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Underground fugue, p.14

Underground Fugue, page 14


Underground Fugue

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  Downstairs, she takes out the letter she started writing Gil a few days back. Her handwriting slants across the page. Dear Gil. It seems so archaic, handwriting a letter, an outmoded thing, like garter belts or linen handkerchiefs. How hard she’d worked, once, on shaping those little capped a’s and two-looped g’s! Now her hand aches from the unaccustomed act. But it’s better than talking on the phone. They haven’t spoken in the last few weeks. Still, she wonders to whom she’s really writing. Whom she’s trying to convince.

  She knows exactly how Gil will press his lips together when he reads the letter. How he’ll fold the pages and slide them back inside the envelope with its tidy slit, the way he’ll leave it on the table in the foyer beneath the gilt-framed mirror they bought together at that little antique shop on Bleecker Street, years ago. She can see the dark bristle of his hair, the half-moon pouches beneath his eyes, his smoothly shaven cheeks, his well-cut suit and silk tie. She knows exactly how he’ll slide off his shoes, hang up his jacket, pour himself a glass of red wine. Settle into the study. Answer emails. Redline a brief. He moves forward, steady as a clock, one tick at a time.

  That steadiness was what she’d wanted, of course. She wanted to be anchored in the granite bedrock of Manhattan, to be inscribed within Gil’s world, that thirty-block circumference of Central Park. If you connected the dots from the Fifth Avenue apartment he grew up in, across to Columbia, down the Upper West Side to their apartment, and over to his law firm’s offices at Forty-Ninth and Lex, you’d trace the ring. Even when he was out on Fire Island or in Connecticut, Gil never really left the city. He’d sip his coffee, cross his legs, fold back the Times with a subway rider’s practiced flick.

  How could he do it, day after day, retracing those same paths they’d walked together for over twenty years? How could he stay in that apartment, with Noah’s room still there behind that never-opened door? The old grief spiders in her chest. Gil will never leave the city. She can’t go back. Maybe it just came down to that.


  Again her mother is calling, crying out. Gasping for breath.

  Esther takes the stairs two at a time, her heart hammering, her mind a static buzz of fear. Oh god, what now? Was this it?

  Her mother is clawing at the sheets. Her chest is heaving. She cannot breathe.

  Esther’s fingers tremble as she dials. The hospice line rings and rings.

  This nurse insists, in an overly cheerful tone of voice, on calling Esther “love.” You can increase the dose of morphine, love. No, love, nurses don’t make house calls out of hours. Ring 999, love, if you feel that you can’t cope. Sometimes hospital is for the best.

  Her mother is wailing like a child. “I want to go home!” she cries.

  Esther is quivering, adrenaline firing her limbs. She will not send her mother to the hospital. She promised she would not. She gave her word. But neither will she stand by and watch her suffocate to death.

  She is not thinking, just moving. She runs down the stairs and out the door and down the steps and up the other side. It is already after ten, still hot. The midsummer sky is streaked with the last vestiges of light. The clouds have turned as purple as a bruise. The rubbish bins, pulled out to the curbside for collection, reek. She presses the bell, hopping up and down in agitation, then presses it again.

  He opens the door with a look of such happy surprise that she almost feels ashamed. “Esther!” he says.

  “It’s my mother,” she says. “Please.”

  He is wearing linen trousers and a short-sleeved shirt. His smile fades. He gives her a puzzled look. “Is everything okay?”

  “Can you just come with me? I need your help.” She is shaking. “Hurry, please!”

  “Yes, of course.” He bends to slide on his loafers, moving slowly—too slowly, she thinks.

  “Please, please, hurry please. She can’t breathe.”

  Straightening, he says, “You do understand that I’m a scientist—a researcher—not a clinician?”

  His eyes are warm and kind. He had to help her. He was a bloody doctor, for god’s sake.

  “You went to medical school, didn’t you?” she says.

  It is all she can do not to run. He follows a few steps behind.

  Please, she thinks, as she rushes up the stairs. Please don’t let her die. Not yet. Please.

