Days after removing the plexiglass partition from inside his cab, Donald Cohen was robbed. Held up on a deserted side street under the Northern Boulevard overpass. Ironic, he’d think later. He’d removed the Plexiglas partition in order to hear his passengers better, to make it easier to have conversations with them while he drove. And because his wife, Rimona, had long been insisting he change something about his job and so, he’d thought, why not this.
“I’ve got a gun,” the man told Donald, “Now gimme the green.”
When Donald handed him his stack of folded bills, the man met his eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Radio too,” he said.
Donald didn’t protest. In fact he wasn’t all that nervous. Maybe it was because the man had told him to stay cool, and Donald generally did what people told him to do. Or maybe it was because a part of him always expected something like this to happen–a weapon, a command, an implied threat of murder. Born in a Shanghai ghetto to two Nazi-fleeing Jews, Donald had been raised to anticipate the worst.
“Now,” said the man, after taking the radio, “Your keys.”
Only then did Donald begin to panic. “My keys?”
The man didn’t answer.
“Please,” Donald said, “If you take the cab…”
He did not say that if the man took his cab he would have nothing. He knew that wasn’t true. He had Rimona, her dark curls splayed alongside his every night. And of course, the children, Michael and Sara, the double slices of his heart. Too, he had his parents, insufferable though they were.
And more: He had bookshelves on top of bookshelves; movies he loved and could watch again and again. He had Greek mythology and Shakespeare. Marx, Jung and Lacan. He had Beethoven’s violin concerto and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. And he had intellectual yearnings, unarticulated questions that kept him awake through the night–Does Evil exist in a pure state or only in binary opposition to the Good? What is the Good, other than socially constructed artifice? Can language ever refer to anything other than itself?
The cab was not the only thing Donald had in his life. Yet it was, and had been for over a decade now, the vehicle through which all other things were possible.
“Be cool,” the man said. “No one wants your shitty cab.”
Shitty! Donald might have cried.
But he remembered the gun. And without a word, he pulled his keys from the ignition and handed them over the backseat. In the silence that followed, he thought he might vomit.
The man, though, had been telling the truth: he did not want Donald’s cab. Soon Donald heard a soft thud, then another, a third, a fourth. Each key had been removed from the ring, tossed under the front seat.
Then the man opened the back door and cold winter air sliced into the car, sharp and fresh. He leaned toward Donald, told him to count to twenty before climbing in back to get his keys. Donald nodded, counting out loud with his eyes fixed on the rearview mirror as he watched the man exit, money tucked away, portable radio hidden under his long tan trench coat, until he disappeared around a corner and was gone.
Donald might not have been inclined to report the mugging. It seemed hardly likely the police would find the guy, if they even looked, and Donald hated dealing with the cops anyway, always so quick to make everything the cabbie’s fault. But the shitty cab part stuck in Donald’s craw, made him want to punch his fist into his steering wheel.
Plus, some small part of him, the part that picked up extra shifts on weekends, the part that held in his need to use the bathroom for so long his kidneys sometimes throbbed, the part that endured “taxi driver sunburns” on his left elbow in summertime and pain in his ankle from so much sudden braking, the part of him that raged silently through traffic jams and perpetual street rerouting, who was shouted at by impatient passengers or else ignored entirely, who was stiffed one day and put in impossible situations the next, this part of him imagined a policeman with a sympathetic glint in his eye.
Robbed? The cop might say, Buddy, that’s rough. And then Donald could shrug, wave it away, admit that, of course, it wasn’t that bad, and what did a man do anyway, but take these blows to his livelihood, to his ego–shitty cab!–and just keep going. That’s what it meant, after all, to be a survivor.
“You can’t park here!” was instead the first thing a cop said to him. Short and squat, he’d waddled over the moment Donald slowed to a stop in front of the station. The fur collar of his blue jacket was stained with specks of what looked like mustard or yellow paint.
“I need to report a crime.”
The cop wore thick leather gloves which he waved across his chest. “Gotta park somewhere else, fella.”
