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Authors: Lisa Gornick

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BOOK: Tinderbox
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The first morning Eva is in the house, Myra wakes, as usual, at four-thirty. Opening
her bedroom door, she nearly hits Eva’s sleeping body, curled on the hallway floor.
Eva is wearing yellow pajamas and sucking her thumb.

Myra gently rouses Eva, guiding her into the front bedroom, to the twin bed that was
Adam’s and that Myra has now designated to be Omar’s. She pulls the south-facing blinds
and covers Eva with the blanket folded at the bottom of the bed. The girl turns onto
her side and puts her thumb back into her mouth.

The kitchen is still dark. Myra makes a pot of coffee and brings a mug downstairs
to her office. Her desk faces the French doors leading to the garden, invisible at
this hour. She tries to settle down to work but cannot focus on her writing. When
they first moved into the house, Adam, then nine, had also rebelled against the sleeping
arrangements, refusing to stay in his room one floor below hers despite Caro’s offer
to keep her door open so he could sit up in bed and see her. After two nights of having
him in her bed, Myra relented and moved his things to the room down the hall from
hers, a room she had intended to be a television–guest room.

Then, there was no need to look for an explanation. Adam’s insistence on sleeping
nearer to her was part of his package of phobias and fears, foreshadowed by the clutching,
easily startled temperament he’d shown as a baby and toddler, his poor appetite, the
ectomorphic form he’d inherited from her, and then cemented when his father had left
the house. With Eva, though … She stops herself. The girl has been here less than
a day.

Eva is eating at the kitchen table by the time Myra comes back upstairs. She is humming
between spoonfuls of cereal, a tune that is vaguely familiar. She smiles at Myra,
a shy smile, but without any trace of embarrassment.

“You moved upstairs.”

Eva giggles. “I am sorry.”

“Were you uncomfortable in your room?”

“It is so lonely all the way down there. At home, we have one floor. My sister and
I share a room. In Lima, I sleep in the room with my friend.”

“That’s going to be Omar’s room when he gets here, but you can sleep there for the
next two weeks. Maybe by then everything will seem more familiar.”

Eva nods. As she stands to clear her bowl, she resumes her humming. Now Myra recognizes
the tune. It is “Edelweiss” from
The Sound of Music.

“Small and white / Clean and bright / You look happy to meet me.”

The Sound of Mucous
, Larry had called it. He’d chase the children around the house bellowing, “Big and
green / Dirty and mean / You look happy to eat me.”

The humming stops. “Thank you,” Eva says.


Usually a sound sleeper, Caro is woken in the middle of the night by a dream of howler
monkeys. She is in a basket suspended from a tree. One of the monkeys has climbed
in and is clinging to her, its claws digging so hard into her skin she can see beads
of blood. Unable to shake the creepy feeling of the dream, she wanders into her kitchen,
where she stands at the counter eating grapes, imagining her mother on the fourth
floor of the dark brownstone with Eva three stories below. When the grapes are gone,
she takes a bagel from the freezer and defrosts it in the microwave. She eats it slathered
with peanut butter and then opens a carton of frozen yogurt, which she eats to the

In the morning, she feels sick from the nighttime eating. No amount of toothpaste
will remove the revolting taste from her mouth. She puts on her running shoes and
jogs slowly across Eighty-sixth Street and then into Central Park. She circles the
reservoir twice, once on the path by the water, once on the bridle path, hating herself
for the useless calories. She can identify the impetus for stuffing herself—the anxiety
about Eva, the memories she’d unleashed—but the understanding never stops the compulsive
hand to mouth that leaves her with a self-loathing in comparison to which the original
discomfort would have been a pleasure.

With her head finally clear after the second lap, she calls her mother. The answering
machine picks up. “Hi,” Caro says. “It’s me. I thought I’d stop by and see how you
and Eva are doing.”

Ten minutes later, she climbs the steps to the brownstone. Two urns overflowing with
verbena and hollyhocks flank the door. She rings the bell, and then uses her key to
let herself in.