  But her mother is not dead. She is still moaning, her chest rising and falling, her hands pressed against her chest. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe!”

  Esther waits, jittering with fear, as Javad steps into the bathroom to wash his hands. She clenches her fists as she listens to the water run.

  For fuck’s sake, hurry up, she thinks.

  Javad takes the chair by the side of the bed and shifts one of her mother’s arms onto his lap. “If you can speak, then you’re still breathing,” he tells her mother, his fingers on her wrist. His voice is capable and calm. “Just try to relax now. Everything’s going to be all right.”

  “Who is he?” Her mother swivels her head. Her eyes are wild. “What’s he doing here? Where have you taken me?”

  “He’s a friend, Mum. He’s a doctor. He’s here to help.”

  “I want to go home!”

  “Hush, Mum.”

  He looks up at Esther calmly, and she takes a deeper breath. “Did they give you an oxygen tank, perhaps?”

  “Of course.” Esther runs and fetches the emergency kit supplied by hospice, the oxygen tank and the liquid morphine and the oral syringe. “There’s also this. Her last dose was at six.”

  “Aha.” He pushes up his glasses and squints at the instructions, then squirts the morphine between her mother’s lips. She blinks at him and swallows.

  “Well done,” he says.

  He takes up the oxygen canister, attempts to screw on the regulator, turns it around, tries it again the other way. “Bloody hell, I haven’t touched one of these things in twenty years,” he says. He looks up, his lips turned up in that half smile. “Now you can see why I chose research.” Javad places the plastic mask over her mother’s nose and mouth and gently loops the elastic over her ears. He adjusts the gauge.

  Esther watches him work, her arms crossed over her chest. She is still shaking, her heart hammering in her chest. Why couldn’t she have done these things herself?

  The sound of ragged breathing fills the room, a mechanical wheeze and hiss. Esther crosses her fingers and waits. Slowly, the heaving of her mother’s chest subsides. Slowly, the panic in her eyes begins to ease.

  Esther lets her clenched arms release. “Is she going to be all right?”

  “For the time being, I should think so. She should feel more comfortable in a bit.” Javad steps around the bed to where she’s standing. He wipes the perspiration off his forehead with the back of his hand. “Crikey, this heat.”

  “I just—” she falters. “I couldn’t—”

  “It’s all right.”

  “I’m really sorry I dragged you over here so late.”

  “Please, don’t apologize. It’s not that late.” Again that half smile. “Besides, I’ve been wanting to get together. I just didn’t know this is what it would take.”

  She tries to smile. She listens to the sound of hissing. So this is what it’s come down to: air in, air out. Air moving over the esophagus, across the diaphragm, into the lungs and out. It sounds like breaking waves. How many more breaths would she take?

  Tears prick Esther’s eyes. She tries hard not to blink. “This isn’t the way I thought it would be.”

  “What did you expect?”

  “I don’t know. Not this.”

  He pushes up his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. He is taking in the room: the heavy furniture, the rusty fan oscillating on the chair, the framed photographs arrayed along the chest of drawers, the smells of medicine and impending death.

  “You don’t just lose a person when they die,” he says. “You lose your history, too. That’s the hardest thing. When there’s no one left to share y
our memories, it feels as if they don’t exist. At least, that’s the way it was for me.”

  “I thought I’d be ready. My father passed a long time ago. But I’m not.”

  He gestures to the framed portrait of her parents. “Is that him? Your father?”


  He walks over to the photograph and picks it up. “He had a very strong face.”

  “That’s one way of putting it.”

  He sets the photo down and picks up a different frame. She draws in her breath. It’s the picture of Noah at his bar mitzvah, rocked back on his heels from the weight of the Torah in his arms, Gil and her on either side. The three of them, a family. Noah had just read from Parshat Noach, of course—the story of the Flood. It was November, the cusp of the new millennium, Y2K, all that apocalyptic fuss. She is smiling in the photograph, proud, oblivious to all that lay ahead.

  She can see the questions reflected in Javad’s eyes. Her words are ringing in her ears. Her stupid lie. No husband, no kids.

