excerpt > Michelle Herman > Devotion
When she turned eighteen, Bartha married her. By then, they were thirteen hundred miles away from Esther’s family and the studio on Ocean Parkway where Bartha had been giving singing lessons for more than twenty years—as far away as Esther had ever been from Brighton Beach, from the apartment she had lived in all her life above her parents’ candy store, from Abraham Lincoln High School and the glee club, the girls’ chorus, the Drama Society, and her girlfriends (there were no boyfriends; she was not allowed to date, not until after her high school graduation—“and now I’ll never be allowed,” she had said cheerfully to Bartha, trying to cheer him up, for he was grim and silent as he sat beside her on the train that was to carry them halfway across the country): they were in Omaha, Nebraska, where there was a cousin, Vilmos Bartha, who had offered to help them get settled. It was October, 1965. The baby, Alexander, was fourteen weeks old.
The marriage ceremony was brief and disappointing. Esther had been thinking of it as something like the graduation she had missed in June, something official that would mark the start of her new life. But as the justice of the peace mumbled his few words, with Vilmos and his stern, blonde, Middle Western wife acting as witnesses, and Alexander sleeping in his carriage in a corner, she could see that she had expected too much.
Nothing had changed. It was like a magic trick at a birthday party, when the magician, who was really just somebody’s uncle or next-door neighbor, said Abracadabra but nothing happened. Then some of the children would laugh, and others would shift around uncomfortably in their folding chairs and sneak glances at one another: Was this supposed to happen? Was this a joke?
Toward the end of the ceremony, Esther almost asked, “Is that it? Are you sure?” It seemed to her that the justice of the peace, a plump little man with a long fringe of uncombed reddish hair, in a too-tight brown suit, no tie, and black, exhausted-looking penny loafers (a penny in the left shoe only, Esther noticed; the right one was empty), looked as if he might be absent-minded, as if he really might have left out some important part. Even the exchange of vows, so familiar to her from movies and novels, went by too quickly. The promises that she agreed to make seemed as routine as the pledge of allegiance she had recited every schoolday morning of her life. It did not seem possible that she was meant to take them seriously.
To have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health.
But if she didn’t take them seriously, she worried, she could not expect that she would be taken seriously. And this was the point, after all. Proving that she knew what she was doing, that she was a serious person. Because even Bartha seemed sometimes in doubt of her ability to understand what she “had done.” As if she were too stupid to see clearly the results of her own choices! “Stupid, no,” he had said when she’d made this accusation, in the first days after they’d arrived in Omaha. “Not stupid in the least—indeed, too smart, some would insist, to give away your future as you have.” “Not give,” she told him. “You must mean throw away.” At that time she was still in the habit of correcting him when he misused—when she assumed he had misused—an idiom in English. Lately she had come to think that he said, always, what he meant, and if it sounded odd it wasn’t his fault but the fault of her own listening, that language (usage, as it was so unpleasantly called in school) was more complex and interesting than she had been taught.
This was her chance to make it clear that she had made decisions, that she had not just let things happen, and also that she was willing, that she wanted, to stick by them.
And his chance to prove the same.
This was a startling thought, because it had never crossed her mind before that Bartha had anything to prove (and prove to whom? she asked herself. Only himself, since she had never doubted him—since it had never crossed her mind, either, that he might not have known what he was doing).
It was all done with now. They were on the street outside the office of the justice of the peace, and Vilmos was shaking Bartha’s hand and beaming. His wife, the imperious Clara, was looking bored and impatient. “We must make a celebration!” Vilmos said. “Clara and I will take you to lunch! Where shall we go? Esther, what is your choice?”
“You choose,” Esther said. “Wherever you like will be good.”
Bartha looked at her curiously. She usually claimed to like eating at restaurants, and she liked being asked which restaurant—and more often than not Bartha forgot to ask her, and then she would have to point this out to him later. But she couldn’t think about restaurants now. She was busy with the idea that had come to her—that today’s ceremony was nothing but the two of them, her and Bartha both, proving that they were serious, that they were grown up. She remembered what her father had said (not said, but bellowed, fists pounding the kitchen table) on the night she broke the news of her pregnancy, of her relationship with Bartha itself. The night before they’d fled. “Half a century he’s got on you! He should know better, should know how to act, how to be. A grown man, an elderly man, and he’s acting like an idiot boy.”
No—she would not let herself think of her father.
Not her father. Not anyone. No one but the two of them. No one else mattered. There was no one to whom it was necessary to prove anything—no one but themselves.
No one in all the world except Vilmos and Clara and Mr. One Penny even knew that this marriage had taken place. And no one but she and Bartha—and perhaps Vilmos, who, out of kindness, would insist he did too—cared that it had taken place.
It struck her now that this must be why people had elaborate, extravagant weddings. They forced other people to care. (And even if the fifty or a hundred or more relatives and friends attending, all dressed up and bearing gifts, could not in fact be made to truly care, the commotion was sufficient so that the private cares of the two people at the center of it seemed to be important, at least for a few hours.)
It was not as if she’d wanted, even if she’d had a choice, that other kind of wedding—what her friends at home would have called a real wedding, with a white lace dress and veil, music and flowers and a tall, many-tiered white cake, a ring-bearer and a flower girl and bridesmaids in taffeta, dancing until past midnight, and finally a fat leather-covered book of photographs on the coffee table. But all in all, this wedding, in that too-small, poorly heated, poorly lit, windowless room in what passed for an office building in Nebraska (both she and Bartha had made jokes about this on their way in, and Vilmos had smiled and sighed and rolled his eyes, as he did every time they made their “New York bigshot joke remarks,” and Clara had, also as usual, been offended), this wedding had less resembled the private commencement exercises she had had in mind than it did the meeting she’d had with her “guidance counselor” the first week of senior year, when she was lectured briefly in the woman’s tiny office, under a fluorescent light that buzzed and flickered, about the importance of choosing the right college and then asked a few irrelevant, obviously memorized questions, the answers to which the counselor did not even bother to pretend to listen to before she wished Esther luck with her applications and called for the next senior waiting on the bench in the hallway, who shrugged and rolled her eyes at Esther as she passed.
How foolish she had felt for being disappointed, for having hoped for anything resembling guidance.
The restaurant Vilmos chose, the Bohemian Café, was a favorite of Vilmos and Bartha’s. The four of them settled themselves into a booth there, and Esther readjusted the baby (still sleeping, miraculously, although now in her arms), laying him across her lap, her left hand tucked beneath his head, her right hand on his chest so that she could feel the lift and fall.
Vilmos accepted a menu from a waitress in a Czech costume even as he smacked one hand on the table. “Wine!” he said. “I believe wine is called for on such a day. Shall we all have some?”
“Wine?” Clara said. “At this hour?”
A menu was set before Esther but she did not pick it up. She watched Vilmos, who smiled a little, nodding, then answered his own question, “Yes, I believe we will have some wine.”
Ever since she’d met them, Esther had been waiting for Vilmos to get angry with Clara. He never even seemed to be annoyed. Esther couldn’t understand it, and she watched him carefully now as he turned to Bartha: “And some dumplings, too? For everyone? Because they’re homemade here, you know, and they’re not bad. You’ve tried them, János, have you not?”
“Of course,” said Bartha. “And you’re right, they’re not bad. But the noodles also are homemade, and they are better than the dumplings.”
“Esther?” Vilmos said. “Do you also prefer the noodles?”
Esther nodded. It made no difference to her. She liked going to restaurants, but not for the food. She liked the eventfulness of a trip to a restaurant. She liked being served; she liked being asked what she wanted. It was still a novelty to her. Her father did not believe in restaurants. “A waste of good money,” he had always said. “I do not understand how such places stay in business.”
But mostly, going to a restaurant was interesting now because it was the only place she did go, the only place Bartha ever took her. There was nowhere else to go, nothing else to do.
“Yes,” Vilmos murmured, thinking aloud, “it’s true that the noodles might be even better….”
Esther tried not to smile. She could not imagine thinking about such a thing long enough to make a choice about it, to have an opinion about it. She wondered if Vilmos meant what he said—if he’d really just rethought the dumplings. Vilmos loved Bartha as much as she did. Certainly he cared as much as she did about pleasing him, or at any rate not displeasing him.
Clara cleared her throat. She often did, before she spoke—it was her version of a drumroll, to introduce whatever new disagreeable thing she meant to say. “No noodles for me,” she said, “and no dumplings either. It’s too early in the day for something so heavy. I’ll just have a little soup.”
“And a glass of wine?” Vilmos said. “You’ll have wine with us, to celebrate?”
“No,” Clara said. “No wine. If I drink, I’ll fall right to sleep.”
“Not even a single glass, or half of a glass, to make a toast?”
There was not a hint of irritation in his voice. Esther wondered how he managed it. She could not have done it, could not have remained amiable day after day, year after year, to Clara—who responded to her husband now with a look so empty of expression that if Esther hadn’t already been used to it she would have been alarmed.
She had no doubt that Clara hated her (though Vilmos swore she didn’t, swore she “only disapproved” of her—“and even that, believe me,” he insisted, “just a little bit. She’ll get over it in time, I promise you. You only must have patience”).
“No wine,” Clara said again. “I’ll have a glass of water.”
“Soup and a glass of water,” Vilmos said. He said it thoughtfully, as if he were memorizing a difficult line of poetry. “All right, then.” He picked up his menu. “For the rest of us, however…let’s see.…”
Esther could not begin to guess what had made him want to marry Clara. She wasn’t pretty and she had no sense of humor, she wasn’t talented or clever—she wasn’t even interesting, the way some plain but smart girls were at school (though Clara was smart enough, Esther supposed; still, she was not quick-witted, which was the attractive part of smartness). She was always angry or dissatisfied—always. Esther could not recall a time when she had heard Clara say something kind, or when she had seemed happy—and at twenty-nine she was already every bit as harshly finished-looking as the stout, tired, middle-aged Midwestern women Esther saw each week at Hinky Dinky pushing cartfuls of canned vegetables and cellophane-wrapped meat.
“János, you must choose the wine,” Vilmos said, without taking his eyes off his menu. “Unless of course you would prefer some beer. They have Czech beer, you know, in this place.”
“I prefer wine, always,” Bartha said. He didn’t look up from his menu either. This was how he and Vilmos always behaved in restaurants. It mystified Esther, their fascination with these lists of things to eat and drink. They would argue tirelessly about the merits and demerits of a given restaurant, a dish, a method of food preparation. “If Esther also will have wine, let’s have a bottle.”
“Good. Will you have wine then, Esther?”
She looked from one to the other. Neither of them had looked at her. Each was studying his menu as if he would be tested on its contents later.
“Esther? Will you drink wine?” Bartha said.
She knew she should say, Yes, I’ll have wine, or else, No, I don’t think so, thank you. No—she knew that what she should say—what Bartha wanted her to say—was yes, she’d have some wine, of course I will. But really she could have wine or not have wine, it made no difference to her. And Bartha must know that it made no difference to her—noodles or dumplings, wine or no wine. He must know that she only pretended, for his sake.
A moment passed before he looked up, eyebrows raised—puzzled, not impatient. He wasn’t accustomed to having to wait for her to answer him. Whenever he asked her a question, she was grateful, for it wasn’t so often that he asked her anything, and no matter what it was—how serious or trivial, or even if she knew it was only rhetorical—she’d reply immediately, sometimes without pausing to think about what she was saying.
But she was thinking now. What she was thinking (she told herself this, told it to herself as if she were telling someone else a story) was that she was angry. This had only just occurred to her, as she considered him while he considered her—his head cocked, his eyebrows raised (as if she were a menu, she thought; as if he were contemplating and discarding possibilities). His eyebrows, like his hair, were perfectly, brilliantly white, and so unruly that he looked, always, as if a ferocious wind had just blown by him.
They looked at each other steadily. He—her husband, Esther thought—was still waiting for an answer. She knew she was being stubborn, knew it wasn’t reasonable to refuse to answer. But she found—and this was a surprise—that her stubbornness pleased her.
“Take the baby from me, will you? My arms are getting tired.”
This was true enough—her arms were tired—as she had been holding Alexander since they’d left the office of the absurd little Mr. One Penny. But she expected Bartha to point out that she could not blame him for this, that he had tried to convince her to put the baby in his carriage when they were led to their booth here, that he’d objected in the first place when she’d scooped the sleeping baby up after the ceremony and left him—her husband—to push the empty carriage behind her. All he said as he took the baby now, however, was, “Just look how nicely he is sleeping. Too bad he won’t sleep so well as this at night, when we are sleeping too.”
She forced out a smile. She hated it when he complained, or made a joke, about the baby’s nighttime habit of waking and crying for her at two-hour intervals, not falling back to sleep until she’d held him, nursed him, rocked him, sung to him, and then walked him around and around the dark room, sometimes for as long as half an hour. This did not seem so terrible to her. That Alexander needed her attention (her attention; Bartha’s would not do) so much that this need could awaken him from a sound sleep was rather thrilling to her. She had hinted at this once to Bartha—had mentioned, with a laugh, as if this time she were the one making jokes about it, that she did not find interrupted sleep so great a price to pay for being loved—but she saw from the look he gave her then that this was not a sentiment that he approved of. After that, she felt she had no choice but to feign sympathy with him when he complained about the way the baby slept (or didn’t sleep), and she pretended now, smiling and nodding. But when she saw that he had begun to stand up, that he was about to put the baby in his carriage after all, she stopped smiling her false smile and said, sharply, “Please, hold him. For five minutes, hold him. Then I’ll take him back.”
