CAMP HAPPINESS

"Restaurant Terrace in Nienstedten," 1902, Max Liebermann

 

 

On the plane from Chicago to San Francisco they didn’t speak to each other though Thea smiled at the flight attendant and drank the airline’s headache-inducing wine. Allan forewent the smile but not the wine. Silence, they agreed in silence, was better than speech. The false kind prompted its own queasy ache, and of the other kind the past two years they’d had more than enough. The 235 airplane minutes from ORD to SFO Thea drank and tried to sleep while Allan drank and worked on the Sudoku in the in-flight magazine. When their arms touched on the shared armrest they jerked apart. They were going to separate—she wanted to and he was done fighting her—but before that there was Dylan’s bar mitzvah, and before that was now: this weekend in the rolling hills beyond Oakland with similarly bereaved Jewish strangers.

Wine-woozy, they were last on the shuttle, crammed full with couples who seemed psychologically better off than they. They sat in the rear, their eyes on the uninquiring backs of heads, while bits of talk fluttered toward them—Don’t ask, my seatback was stuck in the. . . They ought to reward people who . . . On the plus side . . . A rabbi, a priest, and an imam go . . . Life is way too short  for . . . Oh, who can think straight at . . . Is there a plus side?. . . Completely generous and kind, I mean it—and the van climbed out of coastal fog into countryside that under other circumstances they would have marveled at. It was the route Nate had taken two consecutive summers to a camp for very sick Jewish children, courtesy of the same foundation that had funded this trip. These were hillsides Nate had seen, or that had passed without his seeing. The thought struck them almost simultaneously. Hairs rose on Allan’s scalp, and he wanted to say something, but one look at Thea quashed the impulse.

Dinner was served at a long table set for twenty or so, where they learned and immediately forgot people’s names, remembering at times—they were casual, quasi-assimilated Jews—the Hebrew words to the Sabbath blessings. An evening service followed, and they stood in their gender groups, she with wigged or headscarved women who all seemed best friends, he with men rocking back and forward in their black suit jackets. These were Jews whose Judaism gave them solace, they in part believed. Jews whose God voted Republican (probably) and wanted them on the West Bank. A church pew might have seemed homier.

They were enfogged even from themselves till morning, when—maybe it was the intimacy of the tiny bathroom, where you shaved while your wife sat down to pee—a needle of grief, always worst upon awakening, pierced through Allan’s jet lag. His eyes sought Thea’s in the mirror over the sink, offering her tentative access to his portion of their joint anguish, but she went opaque. As if she didn’t like what she saw and wanted to hide it from him. She turned on the shower and vanished behind the curtain into the sound of rain.

Allan was not one to make trouble. The world of his feelings was private and he quickly returned there. He was already dressed when she skated back into the bedroom with a bath towel around her head, otherwise naked that warm September morning. Not a come on, just the semblance of it. He looked toward the window. Beyond the spreading lawn was the darker, mesmerizing green of woods, possibly redwood trees. In Illinois he didn’t think about redwoods, though he approved their existence, their size that stopped your mind.

Then Thea was talking in her new giddy, impenetrable way.  “Ma-an! Why did I think they’d give us blow dryers? On Shabbat?” She bent over the tumble of clothes in her suitcase. Her bare back, smoothly muscled and shining. “You know, Dylan could use some granny-love. If we have any money left after the bar mitzvah we should fly down to see your folks—over Christmas break?” she said, as if their shared life would continue. She dropped the towel, pulled on a dress, looked in the mirror. Flaunting her proud, ashamed, newly washed face. “God, it’s hot. Will they stone me if I show arm skin?” She took off the sleeveless dress and replaced it with something loose and long. Her wet hair hung to her shoulders. With one graceful motion she twisted and clipped it up, then tied a scarf around her head. Stray curls she pushed inside. Her glance brushed by him. “Do I look like a good Jewish wife now?”

Her face was thin and fine-boned. Headscarved, she could have been a cancer patient. He would not of course say this. Walking down to their kosher breakfast he clung to the continuity she had intimated and to the banister under his hand. Orthodox, Ultra, Whatever, the other couples at Osher B’machaneh—Camp Happiness, as Nate called it—were grieving like them, lost like them.