  There is a pause. There’s always a pause. A pause like a weight.

  “He died three years ago,” she said. “It was an accident. He was fifteen.”

  “I’m so sorry,” he says.

  “I should have told you,” she says. “I know. It’s just that—”

  “It’s all right.”

  “I’m sorry.”


  This time, he doesn’t kiss her. He just puts his arms around her and holds her, his lips against her hair, her wet face pressed to his chest.


  She floats along a morphine river, lucid stretches syncopated by tidal waves of pain. There is the sound of breaking waves. People come and go, give her pills and medication, and rub her bloated feet. Her body drifts away.

  The morphine river carries her to Kraków. It is June. Every day the midsummer sun rises in a sky as blue and bright as water. The banks of the Wisła are green, and beneath the red rooftops and cupolas of the Wawel Castle, leaves flutter like handkerchiefs in the breeze. Couples stroll along the promenade, jackets off, sleeves rolled up, arm in arm or holding hands. Low-slung barges chug slowly past. It is long past ten before the sun turns red and drops into the river like a flaming coal.

  Lonia wants to go home. She misses her father, her bed, her things, the familiar sounds and smells. Their mother’s distant cousins are elderly and stooped, humorless, devout. They speak Yiddish inflected with a Polish accent that Lonia can barely understand. They smell of boiled cabbage and decaying teeth. The old man mumbles the blessings through his untidy beard, swaying as he prays. They give Hugo a daybed in the study and Lonia a narrow bedroom and a pile of a grown-up daughter’s cast-off clothes. Hugo gives them the letter their father has sent along containing money and an expression of his thanks. The old man nods and tucks the envelope away.

  Hugo and Lonia spend their days in a hall near the town center where refugees are given free meals and tea. People from relief organizations are working to help them obtain transit visas, entrance visas, ships’ passage, immigration guarantees. Hugo befriends a group of Zionists, members of the Hanoar Hatzioni youth group. They sit around smoking and drinking tea, pontificating about the Jewish homeland, spinning out utopian dreams. Every few days, a list of names of those who have been granted immigration permits is posted on the notice board beside the door. Until then, they’re stuck in limbo. There is nothing to do but wait.

  At first Lonia stays close to Hugo in the refugee hall, but after a few days she begins wandering out along the cobbled streets of Kazimierz. The quarter is crowded with black-hatted religious Jews, flat-capped boys, and babushkas hunched over tubs of flowers and barrels full of grains. She meanders through the colonnade along the Market Square, pigeons scattering at her feet. She buys an obwarzanek from a cart and eats it on a bench below the Grunwald monument, King Jagiello triumphant above her on his giant horse, the Teutonic knight sprawled at the base of the pedestal beneath the horse, his dead arm dangling off the ledge.

  War with Germany, which everyone says is coming, seems impossibly far away. Wars were fought in trenches, in the mountains, among men. Her father had served as a lieutenant in the Kaiser’s army when he was young. He wore a high cap and riding boots and carried a regimental sword. She gazes up into the blue. It is such a pure blue it makes her eyes ache. Why did there have to be war in a world like this?


  And then there is Isaac. Isaac, who changes everything.

  She is in the refugee hall, dim in the afternoon heat, sipping tea from a stained glass, half listening to Hugo and his newfound Zionist friends. They are droning on about Jabotinsky and Borochov and Trumpeldor, the same old boring talk. Soon they’d move on to the even more thrilling topic of communal farming, these city kids who couldn’t tell a turnip from a tomato, God help them, their hand-rolled cigarettes stinking up the air. And then something shifts. She feels his gaze before she even sees him—a focused intensity boring into her from across the room, where he is leaning against a pillar, staring at her. He stares without blinking. It is a shameless, demanding, proprietary gaze. It dares her to be the first to look away.

  She looks away. Then back. Blood rises in her cheeks. Inside her gut, a knot pulls tight. It feels like resistance, but she is already giving in.

