I dream that I am trying to call home from an underwater phone booth. I dial, then hold my lips tightly closed and listen to my father asking, “What? Who’s there?” When I open my eyes to the achingly bright sunlight, I am still holding my breath.
Jean-Luc is already gone, but the sheets hold his smell. He must have moved lightly and softly in the early hours, slipping on his pants, tying his shoes, for I never heard him leave. Then I remember Louis and wonder how the boy handled sleeping in a stranger’s house, in a strange country.
I don’t see him right away because he isn’t moving. He stands in a corner of the room, completely dressed. When he realizes I’m looking at him, he runs to the door, unlocks it, and darts into the dangerous Miami streets.
I jump out of bed and run after him in my flimsy nightgown, my bare feet smarting from the pebbles and crushed glass in the street. But he’s faster than I am, skinny ankles encased in those beat-up high-top sneakers. One, two, three bounds, and he’s vanished. The steaming, early-morning street is beginning to come to life. Several maids in white uniforms are standing under their shared, tattered parasol waiting for the bus. Men getting into cars look at me curiously. I run one more block, my breasts swinging, my heart beating raggedly in my chest. Where could one small boy disappear to, and what could happen to him? He’d rarely even seen a car before yesterday. No sign. I turn and limp home, where he is waiting for me by the door, his expression both sheepish and triumphant.
“Louis, ki sa ou fet. Pa kite kaye-nan. Li danjere deho!” Don’t leave the house; it’s dangerous out there, I scold. But I can’t tell if he understands my French-accented Creole. I stare helplessly at this wiry little boy with no words, no language, no mother, no father, nothing familiar around him, the story of what happened to him on the boat held inside. He ignores the hand I stretch out to him. His eyes are glittering, feverish.
I lock the door and he watches me do it. “I have to get dressed now, Louis, for work. M’oblije habille kouniye-a —”
He lunges for the door. Finally I have to call Marc Paul, my boss. I am running late. He calls Lyonel to ask him to pick us up on his way to the office.
“What’s happening, little brother?” Lyonel calls out in Creole to Louis, who stares at him nervously and huddles in a corner of the car.
But at the office, surrounded by other Haitians, Louis transforms. His face is full of curiosity, mischief, and delight, and last night’s nightmare, or whatever it was that made him bolt this morning, begins to recede. During lunch, I take up a collection for a soccer ball, and I buy one for him at a nearby store. Louis and I spend the rest of the afternoon playing, dodging and dancing around the broken glass in the parking lot. During rest breaks, I go back inside and get on the phone, trying to find someone who will take him in.
Marc Paul insists that we should not call Social Services. “They will give him to some white people who don’t speak Creole and don’t understand him. No, he is one of us. He should stay with his own people.”
Easy to say, but those of his own people who have apartments are sleeping in shifts, half during the day, half at night, because there isn’t enough room. I call everyone I can think of who might have a bed and the time to teach a twelve-year-old wild boy how to live in this country. But at the end of the day there is no one, and Louis comes home with me once more; I won’t leave him to anyone else. He prays and cries on my floor all night.
We start to develop a routine. Lyonel buys us dinner at McDonald’s, and Louis chews happily on his French fries. I don’t make him take a bath. Instead I put on a record of Haitian music and enjoy his astonished delight as the disc spins around and the beauty pours out. One night, two nights pass. He does not throw tantrums. He comes to the office with me in the mornings, where I abandon any pretense of working and play with him all day. Jean-Luc comes over to spend the night after Louis has been put to bed. I think that maybe I could do this; Louis could learn English, he’s young, he would pick it up quickly. I have no money, but there must be some way.
At the end of the second day, Marc Paul calls me into his office. “We’ve located the father.”
“Oh?” I say. In the waiting room, Louis is drawing pictures with a box of crayons I got him.
Marc Paul clears his throat. “He’s in a hospital outside Fort Lauderdale.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Tuberculosis. But he has friends. He says Louis can stay with them.”
