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The pale of settlement, p.3

The Pale of Settlement, page 3


The Pale of Settlement

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  The Berlin Wall came down the year that they broke up. Her ex-boyfriend sent her photographs, a whole roll of film, close-ups of the graffiti, swirls and curves and curlicues, like strange ideograms.

  He sent pictures of his new apartment, too, a soaring empty space with bare floors and windows set at odd angles on white walls. He was paring down to essentials. From the bedroom, he wrote, he could see Kaiser Wilhelm’s Gedächtniskirche, the bombed-out church against a fractured sky.

  Susan tried to imagine herself in that space, hollow and symbolic, against the walls left standing, the walls torn down. She’d moved into a boxy one bedroom on the thirtieth floor of a postwar high-rise on the Upper West Side, and from where she sat, all you could see was air.

  When she turned the letter over, she saw that he’d signed it Auf wiedersehen.

  German was her father’s mother tongue, but after the war, in Palestine, he changed his name from Fritz to Ezra and forgot most of his German, though he kept his accent. Susan was so used to it that she hardly noticed, but sometimes, when friends of hers who didn’t know him spoke to him on the phone, they’d say, Where’s he from?

  Susan’s grandparents lived in Israel, but spoke German to each other and English to Susan and her brothers, switching to German when they didn’t want them to understand. They all avoided complex topics as a result, sticking to a simple vocabulary, enunciating with care and much waving of hands.

  Although Susan’s mother urged her to take French (the language of culture, she said), Susan signed up for German her freshman year in college. The instructor was a buxom woman, with thick forearms and a mole on her left eyelid. You have a natural accent! she told Susan, complimenting her on her name: Stern, she told the class, pronouncing the first consonant with a sh sound, means “star.”

  After a week or two, Susan decided her mother was right. She dropped the class and took French instead.

  Susan’s ex-boyfriend called, long distance, from Berlin. He was upset. He said that the woman he’d been dating was pregnant. Things hadn’t been serious between them at all, he told Susan, but now the woman wanted him to marry her.

  This is not the way it was supposed to be, he said. This changes everything.

  Susan carried the phone over to the window and looked down at the flowing Hudson as the late afternoon sky turned the color of a bruise. She tried to picture him sitting at his glass table, surrounded by those high white walls. She thought: not such an empty apartment. Not just the essentials, after all.

  Look, she said, this is your kid we’re talking about. This could be the best thing that ever happened to you.

  Her voice sounded calm and wise in her ears, as if it belonged to someone else. She’d always thought that if she got pregnant unexpectedly she’d have an abortion, but as she spoke she realized that she probably wouldn’t, after all.

  I miss you, Susan, her ex-boyfriend said. You always know the right thing to say.

  Back in journalism school, when Susan and her ex-boyfriend were first in love, the world had seemed to be a fixed and fathomable place, as predictable as a map. Back then, the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire and Star Wars a defense initiative. They laughed at Wolfgang, a Poly Sci Ph.D. candidate from Düsseldorf who was writing a dissertation on the reunification of Germany. They sat around on sagging couches with their feet up on plank-and-milk-crate coffee tables and shook their heads, laughing, over bottles of imported beer.

  Wolfie, Wolfie, Wolfie, they said. It will never happen!

  Of course, Susan knew that her great-grandfather, her mother’s zeyde from Lwów, had once said the same thing about refrigeration, about air travel, about the Second World War.

  Susan’s grandmother had a cousin who had lost a child in the war. The boy had been the oldest of her three children, and her husband had arranged to get him out of Germany ahead of the rest of the family, alone. The child was barely six. They stood and waved good-bye to him from the platform at the Friedrichstraße Bahnhof in Berlin. They never saw nor heard from him again.

  The International Red Cross had tried to reunite the children lost in the war with their relatives, posting photographs of the foundlings in railway stations across Europe and reading their names over daily radio broadcasts. Now, more than fifty years after the war’s end, there were still thousands of unclaimed children—not children any longer, of course, but men and women well past middle age. The Red Cross was no longer receiving much of a response.