  Even Hugo notices, turns around, then laughs. The others look over, squint. Who the hell is he? Someone says he’s from Subcarpathia; someone else says, no, from Łódź. Another one of them rubs together his thumb and fingers and says, “That fellow’s got connections, if you know what I mean.” Hugo elbows her, jokingly. “Maybe you should get to know him, then,” he says.

  She walks over to the samovar to refill her glass of tea. She does not look at him, but she can feel him move her way. He steps up to her as she straightens, her glass hot in her hand, and his shoulder brushes hers.

  “Tell me your name.”

  “Why are you staring at me? Didn’t anyone teach you it’s rude to stare?”

  His arrogance almost makes him handsome, she thinks, even though she knows that Eva, on whom she has always relied in all matters regarding boys, would probably disagree. He has a high forehead with thick eyebrows and a fleshy nose—a Talmudic face, like an Old Testament prophet, although he is probably not much older than Hugo—and a way of standing that makes him look taller than he is. He closes his hand around her forearm and grasps it tight.

  “I just want to say that you are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”

  She laughs, in spite of herself, and pulls her hand away. “Oh please.”

  “You don’t believe me?”

  “Don’t you have any manners?”

  “Why is it impolite to say what I think?”

  “Is this how you always pick up girls? With lies?”

  He does not smile. “I never lie,” he says.

  A group of old ladies is pushing to get through to the samovar. Lonia steps aside and Isaac follows.

  “Meet me here this evening,” he says. “We’ll go for a walk, get to know each other. All right?”

  Lonia glances back across the room at Hugo. He has swiveled around in his chair to watch. They are probably all laughing at her now. Who cares? No one has ever talked to her this way before.

  “All right,” she says. “Tonight.” She turns away, her heart flapping like wings.


  The moon is rising out of the Wisła, a fat planet, huge and gold. The breeze is cool. She’s wearing his jacket, her hands lost inside the sleeves.

  “Paris or Venice?” he says.

  They are playing a game, although it well might be a test. With Isaac, it’s hard to say.

  “Paris,” she says. “Although I wouldn’t really know, I’ve never been anywhere but here.”

  “Good choice.”

  She smiles self-consciously at his approval. “Bridge or chess?” she says.

  “That’s easy. Chess. Swimming or ice skating?”

  “I don’t know h
ow to swim.”

  “A pity! I’ll have to teach you. Your go.”

  “Sachertorte or apfelstrudel?”

  “Rigó Jancsi.”

  “Answer the question!”

  “But Rigó Jancsi is so delicious…all those layers of chocolate and—”

  “You have to play by the rules! It’s your game!”

  “Okay, fine. Sachertorte. Bach or Chopin?”


  “No way. You’re a Chopin girl, I can tell.”

  “Oh, you think so, do you?”

  “I know so.”

  “Well, you’re wrong.”

  “No, I’m not. It’s your turn, go.”

  “What’s the point, if you know everything already?”

  He laughs and puts his arm around her shoulders. He smells like smoke and musk. The earth has sprung its orbit. The huge gold moon is floating upward like a balloon.

  “I like you, Lonia,” he says. “I like you very much indeed.”


  On midsummer’s night, Noc Kupały, there are bonfires by the river. They wander through the crowds of celebrants gathered along the embankment by the Wawel Castle. There is the sound of drunken singing, of someone playing a guitar. Lights flicker at the water’s edge where candles float inside wildflower wreaths. The sky is still a rich, deep blue, although it’s long past ten.

  Hugo has come along with them tonight, along with a couple of his Hanoar Hatzioni friends. She walks behind them with Isaac, hand in hand. Groups of young people are standing around bonfires, clapping and cheering as couples leap over the flames. It was an old midsummer’s ritual: the lovers’ leap. If you did it holding hands, it meant you’d never separate.

  “Come on, jump with me,” Isaac says.

  He interlaces his fingers with hers and squeezes tight.

  “No way.”

  “I won’t let go, I promise.”

  Lonia shakes her head. They stop and watch as a girl in a white dress breaks out of the circle of onlookers and runs solo toward the fire pit, her dress billowing as she leaps. One quick prance and she has made it. There are cheers and someone yells, “Go find yourself a man!”

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