“Well is there some kind of lot nearby? Where I can park to go inside?” His voice was high, insistent, not so much a survivor now as a whiner, the one thing he never wished to be. He rolled back his shoulders, tried again. “I’ve just been–”
The cop cut him off with a shake of his head. “Move this thing or you’re gonna get towed.”
The cop banged his gloved hand on the hood of the cab, a thump Donald felt in his jaw, just as he felt it every time some angry pedestrian slapped his hood or some drunk banged on his window. The cop may as well have spit at him.
“I said move it.”
“I’m going!” Donald leaned over to roll up his window, wishing he could flip the cop off instead.
Park somewhere else. Move it. As if it were that easy. As if the city was just one big vacant lot full of places to park. In fact, it was just the opposite, cars packed in dense rows, tail to hood, fender to fender, a never-ending chain of unmoving gridlock.
Donald sighed. Was it too much to want a modicum of respect for the work he did? Lord knew he never got anything like that from Gloria, his ex-wife. Fool, she called him when he didn’t find a teaching job after finishing grad school. You don’t know how to market yourself.
How can I market myself, he’d demanded, when there are no jobs?
Make a job, she’d said.
Well but he was married to someone new now. Rimona enjoyed Donald. She did not judge him for his obsession with film, did not say, as they all did–Why don’t you DO something with that degree of yours? Did not roll her eyes when he stood up to pause a video, wanting to discuss the director’s particular choice and why it did or, in Donald’s view, more often did not, achieve a certain goal the director had set out to achieve, yet why that in itself was interesting.
Rimona was a woman who unwrapped her presents slowly in order not to tear the wrapping paper, setting it aside for future use. She chopped vegetables for her dinners into tiny symmetrical shapes, abiding directions of her cookbooks with the precision of a chemist. When she and Donald made love, she closed her eyes, pursed her lips in concentration. He’d never known any Jewish woman like her–gentle, optimistic, accepting of the world as it was rather than geshrying over all the ways it wasn’t.
She would care that he had been robbed. Were you scared? She would ask him.
No, he would tell her truthfully. He wasn’t scared, not in the way she would mean. He’d been more concerned about his taxi than anything else.
And this, thinking of her, of her soft hand across his chest, her kisses on his eyelids, finally, was what led him to click off his medallion, fold up his trip sheets, press on the gas and head toward home.
In the kitchen he saw the plate of food Rimona had left for him, strips of beef and vegetables alongside brown rice, and he put it back in the fridge. Usually he was starving when he got home from his shift, and sometimes they even ate together, Rimona sipping her morning coffee, spreading margarine on toast while he polished off the night’s dinner.
Tonight, all he wanted was her. But she was already asleep when he came into the bedroom, her steady breathing rippling the dark air.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Donald said as she stirred in bed. “Go back to sleep.”
She rolled toward him, the whites of her eyes like small flashlight beams. “Hey,” she said. Then, after a long pause, “I got my period.”
This was another thing about Rimona, albeit something Donald didn’t always prefer to think of: She desperately wanted to get pregnant.
“Oh,” Donald said. “Honey, I’m sorry.”
She sniffed. “I really thought this time–”
“I know.” He traced his fingers across her shoulder.
He could not tell her about the robbery now. Perhaps tomorrow, in the light of day. Tonight it would only upset her.
“I just…God. I feel like we’ve been trying forever.”
He kissed her shoulder, then lowered his face down onto her arm. It had not been forever. With Gloria it had taken six years to conceive their second child. Long years in which they’d screamed at each other until their throats turned raw, nearly gotten divorced three times, thought seriously about adoption, and Donald had spent more than one night sleeping in his taxi cab for want of a little peace. He and Rimona had been married for only three years, trying for less than half that time.
Is that supposed to comfort me? Rimona had said when he’d mentioned all this before. Thinking about the kids you already have with another woman?
So, this, too, was another thing he did not say.
“It will happen,” he assured her and clutched her hand. Beneath the blanket her body was so warm it nearly burned.
Suddenly she propped herself up on her elbow, studied him. “Are you sure you want this?”