Her mother and Eva are at the farm table that separates the kitchen and parlor. Through
the doors opening onto the dining deck, Caro can see the mugs left on the outdoor
table. The canvas umbrella is open, casting shade over the terra-cotta pots. Below,
in the garden, a path leads from the shaded lower deck to a fountain installed the
year Adam left for college, if his at best partial residence in his N.Y.U. dorm can
be called leaving, by her mother’s first lover, a photographer with a penchant for
tinkering that resulted in a hidden pump that makes the water gurgle over a tiny wheel.
Beyond the fountain and the brick-edged beds of plantings—low pachysandra, bushy oat
grass, miscanthus interspersed with daylilies and purple irises—is the huppah under
which Adam and Rachida were married seven years ago, Omar’s presence in Rachida’s
belly obvious to all. The huppah is home now to a hammock, installed by her mother’s
last lover, an itinerant lecturer of mathematics whose jealous scenes had led to what
her mother has told her was a decision that “last” means not latest but final, a final
she now views in the context of her teleology of love as progress rather than retreat.

“Hello, darling,” Myra says. “We’re just working out a schedule for Eva, first for
the next two weeks before the others arrive, and then for after that. Come take a
look and see if we’ve forgotten anything.”

Caro pulls up a chair and pours herself a glass of lemon water from the pitcher on
the table. Although she and everyone else admire her mother’s keen organizational
skills, applied these days primarily to herself and her own pursuits, they also provoke
in Caro a kind of dread, a silent rebelliousness, as though she is being asked to
conform to a grim military regime. When she once confessed this to her mother, her
mother said, “I’m so sorry. How awful for you. You need to remember that I’m only
trying to control myself. An orderly external life allows my mind to wander freely.
It’s an occupational hazard for therapists. We overvalue order, since it’s the unchanging
routine of the sessions that lets the unconscious flow.”

Her mother’s love of order, Caro has come to understand, runs even deeper. For her
mother, there is a harmonic beauty in a household where the precise number of cartons
of milk needed for a week are loaded face forward on the bottom refrigerator shelf
every Wednesday afternoon, where each closet has its designated function, where the
mattresses are turned left to right, top to bottom, in alternating seasons. Unlike
Caro, her mother eats the foods her body needs at the times they are needed. Her days
are laid out so that each includes fresh air, work, solitude, conversation, and time
at her piano. They are works of art unto themselves, something that fills Caro alternately
with awe and horror—awe because her mother, in fact, accomplishes more in a day than
anyone else she knows, horror because it seems inhuman to be able to keep destructive
impulses so entirely leashed.

Caro studies the first column of the schedule her mother has drawn up for Eva. It
is labeled
Daily Tasks
: Mondays for laundry, Tuesdays for washing linens and ironing, Wednesdays for cleaning
the baths and kitchen, Thursdays for vacuuming and dusting, Fridays for food shopping
and errands. She skips to the column labeled
Omar School Pickup
. Caro had leaned on all her connections to find a first-grade spot for Omar, with
a friend in the admissions office at the City School having come through only last
week thanks to a family that was unexpectedly moving. On the schedule, there is Adam
for Monday, Eva for Tuesday, her mother for Wednesday, Rachida for Thursday, and her
own name next to Friday with a question mark.

“I wondered if you want to do one day a week. I put down Fridays, since that’s usually
a lighter day for you.”

Caro imagines Omar holding up his hand in delight, the miracle of a finger for each
weekday, a day for each caregiver. “Sure,” she says, a beat too slowly, her response
like a card poorly played as it dawns on her that her brother’s move is pulling them
both back home.


At first, Eva brings only her pajamas upstairs to the room Myra intends for Omar.
By the second week, though, Myra notices that Eva has brought up the remainder of
her possessions: the pair of black pants, the two pairs of jeans, a handful of T-shirts,
the fake leather jacket, the Lakers’ duffel bag, a dog-eared Old Testament, and a
small wooden box that she puts on the dresser. Eva’s toothbrush sits in a glass atop
the fourth-floor hallway bathroom sink. A bottle of her shampoo rests on the side
of the tub.