“Let’s git us some fake bacon,” Thea said. Allan tried to laugh.

 

 

In high school and college and beyond, Thea had sought pain as well as pleasure, evil along with goodness; she wanted to hurl herself into experience as into fast-moving water. In the spirit of Renaissance man Benvenuto Cellini, a sculptor, musician, painter, writer, and also soldier and (gasp) murderer, she took karate, took pills of unknown content, wandered bad neighborhoods, slept with any man who didn’t totally disgust her, and even, to speed her development as a twentieth century Renaissance woman (except, of course, for the murdering) meditated herself toward the void and beyond, to induce madness as R.D. Laing described it in The Politics of Experience—a process that would heal whatever needed to be healed in her, and improve her acting skills.

Now theater was a dusty old scrap of a dream, her talent too far from genius to sustain itself, and craziness was something she had no time for. But among religious Jews in the hills above San Francisco, far from her work, their shared friends, their remaining son (and there was work to do for his fast approaching bar mitzvah), she recalled the good part of being twenty years old, the ecstatic unboundedness. She needed a divorce, a decision she had crept toward as if blindfolded, and there it was there, a shining door to slip through and close behind her. She had confessed the thing with Ed not to mend the marital rift but to expose it. At times she hated Allan, though he hadn’t done anything wrong or mean or even careless and weak.

“It’s not Allan,” said Janice, her long time therapist, who had helped her through what Janice called her Dance with Death. E.g. the schmuck (Donnie) who eschewed condoms and underarm deodorant and got her pregnant, which led to the abortion that made it hard to conceive without extraordinary means including surgery. “It’s not Donnie,” said Janice.

Thea had asked for an antidepressant and Janice agreed to prescribe one—after Thea 1) visited the cemetery where Nate was buried (not that it would do him any good); and  2) signed up for this bereavement retreat (but what was the point of wallowing? She had one life; she refused to live it as a victim).

On Cymbalta now, but still angry with Donnie and Allan both (and Janice, and the unjust distribution of the world’s luck), Thea walked briskly into the dining room, Allan following. The table was almost full but they found two seats together. She wasn’t at all hungry; these days she ate when it occurred to her, sometimes in the middle of the night. When laden plates appeared in front of them, on a whim she took Allan’s nearest hand and held it while he tried to eat. She felt tender and wicked. He held his toast with his free hand while she spread butter with her free hand. They were in synch, receiving amused looks from people nearby, people who kept kosher at home and went to Temple on Shabbat. Shul, they called it. “Anyone here feel like a victim?” she would like to ask them. Evil mischief, completely inappropriate, unearned by these people, danced in her mind.

 

 

Saturday morning was carved into sessions: Abbreviated Shacharit (8-8:45) followed by Couples, Private (9-10:00) followed by Couples, Open (10:15-11:45).

Couples, Private, gave them an office-like room and Reb Sholem Mizrahi, a slight, pale, youngish man with a yarmulke atop long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. When Thea spoke, which was most of the time since Allan seemed to have taken a vow of silence, he looked only at Allan. Still, her energy was fueled by the presence of another person, even one who didn’t seem to like her. She detailed for the rabbi the past two grim years, Nate’s sickness and death, and even her infidelity that began with Nate’s illness but didn’t assuage a single thing. Did she feel guilty? Involuntarily lifting her chin she glanced at Allan, then back to the rabbi. Guilt scampered among worse feelings. But she could still, she told Mizrahi (emphatically), go to work, talk to her girlfriends and her sister, while Allan had cut himself off from everyone including her. Allan had taken a leave this semester, the worst thing for him in her opinion, being alone with himself in his state of helpless grief. She wished he could get angry (though she was angry enough for both of them, Janice had said). Thea paused, not sure how her husband and their counselor were receiving her words.

