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Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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He and Anna had two boys close together and then, ten years later, Lucy, who received the doting care spent usually on an only child. The boys turned out well, David thought, one a lawyer himself, the other an engineer; they married suitably nice girls, made money, and gave him and Anna grandchildren. And Lucy, he trusted, would be fine too. She had his head, quick and secret and sharp; though her temper flared up easily, like his, she didn’t stay angry long. She could take care of herself and she was good-looking, which was important for a girl. All in all, a fine American girl.

Sometimes she made him worry, though. It was one thing to quote Marx and Lenin with righteous indignation—David did that himself—but another thing to take them seriously, especially here where matters were arranged otherwise, and it was just as well, too, for people like themselves. Lucy took it all far too seriously. She joined groups and recklessly signed her name to endless, dubious petitions. When David and Anna refused to sign or even to read those long sheets of paper she waved in their faces—for once you had signed your name who could tell where it would end up, no country is perfect, look at the business with McCarthy not so long ago—she got angry and made passionate speeches. And if David defended the way things were, she retorted that his narrow-minded and selfish mode of thinking was precisely the trouble with this country. Moreover, he and Anna were stodgy, unadventurous, needed broadening. “Why don’t you travel? You have the money. Go to Europe. See another culture, how other people live, for a change.”

“I’ve been to Europe,” said David with a sneer and a tilt of the head. Then he saw her face turn hurt and ashamed, and he was sorry.

By middle age, when the boys were already young men, he had grown slightly pompous. He could hear it in his voice, but felt he was entitled to it, after all. He had made a certain amount of money, had a certain status, and spoke with an authoritative air, in well-sequenced paragraphs expounding his views to his thriving family on political, economic, and moral issues. Anna, who had heard it all before, puttered in the kitchen; sometimes she would interrupt with a remark or anecdote that she mistakenly thought illustrated one of David’s points. But the boys listened respectfully, and even Lucy looked raptly attentive. Now and then he might stop to paraphrase something for her in simple terms and she would nod gravely, but he was never sure how much she understood. His vocabulary was studded with multisyllabic little-used words he enjoyed hearing spoken in his own voice. Among his favorites were “belligerent,” “manifest,” “deteriorate,” “pejorative,” complex words he had deliberately mastered years ago, words difficult not only to say but to use accurately, and on occasion he adjusted his thoughts to create opportunities to utter these words, feeling pride at the casual, indigenous way they slid off his tongue.

Sometimes he wished he had made more money. He was never quite sure he had made as much as his father had expected, when he told him, so many long years ago, to learn and show he was as good as the others. But since his father was dead now he would never know exactly how great those expectations had been. In any case, he had made enough. It was only when he thought of his brothers, and of childhood friends who had made more, that such doubts pricked him.

The first day of college, Lucy’s roommate, a blond girl from Virginia whose father was in the foreign service, asked where she was from, and Lucy replied, “New York City.”

“No, I know that, it was on the list. I mean
really
where you’re from.” As Lucy stared at her quizzically, she added, “Where you were born.”

“New York. I told you.” And then Lucy stared, with some unease, at the twin beds, twin dressers, twin desks, all squared off and bland. David had warned that at a school like this one, a “classy” school, as he called it, she would find bigotry, and she had brushed his warning off. For she had never, to her knowledge, experienced bigotry while growing up in New York City.

“I’m sorry,” the girl, Patty, said with a harmless smile. “It’s just that you have such a striking face, I was sure you were foreign. Middle East, Mediterranean, or something. I have a talent for placing faces—my parents dragged me all over the world, my whole life. Listen, all I mean is some people are lucky, that’s all.” Patty turned to the mirror in mock dismay, screwed up her ingenuous features, attempted a glamorous expression. “I mean, just look. No one would ever find
me
exotic.” They both laughed, Lucy with relief. Patty was no bigot:
exotic,
she thought.

