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The pale of settlement, p.14

The Pale of Settlement, page 14


The Pale of Settlement

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  She was right, Avraham thought. What was gone was gone. For what was he trying to hang on? He pushed his chair back and stood up, and with sudden resolve went into the kitchen and pulled a garbage bag from the cabinet beneath the sink. Why leave the job to Eitan, after he was dead? He might as well start now. He went into the living room, pulled open the armoire. Into the garbage bag he threw the decks of cards, the empty eyeglass case, the useless coins. His heart was hammering in his chest. The next drawer was filled with archeology magazines and yellowed newspaper clippings, decades old—into the bag they went.

  Words, words, words, Leah had written, near the end. Such a waste.

  So, he thought. Leah went back to New York in the fall of 1962 and got married in October and in the spring of 1963 Susan was born. May, he was quite sure. He counted backward on his fingers. Babies born in May are conceived in August. And in August, Leah was still in Israel; this much was a fact. Had Ezra followed her to Jerusalem? Or had she been seeing someone else? Could it—could it have been Y?

  Avraham sank onto the couch and took his glasses off. Here he was, doing it again. Constructing an impossible story from the barest facts. Still, preposterous as it was, it made a certain sense. He imagined Leah back in New York on Yom Kippur, beating her fist against her chest. She would have known she was pregnant by then. Did Ezi ever consider that the baby might not be his? Possibly Leah wasn’t sure herself. Possibly Ezi never questioned why her eyes brimmed so suddenly with the urgent need he took for love, attributing it to her father’s death, her lonely summer back in Jerusalem. Or maybe she confessed the truth to him and he used it to secure his power over her, to bind her to him. We’ll get married, he would have said, and everything will be okay. No one ever has to know.

  Avraham fetched the diary from his bedside table, flipping quickly to the end. I hate these layers of memory I carry with me all the time, the tightness in my throat, the tension across my forehead. I try to speak but only hot, weak tears come out; I’m crying even as I write these words. Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would. Her suffering wasn’t necessarily on account of Abba’s death. But he would never know.

  He went back to the living room for the garbage bag, dragged it to the bedroom and over to the writing desk. He turned the key and pulled down the lid, pulling Eva’s things from the pigeonholes and drawers—old letters, notepads, pencil stubs, clippings, match-books, photographs. He dumped it all into the bag, continuing until the desk was emptied out. The garbage bag bulged, gaping, on the floor. He walked over to the bed, and after a long moment, threw the diary in. Then he tied the top of the bag into a knot and heaved it over his shoulder, carried it down the stairs and outside to the street. He swung the bag into the green garbage bin, brushed his hands off on his pants. It was done. He would write and say that he was sorry, but the diary could not be found.

  Maternity is proved by the senses whereas paternity is a surmise based on a deduction and a premise.

  SIGMUND FREUD, Moses and Monotheism


  What Leah remembered many years later was that it was May and it was snowing and throughout the city the branches on the budding trees were snapping under the weight of leaves and blossoms and the unexpected snow. She didn’t really remember the pain of the contractions or the shaking or the numbness of her legs, other than the fact that these sensations had occurred. She remembered the milky light, the clumps of falling snow. You’re nearly there, the nurse had said. She held up a mirror and said, Look!

  But Leah didn’t look. She turned her face toward the wall. It was only afterward, after they’d placed the baby in her arms, washed and checked, that she drew her breath and looked and saw: skin the color of eggshells, eyes a murky, indeterminate blue. The baby gazed up at Leah, the faintest shadow of perplexity traced between her brows, as if she might have been thinking, Who the hell are you?

  Leah felt a loosening in her hips and elbows, wrists and knees, as if she were afloat, a rushing in her ears. She took a breath and looked again: eyes and hair and nose.

  You’re two peas in a pod, everybody later said. There’s nothing in her of Ezi at all!

  Back in the early sixties when they were newly married, Leah and Ezi lived in a third-floor walk-up at Columbus and Eighty-first, a cheap rental Ezi had found when he first came to New York. They had bookshelves made from packing crates and planks, a folding bridge table, a phonograph, a couch handed down from a friend who’d gone back to Ramat Gan, a pair of canvas sling chairs (a steal at $7.95 apiece from Klein’s), a borrowed mattress on an aluminum frame. None of the dishes matched. But it didn’t matter, because soon they would be going back. Once Ezi finished his degree. Once the Frigidaire was paid for. Once they could afford a flat back home.