“How is it,” said the rabbi to Allan, “that Mrs. Feinstein can speak of these troubling events while you—”

Thea’s voice rang loud even in her own ears, “While he’s dead to the world?” Mizrahi shook his head as if at a daft child, but she persisted: “He’s given up.” The man’s countenance remained neutral, his pale, high forehead unlined. Thea eyeballed Allan. Am I wrong? she said in her mind. Fight me! If he didn’t open his mouth, she was leaving the room.

“Mr. Feinstein, let me show you something.” Mizrahi took a book from his desk. “There are people,” he said to Allan, “who know the Holy One without effort or study. Look at this for a moment and tell me, are there many lights in the picture? Or is there one light?” He had an unusually low and resonant voice for a small man, it seemed to Thea. He gave Allan the book. The cover image was a photographed supernova, a cloud of smeary, bright white streaks and dots. One light or many? The riddle stumped Thea, a feeling she hated, while Allan, who liked puzzles, gazed at the picture and murmured, however reluctantly, “I would say one light.”

Mizrahi nodded assent more briskly than he had to, to make his point. He seemed to be trying not to grin. “Loss is something that every one of us experiences in our trek through the wilderness. It’s unavoidable. But from another, let us say broader, perspective, when we recognize ourselves as beams of One Light there is no loss, no death, no pain, or even surcease from pain. What I am saying may be hard to fathom when the loss is recent, but please try to consider: There is no loyalty and no betrayal, despite the violation of—”

Betrayal? Violation? She despised those words. “You don’t know anything about us—” she began, but his deep voice flowed on.

“When you see light as one and not many, the complex becomes simple.”

She was trembling. It was how she had felt when she started with Janice—unmoored, unwed, underemployed, approaching age thirty as in a hot air balloon. “What are you doing? Do you really think this’ll get us anywhere? Talk, Allan.”

Reb Mizrahi was unperturbed. “There is no need to get somewhere, if it means away from what’s here. Grief is not something we leave behind, it’s something we take into ourselves. Till we discover there is nowhere to go and nothing to lose.”

Thea’s teeth were chattering. She took Allan’s hand and almost pulled him out of the room. “That man shouldn’t be allowed in any position of responsibility. Right?” She hoped she wouldn’t have to explain.

“We didn’t thank him,” said Allan.

They were walking down the hallway. Thea turned to see his face. Yes, he was kidding. Sweet tears sprang to her eyes. “What about that violation thing? Was he shaming me? Or am I paranoid?”

He smiled. “Maybe a little paranoid. But in the best sense of the word.”

What best sense? But she felt his affection and even respect for her inside the absurdity. She kissed the side of his arm over his cotton sleeve, gratefully, almost passionately. Feeling for a moment the two of them as beams of one light.

 

 

Their early exit gave them a free half hour, spent lying on the bed in their hotel room, side by side like brother and sister. They made fun of Mizrahi, the ponytail-with-yarmulke look that combined New Age and Orthodox Judaism. Yarmulke, the new baseball cap?

Thea sang a song from West Side Story with new words: “I feel petty. Oh so petty!”

They talked about Dylan, how surprisingly well he was doing since the funeral, joining the crew team, converting the weight he’d gained during Nate’s illness into muscle. “Do you trust it?” she said, referring to Dylan’s buoyancy. Dylan was staying with a friend this California weekend. Dylan had many friends and was usually out with one or more of them. “I don’t know,” said Allan, though in fact he didn’t trust it, didn’t trust anything that seemed easy. Who was this woman? She had challenged him to be unfaithful to her, had almost encouraged it, as if to restore a kind of balance. She’d accused him of suppressing his anger, as if yelling or breaking things were salutary. Yes, he was angry, but it was a small part of the whole. If she were getting it on with some bloke over in London, what did it matter in the valley of the shadow of death? Was that his cowardly avoidance? Or perspective?

