Learning French

I remember coming home late from school that April afternoon, deliberately dawdling, as my mother would put it, somehow knowing that whatever news awaited me wasn’t good. Walking down the block, I saw my grandparents, Bernie and Birdie, before they saw me; Bernie was bending down to pick up the garbage pail that the careless city trash collectors had thrown onto the lawn and Birdie, her hands on her hips, was telling him how to carry it back to the garage. They made a strange couple: she was tall and portly, he wiry and short,

“Sit down,” Bernie told me, when we were all in the kitchen. “I already know,” I wanted to say, but I knew he’d insist so I sat down on the floor, and then he said, “No, not there, in a chair, like a human being,” and Birdie, her eyes filling with tears said, “What difference does it make, just tell her.” My parents, Bernie told me, were at the hospital with him, my baby brother, who “slipped away” about an hour ago. “Slipped away” is the word the nurse had used, my mother told me years later. As if he were playing hide-and-seek. “We knew there wasn’t much hope,” my mother would come to say whenever she had to repeat the story, “not after the trauma he’d sustained.” It was the first time I’d anyone say ‘trauma,’ though I heard it as “drama,” mispronounced.

After the funeral, my mother put the plastic ID bracelet my brother had worn around his ankle and a tiny snippet of his jet black hair into an envelope and put the envelope in a tin box and buried it under the weeping cherry tree my father and I had planted just three years ago, soon after we’d moved. My father stood at the kitchen window, shouting to her about the importance of not damaging the root system, that the roots travel farther than you think, even in a small tree. He kept having to swallow, as if his saliva had all evaporated.

When my mother was done, her face was wet and I couldn’t tell if she was crying or sweating. That’s when she told me that she and my father had to get away for a few days, to go visit her parents, who lived in Phoenix and were too old to fly east for the funeral. She’d already asked Birdie and Bernie if they’d stay on in the house with me. Before my brother was born, whenever my parents went away, I stayed at Bernie and Birdie’s apartment in the Bronx, but now that I was in fifth grade, I couldn’t be out of school for long. Especially since we were only weeks away from putting on our play—a play entirely in French written by our teacher, Mme. Quick, who’d also composed the songs and choreographed the dances. I had one of the biggest parts, after the three leads.

“Will you be back for the play?” I asked my mother. We were driving to the airport—me between my mother and Birdie in the back. Dad up front with Bernie, who was driving. Birdie, who was always cold, was wearing her fox coat with the satin lining, and I couldn’t snuggle up close enough to her, the fur delighting me in ways I couldn’t have expressed.

“Your play’s not for three weeks; we’ll be back way before that,” my mother said.

Birdie sighed one of her bone-rattling sighs. “I wish I’d learned to drive,” she said as Bernie exited the highway, the American Airlines terminal looming ahead of us. “It was the biggest mistake of my life, not knowing how. You have to be able to get yourself places.”

After about a half-hour of kissing and reminders to be a good girl, my parents walked to the plane and Bernie, Birdie and I headed back to the car. Leaving the airport, Bernie didn’t take the exit back to Queens. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“I’m going home to sit shiva.” Birdie said. “Your mother’s not the only one who’s grieving. She needs to see her parents? Well, I need something too. You know”—now she was talking to Bernie— “she eats matzoh with us at Pesach, but to cry she goes back to her own.” Bernie answered by softening his shoulders and inclining his head slightly to the right, his way of saying, “I’m not arguing.”

“She knows what shiva asked, as if I weren’t sitting directly behind him.

“It’s when people come to your house after somebody dies, they bring sweets to make up for the bitter loss, and they sit with you,” Birdie said. “Oh, that poor, poor little baby,” she sobbed. He was little, less than a year old. Baby Jules. So little he hadn’t even gotten a nickname yet.

“What happens when my mother calls my house and we’re not there?” I asked, feeling vaguely uneasy about the change of plan.

“She’s worried, we’re kidnapping her,” Bernie said. I knew he was smiling.

“We’ll call her,” Birdie said, blowing her nose. “Don’t worry, mamala, it’s all taken care of.”

But when the squat gray Triborough bridge was in sight, I started to feel queasy. Since no one wore seat belts in those days, I stretched out across the back seat which felt as con- fining as a crib. I remembered how I’d gone over to touch my brother’s cheek the night the he got sick, just to make sure he was breathing. That made me the last person to touch him before the seizures started caused by, the doctor said, a galloping staph infection. Germs could gallop? 

Maybe he didn’t die, maybe someone had slipped him out of the hospital and into someone else’s family, and my parents were going to find him. His crib was still standing in my room; my father had thrown a sheet over it, as if it were a failed trick, the object the magician couldn’t make disappear. Once my father disappeared. We were still living in the apartment then, and one rainy Saturday afternoon we decided to play hide-and-seek. When it was my father’s turn to hide, I searched everywhere, room by room. “He’s gone!” I cried hysterically. Even my mother grew panicky. She’s the one who found him, standing in the tub behind the shower curtain, laughing. “You scared her half to death,” she said, pulling me close, calling him a terrible word, a bastard, or something like that.

