Authors: Maria Espinosa
I am worthless, she thought. I love nothing. I don't love the sky or the concrete buildings with windows like hostile eyes. I don't love any human being. I don't love Lucille. I never loved Gerald. I only wanted him to love me.
Gerald was gone, forever out of her reach. Her pleading, her weeping, her fits of hysteria had destroyed any attraction she once held for him.
Everywhere now she looked for a man to break down her barriers so that she could love. Unlike Gerald, this man would accept her intense emotions. Yet since she was worthless, he would cast her down, dissolve her into molten liquid. Then she would be recreated whole, and he would love her. He would heal the pain inside her.
She sought out this man on every street corner, every subway car and bus, every cafeteria, coffee shop, and bar; but all she found were shadows of the man she wanted.
Still, she did not give up hope. With the certainty of an animal who lives by instinct, she knew that soon, very soon now, she was going to find him. She heard the doorknob turn and wheeled around to face Max.
“I am sorry to come into your room without knocking,” he said, red-faced. “I was worrying if you are all right.”
She was touched that he had worried about her. Perhaps he sensed that she had thought just now of killing herself. She could still say no, say she'd changed her mind. His panting apprehensiveness filled her with distaste. Nevertheless, a cunning created out of desperation urged her to go, whispered that in some way this would compress time and bring her nearer the end of her search.
He moved a step towards her.
“Max, let's get going.”
Inside the cafeteria, fluorescent lights gave people sharp, sallow faces. But the air conditioning was a relief after the heat outside.
Max felt dizzy and weak as they walked with their trays between crowded tables over to a vacant one by the wall. He hoped he wouldn't trip and spill everything. So jumbled were his nerves that he could scarcely see.
Adrianne had chosen beef stew along with a French roll and apple pie. He himself selected only a cottage cheese plate and tea, as Dr. Goldfarb had cautioned him about his diet. In truth, the excitement of being with this young girl had taken away his appetite. His heartbeat quickened. With a slight feeling of nausea, he looked down on the mound of cottage cheese bordered with raspberry gelatin and peach halves on a bed of lettuce. Adrianne began to eat with a ravenousness that startled him. When he got to know her better, he must speak to her about eating so much and so fast, as it was not healthy.
He wondered what to say to her. Two young men in rumpled shirts were gesturing to each other in sign language at the next table.
Trembling, he spilled a gob of jello on his necktie, then quickly wiped it off. Ah, he had forgotten how to be a social being. He had forgotten what it was like to eat with anyone else.
“I must watch my heartburn,” he said, trying to pretend he had not spilled anything. The jello left a wet spot, and looking down, he noticed old stains from coffee or tea or grease on his trousers. If he wanted to attract this creature, who was young enough to be his granddaughter, he must buy some new clothes.
“Does it give you a great deal of pain?” she asked.
“Yes. Off and on. It's worse since I had the pneumonia.”
“I'm sorry.” Her voice softened with pity. What more can I offer him than my presence, even my body? she wondered. All he will ask of me is a smile and a little kindness.
She felt like a stuffed straw doll.
He would perceive only part of her. He would be easy to please,
and perhaps she could make him happy.
He seemed depressed. However, she could feel the softness in her face and body attract him as she wondered how to begin drawing him out. During her nightly wanderings she had developed skill as a listener. Strangers' lives fascinated her. Their stories of failed intimacies, adventures, and losses made her own suffering seem more bearable.
“Max, what kind of work do you do?”
“I work in a watch-repair shop. And you?”
“I do clerical work,” she said with a shrug, anxious to get the subject off herself. “Do you like your job?”
“In Germany I was not trained to repair watches. All this I learn over here. In Hamburg I was working as a lawyer.”
“What made you change?” She swallowed another morsel of stew. God, solid food tasted good. This was the first real meal she'd had all day. Then she took a sip of coffee.