“Esther, you cannot eat while holding him,” he said.
She thought of telling him, “And why not? I’ve done it before, and will again.” But did she want to argue with Bartha? She considered this. They had never argued. She could not imagine what an argument between them would be like.
Carefully, she said, “When the food comes, I promise you, I’ll put him down.”
“Fine,” he said. “Good.” And that was that, the end of it. Still, watching him resettle himself with the baby, she could feel her anger prickling at her as if it were something caught under her skin. You are being foolish, she told herself. Foolish and unreasonable. Why angry? Nothing had changed—everything was just the same as always.
So it was, she thought. Exactly.
Everything was just the same. She felt as if she had been tricked.
She watched Bartha as he began once again to read his menu. He held Alexander securely, with both hands, but Esther could see that he had already ceased to be aware of anything except the list of choices that lay on the table. What if she were to snatch the menu away? But this was just the sort of childish thought she most despised herself for having. Somehow, even if she could prevent herself from doing childish things, she could not keep herself from thinking of them. It was as if there were a part of her that was determined to show her (and him? How lucky it was that he couldn’t read her mind!) how much of a child she was, still. (But she wasn’t, she told herself. How could she be, now?)
“Esther, have you come to a decision?”
She blinked at him. “A decision?”
He inclined his head. The waitress, in her costume—multicolored flowers stenciled on her tall white hat and on the square of apron over her short, stiff black skirt—stood beside the table.
“Oh—no.” Esther felt herself blush. “No, I’m sorry.” She glanced at the menu, but there were too many choices. She couldn’t think of any reason to name one of them. “Maybe you could…” she began, but as she spoke, she looked up at him, saw the start of a frown—no, no, this wouldn’t do—and she began again, taking a different tack. “Everything looks good. How can I decide?” She paused. “No, I can’t. Please, won’t you choose for me?”
He smiled. “Of course. I will order for us both then.”
She paid no attention to what he chose for her. She set her menu down on the tiled tabletop (the tiles were flowered too, and she wondered if the hats and aprons had been made to order so they’d match the tables, or vice versa; or if everything had been planned from the restaurant’s inception) and while he ordered she reflected on how fussy he was, how strict, really, about the reason she deferred to him. She knew that if she let him take charge when she wasn’t interested in taking charge herself, because the issue at hand bored her or did not seem worth the trouble to her, he would be displeased. But it never failed to delight him when she asked him to take over because she knew he knew better. The distinction, she thought, was almost too subtle (she did not have to come out and say that he would make a wiser choice than she would—indeed, she had learned that it was better to imply this than to say it), so that it was easy for her to forget how much it mattered to him and make a mistake, as she nearly had just now. And yet it had mattered to him from the start. He had taken pains to tell her, early on, that he didn’t want to make decisions for her, to treat her “like a father treats a child.”
“That’s all right,” she had assured him. “I don’t want you to. But there’s no chance that I’ll confuse you with my father. He assumes he knows best always, about everything.”
“Yes, precisely,” Bartha had said. “I shall not—we shall not—make such an assumption.”
But it didn’t seem to her so terrible if sometimes he did, especially once they’d left Brooklyn and come here and she had no one but him to depend on. And he did know better about most things. “He’s read everything and he’s been everywhere,” she had told her two closest friends after she had met him for the first time. She’d called Kathleen and Leah one after another, right after her first lesson with him. Just as she had called them after every lesson after that—until she had to stop calling, stop telling them anything.
She had talked about him far too much at first, so that when she had to stop, afraid she would reveal her secret if she spoke of him at all, she was afraid her friends would notice something. It still seemed strange to her that they had not: she had believed that they knew her so well they’d see the change in her without her telling them—and it had confused her when it was clear that they saw nothing, for she had been unable to decide if she were disappointed or relieved.
In the beginning she had talked endlessly about him, about how brilliant he was, how interesting. “Interesting?” Kathleen had said doubtfully. “He’s, like, as old as my grandfather”—though he probably wasn’t, or not quite, and even if he were, the comparison was nonsensical. Kathleen’s grandfather lived with Kathleen and her parents and told them stories no one was interested in, the same stories again and again, and when he wasn’t telling stories to Kathleen’s family or friends, he was with a bunch of other old men playing pinochle and sitting in the sun on folding chairs, complaining to each other about “the government.”
Kathleen and Leah listened politely when Esther told them how many different foreign languages Bartha could speak, or talked about how elegant his manners were, or mentioned famous people he had met—and then they changed the subject without asking any questions, as if gossip about kids in school or the cute new math teacher, or comparing their complaints about their parents, or deciding what to do on Saturday night (the same boring things: a movie at the Oceana, bowling, listening to records at Leah’s) were at least as worthy—more worthy—of their serious attention than “this old guy who gives Esther singing lessons” (which was what Kathleen had said when someone at school, overhearing Esther talking as they stood outside the building waiting for the bell to ring one morning, asked who she’d been talking about).
Esther told them how kind Bartha was, how he fed the stray dogs and the alley cats and even the pigeons in the courtyard of his building—and how gently he spoke to them; she told them how honored she felt by the way he talked to her—as if she were his equal, she said, when she obviously wasn’t (“Grandfathers always want to talk, though,” Kathleen said. “I don’t see what’s so honoring about it”). They claimed to be baffled by how impressed she was by him. It didn’t seem to mean anything to them when she told them that Bartha had had the most extraordinary life of anyone she’d ever known or even read or heard about—and when once, long ago, she told them that she’d “fallen absolutely and completely madly in love” with him, even though they didn’t take it literally (well, she hadn’t meant it literally—not then, not yet), they begged her not to say that. “Not even as a joke,” Kathleen said. “It’s just much too creepy.” And Leah, with a theatrical shudder, said, “He’s so old, Esther, it’s too weird and awful when you think about it.”
Neither of them understood anything. They remained unmoved when she said (lowering her voice, thrilled again each time she said this—thrilled each time she thought about it), “But of course you know he was a famous tenor in his time, in Europe.”
This he had told her during her first lesson. He had not been bragging, she understood, but letting her know what she should have known already when she came to him that first time with the note of introduction from her music teacher at school. He mentioned it in passing—the way someone else might have said, “Oh yes, I sold vacuum cleaners once, a lot of them. I was pretty good at it.” Without arrogance, and yet also without false humility, he spoke of a certain performance, a certain mezzo soprano with whom he had sung then for the first time. He was making a point about Esther’s own voice, if she worked hard and did everything he said, if she stopped singing from her chest and from her throat and set aside the “very silly” show tunes she so loved, two of which she had just sung for him, or tried to sing for him—for he had interrupted the first one, saying, “Clambakes? Do not use this lovely voice to sing to me of clambakes!” and the second with a shout (“Corn and Kansas and blueberry pie? And what does a beautiful girl who has spent her entire life in New York City know about corn and Kansas and the making of pies and so on? No, no, no! This is a voice made for singing of tragic love, of longing”). She was flattered, naturally, but so dazzled by what he had just revealed about himself that she couldn’t concentrate on being pleased. She was speechless as she watched him move about his studio that afternoon, his hands—small, pale, slim-fingered hands that shot out extravagantly, suddenly, from the cuffs of his suit jacket like little white birds newly freed—making eights and circles in the air as he explained his method, explained what she would have to unlearn to begin her studies with him.
She had never met—had never seen—anyone who was in any way like him. His hair was the longest, wildest hair she’d ever seen on somebody who wasn’t young, and much longer than she’d ever seen on any boy or man of any age. The long white curls flopped and swung around his head as he paced, telling her what she must not do anymore and what she must begin to do. She saw that he was old, she knew that he was old—it was not as if she didn’t notice it, or noticed it but didn’t “understand” it (which was what Kathleen had said once—“It’s like you don’t even understand how old he is”—and also what her father had said, later, in a meaner, uglier way she still didn’t want to think about, even after so much time had passed). Bartha was old but he was not “an old man,” she tried to explain (to Kathleen—not her father; to her father that night she did not try to explain anything once he started yelling at her and pounding his fists on the door frame and the stove and the kitchen table, and she left home that same night, climbing out the window like a thief whose job was done, without having said another word to him).
Bartha didn’t look or act or move like an old man—not like the old men she knew, not like Kathleen’s grandfather or his friends or the other old men in the neighborhood, the ones who came into her parents’ candy store. He was nothing like her own grandfathers—what she could remember of them. Both had died a long time ago. What she remembered was that both had been small, mostly quiet men, though one—Papa Jack, her father’s father—had been given to sporadic fits of temper, during which he would yell, either at his wife (Grandma Leni, also long gone now) or at his only son, Esther’s father, in a language Esther didn’t understand and which her father never spoke although he must have understood, and which she knew was called Ladino. These outbursts sent shock waves through the family but seemed to leave Papa Jack himself unaffected, for within seconds after each of them, he was calm, he was speaking English again, and his voice was gentle, so unscary it was hard to imagine how it could have been so terrifying not even a minute before.
Her other grandfather had been Papa Shimon, who hardly spoke at all, but when he did it was in a mix of three languages—Yiddish, Russian, and English—so that Esther had understood only a third of what he’d said. Not that it mattered, since she could not recall him ever speaking to her, only to her mother or, stiffly, to her father. His wife, Grandma Pesse, Esther had never even known. She had died when Esther’s mother was still a child.
Both grandfathers had died before Esther was ten years old, but she remembered that they had both been nearly bald, a few strands of stiff gray hair slicked down flat across their shiny heads, and that both of them had spent all their time in chairs or in recliners—sitting, resting, lying down. That was what old men did.
Bartha didn’t sit that first day, her first lesson, for more than a minute at a time. As he talked, he kept on pacing—confidently, grandly: around and around the piano and the chairs and the glass-shaded stand-up lamps behind them, around the little tables topped with stacks of books and papers, around the music stand and the green velvet sofa and Esther herself as she stood, hands clasped (clenched, in fact—and even so they trembled) in the center of the room. If he sat, briefly, on one of the upholstered chairs or on the piano bench, it was only because he had snatched a book from one of the piles and wanted to find a particular piece of music, to demonstrate a point—but then he was on his feet again, moving again.
More than two years had passed since that day, the day he had become her teacher, and for months now (three more months and it would be a year!) he had not been her teacher—and yet even after all these months that they had lived together, sometimes she would catch herself still thinking of him in that way. It happened when she came upon him unexpectedly: if she saw him on the street when she was out with Alexander and he had decided to come home a little early, or if she returned from a walk with the baby and found him already there, drinking a cup of tea and studying The New York Times. She would not think János is home, as it seemed to her she should by now. She would think Here he is, the teacher.
She never spoke of this to him, since she could not be sure how he would react. She never liked to tell him things if she could not prepare for his response first. What she told herself was that a lapse like this was natural, that after all he’d been her teacher for a long time before he had become her lover—and even then he had not ceased to be her teacher, for her twice-weekly lessons with him had continued right up to the day before they had had to run away together. She had not yet had the opportunity to grow accustomed to the change in their relations—that was what she told herself, and sometimes it eased her mind. But at other times it seemed to her that there had been no change in their relations—that, but for their lovemaking itself (on the green velvet sofa, folded out into a bed, after her lesson each Tuesday and Friday afternoon), nothing had changed between her first lesson and her last.
And in the months since? What had really changed, besides the plain fact that they now lived together? He continued to treat her just as he had when she had been his student, formally (though pleasantly, and almost always kindly), tolerantly (and some days only tolerantly, which both then and now disheartened and unsettled her), and sometimes with pride (then, when she had sung particularly well; now, when she behaved the way he wished her to—graciously, unchildishly, “as befits a gentlewoman.” Yentlevoman, he would say).
The form of their relationship had certainly changed, she thought. But had its contents?
This was such a coolly grown-up question that for an instant she was pleased, and praised herself for thinking of it. And all at once she was thinking of her English teacher, Mr. Inemer—her favorite teacher, the best one she’d had at Lincoln. He was the one who had taught her, junior year, to think about form and content—and now, as if it had been only last week that she’d sat in his classroom, she could hear Mr. Inemer saying sound, direction, rhythm, predetermined limitations, technique, imagery, devices. Wouldn’t he be pleased, and proud of her?
But what could she be thinking of? This was her life, not a poem. And yet—form, meaning structure, shape—she could not only hear him, she could see him perched on the front edge of his desk, counting off each term on his fingers, just as he always did. What do I mean by content? Anybody? Subject matter, theme, motif. Can anybody tell me what motif might be? Esther? I’m willing to bet that you can.
And she could, too. She always could.
But this wasn’t poetry or art or music, this was just her life, and Room 325—last row, first seat—was thirteen hundred miles away. Mr. Inemer was at this very minute saying the same things he’d said to her class to a group of kids she probably wouldn’t even recognize.
And she was here, in the Bohemian Café, beside her husband and her son. Of course things had changed—just look at how they’d changed. It was her wedding day, and she was no one’s student anymore.
Tears filled her eyes. Now? she thought. Now she was crying? She had been dry-eyed throughout the ceremony, though she had imagined she would cry, and she had even wondered whether or not she would hide her tears from Bartha. She stole a sidelong glance at him but he was pondering the wine list, not looking at her. When he spoke her name—still not looking at her—she started at the sound. Before he could say anything else, she said, sharply, “I’m fine.”
