His eldest daughter is in the middle of her second divorce, his youngest daughter is skinny again, once again battling anorexia (a disease that he could never even begin to fathom), and, most of all—worst of all—his beloved Sharon is gone. He doesn’t even own a dog anymore, the last one having died of cancer a year before Sharon did, when Sharon was too sick to take on a puppy. All this, and still his son, Eric, wants to talk. He wants to talk about the past. Specifically, he wants to talk about what he knows happened, back when he was in high school, and came home early one day to see something through the big glass windows of the modern house they then lived in on the Main Line. “I saw a woman, I know I did,” Eric tells his father as the two of them sit in comfortable upholstered chairs, not looking at each other, on opposite sides of the study in Bill’s apartment—the Center City apartment with the great views that Sharon had insisted they buy after the last of their children had married, thinking that it would be fun to live in the city again, that they’d take advantage of the theater and the orchestra, and that she, Sharon, would shop daily at specialty shops, and learn to cook Italian. But that’s not what had happened. Instead, Sharon went to the doctor one day because she’d been tired, and learned that she had lung cancer. Lung cancer! This for a girl who’d quit smoking soon after she’d finished college. “All these years, I thought I was crazy, because you denied it,” Eric now says. “You denied that anything was weird in the house, that there’d been anyone there. But I know what I saw, and what I saw was a woman. That, and plus, Mom told us.”
“Mom told you what?”
“Mom told us about your affair.”
He lets this little piece of information wash over him, wave after wave of something toxic—acid rain, cyanide, gasoline—that leaves his mouth dry and his spine tingling with some new sensory perception, such that suddenly he can smell himself, and is forced to take in all his old-man’s aromas, of powder, and dryness, and skin worn smooth. His throat contracts, making swallowing difficult.
“Why are you telling me this, Eric?”
“I knew you were going to say that,” Eric says. “I knew that you were going to turn the tables on me, put me on the defensive. That’s what you always did, isn’t it? Father knows best. But Dad, all those lies, all those years—I’m tired of living like that, pretending that everything that happened back then, in our house, when we were kids, didn’t happen. Okay? Ever hear that the truth shall set you free?”
“I think so.”
“That’s all. That’s why I told you. For the truth. For absolute, rigorous honesty. For once.”
Eric is forty years old, a good-looking man, with taut, graying, curly hair, large light-brown eyes, and the full lips of an old-fashioned leading man. It is Saturday afternoon, and he’s just come from his health club. He’d showered and changed before his visit, and now wears beautiful soft brown corduroy trousers, a white button-down shirt, and a somewhat thread-bare, but very expensive, tweed jacket. Ever since he’d been a child, he’s blamed Bill for his problems: struggles in school and on the sports fields, difficulties with relationships, career worries, anxiety. Even so, he seems to have come out all right, with a good job, and a pretty, blonde Christian wife who spends most of her time, when she, too, isn’t exercising, working for the rights of Sudanese tribal women. No children, though. Apparently neither one of them wants them, which is another thing Bill can’t understand about his son. Not want children of your own? He himself had relished the arrival of each of his children, standing over their cribs in a swoon of wonder. But Eric, it seems, is made of different stuff entirely. He is an investment banker, doing things with hedge funds and arbitrage that Bill doesn’t really understand, never having had a head for business himself. That had been Sharon’s job—keeping the books, paying the taxes, running the store, as it were. Bill was an orthodontist; Sharon had been his office manager.
“What is it you want from me, son?”
Eric gets up and stretches, his arms held overhead like a dancer’s, before collapsing back in the chair. There’s something soft, almost feminine, about this one son of his, something overly-refined, overly-fussy, almost feline, as if, despite the hours he puts in at the gym, he’d never worked his muscles hard enough, or broken a sweat.
“That’s just it,” Eric says. “I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want you to take me out to dinner, or buy me a new tie.” Bill winces, thinking of all the times he and Sharon had done just that, buying things—books, theatre tickets, even furniture—that they thought Eric would like. They did it occasionally for the girls, too, but that had mainly been Sharon’s department: she’d liked nothing better than surprising one or the other of them with an antique quilt that she thought she’d like, or table linens, or a complete set of stemware that matched their wedding china. (Sharon remembered things like that, even after first their first daughter and then their second went through ugly, painful, expensive, drawn-out divorces.) It was almost as if they could protect their children, and assure that their lives would be fulfilling, even joyous, with children, nice houses, and health, with big Passover dinners and trips to the beach, anniversary dinners at French restaurants and photo albums stuffed with pictures, if only they provided them with the proper trappings of such a life. But the opposite had happened: all three of their children, surrounded by abundance, are entering middle age with holes in their souls, with a neediness, and a lack—of what?—that Bill, for the life of him, can’t understand.