“What about the play I’m in?” I said, remembering Mme. Quick. “She said we couldn’t miss any rehearsals.”

“She’ll understand. Don’t worry, she won’t be mad.”

“Who’s mad?” Bernie asked.

“The schvartzer,” Birdie said. “Suze’s French teacher.”

The schvartzer? “Madame Quick isn’t a Negro,” I said. “She’s from Gabon.”

“Which is in Africa,” Birdie said, “where all the schvartzers come from,”

“She is NOT,” I said, shouting, crying.

“Okay, darling, okay,” Birdie said, patting her huge pocketbook, the size of a valise, as if to quiet a tiny animal inside.

By the time I stopped crying, Bernie was parking the car in front of Alexander’s on Fordham Road. “Come on, mamala” Birdie said getting out of the car, “let’s go buy you something pretty. Anything you like.”

I wanted a dress like the ones Mme. Quick wore. Mrs. Quick was beautiful. She wore beautiful clothes, so colorful they were almost alive. And she wore her black hair in a beautiful bun held up by two chopsticks. She made speaking French sound like singing a song. She couldn’t possible be a Negro. Negroes were the people who came to clean your house and always broke things or didn’t come on time or didn’t clean things thoroughly enough, or Stanley, the janitor who lived in the basement.

The dress I picked out had a black top and a tomato red skirt and it was tight fitting, in fact, a little too tight under the arms, which meant it was too small and I should look for the size bigger. But I loved the way it hugged me, and the way the skirt clung to my legs. “My mom wouldn’t like this,” I said.

“If you like it, that’s all that matters,” Birdie said. Absently, she licked her index finger and smoothed each of my eyebrows, one at a time, with her saliva.

“I’m not supposed to buy anything black,” I said.

“So we’ll leave it in my house if your momma won’t like it. Don’t worry, darling,” she promised, not even glancing at the price tag.

Everything in Birdie and Bernie’s one-bedroom apartment led a double life. The dining room table, which seated twelve for Passover and stretched from one end of the living room nearly out the fire escape, folded up to a narrow lamp table. A wooden board placed over the kitchen sink made it a counter. The bathtub became a fish tank. Jelly jars and Yahrzeit candles became glasses. The washing machine became an ironing board. Even the seeds of the grapefruit Birdie loved became plants, scraggly green plants.

No one talked much when we got home. Birdie served hot borscht with potatoes and sour cream, and made me drink a glass of milk for dessert. Then she called my mother, and told her that we were fine, and I said hi, but not much more because the rates were so high, and then Birdie told me to take a bath and get ready for bed. The sheets were stiff and cold, the blankets meager, the mattress thin, the grandfather clock in the foyer bonged the half hour and hour, keeping me awake, the washcloth Birdie raked across my face stung as if she were trying to remove a layer of skin—still, I loved sleeping over.

Tonight was different. Birdie couldn’t sleep. I heard her go to the bathroom, I saw her walk into the kitchen, I heard her crying, talking to herself. Then she walked toward me and got into bed with me, lying down on her back and reaching for my hand, which she patted. “That poor little baby,” she said.

“But Birdie,” I whispered—I couldn’t hold it in any longer—”why is everyone so sad? We didn’t even really know him. He couldn’t talk or anything…”

I felt Birdie’s hand stiffen and clutch at mine, as if I were trying to get away and she alone had to restrain me. “How could you say such a thing,” she said, her bony grip growing stronger.

“Birdie, you’re hurting me,” I said, wincing, nearly crying.

“God gave you a brother and you love him, you understand me? You love him!”

“OK,” I said. “OK, Birdie, I will. I do.” She didn’t say anything. After a few minutes, her grip relaxed and she started snoring. To drown her out, I turned on my side and imagined myself on stage with Mme. Quick, rehearsing my lines for the play. I knew them perfectly. “Tres bien,” Mme. Qiuck beamed at me, “Tres, tres bien” But then, for no reason, I lost my way. I couldn’t remember what came next, and made something up. “Vous avez tort” said Mme. Quick, her eyes flashing. I’d never seen her so angry.

I woke up at five; Birdie was gone. She and Bernie were talking in the kitchen, as they always did, in the near darkness. “Today’s the shiva,” Birdie said an hour later, when I walked into the kitchen. She started preparing my special drink, the one she always made for me and we didn’t tell my parents about—a quarter cup of coffee and the rest milk which she heated up on the stove. But today there was no coffee in the pot, so she poured what was in her cup into mine. Suddenly I felt sick—the glistening wet arc of saliva from her lips staining her mug, the distended, arthritic joints of her fingers, fleshiness obscuring her gold wedding band, all of it revolted me, sickened me. “I’m not hungry,” I said, pushing my chair away from the table and running into the bathroom.