I don’t argue. What right would I have to keep him, and how could I do it anyway? Jean-Luc and I aren’t married, and I know we never will be. I make barely enough money at this office to feed myself, and Lyonel can’t buy us hamburgers and French fries forever. I have no car, no room for him at home; when my housemate, Nan, gets tired of sleeping at Magdalena’s and wants her room back, where would he go? So I just stand there.
“It was good, what you did,” Marc Paul says carefully.
“Yes,” I say. “When do we leave?”
“It’s Fort Lauderdale, at least an hour. Lyonel will drive us. Louis!” he calls sharply, past my shoulder.
Louis responds immediately. We’ve been speaking in English, and yet he knows something’s up. His face is stiff with tension; he’s ready to run for it, anywhere. He is already so far over the edge of his known universe — what would it take to make him run away from us, whom he’s trusted for less than seventy-two hours?
“We’re going to see your father,” Marc Paul explains. Louis’ face remains glassy. It’s not the words at all, I realize. English, Creole, it doesn’t matter; all he heard was the tone of voice.
Lyonel holds Louis’ hand firmly as we walk out to the van, but Louis doesn’t squirm or protest. He climbs in and falls heavily asleep against my chest, his little round head like a cannonball next to my heart. Thick, hot air blows in on us through the open window, Marc Paul and Lyonel talk politics in Creole, and I hold him, hold his sleeping weight for a last few hours.
At the hospital in Fort Lauderdale, we lead Louis through antiseptic corridors lit by fluorescent bulbs. He makes no trouble, and that is almost the worst part.
The father is in the tubercular ward. His body is emaciated, and he wears blue-and-white striped pajamas, which make him look like a concentration camp inmate. Standing, he barely reaches my shoulder, a dried dandelion stalk of a man with a sweet, painful smile. When he speaks, his whispery voice is no stronger than a puff of seeds released into air. He greets us politely, and we shake hands with him. He holds out his hand to Louis, too, who must be prompted to shake it. Then he gives us the address of a friend of his who lives near Fort Lauderdale and asks us to take Louis there.
It’s a smoky two-room apartment with no furniture. A woman is sleeping on the rug, her arm curled underneath her. Two other women are squatting around a hot plate on the floor, cooking dinner. In a corner, two men smoke and listen to the radio.
The friend is a heavyset, sad-eyed man who stands with his legs wide and his arms folded across his chest while Marc Paul explains the situation. He accepts Louis with a resigned shrug of his shoulders.
“All right, he stay here. No problem.”
I stall for time. “Do you know about the schools here? He’ll need help.”
“He be fine,” Lyonel urges, anxious to get home to his girlfriend and his dinner. “Come now,” he says.
I bend and put my arms around Louis. Impassive, he doesn’t acknowledge either my presence or our leave-taking.
That night, Jean-Luc holds me in his arms. “My little bird, my little wife, my woman,” he croons. For once I don’t contradict him.
It’s Saturday morning, a day filled with bright, pure, terrible sunlight. I’m walking slowly across a deserted parking lot, taking a shortcut to the supermarket.
I don’t see the boy at first. And even when I do, I’m not concerned. A skinny black kid on a bike, ten, maybe twelve, years old. I don’t even think anything of it when he rides the bike toward me. There’s no reason to be worried or to move out of the way; it’s a wide, empty parking lot, and there’s plenty of room for both of us.
It’s not until he’s right in front of me that I realize what’s about to happen. In the split second before he tears my purse off my shoulder, I scream an outraged, irrelevant “No!” His little face, bearing down on me, goes completely blank, eyes empty, mouth a straight line.
As he pedals away furiously on his rusty, old bike, I chase after him, yelling like an idiot. The only car that stops is driven by another white woman. Another white woman. When did I start thinking like that?
“Which way did he go?” she asks. The kid on the bike disappears across the railroad tracks, into the housing project. “Aw, we’ll never get him now,” the woman says in disgust. “The little bastard.”
“It’s OK,” I say. “My fault for being half asleep. Thanks for stopping.”
