S I GNS of L I F E
SIG N S of L IFE stor ies by
N or m an Wa k sl er
Bl ack L aw rence Press Ne w York
Black Lawrence Press www.blacklawrencepress.com
Copyright © 2008 Norman Waksler All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher: Black Lawrence Press 8405 Bay Parkway C8 Brooklyn, N.Y. 11214 U.S.A. “Lewis Leaves the Library” first published in Bibliophilos. “Ruthie” first published in The Chaffin Journal. Published 2008 by Black Lawrence Press, a division of Dzanc Books. Book design by Steven Seighman First edition 2008 ISBN: 978-0-9815899-2-3 Printed in the United States
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is entirely coincidental.
1. Ruthie 21. Snerk 37. Hug hâ€™s Tattoo 61. L e w is L eaves the Libr ar y 71. W hat Stu Kne w 93. Death by Water
Ru t hie
REALLY, IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN one of those forgivable serio-
comic love affairs, with the two women sharing amusement at my infatuation, but it turned out there was too much at stake, and, of course, in the traditional manner of blinkered and desperate lovers, I carried things to their unfortunate logical conclusion. But not to be coy about this, I was only seven, and the woman I loved was thirty-two, so it was unlikely to have worked out very well in any case. We’re talking here the late ‘40s, placid period of hope and renewal before the next unforeseen military action, in a placid middle-class neighborhood of what has always seemed to me, no doubt inaccurately, the placid city of Providence, R.I. As I see my street now, it’s invariably in sunlight, except for two or three hurricanes where chunks of roof flash past my window, though we must’ve experienced weather between those two extremes. I see a shallow rising hill, an incline so slight from bottom to top that it hardly told on a pair of seven-year-old legs, houses a mixture of saltboxes, mock Tudors, Capes and bungalows, all of which have absolutely fresh clapboards, bricks or shingles, and are embraced or restrained by arms of grass in postcard green. And there I am on that particular day, in the long yard at the side of our own upgraded bungalow, playing one of those intense and personal children’s games, this involving contingents of different colored stones, while my mother deadheaded her white roses, perpetually keeping one eye on me as if I’d suddenly make a break for it, climb the chain link fence dividing our property from the sidewalk, and fling myself into the dangerous outside world.
Though who could blame her? She’d already lost a son to an encounter with the world, small child inadvertently on the street and runaway automobile a fatal combination. So I was her second chance, adopted out of a Providence orphanage after two years in another part of the state with the unwed biological mother I didn’t recall. Which presumably made my mother, my adoptive mother, my second chance. Then into this placid scene came Ruthie. I looked up from my game and there on the other side of the fence was a tall woman in a loose white summer dress. When you’re about three foot eight, every adult is tall, but not every one is beautiful with auburn hair in shining waves, green eyes, a perfectly proportioned face, golden arms and a piercing smile aimed at me so specifically that I immediately fell in love. Really. In love, with the same sudden ache through the chest and drop of the stomach, same sense of the armature of my existence wrenched into a new configuration that has marked every time I have fallen love since, teen-ager, college man, mid-thirties, middle-age. Though I suppose it could be claimed that this first experience shaped all the experiences that followed. “What a beautiful child,” said the woman to my mother. Almost obnoxiously true at the time, if nothing that lasted into adulthood — small for my age, delicate bones, dark curly hair, dimpled chin, gumdrop nose. “What’s his name?” “Daniel,” said my mother who had immediately left her roses and come to stand beside me. Bosomy, plump, with a round sweet face, she was short in comparison to the woman, and had to tilt her head back to speak to her. ”I’m Sarah Margolis.” “I’m Ruthie, Ruth Goldstein. My parents live at 57. Perhaps you know them, the Schwartzes? I’m staying in their house for the summer while they’re away.” “Of course. Irving and Alma. They’re active in the temple, too. It’s very nice to meet you.” “And nice to meet you. So, Daniel, what game are you playing?” She had a high, lilting voice that flowed right through me to whichever mechanism needed to be primed so that I
