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Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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He sat at the desk to try writing to Margaret. At least he knew who she was. Margaret was the personnel director of a large private hospital. She was steady, nice-looking, well-informed (she knew what a securities analyst was), and a hard worker. Indeed it was because she had to work overtime that she wasn’t with him this weekend. Fleetingly he envisioned Margaret here, the convergence of Margaret and Deirdre at the lakeshore, but pushed that from his mind; it was unthinkable. He and Margaret went out every Tuesday and Saturday evening and returned to spend the night in his or her apartment, and when he left her the next day he felt refreshed and contented.

“Dear Margaret,” he wrote. He would probably see her before she got the note, but it made him feel sober and virtuous to write, and she would enjoy receiving it. “It’s a pity you couldn’t be here this weekend. You poor thing, working away in the hot city.” He hastily crossed that sentence out; it was an alien voice he didn’t recognize, whose equivocation disgusted him even more than its condescension. He would have to copy it all over when he was finished.

“Joe and Jean had some friends over this afternoon and we sat around drinking. Decadent! Naturally I took the Sunfish out again. Twice.”

He paused, assaulted by memory and desire. It was no use. A crowd of fantasies stormed behind his tight-shut eyes—what he would do to her, what she would do to him. He would hold her up against the wall a few inches off the floor so that their eyes were level, unavoidable, and ram her ceaselessly, without mercy. He could see perfectly the startled, then melting look in her huge aqua eyes. He would catch her around the stomach from behind as she was stepping into the shower, drag her down the hall and throw her, her red hair heaving, her mouth howling shock and lust, onto his white living room sofa. She would climb on top of him savagely and her hair would slide back and forth over his chest, and her tongue would lick his neck and lap inside his ear, tantalizing. He would lie quite still on the rug while, with burning fingertips and palms, she massaged every bit of him slowly from head to toe. Then he would roll her over and grind her into the floor as she cried out in amazement and clutched him closer. He covered his eyes with his fists to make the pictures stop, and found tears wetting his knuckles.

It was no use. He had wanted her, every damned inch, from the moment he saw her, but surely he would never call. He knew himself, his ways, too well to dream of changing course. There was altogether too much of her. She was too loud and took up too much space and her hair was too reddish and fluffy. It didn’t lie flat as it should. Girls’ hair should lie flat, and if it couldn’t, at least stay where it was put. Hers responded to every slight breath of wind or stirring of the air, billowed and streamed, so that around her splendid face was endless motion.

THE OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE

D
AVID, WHEN HE WAS
feeling happy, used to dance for his children. The war was over, the Germans defeated. Once again he pranced across the living room raising his knees high in an absurd parody all his own, blending a horse’s gallop and a Parisian cancan. Lucy, his youngest, would laugh in a high-pitched delighted giggle—David looked so funny dancing in his baggy gray trousers and long-sleeved white shirt with the loosened tie jerking from side to side. His business clothes. He wore them all the time, even at night after dinner. Sometimes at breakfast he wore his jacket too, as he stood tense near the kitchen sink, swallowing orange juice and toast and coffee, briefcase waiting erect at his feet.

When he stopped dancing he would smooth down his wavy dark hair modestly and catch his breath. “You like that, eh?”

Lucy was six. She wanted her father never out of her sight. She felt complete only when he was present.

“Yes. But why can’t we have a Christmas tree?”

Lucy was eleven. They had a large family with many cousins, nearly all older than she was, and always getting married. At the big weddings the band music was loud and ceaseless. After the fruit cup and the first toast to the newlyweds, at some point during the soup, the popular dance tunes would give way to a rapping syncopated rhythm with the pungency of garlic and the ringing tone of a shout or a slap. The grownups leaped away from their bowls to form circle within circle, holding hands. Anna, Lucy’s mother, was a leader. She was heavy, but moved nimbly. Her head would bounce up and down to the music as she pulled a line of dancers under a bridge of arms.

“You can do it too, Lucy,” she called out. “Come on.”

And the circle opened, hands parted to let her in.

David did not dance these dances. She saw him at the edge of the circle, his tie neatly knotted, observing keenly, lighting an olive-colored cigar.

