Authors: Hilma Wolitzer
The “whole picture” that Dr. Stern had held up for me to view that morning finally included my own marriage, not just my parents’, and the effect that idealizing one had probably had on the other. I’d concluded that most marriages are complicated by the addition of children, in more than the usual ways; that without meaning to, we turn them into little foot soldiers for our separate causes. I had worked both sides for my parents, like a double agent, and poor Scotty was caught in the crossfire between Ev and me. When I spoke about Ev, I realized that the feeling in my chest was still there, that the bad news it had first delivered last April was layered and complicated, that it was about the past, certainly, but it was about the future, too.
I finally did make it across the gallery floor to where Ev was standing.
“Alice,” he said as Violet walked away, looking anxiously back at us before she disappeared.
I was preparing to confront him about Scott, but I surprised myself by saying instead, “The catalog looks great.”
“I’ve been meaning to call you,” he said. My heart bumped; he was finally going to tell me about Scotty, and I braced myself for an argument.
“About your essay,” Ev said.
“It’s really fine. I mean the writing. It’s the best you’ve ever done.”
“Thanks” was all I could manage. If he’d said any more, I might have become suspicious. Any less, and I would have been bereft. As it was, I felt stunned, as if he’d put his hand out and touched my bare skin. Yet I waited for a qualification, for something negative.
Years ago, when we were still workshop adversaries, he once complained that I didn’t hear the implicit praise in his criticism. Like what, I’d thought sullenly—that I’m not completely illiterate, that I have a nice ass? Which wasn’t exactly fair: I’d never caught him checking me out back then; had I wanted him to? Now he didn’t say anything else, and I said, “How have you been?”
“I’ve been better. And you?”
“Have you been writing anything else?”
“Not really,” I said, and there was an uncomfortable pause. But I knew how to fill it. “Have you?” I asked.
“I’ve been messing around a little. A couple of stories.”
“Oh, well, that’s good, I guess,” I said.
“Yeah. No pressure now, you know. It’s almost fun.”
He was looking directly at me, and it was difficult to look back, or away, for that matter.
“Maybe you’ll take a look at some of it, sometime,” he said. “I could use a little feedback.”
“From me?” I scoffed. “When did you become a masochist?”
Then someone going by jostled him, hard, and his wine splattered onto my white shirt. Red wine, naturally. Why did I feel slightly faint when I glanced down at it?
“Shit,” Ev said. “I’m sorry, Al.” He took his jacket off and put it around my shoulders, covering the stains. The jacket smelled like him.
“I’m sorry, too,” I told him.
“Why don’t I get us a couple of drinks,” Ev said. “Or we could go somewhere else if you want to.”
Before I could answer, a child began screaming. It was that toddler, Alexandra, who, as her father had prophesied, had finally gotten hurt. Perhaps the dog had bitten her; it had gotten loose, too. Her father carried her into the elevator and the door slid closed behind them. Then I saw Michael across the room through a corner of my vision. He was talking to someone, a blond woman, offering her his disarming smile the way he used to offer me cigarettes.
It took long seconds before I realized that the woman was Ruth. That was because she looked so different now. There was a little color in her face for once, and her usual cool demeanor had evaporated. One hand was on her hip, the other on her neck, and then she switched hands, as if she didn’t quite know what to do with them. When the elevator came back, she and Michael got into it together.
Of course. But why hadn’t I thought of introducing them? It had nothing to do with a sense of competition, as it had when Michael and Violet occurred to me, and I really was able to let go of him now. Maybe I’d unconsciously equated the heat of attraction with joy, without even considering it as a palliative for grief. I guess I’d forgotten how Ev and I finally came to be together, and that love was always a reasonable prospect.
April, again, and Esmeralda was helping me with the usual spring chores. She was on the kitchen step stool, swiping a wet rag across the highest cabinet shelf, and I was in the bedroom emptying my closet, throwing articles of clothing onto the various piles I’d started to assemble on the bed: hand-me-downs, thrift shop, dry cleaners. In the living room between us, Diana Ross and the Supremes were belting out one of their greatest hits.
Years ago, when I lived with my parents in Riverdale, spring cleaning was always a major production. It involved rug beating in sunlight, turning mattresses, pruning trees, and the clearance of dead leaves and broken branches from the gutters and flower beds. The whole enterprise signified renewal—some of the perennials were already poking their heads up through the ground—and that we were going to live forever, or at least into another cycle of seasons.
Now we were just getting rid of another layer of city dust and pruning some of my possessions. The stink of mothballs had given way over time to the sachet of cedar blocks, and life was counted out more cautiously now, with one eye on the horizon. Still, I felt reasonably happy, even hopeful, and readily willing to let go of that soft yellow sweater, of last year’s favorite skirt. Then I came to my loden jacket, an in-between garment that I mostly wore on warmer autumn days and brisk ones in early spring. It felt oddly heavy on the hanger. I reached into one of the pockets to see what was weighing it down and found the stones I’d gathered at the cemetery the day of my father’s funeral, which I’d intended to set out on the shelf of my mother’s monument.
