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Authors: Hilma Wolitzer

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BOOK: The Doctor's Daughter
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He was right: people would remember it, because it would remind them of everything difficult in their lives that they tried to change, against the odds. Like my marriage, for instance. I went into the bedroom to get the money for Scott from my hosiery drawer, thinking it was practically a reward now for coming up with that title. Under my panty hose in the drawer, there was a pair of black mesh stockings that I wore only in that room, usually with nothing else. When I saw them, I had an immediate, uncanny sense of Ev’s presence, and I glanced at the bed as if I expected to see him lying there, watching me with heavy-lidded eyes. The patchwork quilt was smoothly, chastely tucked in, the pillows plumped.

My mother’s old Lucien Lelong perfume bottle, filled with pink-tinted water now but still retaining a trace of its scent, was in the center of my dresser top. My father had given it to her for one of their wedding anniversaries when I was a child. It’s an extraordinary object, with the figures of an eternally embracing couple floating inside the glass, and a winding stem on the bottom. When you turn it, as I did then, a tinkling version of “La Vie en Rose” plays and the couple begins to dance.

On my night table the digital clock greenly pulsed the seconds away, then the minutes. I sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to think of when Ev and I had last made love. It had to have been a couple of weeks ago, and it was strenuous, I remembered, but not exactly what anyone would call loving.

The physical attraction between us was powerful from the beginning— we had made three children with it—and it had retained a surprising amount of its original vitality, until I lost my job and this business with Scott and the money started. Then, I don’t know, something like the old workshop competition took over, and the friction of sexual love became more like the friction of animus. To put it bluntly, we mostly got off against each other, fiercely and swiftly.

And we didn’t speak about it later, just as we never really spoke of what had driven each of us in the unforgiving criticism of the other’s writing. I lay beside him afterward, but distinctly separate, as if we’d been severed by surgery, and I missed our old postcoital friendliness—the sleepy conversation, those murmurings of love. But as sad and unpleasant as this contemplation was, I knew it wasn’t the emotional secret I was keeping from myself.

All that time, Scott waited patiently in the kitchen for his money. He didn’t come in to see what was keeping me, as he used to come in as a child when he intuited somehow that his father and I were doing something that excluded him, that excluded everyone. I guess Ev and I never mentioned that little habit of Scott’s to Dr. Connelly, when she’d asked us about his early sleep patterns, because we’d found it more touching than exasperating.

And I had experienced the same impulse myself when I was a little girl, although I hadn’t thought about it for years. My mother and father in their bedroom, their
bedchamber,
with the cream satin coverlet and the tufted headboard and that funny smell even her Lucien Lelong couldn’t disguise. How pleased he always looked, how uncharacteristically rumpled. One time, I paused in the doorway, a timid actor waiting offstage for a cue. “Come here, goosey girl,” my mother said, opening her white arms like wings to take me in.

I got up and opened my dresser drawer again and took Scott’s money out. Ev’s specter seemed to have vanished from the room, but just before I closed the drawer I put three hundred dollars back. I went inside and explained to Scott that I was having a little cash-flow problem myself, and he didn’t look very happy about it, but he pocketed the two hundred and prepared to leave.

I felt a pang of remorse for holding out on him and I didn’t want to let him go yet. “I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Why don’t we go see Poppy in the Big House? I know he’d love to see you. We can take a cab,” I added, as further inducement. My father did love to see Scott, who’d always amused him, even now when he confused him with one or another of his nursing aides, covering himself by calling them all “young man.”

Scott looked at the watch I’d bought him in February for his birthday, one of those oversized, complicated mechanisms that tell you the time in Tokyo and Paris and is guaranteed to function sixty fathoms under water. “Sorry, no can do,” he said. “I have to be downtown.” Like a man with urgent business elsewhere.

A few days later Ev asked me if I had seen his blue-and-white swirl paperweight. It was a mid-nineteenth-century miniature Clichy that he’d picked up in Paris five years ago, and one of his favorites. I had often seen him gazing into its layered depths as if it held the answer to some cosmic question.

Ev had always treated his collection of paperweights in a casual and generous way, sort of like public art. He let the children and guests handle them, and he didn’t keep them in one place or organize them in any formal way, by color or artist or period. Instead, he set them almost randomly on shelves and tables around the apartment, where they didn’t have to vie for glory, and each one became an individual beacon of light and beauty.