For months Lucy was exhilarated, as if she had discovered an intriguing new acquaintance; each evening she scrutinized her face, searching for what Patty had seen. It was true, a few of her aunts, with their olive skin, high cheekbones, and broad, almost Oriental faces, did look distinctly foreign, but she did not resemble them. Her jaws sloped down sharply to a strong chin. Her nose was straight and perfect, as her friends used to say enviously, her mouth small and finely curved. She had a high, smooth forehead with dark hair falling over it in calculated disarray, and dark, opaque eyes like David’s. It was a good face—she was satisfied with it, but had never dreamed it might be
exotic.
She would not mention the incident to David, for she knew instinctively that he would not be pleased. David liked her to look like everyone else, and to wear whatever the girls were wearing that year. Often he asked her if she needed extra money for clothes, and when she came home for Christmas and Easter that first year he appraised her up and down and commented, in his understated way, “You look very nice. What do they call that kind of sweater?” Or coat. Or dress.

The following year she took an individual reading program in the nineteenth-century Russian novel. At the end there was an oral exam given by a panel of professors. She telephoned David long-distance the night before to find out the correct pronunciation of all the Russian names. Her ear was acute. If David said them over the phone a few times she could copy them. And then, in her fantasy, the professors would say, “Where did you get such a fine Russian accent?” and she would respond, with nonchalance, “Oh, my father is Russian.”

Smerdyakov, Nozdraev, Sviazhsky, Kondratyevna ... He resisted at first, but she coaxed until finally he said them for her, warmly, the heavy, earthy syllables rushing through miles of telephone wire into her ear. Saying them, he sounded like a stranger. She penciled accent marks in the proper places and repeated the names after him, but was shy about repeating them as well as she could have done. She sensed David might not like her assimilating the alien sounds too perfectly.

Except the next morning at the exam she found that several of them were wrong. At least the professors pronounced them differently. Lucy felt a shudder of fear, as if the room had suddenly gone cold. Who was David, really, and where was
he
from, if anywhere? And what did this make of her? The fantasy—“Where did you get such a fine Russian accent?”—never happened.

It could never have happened, she realized later. She had forgotten what Anna once told her privately, long ago. “Being Russian is one thing. Being Jewish, from Russia, is something else.”

She learned also, in a history course, that it was Marx who first said, “Religion is the opium of the people,” not Vladimir Lenin.

Months later, riding in David’s car, Lucy said, “All those Russian characters in the books I studied for that course last year. They all had this great passion about life. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yes. Yes.”

“Like your sisters. The women reminded me of them. And of me. They were all passionate about different things, but underneath it was the same.”

“Yes.”

“Do you feel that way sometimes?”

“What way?”

“Passionate. About life, I mean,” she added when she saw him shift uncomfortably in his seat.

David moved into the left lane to pass a car. A truck appeared over the crest of the hill, approaching them. Speeding up, David swerved to the right, and in a reflex action, as he used to do when she was a child, shot his arm out in front of Lucy’s chest to shield her. Safe again, he settled back and cleared his throat. “They always had much more respect for their great writers than we do here. You have to say that for them.” It was understood that they never discussed his rash driving.

“Tell me, what was it like?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You must remember.”

“It’s so long ago, I can’t.”

“You left a brother over there, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Mordecai.”

“Well, what happened to him? Why didn’t he come?”

“He was a grown man, established, with a wife and children and a job. It would have been hard for him to leave.”

“Didn’t you ever write to him?” She could almost touch it in the space between them, her own passionate urgency pressing him, and his resistance. “Didn’t you ever want to know what happened to him?”

“He’s probably dead now. Or else a very old man. Chances are he’s dead.”

“But why didn’t you ever write? You could still try to ...” She was warm and full of energy; like those women in the novels, she could set out on a sacrificial trek to trace this lost brother or his descendants, if David would only ask.

“How could we write? There were wars and pogroms. You think it was as easy to correspond by airmail as it is now? ... Well, we did write, at first, then we lost touch. There were ... incidents. Killings. Didn’t you learn any history? Didn’t you learn about that famous ravine? That was our city.” He pulled into the garage and leaned over to open the door for her. “You can afford to have passion.” He smiled and patted her hand. “Come into the house.”