It is Tuesday. Adam, Rachida, and Omar are due on Saturday. In the evening, Myra will
remind Eva that she needs to move back downstairs before Omar arrives. When Myra comes
upstairs from her office, though, Eva is so exuberant about her plans—in the fall,
she will find a class to study Hebrew and maybe one to improve her English as well;
she has been reading Dr. M.’s New York guidebooks about places she can take Omar—that
Myra puts off raising the subject for another day.

At two, Myra wakes to the sound of a scream. She reaches the hall with Eva’s second
scream. She knocks on Eva’s door, then pushes it open. Eva is sitting upright in the


Her eyes are open, fixed straight ahead. She screams again.

Myra places a hand on Eva’s back. The girl does not move or speak. She seems to be
still asleep. Gently, Myra rubs Eva’s back, speaking to her softly, the way she had
with Adam when he would have a night terror.

Eva squeezes her eyes tight, then opens them wide. She looks at Myra, unsure, it seems,
who she is.

“It’s Myra. Dr. M.”

Eva vigorously shakes her head as though rejecting Myra’s words. Then she seems to
come to. She covers her face with her hands.

“What happen?” Eva asks.

“You had a nightmare. You were screaming in your sleep.”

“I am so embarrassed.”

“Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone has nightmares on occasion.” Myra pauses. It is true
that everyone has nightmares, but only children rouse the household with screams.

“It happen before, but not in a very long time.”

“Would you like some water?”

“Yes, please.”

Myra goes into the bathroom and fills a paper cup with water. When she returns, Eva
is still sitting up in the bed. She drinks the water, then crumples the cup between
her hands.

“I promise it will not happen again.”

On Eva’s face is what Myra thinks of as the lovesick-puppy look. When the children
were little, she would see it on occasion with a playmate: a child who would respond
to cookies and milk and a hand on her shoulder by reaching out her arms and calling
. On occasion, the look will appear in the eyes of a patient whose hunger for love
is so profound that the patient’s awareness that Myra is a therapist—listening with
genuine care and interest, with what she has come to recognize is a kind of love on
her part but remains at heart a job, a job she puts down at night and on weekends
and during August so she can care for her own family and herself—is eclipsed by a
voracious demand for more.

“Go back to sleep. We can talk in the morning.” Myra holds out her hand to take the
crumpled cup.

“My father, when he hear me scream, he slap me. My sister, she put a sock in my mouth
so he does not hear me.”

Eva studies Myra’s face. “You are worrying it will happen after Omar arrives? Don’t
worry. It is only because I was not used to it here. I am used to it now.”


In the morning, Myra cannot concentrate on her work. She sits in front of her computer,
but her thoughts will not budge from Eva’s scream. Should she send the girl back to
Lima? But for what? For being afraid to sleep alone on the ground floor? For having
a night terror?

At eight, she calls Ursula’s cell phone. It rings in Paris, where Ursula is on an
extended shopping trip, on the rose quartz marble ledge of the enormous bath where
she is soaking, in her suite at the George V Hotel.

Ursula listens to her cousin’s concerns about Eva’s night terrors, her worry that
perhaps New York is too much for the girl. She thinks about the problem Eva could
make for Alicia and her in their San Isidro synagogue, where her eldest grandson will
soon be seeking his bar mitzvah date, were Eva to ask for Hebrew lessons or Jewish
education or, God forbid, to join the congregation.

“Well, of course, sweetheart, if you need to send her back…” Ursula sighs. She climbs
out of the tub, her brown nipples covered with milk foam. Her waist has thickened
considerably since she reached menopause, a decade ago, but in her hand-sewn Parisian
lingerie, her breasts and bottom—with the help of her trainer and ample French emollients—have
retained sufficient firmness, in tandem with her Centurion American Express card,
to attract the occasional twenty-something lover, such as the young Spaniard now splayed
naked on the floral quilted spread of the hotel bed.

“Well, I suppose I might find her a job in one of the knitting factories on the outskirts
of the city. Only, they treat the girls there like slaves, paying them piece work
for hats and sweaters. Fifty cents a hat. Two dollars a sweater.”

Wrapped in a towel, Ursula enters the dressing room, the chaise longue and telephone
table littered by now, her third day in Paris, with shopping receipts and clothing
boxes, one of which produces a red lace brassiere and a matching pair of tap pants.

BOOK: Tinderbox
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