“And it was your mother who told this all to you?”
Eric shrugs. Bill can smell the aftershave on him—or perhaps it’s his soap. A lemony smell, like furniture polish. “She told all three of us,” Eric says. “When she got sick, that is. Not right away. It was later.”
“Later?” Bill says, thinking of her last weeks, when she lay, zonked out on pain killers and bloated, like a rotting pumpkin, on the bed in the small back bedroom of their apartment, where a nurse watched over her day and night, and a stream of visitors came to sit with her in the dark, holding her hand and talking to her as if she could still hear them.
“When she realized that she was dying,” Eric says.
“She was tired of covering for you.’
Now it’s Bill’s turn to get up. What else is there to do? Turning away from his son, he gazes out the window. It’s a dark, overcast day, the clouds low, gray on their underbellies and urine-colored above, casting a queasy yellow light over the city, with its traffic and streets, its row-houses and parks, and its trees, now in flagrant, raucous bloom, as if in defiance of their surroundings. Later, of course, they will get raggedy and tired, their leaves dirty and discolored, and the patches of earth in which they stand littered with cigarette butts and soda cans. But now the view from his window is of life struggling to reclaim itself. Center City spreads out beneath him, with the river to his left. Sharon had loved this view.
“And that’s another thing, Dad” Eric continues, this time to his back. “It was like, when we were kids, we were supposed to think that we were the perfect family. Two girls and a boy, not to mention the Golden Retrievers. Like we were part of a package, an image that you put together, you and Mom both, of the perfect American family. Like the three of us were no more than lifestyle accessories.”
“I really don’t think that’s fair.”
“Can you deny it? Okay. I’ll ask you a question. What role did I play in ‘The Mikado’?”
“’The Mikado.’ A play, by Gilbert and Sullivan. My class put it on in the seventh grade. It was a big deal. We got a write-up in the local paper.”
Vaguely, it comes back to him now—his son in makeup, with blue eye-shadow covering his eyelids, and bright red lipstick on his cheeks. For months, he’d gone around the house singing. But the exact part? Why should he remember the exact part? He can barely remember the names of his own grandchildren, or what day it is, or why he should bother to get up in the morning.
“I don’t know, Eric.”
“Of course you don’t know, Dad, and you want to know why? You don’t know because you weren’t there.”
“That’s not fair. Mom and I attended all your school plays, and everything else too. Piano recitals. Soccer games. Track meets. We were there for all of it.”
“Wrong again, Dad. Mom was there. You were at work. Or wherever.”
And with that whatever, Eric takes his leave.
The truth shall set you free? What truth? Sharon was dead. He’d been wildly in love with her but as the years had worn on their marriage had become routine, which wasn’t so bad, and his life had taken on a gray flatness, a crushing burden of mediocrity, which was. Those books she’d read! The Road Less Travelled; Emotional Intelligence; Passages. So he’d been a selfish s.o.b. and had an affair, and then had spent the rest of his life with Sharon, doing his plodding, dull, steady best to be the husband she wanted him to be, attentive, alert, loyal. And then, his final act of contrition, when he’d taken early retirement, selling his practice to a former neighbor, in order to take care of her. And in the end, she’d spilled the beans to the kids, never mentioning a thing about it to him. Which was amazing, given how much she’d talked during those last few months—telling him over and over again how she wasn’t afraid to die, but rather, was merely sad: sad because she was going to miss all those birthdays and bar mitzvahs, graduations and weddings. Sad because, she said, she’d miss everyone so much, as if the dead, moldering in their graves, could miss anyone. She told him how much she’d always loved him, how much she’d always believed in him, and also said that as her time drew near she saw, with the clarity of a saint or a psychic, the mistakes that she herself had made out of her own wounded egoism, her own unfinished parts. She talked about boundaries; about unmet needs. She’d spoiled and overprotected the kids. She’d spent too much time worrying about what other people thought about her. And finally, finally, towards the very end of the very end of her life, she told him that she’d forgiven him long ago for what she still referred to as that time. “Because it forced me to grow,” she said.
