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Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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“You chased everything that moved.” Mrs. Rickoff was fair and frail, and smoked with a long black cigarette holder. “Such wild boys. Like wild animals, bobcats.”

Lucy sat down with them. “So you were childhood friends? This is amazing.”

“Friends!” cried Rickoff. “More like family! At a wedding, like today, we used to sneak under the grownups’ feet to get in the dance. You should have seen your father jump around. Some little dancer, that one, they used to say.”

“And what else?” said Lucy.

“Your father was some smart-alecky kid. Remember, David, one morning you broke the ruler the teacher used to smack us with?” Rickoff tossed his benign and balding head. “So he smacked us with half! And sent us out to stand in the freezing cold for an hour!”

“Those winters were so bitter,” said Mrs. Rickoff. “Snow up to your eyes. You had to melt ice to wash. But the summers.” She leaned towards Lucy in a sudden surge, her voice deepening. “The summers were gorgeous. That sky, not like anything here. Very wide, with a funny yellow light on the trees. There was a certain time of day, four, five o’clock, when even those old houses had a golden look, from the light. We went around barefoot, jumping in puddles. The ground was hot under our feet.”

Lucy was transported. It was just such privacies she had craved, like something out of a book, alien, exotic, transcendent. If only the Rickoffs had been her parents, she might have tasted that vanished spicy air. ... Then turning to David, who was lighting up an olive cigar, his face bland and impenetrable, she felt a traitor.

“Barefoot, sure,” Rickoff said to his wife. “Who had shoes?”

“Yes, you’re leaving out the best parts,” said Panofsky. “Sky, puddles! Why don’t you tell her about the czars? Tell her what fun our boys had in the army.” Panofsky moved stiffly towards Lucy and laid a hand on her shoulder. “But a pretty girl like you isn’t interested in such things. Would you care to dance?”

She hesitated and looked at David again, foolishly, as though he could tell her what to say.

“Well, maybe a little later. I just got here.” She gave a diffident laugh. “I want to hear some more.” And then she felt embarrassed for wanting so obviously to possess it the easy way, the way she had taken possession of the old novels, reveling in the abrasive names that exercised her tongue, and in the improbable lusts and sufferings.

“You like this old stuff, eh? Sounds like a TV special, from this end. Right, David?” Panofsky snorted. “But she’s lucky. Nice straight nose, good face. No one would ever take her for ...”

“What do you mean? Take me for what?”

“You could be right off the
Mayflower. ...
You know you have a few gray hairs already? Why don’t you cover them up? A young woman like you with gray hair—no need, in this day and age. In this country, especially, you can change yourself into anything you want. Let me see, I bet you’re not a day over ... twenty-three?”

“Twenty-six.”

“And not married yet? What’s the matter?” He laughed and turned again to her father. “The young boys not good enough for her, David? You spoiled her?”

David stood up. “I’m going to go and see how your mother’s doing.” He paused a moment by her side.

“Go on. I’ll be right over.” She turned away from Panofsky and towards the others. “Is it so foolish to want to know something about your own history? I mean—” Then she stopped and thought once more how hopelessly naive she must sound. She saw her past as swaddled in secrecy, infused with a vast nostalgia for something she had never known, something which perhaps had never even existed, except as a mystery she herself had created and nourished. From the corner of her eye she noticed David walk briskly away; she felt both abandoned and yet finally free to unearth what she wanted. She gazed at the Rickoffs as though they were artifacts, archaeologists’ finds, and then dropped her eyes, reproaching herself: they were ordinary people, and she was tongue-tied.

Mrs. Rickoff must have sensed her discomfort. “Tell me something, Lucy. Did you ever see your father eat a banana?” she asked with a grin.

“A banana? I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

“Fifty-five years in this country,” she said, nodding towards her husband, “and still he won’t eat a banana. Because they didn’t have bananas where we came from. He eats only what he ate as a child. That’s how it sticks.”

Everyone laughed, and Lucy relaxed. “Caviar,” she said. “That’s what my father passed on to me. Caviar every Sunday morning.”