“Those kids think they own the streets. And they do. It’s the criminals who are running this city. They’re killing us.” One furious tear glints on the woman’s cheek as she shifts her car into gear and drives off.
My grandmother’s face is small, kindly, sensual, and selfish, crisscrossed with innumerable tiny wrinkles, like the markings of a hundred-year-old tortoise. She wades capably through the heat of the Fort Lauderdale bus station to reach me.
“Come, come to the car where it’s cool. I’m glad you finally made it up here.”
Grandpop is in the parking lot in his spotless, white sneakers and plaid pants, opening the trunk. “Well, look who’s here!” he says happily in his Russian accent. I kiss his cheek, the sweet stubble and the smell of after-shave and cigar, and he hugs me vigorously. I feel ashamed for not having visited sooner. What kept me from them for so long?
“I’ve been so busy, working,” I murmur as I climb into the back seat of the air-conditioned car. Gram gets in beside me.
“That’s OK,” Grandpop affirms. “Buckle up. When you see the Emerald City, you’re gonna love it. Right, Bea?”
“Watch out, Sid,” she warns. “He’s gonna cut you off!” She holds my small, cold hand in her own.
“That guy needs to have his glasses checked.” Grandpop turns around to wink. “She don’t like how I drive. That’s why she’s sitting in the back with you.”
“You need your eyes checked,” Gram says.
“Oh, you’re gonna love our place,” he croons, sunnily ignoring her. “What haven’t we got in the Emerald City? Indoor pool, outdoor pool, sauna. Ceramics for ladies. Billiards for men. Shuffleboard and chorus. And there’s folk dancing Tuesday nights and ballroom dancing Saturdays. No crime, and you don’t even have to cook if you don’t want to, just go down to the cafeteria. I’m telling you, paradise!”
We drive for miles past flat, empty acres of scrub grass already staked out by developers. Billboards advertise coming attractions. Happy Landings, Coming Soon. Watch for Sunshine Vista. Come Visit Paradise Haven and See for Yourself What Paradise Is.
At Emerald City, Grandpop parks in the numbered space reserved for them. Not a trace of broken glass anywhere in the lot. He insists on carrying my backpack for me, and I am tired enough to let him. Life in Florida has been good for him, for both of them. He looks young and healthy at seventy, with red cheeks and most of his hair. Gram is tanned, her short thatch of white-blond hair tousled, as if from a recent swim. It’s I who leans on her arm for support as we climb the steps to their apartment. For the last few weeks, ever since we gave Louis away, I’ve felt weak, as if some vital part of me, one of my kidneys, were missing.
Gram’s face is angry as she shepherds me into a wing chair and brings me a tall glass of orange juice. “You look terrible!” she scolds. “I never saw you so thin. Working yourself to a shadow for those people. Sid! Doesn’t she look terrible?”
Grandpop is already settled into his chair, his feet up on a hassock and a newspaper in front of him.
“She looks all right,” he says from behind the paper.
“She looks terrible,” Gram snaps. “You’re not even looking at her.”
He lowers the newspaper judiciously and looks at me. I make a face. “So she lost a little weight,” he concedes. “What’s so terrible?”
“Look how tired she is. She can hardly stand up.”
“So let her sit.”
“I am sitting,” I point out.
Gram opens the door of her well-stocked refrigerator. “Did you get lunch?”
“I had some peanuts and a Coke at the bus station. I’m not hungry, Gram.”
“A peanut!” She slams the door. “A peanut she ate! Huh!”
She glares at me, sits down, and picks up her crocheting. “Looks like a shadow and got no appetite.” She stabs the crochet hook into the baby blue center of the square she’s working on. “And you with a college education. You could have gone out and gotten yourself a nice job —”
“Gram, I was an English major. I could be waitressing. Besides, I like what I’m doing.”
“How much money are they paying you for this great job?”
“That’s not the point. It’s good experience . . .”
“If you want to teach refugees, honey, what about your own kind? Plenty of Russian-Jewish people could use an English teacher. And you wouldn’t have to live in a slum where people hit you over the head for your last dollar.”