“It’s all a passing show anyhow. All over in the blink of an eye! It’s all exactly as it was meant to be. I married you because I needed to learn the lessons I learned.” And on and on she’d gone, telling him that she was having visions, if not of angels per se, than of beings who were like angels, with angelic radiance, and angelic faces, and that even though she’d long since abandoned the strict Judaism of her grandparents, she now suspected that a kind and beneficent God ruled the cosmos, and that she, Sharon Bacher, was an extension of that God, and so, for that matter, was Bill.
She talked about other things too—about how she wanted her jewelry distributed, with which daughter or daughter-in-law getting which piece, and how Bill had to promise to hire some woman who could both cook and clean for him, because God knows, without a woman running the household, the apartment would soon fall into utter ruination, and how Bill had to further promise to not sit around the apartment brooding, but rather, go out—take some classes at Penn, or go to the gym, or anything, really, other than sit around that moldy old synagogue of his, thinking about father.
And again, she’d be off and running, the words overflowing her mouth—that father of his who was just so mean, so mean and so rigid and so quick to find fault—and was it any wonder that Bill himself had given up on his dream of going to medical school and settled for fixing teeth instead and their own beloved children feeling the constraint, the pinch of not-good-enough too?—the words running together like a drunk’s. Even so, in all that time—in all that torrent and tumult of talk—she didn’t once tell him that she’d told their three grown children about his one, long-ago affair.
And now it’s been four months. Four months during which, every morning, he’s donned his tallit and his phylacteries and gone down to the old shul, the one he’d attended, as a boy, with his own father. Amazing, considering what the intervening years had done to the neighborhood, turning it, first, into a black slum, and then into a yuppie-paradise of coffee shops and overpriced boutiques, it was still there. And there he prayed, an old man alone among other old men, the young people—his own son included—apparently too busy with their own pursuits to remember the dead.
It is as he remembered it: small, dark, cramped, smelling of oil and wool and damp socks and, oddly, of smoke. In the old days, the women sat upstairs, in the gallery, but now the gallery is empty, and what few women there are sit in the first-floor rows along with the men. It was here that he’d come, with his father and uncle, every Saturday morning for most of his childhood, the sole boy among the cousins, the weight of four thousand years of Jewish history and countless distant relatives up in smoke pressing on his shoulders and squeezing the top of his head. But he, Bill, was a child of America, hopeful, optimistic, with dirty blonde hair, hazel eyes, and quick reflexes, a high-school track star, a good dancer. Who would have ever thought that a Jewish boy could have grown up so straight and tall, with such graceful, languid arms and legs, and such a wide-open face? Funny, too, because the fact of the matter was that Bill’s father, Max, was native-born, as much a child of Philadelphia as Betsy Ross herself. Even so, Max Bacher was a greenhorn. A native-born greenhorn. An American who didn’t know what his nationality was.
Master of the Universe! God and God of my fathers!
The woman had been a divorcee, and the mother of a patient. Her name was Clara Stein. An old-fashioned name, and yet she wasn’t old-fashioned in the least. A German Jew, she’d gone to summer camps in Maine, and then to Mount Holyoke. She had smooth dark brown hair that she wore in a kind of bob, a long graceful neck, thick arching eyebrows, and blood-red fingernails. Her child—his patient–a boy, was badly uncooperative, with buck teeth, and pimples. There was a daughter, too, but she was already out of the house, studying anthropology (anthropology!) at some college in California.
Clara was an intellectual, a person who knew about art and literature. Her ex-husband was a partner at one of the big downtown law firms, but she had money of her own, from her father, who’d invested in the stock market. She had little use for Judaism, or, for that matter, Jews themselves.