would tell her everything I could about the relations between the mostly gray stones, the largely white stones and the stones with a reddish tinge. After a moderate presentation of which my mother said, “I think that’s enough, Daniel. I’m sure Mrs. Goldstein doesn’t need to know all that about your game.” Ruthie didn’t disagree, but neither did she say anything which would suggest humorous adult complicity at the foolishness of small boys. What she did say was, “He’s very smart,” and smiled at me again so that my little heart lurched. “Yes, he is,” said my mother. Although an almost compulsively goodhearted woman, my mother was politely standoffish toward strangers because her meaningful world consisted of family and long time friends of the family, with members of the Jewish community welcomed in at the fringes. However, Ruthie’s bonafides made it impossible for my mother to remain merely correct, especially when her son was also being genuinely and enthusiastically complimented. “And he’s a good boy too. With a good heart.” Then the two women chatted about Ruthie’s parents and their summer place in Maine and what a good treasurer Mrs. Schwartz was for the women’s organization at the temple. And then Ruthie said good-bye. “I’ll see you again soon, Daniel.” “Good-bye, Mrs. Goldstein.” “Oh please, call me Ruthie. If you don’t mind,” she added to my mother. Before my mother could interpose the ‘no’ that represented her general demand for extreme politeness toward adults, I said it. “Ruthie.” An act of daring, as if I were a fairy tale character stealing the magic cup with its stern guardian slumbering just a foot away. The rest of the day I replicated the experience of lovestruck individuals throughout the history of our species, princes and poets and never known cavepeople, afloat between active day-dream and compulsive memory, seeing mostly that white dress, that wavy hair, the green eyes, that smile, heard the high lilting voice. “He’s very smart.” “What game are you
playing, Daniel?” “What a beautiful child.” “Oh please, call me Ruthie.” Asked myself, when will I see her again? How soon can I see her again? Though I did wake up for a moment and notice myself in the living room theoretically looking through the funnies in the evening paper, before my father, home from work, took it over. He was in the bedroom taking off his tie and jacket, talking to my mother, and they were having one of those conversations I wasn’t supposed to hear, and if I did, I wasn’t supposed to understand. My mother, very low. “Ruthie Goldstein. The Schwartz’s daughter.” My father. “The one who’s divorced?” “Poor woman. A husband like that. How could a man be that way with such a beautiful wife?” “She’s beautiful?” “Like a dream. And ver y sweet. She was ver y nice to Daniel.” I had never felt a pleasure like that of hearing Ruthie’s beauty praised by my mother, a strange and almost impersonally joyous pride. Still, equally significant was the “very sweet, very nice”. One of my mother’s constantly repeated maxims was that beauty is only skin deep; if in her judgement Ruthie was also “sweet” and “nice” then essentially she legitimized my love. (Question. How did I know I was in love? Or. How do you know you’re in love if it’s the first time you’ve been? Answer, of sorts. Perhaps we’re born “in love”, and every case thereafter is merely a recognizable reactivation of this first feeling.) On the other hand, I wasn’t entirely sure of all that being divorced implied; it was rather more uncommon in 1948 and among Jews rarely heard of at all. I knew it involved a marital split of some sort, but now from the context I gathered that it was something bad that happened to women when they had bad husbands, and understanding that something bad had happened to my Ruthie, I wanted to rush out at once and comfort her. There was no way I could make the intellectual leap which would tell me that if this bad thing hadn’t happened, I would never have seen her.