David went to sit with Anna, but over his shoulder he kept glancing at Lucy, still with the Rickoffs. A beautiful girl, it was undeniable, and the maroon dress suited her. She had turned out well. At school, first she had studied languages, then unexpectedly changed to biochemistry, more practical anyway, he decided. Now she had a job in a laboratory, working on an epilepsy research project and making good money, for a girl. Only the business with the boyfriend grated on his heart. Not Allan himself—he was a fine young man with a future, exactly the type he would have picked out for her himself. The beard was not worth making an issue of. When she had first brought him home to meet them David was pleased, and assumed it was only a matter of time.

“So,” he teased the next day over the phone, “will we be seeing more of him?”

“I imagine so,” she replied in the same tone.

“Good. I presume you see a lot of him?”

“Oh yes. As a matter of fact he’s sharing the apartment. I was going to tell you, soon.”

He hung up. In the kitchen he found Anna and shouted at her in a rage made worse because she went on quietly chopping onions while he flung his arms about and ranted.

At last she said, “What did you think she was doing with him? Times have changed. Maybe it’s better.”

He couldn’t fathom Anna’s attitude. It gnawed at his insides that Lucy could turn against him so. In his mind he had to stop himself from calling her filthy names in a foreign tongue; alone, he would cover his ears and nod his gray head back and forth like an aged man grieving. Back there, women who did that were called those names, and when respectable women saw them they crossed to the other side of the street.

Anna advised him to say nothing about it to Lucy. His pain dulled, or he became accustomed to it. At least the boy was Jewish, he consoled himself wryly. The other he couldn’t have been able to tolerate. She continued to visit with Allan, and David got through these visits by behaving as if they were married. They seemed so, in every way but the license. He would have liked to take her on his arm and walk down a flower-scented aisle, leaving her in the middle for Allan to fetch. And be host to all the relatives, showing what a fine wedding he could give. Surely he deserved it, after all his efforts? Yet this fantasy might never happen.

“But what will happen?” he would ask Anna petulantly.

“What will happen,” said Anna calmly, “is that one fine day she will accidentally or on purpose get pregnant, and then they’ll get married like everyone else, and you will have nothing to worry about.”

He smoked and watched her at the table a few yards away. They were all talking and laughing loudly, except for Panofsky, who sat a bit apart, staring at Lucy as David himself was doing. Rickoff was telling some story, thrashing his arms about wildly, tossing in Yiddish and Russian phrases, and Lucy threw her head back and laughed. Then she leaned forward eagerly to ask him something. Rickoff sobered and gave her a long reply, his facial muscles moving in an old, foreign pattern, in a language counterpoint to his spoken English. Mrs. Rickoff joined in, also waving her hands, and as the three of them talked at once, it seemed to David that Lucy was taking on their old-fashioned expressions and gestures—extravagantly raised eyebrows, pursed lips, rhythmic shrugs and nods, lively winks and puckers and thrust-out chins and jaws. She said something with a swift dramatic flick of her hand that suddenly brought his mother back to life. David could not hear most of their words, but he imagined she was taking on their rough-edged foreign accents as well, her voice falling into a nasal, singsong intonation. He felt a chill: it was as if she were being transformed before his eyes, as if he had delivered her over to the very powers he had been shielding her from all these years, and she was all too willingly drawn in, drawn back. For a split second he glimpsed her not in her stylish silky dress but in heavy shapeless skirts and shawls, a dark scarf wrapped around her shaved head, her fine features coarsened by endless childrearing, scrubbing, cooking, and anxiety. When he blinked the image vanished.

He saw Panofsky lean forward to whisper in her ear. Lucy looked confused, then rose, reluctantly, it seemed, and let him lead her by the elbow to the middle of the terrace, where he swung his arm around to pull her close for the dance. His large hand pressed into the small of her back; her hand rested on his shoulder lightly, barely touching. Panofsky was more than a head taller than she, and he looked down at her, grinning. From David’s distance Lucy seemed fragile and helpless in the flimsy dress with the bare back, though he knew she was neither. Still, Panofsky was holding her tightly, and she looked uncomfortable. Panofsky, that old lecher, burrowed his face against her hair for a moment, and David leaned forward as if ready to spring from his seat. Could Panofsky know, by any rumors, that she was living with a man, not married? He had made that nasty crack about her being too spoiled to marry. An old panicky tremor rose in David’s stomach, a sickening tremor he knew from years ago on the boat, and later in school. Panofsky’s face was red, his eyelids drooping, as he tightened his arm around Lucy’s waist.