All this was intoxicating, amazing, flattering, and new, as was the affair itself, which had started almost a year after Clara’s boy had had his braces removed, and gone off to boarding school, by which time Bill and Clara had spent hours on the phone with each other, talking about everything from reincarnation to the failures of socialism to the limits of human intelligence. And that was another thing about her, unlike Sharon, who also liked to talk, Clara talked about things outside of herself; she was interested in concepts, and history, and the way human beings played out their destinies against forces so large as to be all but invisible. Bill was no intellectual himself, but he had managed to scrap together an education for himself, first at Temple, and later—when he and Sharon had accumulated enough capital to trade in their brick house in Bustleton for the pastoral that was Bala Cynwyd and the elegance that was their one-storey, modern, stucco-clad house—within the confines of his own study. How wonderful to even have a study—to be able to lead guests over the polished dark flagstones of the hallway to admire the small room at the back of the house where, on the weekends and after work, he liked to sit and read. There, along one wall, were the built-in bookcases that Sharon had had built, and within them his own books: works of fiction and philosophy, science and biography, history and political science. He preferred reading history to anything else, gobbling up centuries at a time, insatiable for the ebb and flow of his species’ story, but what he was proudest of were the works on Jewish history, morals, Bible, and Law. The big collection of Midrashim; the translated Maimonides; the works of biblical commentators and biblical scholars. Had things been different–he often thought–if he’d been born into a wealthier, or more sophisticated family, he would have gone to law school, or even studied philosophy, delving formally into the great minds of Judaism, parsing their ideas with scholars and linguists.
In the West Philadelphia neighborhood where he’d grown up, mainly people just talked about politics. Politics, and the weather, and their health. There was a lot of talk of that kind in his own house: his father complaining about his bowels, and his mother yelling at him to eat more fresh fruit and not to strain. His own bowel movements, come to think of it, were also a subject of some concern, his mother inquiring every now and then if he were regular, and then, if he confessed that he didn’t know, dousing him with some foul concoction or another that she spoon-fed him from a bottle that she kept in the medicine chest. Then, in the winter months, the conversation turned to throats. Throats and noses: coughs and colds.
Sharon was from the neighborhood, too, only he hadn’t known her when they were growing up. He’d met her later, when he was studying to be an orthodontist and she was at Temple. He’d been set up with her roommate on a double blind date. His friend Irving Wachshaw had been Sharon’s date. The four of them had gone out for Italian. She had red hair and perfect square teeth and a satin-soft white neck. He’d fallen in love with her almost immediately.
“The Mikado”? Was he kidding? And anyhow, on Sunday, as he putters around the kitchen, fixing coffee and a bagel, it comes back to him: his son had been the Mikado himself, resplendent in silk on thick cushions.
Breakfast over, along with the requisite reading of both the Enquirer, which these days barely takes ten minutes, and the New York Times, which, the Week in Review aside, barely takes five, Bill doesn’t know what to do with himself. Other than to go to shul that is. But even in shul, he is lonely, and beset not only by grief, but by his knowledge that, even as he joins the truly devout, blending among them, he is only faking it. Heavenly Father that You may forgive me! You give me life, and I fritter it away. You give me children, and they grow up as trees bent by the wind; You give me a wife, and I loved her and was bored by her—and now she is torn from me, and I have no one to whom I might turn.
Sharon used to talk about how important it was to have what she called a “mission” in life, a term that Eric had picked up from her (apparently, Bill thought, Eric’s mission was attaining a perfect body and the shaving implements to go with it), but what is my mission, anyhow? To straighten the teeth of generations of suburban children?
After Sharon’s death, he’d had hundreds of thank-you notes to write. Who would have ever guessed that Sharon had inspired so much affection? But apparently she had, because there they were—the sympathy notes from former patients, themselves now saving up their money for their kids’ braces and college tuition, the checks made out to the American Cancer Society and the Save the Parks program in Sharon’s honor, notes from the parents of his children’s childhood friends, letters from women she’d known from the PTA and the Federation, from her cooking classes and the one semester that she’d gone back to school, thinking that maybe she wanted to get a Master’s Degree in education. He’d answered every one of those notes too, sending out tasteful cards on thick creamy paper with the words “The Family of Sharon Bacher” on the front, as his waspy-daughter-in-law, Eleanor, had suggested he do
He’d kept every single letter, putting them away in a shoe box, just in case someone—one of the children or grandchildren—ever wanted to look at them. He even kept the one from Clara Stein, who had never remarried, and never, as far as he knew, embarked on another love affair. Not that he would have known: by the time they split, drifting away from each other under the pressure of everyday life, they resolved to leave each other entirely alone. But it was an odd thing, anyhow, her remaining single. After all, she was still young—forty or forty-one at the time of their affair—and, as far as he was concerned, wildly attractive. How old would she be now? Seventy-three? Seventy-four? She had written that she’d seen Sharon’s obituary in the newspaper, and had remembered her vividly from her visits with her son, Ben, to Bill’s office. “She always had such a twinkle in her eye,” she wrote, adding, in handwriting that suddenly veered dramatically to the right, as if she were daring herself to write it, “I knew from the moment I laid eyes on her that you belonged, and always would belong, to her alone.” She signed off on the card, “yours,” with her full name beneath. He saw from the return address that she still lived in the same small, lovely, airy house where they’d met to make love two or three times a week for almost two years. He was tempted to call her, but instead, merely yearned.