She held her tears back, blinking, as he turned to her. He looked at her quizzically but said only, “So, will you drink a little something? I have found a good wine.” He took one hand off the baby, briefly setting it atop hers where it lay on the tiled tabletop before returning it to its place beneath Alexander’s head. “Or…here is another which is very good.” He closed his eyes, deliberating. “Perhaps we might try both.”
“Both, yes!” Vilmos said. He slapped his menu down and rubbed his hands together like a character in a novel. “Two bottles of wine, why not?” And to the waitress, he said, “At this table we are celebrating!”
“The waitress isn’t interested,” said Clara. “Let her do her job.”
“Did you hear this, Alexander?” Vilmos said, and Esther thought he was about to complain about his wife for once, even if only to the sleeping baby, but he said, “See, we are ordering some good wine so that we may drink a toast to your health. Your family is all around you, little one.” He half stood and leaned over the table so that he could look down at the baby in his cousin’s lap. “Still sleeping? Alexander, you are missing the whole party! Time to wake up, darling boy.”
He said it quietly, certainly not loudly enough to wake the baby, but still Esther was about to protest, to warn him not to wake the baby, when, as if he’d heard and understood, Alexander did wake up—opening his eyes, yawning and smiling, reaching out with one hand toward Esther—and then suddenly he was asleep again, exhaling a great sigh, before Esther had had the chance to take him out of Bartha’s lap. His right hand had fallen palm-up on his forehead. “Look at him,” Vilmos said. “I think he is saying to us, ‘All of this happiness is making me very tired. Please go ahead and have the party without me.’ He is a very thoughtful baby, I think.”
“Or else he’s just bored,” said Clara.
“Bored? This baby? Never!” Vilmos said. “The brilliant are never bored, and our Alexander is a brilliant baby.”
“Oh, indeed,” said Bartha, laughing. “The most brilliant of babies.”
“Don’t joke,” Esther heard herself say, though she hadn’t meant to speak. “He is,” she told Vilmos, who as he sat back down reached for her hand.
“Of course he is, darling.”
Bartha wasn’t listening. He was busy with the waitress—telling her which wines he’d chosen, and which one of them to bring out first. As soon as he finished, as the waitress turned to leave, Vilmos called to her, “Excuse me, miss, but have you ever in your life seen such a baby? Tell the truth.”
“A beautiful baby,” said the waitress, without turning.
“Yes, that’s right,” Vilmos said. “A beautiful and brilliant baby. An excellent baby! What more could one hope for? My own little cousin! My own—oh, now you must tell me, Clara”—he winked at Esther—“tell me if I have this right. My own first cousin…three times removed?”
“No,” Clara said. “Are you making a joke?”
“A joke? Naturally not. I am only—”
“I don’t understand why this is so hard to remember.”
“I don’t understand either,” Vilmos said sadly, “yet somehow I cannot.” He took his wife’s hand now and at the same time winked again at Esther. “Tell me once more, Clara, please.”
“Only once more,” Clara said, “and that’s all.” To Esther she said, “I’ve been through this with him half a dozen times. He just can’t keep it in his head.” She shrugged, and Esther shrugged too, looking down at Clara and Vilmos’s linked hands. It always came as a surprise when Clara spoke to her. “Listen closely this time,” Clara said. Then, in a singsong: “You and János are first cousins twice removed. Your grandfather was János’s first cousin. Your great-grandfather, József, and János’s father, Béla—”
“I remember him very well, my cousin László,” Bartha interrupted her. “We were good friends, very close. But that was long ago. I saw him last before the war, in Budapest. His father, my Uncle József—you have an excellent memory for names, Clara, it is remarkable—he was quite something. Such a temper! László used to come—”
“—were brothers,” Clara cut in, raising her voice, “and therefore you are twice removed as a first cousin to János, because you are two generations removed from his first cousin. But Alexander and your father are of the same generation”—here she cast a meaningful, angry-looking smile at all of them—“which means that they are second cousins, and you”—once more she flashed that chilly smile like a triumphant scowl—“are thus a second cousin once removed from Alexander.”
Vilmos slapped his forehead. “Therefore? Thus? To me it’s not so simple, not so obvious.” He sighed. “János is right. You are remarkable.”
“Don’t be silly,” Clara said. “It isn’t difficult at all. It follows simple rules.”
“Yes, for a bookkeeper, it’s simple. But for me….” Vilmos shook his head. “Esther, tell me. What do you think?” But before she could respond—I’m no bookkeeper either, she was going to say (and it was just as well she didn’t have the opportunity, for Clara hated being called a bookkeeper, even though there was no other word for what she was in the insurance office where she worked part-time: she kept the accounts, and thus, Esther thought, with a smile she hoped nobody saw, she was a bookkeeper)—Vilmos said, “All right now, you must tell me once again. Just once more, and I promise I will never ask again.”
“I don’t think you really listen when I tell you,” Clara said. “I don’t know why I tell you anything, I really don’t.” And yet, surprising Esther, she began again: “József and Béla,” she said, “were two brothers, out of five. The other three….”
Bored, Esther stopped listening. (It occurred to her to wonder if Vilmos was right: if she were brilliant, would she not be bored?) But she was not only bored, she was insulted, too, she recognized belatedly, by the way Clara had spoken of Vilmos’s father and the baby as being of “the same generation.” Between Alexander and Vilmos’s father, another József—whom Esther had never met, and who lived in Fresno, California, the other city Bartha had considered settling them in when they’d first discussed the possibility of leaving Brooklyn—there was a good half century.
Esther didn’t doubt that Clara had meant to insult her—to remind her of the “inappropriateness” of the match between her and Bartha. She had heard Clara use that word, speaking privately to Vilmos, not long after they had first arrived in Omaha. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but she’d heard a lot of things she wasn’t meant to hear, living with Vilmos and Clara. Of course, she should not have been surprised by anything Clara had said to Vilmos (it had not been so unlike what Esther’s father had said that last night in Brooklyn—although her father’s language had not been coldly polite, like Clara’s, but vicious and hateful). She should not have been surprised, but still she was. Bartha had told her they would be welcome here. He had implied that she and Clara would be friends, good friends, before long.
Clara was droning on still: first removed, twice removed, third cousins, grandfathers, great-uncles, even a stepbrother. Vilmos interrupted her repeatedly, encouraging her to name all the brothers if she mentioned one. Evidently Vilmos had taught Clara the names of all his relatives in Hungary, most of them long dead, and now he was showing off her memory to Bartha (who kept joining in, irrelevantly, interrupting both of them to reminisce about László and László’s younger brother—yet another József—or his favorite uncle, Oszkár, or Oszkár’s beloved only son, Károly). Uncles, nephews, fathers, brothers. Why were there no women in this recitation? Hadn’t every one of these nephews and great-grandfathers had a mother?
She was angry again. It was astonishing to her as she paused to consider—to appreciate—how angry she was, for there had been so many times she had told herself she should be angry with Bartha and hadn’t been. When he was short with her, when he spoke to her as if she were a small child, when he seemed to dismiss her—as if what she’d said was too foolish or trivial for him to think of taking seriously—or when he berated her for carrying the baby around “all day long” (“Put him down,” he would say, “please, for half an hour, even. This cannot be good for him, to be held in your arms for every minute”) or when he ignored her, lost in his own thoughts, so that she’d ask a question and he wouldn’t even look at her, much less give her an answer. At such times she would feel sorry for herself, but she would not be angry—although she would often think about how someone else would certainly be angry. She would think of Leah and Kathleen, to whom she hadn’t spoken in so long now, who would not have stood for being scolded, or for being lectured the way Bartha lectured her, or for being treated as if they could not be seen or heard—and inevitably she would think then of her mother, too, who would not have gotten angry but would have become depressed instead (infuriating Esther, who had always been able to see for herself when her mother should have become angry and had not). She would tell herself she had good reason to be angry, but it didn’t matter because angry wasn’t what she felt—she only felt unhappy. And because she’d started thinking of her mother, and of Leah and Kathleen, by then she would be feeling lonely, too. She was too sad and lonely to be angry. That was how it always seemed to her.
And so instead of being angry as she knew she should be, she would start to cry. And when she did, she would sometimes make an effort to keep this hidden from Bartha, while at other times she would make sure he saw—depending on her mood (what she thought of as mood: depending on whether or not she wanted him to ask her what was wrong, which in its turn depended both on whether or not she wanted to have to answer him, and whether or not she thought it would make her feel worse if he saw her crying and then didn’t ask her what was wrong). If she wanted to be left alone to cry, she would lie down with the baby on the bed—Vilmos and Clara’s fold-out sofa, which since Alexander’s birth she had stopped bothering to close up in the morning—and, holding him tightly to her chest, his back to her, curl herself all around him, her knees almost to her forehead so that she came close to making a full circle with her body around his, and then silently she would begin to plan a letter to her family, which she would write hours later, after Bartha and the baby were asleep. Just thinking about what she would write made her feel better—although she had learned that if she didn’t actually write the letter in the first hours after midnight before Alexander woke up crying for her, the effects of having planned it would wear off by morning. Like a magic spell, she thought, although she couldn’t think of any fairy tales that had to do with writing.
Sitting at the little table Vilmos had moved down into the basement for them, the desk lamp she’d bought at a garage sale (a spindly red Tensor lamp just like the one she’d left behind at home) making a tiny spotlight for the piece of paper and her moving hand, she’d write page after page on stationery she kept hidden in the bottom of the diaper bag, stopping only when she had run out of things to say. Then she’d hide the letter in her purse, and in the morning, when she took her first walk of the day with Alexander, she would mail it.
She knew that no one would answer. None of the letters she had written had been answered, and while she had never counted them, she guessed that by now there had been at least ten, maybe fifteen of them. As far as she knew, nobody was even reading her letters—but as they were not returned to her unopened, someone might be (she thought someone—she couldn’t, even as she wrote them, bring herself to think Daddy, Mama, Sylvia), so it was not impossible that someone, sometime, would write back. Who, though? she wondered every time she caught herself thinking this way. Her father? Not a chance. Her mother? She’d have to defy her father, and it was impossible for Esther to believe she would do that. And Sylvia was only twelve—not even twelve yet when Esther had left—and they had never really liked each other in the first place. Chances were that Sylvia would not have answered letters from her even if she’d left home in a normal way. Chances were, anyway, that her parents didn’t let Sylvia see the letters, even though they were addressed to The Savarises, and Esther headed every one of them Dear Family.
Either someone opened them and read them and then didn’t answer (decided yet again that there would be no answer), or they were discarded each time without being opened. Or placed in a drawer, just as they were? In books she had read, this sometimes happened, but because she could not picture herself doing this, she couldn’t picture anyone she knew doing this either. She could, however, easily—too easily—picture her father extracting an envelope he recognized as coming from her, separating it from the small pile of bills and advertisements, that week’s TV Guide, and perhaps a more welcome letter from somebody else, and holding it between two fingers as he carried it out to the trash can in the alley.
Did it matter if nobody read them? She asked herself this sometimes, because when she wrote, she never thought about anyone reading what she’d written. When she was thinking of what she would say, she never asked herself, What will they make of this? She concentrated only on what she was saying—as if the letters weren’t, in fact, being written to anyone—and she hadn’t been surprised or even very disappointed when no one wrote back.
She couldn’t say why she had written that first letter. She didn’t know how it had happened. In her memory, the pen was in her hand already, she was sitting at the table, it was just past midnight after the long day that was supposed to have been her due date. How or why it had occurred to her to write, or what she’d imagined the result of it would be, she didn’t know. As for why she had kept on after the first one—how could she account for that? It was a good thing, she had often thought, that there was nobody to whom she was obliged to give an explanation. She could not have said that she was comforted or calmed by her letter-writing (on the contrary, she would sometimes become so agitated as she wrote that the pen shook in her hand and she would have to stop for a while). The letters didn’t make her feel less lonely or less full of pity for herself—they didn’t make her feel less of anything bad that she was feeling. But somehow, although her writing didn’t lessen her unhappiness, it loosened it from her. All it took was for her to start writing a new letter in her mind, and the bad feelings that had seemed so settled in her would begin to shift and stir, as if they were becoming restless, and then bit by bit, as she went on, she’d feel them pulling loose—coming unstuck. As she lay coiled around the baby, thinking and rethinking what she meant to say this time and how she would say it, it was as if she saw her own unhappiness: it hovered everywhere around her, near enough to touch. It wasn’t until later, when she sat down at her little table with her stationery and her pen, that the bad feelings would begin at last to drift away—not out of sight but far enough away so that while she was still aware of them she couldn’t have reached out for them if she had wanted to.
By morning they’d be gone. She would wake up feeling light, unbound, unburdened—almost weightless. Free. She would sing to Alexander and dance him around the room. “All I want is a room somewhere,” she’d sing, twirling until she was dizzy and the baby had begun to laugh. Sometimes she’d catch Bartha looking at her strangely. “What?” she’d say, as if she really couldn’t guess what puzzled him, but she would blush, and flutter over to him for an instant, long enough to kiss his cheek or touch his hand, then fly away again before he could reach out for her or look at her too closely—as if he could see what she’d been doing while he was asleep. He would shake his head and mutter, “Moods, such moods, who has the strength for this?” and, “But what a terrible song this is which you are singing.” But that was as much as he ever said. He never asked her any questions, and Esther supposed that he was pleased enough, or simply relieved enough, to see her happy once again so that he wasn’t troubled by, or even interested in, how this new mood might have come to pass.