Next morning I woke up feeling that something wonderful was going to happen, and it took only seconds for the wonderful thing to establish itself as Ruthie. Would I see her that day? When would she come? How soon? Immediately after breakfast, instead of reading in my room as I usually did while my mother vacuumed and cleaned downstairs, I asked if I could play in the yard. “But promise you won’t go outside the fence, dear.” “I promise.” As I’d promised day in day out to my mother’s combination of anxiety and determination not to keep me from having as normal a childhood as she could live with. She didn’t seem to suspect my motive for this change of routine, and I didn’t say anything to enlighten her, although usually, like any little kid, my enthusiasms were completely open, “Look at this book I got at the library.” “The class is going to the zoo.” “When’s Kenny ( my cousin ) coming? I can’t wait.” This was different The feeling was so large and glorious that it lay beyond enthusiasm, and I was afraid if my mother knew how anxious I was to see Ruthie, she’d attack it with her peculiar cool humor, definable now as ironic realism. My parents, and my mother in particular, always seemed suspicious of extravagant feelings, as if they represented an abnormality, a kind of hysteria or even dishonesty. My third repetition of “I can’t wait to see Kenny,” would earn a comment like, “Of course you can wait to see him. You’re waiting now, aren’t you?” Once in the yard I didn’t play of course, I waited, but the morning expanded into ever longer segments, each fifteen minutes without Ruthie twice as long as the fifteen minutes before. Each figure on our quiet street Ruthie for an instant before turning into Mr. That, Mrs. This, the mailman, and even, embarrassingly, the old collie that ran free up and down the shallow hill. I didn’t want to go inside for lunch, went inside for lunch, gobbled it, then back out into the yard, where I waited weeks, months, years, knowing that if the hour at which Ruthie had appeared yesterday passed without her appearing today, my entire life would be over. I stared so hard
at the black number 3 on my white-faced wrist watch that it began to change into something resembling a cartoon hand with a finger pointing toward — nothing. But then she was there. This time wearing a dress of light blue so that from the ground, looking up at her on the other side of the fence, she appeared almost to stretch to and blend with the afternoon sky. She leaned over the silver bar, smiled that penetrating smile, “Hello again, Daniel. How are you today?” “Fine thank you, Ruthie. And how are you?” The politeness formula so carefully inculcated by my mother a kind of lid holding down the wild joy that wanted to gush right out of me. After that we chatted, or rather Ruthie asked questions about my life and I rattled on knowing that nothing could please her more than to hear my squeaky voice telling her about first grade, the kids I knew, my cousins, the chapter books I was reading, the two week vacation by the ocean later in the summer. At some point my mother appeared, apologizing as she came for me being a chatterbox. “Not at all,” said Ruthie, “He’s a very articulate little boy.” “What does articulate mean?” I asked. “Expressing yourself clearly and effectively,” said Ruthie. “Well he does express himself,” said my mother intent on taking the compliment out of the definition lest I get a swelled head. Too late; from then on I wore the idea of my articulateness like a knight wears his lady’s scarf, and when it was my turn to speak, I strove after clarity and effectiveness as though they were the task set me to win her. But now the two women talked, each on their own side of the chain links, and I watched Ruthie. Drinking in beauty: one of your more common clichés. Yet in all my years since then of encounters with painting and sculpture and flowers and women comparable to Ruthie, I’ve never come across a more apt phrase to describe how beauty relieves the dry-
ness inside you, refreshes your arid spirit. Meanwhile, though Ruthie as she talked looked at my mother, I knew she was aware of me watching her, and the set of her shoulders, the slight tilt of her head in my direction told me it pleased her. Two weeks of these visits. Two weeks of joy and anticipation when I woke up; yearning, anxiety: presence. Ruthie never failed me, sometimes appearing much earlier than I expected, never later. I wondered where she was the rest of the time, why she didn’t just come and spend all her time with me, what could be more important than our being together, what adult things she had to do that prevented her, because I knew she must’ve wanted to be with me as much as I wanted to be with her. Just as I knew that though she chatted with my mother, she really came to see me, talk with me, spend time with me. “You like Ruthie, don’t you, Daniel?” My mother’s question, really a statement looking for confirmation, suggested