Wayward Hearts

Ben Abrams was not a bad man; he was a practical man confused by grief, the force of which can shatter stone. Instead of breaking, Ben twisted in its blinding current, which rushed through him to my family. I fell within weeks, pulling my husband along with me. My sister, once immersed, swept beyond our reach.

Ben started out a poor boy in Buffalo and met his great love, Edith Rosenberg, just after the war. At a Rochester wedding reception he saw her slipping into the shadows and sneaking an extra glass of wine behind her father’s back— a willowy beauty, properly shy with men. She blushed when she realized she’d been seen, but kept her composure as her cousin introduced Ben, smiled, accepted one dance, dismissed him. Edith, he repeated to himself, Edith. From their first awkward conversation, he believed she’d hung the moon, and her presence in this world shook him loose from our neighborhood in Buffalo, emptied his savings account, pulled him to Rochester where he worked like an animal and prayed he would be worthy, and where, eventually, he met with her father behind closed doors. He agreed to stay in Rochester. He agreed to take a house on the Rosenberg’s street. On his knees he proposed.

Ben loved Edith with a mute ferocity punctuated by grand gestures: buckets of roses, pearls from Gamler’s. At the breakfast table she’d find gold bracelets, diamond studs, a ring of tiny sapphires. Edith accepted his devotion with apparent serenity: who knows if she was happy. She saw her mother every day, learned to cook French, and, later, spent most of her waking hours with her children. In summer they stayed in a cottage at Crystal Beach. In winter she taught the children to skate. On Saturday nights Ben took her out for dinner and she wore the diamond studs. She was otherwise careless about the jewelry: her girls wore the pearls for dress-up. The oldest was five, the second daughter four, and the boy about two when Edith died, her blood rife with cancer. It was 1953 and the doctors were all but helpless. Ben’s strength stayed with him through her illness, those long nights at her bedside; he prayed with the fervor of a Has id, a blind optimism gracing him until the end. When she died, he became unmoored. He wandered his furniture store at night, touching the chairs and sofas as if they were her body. His mother in-law cooked supper for the children and got them to bed. The little girls and his young son were invisible to him; it was as if they existed only in relation to his beautiful Edith.

Ben appeared on our front porch in June, before the lilacs browned. He stood just downwind of the bush, not touching the blossoms, numb to the impulse to crush his face against them. He wore a deep brown suit, a dark tie, removed his hat when Sam walked out onto the porch: a man paying his respects. They had been usher sat each other’s weddings. Sam, in his weekend work shirt and trousers, took Ben’s face in his hands, hugged Ben, patted him on the back, led him to the rocker on the sunny corner of the porch. Ben moved with the stiff jointed swaying of a marionette, an inhabited man. He spoke little. They sat together in the mild breeze, Sam asking questions with definite, easy answers and telling news of the neighborhood he otherwise wouldn’t repeat: What do you recommend in sofas, Ben? Thursday’s thunderstorm hit Rochester? I hear your cousin Frieda’s off to college. After twenty minutes, Ben rose, fingered the brim of his hat, and stepped out onto the front walk, refusing Sam’s invitations to stay and offers to escort him elsewhere.

Edith had only been gone a month then, but Ben began to spend whole weekends in Buffalo, leaving his children with his in-laws, automatically driving west, following back roads lined by cornfields and orchards, emerging into our close and crowded neighborhood. He wandered from the house of one friend or relative to another. Door after door opened to him, and as he walked down one street and up another, aunts and cousins would line the sidewalk, watching, as if their gazes would safeguard his arrival somewhere else.

I don’t remember the first time he stayed for a meal: what I remember are particular courses of particular meals, the expression on Ben’s face as he ate a bowl of soup, his eyes flat as fish. One afternoon, when I handed him a teacup, I noticed his skin tone had become more olive and pink. There was a flicker of a smile when my daughter Sarah smeared her face with pudding. When his eyes regained expression, I noticed how large, how round they were—the color of woods, fur, sleep. He gazed at my belly as I moved about the room: I was pregnant again, just showing. There was, by August, the sort of intensity to his look I had heard women talk of when he was younger, when he was a single man. I turned away to tend to Sarah and a hole began to burn through the back of my blouse.