Like every other morning, after breakfast at the little table (tea and toast and jam for him, and for her—“to keep up your strength,” he said each time she pleaded with him not to bother, she was not that hungry—oatmeal and a glass of milk as well), he kissed her and Alexander and left for his studio. If he’d asked, she told herself once he was gone, she would have told him. That he hadn’t asked (that it seemed he would never ask) left her feeling grateful and sad at the same time. But only for the first few minutes after he had left. Then, once those few minutes passed, she would pick up the baby and resume her singing and her dancing. “We got sunlight on the sand,” she’d sing to Alexander. “We got moonlight on the sea.” She’d spin him so fast he would shriek with pleasure.
“Ah, exactly what we are in need of right now,” Vilmos said, confusing Esther. Then she saw the waitress in her dirndl skirt and peasant blouse proffering a bottle of wine for Bartha’s inspection. “Yes, good,” Bartha said, and as the waitress poured, Vilmos announced that he wanted to make a toast. “To you, Esther my dear,” Vilmos said. “To your health and happiness and a long life that’s full of love.” Esther blushed.
“Clara, lift your water glass, please,” he said. “Esther—you, too, lift your wine glass. Just this once it’s all right.” She picked up her glass and looked at Bartha—he was the one who had taught her that one mustn’t drink a toast to oneself—but he smiled and gave her a slight nod as he held up one finger (just this once, yes), so she brought the glass to her lips and in three long swallows she drank the contents of it.
“Slowly, Esther, slowly,” Bartha said. But Vilmos was laughing and already reaching for the bottle to refill her glass. She waited for Bartha to tell Vilmos not to, but he didn’t.
“And now let us drink to Alexander,” Vilmos said. “To his health and happiness and long life.”
Esther took a single swallow this time, with one eye on Bartha, who nodded before he took his own sip of wine.
Vilmos held his glass aloft again. “To János,” he said.
“Who has had already a long life,” said Bartha.
Vilmos smiled. “To his health and happiness, and to the many more years he has still to come.”
They smiled at each other fondly. Esther took another, longer swallow of her wine.
“Let us drink to you now, Vilmos,” Bartha said. “Esther and I both are very grateful for all you have done for us. You have been a good friend.”
“Let us drink to friendship, then,” said Vilmos.
Esther drank to friendship, draining her glass. She felt her eyes fill as she set down the empty glass. Again her tears surprised her. No tears for her wedding, but she was crying now over—what? Lost friendship? When she had stopped missing Leah and Kathleen even before she had left home? It had been so long since she’d felt free to talk to them that by the time she’d left she had been almost glad she wouldn’t have to see them anymore. She’d grown so used to pretending with them, to hiding the truest things about herself, behaving as if she cared about things she had no interest in, things she could not believe she had ever been interested in. By the time she left, there was no real friendship to lose. She never even thought of writing to them the way she wrote to her family. What would she say? She had never told them she was pregnant. She had never told them she and Bartha had begun a romance. How could she have told them? (Even now, after so much had happened, she couldn’t think of how to tell them that, that first essential fact.) It was not her friends these tears were for, she thought, so much as it was the idea of friends.
It was true that Vilmos had been good to them. He had been a good friend to her and Bartha both, exactly as Bartha had said. But this was a different sort of friendship than what she thought of as friendship. In its way it took much more for granted. She never felt she had to worry about whether Vilmos would “still” like her, and she could not imagine Vilmos feeling otherwise himself—but it was not a talking friendship. And that was what she missed, really. Not friendship so much as conversation. She missed the conversations she’d had every day when she had lived at home, conversations not just with her closest friends but with the other people she had known at school, people she had never thought of then as friends but wondered about now. The girl—Alice? Alicia?—who had sat next to her in homeroom last year, whom she’d never talked to, never even saw, except for that brief period each day, when they had had hurried, intense conversations in a whisper, mainly about parents—and mainly Alicia’s (Alice’s? or was it Alison’s?), who were probably about to get divorced. The girl in her gym class junior year who always hid with her, both of them shivering in their gym bloomers, in the stairwell behind the gymnasium when the class played dodgeball—she could not remember what they’d talked about, and it astonished her now that they had talked so often, for as long as half an hour each time. Oh, and a soft-spoken, skinny, small boy named Ramon whom she’d met her first week, and his, of high school, when they’d both auditioned for the Drama Society, and who used to talk to her so seriously, if only for ten or fifteen minutes, every week before the Drama meeting started, about art and music, poetry, the theater, love and death and even heaven, which he wanted to persuade her to believe in.
She even missed the conversations she’d had with the people in the candy store, where she helped out behind the counter most days after school and all her after-school activities, including her singing lessons and what came after that. People stopped in at the store for cigarettes or the Post or a cup of coffee and started talking about anything: their own private troubles or an idea they’d just had about something—God or baseball or politics or science—or a funny thing, or something terrible, that had happened to them (a long time ago or yesterday or a “just this minute, just before I came in here today”). And they would always say, after a while, “So what do you think? What do you make of that?”
Until she had left home, she’d never noticed how much of her time, her life, was spent in conversation. She would never have imagined that she might look back someday and marvel over it, or think with longing (think at all!) about the people in her neighborhood who dropped in at her parents’ store each day. Certainly she’d never thought of them—the “regulars”—as friends. She had known them her whole life: she’d been working in the store in exchange for her allowance since she’d started seventh grade—and before that, all through grade school, she’d sat at the counter doing homework every afternoon, nursing an egg cream or a cherry lime rickey for hours, eavesdropping on the teenagers who gathered there and hoping one of them would speak to her. The teenagers—fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds!—she had spied on and admired so much had grown up and with hardly an exception stayed around the neighborhood (some had gotten married right away and moved into their own apartments, some had gone to Brooklyn College, and some had commuted up to Hunter or to City; two or three had left for upstate colleges and then returned once they had graduated) and then joined the ranks of “regulars,” chatting for a while with Esther after she had counted out their change. There was almost no one who came in whom Esther didn’t know, by sight if not by name, and yet if she had been asked, back then, about someone who’d come into the store, she would have said, “He’s just somebody from the neighborhood.”
But all of those somebodies from the neighborhood, all those familiar almost-strangers, had talked to her. No one talked to her now, not that way. Not that way, and not the way the girl whose name had been something like Alice had talked to her or the way Ramon had talked to her. Who would ever talk to her that way, in any of those ways, again?
She had not expected—had not even hoped, she told herself—that she would ever find friends like Kathleen and Leah again, that she would ever talk to anyone as she had talked to them, with them, since the second grade or even earlier. She’d known them both since the year they were born. She could not remember when they had begun to talk so earnestly and urgently to one another for hours every day. They talked on the way to school, at lunch, on the way home, and on warm nights on Kathleen’s stoop until her mother sent them home and told Kathleen to go to bed. On cold or rainy nights they took turns talking on the phone—Esther called Kathleen, Kathleen called Leah, and Leah called Esther.
But that had changed, Esther had to remind herself, before she had left home. She still didn’t know if she had started making up excuses to avoid them out of fear she’d give away her secret if they talked, or if she had begun avoiding them because they hadn’t guessed she had a secret from them and guessed what the secret was—or if they had been avoiding her because she had become so secretive and strange (what was the point of talking to her anymore, they might have thought, when everything she said was dull and cautious?).
At first she hadn’t even missed talking to them. Their conversations had changed so much that there was nothing much to miss. Besides, she’d had Bartha to talk to then—though that was a different kind of talking, she saw now. She hadn’t noticed at the time, during their early days together, that it wasn’t really conversation they were having. He had told her stories, and she’d listened—she had loved to listen to his stories, and she’d heard some of them so many times she had learned them by heart, down to the particulars of dialogue. But it had been a long time now since he had told her any stories—it had been a long time since they’d talked at all beyond the pleasantries they exchanged without fail each day. Good morning, they said, and How did you sleep? And later on, Good evening. How was your day? And, at last, Good night, sleep well. He might, at dinner, speak of something he had read in that day’s newspaper or mention a new student—he had started giving lessons again—or she might tell him something Alexander had done in his absence (managed to roll over, closed his hand around a rattle, uttered a new sound). As for talk, real talk, about ideas or feelings, there was none, not ever. Not with Bartha, not with anyone.
There had been a few occasions when she had tried, early on, to talk to Vilmos. But he’d looked at her as if she had just spoken in another language—a third language, neither his own nor the second one he’d learned as an adult. He looked so bewildered it seemed hard-hearted of her to persevere, and so she did not. But she still wondered over it, wondered sometimes if Vilmos and Clara talked when they were by themselves—if Vilmos simply couldn’t talk to her, or if conversation, any conversation, seemed to him to be conducted in that other language he had never thought to learn.
With Clara, of course, Esther couldn’t talk at all. How could you talk to someone who disliked you so? How wrong Bartha had been about her! Imagine them as friends! And yet still, sometimes, Esther would find herself thinking that if only Clara had not been determined to dislike her from the start, they might have become friendly if not truly friends. They might have shopped together, taken walks around the neighborhood or sat down for a Coke together, chatted—chatted, at least, even if they couldn’t really talk—even if Clara would never understand her in the way that Leah and Kathleen had (in the way Esther had thought they had, she reminded herself). And maybe that would have been better than the nothing she had now.
There were limits to understanding, anyway, as she had already learned. If Leah and Kathleen hadn’t understood her—hadn’t known her, really, even with all of that talk between them—who would? Perhaps she was better off not talking, for this way she wouldn’t, couldn’t, be fooled into thinking she was understood. Perhaps she would never talk again! Perhaps she’d take a vow of silence.
It dawned on her then that she was getting drunk. It wasn’t altogether a familiar feeling, although she had been drunk four times that she could name. Bartha had introduced her to wine shortly after they had become lovers (often, right after her lesson, they would drink some wine together before opening the velvet couch that folded out into a bed) and while he was careful not to let her drink too much, he didn’t seem to know how little it took for her to get drunk.
She noticed that her glass was full—Vilmos must have refilled it—and now she saw the second bottle on the table. The waitress had already come and gone without her noticing. Vilmos had raised his glass again. “Just one more toast,” he said. “The most important one. To Esther and János—to their marriage, to their love.”
She picked up her glass and drained it quickly. Then she waited for Bartha to scold her. It was time for him to tell her that she’d had enough to drink, that it wasn’t good either for her or for the baby for her to drink too much wine.
But he didn’t say anything, and as she watched him for a moment, sipping his own wine and keeping silent, she saw that he wasn’t going to. That he could surprise her was itself surprising. It was disagreeable—and yet didn’t it confirm what she had just been thinking? That no one knew anyone, that we fooled ourselves into thinking we were truly known, fooled ourselves into thinking we truly knew others, even the people we loved. This was a reminder that one must be vigilant. It was too easy to be fooled.
It was too easy to be fooled in ways both large and small.
“More wine?” Vilmos said. He refilled her glass before she had a chance to answer. “One last toast. Just one, all right?” He spilled a little wine as he lifted his glass this time, and Esther realized that he must be getting drunk too—none of them had eaten yet today. “Let us drink to passion,” he said. “To true, beautiful, life-altering, great passion.”
Esther took a sip of wine. To passion. She peeked at Bartha, whose expression hadn’t changed. Vilmos was definitely drunk. But drunk or not, this must be how he saw them, her and Bartha—as two people caught up in a passion. Was it true? she asked herself. Was that what had happened to them?
“When I first set eyes upon my wife, I knew—I could see it for myself already, at that instant. She had changed my life forever.” Vilmos reached for Clara’s hand and clasped it. “And now, after seven years, perhaps you wonder how I feel?” He addressed himself to Esther. “Yes? You want to know? Well, I will tell you.” He removed his hand from Clara’s and slapped it to his chest. “I feel just the same!”
Esther stared at him. Vilmos and Clara! She couldn’t tell if he was serious. She couldn’t tell if Clara took him seriously either. But why shouldn’t he be serious? Why shouldn’t he feel what he said he felt?
A strange thought came to her. Perhaps the trouble between friends was not a lack of understanding—perhaps it was not a question of one person fooling himself about how well he knew someone else, or of fooling oneself about how well one was known, so much as it was the inability to be anybody else. For what if Leah and Kathleen had considered the idea that for the first time in her life Esther might have a secret from them? They could not have guessed the truth—how could they have?—when she had done something, felt something, neither of them would have done or could have felt. What had happened between her and Bartha was, for them (she knew—she didn’t have to hear it from them, she had heard enough from them before anything happened), unimaginable.
She had had the right idea, then, she thought. No one could know anyone, not really. There was always the chance that someone you thought you understood completely would do something that you could not understand—something that you could not picture yourself doing. And what of finding yourself doing something unimaginable, something that you surely hadn’t ever pictured yourself doing?
She chased this thought away as if somebody else had asked the question of her, interrupting her. Please, let me be, I’m talking about something else now. Why, just think of Vilmos—whom she’d never even thought she knew so well, whom she never would have said she “understood.” And yet how he had surprised her! And even though she had just heard him, with her own ears, declare how he felt about his wife, didn’t she still doubt that what he’d said was true? But why should Vilmos not be in love with his wife? Because she found her so unlovable? Yes, that was why. And this just proved her point, she thought. She could not even pretend she understood him.
She had begun to cry—she felt tears sliding down her cheeks. “Too much wine, Esther,” Bartha said. She set her wineglass down, too hard, too quickly. Bartha had to reach for it and right it before it could break or any wine spilled out. “Just wait a bit,” he said. “When the food comes you may want then to drink a little more. For now, I think perhaps you’ve had enough.” She nodded yes, and looked away. The tears were still slipping down. She couldn’t understand why she was crying.