that on the other hand she saw me as peripheral to Ruthie’s visits, and that she’d mistakenly gotten the idea that Ruthie was there for her, as a new friend, someone to chat with during the day. That Ruthie merely tolerated me, the little chatterbox. “She nice. And she’s pretty.” My mother laughed. “She is. Both. So listen, darling, I have to go to the hairdresser’s. Instead of coming with me, would you mind if Ruthie babysat for you?” I shook my head no. Never mind how much I hated the hairdresser’s with its chemical smell, the sickening perfume of the women who made a false fuss over me then ignored me the rest of the time, the rows of captive ladies in their ugly green plastic capes under the silver helmets, the endless wait while my mother progressed through the successive steps to hair beautification, the boring magazines full of dresses and hair styles. Never mind how happy I’d be to avoid all that, and never mind articulateness. I was afraid to speak because I was afraid to reveal how overjoyed I was at the idea that, in another eternal lovers cliché, Ruthie and I would be alone at last.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this,” said my mother an hour or so later to Ruthie. “It’s my pleasure,” said Ruthie. “You be a good boy now, Daniel. Do everything that Ruthie tells you.” “I will.” She left, and Ruthie and I grinned at one another. Today she was wearing a pale yellow dress with big white buttons up the front and sandal-like shoes that left her golden toes bare. “What would you like to do, Daniel?” “We could read.” “Well I like to read. And I haven’t read any children’s books since I was a kid, so that will be fun.” I ran upstairs and brought down a stack of books. Then from my parents’ stodgy living room with the maroon oriental, mahogany end tables, chunky table lamps, fruit and flowers oil painting, armchairs covered in flowered fabric, I went to a previously only imagined enchanted land sitting on the matching floral couch next to Ruthie, against Ruthie, pressed against Ruthie really. The books that we read across our laps, her arm around my shoulder. Taller than my mother, she was considerably harder as well, but more flexible, so that I was practically able to mold to her side in such a way that she curved around and received my little boy’s body as if we were two large pieces of a simple jig-saw puzzle joined to show the completed picture. She smelled different from my mother, too. My mother’s smell was soapy clean; Ruthie smelled like May, when the broom bush in our yard gave off its light high fragrance for a few weeks before the little golden petals dried and fell off. And she read differently. My mother had a sweet, gentle, questioning way of reading as if knowing that what we read was invented, she didn’t quite trust it. Whereas Ruthie read emphatically, her high lilting voice dramatic and certain, making each little story a complete unquestionable universe. When she suggested something to eat or drink, I refused, unwilling to leave her side, and it was only on the verge of wetting myself that I hurried to the bathroom, did
what I had to and hurried back, Ruthie holding her arm up for me to slip back into place, which I did as naturally as a page turned falls onto its predecessor. Eventually I heard the front door unlock, and I jumped off the couch, ran to greet my mother, hugging her as if she’d been away for days. She was soft and smelled of the hairdresser’s shop. “What a nice hello,” she said, pressing me briefly against her, then disengaging. “Did you have fun? What did you do?” “ We read all my books. I read some and Ruthie read some.” “All your books? Well that was above and beyond the call of duty. I hope you weren’t too bored, Ruthie.” “No, no.” Ruthie now standing as babysitters did preparatory to leaving. “Daniel’s a delight. And when you don’t have children of your own — .” “Will you stay for a cup of coffee? I bought some pastries.” “That would be lovely.” If there’d been any gap before, now I definitely only thought about Ruthie — remembering her wonderful fragrance, her lilting voice, the curve of her side, the light weight of her arm around my shoulders, wondering not merely when I’d see her next, but when some similar miracle would allow us to be alone together again. At the same time I was entirely normal and affectionate with my parents, perhaps even more affectionate to my mother, as though the overspill of my emotions washed onto her. But she never glimpsed what I was thinking until I said, “Can Ruthie come to the ocean with us?” I’d come to dread the idea of late August when we’d leave Ruthie behind for an eternity of separation, and this was the simple and logical solution I’d arrived at. My mother, for whom to speak a simple no would’ve seemed rude and unkind even though the object of her refusal was elsewhere, said, “I’m sure that would be very nice, dear, but Ruthie wouldn’t want to come to the ocean with us. She’d be very bored.”