  They were not the only ones; the hevrei came together from all over New York. They gathered in dim West Side cafés where you could read the Hebrew papers (only a few weeks old) or play sheshbesh while some newly arrived kid strummed the old familiar songs on a guitar. They gathered in walk-up apartments and basement flats, the air blurring with the smoke of their cigarettes as they argued over coffee and a slice of honey cake about the latest idiocy of the Knesset, or about the spoiled brats Ruthi had to put up with at Hebrew school, or how Cha’im was going to marry his American department store heiress, or how after all this time Yoav had finally made up his mind to go back home.

  And they were happy in that way that you are happy when you are young and everything is temporary and who you are is still a thing that you can try on and take off again as you please, like a new shirt or pair of shoes. They weren’t their parents or their grandparents—displaced persons, refugees. They didn’t have to choose.

  The story Leah always told was that Ezi chased her to Jerusalem the summer that her father died and swept her off her feet. The doorbell rang, she said, and there he was, tall and hairy-legged and resolute, the outline of her future life, backlit by the sun. He saved my life, she said, as if it had not been a decision but a simple matter of her desperation and his desire, her gratitude, his will. He held out his hand, and she grabbed hold.

  But in fact it wasn’t until weeks later, back in New York, that she slipped beneath the surface and began to sink, bubbles streaming from her nose. She looked up to the surface and saw the light split and refract. She sank as if there were stones in her coat pockets instead of that small white card printed with the telephone number of a doctor she couldn’t bring herself to call. Inside her, a living thing swam in the dark. There was a rush and roaring in her ears. Over and over, she counted back. When could it have happened? When?

  When she broke the news to Ezi, nine weeks on, the pressure on her heart and lungs so great she scarcely had the breath to speak, he simply sat down at the table in his sleeveless undershirt and took out a piece of paper and a photograph of her. This is the girl I’m going to marry, he wrote in ballpoint on the back. He pressed the stamps onto the envelope with his fist. By the time his parents read the letter, they had already been to City Hall. Shmuel and Ruthi popped a bottle of champagne on the steps and cried mazal tov. Who needed a rabbi when the sun was shining through a canopy of autumn leaves in Central Park? She wore a short blue dress. She didn’t show.

  Leah cooked Thanksgiving dinner, that first year of her marriage, for their Israeli friends, their whole hevrei. She walked to the A & P on Broadway and bought, on Carol’s advice, a turkey (a bird she’d never cooked or tasted in her life), cans of cranberries and creamed corn, sweet potatoes, and acorn squash, lugging it all home in nylon shopping bags that cut into her palms. Carol baked an apple pie. Ezi took the bedroom door off its hinges and laid it across packing crates, covered with a bedspread; they sat, as if it were a seder, on pillows on the floor. They filled their wine glasses and toasted the pilgrims, Ben Gurion, Kennedy, themselves. L’chaim! they cheered, for they, too, had survived.

  Still, the turkey took far too long to cook, and by the time it was ready, the wine was nearly gone and, even with C
arol’s tipsy assistance, the potatoes were lumpy and there was no gravy and she’d neglected to warm the bread. She was pulling it from the oven when she heard Ezi’s voice ring out. What is this—jam? Leah! What do you think, that we are eating breakfast here?

  She stepped out of the kitchen and there was Carol laughing so hard tears were running down her cheeks, trying to explain the concept of cranberry sauce, and Ezi and the others laughing, too, and making faces of disgust. Jam on meat? Ezi was saying, in her father’s voice. Meshuga!

  Leah ran into the bathroom and locked the door. Ruthi came and tapped and pleaded, and Ezi shouted that it had only been a joke, but like a stubborn child, she would not come out. She sat on the toilet, staring at the black-and-white pattern on the tile floor, blurry through her tears. And then, even though it should have been too early yet, she felt something inside her move—a tiny ripple, like a wave. An ally’s secret sign.

  Later, Leah couldn’t remember her boys, as newborns, ever looking at her the way Suzi did in those first few weeks of life, through irises that slowly turned from murky blue to a strange, amber-flecked brown. She gazed at Leah as if there was a certain knowledge sealed inside her, like a crystal hidden in a geode, sharp and bright. She lost that look with time, of course, as she learned to smile, then to speak. As self-consciousness came trawling like a fisherman’s long net across her mind.