She felt Bartha’s hand on her neck, under the thick, loose knot of hair that she’d twisted and pinned into place for this occasion—it was the way her mother always wore her own long hair on special days, and she had thought it would make her look festive as well as more like a wife (she wasn’t certain it had worked—she hadn’t been able to find a hand mirror this morning so that she could check the back of her head in the bathroom mirror).
Bartha stroked her neck. He touched the nest of hair, tentatively, and then he stroked her neck again. He didn’t say anything. He hadn’t said anything this morning when she’d emerged from the bathroom and spun around for him, although he must have noticed that her hair was different, since she always wore it loose—she never even put it in a ponytail, or braided it. With two fingers now he stroked her hair beneath the bun, where it pulled upward from her neck; with his whole hand he stroked the sides, above and underneath her ears. She remembered how he had stroked her hair and neck after he had made love to her for the first time. She had been crying then—she had not been able to stop crying for a long time. He had guessed that she was crying because she was sorry, that she was ashamed of what she had done, and when she swore she was not—”I don’t care,” she told him, “I don’t care about that, about shame”—he asked if he had “hurt” her, if that was what was wrong, and when she shook her head, he gave up, he stopped asking. He stroked her hair and waited silently for her to finish.
She wished he would be silent now, but he had started murmuring, “All right? Yes? Better?” She didn’t answer him. She was thinking of that afternoon when he had first made love to her. She could remember everything about it, still—every little thing: the way he had leaned over in the middle of a lesson—they were sitting alongside each other on the piano bench—and kissed her, holding her head in both of his hands as carefully as if it were one of the fragile things he kept around the studio perched dangerously on the cluttered tabletops, the thin colored glass bowls and the crystal vases she had never seen with flowers in them. The kiss lasted a long time, just like kisses in the movies, and she remembered telling herself that this was exactly what she had imagined kissing would be like. When finally she noticed that his lips were not quite closed, she opened her own mouth, just a little, just like his, and as she did she told herself, Now everything changes—and all the while that he was kissing her (for after that first kiss, he kissed her again, and then again) and stroking her arms, and after a time standing up and drawing her up too, and taking her hand and leading her to the green velvet sofa (which she learned only later—the next time—converted to a bed), she kept thinking, Now I am no longer myself, I am someone else—I am becoming someone else. And while he undressed her, then undressed himself, she thought, Soon—soon I will no longer be myself. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t even nervous. She assumed that she would feel some pain but she was not afraid of that—it seemed so small a toll for a new self, a whole new life—but she did not, or she did not especially, feel any pain; she was only uncomfortable, and only for a little while; and then it was over. She lay in his arms and waited, but she felt no different—she felt nothing much at all. It was then that she began to cry.
She wasn’t crying now, not anymore, but Bartha was still murmuring, still petting her. He had one hand on Alexander and one hand on her. On his wife. Wife, she thought. Wife! Wife and husband. Marriage. Magic words—and here she sat again (again? still!) waiting for a transformation. Always waiting, she reflected. Always disappointed. Always thinking, That’s all? But how can that be? When she first began her love affair with Bartha; when she found out she was pregnant; when she told her parents—and her father for the first time slapped her, and said things she couldn’t bear to think of even now, and ended by saying that he never wanted to see her again, then burst into tears, which surprised and pained her far more than the slap had; when she left home for good that same night after everyone had gone to sleep, taking just one small suitcase, leaving most of what was hers behind—she had imagined, each time, that she was poised on the brink of some momentous change. And each time there had been momentous change—but not within her. Always, she felt that whatever happened hadn’t worked, that her experience of what had happened—her experience of the experience—was smaller than it was supposed to be. Even during her first months in Omaha, lonely and restless (fidgety, her mother would have said), even when she felt the baby’s own first restless movements (and caught herself thinking fidgety) inside her—even during childbirth, even when she first saw Alexander—what she felt was never what it seemed to her she should have felt. It was insufficient. It was never as momentous as she had imagined it would be, never momentous enough.
And you’d think, she told herself, that by now she would be used to this. She should be used to disappointment. Yet here she was again. Still. She’d convinced herself that this time, this great change, would be sufficient finally to change her. She had tricked herself—had tricked herself again—for, married or not married, she was still herself, the same person she had been this morning. She would always be the person she had been this morning—the same person she’d been yesterday, last month, last year.
Always, she thought. Now and ever after. Forever.
How was it that she’d never understood this before?
She seized Bartha’s wrist. “Please,” she said, lifting his hand from her neck. And then she added, politely, “Thank you.”
He looked at her curiously.
“I’m all right. Really, I am.”
It took him a minute to make up his mind not to say anything. Then he gave a little shrug and used the hand she’d freed to cup the baby’s head again.
“No,” she heard herself say. “Please—I want to hold him now.” She held out her arms.
“Now? The food will be here in a moment.”
“When it comes, I know, you’ll put him in his carriage. I don’t want him in his carriage.” She was surprising herself. Her voice rose. “It’s not fair. This is his celebration too.”
“Of course it is,” Bartha said. “But he can celebrate with us equally well from inside his carriage. And you cannot eat while holding him.”
“I can eat with one hand just as well as you can drink with one hand.”
There was silence then, and as she waited for him to say something she wondered if he might allow himself for once to argue with her. But when he spoke, it was only to say, “Fine. As you like.”
As soon as she had Alexander in her arms she regretted that she had given him up at all. It was too easy to take for granted how much better she felt holding him, too easy to forget, once she’d been holding him for a long time, that she was always better off with him in her arms than without (and then, when she had him back again, and she remembered, she would ask herself why it was necessary, ever, for him to be anywhere but in her arms). She slipped one outstretched finger underneath the half curled fingers of his right hand, poised as if to play a miniature piano. Lifting the hand, she kissed it—kissed it first below the ridge of tiny knuckles, then turned it around, her index finger and her thumb making a circle (the smallest of bracelets, and yet still too loose for him) around his wrist, and kissed the open palm. His fingers curled reflexively into a fist, closed tight, and Esther kissed that too, then laughed quietly as it sprung open, like a locked box in a fairy tale.
She bent her head to kiss his cheek and then his forehead. She might wake him, she knew, but she told herself that he had slept so long already, it would probably be better if he did wake up, or else he wouldn’t sleep at all tonight. She picked up his hand again and kissed each dangling finger, and when she was through she started over, at the thumb, and kept on kissing fingers until he began to blink and stretch. She could feel the milk already leaking from her as she watched him. Now came the little sounds he always made before he fully woke: desperate sounds, half gasps, half moans, as if he were in pain, or terrified—and maybe he was; maybe for him each waking moment was like being born, for how would he know how to tell the difference between not born yet and sleeping?
When he understood that he had woken up, she knew, he would begin to cry. In outrage? That was how it sounded. Or was it not fury but still greater fear—or fear confirmed? Or, as Bartha had once speculated, was it grief? “He cries so bitterly,” Bartha had marveled in the first days of the baby’s life, “you would think the world were coming to an end.”
She intercepted him, this time, before the crying started—before, she hoped, the others even noticed that he was awake. She untucked her blouse from her skirt and whispered, “All right, it’s all right, I promise you, I do,” while she undid the last two buttons and drew him in toward her. No one was paying attention. They were all talking again.
She was glad, because she hated being watched. She didn’t feel nearly as self-conscious about nursing as she had in the beginning, and by now she’d grown accustomed to having to nurse him sometimes when there were people around, but still she preferred privacy, even from Bartha, who could not resist making remarks that irritated her, as harmless as they were (“Ah, look how hungry he is!”), but especially from Clara, who stared openly and, it seemed to Esther, with hostility. Strangers, in a way, were now easier for her to deal with. They never said anything, and when they stared they tried to hide it, so that she could act as if they weren’t staring if she wanted to, and she had taught herself to look up coolly at the ones who really bothered her, which nearly always made them turn away. But at first! At first she couldn’t bring herself to nurse Alexander when there was anybody else around, and as a consequence, at first, she had been unable to go anywhere.
At first, of course—even before the first—she hadn’t wanted to nurse at all. When Bartha had first brought it up, before Alexander was born, she had been appalled. She’d never heard of such a thing, she told him, not in normal life. “In what life, then?” he asked, amused, she knew, but she was serious—she meant she’d never known, or even known of, anyone who had breastfed a baby. “In books,” she told him, and he said, “So then!” as if this proved his point. “Not in books written now,” she said. “In old books, from a long time ago.” Bartha laughed then, and she thought that was the end of it. But he brought it up again—and again—insisting that she try it, “only try, for two weeks, no more. Then if you don’t like it, you can stop,” until, worn out, she gave in, she told him she would try. “For two weeks only,” she said grudgingly, without the slightest doubt that she would hate it.
But she loved it—oh, how she loved it! How satisfying it was to know that her body—her own body that had always seemed a thing apart from her, her true self—was so useful! How happy it made her that it, that she, could provide her baby with the very thing he needed most! Bartha as he watched her feed the baby said, “You see? This is good, yes?” but she couldn’t talk to him about it. She could hardly bear the thought that she had ever meant not to nurse her son.
When the food came, Alexander was still nursing. Esther freed one hand and picked up her fork, even though she wasn’t hungry. Bartha always noticed if she wasn’t eating, and she knew that if she didn’t at least manage to look as if she were interested in the food on her plate, he’d insist she put the baby down and “concentrate on eating.” Concentrate on eating! As if food were something to be studied, contemplated, memorized.
He and the others were concentrating very hard on their food, not only eating it but also yet again talking about it. As Esther poked her fork into a piece of chicken and stirred it into the noodles Bartha had made such a big to-do about, he was reminiscing about food he’d eaten long ago in Prague and claiming that the meal that they were having now, “while not bad—I don’t say that it’s bad,” was only an “approximation” of the wonderful meals he remembered. “Oh, is that so?” said Clara. “The way you talk sometimes, you’d think your last good meal was in 1935.”
“No, not at all. I have had many good meals in this country. Not so much in Omaha, perhaps—”
“Uh oh,” Vilmos said. “Now here it begins again.”
“I thought you liked this place,” Clara said.
“Omaha?” said Vilmos. “Or America?”
“This restaurant,” Clara said, as if she couldn’t tell that he was making fun of her.
“Oh, but I do like it,” Bartha said, and went on to explain that in spite of its shortcomings (which he then enumerated: the food itself, invariably overcooked as well as incorrectly spiced; the gaudy, inauthentic “Czech” decor; the costumes on the waitresses), it was “very nearly brilliant” in comparison with all the other restaurants in Omaha—“and in particular the steak houses for which, I am so often told, this city is so famous, and yet where one cannot find a steak so good as can be found in New York City.” And he added, slyly, “Perhaps the trouble is that they send to New York all the best steaks of Nebraska? Or”—pausing, pretending to think—“perhaps the explanation is that there is not one person here who knows how to prepare properly a steak, so that no matter how excellent the meat, it is ruined in the preparation?”
Was it possible, Esther wondered—this had never occurred to her before—that he said such things just to tease Clara?
“You can’t be saying that you believe there isn’t one good chef in Omaha!” Clara said, as he must have known she would.
“Oh, yes,” said Bartha. “Yes, indeed I am. If someone should learn such a skill, or discover in himself so great a gift, would he not upon that instant run away from here?” He said this as if he didn’t know—as if he himself had not been the one to tell Esther—how proud Clara was of having come to Omaha to live. Vilmos had told Bartha, who’d told Esther, that Clara had “run away” as soon as she was old enough to leave her family behind in the small town (the name of it would not stay put in Esther’s mind) in which she had grown up, somewhere in the middle of Nebraska. Vilmos had met her soon after, when he’d come here on a business trip, and Clara had (so Bartha joked—or Esther assumed it was a joke) “with feminine wiles arranged for him to stay forever.”
Omaha, as far as Clara was concerned, was the city. Maybe not so differently from the way she herself had grown up thinking of Manhattan, Esther thought: the place she had aspired to escape to. And like herself (like the way she used to be, before she’d found herself in Omaha), she seemed not to be aware—or not to care—that there were other cities.
About anyplace but Omaha, Clara had no curiosity. She’d never asked Esther anything about New York, and when conversation turned to California, where Vilmos had lived in a series of cities—Northern, Southern, Central, coastal and non-coastal (he’d hold up his right hand and tick off the categories on his fingers, and a wave of homesickness would sweep through Esther—not for California, a place she’d never been, or even for her childhood self, who had enjoyed thinking of all the places she had not been to yet, places she might someday go, but for her English teacher junior year, Mr. Inemer, counting on his fingers form and structure, voice, tone, meaning)—Clara expressed only suspicion and disdain. Esther had asked her once if she had ever visited the state in which Vilmas had lived for so many years before he’d met her, and Clara said, “California?” in a way that Esther understood to mean, Why would I? And Esther, sorry that she’d asked, said, “I thought maybe you’d made the trip to see Vilmos’s father.” Clara snorted. “If he wanted to see us, he would come here, the way my parents do.” As if a trip from…whatever Clara’s town was called—Long Something—was the same as a trip from Fresno, California.
Esther put down her fork and picked up her wineglass, wondering if Bartha would tell her again that she had had enough to drink. But he didn’t say anything and she took three sips in quick succession before she set down the glass. She tried to think of what the town where Clara’s parents lived, the town Clara was from, was called. Long Island? That can’t be right. And not Long Beach, either—but it was something that reminded her of beaches. Rockaway? Rock Island? No, that was from a song. The Rock Island line is a mighty fine line. Absently she hummed it under her breath. No one noticed.