“But what if she did want to?” “Take my word for it, Daniel, a young woman like Ruthie has better things to do than spend two weeks doing nothing with us at the ocean.” “But then you’d have someone to talk to all the time,” I pointed out as clearly and effectively as I could. “You need to understand, dear, that there’s a big difference between chatting with someone for an hour or so every day, and being willing to spend twenty-four hours a day with them somewhere.” Given my particular angle on the subject, I naturally thought she was referring to Ruthie’s feelings, with whom my next chance to be alone arrived fairly soon in adult terms, though add the time sense of a seven-year-old to that of a lover longing to be with the beloved, and it was minimally two centuries. The three of us were together in the yard, Ruthie and my mother chatting while my mother fussed intermittently with her flowers, when Ruthie said, “It’s so hot. I feel like an ice cream. Do you want to walk up to the Spa and get a cone?” However, because she had sensitive teeth my mother never ate ice cream, or anything else extremely cold, nor was she especially enthusiastic about walks in the heat. “Well, perhaps Daniel and I could go up there. Daniel must like ice cream.” My mother hesitated. It was one thing for Ruthie to babysit me in our house, another for me to be taken off by her through the Oh-so-peaceful streets of Providence’s East Side, ending up on the corner of the fairly busy main drag, Hope Street. Easy for me now to imagine the fear that passed through her, and the horrible images she saw. Easy as well to imagine that though I tried to hide my excitement, my mother couldn’t escape seeing how much I wanted to be with Ruthie. So she could have made any set of excuses about my eating habits, the time of day, how too much activity I’d already had. Yet she said yes. Perhaps thinking that a sudden reluctance to trust me to her might have seemed strange to Ruthie, even offensive after previous confidence, unless she knew about
lost child Number 1. (Which it turned out she did; it was common knowledge in our section of the Jewish community, after all, and apparently Ruthie had kept close touch with her parents through the years.) “But you’ll have to let me treat,” said my mother. “Really, Sarah, it’s hardly necessary.” “I insist. Just let me get my purse.” And before we set off. “Now, be sure you hold Ruthie’s hand at all times, Daniel.” A way perhaps of conveying the converse to Ruthie: be sure to hold my son’s hand at all times. “I will,” I said. “Don’t worry, Sarah. I’ll take good care of him. We’ll be back in half an hour at the most.” Off we went holding hands. Once around the corner we swung arms, we skipped, Ruthie sang, not too well actually, “It Had To Be You.” “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake.” “Don’t Fence Me In.” We reached the spa, a dark and cool room up half a dozen steps, tiny round tables, wire backed chairs, a marble counter, mothers with children, older and younger kids on their own, three white aproned teen-age girls serving frappes, sodas, sundaes and cones, but there wasn’t a woman there as beautiful as Ruthie or another young boy as proud as I was. We started our cones ¬in the spa — plain vanilla for me, strawberry for Ruthie — finished on the way back, licking drips off the sides and from below our lips, which we turned into a contest to see who could stick their tongue the furthest down their chin, Ruthie’s, slender, flexible and strawberry pink, the decided winner. As soon as I’d crunched the last of my cone, I said, “Would you like to come on our vacation with us?” “When you go to the ocean? I’m afraid I couldn’t, Daniel. That’s your family vacation, and I’m not part of your family. I’m just an acquaintance, really. Except for you of course. We’re friends.” But I had another simple and logical solution, to both Ruthie’s and my mother’s reluctance. “You could be part of the family if we made you one. They made me part of the family when I wasn’t one.”