Those nights, after Ben had left for Rochester and Sarah had fallen asleep, I would hold Sam to me as I had at no other time. Our marriage was a passionate one, and our intimate pleasures had been curtailed only in the months after Sarah’s birth. But those nights of Ben’s first visits we crushed ourselves against each other, swayed and moaned with the fierceness of prayer, as if we had seen how the world might end and in our coupling would save it off.

In late summer Ben came alive. He began to arrive with gifts: tomatoes, sweet corn, baskets of peaches. His voice regained its resonance and surety, a more natural timbre. He told old stories. When Sam and I were ten, he’d say, When Mrs. Moscowitz caught Sam behind the ballpark, When Arnie Stein was drunk at shul. In the afternoons he walked the neighborhood with Sam and Sarah. Twice I heard him laugh; each time a craving rose up in me.

Soon the gifts began to change. One week Ben brought a bud vase, one week perfumed writing paper. One week he gave me a velvet lined box; inside, an extravagant gold hair clip.

I knew I should not keep it.

“It’s lovely,” I said, “but Ben.”

“Try it on,” he said.

Sam’s mouth opened and closed on air.

“Perhaps later,” I said.

“No, no, wear it today,” Ben said.

“Something to save for your girls.”

His face folded in on itself. “You don’t like it?”

“I told you, it’s lovely.”

“Then try it. What can it hurt?”

I looked to Sam, who was sliding behind his newspaper.

“Go ahead,” Ben said.

I relented, pulled my hair out of the loose bun I wore, brushed it back, twisted it and set the clip in place.

“That’s beautiful, your hair like that.”

“Sam?” I said.

A few seconds passed. “Don’t you think? Sam?” Ben said.

Sam dropped the paper for an instant. “Nice.” His face was locked shut.

When it came time for Sam and Sarah to leave for their walk, Ben insisted I join them, promising to help me clean the dishes. We all drove over to Delaware Park and he slipped his arm through mine as we walked over the green lawns, and Sarah ran circles around the maples, Sam behind her, threatening to catch up. Sam was lifting Sarah in the air, spinning her around, when Ben leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. We were standing very close then. I blushed. Stray red leaves curled across the grass. “It’s getting to be autumn,” I said. I called to Sarah. “Look at the leaves.” My voice instantly brought her back to me, as I knew it would, Sam following along.

That day, before he returned to Rochester, Ben kissed my hand. We were standing in the doorway, in clear view of the entire neighborhood. He held my wrist for several seconds, a man in a trance, his mouth pressing against my knuckles.

“He’s lonely, Sam,” I said that night. “He’s lonely and grateful.” I put the hair clip on the top closet shelf and climbed into bed. Sam nodded at me, his curls falling thick over his forehead. He wrapped his hands in my hair and, slowly, wrapped his body around mine.

But for weeks after we did not sleep entwined. At night Sam would offer up a solemn kiss and turn to the far side of the bed, his movements heavy and doltish. He did not touch me. My skin became the shell of a more solitary creature, thick with loneliness. I thought of Ben, the pressure of his mouth against my wrist, and then I became more human, my breathing quickened, my thighs dampened and warmed. I imagined Ben’s fingers circling over my breasts. Sam would shift in bed, or slip into light snoring, and I’d freeze, an animal caught in light. Once or twice I reached over to him, hoping to bring him back and blot Ben from my mind. But Sam pulled further away, curled into himself at the edge of the bed.

On the loneliest night yet, when the dream of Ben was so strong I felt him in the room, I tried to break away by stroking Sam’s shoulders and back, slipping my hands beneath his night clothes, pressing against his chest. He pulled away. “Marilyn, get some sleep.” It was as if he smelled Ben on my skin. I left our bed and checked on Sarah. She slept soundly, curled on her side the way Sam did. In her room there was peace, and I stayed in the rocker by her crib, dozing, waking, watching her roll, fling an arm over her head, find her thumb. Nothing compared to her small mouth, the wild dark curls that she’d inherited from Sam, the texture of her face, her light breathing. Hers was the room in which my visions of Ben vanished. At 5 a.m. I rose, scrubbed myself with hot water and soap, and brewed the morning coffee.