The baby’s sucking had slowed down; his eyes were closed. Was he going back to sleep? She joggled him a little on her lap to perk him up and he began to nurse again in earnest. He was more like her than he was like Bartha: he too had to be reminded to “concentrate on eating.” In solidarity, she stabbed a piece of chicken and made herself put it in her mouth. She should eat something. She didn’t have to wait for Bartha to remind her.
Grand Island—it came to her unexpectedly. That was the name of Clara’s town. She almost said it out loud, almost said, An island in the middle of what? And then when Clara didn’t have an answer, she would say, So tell me—please, I’m interested—in what way is it grand?
These were the kinds of questions Clara would ask her, so why shouldn’t she?
Leah used to tell her, Don’t even try to be sarcastic. It’s not your style. Leave it to the people it comes naturally to. And what was her style, then? she wanted to know. Sincerity, Esther. You are all about sincerity. But Esther hadn’t been able to tell if Leah meant this sarcastically.
“What a snob you are,” Clara was saying to Bartha now. “Oh, yes,” he said, laughing. “There is no doubt of that.” And when Clara told him this was nothing to be proud of, he said, “Oh, you are absolutely right about this too.” He was still laughing, and it dawned on Esther—and here was something else that she had never thought of before!—that arguing with Clara amused him. Perhaps it also amused Clara, who was now launching into a defense of restaurants she liked in Omaha—a list that even Esther could have reeled off by heart: Johnny’s, which was near the stockyards, and the Black Angus, and King Fong’s, downtown, where Bartha claimed he’d had the worst Chinese meal he had ever had, “in all my life, my long life, in any city, on any continent.”
If they were not amused by this, why would they bother jumping into the same argument again and again?
“Alas, it is hopeless, my dear,” Bartha said, sounding cheerful. “We will not agree, not ever.”
“You are hopeless,” Clara told him. “You are impossible to please.”
“Not at all. To please me is quite simple.”
“Oh, yes. As long as you’re in New York. Or Prague or Budapest. Or Paris.”
“Or Vienna,” Vilmos put in. “Ah, my friends”—he brought both hands to his chest, and in an excellent imitation of his cousin, he cried, “the sausage, sausage such as I may never hope to see again. And such beautiful homemade sauerkraut! And the bread—I weep to recall it. And now?” He thumped the tabletop. “Now I am to be satisfied with the American red frankfurter with its curlicue of yellow mustard and eight skinny limp gray strings of tinned kraut—as your vendors so charmingly call it—on a white bread roll that tastes like…ah, like—”
“Like air,” Bartha said obligingly. “Like emptiness.”
Clara said, “Oh, yes, that’s very funny. But the truth is you’ve been in America long enough to have grown accustomed—”
“To your ‘hot dog’ buns? A lifetime would not be long enough for this.”
“They’re not my hot dog buns,” Clara said. “Besides, nobody really likes them. That’s not the point of them.”
Esther was tempted to speak up then, to ask Clara what the point was. Vilmos winked at her but she ignored him. What she really wanted to know was how it was possible to talk so much—to think so much, to care so much—about food. She could not understand how Bartha, who was so worldly, who unlike Clara had many more important things on his mind, could devote so much of his attention to what he ate and where he ate (and also when and how he ate—for he liked to have his dinner at six forty-five, with the table set correctly and with linen napkins, and he had to have his salad after, not before or with, the main course). Esther would just as soon have lived on sandwiches—tuna salad or cream cheese and grape jelly or bologna—and when she felt the need for something more substantial, with side dishes included, heated up a TV dinner. As for where and how and when, she’d be content to eat propped up in bed or sitting on the couch, with paper plates and napkins, plastic cutlery. She would be glad to give up restaurants forever if only Bartha ever took her anyplace besides a restaurant—if there were anyplace to go besides a restaurant to which the baby would also be welcome. If there were anyplace at all to go, baby or no baby.
But with “no baby,” she thought, they would not be in Nebraska. They would still be in New York, and there would be a million places they could go.
But with “no baby,” what would have come to pass between the two of them by now?
She swatted this thought away. It was a question she never asked herself.
Certainly she would never dare to ask him.
But then there were many things she did not dare to say to him. Even at this moment, she thought, what she would have liked to say was that she saw nothing wrong with hot dog buns—or at least nothing wrong enough to talk about—and also that, to her, King Fong’s was no better or worse than the Chinese takeout she used to have at Leah’s house on Brightwater Court.
But even if she’d dared, this would not be possible. There was no place to edge in even a single word between Bartha and Clara once they started down this road, not unless one shouted or pounded on the table, as Vilmos did when he was moved to interrupt them. And now Clara was speaking of a restaurant that Bartha hadn’t been to yet, one that she claimed was “out of the ordinary—even you would see that.” “Even I?” said Bartha. “Even I who have given up hope of having an extraordinary meal ever again? I have accepted my fate, dear Clara.” And of course Clara took umbrage at what she declared was an insult to the city of Omaha itself, “which has been so welcoming to you,” and Esther was silently astonished (in what way, welcoming?) but Bartha said only, “A city, like a gentleman, must not be insulted by an honest appraisal of its shortcomings.” “Then you will not be insulted,” Clara said, “if I tell you that you’re being a bit of an ass.” Bartha laughed. “I will try not to be.”
Vilmos was laughing too, and looking from his cousin to his wife with such evident pleasure that just then Esther wondered if it might be for his amusement that these arguments were staged.
Everyone was amused but her, it seemed.
As Clara extolled the virtues of her adopted city—its friendliness, its “nice neighborhoods,” its symphony and art museum (Bartha groaned and shook his head), Esther considered Vilmos, who never felt obliged to come to the defense of the city in which he had made his home because Clara had made it hers. Bartha was quite sure, he had told Esther, that his cousin would prefer to live elsewhere, but it didn’t seem to her that he had any objection to living in Omaha. She’d never heard him say a word against it, or for that matter express any affection or nostalgia about any other place he’d lived. Certainly he didn’t long for California the way Bartha longed for New York.
This thought was a surprise. Did Bartha long for New York? He was talking now, with what might be longing, about the restaurants he loved most there. Esther knew which ones he meant before he named them—they were little Hungarian restaurants run by families, and to get to them he had to change trains twice, then walk for what had seemed to her a long time on the one occasion she had gone with him to visit one of them.
Alexander had slowed down again, and Esther glanced at Bartha as she rearranged the baby in her arms so that he could switch to her other breast. She was still expecting him to observe that she had hardly touched her food and to tell her to put Alexander down—she was all set to say, “I can’t now. Look, he’s nursing, can’t you see?” (and, indeed, the baby had begun to nurse again with renewed interest)—but Bartha was telling Clara, in great detail, about the food served in those little restaurants. He made the food sound a great deal nicer than what Esther could recall from her one visit (a brown heap of meat for each of them, mounds of mushy vegetables, dumplings and gravy, noodles—again noodles!—and saucers of sour cream). She’d gone with him only once because it was so hard for her to get out in the evening. She had to tell her parents it was something to do with school, that it was required (the sacred word!). Between the lying, which she wasn’t used to, and the hour-long subway ride and then the long walk at night from the subway station to a neighborhood she’d never even known existed, she was so unnerved by the time they reached the restaurant he’d chosen that it would not have been possible for her to have a pleasant evening. As it was, she had been miserable. Bartha hardly spoke to her, he was so busy chatting with the waitress and the cook, and exchanging greetings with some of the other people eating there. She’d never heard him speak in his own language before and it made her uneasy, despite (or else—but it was only later that she thought of this—because of) seeing what a pleasure it was for him: it made her wonder if the rest of the time, forced to use another language that was not his own with students and with friends and neighbors—with her—he was less than happy. And the food, which Bartha told her was “exactly” the food of his youth, was too heavy and too rich for her—she ate almost none of it.
But what made her most miserable was the lie she had told. She could not stop thinking about it; she could not stop worrying about getting caught in it. How would her father punish her if he worked out that she had been lying? Would he then find suspect everything she said? Surely he would watch her more closely. Oh, to have risked everything for this evening that had given her no pleasure!
Throughout the meal she worried, and throughout the long trip home. How was it, she marveled, that so many girls her age lied so assuredly and frequently—how was it that they behaved so recklessly, so badly? (What she overheard from girls she didn’t know or hardly knew in school astounded her. How did they cause their parents so much grief and worry without ever worrying themselves? “It’s just as if they were a different species,” she’d said once to Leah, who’d said, “No. They’re only silly. They’re only stupid. They don’t think.”)
She was exhausted and close to tears when she let herself into the apartment, and so pale that her mother exclaimed, “You’re getting sick!” and insisted on taking her temperature. (She would not have been surprised if she had had a fever.) She was relieved when after this one evening out with her, Bartha resumed his habit of so many years of going to these restaurants alone.
How was it that she had never thought before about how he must miss them? He used to go twice, three times a week. And she had never given any thought to all the other things he must miss, too—the opera and the Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall. The Metropolitan Museum, to which he had taken her on every one of the occasions (three) she had managed to slip away from her parents and the store and her friends without a lie—except perhaps a lie of omission—on a weekend afternoon. Oh, and also the Frick, where he had promised to take her but had never had the chance to, “to see the Vermeers, the best paintings in the world,” he said. And the Museum of Modern Art, which she had never visited with him, although she’d been there on class trips, once almost every year. Bartha liked to “drop in, he told Esther, “once each season, at its start, to mark time’s passage.”
And how he must miss Sheepshead Bay, where he often walked, admiring the docked fishing boats! They made him feel as if he had slipped away to somewhere else, he would tell her (“but then it is so reassuring to find that one is still here after all”). Sometimes he would talk for a few minutes with the fishermen, whose Brooklyn accents were, he said, “so magnificently, so beautifully at odds” with the fishing stories they offered him.
Sheepshead Bay. And the boardwalk along Brighton Beach. And the pavilion on the boardwalk, where he used to sit on Sundays in good weather, looking at the ocean while he listened to the men who played accordions and fiddles there and told each other jokes in Yiddish. How he must miss a place to sit where there was anything to see, to hear.
As she used the back of her fork to nudge her vegetables up to the edge of her plate, she thought of how, when they’d first come to Omaha, Bartha had sat once for an hour on Vilmos and Clara’s front porch, and afterwards told her that he had seen “a hundred cars fly down the street, and not one person walking.” Why, he must miss walking in a place where other people walked. He must miss Brooklyn and Manhattan’s streets, he must miss seeing crowds of people. He must miss subways, buses—everything, she thought, and that she’d never thought of this before filled her with shame.
Think how much he must miss his studio, she told herself. Think how much he must miss his own belongings. There had been nothing in the apartment she’d grown up in that had felt to her as if it were importantly her own, that meant enough to her for her to think of taking when she left—and even so there were times when she missed some object—the round, blue plaster of Paris box with the doll’s head (head, neck and shoulders, and cascading blond hair) that topped it, a gift from the first-grade teacher for whom she’d worked as a monitor when she was in the sixth grade; the tall lamp beside the loveseat in the living room that had three colored glass globes, red, blue, green, that could be lit separately or all together, that she used to read by, choosing lights in different combinations; the eight-inch-tall “grandfather clock,” its face painted with the tiniest of flowers, that stood on the dresser in the room she shared with Sylvia; the small brass bowl on the bathroom shelf in which she’d kept her hair pins and barrettes—objects that she had looked at without feeling anything all her life. But Bartha had left behind things he’d collected, things he had chosen.
Even the things he hadn’t left behind but had sent on from Brooklyn were not with him now but were in storage, for there was no room for them in Vilmos and Clara’s basement. He had told her at the start that there was plenty of money, that she was not to worry (it had not, in fact, occurred to her to worry), that he had “investments and so on” and they would “manage nicely.” Still, he’d told her, as calmly as if it were nothing to him, they would stay with Vilmos and he’d manage with a rented room nearby in which he would give lessons using an old upright piano he had rented while his own grand piano remained locked up in a warehouse, until such time as he had sufficient students once again to justify their renting a house of their own, part of which would be set aside as a studio.
Somehow he had made it sound as if this might occur at any moment, although the few students he had found so far (there were two of them; there had been three, but one had not returned after the second lesson) had come to him through Clara, who’d hung up flyers she had typed herself. new york singing teacher will give lessons to your children at a reasonable price! Bartha had also taken out an ad in the newspaper, but so far that had come to nothing. And yet he spoke as if he had no worries, no regrets. He acted—they both acted, Esther thought—as if it went without saying that she’d left behind much more than he had. The only time he’d spoken of how he felt about leaving was when they had first discussed the possibility of doing it, and what he’d said then was that leaving New York would be “nothing” to him, that it would not trouble him at all, that he was worried only about her—about her leaving school, her family and friends, the only place, the only people, she had ever known.
He had been lying. She had not even considered this as she sat across from him in a luncheonette on Coney Island Avenue, one neither of them had ever been in before, in a back corner booth. By then they had been sitting, talking (she had been talking; for once he was not telling stories) for a good two hours. He was asking her questions, so many questions about her life it was as if he had prepared a list, and by the time she asked him, over the litter of two hours of coffee refills—torn-up sugar packets and empty cream pitchers, balled-up napkins, dirty spoons—if it might be better “just to go away” if her parents responded to the news she had for them as she feared they would, and he had answered without hesitating. Yes, of course. I have some family, I’ll write to them, she was only grateful that the path was clear, that everything had been decided.