He considered once again the difference in their ages. She had been a student, although an older one, at the college where he taught. He considered the actress in her. For her, speaking, acting, and even acting out were restorative. But if he had learned one thing in his fifty-six years, it was that some things could not be restored. Thus, the importance of honoring what you had, and not tossing it away for the soap bubble called freedom. He couldn’t even fathom the possibility of more loss in his life, couldn’t open his mind to it. Loss, even the abstraction, brought tears to his eyes. His senior year of high school he had loved a girl with so much of his being that when she broke up with him he wanted to kill himself. Every day of his first college semester, he had thought about suicide. To the point of methods, the hook in his closet that might have held while he hung himself. He still sometimes dreamed about the girl, Susie Paris. She was from Cleveland and pronounced Paris as Pierce. It was adorable. Should he tell that to Thea?

On the bed beside him, Thea was watching him. Her brown eyes looked amber in the light from the window, with gold flecks he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen before. In her dark hair, not a thread of gray. “You’re so beautiful I could almost forgive you,” he said, trying to be funny, among other things.

Her face went still. “You know,” she said, “I’d go down into Hades to get him back.”

He nodded. “Yes. We both would.”

“No,” she cried. “The point is I would. If there were a Hades.” She heaved a furious sigh. “What a useful discussion!”

Sadness returned. He thought of Dylan, talkative and energetic as if unfazed by his brother’s death, and wondered how, one day, the loss would register. Would he eventually glaze over and start to feign his natural gusto? Allan had tried to speak with him about Nate, but each time he’d felt as if he were pushing his own pain onto his happy enough son.

He lay still beside Thea, inhaling the sweet smell of her shampoo as if it were oxygen.

 

 

The chairs for Couples, Open, were arranged in a semi-circle. Thea and Allan arrived early enough to sit on the end and watch people file in, quietly for the most part, perhaps subdued by the previous hour’s revelations. Thea had put on her sleeveless dress and left her scarf in their room, petty (she knew) acts of defiance. Her hair was almost dry and curled transgressively on her neck and shoulders. One couple was female—friends? Sisters? Or did Osher B’machaneh accept alternate lifestyles? And if so, could they hold hands in public? She restrained inappropriate laughter. But her rage was spent. She was nervous, waiting for it be over.

Down the row two women started talking about a play they’d seen or wanted to see. Allan sat outermost. She wanted to change seats with him. On her other side sat a woman about her age with a large, straight, Greek-goddess nose and silvery hair bound in a net behind her head. No other female head was uncovered here, except for Thea’s and that of a redhead across the room in skinny jeans and rhinestone peace-sign earrings, a woman who looked, if possible, more out of place than Thea. Where was the facilitator?

When Thea felt like an outsider she would quell her discomfort by befriending another outsider, two giggling smirkers in the back of the room. She had once quit a waitress job to protest a friend’s dismissal. But in Couples, Open, her red-headed alter ego had laid her frizzy head on her husband’s shoulder. Thea didn’t touch Allan, whose mildness, toward the end of Nate’s life, had become a passive despair that felt contagious. Alone in a room with him, she sometimes found it hard to rise from her chair.

She was starting to feel almost panicky when the facilitator arrived. She pushed her knees together and tried to draw them in under her skirt. Her arms were ice cold.

 

 

The facilitator had a Hassid’s chest-length beard and side curls, but he introduced himself as Bob, and his broad Brooklyn accent made Allan think of the rabbi at his parents’ synagogue. Bob smiled continually, not, it seemed, from politeness but from empathy so knife-edge keen he had to shield people from it. There was grief in the room, he said, linking each couple here to every other. They were welcome to share with their fellows the circumstances that had brought them here, or, if they preferred, they could sit in silence. Nothing was out of bounds, nothing required. Allan closed his eyes and throat against the start of tears. It seemed to him that he hadn’t really existed until Nathan was born, although he’d done less than his share of the bath giving and moral guiding. The twenty-six months of Nate’s illness he’d existed intensely, he knew. In this roomful of people, he sat with his eyes half closed, wondering who he was now.