The last Sunday Ben and I were alone together, he brought me a bouquet of late roses. Sam said nothing. He left the house to check on his mother. He did not take Sarah, whom he had promised the afternoon to, and who wailed as he hurried away from the house. I told Ben I hadn’t much time, there was bread to bake. Instead of leaving he hovered near me in the kitchen, watching the clouds of flour float above my hands, rolling a pinch of dough between his thumb and his forefinger, staring at my face. Sarah would not play by herself and clung to my legs until I lifted her up and gave her a piece of dough to knead. I finished the dough and began to clean the table. The kitchen seemed to narrow—Ben filling more and more of it—and I flushed under his gaze. My hands trembled and I barely spoke: the dreams were coming loose. Ben seemed unperturbed by my silence. Finally I stuttered that Sarah and I were also expected at Sam’s mother’s house.

He reached over and took my floury hand, rubbed his fingers over my skin, then leaned across the table and kissed me on the cheek, hesitating after the kiss, breathing against the side of my face. A warm, familiar flush ran through to my legs.

He waited for my response. For a moment I was paralyzed, feeling his breath against me. I touched my fingers to my lips, thinking only kiss, forgetting everything but kiss. Then a small piece of dough slapped the floor. Sarah began to fuss, and suddenly I was three steps away from Ben, holding her. She buried her face in my dress.

“What is it honey? Are you ready to go to Nana’s?”

Ben stepped back, licked his lips, dropped his gaze to the floor, glanced up at the clock. “I’ll be back in town next week,” he said.

I spoke without thinking. “Good. We’ll all see you then.”

The next week I invited my mother-in-law and Sam’s Uncle Irv to the house, and regularly began to fill our house with Sunday guests: my sister Sylvia and her husband Eli, Sam’s cousins, friends from the neighborhood. This left no time for Ben to be alone with me. He barely disguised his impatience. He sulked and sent me imploring looks, but kept returning. I pretended to notice nothing. I did not explain to Sam my decision to invite other guests, nor did he ask. But finally the coldness that had come upon our marriage began to thaw.

Were it not for my sister Ediev my we would have gone on with our Sunday afternoons, and forgotten those strange, confused weeks, perhaps forgotten even the desire that colored them. Ben would have drifted back to Rochester, married one of the spinster Rosenberg women or devoted himself to his children. But Edie. She was always an undeniable force in our world—awkward, provincial, headstrong. I can say now that she is the sister I loved the least, the one I found it hardest to protect. She alternately bullied the rest of us and crumbled into shyness so painful we rushed to her deliverance. Twice a week I visited her with Sarah; I’d solicit news of her first graders, her knowledge of child development. Around children Edie softened into a loving woman. Then I could tolerate her oddness and manipulations and in this way we could live as sisters. But she behaved poorly with Sam, fawning over him, sneering about his insurance job. At parties she remained mum or made unpredictable gaffs; holidays were marred by her sudden outbursts. I did not invite her to visit with Ben.

It was late October. Company filled the parlor—Ben, Sylvia, Eli, Sam’s mother, Sylvia’s two boys—when Edie walked in, opening the door without knocking, hauling a bushel of apples, Macs she’d bought at the farmer’s market. The boys raced up and down the hallway, Sarah tagging after them. Ben smoked a cigarette and pretended to listen to Sam’s mother, who was gossiping in Yiddish. “Oh Edie,” I said, “Hello.” Ben’s head swiveled like a weathervane in wild wind: forgetting, he scanned the room for the face of his own Edith. My sister waited, plump and pale, her glasses obscuring her wide hazel eyes. She set down the apples and scooped up Sarah, holding Sarah like a shield.

“You remember Ben Abrams?” I said.