“He shouldn’t have said what he said to you. He shouldn’t have said anything.” It’s his oldest daughter, Beth, on the phone, shouting to be heard over the sound of her children, who were fighting in the background. Her first husband had left her twelve years ago, saying that he wasn’t cut out for marriage. This one was tended towards depression and was frequently unemployed, and she threw him out. She liked to give advice anyhow. Thank God that at least she had a job: in fact, she did better than that. She owned a small clothing boutique that was wildly popular with the private-school-girl set in her town, selling them inexpensive fashionable jewelry and ripped jeans that rested beneath their navels on their narrow hips.
“I swear to God, I’m going to have to slap these two boys silly,” she said, although whether the threat was directed at the boys or at Bill himself he couldn’t tell. Then: “I’m talking to Poppa Bill, all right? Who do you think I’m talking to.” Bill waited. “But anyway, back to Eric. I don’t know, Dad. He just should have kept his big mouth shut, okay. I mean, what’s done is done. Ancient history, and all that.”
He’s uncomfortable when Beth talks to him like this, like she’s his mother, or like he’s an imbecile. But he lets her go on. Beth and her brother had never been close, and in recent years, they had all but declared out-and-out war on each other. He could never be exactly sure why they bickered so vehemently, but he suspected that it all boiled down to disagreements about their mother’s care, as if, even as Sharon slid further and further into the land of the dying, it was their duty, as siblings, to win the lion’s share of her love.
“He asked me if I remembered what part he’d played in ‘The Mikado.’”
“Jesus Christ. How is anyone supposed to remember that?”
“He played the Mikado, actually,” Bill says.
“But it doesn’t matter, Dad. The point is—well, you know what the point is. The point is that Mom’s gone, and nothing’s going to change that, and in the meantime, what happened between the two of you isn’t anybody’s business but your own.”
“I appreciate that,” Bill says, though he doesn’t, not really: what he’d appreciate would be if Sharon had kept her peace, and, given that she didn’t, silence on the part of his children. Not that what he’d done was really so shocking, so awful: and as Beth said, it was ancient history. Moreover, all three of his children had done worse, sleeping around in college and afterwards, experimenting with drugs, the whole generation nine yards of stupidity masquerading as freedom.. After all, who was it who had paid for rehab when Eric had had that little problem with cocaine? And shelled out again when Jill had gotten herself pregnant during her last year at Tufts? Not that anyone had told him about it—but he’d ended up paying for her abortion anyhow, and then for the shrink that she went to for four years afterwards, who didn’t, in the end, stop her from attempting to starve herself to death. Come to think about it, he’d paid for her divorce lawyer, too. But what could he do? He couldn’t simply let them go to pieces, or to the streets….he was their father. It was the father’s job to take care of the children
The truth is, even now he doesn’t know how or why he’d so abruptly turned his back on his wife and children, forsaken his wedding vows, and broken with Jewish law. It was almost as if he’d been under the influence of a drug. During the whole of his affair, he’d been tormented with guilt, suffering first from stomach aches, then from headaches, then from sleeplessness. So guilty had he felt that he was almost relieved when Sharon had found evidence of Clara in the form of a receipt from a downtown restaurant. He’d been telling her, the entire time, that he was going to the gym—working out, which, in a way, he was. With Clara, he’d lost weight: it was as if his desire for her had burned a hole not only in his soul, but his gut, too. Whereas his love for Sharon—and he’d loved her, steadily, even at the height of his affair with Clara—was more like a child’s love for the onset of spring.
She’d caused a scene, all right, when at last, going through his things, she’d found evidence of his unfaithfulness in the form of receipts, wailing and screaming, her face contorted, her mouth open as if in imitation of the pain of death throws, all her sharp, small, even white teeth showing.