“She don’t like your neighborhood so good,” Grandpop translates.
A month, even a week, ago I would have defended my neighborhood to them. I would have explained that it wasn’t really dangerous because it was in the Haitian area. Twenty blocks away, in the real ghetto, was where the crime was. Instead I say, “I guess I will have a sandwich.”
“What kind you want?” she asks happily. “Cheese? Tuna? What kind of cheese?” I get it on a paper doily with half a fat dill pickle.
“What do you think you’ll want for dinner?” she asks.
After lunch I take a nap in their bedroom. It’s dark and quiet and safe, unlike my own small, hot apartment where a week ago a tall, naked man was masturbating outside my window. I called the cops and sat on the couch holding a cast-iron skillet in my hand, ready to crack it over his head if he came in the door, but he was gone by the time the police got there. A few other women had complained of seeing him, they said, but he hadn’t hurt anyone yet. That type was often harmless, they assured me.
It feels so delicious to lie beneath clean, cool sheets and crocheted blankets and to fall asleep slowly where no one can break in, rip me off, look with a stranger’s eyes into my face and see only that I am not like them.
The way it will always be for him.
When I wake, the sun is just beginning to set, the clouds pink and baby blue, like one of my grandmother’s afghans.
“Put on your suit,” she says. “I’ll show you the pool we got here. You’ll never want to leave.”
Florida dusk, whirring, chirring, mellow. Gram walks slowly but steadily, her legs strong under heavy hips. In the bathhouse everything is new, pink rubber, modern and clean, with ramps and handholds all around. Gram wades right in and lets her heavy body go with a sigh.
I lower myself into the overheated pool. All around me the veterans approach in rubber slippers. They remove terry wraps and gently sink into the forgiving water. Here, no one hides their hanging breasts and bellies, their wrinkled arms like an extra set of water wings. They are past all that; they are the survivors. They can count on their lined fingers the friends lying in hospital beds or under snow-covered stones in New York cemeteries. It’s I who feels embarrassed by my firm, young body. I’m almost envious of their lack of self-consciousness. They know where they belong, all together here.
Over dinner — noodle-bake and salad, two kinds of vegetables, and cookies — Gram gloats. “How’d you like that pool? Nice, huh? I could tell you liked it. Why don’t you invite one of your friends up from the city? Maybe they’d like to get away for the weekend, too.”
“A friend, really? What about a Haitian friend?” I ask.
Gram’s mouth purses into a thousand tiny lines. “Don’t try and make a monkey out of me,” she says.
“I’m not, Gram. I really was thinking of a friend of mine. She’s got children and she’s pregnant. She might like to get out of the city.”
“Don’t you have any white friends?”
I look at her, the words to hit and cut and run burning in my throat. She knows I could use them, too. It’s from her I got this mouth that can soothe and slice in alternate breaths.
“If she’s got kids, she probably can’t get away,” Grandpop points out reasonably.
“Well, she could bring her kids, then. I’d take all the responsibility.” My tone is innocent, but I know what I’m doing; every word is a challenge.
“Are you going to take responsibility for all of our neighbors, too?” Gram looks as if she could stab me with the butter knife.
“See, honey, we could get thrown out if we ever did something like that. Brought one of them into the pool. The neighbors wouldn’t go for it,” Grandpop explains. Ashamed, he adds, “It’s not us. It’s the neighbors. We all bought shares, see? We have to play by community rules.”
“What are you living in, a concentration camp? Only Jews allowed? Jewish racists?”
Gram’s face is red. “It’s like I explained to you. People naturally want to live with their own kind,” she says furiously. “You don’t belong there with them anyhow. Your own people are the ones you never think about. It’s always the Haitians or the Cubans — the black people. Always others. You want injustice? Ask him about when the Bolsheviks rode into the village and killed every Jewish man that was there, and the only way he escaped was by hiding under his mother’s skirts. Ask!”