“You have to eat,” Birdie said, but she didn’t come after me as I feared she would.

By II I was wearing my new dress, and had already combed my hair. An hour later, people started pouring into the tiny apartment, the noise level gradually rising like flood waters. A pool ball, I caromed from one wrinkled old person to the next, their watery eyes peering into mine; in Yiddish, even sighs were explosive and guttural. My dress began to exude a nauseating fishy smell. I felt sick, but the bathroom door was closed.

When the doorbell rang, everyone started. You’re not supposed to ring the bell. when you come to a shiva, I’d just been told—the door is left unlocked so people can walk right in. But the person standing in the doorway wasn’t paying his respects. It was Cal, who worked at my grandfather’s hardware store. I’d known him forever. “Hello, miss,” he said. “Your grandpa here?” Cal was tall and skinny, and had to bend down to talk to me.

“What is it, Cal?” Birdie asked. She’d followed me into the tiny foyer which had been crowded but was now empty.

“Sorry for your loss, ma’am,” Cal said, taking off his hat and holding it in his hands.

Birdie nodded. “What is it, Cal?” she asked again.

“Got a question for Mr. Bernie,” he said. ‘

“It can’t wait?” Birdie asked. “This is a house of mourning.”

“I know, ma’am. It’s just, well, it’s important.”

“Go find your grandfather,” Birdie told me.

Bernie was in the kitchen standing at the open window, the one that opened onto the fire escape. “Cal’s here,” I said. I followed Bernie into the foyer where he shooed Birdie out and listened as Cal bent down to say something in his ear. Something about a delivery. Cal’s fingers, I noticed, were coffee- colored fingers, his pink palms, his fingernail moons milky white. When Bernie told him to wait there for a moment, I saw Carl arch his back and let out a musical sigh that reminded me of the way Mme. Quick sighed, as she waited for us to take our places on stage.

“I have to sign for something at the store,” Bernie told Birdie. “I’ll be right back.”

“I want to come,” I said. I loved going to the hardware store, wandering down the narrow aisles, studying and smelling the oily, metallic hodgepodge—hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, washers, wing nuts, wrenches, pliers, shears, plumbing supplies, and buckets of nails and screws.

“Well, get your coat,” Bernie said. I walked into Birdie and Bernie’s bedroom where all the guests’ coats were piled on the bed in a mound, like a huge hibernating bear. Mine was in the closet, hanging next to Birdie’s fur. I ran my hands over the intoxicating skins and was about to slip it off the hanger and try it on when I suddenly remembered the baby’s hair that my mother had slipped into an envelope, and the furry feel of his head. “Susan?” Bernie called. “You coming?” It was the first time I’d thought of Jules in days, and I had to shut the closet and leave the room.

“Coming,” I shouted, hoping Bernie heard me. But on my way to the front door, I saw Birdie whispering to Bernie, and Bernie taking Cal’s arm and leading him out into the hallway. Cal was a Negro. I guess I’d always known that. But that meant that Mme. Quick was a Negro too, what they called a light-skinned Negro. How could I have not known? Would Birdie make her wait in the hallway also, if she came to the house to find out why I wasn’t at play rehearsal?

I ducked into the bathroom, which was finally free, and climbed out the window onto the fire escape.

“Susan?” I heard Bernie calling my name. “I’m waiting for you…”

People had answers for questions like why Negroes were asked to wait out in the hall, but they wouldn’t tell me. They’d make me feel bad for asking, as if not knowing was all my fault. They acted as if it was all some deep, dark mystery, but I knew the answer was simple and ordinary as a hammer and nails. Yet it still eluded me.

“Susan!” Birdie yelled. “Where’s my Susan?” I should have answered her. But like my father, hiding behind the shower curtain, I wasn’t ready to reveal myself I liked seeing how things were unfolding without me, how the news of my disappearance spread from room to room, how Birdie’s face and neck blossomed red with alarm. Maybe this was what it was like being dead; you got to watch from a space only you knew about. Maybe baby Jules was watching us. But how would he know what he was seeing? That’s why I wasn’t sure how sad to feel. Sure, it was a sad thing that someone so young could die. But Cal and Mme. Quick couldn’t help being born the way they were any more than Jules could have avoided those galloping germs.

“Susan!” Birdie sounded panicked. I could see her clutching her throat, breathing deeply. She told Bernie to go outside, to see if I’d somehow run past him and Cal as they stood in the hallway. Let them wait and worry. I needed time to think. To think about Jules, about Mme. Quick—who could write plays in French or in Swahili, for all it mattered; Birdie, who’d buy me anything I wanted, would never let her past the front door. Worst of all, Mme. Quick was now different in my eyes too, though even if you threatened me with pushing me off my perch into the dirty alley three floors below, I couldn’t have said exactly how or why. 

Roberta Israeloffa freelance writer and teacher, lives in East Northport, New York.