There were just a handful of them, and they weren’t really heavy at all. Perhaps I’d only been propelled by memory to look in that pocket. I sat on the bed, between piles of clothing, and poured the stones back and forth between my hands. A little grit sifted down onto my lap, and then I came across the smooth worry stone that I’d worked with my fingers during my father’s service.
As I touched its cool, satiny surface, something broke in me and I flung myself facedown on the bed, onto the loden jacket, and began to sob. The thing was, I couldn’t seem to stop, or even hold down the volume of my wailing. If it weren’t for the Supremes, I’m sure Esmeralda would have come running in to see what was wrong. The jacket was roughly wet with tears and snot; its wooden toggles pressed into my forehead and my cheeks, and still I kept on. I hadn’t cried like that since my mother died. Maybe I had never cried quite like that.
Of course my face was a mess of blotches afterward. I splashed it with cold water and put my sunglasses on. Then I filled two large shopping bags with the clothes that I’d set aside for the thrift shop. I called goodbye to Esmeralda and went downstairs. The worry stone was in the pocket of my jeans as I walked toward Third Avenue under the pale, still-folded leaves of the trees.
The thrift shop was doing a lively business. Women, mostly, bent over the jewelry cases, breathing on the glass, fixed on finding treasures. A couple of men picked through the ties with less enthusiasm, less of an apparent sense of a mission. This was one of the better places, staffed by helpful volunteers supporting a good cause. It didn’t smell of death and damp basements, the way some of the others did, and the merchandise was generally of a high quality.
“These things come from
dead people,” Violet once observed. “It’s all designer stuff, and the sizes are so small.” She was the one who had taught me to wear other women’s used clothing, to get over any squeamishness I’d had about it. She said it was a natural thing, this recycling of belongings. “Someone else will even live in our houses someday,” she pointed out. In my case, they already did, at least in the house of my childhood.
I turned the bags over to a volunteer, an elderly woman who looked pretty well heeled, herself. She peeked inside one of them and said, “Oh, nice,” and I had a momentary misgiving about my yellow sweater. Usually, I’d browse through the racks and the paintings after I dropped off a donation, but I was unable to concentrate on those material goods this time, and I found myself out on the avenue again in a few minutes. My hand went automatically to the stone in my pocket, and then I raised my other arm and hailed a taxi.
The turbaned driver, thousands of miles from his native home, didn’t look too pleased at the prospect of driving to Cypress Hills. After some dickering, I made a deal with him, for twenty-five dollars over the meter and the usual tip, if he’d wait for me and take me back to the city. We didn’t speak again all the way to Queens, although his two-way radio kept squawking strangled words in a language I didn’t understand.
I had to get directions to my parents’ plot from a clerk in the cemetery office. The driver had turned off his radio by the time I got back to the cab. I pointed, and we drove slowly, in silence, down the narrow road, until I said, “Turn here.” Then, after a while, “Wait. This is it, I think.” And it was.
My father’s gravestone had been installed a few weeks after the funeral, without ceremony. I hadn’t been back to see it before this. Its posture was erect next to my mother’s matching stone, which I realized, with this new frame of reference, had sunk a little over the years. It tilted very slightly toward his, reminding me of the way she used to tilt toward him in conversation. Still, there was more symmetry now.
I ran my editorial eye over his chiseled inscription, checking it for errors. Once, someone at work told me that the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s monument says WINNER OF THE NOBLE PRIZE, and that his widow had ordered it engraved that way to get even with him for his infidelities. It’s probably an apocryphal story; it has the bittersweet aspect of something he might have written himself.
Here are my parents lying in their twin beds, I told myself, under their living green coverlets. But no amount of metaphor could make me romanticize the work of nature going on down there. Years ago, after much discussion, Ev and I both decided to be cremated. “Do me on a low flame, just in case,” he’d said the day we put it in writing, and I’d laughed, but all those jokes are hollow when you think about them. Helen and Sam, Sam and Helen. Ev and Al. Everything else falls away.
I dug the worry stone from my pocket and placed it on the ledge of my mother’s tombstone. I found a similar one, though not quite as smooth or white, on the path near their graves, and I placed it on my father’s. Then I opened my purse and took the letter from
The New Yorker
out of the zippered compartment. I slipped it under the worry stone, which served as a paperweight now in the mild April breeze, but I could still read the words “Try us again!” before I turned away.
When I got back into the cab, the driver turned in his seat and looked at me with beautiful, dark liquid eyes. “Mother?” he asked. “Father?”
“Yes,” I said, and he shook his head.
family?” I asked.
“There,” he said, solemnly, gesturing through the cab window, and he could have meant Pakistan or India or heaven, or just another section of Queens.
Esmeralda was gone when I got back to the apartment. She’d left a row of emptied bottles of cleaning supplies on the kitchen counter, my signal to buy refills. I made a shopping list and put the empties into the bin in the trash compacter room. Then I began to prepare dinner, using some of those healthful ingredients said to help stave off decline and cremation.
As I sliced radishes for the salad, I thought of my mother’s poem “Minor Surgery,” and of what it might mean to have a bloodless heart. It was, in effect, what I’d accused Ev of back in the workshop, and later in our arguments about Scott, after all the nights of that organ’s steady beating against my own. But it wasn’t true, even metaphorically. And he was wrong about me, too. My passion wasn’t simply willed, it was a product of my history.