Ruthie knew exactly what I was referring to. “I think that might be different, Daniel. I don’t think anybody adopts thirty-two year old divorcees, especially when they already have parents.” “But I don’t want us to be apart.” Ruthie let go of my hand to stroke my hair. “Let’s not worry about that now. It’s more than a month away. Let’s just enjoy being together while we are.” That particular statement never satisfies a lover, generally induces a determination to turn the while permanent, and so my little logical brain soon reached the conclusion that if Ruthie couldn’t become part of my family, I should become part of hers. Or more precisely, that she and I should become a family, and I began to fantasize that things had been magically rearranged and Ruthie and I were living together, somewhere else. “Where do you live when you’re not living here?” I asked her one day. “Chicago.” “What’s Chicago like?” “Oh, Chicago’s wonderful. It’s huge and full of wonderful buildings and music and great art, the lake, Lincoln Park, a fantastic zoo, conservatories full of gorgeous flowers. Anything you want you can find in Chicago.” “Is it far? “Almost half way across the country.” Therefore we were living together in Chicago, a magical place of tall white buildings from each of which music issued, harmonizing perfectly so that the whole city floated on a wave of beautiful sound, lions roaring and elephants trumpeting now and again in the background, while Ruthie and I, because in a life totally different from the one I had now, lived at the very top of one of the tallest buildings, where from our window we could see an immense expanse of fairy tale spires and towers that thrust themselves out of fields of huge blooms in every possible color. “Is great art like the picture my parents have?” “Well in a way, and in a way not. The picture your parents have is very nice, but great art is wonderful, wonderful
paintings, wonderful sculpture, figures that are almost alive, colors that vibrate. Great art is full of emotion and grace and beauty. It shows people and places and things and colors in their, well, their truest and most vivid forms. Does that make sense to you, Daniel?” I said yes. I understood now that the fruits and flowers in our living room were O.K., but in our apartment at the top of the building in Chicago, we had pictures which emitted light as if they themselves were the source and the figures more or less danced and talked. In this way detail by detail I filled in our new home. I had my own room, naturally, and Ruthie had hers. But every night I left my bed and climbed in next to her, inhaling her fragrance as she put her arm around me until I went to sleep. Sometimes fantasies are forced out by questions (“What would you do if you could do anything — ?), sometimes they slip out obliquely, (“Wouldn’t it be great if people could — ?). I on the other hand was desperately careful not to let a single drop of this fantasy show. If by now my mother understood that I was quite taken with Ruthie, she didn’t still didn’t suspect the oceanic extent of my feelings. But I knew very well how she would react if she knew that in imagination I had exchanged her for Ruthie. At the same time, I didn’t feel guilty, because really this had nothing to do with my mother. I didn’t think less of her, I wasn’t really imagining abandoning her, I was merely imagining another life, one more in tune with my truest and most vivid feelings. This fantasy went abruptly aground on a conversation which took place one — up to that moment — lovely afternoon at our kitchen table, the two women drinking coffee, the three of us eating apple strudel. My mother. “When are your parents coming back?” Ruthie. “Some time before Labor Day, I expect.” “So what will you do then?” “It’s back to Chicago. I’ve got a job waiting for me. Secretary in one of the University departments. Physics.” “Ah. We go away the last two weeks of August. I hope we’ll get to see you before you go.”
“I do too. But It really depends.” “Well, we’ll certainly miss seeing you, won’t we, Daniel?” I couldn’t speak. I’d never considered that Ruthie could just go away. My mother took my silence at least for rudeness, possibly even a sign that I didn’t care. “Daniel, I asked you a question. We’ll miss seeing Ruthie, won’t we?” Still nothing from me as I descended into a kind of black iron pot with the lid over it. “It’s all right,” said Ruthie equably. “I know how Daniel feels. And I feel the same way.” Daylight again. Because I knew this had to be nothing less than a private signal: she was saying that she didn’t want us to be separated any more than I did, and her calmness was intended to let me know that I didn’t have to worry, when the time came, she’d arrange everything so we wouldn’t be. “It’s never all right to hurt someone’s feelings,” said my mother. “You don’t want Ruthie to think you won’t miss her, do you?” “No.” “Well.” “I’ll miss you,” I said almost cheerfully. Confidently I waited through the next two weeks for her to tell me exactly how she was going to work things out. We were alone together twice, once when she babysat me again, once when she played ball with me in the yard, the loose white summer dress sailing about her calves as she ran after my miss-throws while my mother did some supper cooking inside. With every sentence she began I expected her to tell me that she’d arranged to acquire me from my parents, or, since my parents might prove unwilling to give me up, that she had a plan, infallible, but unguessable on my part, which would permit her to simply take me back with her to Chicago. But every sentence was about something else. Yet I felt a change in her mood, she was kind, she laughed, but her silences were heavy, which could have been attributed to the approaching moment of return to obligations, return to the scene of her ruined marriage, to a job not