“That’s got nothing to do with this! When are you going to open your eyes?”
“Eyes? I lived in New York City my whole life. I’ve got eyes, sure. I see how people live like animals, knock you over the head for your last dollar. And it’s not my fault neither. I didn’t make this thing up, and neither did you.”
“So who’s going to fix it then, if it’s not going to be you and it’s not going to be me?”
“Fix it? Honey, we lived in it. That’s enough. Let someone else fix it.”
“I can’t do that,” I say, anger and defeat climbing up my throat and into my eyes. I want to stay mad at her, but I know now what it is to be tired, to give up. Grandpop is looking helplessly from one of us to the other, his blue eyes moist and blinking rapidly. What did he ever do but work in a deli all his life, go to synagogue and wrap himself in a prayer shawl on the holidays, love his grandchildren? What did he ever do but buy shares in a condo where there was a tacit agreement: we don’t want them black people here, none of them. We worked hard all our lives; look how nice and clean this place is, no crime. Let them stick with their own.
“You would love Adrienne if you met her,” I say. “She’s taught me so much. She’s my best friend out here.”
Gram looks at me and purses her lips. “So? She’s your best friend and we’re your family. Which lasts longer?”
I see that she will always have to have the last word on this subject — and that she knows I am right and is ashamed of herself. Ashamed of being too afraid to stand up to her neighbors, or to her own fears. And at the same time believing in those fears, believing she has a right to them because hasn’t she been through enough already? Haven’t we all?
It’s as simple as the plate-glass door that leads outside. Simple enough to crack your head against because you never notice it in time.
“Tell me about the Cossacks,” I say.
Gram lets out a heavy sigh of triumph.
“It was the Bolsheviks,” Grandpop says, stirring his coffee. “The Cossacks is a whole other story. That’s your other grandfather — his father had to run from the Czar’s army. You must have got the stories mixed. Politics is like that. Sometimes they’re coming to get you from the left, sometimes from the right. It don’t make too much difference in the end.”
“So what happened?” I ask.
“My father, may he rest in peace, was a very religious man. And the day my brother came to warn him that the Bolsheviks were on the way happened to be the Sabbath. So of course he wouldn’t go. My brother argued with him for a while, and then he left for the next village to warn the Jews there. Some of my other brothers left, and some of them stayed behind with my father. Of course my mother stayed, and because I was just a little boy, the youngest, I stayed too.”
He falls silent.
“And?” I prod.
“I never told you this before?”
“Not really. Not what really happened.”
“Seems like I did. Well, then the Bolsheviks came riding in on their horses. They forced all the men into the schoolyard, and then they asked for a certain sum of money to ransom them.”
“How could you come up with the money?”
“Oh, every family had maybe a little bit stored under the floorboards, or a gold watch or something. And they handed it all over.” He pauses. “It was sundown. The men were saying their prayers. But they shot them anyway.”
“So anyway, you know the rest,” he says in his gravelly voice, looking ten years older. “My mother and my sister and me, it took us two years of walking through Europe before we could even get on the boat to come here.”
“And when they did come,” Gram finishes, “there wasn’t any free English classes or nothing to help them. They just had to work, that’s all.”
“It turned out OK,” Grandpop says. “It turned out.”
The phone rings and Gram answers it. “Hello? Yes, she’s here.” The phone is pointed toward me along with a fierce look.
“Hello? ’Allo, Jean-Luc? I’ll take this in the other room,” I say, moving toward their bedroom.
“Sure. Sid, help me get this table set up for bridge.”
I pick up the receiver in their bedroom and ask, “Jean-Luc, what is it?”
“I just needed to hear the sound of your voice.” He sighs, and in my mind’s eye I see him passing his hand over his pretty eyelashes. “Some stupid arguments in the meeting. There are some who say we will fail. They have no courage, no faith. Bernard took care of it.”
“Oh.” I don’t ask.
“Are you having a good time with your grandparents?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Why not? You must listen and try to understand the old people. They have seen more of life than you.”
“Yes? It’s difficult with old people.”