  Susan’s grandmother kept photographs of her sons as children tucked beneath the glass top of her vanity. Susan studied the pictures while her grandmother puffed powder on her cheeks, papery as crepe, and filled in her eyebrows with pencil. The photographs were posed studio portraits, black-and-white faded to tones of gray. Susan’s father and his brother had chin-length hair tied with bows, like girls. They bore no resemblance to the men Susan knew, as if they’d come from another century, another world. She wondered if her grandmother’s cousin kept photographs of her vanished child. She pictured him with protruding ears and a dimple in his chin, like a pinhole or a star. She wanted to ask her grandmother if she thought the boy could possibly still be alive, but she didn’t have the nerve.

  Susan’s grandmother never talked about the war. What she talked about, instead, was her own girlhood. She told stories about how she fought with her sister (the prettier, cleverer, unlucky one), rode in the sidecar of her boyfriend’s motorcycle, brought her dolls along on her honeymoon. Her stories had morals, like fairy tales. She told the same stories, over and over, so that after a while it no longer seemed that they were true.

  Susan’s ex-boyfriend didn’t marry his pregnant girlfriend, but he didn’t leave her, either. In the end, she had a baby girl. He sent Susan a photograph. In it he was standing next to a baby carriage. All you could see inside the carriage was a bundle of pale pink. Her ex-boyfriend was wearing a herringbone wool overcoat and a college scarf wound around his neck. He stood slightly hunched over the carriage with an anxious, impatient expression on his face, as if the baby might be crying and he wasn’t certain what to do. In the background was a broad, gray street lined with leafless trees.

  Linden trees, perhaps.

  Susan’s father went to a conference in Germany when she was in grade school, not long after the Munich Olympics. It was his first trip back since he was a boy.

  When he got home, he said, A tall man in a uniform came to meet me at the airport. He stepped forward and said, Herr Stern.

  Herr Stern.

  It was only the driver, her father said. But it gave me a little chill.

  Susan’s ex-boyfriend was twenty-eight when they met, six years older than she: an older man. He’d traveled, held a real job, even lived with another woman for a time. He was ready, he said, to settle down. From the beginning, she felt the pull of gravity.

  The first time she went to his parents’ house, they sat on his childhood bed and he showed her his high school track trophies, his Princeton yearbook, souvenirs from trips to Nouakchott and Johannesburg, and she felt as if he were laying it all out for her, a life he could superimpose on hers, like a transparency over a photograph.

  They slept together in the guest room on a sleigh bed with scars on the footboard left by a cowboy ancestor’s spurs. Susan lay next to him in a darkness that smelled of old books and musty chenille and imagined the way their children would be. She wanted it all: the trophies, the ancestors, the sensation she got of being safe in his orbit, her feet held firmly to the ground.

  Susan’s grandparents were fond of her ex-boyfriend. Her grandmother said he was sehr schön. Her grandfather called him a mensch.

  When her grandparents came for a visit to New York, they sat around her parents’ dinner table while her grandfather told stories Susan had never heard before about the First World War and fighting the Italians at Monte Grappa in the Dolomites. Her grandfather grew animated, sketching diagrams and maps on scraps of paper and waving his hands. When Susan
got up to clear the dishes, she heard her ex-boyfriend laugh and her grandfather say, Ah, you understand me exactly!

  When she asked her grandfather why he’d never told her the stories before, he said, Because you never asked.

  Susan went to buy a gift for her ex-boyfriend’s baby. As she stood in the plush Amsterdam Avenue shop, fingering the Steiff bunnies and satin-edged blankets and tiny crocheted booties, the door jingled and her ex-boyfriend’s college roommate walked in. She hid the booties behind her back, as if she’d been caught in the act of doing something shameful.

  The college roommate kissed her on the cheek. I was over in Berlin last month, he said, and I’m telling you, this woman is a piece of work. She just wanted to catch herself an American.

  Susan noticed that his hair had thinned, leaving a round patch on the top of his scalp, like a yarmulke. He worked for the U.S. attorney’s office, prosecuting white-collar crime. In the old days, the three of them had hung out together in dive bars on the Lower East Side.

