Authors: Gabriella Goliger
Tags: #Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Jewish, #ebook, #book
ARSENAL PULP PRESS
Copyright © 2010 by Gabriella Goliger
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any form by any means—graphic, electronic, or mechanical—without the prior written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may use brief excerpts in a review, or in the case of photocopying in Canada, a licence from Access Copyright.
ARSENAL PULP PRESS
#101-211 East Georgia St.
Canada V6A 1Z6
The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council for its publishing program, and the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and the Government of British Columbia through the Book Publishing Tax Credit Program for its publishing activities.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to persons either living or deceased is purely coincidental.
Editing by Susan Safyan
Cover design by Mauve Pagé
Printed and bound in Canada on 100% PCW recycled paper
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication:
Goliger, Gabriella, 1949-
Girl unwrapped [electronic resource] / Gabriella Goliger.
Type of computer file: Electronic document in PDF format.
Also available in print format.
PS8563.O82848G57 2010a C813’.6 C2010-903225-X
For Barb, love of my life
I am deeply grateful to all those who helped me through this journey. Thank you to the writers and friends who read the manuscript at various stages: Frances Itani, Debra Martens, Alison Gresik, Anne Whitehurst, Dawne Smith, Cheryl Jaffee, Gary Kellam, Deborah Gorham, and James Deahl. Thanks to Mary Borsky and Nancy Baele for the support and good talks; to the other members of the Ottawa Women’s Writers’ Group for all their feedback; and to the wonderful members of my family who always asked “how’s the book coming” in the most encouraging way. I received generous financial support from the City of Ottawa, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Thanks also to the Banff Writing Studio, especially Stan Dragland and Edna Alford, and to Humber College. My editor, Susan Safyan, was a joy to work with, as was the entire team at Arsenal Pulp Press. My deepest debt is to my partner, Barbara Freeman, whose faith in me never wavered and who stood beside me through the ups, downs, sideways, and inside-outs of this crazy ride.
“Choose life!” Lisa says.
Her motto, her toast, her battle cry, as she raises the glass of wine, clutches the stem so tightly the glass trembles and red drops spill down the side. “
Chews life,” she crows again in her German-accented English, giving Toni the “look,” fierce and filled with a terrible pride but also with sparks of accusation that make Toni squirm and kick her feet against the crossbar of the dining room table. The Sabbath candlesticks wobble and the flames twitch. Toni grabs her egg-cup-sized beaker to shrill in response, “Choose life!”
“Ai!” Julius protests, steadying the candles with one hand while his other flies to his temple. As if his daughter’s voice were an arrow penetrating the soft, vulnerable depths that lie beneath a thin layer of skull and bare skin. “Calm down, both of you.”
Friday night, the grand moment of the week has arrived, when the three of them sit down to the big table, set with the embroidered cloth and the gold-rimmed dishes, and they linger over the meal, enveloped in candle glow. On Friday nights especially, the invisible Others are present: the uncles who live across the ocean in Italy, Grandma Antonia and Grandpa Markus who were snatched away, Minka the cat, Julius’s childhood companion when he lived in Vienna long, long ago. They are here, along with a slew of lost relatives—the ones who couldn’t escape—because Lisa has a way with ghosts. She pulls them in through the cracks in the walls. She talks to them, calls them by name, or simply mentions “our loved ones” in a voice thick with sadness and an unsettling rage. Julius grunts and shifts, uncomfortable with such displays of emotion, but his discomfort makes Toni feel the Others all the more, as if their shadowy selves crowd him, and that’s what makes him cringe. Her papa doesn’t care for company much.
On Friday night, there’s food enough for a tribe, more food than the three of them can possibly eat at one sitting. Noodle soup, a whole chicken roasted to golden-brown perfection, dumplings, red cabbage with caraway seeds, fruit compote and Bohemian
for dessert. There are blessings, whispered like magic spells, over candles, wine, and
, while Julius taps an impatient forefinger against the table. All ceremony irritates him, but Lisa insists. There are the happy kinds of arguments between Toni’s parents, their voices flying across the table like ping-pong balls. There are chances for Toni to boast about her tree-climbing prowess and to pretend she is drunk, falling under the table in a fit of giggles. Sometimes, after dinner, if her father can be persuaded, there’s a paper hat made out of a napkin and, if her mother is in the mood, a fortune read from a deck of cards. The only thing that can spoil Friday night is when, as on this night, Lisa has come home with a cardboard box from the store where she works—Shmelzer’s Ladies’ Fashions—and a gleam in her eye, as if she’s already won the argument that will erupt after dinner.
After dinner, you’ll face the
The box will be offered like a gift. The contents will be wrapped in rustling layers of tissue paper. Inside will be the Loathsome Thing. Toni shuts her mind against what’s to come and concentrates instead on her thimbleful of sweet, fiery wine.
Mumbling a quick
, Julius sips from his own glass, then quietly translates, as his mouth curls in a skeptical smirk and his eyebrow lifts. “To life” is the correct meaning of the Hebrew toast. You could also say “
,” which is Latin for
, or “
,” or “Cheers.”
Your mother has her fixed ideas, but we’ll go along to keep the
, the raised eyebrow says.