He hesitated. Several times when they talked about having children, he had alluded to how taxing it could be–the loss of sleep, of free time, the constant tugs on your attention and bending of your will to the needs of others. He and Gloria had been blessed with two healthy, happy kids and still the challenges and demands split them apart in the end. They came to see one another as functionaries; they never stopped arguing; their marriage was a failure. Yet another failure in Donald’s growing string of them.
The life he’d imagined with Rimona initially had been a simpler one. He’d married her, in part, because she did not express a desire to be a mother. How marvelous, he’d thought. To be free of that suffocating impulse for domesticity. Free of burdens; free of demands. Free of all the ways a person could careen head-first into disaster, ill-equipped to support the weight they were obligated to bear up under.
And yet, what could he say to Rimona? Whom he loved. Whom he adored. To whom he’d made vows and whom he’d told, time and again, that he would do anything for? Who would have no patience for his childish fear of failing any more than he already had.
Donald met her eyes, brought his thumb to her chin. “I want you to be happy.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I know it’s not.”
“What if we never had a kid together? Would you be okay?”
In the apartment next door a faucet squeaked, the shower began to gush. Someone’s day was just beginning.
“We’ll keep trying,” he said. “It’s all we can do.”
He closed his eyes and, a short time later, fell into a thick dreamless sleep.
Wednesdays were his days with the kids. He drove his cab over to Gloria’s, parking at a hydrant. Never parking in an actual space meant he couldn’t leave the cab for very long, which meant he had a reason to hurry the kids out the door and down the sidewalk to his waiting taxi. He even had a reason to not get out at all, to sit honking until the kids came running out. In doing this, he could avoid Gloria altogether.
Today, though, only Sara came. “Hi daddy!” she said, climbing into the backseat.
“Hey sweetheart.” Donald reached across the seat to brush her cheeks with the backs of his fingers. This, of course, was why he’d removed the plexiglass partition, so he could talk to his children, feel against his own skin the sweet silk of theirs. He ruffled her curls until, smiling, she ducked her head and shook him away.
“Where’s your brother?” he asked.
Sara shrugged. She was seven now, Michael thirteen, the six years of difference between them often meaning they had no clue what the other was doing, or no interest.
“Do me a favor?” Donald said. When she didn’t respond at first, absorbed by the Garbage Pail Kids cards in her hand, he cleared his throat. “Hello? Earth to Sara?” She finally looked up and smiled, his sweet girl, his rosy-cheeked miracle. She had been born into the worst of Donald and Gloria’s fighting, yet her disposition was steady, even-keeled, as though she’d heard none of it, or maybe all of it. “Can you go back to the house and tell your brother to move it?”
She gave him her cards to hold, then dashed back to the house. Donald watched in the rearview mirror, eyes alternating between the house and a potential cop car coming down the street. Moments later Sara returned.
“He’s not coming,” she declared.
She reached her hand up for her cards, flipped them through her fingers as if to make sure he hadn’t lost any. “Don’t know. He just said he’s not coming.”
“Christ,” Donald said.
“Also, Mommy wanted me to tell you I need to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s this weekend to have my hair combed out.”
“What’s wrong with your hair?”
“It’s all knotted.”
Donald sighed. “Okay. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
He zipped up his winter jacket as he headed toward the house, not because it was cold–in fact it was a sunny January day–but rather as a sort of shield. He might have pulled a mask over his head as well, if he had one.
“Hi,” Gloria said, appearing behind the iron gate. She did not unlock the door. She would not invite him in.
“He doesn’t feel well.”
“Is he okay?”
Gloria shrugged. “He’s playing video games.”
Donald didn’t know what to say. It was the one thing they both wanted, always, the one thing that had yolked them when all else in their lives had gone pale, tepid, runny. This single insistence in their children’s happiness, this singular approach to how to raise them. They were not strict, did not enforce discipline, would not let their children cry. Sara had been breastfed until she was two; Michael, until he was three.
“I guess he can just stay here then,” Donald said.