My first, unbidden thought when Ev asked about the missing Clichy was of Scott standing in the living room the other day, looking around as if he were seeing everything there for the first time. “Oh, I don’t think . . . ,” I began, and then stopped myself, flustered and perturbed. I could feel the color rise in my neck, like mercury in a thermometer.

“You don’t think what?” Ev said, and when I didn’t answer, “Hello? Alice?”

“I don’t know. I’ve lost my train of thought.”

“What’s wrong with you? You never finish a sentence anymore.”

“Something’s been . . . never mind,” I said.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Al,
what
? Talk to me.”

“I told you.
Nothing.
I’ll ask Esmeralda about the Clichy on Thursday. Maybe she moved it when she dusted.”

3

“Have you noticed anything different about me lately?” I asked Violet. We were sitting across from each other in a small, crowded diner a few blocks from the Met. All around us, silverware rang against china, and other women, surrounded by shopping bags and oversized purses, leaned forward into their own intimate and animated conversations. Shrieks of laughter erupted periodically, like jungle birdcalls, around the room.

“Somebody ought to write a book called
The Bitches of Madison
Avenue,
” Violet remarked.

“Well, have you noticed anything different or not?” I said.

She peered suspiciously at me over her menu. “Like what? You haven’t had anything done, have you?” My friend Violet is what the French call a
jolie-laide,
and what Americans mean when they say that a woman looks interesting—a measured compliment in any language. Her mother had tried to talk her into a nose job when she was a teenager, but Violet refused, insisting that her nose was an important part of her true self, and she was right. Now her longish nose suited her longish face and wide mouth, all of it softened by that nimbus of frizzy dark hair.

I picked up a teaspoon and looked at my own distorted, inverted image in its bowl. My pale neck stretched out like the original Alice’s after she’d eaten that piece of cake. I put one hand to it. “No,” I said, “but maybe I should.”

“So what is it, then?” Violet asked, too loudly over the general din. “Are you having an affair?”

A woman sitting with her back to Violet turned around and gave me the once-over before going back to her salad. “Yeah, right,” I said sourly. But I fanned my face with my menu until the waitress came by a few moments later and took it, along with our orders.

“What’s the matter with you?” Violet said. “You look like a boiled beet.”

“It’s just . . . well, do I seem a little
off
to you?”

“In what way?”

I wasn’t sure how to explain it. Given her psychoanalytic leanings, Violet might interpret my complaint as a simple panic attack, but I’d had a couple of those in college—with mild tachycardia and vertigo—and this was different, less transient for one thing. So I said, “It’s just . . . well, do I seem more forgetful?” Which was only a skewed and inadequate way of saying that I might have forgotten something essential, and it had come back to torment me.

“Uh-oh,” Violet said. She raised her water glass and clinked it against mine. “Welcome to the seniors’ club.”

“Oh, are you losing it, too?” I remembered Violet’s outrage when she received her first, unsolicited issue of
Modern Maturity
soon after she turned fifty. I think she mailed it right back to them.

“Not me. My memory’s perfect, knock wood.” She rapped twice on the table and immediately cracked, “Who’s there?”

I’d told that joke to her in the first place, a long time ago, but I laughed dutifully, before I said, “That’s how my father started, you know, by forgetting little things. First, he couldn’t find his keys. Then he couldn’t remember what doors they opened. Now I don’t think he even knows anymore what keys are
for . . .

“Alice,” Violet said firmly. “That’s not happening to you.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, this health magazine I bought has a memory quiz, but I keep forgetting to take it. Don’t laugh, I’m serious.”

“Aside from the fact that you’re crazy,” Violet said, “there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I just do. What are you working on, Doctor?”

“A few things,” I said.

“What?”

“Well, I’m still editing that elderly ex-debutante’s memoir. It’s completely irreverent, but it’s quite amusing and
very
dishy.”

“Can she write?”

“No, but I can, and she’ll go to some vanity press, anyway, and distribute copies to all her new enemies. Oh, and I’ve got some hotshot scientist’s proposal for a popular book on bioethics, fascinating stuff if it were only readable.”

I took a long sip of water. “Then, there’s this first novel,” I said, as offhandedly as I could. Michael Doyle’s book was on my mind much of the time lately.

“Aha!” Violet exclaimed. She knew my weakness for debut fiction, for discovering new writers. She’d once said it was the way I compensated for never having been discovered myself. Violet wasn’t known for her diplomacy. “Is it any good?” she asked.