Lucy was twenty-six. The last of her many cousins was getting married and she was taking Allan to the wedding. She had met him during a trip to Mexico, at an outdoor market in a dusty village. He was buying oranges. The way he stood at the fruit stand, tall and lanky, in faded blue jeans and work shirt, handling each orange thoughtfully, tenderly even, before dropping it into his net sack, appealed to her. She moved nearby, hoping he would notice her and start a conversation, which he did. But first he held out an orange. She always remembered that, how even before he spoke he offered her something.

No doubt some of the aunts and uncles would comment teasingly about Allan’s beard. Men like David and his brothers shaved fastidiously, beards being part of the detritus they had left behind them. She had also prepared him for their sly remarks about marriage; he had a gentle face and they would take liberties: “So what are you kids waiting for? See, it’s painless!”

For surely David or Anna would not have told anyone that they already shared an apartment. That fact was a thorn to David, and she was sorry to inflict it on him in his vulnerable years. Anna didn’t seem to mind as much. She kept up with changing times, wore pants suits now, read articles in magazines about drugs and venereal disease, and even thought the ponytail on her oldest grandson was cute. But David’s views were ancient and changeless.

“This must be the place,” said Allan wryly. He found a space in the crowded parking lot. “Simplicity itself.”

“I warned you, didn’t I? We don’t do things in a small way.”

Inside, all plate glass and draperies and potted plants, they were ushered past a chapel, a ballroom for the dinner and dancing to follow, and onto a terrace overlooking a bright green lawn. A bar was set up at one end; at the other a band played a waltz. Men in dark suits and women in long gaily colored dresses flecked the grass in the sunlight of the early June afternoon. A few couples danced on the terrace.

Lucy caught Allan’s hand and pressed it. “It’s beautiful, though, isn’t it? A garden party.”

“Very nice,” he admitted. “All right, let’s plunge in. Lead me to the slaughter.”

“I’ll start you on the young ones—they’re easier. Then you can work your way up.”

“Save me a dance.”

“What kind of dance do you want?”

“Oh, any kind,” said Allan. “I can do them all.”

David rushed up to where they stood talking with a group of cousins. His walk had slowed lately, but just now he strode with the energy of his youth, reminding Lucy of the vigor of his absurd dances. He took her hand and held her away from him, appraising.

“You look lovely. What do they call that funny business up on top?”

“An Empire waist.”

“Very nice.” His eyes traveled the length of the dress, wine-colored, down to where it shimmered out in folds. “Come, I want you to meet some people. Excuse us, Allan, just for a few minutes. I’ll send her right back.” And he tugged her off by the hand excitedly, through the clusters of guests, the way she used to tug him in the zoo to show him some rare species she had found.

They stopped at a table where a few gray-haired people were gathered.

“This is my daughter, Lucy,” said David, pushing her before him. “My scientist,” he added, with his special blend of pride and mild mockery; she never could tell which was dominant.

There were a married couple, Victor and Edna Rickoff, with kind worn faces, and a tall man standing up, Sam Panofsky, broad and dapper, his thin white hair combed straight back from his forehead and stylishly long. Panofsky smiled all the time, leering beneath bushy white eyebrows. From the set of his jaw Lucy knew he thought well of himself and his appearance. In his navy-blue suit adorned with a wide orange tie, he moved rigidly, like a man much older than he looked. His body had a well-kept yet tenuous solidity, as though he stayed firm by artificial means, by laborious hours on machines in expensive health clubs. He watched Lucy; his lips closed, then opened, and he wet them with his tongue.

“A scientist?” he echoed.

“Damn right,” replied David. Then, turning to Lucy, “We grew up together. Victor’s house was right next door. We all went to school together.”

“Sure,” said Rickoff. “Did he ever tell you, Lucy, the crazy things we used to do?”

She shook her head.

“Oh, did we have times!” Rickoff’s milky eyes lit up behind thick glasses. “Remember that back yard where we played bandits, how we dug in the dirt for bags of gold? And those poor chickens we chased?”

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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