Материалы к занятию
“You are crying,” Ruth says to me.
In another place, at another time, I would wipe the tears from my face with the back of my hand. But here and now, the task seems impossible.
“I didn’t realize it,” I say.
“You often cried in your sleep,” Ruth says to me. “When we
were first married. I would hear you at night and the sound would break my heart. I would rub your back and hush you and sometimes you would roll over and become silent. But other times, it would continue through the night, and in the mornings, you would tell me that you could not remember the reason.”
“Sometimes I didn’t.”
She stares at me. “But sometimes you did,” she finishes.
I squint at her, thinking her form is almost like liquid, as if I’m staring at her through shimmering heat waves that rise from the asphalt in summer. She wears a navy dress and a white hair band, and her voice sounds older. It takes a moment, but I realize she is twenty-three, her age when I returned from the war.
“I was thinking about Joe Torrey,” I said.
“Your friend”—she nods—“the one who ate five hot dogs in
San Francisco. The one who bought you your first beer.”
I never told her about the cigarettes, for I know she would have disapproved. Ruth always hated their smell. It is a lie of omission, but I long ago convinced myself that it was the right thing to do. “Yes,” I say.
The morning light surrounds Ruth in a halo.
“I wish I could have met him,” she says.
“You would have liked him.”
Ruth clears her throat, considering this, before turning away. She faces the snow-caked window, her thoughts her own. This car, I think, has become my tomb.
“You were also thinking about the hospital,” she murmurs.
When I nod, she emits a weary sigh.
“Did you not hear what I told you?” she says, turning to me again. “That it did not matter to me? I would not lie to you about this.”
“Not on purpose,” I answer. “But I think that maybe, you sometimes lied to yourself.”
She is surprised by my words, if only because I have never spoken so directly on this matter. But I know I am right.
“This is why you stopped writing me,” she observes. “After you had been sent back to California, your letters became less frequent until they finally stopped coming at all. I did not hear from you for six months.”
“I stopped writing because I remembered what you’d told me.”
“Because you wanted to end it between us.” There is an undercurrent of anger in her voice, and I can’t meet her eyes.
“I wanted you to be happy.”
“I was not happy,” she snaps. “I was confused and heartbroken and I did not understand what had happened. And I prayed for you every day, hoping you would let me help you. But instead, I would go to the mailbox and find it empty, no matter how many letters I sent.”
“I’m sorry. It was wrong of me to do that.”
“Did you even read my letters?”
“Every one. I read them over and over, and more than once, I tried to write so you could know what happened. But I could never find the right words.”
She shakes her head. “You did not even tell me when you were to arrive home.
It was your mother who told me, and I thought about meeting you at the station, like you used to do when I came home.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I wanted to see if you would come to me. But days passed and then a week, and when I did not see you at the synagogue, I understood that you were trying to avoid me. So I finally marched over to your shop and told you that I needed to speak to you. And do you remember what you said to me?”
Of all the things I’ve said in my life, these are the words I
regret the most. But Ruth is waiting, her tense expression fixed on my face. There is a fierce challenge in the way she waits.
“I told you that the engagement was off, and that it was over between us.”
She arches an eyebrow. “Yes,” she says, “that is what you told me.”
“I couldn’t talk to you then. I was…”
When I trail off, she finishes for me. “Angry.” She nods. “I could see it in your eyes, but even then, I knew you were still in love with me.”
“Yes,” I admit. “I was.”
“But your words were still hurtful,” she says. “I went home and cried like I had not since I was a child. And my mother finally came in and held me and neither of us knew what to do. I had lost so much already. I could not bear to lose you, too.”
By this, she means her family, the family that had stayed behind in Vienna. At the time, I didn’t realize how selfish my actions were or how Ruth might have perceived them. This memory, too, has stayed with me, and in the car, I feel an age-old shame.
Ruth, my dream, knows what I am feeling. When she speaks, it is with a new tenderness. “But if it was really over, I wanted to understand the reason, so the next day, I went to the drugstore across from your shop and ordered a chocolate soda. I sat next to the window and watched you as you worked. I know you saw me, but you did not come over. So I went back the next day and the day after that, and only then did you finally cross the street to see me.”
“My mother made me go,” I admit. “She told me that you deserved an explanation.”
“That is what you have always said. But I think you also wanted to come, because you missed me. And because you knew that only I could help you heal.”
I close my eyes at her words. She is right, of course, right about all of it. Ruth always did know me better than I knew myself.
“I took a seat across from you,” I say. “And then, a moment later, a chocolate soda arrived for me.”
“You were so skinny. I thought you needed my help to get fat again. Like you were when we met.”
“I was never fat,” I protest. “I barely made weight when I joined the army.”
“Yes, but when you got back, you were all bones. Your suit hung from your frame like it was two sizes too big. I thought you would blow away as you crossed the street, and it made me wonder whether you would ever be yourself again. I was not sure you would ever again be the man I once loved.”
“And yet you still gave me a chance.”
She shrugs. “I had no choice,” she says, her eyes glittering.
“By then, David Epstein was married.”