In the beginning, he’d asked her nearly every day if she’d begun yet to regret what she had done, and she’d said no and meant it. And yet he would ask again and again. (Because he thought that she was lying? Or did he think she might have changed her mind, from one day to the next?) And then he had stopped asking—she could not remember when. Did he believe her, finally? Or had he stopped wondering? Or—could it be?—had he just grown tired of asking her what he was waiting for her to ask him?
She felt her eyes fill with tears again. Dry-eyed throughout the ceremony, and so many tears since! And why was she crying now? Out of sadness for Bartha? Because despite what he had said that day over all those cups of coffee in the Cozy Corner, he must have felt he was too old to have to start all over somewhere else? Or perhaps what she felt now was remorse, because she’d never asked him how he felt, she’d never pressed him for the truth. She had taken him at his word. His lack of words.
She tried to imagine now what he must have been feeling as he contemplated making such a change more than two decades after he had settled himself for what he must have thought would be the rest of his life. But of course she could not imagine it—how could she? Even now, even after everything that had come to pass since then, even after living with him for so many months in Vilmos and Clara’s yellow shag-carpeted and mock-wood-paneled basement under three strips of fluorescent light, she had no idea how he felt or what he thought.
No idea at all. She put down her fork, which she’d been using to push her vegetables around as if she were a child, so that it would look as though she’d eaten something. She put the fork down carefully, as if the way she did it mattered, lining it up precisely alongside the knife she hadn’t touched and making sure it didn’t make a sound against the tile.
He was a stranger to her. Her husband, and a stranger.
He never told her what was in his heart. He didn’t volunteer it and she never asked—she could not even picture herself asking. He had never even told her that he loved her, and how could she ask him that? She had told herself he must, for otherwise how could things have turned out the way they had? If she allowed herself to wonder why he had become involved with her in the first place, she became frightened, as if that question were a door behind which lay in wait the vastness of everything she didn’t know or didn’t understand, and if she opened it more than a crack she might be pulled in, pulled deep into that blackness.
What would happen to her then?
What would happen to her now?
The question shocked her. She wasn’t even sure what she had meant by it. Now she was married. The question of “what would happen” had been settled.
Why, then, did she still feel so unsettled?
She looked at Bartha, as if he could tell her. He was talking to Vilmos and Clara. About what, she couldn’t guess—she’d long ago lost the thread of their conversation—but he caught her eye and smiled at her reassuringly. Reassuring her of what? To be reassured, she’d have to have been sure of something to begin with, and it seemed to her at this moment that she had been, from the beginning, sure of nothing.
She thought suddenly of the stories he used to tell her about himself—about his singing career, his travels, all the things he had done during the war (that war—his war, as she thought of it—a war that was part of History, not of ordinary time). She used to lie beside him on the sofa bed’s thin mattress, in the curtained darkness of his studio after he had made love to her, and listen as he told her stories. It was like going to the movies—the daylight shut out, another world opened up. She already knew most of the stories he told her by heart, but that never bothered her. In fact, it added to the pleasure, the same way the second or third time she saw a movie was more satisfying to her than the first, for everything that was lost in surprise was made up for by the strange, thrilling sense that everything that happened was inevitable. She had gone to see “The World of Henry Orient” three times—once with Leah and Kathleen, and then once alone with each of them—and it got better every time; they’d all gone together twice to see “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and she’d seen “Charade” twice, too, once with both of her friends, who didn’t like it, and once by herself, which she’d never done before but enjoyed so much that when one of her favorite movies, “West Side Story,” which she had first seen when she was in ninth grade, came back to the Oceana for two weeks, she went by herself three times after she wore out Leah and Kathleen, who went with her on the day it opened and then went back with her once apiece, which they said was enough. She’d have gone more than six times if her father hadn’t put his foot down. By the fourth time—the fifth time, if she counted the first time she’d seen it, years earlier—she had started crying during “Something’s Coming.” By the sixth time she had felt her sorrow starting while she waited in the dark before the movie even came on to the screen.
When she left Bartha’s studio, it was a lot like when she left a movie theater, too. She would stand for a moment, dazed, on the sidewalk before she started walking home, still blinking in what was left of daylight. Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon she would just stand there for a little while outside his building, letting the stories and the lovemaking, all mixed together in her mind, begin to melt away before she started her walk through the neighborhood. If she stood there long enough she might see Mrs. Pullman (Tuesdays), who taught second grade at P.S. 209 but loved to sing, or Milton Hagan (Fridays), who was a theater major at Brooklyn College and was as handsome and as casually charming as a movie star. If she stood there long enough, and Bartha had the window open, she might hear them singing scales for him. It wasn’t a bad feeling, being outside while he gave a lesson. It wasn’t bad to have a secret, and to be reminded that as other people went about their normal business you knew something they knew absolutely nothing about. And it was good, too, to be reminded that ordinary life was still going on. It helped her make the transition, back into her life at home from her secret life with Bartha and the things she knew about him.
There were a dozen stories he’d told her a dozen times or more as she lay next to him, her eyes closed, a thin wool lap blanket over her, its fringes brushing her bare ankles. Stories that concerned adventures he had had in Paris, London, Prague, Vienna. In his stories, he was always traveling. Even during the war, when most travel, for most people, had been banned, he had continued traveling to give performances. “I was very popular,” he explained, “and the Nazis, I suppose, said to themselves, ‘Ah, this is good publicity for us. Why not let him go about freely?’” Thus it had seemed “only natural,” he said, “given the circumstances,” for him to become a sort of spy, and soon he began to carry secrets for the Allies out of Budapest. What sort of secrets, and how he acquired them, he had never told her. Perhaps he’d thought these details would not have been interesting to her, and perhaps they wouldn’t have been—for she hadn’t wondered then. It was only looking back, thinking of all the things she didn’t know, that she found herself wishing for more facts, more information. His wartime stories in particular were full of missing pieces, mysteries, and contradictions. They were full of characters he’d never named or told her quite enough about.
There were stories about secret meetings with spies who had been apprised of his arrival only by the broadsides that had advertised it—stories in which passwords, whispered conversations at stage doors, and dark corners of cafés figured largely. There was a story about how, when the Hungarian government tried to shift away from its position of sympathy toward the Nazis, and the Nazis responded by taking over Hungary by force, he was abruptly told he would no longer be allowed to travel. This was how he came to know that he’d become the object of suspicion (“like so many who had been in the former government’s good graces”). He went into hiding then. He hid in the cellar of a house belonging to a woman who admired him, the mistress of a high-ranking member of the new pro-Nazi government. “Therefore, you see, no search was ever made,” he said at this story’s end, and Esther nodded gravely, as if nothing about what he had just told her puzzled her. But she wondered if the woman who had hidden him had been his mistress too—for why would she have taken such a risk on his behalf if she were not? And yet, why would he have had such a mistress? But she could not ask him, no more than she could have asked him why he’d never married, why none of the women in his stories had names or were identified beyond a single, straightforward, descriptive sentence—“the daughter of an old school friend,” “the young wife of an excellent composer I used to sometimes have a drink with”—or if he’d been in love with any of them or with anyone else, ever.
She would murmur, “Ah, yes,” or, “I see,” or even, “Goodness,” when it seemed that it was necessary to say something, but she never asked him anything about his stories, not even when he told the grandest and most complicated, and most puzzling, of them, the story of how he had escaped from Hungary after the many months he’d spent in hiding. With his savings from what had already been a long and lucrative career, savings he had had the foresight to convert into gold well before the Nazi’s mistress had taken him in, he bribed the conductor of a train bound elsewhere to take him—him, the train, and all its passengers—from Budapest to Istanbul, where he had British contacts he was certain would arrange safe passage for him to America. Which they did. In America, he was granted instant citizenship by Presidential decree.
To make sense of such a story, Esther thought, she would have to know more history than she did, and history had not been among her best subjects, not like English or music or art. Once, when they were still in Brooklyn, she had gone to the library and found a simple history book in which there was a chapter titled “Hungary During the Second World War.” She read it carefully from start to finish, but when she was done she felt she hadn’t learned much, or at any rate not much that helped her understand what Bartha had lived through. As it turned out, her having read what was only a dry recitation of dates and events made matters worse, for the insistent, unembellished emphasis on what had happened when forced her to contemplate directly what she never thought about—that when Bartha was carrying his secrets out of Budapest into Istanbul, meeting British agents on street corners and in dimly lit hotel lobbies between performances of Lucia di Lammermoor, she had not yet existed: Dr. Azogue had not yet helped her to escape from her mother (“for the first time,” as she had said to Bartha nearly ten months ago as they rode the train to Omaha—trying to be witty to prove that she was not sorry or afraid, and choosing her words carefully to let him know that she considered this too an escape and not a banishment).
After that, she didn’t look for books to help her understand the stories he had told her. The truth was, she had never minded very much—not then, at least—not really understanding. She never thought of interrupting him to ask a question, even when he mentioned without explanation something she had never heard of, or hinted at things she might have liked to have known a little more about—no more than she would have thought of asking the projectionist to halt the showing of “West Side Story” while she interrogated Tony and Maria about what their lives had been like in the years before the overture.
She’d acted, she supposed, as if his stories—as if his whole life—were on a movie screen in front of her. Or as if the things he told her were parts of a novel (a difficult, beautiful novel, perhaps a novel she was reading in translation) or an opera. She didn’t have to understand it, then, or not completely. She could just be in its world for a while. “Don’t work so hard,” she used to tell Kathleen and Leah when she got them to listen to Madama Butterfly or La Bohème with her, when they complained that they could not make heads or tails of what was happening. “Just let it come over you,” she’d tell them. “Understanding isn’t necessarily the most important thing.”
And yet, once she and Bartha came to Omaha, she found that she was thinking of his stories in a new way—that she was, indeed, thinking about them. There was very little else for her to do. She could read or listen to the little radio Vilmos had given them, since Bartha’s stereo and all his records were in storage, or take solitary walks without a destination (which left her feeling restless—more restless than before she had set out—and a little stupid, too; in Brooklyn, it would never have occurred to her to set foot on the street unless she had somewhere to go—but here there was nowhere to go, and she could not stay locked up in Vilmos and Clara’s basement all day long, day after day). She did go to the library—in the beginning, with a shopping bag that she would fill with novels once a week, and later, when it was all she could do to steer her own weight through the half mile trip each way, she made two or three separate trips each week, two novels at a time—and also to the Hinky Dinky, where she would shop for groceries among the worn-out, weary-looking women three times her own age (which left her feeling worn out, too, and gloomy; she would always take a long nap afterwards).
With so much time on her hands, she passed entire afternoons telling herself the stories Bartha had told her. She took them apart, isolating details and considering them in as many different lights as she could think of. She was trying to get at his stories as she’d never even thought of doing when he was still telling them to her. She started, too, then, to wait for him to resume his storytelling, and the way that she was waiting, trying to prepare herself for what might come next, reminded her of how she’d studied math last year—how hard she’d had to work at trying to make sense of what she had already learned by rote before the teacher went on to something more difficult that she knew would require her to understand and not just know what she had learned before. It reminded her of how often she’d failed at this. The class had been called “fusion”—trigonometry and advanced algebra, combined. Math had not been one of her best subjects either.
When the baby came, she was much busier, but she had started something and at first she couldn’t stop. While she sat on the bed and nursed Alexander, or rocked him in the rocking chair Bartha had found for her at a garage sale on his way home from the studio one afternoon; while she walked him around the same small circle again and again in their basement room, or wheeled the carriage slowly, aimlessly, along Saddle Creek Road—whatever she was doing, for the first few weeks after his birth—she kept turning Bartha’s stories over in her mind, and sometimes she even murmured one of them to Alexander, saying “I” as Bartha had, pretending that the story was her own to see what feelings it produced in her; but she could never manage it—she never really fooled herself, so she never felt anything. She told herself that this was not her fault, that there was too much background missing for the exercise to work, but still her failure left her feeling stupid, just as fusion had.
Alexander whimpered now and Esther bent to brush her lips to the top of his head. “Hush,” she whispered. “It’s okay.” He stared up at her, his mouth in a worried shape. Sometimes she could swear he knew what she was thinking or feeling—not that he could understand it, of course, but that he could sense it. And yet so often it was hard for her to figure out what he was feeling. He would cry and she would try to nurse him and it would turn out he wasn’t hungry, that something else was wrong, but she didn’t know what. Then she would start trying things, asking herself: Was he tired? Bored? Cold? Hot? Dirty or wet? Was the light too bright? Did something hurt him—his stomach? His bottom? His head? (Did babies get headaches?) She would put him in his crib and pat his back, and when that didn’t help, she’d take him out and rock him in her arms and sing to him, she would put him on the floor with all his rattles and stuffed animals and play with him, she’d add clothes and remove clothes, change his diaper, turn the light out, rub his belly—she’d try everything, and sometimes nothing worked, he just kept crying, and she would still be fretting, making guesses, when he fell asleep, spent from his efforts to communicate his troubles to her.
This was backwards, she knew. She was supposed to understand him better than he understood her. But when she was feeling anxious or afraid and he looked at her solemnly, so steadily—as if he were trying to say, “Don’t be frightened, everything will be all right”—or when she felt good and he gave her one of his goofy, toothless smiles, how could she help thinking that he knew her well enough to read her mind? It seemed to her that half the work of taking care of him was trying to stay even the slightest bit ahead of him.