  Leah held the baby close against her chest and rocked. She sang lullabies in Hebrew and Polish that she hadn’t even known she knew. She sang in the half-light of early mornings and darkening late afternoons, as the traffic slowed along Columbus and the shadows lengthened against the walls, trying to picture her own mother rocking, singing, light-years ago. Back in Israel, her sister-in-law had just had a baby too—twin birth announcements for Suzi and Gavi ran side-by-side in the Jerusalem Post—but here, she was all alone. If it hadn’t been for Ruthi, she didn’t know how she would have learned to fold and pin a diaper, to test the temperature of the formula by tapping the nipple against the inside of her wrist.

  Ezi, of course, was no use at all. He packed his briefcase and went off every morning to his lab, slept soundly through the night. Still, he touched her, in the quiet hour after dawn, with a tenderness she’d never felt before, holding himself almost unmoving inside her, as he had while she was pregnant, as if the baby might know or wake and hear. She waited for the tensing of his arms, the release of breath against her neck. Only much later did it occur to her that what she took for tenderness might really have been fear. Of her body’s elasticity and power, its wild singularity.

  People always said that Suzi looked just like Leah, except for the eyes. Who did she get them from? they said. Even Ezi, the geneticist, could not explain. Eye color is a highly complex polygenic system, he’d say, turning up his palms. The molecular basis of the genes is not yet known.

  He always spoke that way when people asked about his work, throwing out scientific words like heterozygous or multihybrid or allele. He sketched diagrams full of letters, capitals and lowercase, and went on about Gregor Mendel and his peas.

  No one understood the importance of what Mendel discovered, Ezi said, until thirty years after the fact.

  This Mendel, Leah said. He was a Jew?

  Ezi frowned and lit a cigarette. No, no, he said. He was an Augustinian monk. The famous peas he grew in the garden of his monastery in Brno.

  Leah wished she had a garden. Instead, she kept geraniums, begonias, cyclamen, and a spindly palm in pots along the windowsills, shifting them to the fire escape when the weather got warm enough. Maybe she would grow peas, too, someday. Sweet peas, with curling tendrils, twisting vines. Tendrils like a baby’s hair.

  She placed Suzi on a sheepskin carpet on the floor and went back to pasting photographs into the album she was making for Ezi’s parents. She picked up a picture of her holding Suzi, bundled in a hooded towel, in front of the mirror after her bath. Both their mouths were rounded into a perfect o. Who’s that baby in the mirror? she was saying. It was their little game. Ruthi said four-month-olds couldn’t tell. Beneath the photograph, in white ink on the album’s black paper page, she wrote in Hebrew, Mi zeh? Who’s that?

  They went to Israel nearly every year. They rented a flat for three weeks in the summer across the street from Ezi’s parents, took their meals with them. They sat around with army friends on Shabbat, drinking Nescafé, picking at a bowl of grapes, the babies playing at their feet. They argued over Eshkol and Nasser, the discoveries at Masada and the Dead Sea, the successes of the kibbutzim, whether the lira could ever be shored up.

  Their friends in Israel always said, Nu, so when are you coming back? It was not really a question. It was an accusation, a matter of loyalty.

  Next year, they always said, and they meant it, at the time. Next year Ezi’s fellowship would be up. Next year they would have saved enough to buy a car.

  So they went to the beach, took day trips to the Kinneret and Caesaria and Tel Aviv, but after a week or two they began to feel claustrophobic and bored. They shopped for gifts for the secretary in Ezi’s department, souvenirs for their American friends: jewelry set with green Eilat stones, embroidered blouses from Maskit, olivewood candlesticks, wall hangings decorated with arches and blue domes. They exclaimed over the quality of the Jaffa oranges, the Tnuva cheese. But at night they lay in their borrowed bed and whispered how expensive everything was here, how Yoav was not satisfied with the equipment in his lab, how Nir was earning barely half of what an ophthalmologist could make back home. Home. They turned off the light and lay sleepless in the dark.