I laugh despite myself, and my body spasms, neurons blazing, nausea coming at me. I breathe through gritted teeth and gradually feel the wave begin to recede. Ruth waits for my breathing to steady before going on. “I admit that I was frightened about this. I wanted things between us to be the way they had been before, so I simply pretended that nothing had changed. I chattered about college and my friends and how much I had studied, and that my parents had surprised me by showing up at my graduation. I talked about my work as a substitute teacher at a school around the corner from the synagogue, but also mentioned that I was interviewing for a full-time position that fall at a rural elementary school on the outskirts of town. I told you also that my father was meeting with the dean of the Art History
Department at Duke for the third time, and that my parents might have to move to Durham. And then I wondered aloud whether I would have to give up my new job and move to Durham, too.”
“And I suddenly knew I didn’t want you to go.”
“That is why I said it.” She smiles. “I wanted to see your expression, and for just an instant, the old Ira was back. And then I was no longer frightened that you were gone forever.”
“But you didn’t ask me to walk you home.”
“You were not ready. There was still too much anger inside you. That is why I suggested that we meet once a week for chocolate sodas, just like we used to. You needed time, and I was willing to wait.”
“For a while. Not forever.”
“No, not forever. By the end of February, I had begun to wonder whether you would ever kiss me again.”
“I wanted to,” I say. “Every time I was with you, I wanted to kiss you.”
“I knew that, too, and that was why it was so confusing to me. I could not understand what was wrong. I could not understand what was holding you back, why you did not trust me.
You should have known that I would love you no matter what.”
“I did know,” I say. “And that was why I couldn’t tell you.”
I did eventually tell her, of course, on a cold evening in early March. I had called her at home, asking her to meet me in the park, where we had strolled together a hundred times. At the time, I wasn’t planning to tell her. Instead, I convinced myself that I simply needed a friend to talk to, as the atmosphere at home had become oppressive.
My father had done well financially during the war, and as soon as it was over, he went back into business as a haberdasher. Gone were the sewing machines; in their place were racks of suits, and to someone walking past the shop, it probably looked the same as it did before the war. But inside, it was different. My father was different. Instead of greeting customers at the door as he used to, he would spend his afternoons in the back room, listening to the news on the radio, trying to understand the madness that had caused the deaths of so many innocent people. It was all he wanted to talk about; the Holocaust became the subject of every mealtime conversation and every spare moment. By contrast, the more he talked, the more my mother concentrated on her sewing, because she couldn’t bear to think about it. For my father, after all, it was an abstract horror; for my mother—who, like Ruth, had lost friends and family—it was deeply personal. And in their divergent reactions to these shattering events, my parents gradually set in motion the largely separate lives they would lead from that point on.
As their son, I tried not to take sides. With my father I would listen and with my mother I would say nothing, but when the three of us were together, it sometimes struck me that we’d forgotten what it meant to be a family. Nor did it help that my father now accompanied my mother and me to synagogue; my intimate talks with my mother became a thing of the past. When my father informed me that he was bringing me in as a partner in the business —meaning the three of us would be together all the time—I despaired, sure that there would be no escaping the gloom that had infiltrated our lives.
“You are thinking about your parents,” Ruth says to me.
“You were always kind to them,” I say.
“I loved your mother very much,” Ruth says. “Despite the difference in our ages, she was the first real friend I made in this country.”
“And my father?”
“I loved him, too. How could I not? He was family.”
I smile, recalling that in later years she was always more patient with him than I was.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You can ask me anything.”
“Why did you wait for me? Even after I stopped writing? I know you say that you loved me, but…”
“We are back to this? You wonder why I loved you?”
“You could have had anyone.”
She leans closer to me, her voice soft. “This has always been your problem, Ira,” she says. “You do not see in yourself what others see in you. You think you are not handsome enough, but you were very handsome when you were young. You think you are not interesting or smart enough, but you are these things, too, and that you are not aware of your best qualities is part of your charm. You always see so much in others—as you did in me. You made me feel special.”
“But you are special,” I insist.
She raises her hands in delight. “This is what I am talking about,” she says, laughing. “You are a man of deep feelings, who has always cared about others, and I am not alone in recognizing that. Your friend Joe Torrey sensed it. I am sure that is why he spent his free time with you. And my mother sensed it as well, which was why she held me when I thought I had lost you.
Because we both knew that men like you are rare.”
“I’m glad you came that night,” I say. “I needed you.”
“And you also knew, as soon as we fell into step at the park, that you were finally ready to tell me the truth. All of it.”
I nod. In one of my final letters, I’d briefly told her about the bombing run over Schweinfurt and Joe Torrey. I mentioned the wounds I’d received and the infection that had followed, but I hadn’t told her everything. On that night, however, I started at the beginning. I related every detail and I held nothing back. On the bench, she listened to my outpouring of words without speaking.
Afterward, she slipped her arms around me and I leaned into her. The emotions washed over me in waves, her whispered words of comfort unleashing memories I had tried too long to bury.
I don’t know how long it took for the storm inside me to subside, but by that point, I was exhausted. Yet there was one thing remaining that I had not revealed, something that not even my parents knew.
In the car, Ruth is silent. I know she is replaying what I said to her that night.
“I told you that I got the mumps while I was in the hospital —the worst case the doctor had ever seen. And I told you what the doctor said to me.”
Ruth remains quiet, but her eyes start to glisten.
“He said that mumps can cause sterility,” I say. “That’s why
I tried to end it between us. Because I knew that if you ever married me, there was a good chance that we would never have children.”