“I know you don’t think you’ll want to remarry, but face it, Bill, you’re not going to be able to stay single for more than ten minutes,” Sharon liked to say. He’d protested anyway, but his protests had only made her insist more strenuously. “Why should you be alone?” she’d said. She’d even drawn up a list of eligible widows and divorcees for him. “Just promise me one thing,” she’d said. “Just promise me that you won’t marry that bitch, Clara. That bitch with the hoity-toity background. She never was for you, you know that, don’t you?”
What could he say? As he sat, day after day, holding Sharon’s hand, and watching ancient television reruns with her on cable—Dallas and E.R. were her favorites—the last thing on his mind was Clara Stein, or, for that matter, remarriage. Not that he’d blocked out all thoughts of her. How could he? It wasn’t possible. On occasion, he even dreamed of her sometimes with such piercing longing, and such amazing detail, that when he woke he was amazed with himself, or rather, amazed at the clarity of his sub-conscious, the way it could conjure, with such miraculous detail, the way Clara had looked, talked, and behaved; the tilt of her head, the smell of her perfume, and the way he’d felt when he was with her, totally smitten and filled with keen, anticipatory lust. Even during Sharon’s last weeks (and any fool could have seen that, as fall had turned to winter, Sharon had, at best, a month or two left) Clara had, on occasion, popped up in his dreams, leaving him, upon waking, with a lasting impression of both pleasure and pain.
This time it’s Jill who wants to talk. Only she doesn’t want to come to the apartment. Nor does she want to talk to him on the phone. She wants to talk to him in person, but not in a restaurant or coffee house (God forbid she be tempted to eat something) but rather, someplace open and outside, neutral, she says, because what she has to say is difficult, and she’s not sure she can tell him at too close a range. Which makes him wonder how she plans to talk to him at all: perhaps by shouting to him across a field?
Nevertheless, he agrees to meet her near the boathouses in Fairmont Park. She is waiting for him at the proscribed spot, leaning up against a statue of William Penn, her head nodding to music pumped into her ears from her iPod. The wonders of technology, he muses: now none of us every have to read, converse, or think. But then he stops himself: what a grouch I’ve become! A replica of my own father! Just then Jill, glancing up, notices him, and waves.
Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, with running shoes on her feet and a faded jean-jacked over her shoulders, her long, straw-colored hair pulled back into a braid, from a distance Jill looks like a lanky adolescent, a young girl who still hasn’t caught up to her growth spurt. She’s no girl however, but a woman of thirty-five. Her shrunken breasts are no bigger than wafers, and her cheekbones cut her face like ritual markings. Only her belly protrudes, he notices—slightly rounded, and stretched, like the bellies you see in pictures of starving Africans. Why she refuses to eat is something that Bill and Sharon had talked about ad infinitum. Was it her fault? His? Didn’t she know that if she kept this up she could lose her fertility, or, worse, die? Women like Jill had heart attacks, kidney failure, stroke.
“Hi Daddy,” she says, tucking the earplugs into her pocket and turning off the machine.
“Darling,” he says.
“Nice day, don’t you think?” She smiles, broadly, and indicates their surroundings with a wave of her hand, as if perhaps she were a tour guide, or that the two of them had only just met.
It is a nice day, in fact: a glorious, even a perfect day: one of those perfect spring days that come along once or twice a season and seer into your senses like opium. Azaleas bloomed like cotton candy, tulips turned their red faces towards the sun, and in every direction parents watched young children or lovers embraced.
“Eric told me that he talked to you,” she says.
He nods, waiting for her to continue, which she does, almost immediately. “And the thing is, Dad, it’s not like it was such a secret to begin with?”
“What do you mean?”
“Me and Beth, we used to talk about it all the time. About the possibility, that is, that either one of you may have had an affair.”
“That’s what you girls talked about?”
“Not literally all the time, Dad. Now and then. The way sisters talk to each other. You know?” But he doesn’t know, not really, having been the youngest by many years in his family, with sisters who were more like aunts to him, and cousins who seemed as strange and exotic—as foreign—as a flock of flamingos.
“And anyway, me and Beth, we kind of caught onto the fact that you were seeing someone else around the time that Mom started seeing that shrink. She used to talk about him all the time. What was his name? Dr. Berman?”
“Yes, that’s right. Dr. Berman.”