Then talk began, and Allan listened, fed by the stories in a sad, sick (he thought) way. One young couple lost their first baby to SIDS and then had another as soon as they could—but Rahel, said the father, even at six months she was a personality! The man’s sigh hung in the air after audible sound had ceased. A couple’s son, in happy remission from leukemia for six years, suddenly came down with a different form of cancer. “I keep wondering what we did. How we sinned. Or I sinned,” said the mother. The father took her hand. Allan hunched against the sensation of falling. It wasn’t that he had caused Nathan’s death, but he felt, however irrationally, that he had failed in his duty as protector. His sin—if sin was the word—lay in permitting his son to die. For which—it struck him—he had been punishing himself. He’d taken over for Yahweh. His mind chugged down this new path. Was it hubris—his conviction of guilt—for which the ancient Greeks were punished? If so, he was due for more punishment. The involuntary groan that he couldn’t seem to suppress these days issued from his throat; he turned it into a cough. What did the rabbis say on the topic? He would ask, if one of the sessions had room for it. Thea wanted his participation.

The tales went on. More children lost, to diseases and terrible accidents. A four-year-old girl and her mother were on their way to Disneyland when their plane hit one of the Twin Towers. The father, who was also a widower, sat with a woman who was maybe his sister but could also be a new beloved. Either way, people murmured sympathy. Two other couples came from New York, one from Manhattan. Allan shut his eyes. The National Tragedy, as it was called, took place the day after the day Nathan was diagnosed. Airplanes exploding, towers collapsing; three thousand dead. He could barely remember it.

Without turning, Allan leaned toward Thea, hoping for an answering movement. But the distance between them had somehow increased slightly. It took labor for him not to cry out.

 

 

Thea had spent the past few minutes collecting her thoughts for the personal story that, as the more vocal member of the couple, she would be obliged to recount. She hoped in her speech to bridge the gap between their haphazard Judaism (god-free, Allan would have said in his more humorous days) and the rigors of Ultra-Orthodoxy by describing the bond between Nathan and Avi, the religiously observant older boy that the foundation had assigned to their family as a “big brother.”

Despite years in theater Thea was often ill at ease in a new group, not having acquired the trust in herself or other people that would have let her speak without thinking. Inclined to be truthful, she sometimes blurted things that made her look bad (and then felt like a clod), yet she gave the impression of holding back, which kept her from receiving full sympathy or consolation. In junior high school a group of girls in her homeroom had once accused her of “acting,” of being always on stage. A public style that might actually have hampered her acting career. She was seeking words to convey sincerely what was nevertheless genuine—or was it a matter of tone?—when the couple beside her declined their turn in the spotlight.

“We are too–” said the man with a glance at his beautiful wife, “we are still–overwhelmed.” The wife’s carved-in-granite face looked stonier. Her head rose higher in the splendor of its goddess hair. Commiserating from across the room, the neo-hippie shook her earrings. “I know exactly how you feel. When I get to heaven I plan to give Hashem a piece of my mind.”

Thea had mastered the impulse to roll her eyes. But her story wasn’t ready; she couldn’t remember the place where the Lubavitcher boy always took Nate and Dylan. Should she invent something? They, and she too, had loved Avi (though in the midst of Nate’s struggles she loved everyone who was good to Nate)—but where had they gone? They sometimes came back with small stuffed animals. It was a man’s name. Names, all wrong, boiled up her mind along with the fact of the loss of her first perfect son and his thin, thin arms around her, and her heart clenched like a fist, and she leaned over in her chair, pressing her chest to her lap. In her throat and behind her eyes was something that wanted to emerge in the form of tears, that she hadn’t cried, not even that early morning when Allan came into the bedroom where she was trying to sleep—she spent whole nights laboring to fall asleep—and she went into the room where Nate lay, warm but unmistakably, unnaturally still, mouth slightly open but unmistakably, inescapably, irrevocably not breathing. It was the terrible, expected thing, and she with her impacted tears, which she still can’t cry, though it might be the antidepressant, curbing orgasm so why not tears?

But there was no need to say a word. Sound and motion were coming from the other side of her. A miracle. Allan was speaking.