He remembered taking the children through all the rooms of his apartment, just after the divorce, before he’d even met Rimona. The false enthusiasm in his voice–These will be your bookshelves! The desperate cheer in his voice–Mommy and I need a little space. But now you can have two of everything!
Sara had seemed untroubled. “Can we get a cat?”
But, Donald knew, Michael was uneasy. “What’s that smell?” he’d asked, even when all Donald could smell was his own new beginning.
And yet, how could he possibly please everyone? His son, his daughter, his ex-wife, his new wife. The cops. The passengers, those who mugged him and those who didn’t.
Remembering the cab, he turned toward the street, saw the back of Sara’s head bobbing.
“What’s this about Sara’s hair?”
“The school called,” Gloria said. “Her hair is so tangled the nurse couldn’t check for lice.”
“They wanted to know if there were problems at home.”
At home. As if there was just one, Donald thought. A single place.
“What did you tell them?”
“I told them yeah, there are problems at home. My husband walked out on me and has gotten remarried and never pays his child support on time.” Her mouth curled up, as though this was amusing, this argument that by now they have revisited too many times to count.
“You know what,” Donald said. “I’m not doing this with you right now.”
“No. What you can do right now is pay the child support.”
Money. Always money. It all came back to that with her. Every single time.
“I just sent you a check,” Donald said.
“It’s not enough.”
“Well I don’t have anything else to give right now.”
She lowered her gaze, spoke to the ground. “If you got a real job…”
“What was that, Gloria?” And then it was too late, the lid was blown, the flame popping off the roof of his head, anger unleashed like a swirl of hissing snakes. “It’s never enough with you. Nothing is ever enough!”
He reached into his pockets, began pulling out coins, dropping them through the iron gate. Gloria screeched, ducked. He took his wallet out of his back pocket, opened it, stuffed dollar bills through the gate, flicked them so they fluttered to the ground, fell on her slippered feet, all the while saying, “HERE. Is that enough?” And “For fuck’s sake, HERE, GLORIA! Goddammit, is that real enough for you?”
He only stopped, finally, when he saw Michael in his periphery, upright, a backpack in his hand, staring at both of them, his mother, holding her hands up toward Donald, saying Okay, okay, and Donald, shivering now from sweat turned cold on his skin, his empty wallet held out before him.
“Michael,” Donald said.
The boy just stood there, the handle of his backpack clutched within both hands. He did not ask what was going on. He did not even look concerned. He simply looked back and forth between his mother and his father, dropped his backpack, and went away.
Donald glanced at Gloria, at the pile of coins and bills now on the ground behind the gate, inside the home where he once lived, and his own stomach began to ache.
He said, “I’ll take care of Sara’s hair,” then turned and walked back to his taxi.
“You must still love her,” Rimona said to him that night, her tone so unexpectedly accusatory that Donald spat back, “Gloria?” though it was obvious whom Rimona meant.
In response she only shrugged, letting his ex-wife’s name stand like a spike in the floor between them.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m sorry I even mentioned her.”
“Then why did you?” Rimona asked, her back still to him. “Why talk about her at all?”
He didn’t have a clear answer for her. All he knew was that Rimona had been in a better mood that evening, seeming to have recovered from the week’s disappointments. She’d smiled at Sara’s jokes over dinner; he’d touched her knee under the table and she’d inched it closer to him; he’d thought, hoped, they would be together tonight, remember what it felt like to be bodies in heated exploration rather than simply bodies at work toward a goal.
Then, like an idiot, he’d opened his mouth about Gloria. Wanting to vent, nothing more. Wanting even to make her feel good: I’m so glad I have you now.
But she’d taken it the wrong way. And maybe he’d read her wrong all evening. Underneath her smile, her laugh, her fingers in his, was the fragility that had claimed her over the past months.
Perhaps he’d even read himself wrong all evening. I can’t believe you have to put up with her, he’d hoped she would say.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. We just had a big argument.” Reaching for Rimona, turning her around, he said, “It’s nothing. Let’s forget it.”
“It’s bad enough…” Her voice caught and she stopped. Then a glance toward the wall and a hard jut of her chin in the direction of the door. “Them.”