“But you must still try to understand them because they are your family. And when you need something they will try to give it to you.”
His voice, sweet and rich. I could drink it, and it would make me strong. I could wrap myself in it and float up to some star. I don’t want to sleep alone tonight.
“They can’t give me what I need,” I explain in his language.
“No? You must love them anyway. But I think you still cry for that little boy, n’est-ce pas?”
“Someday I’ll give you a baby of your own to cry for. Would you like that?”
“Jean-Luc, I’m at my grandparents. Don’t.”
“D’accord. I understand. Greet your grandparents for me. Tell them I will meet them in person someday. Will they like that?”
I almost say, sure, like a hole in the head, but stop myself because this could be a test, not only of my grandparents, but of me. And because he has his pride, and I, in my way, have mine.
“Oh, yes,” I lie.
After I hang up I sit there on the edge of the wide double bed for a moment, staring at my image in the mirror. In the dim light, my red hair frizzed about my cheeks, I look like a 1920s flapper, the way Gram once did. So quickly it went for her — marriage at seventeen, babies, kitchens, fat hips, a life. I once asked her what she dreamed about and was surprised when she answered, “My mother. I still have dreams sometimes that she’s mad at me, even though she died over twenty years ago. Isn’t that funny?”
Voices raised in greeting reach me from the other room: the bridge party. Soon the gentle slap-slap of the cards, the muttered curses and insults and chortles of triumph bring back my childhood. My brother and sister and cousins and I would be sacked out in sleeping bags on the floor while the grown-ups played cards. The soft curl of cigarette smoke, the refrigerator door swinging open and the light going on as someone got another beer, the “Hah! I trumped him” and “Idiot, I’ll get you yet” were lullabies to me, sounds of peace. This was how my father’s family played — this was their passion, the angry joy they took in each other as they squinted in fierce concentration at their cards. The game was everything and nothing; it was the emptiness at the center where love was too blinding to look at head-on.
Once I went to the horse races with Gram, back when she still dyed her hair blond and piled it in a beehive and wore turquoise eye shadow. She lived in New York then. She laughed and took my arm like a young girl. I was sixteen, and I consented to bet only two dollars of my hard-earned baby-sitting money. When my horse lost I wouldn’t bet any more. She laughed and laughed. “Whooo-hoo, big spender! That you certainly didn’t get from me!” Yet she eyed my full breasts and hips with pride; they came from her. She could claim me.
I have never been a gambler, except with my emotions. I wish I could always hedge my bets, but I can’t. I cared about Louis, the short time that I had him, but now I’ll never see him again. I care about Jean-Luc, yet he drives around Miami from meeting to meeting with crazy political people, carrying guns, walking into danger like it was a nightclub full of his best friends. I care about Gram and Grandpop, locked in a world like a big aquarium stocked with only one kind of fish, noses pressed against the glass.
Their small world of deli sandwiches and Coke poured into a glass and pinochle and poker and the same kind of people was what my parents hoped to escape when they moved us out to a freezing New England suburb. It was full of WASPs who had heard of Jews only in their Sunday School classes and thought we were all swarthy and wore sandals and robes and lived in the Holy Land. My parents wanted a bigger life for us than Brooklyn and bigotry.
And yet, while my grandparents’ world is small, it’s salty and it tastes good. It has whitefish and lox, big breasts are allowed, flesh overflows, and there are curses and love songs unheard in the suburbs. Maybe that’s why I needed to visit now.
In the living room the other couple, old neighbors from Queens, are already settled over the cut-glass bowls of peanuts and pretzels, intent on the kings and queens in their hands. They stop their play a minute to exclaim over me.
“Darling! Come here and give me a kiss.”
“D’you remember me? Oh! How nice and slim she got — like a model!”
“So how is it with you, darling? We hear from your Grammy that you’re doing great things, teaching English to the refugees.”
With bitter pride, Gram puts her arm around my waist and half complains, half brags, “My granddaughter, she wants to carry the world on her shoulders.”