“Why do you ask?” Jerkily, he raised his glass of water to his lips, nearly spilling some.
“I want to hear about your life.” She leaned forward. Her milky orbs swelled out over the green satin, beckoning his touch. Her hand gently touched his, and she said, “I can see you have suffered.”
“Lately, I feel very bad. Whenever I climb the stairs to the apartment, my head hurts. I am so quickly out of breath, always tired. My doctor tells me I must retire soon.”
“Oh, that must be hard for you. Why did you change your work?”
“I was an immigrant to this country. It was difficult to begin again. I did not know English well, so I took what work I could get.” He sighed heavily.
Shadows of the past rose to haunt him.
The deaf mutes at the next table were staring at them. Were he and Adrianne so strange a couple? Was she so young and he so old?
“Do you regret you never became a lawyer here?” she asked. There was a quality about her that filled him with a desire to tell her things he had hidden for years, even from himself. Her voice had a low and pleasant quality, and her golden hair surrounded her full face like a halo. Her blue eyes were so gentle.
“Sometimes. But I have bigger regrets. The burden I carry in my heart is so much.”
She leaned close while he groped for words to tell her about his past. Haltingly, he told her how he had married Mathilde in the 1930's. Then he told her how Mathilde and the
, Jacob and Miriam, died in the concentration camp at Dachau, where they were sent in 1941, just as they were about to leave for Switzerland. He escaped because he had left Germany a year earlier on one of the last ships out, hoping to get a job and raise money to bring over his family. However, in London he met Monique and had fallen in love with her. He had tried to convince himself that the situation in Germany was not as black as he had painted it in his mind and that his family could wait a little longer.
As he continued, he grew more tense and began to gasp for breath. Her passivity felt like delicate tentacles sucking at his nerve endings, releasing the torment he had held in for so long.
He told her how he awaited the birth of Monique's child with a feverish longing he had never known with the babies that came from Mathilde's womb.
Speaking more rapidly, he told how he delayed sending for his family until it was too late. Then he grew silent. How horrible to have spoken this way about his own dead babies. He clutched his cup as if he were trying to crush it into pieces, while drops of perspiration fell from his whiskers onto the table.
“Go on,” said Adrianne.
Everything around him blurred. The deaf mutes had left, and the tables around them were empty.
“Finally, I sent for Mathilde and the
. She was so happy. She telegraphed me that she had train tickets to Basel. But before they could get out, they were taken to the concentration camp.”
He felt black inside all over again with the memory. “I could no longer stand to be with Monique, because every time I looked into her face, I knew I was a murderer. I got a visa to come to the United States, and I left her.”
“In New York, at first I found no work. Every day I looked. The dirt and the noise and the people in this city made me feel crazy. After three weeks, I got a job as a stock room clerk. I worked, ate, slept, like
a machine. Whenever I think how my wife and babies died because I neglected them, it is too much to bear.
“Then in 1943 the letters from Monique stopped coming. After the war, I could never bring myself to search for her. I do not know if she and my son are alive, but I pray for them.”
Tears long unshed streamed down his cheeks, mingling with sweat. As if he were holding onto the last remnant of sanity, he clutched the warm china cup more tightly. Long ago he would have killed himself, but he had grown to feel that the more bitter punishment was to live with the knowledge of what he had done.
“So you work in a watch-repair shop now,” she said.
“Yes. I like to work with my hands.” A wild hope surged up that Adrianne, like a princess in a fairy tale, would purge him of guilt.
He was silent for a moment. It was long past the dinner hour. How long had he talked?
“My poor wife and children.” His voice was almost inaudible now, and he breathed heavily as once again their faces appeared in his memory. He looked overcome with pain. “If a heaven exists, they must be in it.”
“I don't believe life ends when you die,” said Adrianne. Seizing her hand, he felt blood pulse through her warm fingers. Never before had he talked about Monique to anyone except Rabbi Zimmerman. Afterwards, the Rabbi had tears in his eyes, and he said a special
for Mathilde and the
as well as for Monique and their son.