She rolled her eyes as if utterly exasperated with him. “Your children.” Her hands flung out toward the door, on the other side of which, at the end of the long hallway, Sara slept in the spare room.
“What’s bad enough about my children?”
“Exactly that,” Rimona said with an uncharacteristically hard, bitter laugh. “That they’re your children.”
“Oh. Sweetheart, I…” He trailed off, not knowing what to say. He did not want to fight, not tonight, not ever. “I’m doing my best,” he said, working to keep calmness in his voice. “And I know you are too. We just have to be patient. It can take a long time to–”
“I think, maybe, it’s time for you to sell the taxi.”
“We’re stuck, Donald. Still living in this tiny apartment. Still cooking in that tiny kitchen. Bumping into each other in the hallway. Like we’re college students or something.”
He stared at her, not seeing, not comprehending. “Where is this coming from? You know I can’t afford a house right now. I thought we were on the same page here. We’ve talked about this. We both agreed–”
“I’m tired of my entire life being on hold!”
“Shh,” he admonished her, then immediately bit his tongue when she glared at him. As if him not wanting her to wake his daughter just then was the worst offense of all.
“You need to sell the taxi.”
“Why do you keep saying that? How can we look for a bigger place if I don’t even have a job?”
“Don’t have a job,” she repeated with such disdain, such frustration, that he wondered if in fact it was she who had been talking to Gloria that day, she who had let Gloria’s hardness, her impatience, eat away at all that was kind and gentle within.
But of course they had not spoken. The problem was him. There was simply something about Donald that turned women sour. Made them sarcastic and bitter and hard. Let them down, even as he tried so very hard to hold everything up.
“You have a PhD,” Rimona went on. “We both know that there are so many things you could be doing. Teaching. Reviewing films. Working for a journal of some kind.”
It was like he was thirty years old again, like he was standing in the living room of Gloria’s brownstone. There’s so much more you could be doing. You didn’t get a PhD just to drive people all around town. Don’t you want more?
“Like those jobs are so easy to get,” Donald said, just as he had said, once, to Gloria.
“But you’re not even trying!” Rimona protested.
“Honey,” Donald said. “We can talk about this. Another time. When we’re both–”
“What other time? When?” She gestured up and down her body, that ticking human clock. “I don’t have time.”
“And how would selling the cab right now help either of us?”
She flung her hands up in desperation, walked toward the window that overlooked the street, where his cab sat parked in the night. “Because maybe if you were doing what you wanted to be doing with your life, we would have an easier time getting pregnant.”
“Oh my God. That is absurd.”
“It’s not, though. It’s really not. Don’t you see? How stuck we are? How stuck…you are?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t see.”
Though of course he did. He saw it every day. Every time he drove through Greenwich Village, got the whiff of NYU and remembered his days in grad school. Every time he picked up a man in a suit who leaned forward and tossed money into Donald’s lap like Donald was invisible. Every time he picked up a book in a bookstore and the clerk shot him a look that reminded him that he had a twelve-hour shift’s worth of grease trapped in the edges of his fingernails.
“You could change all this,” Rimona said, and gestured around the room, their cluttered closets full of unpacked boxes, the windows with their cheap plastic blinds, and then even her own body, as if that too, improbably, were something it might be within his power to change.
“And what?” Donald said. “Become a high school teacher? Have regular hours and wear a tie and take orders from a principal? So we can buy a house and have a mortgage and live a nice little Bourgeois life?”
“Is that so terrible?”
“No,” he said. “But you thinking that doing all that will help you get pregnant–”
“It’s better than doing nothing.”
Stunned, he fell back on the edge of the bed. Nothing? Is that what she thought he did for sixty hours a week every week? Is that what they all thought he did–his ex-wife, his daughter, his son? Nothing? Good god, it didn’t make any sense. To him, every day, every minute, it felt like he was doing just about everything he possibly could.
“Maybe I should go home,” Rimona said suddenly.
“Vermont. To be with my parents.”
“Oh, God. No.”