  He sure made a mistake not marrying you, the college roommate said, touching Susan’s arm, even though he knew perfectly well that she was the one who’d done the breaking up.

  Susan’s ex-boyfriend was, in fact, half-Jewish. His father’s relatives came from Dresden by way of Brooklyn; the cowboys and Ivy Leaguers were all on his mother’s side. Her ex-boyfriend’s family celebrated Christmas and Easter, though not in a religious way. His brother, however, was a Scientologist. He believed in a tone scale of emotion and the traumatic residue of past lives. Susan’s mother considered this a bad sign, just as, although she didn’t say anything directly, she felt that Susan’s ex-boyfriend didn’t count as a real Jew.

  That’s what happens, she said when Susan told her about the brother, when you don’t have real roots.

  The summer between their two years of journalism school, Susan and her ex-boyfriend went to Poland. Wolfgang, who was in Warsaw doing research, took them around. It was their first time behind the Iron Curtain.

  Wolfie drove his beat-up Volkswagen Golf at high rates of speed along rutted country roads, swerving around bicycles and horsedrawn carts piled high with hay. An orange sun hovered low in the sky. A haze of burning coal clouded the air.

  On the way from Warsaw to Krakow, they stopped at Auschwitz. It was late afternoon and the klieg lights above the double—barbed wire fence had come on, casting shadows on the ground. Above the gate, the sign remained: Arbeit Macht Frei. Rows of cypresses lined the paths like sentries. There was hardly anyone there. Susan’s ex-boyfriend shot a roll of black-and-white film. Wolfgang stuffed his hands into his pockets and looked at his feet. Nobody said much.

  Susan wandered around thinking about her grandmother’s cousin and her lost child, wondering what had become of him. She thought about her grandmother’s sister—the prettier, cleverer, unluckier one—after whom she had been named. The fact that she’d probably died here in this place felt as unreal as any other family story.

  They climbed back into Wolfie’s Volkswagen and continued on to Krakow. After checking into the hotel, Susan and her ex-boyfriend made love on the narrow Soviet-style bed.

  Ibusz, he crooned as he kissed her breasts. It was the name of the Polish state travel agency, but they’d decided it sounded like a term of endearment. He put on a fake accent and addressed her nipple. You are my leetle Polish radish, he said. Then they went out for dinner.

  Her ex-boyfriend proposed to her at the end of that year, a few days after they finished their exams. They were sitting in Central Park watching the sun drop behind the apartment buildings on the Upper West Side. He turned to face her and placed his hand on her knee.

  I know this changes everything, he said. But I wanted you to know how I feel.

  Susan said she needed to think it over, and for the next two and a half years, she thought it over, until it came to seem that they had, in fact, gotten married and were already contemplating divorce. She had a dream in which she was standing in full white bridal dress alone on a stage in the center of an enormous stadium, surrounded by a crowd of strangers. The ring on her finger was as big as a bracelet and made of steel. She stood searching in vain for her ex-boyfriend, thinking, This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.

  Even now, looking back, Susan was never quite sure how they lost each other, how the familiar became strange, the way even a common word starts to sound foreign if you repeat it too many times out loud. Gravity failed them, after all. Even so, in the last months, before she finally moved out, and before he left for Berlin, she kept imagining that if he’d just ask her to marry him again, everything would be okay, but he never did.

  Not long after her ex-boyfriend’s baby was born, Susan met a Swedish artist at a party and let him take her home with him. His loft was filled with the heads of angels, molded in rough clay. They gazed down with wide, vacant eyes, tilted gently toward one another as if dreaming or entranced. In candlelight diffuse with clay dust, the sculptor covered her body with fluttering kisses. He had a long body, fair skin, eyebrows so pale they were almost invisible. His blond hair swung forward over Susan’s face as he moved. With a tremor of what she took to be excitement in his voice, he told her it was the first time he’d ever slept with a Jewish girl.