Edie nodded and stared at the air to the right of Ben’s face. “I’m sorry about your loss,” she said. Her eyes darted to the left and then back to the smoke rising from his cigarette.

“Edie, doll, beautiful apples,” Sam’s mother said.

“Have one, ” Edie said, “let me pick one out for you.”

“Be sure to bake it. These teeth are too old.”

“Oh.” Sarah pulled at Edie’s glasses, the thick frames angling down Edie’s face, and Edie pried her fingers off the lenses. “Not the glasses, Sarah. I have a sweet for you.” Sam’s mother resumed her Yiddish stories. The boys began to shoot marbles in the hallway. Eli held apples up into the light and praised them.

I left for the kitchen. I could hear Sylvia making conversation, telling Ben that Edie was a teacher, asking what kind of apples the market offered. The sweet rolls on the stove had cooled and were ready to be served. I told myself that the apples were a kind gesture. But Edie knew better than to arrive unannounced, to enter my house without knocking. Sylvia would tell me to be grateful Edie hadn’t done worse: as a young girl she’d thrown tantrums only our brother Manny could calm. The most soft-hearted among us, he was Edie’s pet. At turns she lorded over our him and babied him. Well into adulthood she kept house for him as if he were her husband: outsiders mistook them for a married couple. Then Manny up and moved to Manhattan. Edie’s small eccentricities mushroomed. She loitered in front of Manny’s old bookstore. She wandered the streets at five a.m. Scrappy pink curlers hung in her hair as she went about her marketing. Rag dolls, baby dolls and stuffed animals began to fill her flat. I pretended they were for Sarah’s benefit.

I stacked the sweet rolls on a platter and returned to the parlor. Chocolate stuck to Sarah’s fingers and lips. I took her from Edie; she was tired, ready for her nap, and her small chubby arms curved tightly around my neck. Edie was already inching toward the door, Ben’s gaze on her at full intensity. She did not say a word but glanced at Ben and awkwardly curtsied; it was a girl’s gesture, one that didn’t fit Edie anymore and one I hoped did not surface in other situations. From the window I watched her- hurry down the block to her flat, an index finger in her mouth.

One evening a few weeks later, Edie arrived at our door carrying dresses: the maroon wool she wore at holidays, a plain navy shirtwaist, a beige suit a size too small. She wanted advice on what to wear to dinner with Ben. The back of my neck prickled.

“Maybe you should get something new,” I said. She frowned. “There isn’t time. You don’t like these, do you?”

I leaned against the parlor door. “These are fine. But why not treat yourself?”

“What should I do?” Agitation screwed up her face: her forehead pinched, her nose swelled, her lips flattened and slanted downward.

“Let me look at these,” I said. “Would you check on Sarah?”

Her face reassembled itself, and she hurried down the hall to the nursery. I rifled through my bedroom closet. Most often Edie wore a size or two larger than mine, but with the pregnancies I’d acquired a range. Sam looked up from the insurance papers he had spread out over our bed. “What are you doing?”

“Finding a dress for Edie.”

“Special occasion?”

I hesitated. “Maybe,” I said. “I think she wants to try some new styles.”

He shrugged. Edie had spurned two of his cousins, good if ordinary men, and he’d long since given up on her. “Couldn’t hurt.”

I lingered over an unattractive brown and white striped dress my mother-in-law had given me. Then I picked a green and white print that would bring out Edie’s eyes, white beads, earrings. From outside the nursery I could hear Edie singing “Dedicated to You” to Sarah. Her beautiful, rich alto seemed to emanate from another body. I walked in the room and she let a verse drop. “Look who’s here,” she said to Sarah.

“Hi pumpkin.” I kissed Sarah’s chubby face. “Having a good time with Aunt Edie?” I held up the dress for Edie to examine. “I thought green might be a good color for you. Something to try.” She pressed it against herself, stroked the fabric.”You think so?”

“See if you like it. If not, wear the navy one and dress it up a bit, some beads or a scarf. You can borrow some of mine.”