She dipped her head low, sniffed away tears. But when he tried to come toward her, she held him back with an outstretched hand.
“Just for a little while.”
“No,” Donald said again.
She finally looked up, met his eyes. “I have to.”
“Why? Please, no, I’ll–”
“Don’t,” she said. “No more promises. Just help me understand.”
She placed her hands squarely on his shoulders. “What is it that’s holding you back?”
At the sight of her grandmother that weekend, Sara swung open the door and jumped out of the taxi, running up the cement walkway and hurling herself into Marilyn’s arms. “Grandma!”
His mother’s nasal voice sliced through the cold: “Mamala shanes!” Her kiss on Sara’s cheek left a waxy red smear.
“Hi Ma,” Donald said and leaned in for a hug, inhaling the kitchen scents clinging to her skin. By now she would have been cooking for hours, taking great care to make food she would insist was nothing, not at all special, the least she could do.
Sure enough, as they entered the house through the kitchen a blast of warmth from the oven greeted them, every burner heating food. Matzoh ball soup, fried cauliflower, brisket drenched in sauce, chicken cutlets, steamed peas, rice, challah and tzimmes waiting on the table along with egg noodles slick with butter, pound cake, vanilla cookies, sucking candies with droplets of butterscotch inside.
“I’m trying to watch my weight,” Donald had told his mother so many times.”
“You don’t want to eat, don’t eat,” she would say. Then, off-handedly, as if an afterthought, “May you always have such choices.”
“Miss America!” proclaimed Donald’s father to Sara. On the other side of the room, Sara waved tentatively, then burrowed her face into her grandmother’s leg.
She was mildly afraid of her grandfather, and Donald didn’t blame her. With the thick and frankly hideous black toupee, large fake yellowish teeth, thick German accent, his limp, and his all-round sour demeanor and preference for cable news and darkened rooms, what child wouldn’t fear this man?
“Sara,” Friedrich said. “Do you know what sanctions”–vat zankshuns– “are?”
Sara looked up at Donald, then slowly shook her head.
“Of course she doesn’t know what sanctions are,” Donald said. “She’s seven.”
Friedrich simply shrugged as if to say, “Eh, seven, seventy, what’s the difference?”
And at once, Donald felt the familiar itch to leave, to run screaming from this prison of a house in which hung his mother’s bleak landscape paintings and portraiture, all shadows and dark reds, where every room smelled of food–Eat as much now, his mother would say when he was a boy–You never know when you might have another meal– and in which all his life, through college, up until he’d at last left for grad school at age twenty-one, he had listened to his father bark orders at his mother, or his mother scream cruelly undermining words at his father, where he had watched his father slam the front door and disappear for weeks at a time, returning at last with a fat pile of cash that he tossed onto the kitchen table with disgust, where Donald himself sat for hours, rolling a tin can back and forth along the floor’s wooden slats with no one seeming to wonder about this sad and lonesome behavior, while in other rooms his mother sighed, and banged pans around, and spoke violently in Yiddish, or else sat beside him on the couch–Oy, Donny, what they did to us–and wept.
He did not leave though. “No” was not a word he uttered to his parents, whose suffering was already endless, for whom every slight was an echo of history’s gaping wound.
“Nu,” his mother said, “What’s this about Sara’s hair?”
Donald reached for one of the sucking candies in a crystal bowl on the living room table. He always promised he would go easy on the sweets when he visited his parents; he always caved within minutes.
“I guess the school called Gloria. They were worried that her hair was too tangled.”
“Divorce is very bad,” Friedrich said.
“I know, Papa.”
“Your mother drives me crazy. But we never divorced.”
Marilyn lifted her fist and shook it toward him.
“Well,” Donald said. “Maybe you should have gotten divorced. Maybe you two would have been happier.”
“Stop,” Marilyn said. “What a thing to say. Anyway, how’s the new one?”
“The new one?” Donald asked. “You mean Rimona?”
“Is there another new one?”
“No, of course not,” Donald said, and caught his mother reaching for Sara’s hand, as if she needed someone to hold her, to comfort her, through all her son’s romantic missteps.