She wasn’t sure exactly when she had stopped thinking about Bartha’s stories, but she knew that it had to do with this, the effort to keep up with Alexander. Her days were so full of him (what he needed, what he might need soon, what he had needed that she hadn’t figured out an hour ago but was still trying to work out as he slept it off) that it had been weeks, months, since she’d given any thought to Bartha. It was as if she had said to herself, as she used to when she took a test and there was only so much time left and one too many questions still to answer, Which of these problems do I stand a chance of solving? All right, then—concentrate on that one and forget about the other.
But even though she had set it aside, she’d kept expecting that the answer to the other question would come to her somehow—that the stories Bartha had already told her would begin to fit together, and that as new stories came she’d have only to slip the bits of information that had come embedded in them into the blank spaces she had held for them in her mind; until there occurred a moment of pure comprehension—when she’d see, at last, the meaning of the bits and pieces (of his life—of him) that she had been collecting for so long. She had imagined something like the moment when she’d finished up the central part of one of the big jigsaw puzzles that her mother used to buy her when she was sick with strep throat or the flu and stuck at home, that sense of triumph, even joy, when she realized that she had put together enough of the part that mattered to see what she was supposed to see (and she would put the puzzle away then and never take it out again, for she never had the patience to go on with it, nor saw the point of starting it anew, once she had mastered the most crucial part).
But what she’d been expecting all this time had never happened. It was as if, with Bartha, there were no central, most important part—or, if there were, there might as well not be, since too many of the pieces needed to complete it (or even to complete enough of it so that she could begin to see it—enough to form at least a partial, blurry outline of something she could recognize and name) were missing, and Bartha seemed to have no interest in supplying any more of them.
Or perhaps there weren’t any more of them.
This thought stopped her. It could not be possible—could it?—that he had already told her everything that he would ever tell her, that what she already knew about him was all she would ever know.
But how could that be, when she knew so little, when what she knew amounted to a jumble of isolated, if astonishing, facts—and what she understood amounted to so much less than that?
She looked at him now in wonder. Was she really meant to make do with no more than this? With these assorted, too-few scraps, these odds and ends? She stared hard at him, daring him to read her mind as Alexander could, and to respond, to tell her, “Of course not. Just wait and have patience.” But he only smiled and patted her arm without pausing in his conversation. He was talking about his much-admired cousin László again, about his wedding day, and as he spoke of “the charming, marvelously beautiful young woman” László had married (“who, as you well know, Vilmos, was destined to become your grandmother”), Esther felt herself shrink from his hand and from his absentminded smile—from him.
He had tossed her handfuls of his life, she thought, the way he’d fed his table scraps to the stray cats and dogs in his courtyard in Brooklyn. A little here, a little there—nothing to count on. Casually, when it happened to occur to him, he’d hand out food to them—rich food, exotic food. And just like those lost (or more likely abandoned, Bartha always had said, and she’d clap her hands to her ears and pretend that her refusal to hear this was only playful), half starved cats and dogs, she’d been excited beyond reason every time. She had never (no more than they had) considered how these treats might be affecting her, and Bartha hadn’t either (no more, she supposed, than he had thought about how cabbage cooked in vinegar and sour cream or Black Forest ham or brie or jam-filled pastries would affect the strays).
How could she not have seen that there would come a time when she’d require something more substantial? She hadn’t the excuse the poor strays had. As far as they knew, crumbs and too-rich leftovers were all there ever was and all there ever would be. But how could she have taken what he offered without asking any questions? How could she not have known that Bartha’s offerings would someday, suddenly, come to an end?
But she knew how. She could remember very well how thrilling she had found the stories he had told her. She had been unable to think reasonably; she could not have thought ahead. It had seemed to her sometimes that it had been them, the stories he had told her—his stories, along with all the operas he’d performed in, and his voice itself—which was still beautiful, and which had made her heart constrict with what she’d had to guess was love (real love, this time) when, after she had studied with him for a year, she had at last persuaded him to sing for her—that had drawn her into his bed.
Indeed, it had come into her mind more than once during her pregnancy that what had impregnated her had been the stories he had told her of his brilliant long-ago career, his wartime life, his youth in Europe; the operas she had listened to on record albums borrowed from him, one each week; and the aria Vesti la giubba, which he had sung for her the afternoon he had first taken her to bed. As she drifted through the second, then the third, trimester in Vilmos and Clara’s basement, moving from the couch to first one kitchen chair and then the other, then to the shag carpeting—where she tried sitting cross-legged, then on her knees with her rear end against her upturned heels, and finally with her legs stuck straight out in front of her, before she gave up sitting altogether and lay down (on her left side, as recommended), trying vainly to get comfortable—she had let herself daydream that what she was carrying inside her was a bellyful of intrigue, the great vanished world of Bartha’s Europe, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, and a voice which grew bigger and more marvelous each day. Not a baby—or, as she had said to herself then, “not just a baby”—after all.
And yet of course (of course!) it had been a baby. She’d been playing, trying to amuse herself—telling herself a sort of story. And telling him, she thought now. Telling the baby. She had been telling him the story, too—telling him the story of himself, of his beginnings. This is who you are. This is what you are made of, where you come from.
Just then the baby let out one shrill, angry-sounding cry. But before she could do anything to comfort him, he’d stopped. One cry and he was done. He had raised both of his hands when he’d cried out, then dropped them, fingers curled but not quite fisted, near his ears. His elbows stuck straight up. He was frowning. Esther smiled—she couldn’t help it. He looked so serious and comical at the same time. He was a little opera in himself.
As if to demonstrate the truth of this—as if those daydreams she’d allowed herself while she was pregnant had affected him (and why not, when he had lived with them, within them, all the while he was becoming himself?)—he struck his forehead with the back of one hand, closed his eyes, and turned his head away. When he turned toward her again—gravely, expectantly, his half closed hand still resting palm-up over one faint, tiny eyebrow—she felt as if she should applaud.
This was far from the first time she’d had the feeling that he was performing for her—this had happened often, beginning when he was only a few days old—and there were other times she hoped he was, for how could he endure it if he actually felt all the things that he appeared to feel, when sometimes his emotions seemed to change so rapidly and drastically that she was at a loss to figure out which feeling to respond to? How quickly he could move from one thing to another! He was so calm and watchful now that it was hard for her, just these few seconds later, to imagine that the wail of protest (protesting her explanation of his origins? Or her having troubled him—plagued him?—with it at such a delicate, portentous time?) she’d heard had been his cry and not someone else’s—or even that she’d heard a cry at all.
No one but she, it seemed, had heard it. Clara was attending to her food, Vilmos was laughing at an anecdote Bartha was telling—either about Vilmos’s father or one of the other Józsefs—and Bartha was concentrating on the telling of it, or so Esther assumed. She was startled, then, when he turned to her and said, “Do you see how hard he is thinking? And just look how sorrowful he is.”
Confused, Esther said, “He hides it very well then, doesn’t he?”
Bartha laughed. He set his hand down gently upon hers where it lay across Alexander’s knees. “Look.” He tapped her hand. “Not at my cousin,” he said. “At my son. You see? He is thinking of the many people of his past whom he will never know. This is why he cried just now—thinking of the great-uncles and great-grandfathers he cannot see, only hear about. So many people he cannot see. His own grandfather, grandmother—”
He stopped himself, and Esther knew he was ashamed. He had not meant to remind her that their child would never know her parents, either, by their own choice. He took great care not to speak of things that might remind her of her family—as if he thought that if he didn’t mention them she wouldn’t think about them. And it seemed best to act as if she didn’t think about her family, if that was what he thought was the best thing for her.
She never even spoke of them to Alexander. She’d told herself that even if she hadn’t already grown used to keeping silent about them, it would be too confusing if she talked about them to him now, then had to stop before he became old enough to ask her questions. She would hear Bartha speaking quietly sometimes to him about his own parents—long dead, in Hungary, of course—saying, “How my mother would have loved you,” or, “Here is a song my own papa used to sing to me,” before he sang a certain lullaby. But if sometimes she caught herself singing a song to Alexander that she faintly recalled someone (her mother? Who else could it have been?) singing to her, she didn’t speak of this to Alexander.
He would probably ask questions anyway, once he was old enough to know that other children had grandparents. She was already worried about how she’d answer him. But there was time for that, she would remind herself whenever she began to worry. And it was still possible, she felt, that if she kept writing to her family somebody would write back before the time came to tell Alexander anything. And this was perhaps why she kept writing to them. If she did not believe that it was still possible that someone, someday, would answer her, surely she would not still be writing to them, would she?
Suddenly, as she asked herself this question, she understood something. She understood that if Bartha were to find out that she had been writing to her parents, he would not be angry. He would feel sorry for her, that was all, and he might think her foolish. Well, she was foolish, she knew that. She knew that writing letters no one answered was—a phrase of her father’s came to her now; it was what he’d said when he forbade her to see “West Side Story” again, what he said about going out with boys—“not making good use” of her time. But what was she to do? She pictured herself saying this to Bartha—her arms folded over her chest, speaking calmly, without tears—“What is it I should do, then? Tell me, please. Not be foolish? And be what instead? Be ‘sensible’? Accept that I have lost my family?”
Accept that I have nothing now but you?
“Esther.” Bartha spoke her name directly into her ear. “Esther, I am very sorry.” He squeezed her hand, certain that whatever she was feeling now was his fault. The arrogance of this was almost enough to make her angry—and she waited, hoping, for her anger to lift her from the sorrow that was settling in her. Did he truly believe that if he said something that might make her think of her family, she would begin immediately, as if by command, to grieve for them?
But the anger wouldn’t come. She was grieving, wasn’t she? Did it make any difference that he could have predicted it, that he knew how easy it was for sorrow to descend on her? And even if it made a difference—even if sometimes she wished he were less sure he understood her, without ever asking her what she was feeling—she could not afford to be too angry. Anger was a luxury. Anger—she had never thought of this before, and the idea brought with it a flash of comprehension of her mother’s weeping (which had always so infuriated her) or mute, stricken-looking acquiescence at just those times when she should have been most angry, when Esther’s father had unleashed the brunt of his rage upon her (the times Esther meant when she described her mother to her friends as “someone who can take it but can’t dish it out”)—was for people who had choices. And she had already made all her choices.
Was it grief, she wondered then, that she was feeling? Or was it something else? Bewilderment? Fear? Or—finally—what Bartha had for so long been expecting her to feel: regret?
No—she refused to feel regret. She’d made her choices. They had been her choices. She had known what she was doing when she’d run away with him. She had chosen him—him, and Alexander. This was her family now. That was what she would tell him if he ever asked again if she regretted what she’d done. It was what he would tell her if she told him about the letters to her family. “Your family is here,” he would say. He would spread his hands. “Here we are, Esther. We are your family.” She knew that, she would tell him, just as she told it to herself now. She did not need to be reminded. And yet it was only now that she felt—felt, and not just knew—what this meant. That she truly had nothing, no one, else.
This is my life now, she thought, and with her eyes still closed, she made a private, silent promise, one that felt real to her in a way that today’s public vows had not.
This is my life and I will be true to it.
But this did not seem to be enough.
I will be a good wife. She waited to see what it felt like to make such a promise.
The trouble was, she had no idea what this would entail. Still, she felt somber and grown up as she repeated this silently, I will be a good wife.
Faithful. She could be certain of that much.
Kind perhaps could go without saying.
I will be a good wife, she tried again. Faithful—she paused—and devoted. Sympathetic. Steadfast.
She decided to put kind back in. Surely it couldn’t hurt to promise even what went without saying.
This is my life now, and I will be true to it.
I will be a good wife—faithful, devoted, sympathetic, steadfast, and kind…for as long as we both shall live.
And she could keep this promise, couldn’t she? It would not be so difficult.
Bartha would not live forever.
Oh—but she had not meant to think that.
She had not even known she could have such a thought, or she would have promised herself not to think it.
She put one hand over her heart, which had begun to jump. She was afraid it could be seen throwing itself against her chest—seen through her skin and the fabric of her blouse, just as Alexander had so often made himself visible when he had lived inside her body.
What a terrible thought. How could she have had such a thought?
She glanced at Bartha. If he could read her mind, as he sometimes seemed to—or if he assumed, wrongly, that she had been thinking of this all along…or if he had just been waiting for it to occur to her—then she wanted to tell him she was sorry, it wasn’t true.
But: “What isn’t true?” he would ask her gently.
He knew how old he was.
She knew how old he was.
She was only facing facts, she told herself. Was that the same thing as being cynical, or cruel? Bartha had turned seventy last April—a fact.
But that was not the point, was it? It was not the point because while a fact such as this was bracing—or brutal—thinking of it had not been. Thinking of it had been comforting.
And even as she told herself that this was not what counted—that what counted wasn’t that a stray, unbidden thought had snuck up on her and provided her with comfort at a time when she had every reason to be (hadn’t she? who would not be?) apprehensive, that what counted was that she had made a choice, she’d chosen him, and she’d made promises she meant to keep; even as she took her right hand from where she had laid it over her wildly beating heart and buttoned up the bottom of her blouse; even as she pried Alexander’s hand loose from the fistful of silky fabric he was clutching and moved him to her shoulder and began mechanically to pat his back—she found that what she was thinking was It won’t last long. Hush. It’s all right. It won’t last forever.
Michelle Herman is the author of several critically-acclaimed books. Learn more about her and Devotion here, including a free Reading Group discussion guide.
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