  Back in New York again, everything felt oversized. Even their own apartment, with its twelve-foot ceilings and bay windows, felt out of scale. They sat around the table on Indian summer afternoons with Yitzhak and Carol, or Shmuel and Ruthi and their kids, the fans blowing grimy air through the windows. They complained about LBJ and Lindsay, the potholed condition of the roads, the declining standards of the schools. They didn’t like the idea of their children growing up in such a materialistic society, they said, not to mention all the drugs and crime, hardly noticing that they’d switched to English, unable to find the word they were looking for in the language they spoke less and less frequently but never stopped thinking of as their own. The plank-and-packing-crate shelves had come down long ago, the card table replaced by a Danish Modern dining set in teak with matching chairs. They fanned themselves with sections of the Sunday Times and said, It’s a khamsin! forgetting that the gritty yellow khamsin wind was nothing like this humid heat at all.

  The baby’s face was a familiar landscape or a completely foreign land, depending on the light. Leah leaned over the crib in the dark, scanning anxiously for the faint rise and fall of breath beneath her ribs, as if life itself were something so tenuous it could simply be exhaled in sleep. Even as she watched, the baby’s forehead, nose, and mouth changed shape, took on an alien form. Her skin wouldn’t have had to be any darker, nor her hair any curlier, for her to be someone else’s child. Leah understood why there were changelings in fairy tales. She didn’t even recognize herself in photographs anymore.

  Leah’s face had grown more angular in the months since Suzi’s birth; she’d let her hair grow out, and was thinner than she’d been in years. She did everything one-handed, the baby balanced on her hip, like an extra limb. She washed and bleached the diapers and strung them on the line; she starched and ironed Ezi’s shirts, beat the carpets over the railing of the fire escape, waxed the kitchen floor. Years later, she could hardly believe she’d done it—all those obsolete domestic tasks! And she’d hooked her shopping bags over the handles of the baby carriage, and lugged it—baby, carriage, groceries—up those three steep flights of stairs. Only once in a while, after she’d put the baby down to nap, she’d climb out onto the fire escape to smoke. She’d sit there cross-legged on the slatted steel, tipping her ashes into an old coffee mug, looking out over the chimneys and TV antennae, the rows of brownstones and apartment buildings, to
the river running south to the harbor and the open sea, and she’d feel her stomach hollow out and the air rush against her skin, the way she’d once imagined she would feel when she was grown and free. Maybe her own features changed, too, then, just for a moment, out there on the fire escape, her face held to the wind. Maybe, just for a moment, she became that shadow-self she’d left behind in Jerusalem, flush with longing, plump-cheeked and bold.

  But then the baby would wake and start to call, ima-ima-ima, and Leah would push back her hair and stub out her cigarette in the mug, crawl back into the living room, straighten her blouse and jeans. From the bedroom, her fists gripping the rungs of her crib, Suzi watched and called. She stood there like a stalwart little sentry, sounding the alarm. From the beginning, she guarded the frontier.

  Leah dreamed she was climbing a steep staircase, a red-leafed Wandering Jew plant growing out of her head, hung like a Christmas tree with fish and silver charms. She woke with a dry mouth, her heart knocking in her chest. She shook Ezi’s arm.

  It had snowed overnight, and the early noises of the city rose muffled, as if wrapped in felt, from the street below. Ezi rolled over and pulled her to him in the watery half-light. She wrapped her arms around his waist and tipped her hips toward his. This time, there could be no doubt.

  The baby, a girl, was born alive at twenty weeks, but Leah never held her or even saw her face. She weighed barely a pound, the doctors said; her lungs were immature. She drowned, Leah understood, in air.

  It is just primitive superstition, Ezi said dismissively, to blame a dream. Biology was biology; such things happened for the best. But what did he, a man, know of those twenty weeks she’d shared her body with another soul? She could feel it still, in quiet moments, floating on the stubborn currents of her lymph and blood.

  Only Suzi, who was not yet two and far too young to understand, showed signs of distress. She began to thrash wildly in her sleep, her eyes unnaturally open, rolling in her head. The pediatrician said such night terrors were not uncommon in children of this age and assured Leah it would pass. Ruthi said, Try buying her a doll. And so without asking for an explanation, Leah took Suzi on the cross-town bus to Alexander’s and picked out for her a baby doll the size of a real six-month-old with a soft pink body and plastic head and legs and arms. Suzi loved the doll and, as if by magic, the night terrors immediately stopped. And it wasn’t long afterward that Leah became pregnant again, first with Jonathan, then Noah. Boys that looked like Ezi, self-contained and tall.

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