He waltzed. He waltzed with her mother, the two of them floating with stiff, poignant grace. His face, sharp-boned, alert, was tilted up proudly, his hand spread out flat against Anna’s broad back.

“But why,” Lucy asked, “can’t we have a Christmas tree?”

“Don’t you know yet?” He was annoyed with her. “It’s not our holiday.”

“I know, but it doesn’t really mean anything,” she protested, leaning forward against the front seat of the car, flushed with the champagne they had let her taste. “It’s only a symbol.”

She could see the edge of his smile and knew he was smiling because she had used the word “symbol.” She felt clever to have charmed away his annoyance.

In the morning she accosted Anna.

“Why is he so against it?”

Anna did not turn to face her. She was putting on mascara in front of the mirror, and the tiny brush she held near her eyes looked like a flag. “Because they made him wear a yellow arm band when he went to school.”

“But ...” Lucy said. These bizarre facts tossed out at chance intervals made her feel another world, a shadow world, existed at the rim of their own. “But that was in another country.”

“It makes no difference. The tree is the same.”

She grasped that David was keeping something back from her, something that touched herself as well as him.

“What was it like when you were growing up?”

“We were poor,” he said. “We worked, we studied. We lived where your grandmother used to live. It was very crowded.”

“No, I mean before that. Before you came here.” She whispered the last words shyly, for fear of somehow embarrassing him.

“I don’t remember.”

“You must remember something. You were the same age as I am now, and I’d remember this even if I moved away.”

He tightened his lips and turned to the bridge game in his
New York Times,
sharpened pencil poised.

Saturdays, driving into the city to visit aunts and uncles, they sped through shabby neighborhoods with once-fine brownstones, down streets where men in long black coats and fur hats and unruly beards shambled in the path of oncoming cars. They had hanging curls in front of their ears, delicate straggly locks that gave Lucy a feeling of weak revulsion.

“It’s Saturday,” said David, “so they think they own the streets. No one should drive.” He had to brake to avoid a group of teen-aged boys with unnaturally soft, waxy skin. Rolling down the window, he shouted, “Why don’t you stay on the sidewalk where you belong?” Then, “Someone’s got to teach them a little English,” he muttered at the steering wheel.

“You sound like some ignorant peasant.” Anna’s eyes followed the group of boys sorrowfully. “Why can’t you live and let live? And drive like a normal person?”

“Filthy refs,” muttered David.

“What are refs?” asked Lucy from the back of the car.

“Refugees,” said Anna.

With an inner leap of glee, she thought she spotted an inconsistency in David’s thought, usually so logical. “Well, weren’t you one too?”

“That’s different.”

“How?”

“They have no business looking like that. They give the rest of us a bad name. Lenin was right. Religion is the opiate of the people.”

“Who was that again?” Lucy asked.

“Lenin. Vladimir Lenin.”

“Oh, what kinds of things are you teaching her!” Anna exclaimed. “Leave her be.”

He pronounced Vladimir with the accent on the second syllable. Lucy made a mental note of that.

“What was it really like back there?”

“I don’t remember.”

But she was fifteen now, strong with adolescence and nearly full grown; she stood over him and waited while he turned the pages of his newspaper.

Finally he yanked off his glasses and looked up at her. “You really want to know? They came around at night and chased people out of their houses, then set them on fire. You were afraid to go to sleep. They sent you to the army for twenty years. They said we poisoned their wells and chopped up their babies. So everyone came here. One at a time. First Saul, he was grown up, then Peter, then Avi, then I came with my parents and the girls, because I was the baby. It stunk on the boat. People vomited all day long. All right?”

“All right, all right.” She cringed and drew back from the brittle voice shouting at her. “All right, forget it.”

Most of the time, if secretly, David was very proud of the way his life had turned out. Considering. He was proud of having married a good-looking American-born girl he fell in love with in high school. Anna kept a good home and took excellent care of the children, and when they went out to meet people she was just right, friendly and talkative, never flirtatious. He took pride in that wholesome, free tone of hers, so American. She was loving to him, though she might tease grudgingly if she thought he wanted her too often when the children were small and wore her out. Spirited, also: they disagreed often and loudly over petty things, but never over big things like right or wrong or decency or bringing up the family.