“More than that, actually,” I said. Michael—we were now on a firstname basis in our e-mails—had sent another fifty pages, with some of the same virtues and the same problems as the first batch. He seemed to start dragging his feet whenever the tension really built around his protagonist, Joe, and his missing sister, as if he didn’t know or like where it was heading. But he’d included a lingering sexual scene between Joe and an older woman he meets in a bus station that was hotter than anything I’d read since
Endless Love.
“I mean it’s still pretty rough,” I told Violet. “But I think he’s the real thing. You know—the writing is funny and it’s very wise and sexy.” I sounded like a dust-jacket blurb, like an imbecile.

“Oh, so
that’s
your affair.” Violet said, and my face grew hot again. I hadn’t just admired those pages, I’d been turned on by them. Why did Violet always know things about me faster and better than I did? I suppose it’s because she’s my oldest and best friend, if that latter designation is still applicable at our age. But we’ve shared far more than the experience of years between us. We’ve been each other’s confidantes in all matters of the heart and spirit since childhood.

She was the first to learn, in a breathless letter, about my sexual initiation, soon after it happened, like a news bulletin from a war zone. “It was okay,” I wrote, “but I don’t think I’ll do it again.” Actually it was terrible and amazing and a little blurry because both Stuart Rothman and I were both pretty high at the time. It was August and we were junior counselors at Camp Winnetoba, which was alleged to mean “rustling pines” in Chippewa. I bled like crazy on a bed of pine needles—God, would I need stitches?—and for a moment Stuart thought
he
was the one bleeding, and all was almost lost. Afterward I reached out to embrace him, because I thought that’s what you did, and he shook my hand instead. Mission accomplished.

That same year, I tried out my first, embryonic short stories on Violet, who loved them completely, as I had known she would, a cushion against all subsequent criticism. In turn, she showed me her paintings, and I said that I loved them, too, although in fact I found them harshly ugly and disturbing. They were dark and vaguely figurative, as if the figures were skulking in the painted shadows.

We pledged to become lesbians and live together if neither of us ever found anyone we liked as much as we liked each other. Years later Violet called from New Haven to tell me about Eli Kahn right after he proposed, and she was the only one from home to know about Ev when I was still afraid to tell my father.

Our parents had been good friends before we were born. They were neighbors in Riverdale, and Violet’s father, Leo Steinhorn, retired now, was on the staff at Mount Sinai with my father. Both men were renowned in their fields—Leo was a hematologist—and our mothers had been consummate doctors’ wives. Gracious hostesses in the dining rooms, first ladies at awards ceremonies, keepers of their husbands’ flames. Violet’s mother, Marjorie, continues to play that supporting role, with considerable flair, to a diminished audience.

Violet’s birthday and mine are two weeks apart, in November, and she was my first playmate. There’s a faded photograph in one of my mother’s albums of the two of us, in bonnets, facing each other in a baby carriage, like Siamese twins joined at the sternum. “At least you’ve always had Violet,” people used to say in comforting tones, on the popular assumption that it was lonely being an only child. I tried to perpetuate that myth myself when Suzy complained about her brothers, but when I was young I never really suffered an absence of siblings.

I didn’t have to share my room or my toys—except on the occasion of a friend’s visit—or my parents’ ardent attention, ever. And the relative solitude of my early life probably served to stimulate my imagination. I held frequent conversations with myself, not with a pretend friend, as my mother liked to think. “What’s her name, dear?” she once asked, trying to join my game, and I said, “Alice, of course.” I heard her whisper something about this episode to my father later, followed by little bursts of conspiratorial laughter.

My parents were devoted to each other, with the particular, exclusive intimacy of childless couples. They had already sadly accepted my mother’s barrenness when I showed up, thirteen years into their marriage. Violet’s mother once told me that their names were joined on everyone’s tongue: Sam and Helen, Helen and Sam. I couldn’t help thinking: Ev and Al, Al and Ev, and that our gender-bending nicknames just didn’t have the same cachet. “He worshiped her,” Marjorie Steinhorn said, in that stage whisper she still uses for dramatic effect. “They worshiped each other.”