“She’s fine,” he said of Rimona, and decided right then that he wouldn’t mention a thing about her wanting to return home, the way his hands shook when he’d kissed her goodbye that morning.
But then Sara threw herself into one of the living room chairs, as if settling in for a movie. “Rimona wants a baby.”
Donald stared at his daughter, sucking candy caught between his teeth.
“A baby!” Friedrich exclaimed in horror. Turning to Donald: “Das kannst du dir nicht leisten.”
“I know,” he answered his father in English. He hardly needed to be reminded that he could not afford a baby now.
“She wants one,” Sara went on. “Mommy said.”
“Gloria told you that?” Donald said.
Sara nodded. “She said Rimona might leave if she couldn’t have a baby.”
Both his parents stared at Donald wide-eyed. He tried to think of something to say, but of course all he felt was that familiar rising heat. Gloria. Was there any business she did not poke her beak into? Any private matter she simply left alone?
“It’s okay, though,” Sara went on. “Mommy said that if Rimona left you’d find someone else quickly. Because you don’t know how to be alone.”
She smiled, proud of herself. While he, in turn, could do nothing but crunch down on his sucking candy, his molars breaking it into sickly sweet splinters.
“That’s not true,” Donald said at last, looking first at his father, then at his mother, then finally the slats of the wooden floor between them. “I’ve been alone my entire life.”
“Vas?” his mother said.
But his father hit the armrest of his chair and said, “Marilyn. Lunch!”
For once Donald was grateful to hear his father’s barking command.
After, he went to the basement, needing to stretch his legs from the long bout of sitting, his stomach so full he felt he’d swallowed a bowling ball. Sara had gone with Marilyn to the attic to look at her new paintings and art supplies, while Friedrich had taken up his seat in the den, resuming his afternoon TV.
Underneath a handful of old water-warped books, he found a copy of his dissertation. Leather bound, it had been typed up in the study in the old brownstone, Michael in diapers while cartoons played in the living room, Donald clacking away on his typewriter. The Iconography of German Expressionism: Signs and Symbols in the Narratology of Fritz Lang.
He opened it, flipped through the first few pages, but couldn’t get much further. Had he ever really believed this opus would deliver him to his destiny? And what had been that destiny exactly? A great scholar, a public intellectual, revered professor of Film Studies, published author, sought-after Man of Opinions.
“You could do anything,” Rimona had told him. “Be anything.”
“Make it work,” Gloria had demanded of him almost a decade before.
But a person couldn’t just do anything, be anything. A person couldn’t just make it work. Not if he didn’t know how. And sometimes, not even if he did.
The pages weighed heavily in his hand; he doubted anyone would notice if he took the book with him to Brooklyn, or if he burned it. He was sure neither of his parents knew he’d written anything like it at all. Neither had ever asked about his work, never shown the slightest interest in what he was studying. One of the few times he’d tried to talk to his mother about German cinema, she had buried her face inside her hands.
What they did to us.
Those five words. Always enough to stop Donald from saying anything more. Enough to stop him from pursuing the happiness he was sure, deep down, he did not deserve.
Donald moved slowly as he headed up the stairs. Goodbyes with his father were always depressing affairs, his father awkward in his affections, trying for a tenderness that bordered on impersonation, a shadow of the kindness Donald had spent most of his life seeking.
“I’m going,” Donald said, and paused at the entrance to the den.
His father sat in his armchair, feet up on the ottoman, a toothpick between his fingers while cable news blared on the screen. He did not look up when Donald entered.
“Stupid,” Friedrich said, and it took Donald a moment to realize his father was talking to the TV. He proceeded to speak in German.
“I don’t know what you’re saying,” Donald said, but his father only looked at him and back at the TV, as if Donald understanding him wasn’t important, a mere trifle.
Donald hesitated, turned toward the hallway and the stairs, then back. “I got robbed. In my taxi.”
His father turned his head, brow raised in surprise.
“At gunpoint,” Donald added, though the truth of the matter was he didn’t know if the man actually had a gun. The man said he did, and Donald wanted to believe it.