exactly a test of her intellectual abilities, to a new and uncertain life in her thirties; to the end of the kind of peace which comes when you step out of time for a summer, but which I attributed to the fact that we could be separated if we didn’t act. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t say anything, though I finally decided that she didn’t want to reveal her plan until the last moment, perhaps because the details might change, or perhaps because she was afraid I might give it away, unaware, as well as she knew me, of my ability to keep a secret and that I’d have died before letting anything slip. The Tuesday before the Saturday on which we were to leave for the ocean, Ruthie and I were alone for just a few minutes, but enough for her to reveal the plan. Still nothing, and I began to panic, because my usually expanded sense of time that made four days in the future as good as four weeks had suddenly contracted so that Saturday was any minute, the next minute. What if she hadn’t been able to work out a plan? It was hard to believe, since Ruthie, the most wonderful person in the world, should be able to do practically anything. But just suppose for a minute that she was stuck for some adult reason that I couldn’t see in detail, something to do with the rights of parents or the way adults were supposed to act toward children who weren’t theirs. Suppose that. I could imagine how upset she must be, how she must be trying to figure out a way, how afraid she must be of disappointing and losing me while at the same time being unwilling to say anything yet, thinking that while there was time left, there must be possibilities, but like me watching the days drop away, and getting more and more worried. So I made a plan. The next morning after breakfast, I retreated as usual to my room, supposedly to read while my mother cleaned and vacuumed. Instead I took my little gold and black plaid suitcase, packed some underwear and socks, another pair of pants and a shirt, a few of my favorite books, pressed the brass latches into their slots with a satisfying double click.
I printed a note in black crayon on a sheet of cream toned coloring paper. “ I WENT TO NEW YORK. GOOD-BYE. DANIEL. ” Put it on the bureau where my mother would be sure to see it. Then, without a trickle of regret at leaving this neat dormered bedroom where I’d spent the majority of my young life sleeping and reading and playing, I snuck down the back stairs under cover of the sound of the vacuum, out the back door which closed and locked quietly behind me, along the driveway and onto the sidewalk. Magically there was no-one around at this moment, no jolly neighbors to ask where I was going with a suitcase at 9:30 in the morning. Only the old collie coming up the street on the opposite side as I went down toward Ruthie’s house, travelers going in opposite directions as I thought of it. Like all adventurers who have finally decided on their actions and taken things into their own hands, I was perfectly calm in a focused and brilliant way. Brilliant in the sense that everything had sharp outlines and seemed to shine and be absolutely clean. Every brick was a richer red than ever before, every white clapboard was pure as vanilla ice cream, the flourishing crowns of the maples and elms and the lawns around the houses rapturously green. Two minutes to the Schwartz’s house, a brick-front mock Tudor whose multi-paneled front door seemed enormous and mysterious and exciting as the entrance to a magic castle. I rang the doorbell. The door opened neither slow nor fast, and there was Ruthie in the doorway like a painting in a frame, her auburn hair waving down onto the shoulders of her sky blue dress. And what must I have looked like to her, three feet eight or so, curly hair, big eyes, thin frame, short pants, tee shirt and suitcase on her doorstep? It must have been appealing as well as surprising, because Ruthie broke out in a wonderful, a beautiful smile. “Daniel!” she said, with the kind of pleasure, even delight, of which nothing could be more gratifying from the beloved to the lover.
That was before she took in the significance of my suitcase and repeated, “Daniel!” in a considerably different tone, alarm I think captures it best. “What have you done?” “I ran away. Now we can be together. I wrote a note. I said I went to New York. We can leave right away and go to Chicago and they won’t know where to look for us.” “Oh, Daniel. Daniel. My God. Your mother will be frantic. Come on. We’ve got to take you back right now.” “I don’t want to go back. I want to go with you. I want you to be my mother.” “I can’t be your mother, Daniel. Your mother is your mother.” “She’s not my real mother.” “You shouldn’t say that, Daniel. Your mother loves you. She chose you. You couldn’t ask for a better mother than she is.” “But I love you.” And then, seeing how thing were shaping up, I began to cry. “I love you. Don’t you love me?” Ruthie knelt down in the doorway and her long arms went around me, pulled me against her chest, my nose touching her neck so that I inhaled her May fragrance while her soft hair covered my cheek. “Of course, I love you, Daniel.” “Then why can’t we be together?” I already knew that I had failed, that this was not going to end up as I had planned, so that my question wasn’t aimed as much at the circumstances as to the universe at large. Ruthie answered for the universe. “Because things just don’t work that way. Love is wonderful, and when we love someone it feels like everything. But life is much bigger and much more complicated and much more demanding than you can live based on a single feeling no matter how big it is. — Oh. Listen to me. I’m talking through my hat. How could you understand that.” She pulled back from me and I saw that she had tears on her cheeks too. “You know you have to go back right now, don’t you?” I nodded.
