Well, he certainly didn’t make bricks, turkey.”
“Who would like another hamburger?”
Mark, who’d inherited her didactic nature, was slim and fair with long eyelashes and delicate features. He was constantly engaged in muscle building and was dissatisfied with his thin arms and wiry body. His vulnerability, on the brink of adolescence, touched her deeply. She wanted to encircle him, protect him. He was a private child and gently rejected the offer.
The children seemed to be watching her. She wondered what they thought. Did they resent the fact that she was tall and elegant, often aloof? That she had a private life of work, and men, and books? She knew that many men found her threatening and the men she dated tended to be egotistical, interesting, or rich. She was aware that she made a good accessory; like a Porsche. These men were always surprised that she was a good mother. That she cared so much about her children. Men are traditionalists and they found the atmosphere in the house unnerving. She let the kids sleep in their clothes, as she herself often did, but was strict about things she thought were dangerous: tree climbing, fist fights, T V. Her children were the kind who liked clams and artichokes (though Gabriel preferred dipping them in chocolate syrup). They are turning out very well, she thought, though there were other times when she’d been in despair. She was starting to feel good, she did not want to share this with Ken. He always made her feel guilty if she was succeeding—as if she was feeding off his misery. When she felt strong she seemed to annoy everyone, as though she was not playing by the rules. Today Ken was the other side of the moon, the goy, the gentile, he didn’t know what this trip meant to her.
They were almost at the airport. For the first time, it seemed, she became aware of traffic, road signs, the shimmering light of late afternoon. Her fingers felt locked to the steering wheel; they were cramped and tight. Her neck ached, she rubbed the pain knotted just below the skull.
The airport, in this small state, was a disappointment. It looked like a farm forced to fulfill a modern purpose. The crisscrossed asphalt strips seemed inexplicable. Buildings, resembling temporary military shelters, were of corrugated metal. The airplanes aloof and powerful, looked abandoned and awkward. They seemed shamed, as though they’d been banished to this lonely outpost for some act of insubordination.
Blinking in the sunlight, she and the children were awkward, like a family of grounded birds. The boys dragged the heavy suitcases. The terminal was quiet, nearly empty.
“Hi, men. Glad you got here early. Let’s go have something to eat. Hi. Did you have any trouble getting here?”
“No. I don’t really know how we did it. I hardly paid attention. The numbers on the highway kept changing and each time they did I panicked, but it always seemed to be the right road.”
“Well, you all look good. The boys look cute dressed up. Let’s go eat.”
“Are you treating?”
“If you like. It’s not important.”
“Why don’t we just split it.”
The restaurant was surprisingly dark and not very clean. There were beautiful pen and ink drawings of antique planes on the walls. The children were lively again; they were excited and tense. Both parents together was unusual, and potentially volatile. Gabriel had no early memories, he was barely two when his parents separated. Mark remembered, he missed his father, but not the fighting. After his father moved out, he felt he’d lost everything. His mother would scream at him and look angry all the time; for a while he felt that his world had shattered, that there was no one to talk to. He would come home from school and find his mother on the telephone, sitting on the kitchen floor, smoking. She seemed annoyed if he was around at all. Now his parents seemed friendly to each other, at least they were talking.
“Ken, I’m going to have a martini. Is it all right? I know you’re on the wagon again.”
“Yes, I don’t mind. You look tired, it will probably help. It doesn’t bother me if people are drinking around me.”
“I feel a little silly. All of you are having sandwiches and I sit here with a drink and a cocktail napkin. It probably looks like I’m nervous about my flight.”
“You should eat something, too. You look thin. Anyway, who cares what they think? It’s not like you to care what anyone thinks.”
She wasn’t sure how he intended that remark. She was defensive around him. He had called her thin, tired. She let it go. The children were having sandwiches and lemonade and jello (ess, ess, mein kind). They chattered to their father and she gratefully settled back, an outsider.
Once, they both scolded Gabriel for being silly, over-exuberant, really. There was a curious intimacy in their spontaneous mutual reaction, they were both embarrassed by it. Gabriel sulked, he wasn’t used to the parental double whammy, he felt they’d ganged up on him.
She didn’t like this place. No one lived in airports. Everything was dirty, but nothing really was used. The loudspeaker announcements, garbled and anonymous, reminded her of that time in the hospital. People wandered by, carrying their belongings, like refugees.
Ken was laughing with the kids. She stared at him. That grin reminded her of an old photograph. Ken was a young Navy officer. He is standing in front of a building in the Aleutian Islands. He holds a baby apart from himself, like an offering. The child is three days old. This is the first time it has seen the sky. Ken’s grin was the same today, but the child, now on his second dish of jello, had grown up. Ken was easy and charming with the boys. He was a nice man. When had she loved him? Why had she stopped?
When they’d married, she thought his lack of emotion was rock-like, a comforting stoicism after the tricky shoals of her own family. Ken seemed to know the truth about things. She wanted him to tell her that she would be safe. She thought that if he did, she would be. But his stoicism ended up being only repression, he suffered from nightmares, he drank hard. His political conservatism, which created an erotic friction between them, eroded. He was really like her parents, her friends, herself. She’d seen him as a WASP cowboy, the Marlboro man. He had been mysterious. Now he was knowable, vulnerable. He looked silly, a middle-aged man in embroidered shirts with a motorcycle. She knew he was “nicer” now, but she did not love him anymore. There were other things, of course, the official things—her feminism, his drinking, the thousand petty ways they drove each other crazy.
“It’s time to put Mark on the plane. Hello, are you there?”
“Yes. Let’s go. Mark, here’s a dime. Throw it in the wishing pool for good luck.”
“Oh! Can’t I keep it?”
“No. It’s a good luck dime. Throw it in.”
There were awkward goodbyes. The boys were uncomfortable hugging each other; Mark was at an age where he was embarrassed by physical affection. She put him on the plane in a window seat next to two businessmen. This flight, a one-hour trip to her parents’ house, was a short preamble to the trip to Israel. She hugged him, and when she left, he, the seasoned little traveler, in sport coat and sneakers, was reading a magazine.
Ken walked his ex-wife and Gabriel (his ex-child?) to the car. He stood outside, leaning on the door.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
She felt him wince at the word.
He lingered, still leaning on the car. Anchoring her.
“Goodbye, sport. Take care of Mommy. I’ll see you this weekend.”
Driving home, a little drunk, she started to cry. Everything was going backwards. Like the bottles of beer on the wall, or the ten little Indians, her family had diminished by one, again.
Shelley Anne Richtmyer has published poems and articles in The Village Voice and Harper’s Magazine. She is presently working on a book about Mary Dyer, a seventeenth-century Quaker, the only woman ever executed in the U.S. for her religious beliefs. This is Richtmyer’s first piece of fiction