He was proud of their children, their house, and their car. He was proud most of all, though he would never have admitted this, of his perfect English, no trace of an accent. At school he had imitated the way the teachers spoke and stored their phrases in his keen ear. Walking there and home he moved his lips to practice, and when other boys ridiculed him he withdrew silently, watching with envy as they played in the schoolyard. He used to play too, back there, but now, after the trip and the ordeals of a new household in an incomprehensible land, he could not launch into games. His father never wearied of saying the four boys must work very hard to show they were as good as the others. They might not have much, but they had brains better than anyone else’s. In this country lurked fortunes waiting to be snatched up by boys with heads on their shoulders. After two years of effort David’s speech was flawless, untainted, and he hoped that with the language embedded in his tongue he could do whatever he chose, that no one need ever know how foolish and awkward and alien he had once sounded.

His older brothers fared well too, and their English was fluent. More than fluent: they spoke with style and a feeling for diction and phrasing. Luckily, the family was gifted that way. But when he listened to them now, Avi and Peter and Saul, he detected a flavor of the foreign born. He couldn’t place it—not any mispronunciation or inflection, but something. He wished them no ill, these nattily dressed brothers with flourishing businesses, but secretly he was glad to have been the youngest, best able to reshape the habits of his tongue. His sisters, already grown when they arrived, and pushed promptly into factories so that the boys might go to school, would always sound foreign. The oldest, Ruth, who had diligently mastered her English grammar, still kept an antique musical lilt, like a catch in the voice. It could take him unawares, even now, and bring unwanted, artesian tears to his eyes.

Their second night off the boat, an old uncle who had come two years earlier sat David’s father down at his oilcloth-covered kitchen table. Along with countless bits of advice and lore, he instructed that the paper to read was the
New York Times,
and so David’s father bought it daily, sending one of the boys out to the newsstand in the gray of morning with pennies in his pocket. The words “New York Times” were among the first in David’s vocabulary.

Each night after ten hours bent over ledgers in the asphyxiating office of a Hebrew school, his father sat at the kitchen table learning English from the
New York Times.
No one was permitted to disturb him while he studied. Every two or three minutes he would look up a word in a black leather-bound dictionary, wetting the tip of his forefinger to turn its pages, which were thin and translucent like the wings of an insect. He was insect-like too, a small man with a small pointed graying beard, lined skin, and a black skullcap on his head. His shoulders were narrow and rounded. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up and his arms spread out over the open newspaper as in an embrace. When David recalled him now it was in that pose, hunched in the unshaded glare of the kitchen light, studying as he used to, except back there it was the Talmud and here the
Times.
He remembered how, near midnight, finished at last, his father would gather the family together and summarize for them the contents of the major articles in the
New York Times.
Then they could go to bed. And remembering, David was assailed by an irritating mixture of pride and shame and nostalgia, which he tried to evict from his soul.

David went to law school. He was a dashing sort of young man, he liked to think, and he enjoyed reminiscing about his bravado in taking the bar exam. Hardly studying, for he was busy driving a cab in his spare moments, he passed the first time, usually a practice run. He hadn’t even bothered checking the school bulletin board, but waited to find out the results from the list published in the paper. The achievement of passing the bar exam was rivaled only by the achievement of having his name printed in the
New York Times
for all the world to behold. It was while studying law that he came to appreciate and to love—though David was not a man who acknowledged love readily—the peculiar genius of his adopted country, and to feel deep affinities with it. He responded to the Constitution as an artist to an old master. A nonbeliever, in this he believed; he even admitted to feeling awe for the men who wrote it, though again, he felt awe for his fellow man rarely, all expectations and assessments of humanity having been incised on his spirit early on, in the years of the yellow arm band and the pogroms. He learned the Constitution by heart and remembered it—this was another of the achievements he took pride in. And on days when the Supreme Court (pinnacle of his favorite branch of government, for he was, by temperament and heritage, judgmental) struck down or upheld laws in accordance with David’s interpretation of the Constitution, he was happy, and on those days he danced for his children.

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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