Toni probes the burning liquid with the tip of her tongue and wonders. She’s already alive. What is there to choose? To be sharp. To be a Somebody. To be as lovely and darling as the Nutkevitch twins next door. To be the miracle child her mother insists God delivered at Toni’s birth. The infant Toni inched into the world, blue in the face, the umbilical chord wrapped around her neck, a terrible silence locked inside her. But the doctor worked with clamps and suction pumps while Lisa struggled to call out through her swoon of fatigue. Finally, baby Toni filled her lungs and wailed. Then, though half dead with childbirth, Lisa had bellowed, “Bring her, or I’ll get up and fetch her myself.” So they brought the red-faced bundle with the tiny trembling fists. On the spot, Lisa chose the name Antonia, after Grandma, who hovered above in the air, waiting anxiously for her namesake to arrive. Whenever Toni’s mother tells the story, she gazes tenderly past her fidgety present-day child at a vision of the perfect little bunny that once was.
The chicken, gravy-soaked dumplings, and braised cabbage fill the room with savoury aromas. Eat, eat, eat. But eat with understanding. Lisa demonstrates with a skinned morsel of chicken breast, her lips pressed together, her eyes shut. The mind must be filled with beautiful thoughts while the mouth is filled with the mushed-up stuff. For years, your Mama and Papa went without, and now they slave to put this feast on the table. We have meat every day, we have to, otherwise we might as well be back in the internment camp, that long-ago time before you were born.
You don’t know how good you have it.
Julius eats slowly, methodically, with deft movements of his knife and fork, chewing every bite thoroughly, wiping the plate clean with
. Then he bites off the ends of the chicken bones and sucks out the marrow, the most nutritious part. He accomplishes all this without a sound and without a fleck of grease falling onto his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee. He washes down his food with glasses of red wine. Now and then he dabs his lips with the corner of his napkin. Dinner is serious business. It’s a sin to waste. Abundance may be here now, but you never know.
Their plates rest on the white Sabbath tablecloth that Lisa embroidered with images of birds, flower baskets, and ribbons, all finely cross-stitched in blue and gold thread and just like the one Grandma Antonia once made and was lost. Along with everything else from the olden days. The china they use now was bought at the bargain basement at Ogilvy’s. One bowl in the package was chipped, one saucer was missing, but it’s still a fine set. Plain white with gold rims, nothing kitschy, giving the table dignity. Sadly, there are no mocha cups. Lisa keeps her eyes peeled, scans the department store ads in the
, but though there are White Sales, Spring Sales, and Wedding Bell Sales, mocha cups are not to be found in this primitive land. This country with one foot still in the Ice Age.
In the kitchen, the stainless steel percolator perched on the low blue flames of the gas stove sings its merry song:
pok, pok, pok
“Canadians know nothing about real coffee,” Lisa pronounces with a vehement shake of her head. “They just shoot a bean through the water. Back home in Karlsbad—”
“Pah,” Julius interrupts. “Don’t tell me about that provincial town you came from. In Vienna, we knew coffee.”
His eyes, a pale, frozen grey behind his glasses at the beginning of the meal, have slowly melted into a warmer colour. Loosening his tie, he reveals the knob of Adam’s apple in his throat, leans back in his chair with his long legs stretched under the table, and winks at Toni. The fun begins.
“What are you talking about? Karlsbad, provincial! Royalty came to Karlsbad. Princes and princesses, all the cultured greats of Europe.” Lisa’s eyes flash and her chin quivers with holy indignation. “On Sundays we strolled the colonnaded promenade. We stopped at Café Imperial. We always got the best table because the owner’s daughter was in love with our Franzel.”
of a brother?” Julius says.
“Don’t listen to him, Toni. Don’t let him fill your ears with poison. Both my brothers are handsome men. They take after my Papa, may his soul rest in peace. Even in the internment camp, girls were after my brothers.”
“All in your head! Anyway, that was when the war had trimmed a few pounds off their guts. Which have come back with interest in the meantime.”
Julius grins so that Toni can see the gold tooth winking at the back of his mouth.
“Tell about the coffeehouses in Vienna, Papa,” Toni shouts. “Tell about the whipped cream.”
” Lisa says. “When did he go to coffeehouses? He never had two cents to rub together. He was a clerk in a hole-in-the-wall bookshop.”
“I was a senior employee in a distinguished publishing and bookselling firm in the 9th district.” Julius clears his throat and looks annoyed. Then the laughter comes back into his eyes. “The coffee in Vienna had mounds of
,” he says with reverence. “Whipped cream that shook like a belly dancer when the white-aproned waiter approached with his tray. But in your mother’s town, all they gave was a thin squirt of foam.”
So the banter continues while the cuckoo clock ticks, the radiators clank, a stiff March wind rattles the loose windowpanes. The conversation, in German with bits of English, Yiddish, and Italian mixed in, flits back and forth between Karlsbad, Vienna, Trieste, Bolzano, Ferramonti, Cortino, Fossoli, the Umbrian hills—towns in Italy to which her parents drifted after the war, or places where they lived separately, before they met. Some weren’t towns at all, but camps or prisons or places with caves for hiding during the war, when they had to go underground. Toni gets mixed up with before, during, and after the war, with all the names, the episodes, the rules that kept changing, the mysterious words. There was running, escaping, shooting, like in an episode of
, but with something else going on at the same time, something dark and shameful and unfathomable, like the headless man behind her bedroom wall.
You can’t know how it was, and it’s
good you can’t know.
Best to listen quietly to the bits and pieces that slip out and to wonder. The War. That was long, long ago, before she was born, and yet it is still happening, isn’t it? Questions are dangerous. But sometimes they jump out anyway.