David was sick to his stomach and had to put out his cigar. The very air, dotted with the aging, familiar faces of transplanted people like Panofsky trying desperately, uselessly, to be carefree and self-assured, to be new and free and American, suddenly smelled fetid to him. And it seemed that in the idiotic, the nearly senile yet firm embrace of Panofsky was everything old and reeking of foreignness that he had labored so hard to protect her from. For himself he accepted it, it would cling to him no matter what fine words or clothes or houses masked it. But for his children, especially for her—ah, he had wanted them new, untainted, bred without that ancient history.

Panofsky gripped her hand and bent his cheek to her hair again. David saw Lucy draw back so that his head jerked awkwardly. Panofsky shifted and pulled her against him with the pressure of his thick wrist. With relief, David watched her push at his shoulder and extricate herself from his hold, leaving him standing ridiculously, arms open in dance posture, in the middle of the sunny terrace. Would she come to them or go over to Allan, standing at the bar with the young people? He could not bear the thought of her shaming him in front of Allan, telling, in her voice which could be so harsh and mocking, about his crude, his unredeemable friends.

But she was coming towards him and Anna, sweeping over royally, head high, face flushed, holding up the bottom of her dress to walk faster. Before she said a word she whisked Anna’s drink off the table and gulped it down.

“Christ, that one is the original dirty old man! Who let
him
in?”

“He’s still a friend of your uncle Peter’s,” said David remorsefully. Unable to look his own daughter in the eye—was this what it had all come to?

“He was unbelievable! Blowing in my ear, practically. What a nerve! If he weren’t an old friend of yours I would have told him exactly what I thought of him.” She sat down and lit a cigarette.

Anna, the perennially serene, said, “Panofsky’s always been like that, with anyone he can get his hands on. Once he got me out on the dance floor and I told him off good and proper. It’s nothing to bother about.”

David was relieved to see Lucy’s frown beginning to turn slightly amused. Only an outburst of the moment, perhaps, a summer storm. She would forget it.

“Gray hair,” and she laughed. She pulled a random hair from her head and studied it, then flicked it away. “Silly old fool. But seriously,” and she put her hand on David’s arm, “I liked your friends. The others.” She paused and looked straight into his eyes, her anger spent. “It meant a lot, meeting your friends. They were wonderful. They told me your father was famous as a scholar. I never knew that. I never knew he managed an estate, either.”

“For one of
them,”
David sneered.

“That’s not the point,” she said.

“What is the point? You want to feel you came out of a book by Tolstoi? That’s what you want? You didn’t.”

“Oh, Dad,” she groaned. She turned in despair and looked at Anna, but Anna’s face was closed and absent, as if she had witnessed this many times before and grown weary of it. Lucy sat silent for a few moments, then said, “They told me I looked like your mother. Is that so?”

“There’s a resemblance.” He shrugged. “For a few months in her life, maybe, she had a chance to look like you.”

The band was playing a slow and stately waltz, the kind he used to dance with Anna. He could still do it well enough, he was quite sure. He edged forward in his chair, glancing first at Anna, then at Lucy, and hesitating. He saw her face brighten, but it was for Allan, who was approaching from across the terrace. Before he could reach them Lucy leaned up close; her hasty whisper was like a hiss. “Would it have cost you so much to tell me some of those things? Would it?”

David’s face burned hot with shame, with an unspeakable confusion, just as Allan stepped up, smiling broadly, innocently, to take her hand. He wanted her to waltz.

EPISTEMOLOGY, SEX, AND THE SHEDDING OF LIGHT

“G
UESS WHO I SAW
in a Chinese restaurant in Washington,” Harry asked me. He had just returned from offering expert advice on disaster relief to government officials.

“Henry Kissinger.”

Harry’s eyes narrowed and his smile of anticipation vanished. “How did you know?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, guess who he was eating lunch with.”

“Liv Ullmann.”

Harry stopped combing his hair and regarded me with some bitterness. His eyes had that disappointed look Rachel’s had when, a few years ago, she left the dinner table to go to the bathroom and returned to find Harry had finished her hamburger. He assumed she was done. She has never forgotten. “How did you know?”

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
4.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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