He wanted to press himself close to Adrianne, bury himself in her flesh and forget. If only the havoc inside aroused by his talking would go away.
Releasing her, he took out his handkerchief, wiped his face, and blew his nose. The few people remaining in the cafeteria blurred with the walls, the artificial lighting, and the oppressive smells of food.
Afterwards, he would lie awake, trying to find words to tell her things that now after all these years he wanted to tell someone.
“Every Friday night I go to Synagogue. Will you come with me some night?”
“Yes, I will,” she said.
His pain momentarily made her own vanish. She wanted to weep for both of them, as well as for all those nameless strangers with whom she talked. Perhaps she could achieve some sort of salvation if she were kind to him. Now her own needs were overshadowed, as they had been with the stranger on Broadway this afternoon.
A faint odor of rose filled the space around her, apparently coming out of nowhere. It was not the cheap perfume she'd dabbed on earlier. The rose odor came out of the new vibrations into which she had risen.
Yet she felt that she had done something terrible in drawing out his pain.
She looked down at his gnarled fingers. His ridged nails, cut straight across, were edged with dirt. His hands were liver-spotted.
“Sometime I'd like to come with you, Max.”
He glanced at his watch. “I have promised to take you to a Broadway show, but now I think it is too late,” he said. “It is after nine o'clock.”
“That's all right. We can go somewhere else. I'd like to go to a jazz club.”
“There's a club on West 53rd Street. I've only passed by, but the music sounded good. Would you take me there?”
“Let's go then.”
When they left the cafeteria, Max hailed a taxi.
Adrianne leaned back in the plush chair and let the music fill her. The saxaphone's wail swept through her tiredness and the piano notes satisfied her with their metallic hardness while a black male voice sang about love and loneliness. The music gave her a profound sense of release.
Memories of that day flashed through her mind. The long hours of clerical work at Eureka Fabrics. The stranger's cock in her mouth. The frightening interval in the hotel room before she had managed to escape. Max's hands on her buttocks. His sad tale and his need for her which seeped through the smoky air.
“Do you like this music?” Max asked.
“Yes,” Adrianne nodded, her eyes closed. She could tell he didn't, but right now that didn't matter. While the music played, she was safe. The music was her refuge.
“This is very different from the classical music I know.”
Although she knew he wanted her to look at him, she didn't open her eyes. Music gave her the strength to ignore the invisible pressure he was exerting on her.
When the musicians took a break, she opened her eyes and glanced at the bar. A tall, thin bartender with black hair and a flashing smile was mixing drinks. Without thinking, she stood up and said, “I'll be back in a minute. I've got to go to the bathroom.”
As she wandered over to the bar, the bartender's eyes caught hers. He wore a soft blue madras shirt. His face gleamed with beads of sweat, and his hands moved swiftly as he filled glasses with liquor, ice, and soda.
“May I have a glass of water?”
Their eyes met a second time, and his fingers trembled so that the glass he was holding nearly fell.
“You're beautiful,” he said. “You want water? Champagne? You name it, baby.” He had high cheekbones and a distinguished face. “Tell me, are you over eighteen?”
“Yes,” she said. “Actually, I'm nineteen.”
He laughed. “Good thing the boss isn't here, He'd think you were jail bait.”
She blushed and couldn't think of what to say. There was only one empty stool at the crowded bar, and she sat on it. People around her were wearing expensive clothing, several of the women in thin silk dresses and pearls. She felt shoddy in the green satin dress, which she'd bought at a discount store on lower Broadway.
“I'll have water,” she said. “I have no money.” Self-conscious, she fingered the satin rose at her bosom. How tacky it must look.
“Whatever you want is on the house,” he said. “What's your name, beautiful?”
“Your last name?
“Adrianne Torres, you look tired. How about a rum and coke to pick you up?”