  Susan’s ex-boyfriend called from his parents’ house in Washington, D.C. He was there for a week with the baby, visiting.

  I wish you could meet her, he said. She’s a big part of my life, now.

  Susan flew down the following Saturday morning. She’d cut her hair, and as the cab pushed through the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue, she wondered if she looked different. They hadn’t seen each other in almost three years.

  Her ex-boyfriend stepped out onto the front stoop as the cab pulled up. He was holding his daughter on his hip. Her ex-boyfriend had brown hair and eyes, like Susan, but the baby had white-blond ringlets and eyes as blue as the sky. She looked like a Botticelli angel—as Aryan as you could get. Susan felt a sharp jolt of surprise.

  Say hi to Papa’s friend, her ex-boyfriend cooed. The child burrowed her face against her father’s neck. He stroked her curls and muttered some words in German that Susan couldn’t understand. It hadn’t occurred to her that the child would speak German, although it made perfect sense.

  The baby was fussy and cried when Susan held her, arching her back. Susan handed her back to her ex-boyfriend, feeling as though she’d failed some kind of test, and then they stood in the kitchen making conversation with his parents, just like in the old days. Susan wondered if his parents thought they might be getting back together again, and then she wondered if that was why she’d come.

  Finally, her ex-boyfriend put the child to bed, and they left her with her grandparents and went out to get Thai food.

  So what do you think? her ex-boyfriend said.

  Susan looked around at the gold embroidered elephants marching along the restaurant’s walls. She’s a cute kid, she said.

  I think she’s doing amazingly well, considering, her ex-boyfriend said. He picked at the label of his beer bottle, making a pile of soggy gold shreds beside his plate. He rolled the shreds between his fingers, looking down, concentrating, and Susan watched his hands. They were honest hands, with veins that ran blue over wrists as slender as a woman’s, a smudge of ink on the side of the palm, a few stoic hairs as placeholders on the finger where a ring should be. They were the hands, she reminded herself, of the father of someone else’s nineteen-month-old girl.

  What, “considering”? she said.

  Well, considering the whole situation, the whole damn mess, the whole way it’s not supposed to be.

  Oh right, Susan said. Not the white picket fence and the two-point-five kids and the perfect little wife.

  He looked up at her, pressed his lips together in a line. You just don’t get it, do you, he said.

  After the breakup, Susan had dated one man after another, all eligible and Jewish but phobic of commitment and neurotic in bed. Friends fixed her up with a foren
sic psychiatrist, a software entrepreneur with a cocaine habit, a venture capitalist, a rabbinical candidate. Twice, she was fixed up with the same man, an overweight district attorney with a mouth like a fish.

  Her parents never nagged her about her unmarried state, but Susan knew they were concerned. It was grandchildren they wanted, continuation of the line. Only once, when she mentioned a friend from high school who’d recently had a baby, her mother said, Honey, you are going to be the last of the Mohicans.

  When Susan and her ex-boyfriend returned to his parents’ house, the place was dark and his parents had gone to bed. They stood by the kitchen sink, sipping glasses of water, like two people at the intermission of a play.

  Her ex-boyfriend offered her the guest room or the attic. She said, The attic’s fine.

  She followed him up two flights of stairs to a daybed wedged under the eaves, surrounded by dusty stacks of magazines and baskets of old toys. It was a hot night, and the attic was at least ten degrees hotter than the rest of the house. He pushed open a dormer window, which gave out a creak and a breath of dust.

  He brushed his hands on his jeans. Are you sure you’ll be okay?

  She said, It’s fine.

  They stood there for a moment and then Susan stepped forward, even though she’d vowed she wouldn’t, and he put his arms around her, pressing her face against his shirt. Then he pulled back and let his hands drop to his sides.

  Sleep tight, he said.

  After he left, Susan stretched out on the daybed, fully dressed, and listened to the sound of running water and the creaking of doors downstairs. She tried not to think about the two of them asleep below, the child among the old trophies and yearbooks, her ex-boyfriend in the sleigh bed that had once been theirs, his feet on the marks of a dead cowboy’s spurs.

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