“And anyway, it just kind of added up: you weren’t home, or when you were, you were distracted, and acted weird. You know you used to laugh all the time, even if what we were saying wasn’t funny? Plus Mom was a wreck. I think she must have known about you for a good year or so before she really knew, if you know what I mean. Because Mom? She wasn’t stupid, you know.”
“I know she wasn’t, honey.”
“So it’s not like it came as this big awful surprise, or anything, when she told us. I guess she just wanted to get everything off her chest. At the end, you know?”
At the end: they’d all been with her, which is what she’d wanted. Practically from the moment she was diagnosed, she’d talked about how, when she died, she didn’t want to be in a hospital, but at home, and how she wanted everyone to be with her, all her loved ones, the only people who really meant anything.
“Look Dad,” Jill now says. “I didn’t ask you to meet me out here so we could talk about you and Mom.”
“All right,” Bill says.
“But before I say what I’m going to say, I want you to promise me one thing, okay?”
“I don’t know. That depends what it is.”
“Okay. It’s that I want you to promise me just to let me tell you in my own way, and not interrupt.”
“I never interrupt.”
“You’re interrupting now. I want you just to listen, okay? And not offer advice, or help, or money, or anything. Do you think you can do that? Do you think you can just listen?”
God almighty, he wishes he had someone to talk to about all this! Had Sharon still been alive—but then again, none of these awkward, awful conversations would be taking place in the first place had Sharon not taken it upon herself to get every last little shred of her personal history out of her memory banks and into the next generation, where, no doubt, it would simmer and spread until it spilled over to the next generation, and outward to the in-laws and the cousins and anyone who was willing to listen to family gossip.
“I’m going to have a baby,” is what Jill finally says.
“You’re going to have a baby.”
“I told you not to interrupt. It’s just, well. I don’t know how to say this, but I don’t think I’ll ever get married again. I don’t want to. No—don’t interrupt. It’s true. I mean, after Richard—and all that awfulness. And then there was that earlier time, in college.” (What earlier time? Had he missed something?) “But basically, I just can’t see it happening, ever. Because Dad—and this is something that Mom knew about, but you were oblivious, because, well the only way I can say it is that I think you were in denial. You didn’t want to know what was happening in your own family, so you just looked the other way. But this thing with Eric and all his bullshit? Because I want you to know, Eric is so full of shit that words can’t even describe how full of shit he is. Boo-hoo, poor Eric, he has it so rough in that million-dollar condo, or however much it costs, and all those tough decisions he has to make between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Dad, you’re not going to like this, but the reason I have to tell you is that I’ve been angry with you for a very long time.”
“Yes, because I could never tell you the truth. And well, now that Mom’s gone, I was like: it’s time. Because I don’t want to be angry at you when you go to your grave. Not that you’re going anywhere, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s more that, it’s just that I have to tell you.”
He feels like he’s struggling to understand her words from under water, or like she’s speaking a foreign language, or like he’s suffering a small, barely perceptible stroke that has momentarily confused his ability to track linear meaning.
“And how Eric comes into all this? Look, I wish him well—him and Eleanor. I have nothing against her anyway. She’s fine. But Eric? When we were kids, Dad—” But she doesn’t finish. Her eyes filling with tears, she stops in her tracks to wipe them away. “When we were kids Eric—well there’s no other way to say it but to tell you the truth: he used to beat the crap out of me.”
“He hit me, Dad. A lot. You’d come home and tell us to stop squabbling and say things like ‘boy will be boys,’ but that wasn’t what was going on. Eric used to raise welts. And nobody stopped him!”
And now, rather than trying to control herself, she’s sobbing, the wet sound coming from deep inside her, where, he supposes, the baby (what baby? how is it possible?) resides. Her face has gone from its usual pasty yellowish-white to red, and her whole body is convulsing. “You never stopped him, Daddy!” she sobs. “Why didn’t you ever stop him?”
Does this mean that he’s permitted to talk? Because in fact he has plenty to say on the subject. For example, he’d like to point out that, while in general he was an indulgent parent, he never would have allowed any son of his to strike her. However, he doesn’t say anything, because on top of that reflection, comes a new, and uncomfortable one: that he did in fact know that Eric, as a boy, had hit his little sister. He’d told him to stop a thousand times, but at the same time, he’d never been particularly concerned. After all, siblings fought. All siblings, on occasion, hit each other. Didn’t they?