“Our twelve-year old-son was diagnosed with a tumor in his belly on September 10, 2001.” He repeated the date. “At first they didn’t know what kind of tumor so they didn’t know how to treat it. It was so big he had trouble breathing. My wife was in London, and because of the terrorist attack she couldn’t get a flight back. For five days.” His voice was loud and surprisingly firm. Thea sat up straight, waiting for him to describe what she had done with those unfilled days, shame her in front of the fundamentalists, who were enjoined to throw stones. It would be out of character for Allan. But she had been waiting for his anger to take form.

Allan coughed, excused himself. “When people talk about 9/11 as our national catastrophe, or tragedy, and about our national mourning, our shared trauma—well, forgive my lack of patriotism and pardon my French but—” he stopped for breath, his ears bright red, “—I don’t, I can’t . . . give a fuck.”

There was an in-suck of breath, a palpable lowering of the volume of air in the room. Eyes on her knees, Thea sensed the facilitator’s confusion. “The loss of a child seems simply wrong,” Bob said. “A divine mistake. It casts doubt on everything we ever believed in.” He spoke gropingly, with all his empathic gravitas. “In our country most families are lucky and don’t have to face this kind of tragedy. We’re the unlucky ones; it’s hard not to feel picked on.” He looked at everyone but his words seemed directed at her and Allan. “It’s what Job must have felt: Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away.”

Allan stood and charged out of the room. For a moment Thea felt stuck to her chair. Remembering another segment of that two years, a span of days near the end when she took off work and stayed home with Nate, and they played Cribbage and the silly card game I Doubt You, and screamed with laughter when they fooled the other person about what card was face down, and she let him eat anything he wanted instead of cancer-fighting foods to cure him, and he said, with surprised delight, “You’re my good mother again.” But by now she had given up. She no longer believed she could keep him alive. She had lost her faith in her own power, and had no other faith, nothing that she believed in, nothing to keep him and all of them out of Hades, and there was no Hades.

Then she was racing after Allan, down the hall and up the stairs, away from loss and grief, away from the second session that they had left before its conclusion. In their room with the door closed they shrieked, they screamed, with laughter that hurt their stiff throats. Allan could have said damn instead of fuck! Like Rhett Butler, frankly my dear I don’t give a damn? “How about hoot?” he said. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot.”

They giggled ferociously. In lieu of lunch they had sex as God had ordained on Shabbat; they flung themselves as if over a cliff into a void of pleasure. Then Allan berated himself. He was a sick man, a brute, a jerk, what was wrong with him, vamping on other people’s sorrow? How could he face that man in order to apologize?

“Why don’t we walk back to San Francisco?” Thea suggested. “Penance and avoidance in one fell swoop?”

“Two birds with one stone?”

For a moment she wondered if she were the avoider in their shared catastrophe, the real coward, and then the thought ambled on. And why cast blame, even on oneself? “Maybe we’re over the hump,” she said.

“Let’s not overdo it,” he said, as if he didn’t know she was joking. It wasn’t hard to forgive him.

They stood together at the bedroom window, the sun so bright it made her eyes water. She thought of Nate’s journey down into Hades, however imaginary. And what it would require of her in courage and emotional energy to follow him. “I know you don’t think I care enough,” she said to Allan. “You think I’m shallow and superficial.” She glared at her husband, the courage for even these words having required an absurd outlay of emotional energy.

“The thought never entered my mind,” he said, earnest as a bar mitzvah boy. “But now that you mention it—”

He eyed her with feigned solemnity. She clapped a hand over his mouth. Crazy laughter was rising again. “You think you know me? Who says that you know me?”

They looked at each other’s faces, both of which recalled Nate, his long chin (Thea), his wide apart dark eyes (Allan). Then they almost raced out of room, downstairs and outside, for the smell of earth and trees, redwoods, perhaps, where Nate had played with the other cancer kids. Where they wandered like elderly children, trying in vain to get lost.

 

 

Sharon Solwitz's novel in stories, Abracadabra, won the the Christopher Dohenny prize from the Center for Fiction and will be published as an audiobook. Her most recent novel, Once, in Lourdes (Random House), was awarded first prize in adult fiction from the Society for Midland Authors.
 
tags: Culture, Poetry & Fiction   
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