“Okay,” Edie said, nodding too much. “Okay.” When she left I lay down on the sofa and closed my eyes, drifting until then I could almost feel Ben’s hands.

There was a second date. After a month Edie stopped asking my advice and became more secretive about her meetings with Ben. I don’t know when their romance began in earnest. He shortened his visits to our flat, then stopped coming by. Edie stopped walking the neighborhood in curlers and put away her dolls. She bought a salmon lipstick. The talk began, at first light hearted, not unkind. Ben and Edie had been seen walking together, nice for them. She knows about loneliness, your sister, women at the market told me. She has some wisdom for this man.

Then my sister Dora called to say she’d run into Edie and Ben at the pictures on a Saturday night. She mentioned the new lipstick.

“What about him?”

“Ben? Hair slicked back, a new suit. Not at all a widower. Sylvia says I should mind my own business but it’s shameful, scandalous, his wife six months in the grave and the two of them running around like that.”

I imagined Ben’s body beneath the new suit, the tailored shirts and bleached underclothes slipping away, revealing pale skin, thick muscle, tangled patches of dark hair, heat. A sharp salt on my tongue. I bit a slice of lemon and waxed the parlor floor. Shame. Scandal. Trouble shaved itself on ordinary life, the line dividing them as fine as Sarah’s hair. Everyone knew of Edie’s loneliness. No one knew that Ben had kissed my face, or that he’d flown towards me in dreams and I had not run. No one but Sam had recognized the peculiar tone of Ben’s visits to our flat, and Sam had come back to me. We were again a physical couple. Every night Sam held me, Sarah called to me, the child inside me rolled and kicked; there was simply no room for Ben. But in my private moments, he appeared.

Edie was wrong for him, of course. And I knew she was unaccustomed to the attentions of men. I didn’t caution her. He kissed her hand at dinner, the way he’d kissed mine, the way he’d kissed Edith Rosenberg, those warm lips pressing, lingering. She responded with gratitude, perhaps with lust: I couldn’t bring myself to discuss him with her. For her part, Edie was too skittish to bring him up.

When I found Edith Rosenberg’s pearls on Edie’s bureau, I knew Ben was serious. There was no mistaking those drop earrings, that eighteen inch strand—both too luminescent to be false. They lay in the open on her mirrored dresser tray, pearls and reflections of pearls adding up to opulence.

I touched them. Tentatively at first, tracing them with my fingertips. I pulled the strung pearls across the back of my hand, held them against my cheek and lips, lifted them into the light. My sister lumbered through the door. “Edie,” I said.

We stood there for a moment, pearls shimmering between us. Then Edie tugged them from my hands and carefully laid them in a velvet case, her face expressionless.

This is my last image of Ben: He stands on thelk, dapper, hands in his pockets, as If deciding whether or not to ring our front bell. Lake winds have kicked up and our street appears gray and abandoned. I set our empty milk bottles on the porch and call to him.

Ben? Are you looking for Edie? Ben? What?

Are you seeing Edie this weekend? Doffing his hat then, embarrassed. How are you? Yes.

They did not wait until the anniversary of Edith Abrams’ death, although Sylvia told Edie they should. This meant sacrifice. Edie had always weakened at the thought of white lace and rose-filled bouquets: over the years she’d built up a dowry with enough money for a satin gown and a large reception. But Ben arranged a quiet ceremony in Rochester, performed by the rabbi who had married him to Edith Rosenberg. I doubt my Edie argued. No one else intervened on her behalf. My sister Dora traveled to Rochester, but I was well into my eight month by the wedding date, confined to bed. Sylvia’s youngest was ill. When Dora returned, she said little: the flowers were lovely. Ben’s children did not attend.

During the last weeks of my pregnancy I napped in the afternoons, Sarah beside me, kicking in her sleep. I would wake imagining Ben’s bed, where Edie slept. She had never felt a man’s touch over the whole of her body. I pictured Ben, patient, amorous. He would kiss her face, her shoulders, her hands. Slowly, quietly, he’d trace the contours of her body. He’d embrace her. For the first time since girlhood, she would feel desirable. Her intense shyness would give way to the fierce, blind coupling that would irrevocably bind her to him.