Friedrich clucked his tongue. “You need money?”
“No,” Donald said.
“Tell Mama to write you a check.”
“I don’t need money.”
“Fifty dollars. Tell her.”
“That’s not it, Papa.”
His father held his gaze, a question in his eyes: What then?
What indeed. What was it that would make everything right for Donald? Or if not everything, then at least one single thing?
Before he could stop himself, he kneeled on the floor, letting his arm fall across his father’s, his hand gripping tight his father’s fingers.
It astonished him to feel this, now, his childhood so many years behind him. To come back to this house, this room with its dim lighting and mothy smells, his mother’s art supplies and knitting needles, his father sitting in the same chair he’d sat in for decades, the armrest upholstery worn in the shapes of his father’s arms, warped in the places where he rested his elbows. To return now, a man so much closer to middle age than to the boy he once was, and ask, still, again, always, for his father.
To demand love from the man who all of Donald’s life seemed so incapable of giving it.
Gimme the green.
“I wanted you to know,” he said, squeezing his father’s hand, wrist bone hard against the inside of Donald’s palm. “That’s all.”
Friedrich nodded slowly, taking something in. For a moment, it seemed he would reach out, touch the top of Donald’s hair, pat him on his head. Donald closed his eyes.
But his father’s hand only lifted and dangled in the air. “My father owned an entire shop,” he said. “Two stories high. Fur. High quality coats, minks, fox fur. Then–” His hand fell upon the armrest with a thud. He paused, looked into the room’s empty space. “German soldiers come. They ran through the store, took all the fur. Not to steal. No. Threw it on the ground. Set it on fire! All of it!”
Friedrich’s voice was loud now, thick and full of feeling, his German accent even more guttural, every consonant a cinder block dropping to the ground. As was the case every single time he told this story.
Donald loosened his grip on the old man’s hand. He knew what would come next. How his father tried to get insurance to cover the damage. But they didn’t qualify because what happened was considered an act of war. Soon after, Friedrich’s family was bankrupt. And soon after that, Friedrich, just thirteen years old–Michael’s age–was forced to ride the train back and forth with his father each night to avoid the Nazis, who’d begun their raids through Berlin. Not long after that, Friedrich fled to Shanghai, to the cramped and desperate ghettos created for Jewish refugees. Friedrich’s parents would join later. His older brother fled with his wife and children to Belgium, all of whom, within a matter of months, were killed.
“I know, Papa,” Donald said, and now it was him giving his father a gentle pat.
After a while he moved to the door. What else was there to say? No, he did not know, as his mother and father did, what it meant to truly be afraid for one’s life. Yes, he understood that they had come to America and given him all that they could so that he would never truly know the sort of pain that they had.
No, he did not think his own life was hard. No, he was not whining. Yes, he understood how brutal it had been for his parents. Yes, he agreed, as he always had in the face of kristallnacht, the burning fur store, the murdered siblings and children: Yes, Donald had a good life. He wanted for nothing. He did not know from suffering.
Indeed, Friedrich and Marilyn were stuck inside a nightmare and Donald, ever the dutiful son, had little to complain about, other than his lifelong quest to join them. If only for a moment. Just long enough to be known.
It was dark when he pulled up to the house. Through the bedroom window he could see Rimona’s body, her dark curls in a bun at the base of her neck, a sign that she was cleaning, or somehow getting down to business. Packing? She wouldn’t be. Not yet. Surely they had more to discuss, new resolutions, compromises, promises. He could ask her, again, to stay.
Which would lead where, exactly, Donald didn’t know. Or whether that was the right thing for both of them, he could not say. All he knew was this, the road, quiet and empty, a traffic light swaying in the cold winter wind. The hard steering wheel between his hands. The steady clicking of the engine. The quiet whir of the fan as heat poured into the car.
He sat for a long time, here, in this darkness that he knew. Then, after another moment, he drove on, looking, as he so often was in this overcrowded city, for a place to park, a spot nearby, where his taxi would be safe.