Ev and I had originally come together in haste, in a state of heightened emotion, and for a while it seemed that we’d parted that way, too. But I think now that our separation was probably in the making during all those years, the way a pearl forms inside an oyster, one grain of irritation at a time.
So we were very cautious about trying to get back together. That we’d both said we were sorry that night at One Art was merely an overture, a show of goodwill and a demonstration of our mutual loneliness. But we were able to sustain that détente for a while as we reveled in Suzy and George’s wedding plans, and worried over Jeremy and Celia, who still gave off sparks of tension the way they’d once radiated happiness.
“I thought they were okay,” Ev said sadly, “that they’d patched things up. What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” I told him. “Some clash between love and art, I suspect, don’t you?” And we traded rueful little smiles. “Maybe they’ll work it out, though,” I offered. We were like longtime business partners going over the ledgers together, marking the profits and losses.
But soon after that, we fell into arguing again, with each of us assigning blame for some things and assuming it only reluctantly for others. Of course, Scotty came up in the venting of our grievances, and after a storm of shouting and tears we finally agreed on joint responsibility for his failures, with our alternating fits of indulgence and control, and that he did need outside help. Dr. Stern referred him to someone downtown. God knows what he says there, or how long it’s going to take to undo whatever we’ve unwittingly done to him.
Ev and I spent hours and hours talking, too, in mediation, until one particular evening, when we came to an impasse. We were in the apartment, our first time there together since the day of my father’s funeral, and I had just told Ev about my recent discovery about my father and Parksie, and what I had told my mother. It was a way, I thought, of letting him back into my head, into my life. I expected him to be sympathetic—even to try to absolve me—like the old Ev, who’d rubbed my feet whenever the world was unkind.
And he did say some of the right things: that I was only a kid when it all happened, and that my mother had still been happy in many ways. But he seemed more distracted than moved by my news of the past, and in a little while he said, “How about you?”
“What about me?”
“You know,” he said. “
I didn’t know what he meant at first, and then I got it. He wanted to know if I was my father’s child, if I had screwed around, too, in his absence. It felt like such a violent break in the careful diplomacy of our renegotiations, like a bomb going off at an embassy.
I’d discussed the possibility of confession with Dr. Stern only the week before. All she’d said was that I’d have to try to understand my motives for telling Ev about Michael, and consider the possible consequences. One of them was that I’d probably learn about any extramarital affairs Ev might have had. Quid pro quo. Did I want to know about that? I decided I didn’t, that too much honesty would be an unbearable burden for the fragile bones of our attempted reunion.
Still, I felt hurt and angry that he’d asked so bluntly about something that sensitive, especially in the context of what I’d just told him about my mother and father. Why did their marriage always seem to be such a ghostly presence, and a pall over my own? Begone! I ordered, the way I’d once implored them to stay. And I almost blurted out the truth to Ev, just to hurt him back, but then I didn’t. I only said, “There’s nothing to tell,” which was really just another version of the truth, because the facts weren’t for telling, not then, anyway.
And I didn’t go on to say, “How about you?” even when I was still goaded by anger, because of an abiding sense of fairness, and the dread of finding out. When I’d finally let myself imagine Ev with someone else, it was that woman in the leather miniskirt and big sunglasses I’d seen leave his building the day I went there as a spy. She seemed anonymous enough, impermanent, a phantom now, just like Michael.
The danger we’d just avoided led us, inevitably, into bed. Something was bound to before too long. Ev kept declaring his love, the way he used to, and married lust is a fine, polished thing, but it doesn’t exactly drive you crazy, or push you into making sudden, rash, long-term arrangements. So we had to slip back together again slowly and soberly, over several weeks, looking through both ends of the telescope at our lives.
Later on the night of the day I’d gone to my parents’ graves, after Ev and I had eaten our wholesome dinner, we sat in the living room and listened to the evening news. Then he shut off the radio and took some pages from his briefcase. Positioning himself in the chair next to the brightest lamp in the room, he began to read aloud from a story he’d been working on. I sat adjacent to him, doodling on a pad in my lap as he read, writing down things like “God-like omniscience,” “so
” and “what is at stake here?” I might have been commenting on Violet’s painting, on the wall behind Ev’s head.
While he continued to read, his voice rising and falling in waves, I scribbled over some of my words with little sketches of idealized men and women, seen in profile, like the ones Violet and I used to draw in high school during long assemblies, and then I covered the profiles with Escherlike optical designs.
When Ev finished reading, he gathered his pages, cleared his throat expectantly, and looked up at me. I waited a few thoughtful beats before I said some of what I’d written down, leavening my harshest comments and questions with scattered offerings of sincere praise—applying that blend of honesty and charity that our teacher, poor Phil Santo, used to vainly press us to try in the workshop—while Ev kept jotting down what seemed to be earnest notes.
Then we changed places. I carried my notebook to the easy chair near the good light, and put on my reading glasses, so at first I was in his shadow, and then he was in mine.