But she didn’t have to tell me; I’d seen it for myself. The way Helen fed Sam tidbits from her own plate; the way they always kissed fully on the lips, and not just in greeting or farewell. The romantic gifts he gave her: volumes of poetry; exotic flowers and diaphanous scarves, pulled from their boxes with a magician’s sorcery. My parents may have wanted a child, but they didn’t really
need
one. Still, when I was born, they opened their magic circle to let me in. And if my mother was the queen of that household, then I was nothing less than the crown princess. To the rest of the world I was the doctor’s daughter, with all the material benefits and reflected glory that title bestowed.

My bedroom suite in our Riverdale house was once featured in
House
& Garden.
“The eminent New York surgeon Dr. Samuel Brill, and his socially prominent wife, Helen, have created a suburban Wonderland for their seven-year-old daughter, Alice.” My playroom had the requisite doll corner, with an array of authentically costumed international dolls, and the more unusual (especially for a girl) science corner, where my father had set up a miniature laboratory for me. To his frustration, I mostly used it for concocting “food” to be served in the doll corner.

In my bedroom I had a canopied bed draped in white eyelet and a skirted, mirrored dressing table, where I could despair of my looks in absolute privacy. I searched for a resemblance to my dark-haired mother, who herself slightly resembled the actress Hedy Lamarr and was named for the charmer who’d brought down the city-state of Troy. For a while I believed that my own name came from the only book I earnestly disliked, about that eponymous girl with no control over the frightening dreamscape of her life. Later I learned that Alice had also been my paternal great-aunt’s name.

I had my mother’s cheekbones and her long legs, but I had my father’s red hair, his pallid coloring that flared too easily with emotion and was patterned with freckles, the blind look of blond eyelashes; I was the negative of her vibrant positive. I sat at my little white Sheraton desk—a miniature of the one in my parents’ bedroom, where my mother wrote poetry by hand—and knocked out my sappy verse on a shiny silver Olivetti. Some of my poems were, predictably enough, about my beautiful mother and brilliant father, while others dealt with being an orphan or a starving refugee.

My parents encouraged me to recite them, hot off the press, to their poor friends during the cocktail hour in our living room. “Far from my native land, I’ve come across the sea / for a crust of bread in my hand, and a smile from Lady Liberty . . .” I can still see the frozen smiles on their faces and hear the polite smattering of applause, like a brief summer shower. After my performance, I walked happily around the room behind Faye, receiving compliments and passing out the stuffed olives and the
rumaki.
What an affected little prig I was; it still pains me to think that none of my children would ever have chosen me for a friend.

My mother kept her own poems, which were mysterious to me, yet mysteriously lovely, mostly to herself—at home, anyway. Even my father didn’t know that she was sending them out until she received an acceptance letter one day from an obscure literary magazine in Eureka, California, and released a little yelp of surprise, as if someone had stepped on her foot.

He was so proud of her. He waltzed her around the room, calling her his “poetess laureate,” and at one of their next dinner parties there was a copy of
The Jumping Frog Review,
with my mother’s poem in it, rolled like a diploma and tied with red satin ribbon, at everyone’s place setting. I’d helped him to lay them out.

“Violet,” I said now, “I feel terrible.”

“What? You’re not sick, are you?” She grabbed my wrist, as if she were about to take my pulse.

“No. At least I don’t think so.” We had both always enjoyed the informed hypochondria of doctors’ children. “Feel my head,” we used to say giddily to each other. “I’m burning up!”

“Then what’s going on?” Violet asked.

“Well, plenty. I mean, the usual. Scotty, my father, terrorism . . .” I was acutely aware of having left Ev off my list of vital concerns.

“Yeah,” Violet said. “But what’s really getting to you?”

“That’s the trouble, I’m not sure.” My hand went to my breast and then sank to my lap. “I just have this
sense,
not a foreboding, exactly; it’s as if something very bad has already happened, but I haven’t found out about it yet.”

“Ah, the secret life of the unconscious,” Violet said, as I’d been afraid she would. “So go to a therapist. I’ll get you a name.”

Violet was always pushing psychoanalysis—the unexamined life, blah, blah, blah. You’d think she was getting a kickback from the Freudian Society. Violet had gone into analysis, herself, after she and Eli separated. It took six years to complete, but she claimed that it saved her life, if not her marriage. That would have been really difficult to do, since Eli had fallen in love with someone else. Since then, Violet took love wherever she happened to find it, usually in brief affairs, and most recently with a married doctor she’d met at the Whitney. What would her analyst have said about that?

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