“But Jill,” he finally says. “Jilly, I did stop him, or at least I thought I did. As you know, I was at work an awful lot of the time—“
“Yeah,” Jill says, blowing her nose. “At work or at some meeting or playing tennis.”
“I admit I wasn’t the best father in the world,” he says. “And that I wasn’t home all the time. But honey, your mother and I had a traditional marriage. She ran the house.”
“She ran the office too.”
“That’s true, but she left early, and was always home when you three got back from school. That and, the way we figured it, she was the one who set the emotional tone of the house. I’m not saying we were right, or that we might not have been able to do it better. All I’m saying is that that’s what we did, because that’s what we thought was what we were supposed to do.”
“But Daddy! He hit me! He hit me and hit me and hit me, and no one ever stopped him, and no one ever believed me! I was his goddamn punching bag, Daddy, and now, oh God! Now you see?”
But he doesn’t see, not at all. Eric had hit his sister—and now, thirty years later, she stands here sobbing about it, and telling him that she’s going to have a baby without having a husband, or even a boyfriend, to help her raise it.
“I’m sorry,” he says at last. “But I don’t see. What does all this have to do with your having a baby? And honey—sweetheart—how can you have a baby? Look at you! You look like you’ve just crawled your way out of the camps.”
“I knew you’d say that Daddy, but I’m eating—it’s just that I’m throwing up so much! My doctor is worried about it too, but she says it happens. That you can actually lose weight in the first trimester. Then it’s supposed to get better. Actually, I do feel better. I’m a four months now.”
“But Jill. I still don’t understand. What’s all this about Eric now? And what does he have to do with your having a baby? And who, if I may ask, is the father? Is there a father?”
“But that’s the whole point, Daddy. After what Eric did to me, when I was a child….I could never be married. That thing with Richard? He hit me too! He did. I never told you about it, but he did, and Mom knew, which is why she hated him so much. Don’t you see? The baby—I know it’s selfish, but the baby is for me. I’m never going to let anyone lay a hand on its head. Not my little girl.”
“What if it’s a boy?” he says, whereupon Jill starts crying again.
At the synagogue the usual crowd is gathered, nodding their heads in his direction as he dons his tallit and says the traditional blessings, before adding one or two prayers of his own. Master of the Universe! I call on You! I beseech You! Let me understand! But as usual the Master of the Universe is silent, and all he hears is the rustling of old men as they adjust their clothing and prepare to take their seats.
He is here to say Kaddish for Sharon. That is the only reason he comes. He told her he’d say Kaddish for a year, and even though she said it meant nothing to her—that he could become a Buddhist monk for all she cared about that stuff—he intends to keep that promise.
Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, shmay, rabbaw—
When he gets back home, he picks up the phone and dials Clara Stein’s number.
Her house is exactly as he remembers it, with daffodils in the front yard, and a Dogwood tree, just beginning to bud. Even the color of the door and the shutters is the same—dark gray—as are the colors and the shapes of the curtains hanging in the living room windows. It is then that he sees a flash, no more than an outline, really, through the mullioned glass, and in an instant takes in the dark hair and brows, and full red mouth, that he remembers. So: she is still beautiful. No doubt, he thinks, she’s always taken good care of herself—a woman like that! With such pride! Such pride—and such fierce dignity! Suddenly, he is filled with a with a wild, vibrant joy. He should have called her months ago. He should never have let her go.
He can see—or more precisely, sense her coming to the door, and opening it. And there she is, standing before him, an amused smile on her face, as if she never did forget the lovely joke that had been the two of them together, and had never regretted things, either. But when he lunges to embrace her, she puts her hands up, pushing him away. “No,” she says. “I’m Isabel.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Ah,” he says.
“Don’t worry about it,” she continues. “People do that all the time. I look so much like her.”
He attempts a smile.
“I’m here with my children,” she says. “Spending spring break with Nana.”
“Of course,” he says, and then, more awkwardly, “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Clara’s daughter says, flipping her head just slightly, so that her dark hair catches in the light, shimmering there like the surface of a lake, and so powerfully does she remind him of her mother, that for a moment, he lets himself believe that she is. He watches her, holding onto this illusion, when, another woman, this one slightly bent and heavy-set, shuffles into the hallway.
“Well, look who it is!” she says.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s me.”