I grimaced; I could not sustain such generosity. Other visions rose up in me. I knew that Edie desperately needed Ben’s tenderness and would be’ crushed by his indifference, but that knowledge did not move me. For a time I decided the fault would lay with her: Edie would remain trapped by her own shyness. Ben might beseech her, but she was too fearful to let him touch her. Their marriage would be chaste from the start.

Or perhaps Edie would let him touch her, but would not relax enough to take pleasure in their intimacy. Ben, seeing this, would close his eyes and tried to imagine a more responsive woman. As time went on, his imaginings would take the place of the flesh and blood Edie.

I chastised myself for these thoughts. Then I would grant her the children, the two girls and the little boy, who having lost their mother must have been lost themselves. But I pictured crumpled, faceless girls howling when they heard Ben say the name Edie, his pet name for their mother. I pictured the two year old wailing. More likely the girls screamed at nothing, said nothing, complied with Edie’s every request. Edie would fear for them. The boy would have clung to Edie, not allowing her out of his sight. And Edie would equal the attachment. This seemed acceptable to me: Edie would spend all of her time with the children, Ben with his furniture.

In less selfish moods, I realized that the fact of this marriage, less than a year after Edith Rosenberg’s death, must have been scandal to everyone in Rochester. I imagined the neighbors appalled at Ben, who seemed to be replacing one Edie with another, the Rosenbergs mortified and unkind. And after our Edie was seen wearing the drop pearls? The family would stop speaking to him. Here my thoughts of Edie would soften. What friends would she have? Her marriage, begun with tenderness and hope, would quickly deteriorate. A tragedy.

And the final tragic moment would arrive quietly, after supper, Edie alone, rinsing plates and finally realizing what everyone else had and Ben had not: that he was still desperately in love with Edith Rosenberg and that his heart had no room for any other kind of Edith.

I knew I was tainted by envy: my mind would not allow Edie happiness. I never spoke of this. I did not interfere.

When my labor began, Edie bought a train ticket and reappeared in Buffalo. She wore a plain woolen dress, no lipstick. Through a long, difficult labor. Edie stayed beside me, holding my hand, speaking to me the way she spoke to Sarah, to the children in her classes, in the most secure and soothing of voices. Jacob was born red and wrinkled and fierce, and Edie, in the days of my exhaustion, walked him through the flat and sang to him, sprawled on the floor with Sarah and drew castles while he slept, cooked our meals, and watched overall of us while Sam was off at work.

After a week she told me she was not returning to Rochester.


“I’ll stay in Buffalo now.”

“He’s your husband, I said.

I realized then that she was not wearing her ring. She shook her head. “I’ll teach again in September. I’ll find another flat.”

“What happened?”

“Your Jacob, he needs a little sun. See the yellow on him?”

“Edie, what are you telling me?”

A momentary dullness fell over her face. “I’ll start the wash now.”

I tried once more and got a low, imperious, “I’m staying put.” She said nothing more. She smiled and stroked Jacob’s head. It was then that the weight of my visions pulled me to earth, and I felt my blood and bones crush inward. I slipped to the floor, dizzy with the poison of my curses on her marriage. Edie observed me, distant, curious. “Think about what you want for supper,” she said. She placed Jacob in my arms and left the room. He was not crying.

I buried my questions alongside my wayward desires. Some evenings I prayed. Edie and I returned to our habits, our weekday teas, our talk of children and infants, our guarded pleasantries. In winter Sam shovelled her walkway. In spring she helped plant our garden. Our middle years spread before us and we entered each one as if Ben had never walked through our lives, as if there had been no other Edith, as if nothing but love lay in our heart of hearts.

Nancy Reisman teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train and is forthcoming in American Fiction and Toyon. She grew up near Buffalo, New York. “Heart of Hearts” was published in House Fires by Nancy Reisman (Iowa Short Fiction Award, University of Iowa Press 1999).