“O.K. But you need to know that even if we’re apart we can always have our love for one another in our hearts. I’ll have mine for you and you’ll have yours for me, and we can always think of each other as somebody we’ve loved dearly. O.K., Daniel?” I nodded again, though frankly even at that intense moment I didn’t think this was anywhere near as good as actually being with one another. “O.K. Now, here.” She produced a little blue hanky from a pocket, wiped my cheeks and eyes with it, then her own. She took my hand, picked up my suitcase, and we walked back up the street to my house. I hadn’t in any way calculated on this return or what it might mean, my act had been meant to be absolute. As the sequel to and consequences of what I’d done began to loom, the red bricks, white clapboards, green lawns gloomed over considerably in my dread at facing my mother. Who could not have been more surprised to answer the door and see me, Ruthie and the little plaid suitcase. She obviously hadn’t missed me, hadn’t read my note. Not unreasonable when you think that no more than twelve or fourteen minutes could have elapsed since I snuck out the back door. “Daniel?” she said. “What’s this? Why aren’t you upstairs?” Before I could answer, or even consider an answer which might have been the least bit mitigating, Ruthie spoke up. “Because he’s going away,” she said, “Daniel decided he wanted to visit with me for a few days. He knows now that he should have asked you instead of going off on his own that way.” My mother took in the condition of my eyes, still teary, then Ruthie’s, not quite normal, and shook her head. I had expected her to be angry with me for going off, frightened at what might have happened, angry at me for frightening her. It had happened before, much more innocently. Instead she said coldly, “Daniel, go up to your room. Ruthie and I need to talk for a few minutes.” I wanted to catch Ruthie’s eye, as if, at this last moment, one look between us and she would change everything after all,
but my mother’s coldness was too powerful, I didn’t dare. Instead, I just went up to my room, which was unchanged — unmoved by my desertion, unmoved by my return. The cream toned sheet with the large black printing was still on the bureau. I picked it up and looked for a hiding place, realized there was nowhere my mother couldn’t penetrate. I thought of ripping it into small pieces and throwing it in the wastepaper basket, but my mother could put it back together if she wanted. Finally I took the parts of the note that said “ I WENT TO NEW YORK. GOOD-BYE. DANIEL.” and chewed each into a spit-ball, four vile little pills that tasted like burned plastic, and swallowed them one by one. I’d barely finished when my mother entered the room carrying the suitcase. She laid it on the bed. “Daniel,” she said. “You did a terrible thing.” I didn’t know which terrible thing she was talking about. How much had Ruthie told? Probably very little, but my mother must’ve guessed approximately everything, because her coldness was the response of an essentially good person betrayed and humiliated, but limited in her power to strike back or name her pain by the helplessness of the betrayer. How do you accuse a seven-yearold of having betrayed your love with another woman, (if you’re not crazy, of course . . .)? Which is why she concentrated on berating me for leaving the house without telling her, on the awful things that could have happened, on my irresponsibility and thoughtlessness. All stated in a voice free of both hysteria and love. I’d never seen her this way before. I knew she was right, I’d been all those things and worse, but she froze me and scared me. I wanted to say I was sorry, throw myself into her arms, have her forgive me while simultaneously comforting me for my failed attempt, but at the same time I resented her for her coldness and for making me feel so awful when I already felt awful. I also resented her because I had decided to believe that her few words with Ruthie could only mean that she’d sent Ruthie away and that’s why I would never see her again; rather than believing that Ruthie had never ever thought of taking me with her to Chicago.
Perhaps my mother was expecting, hoping that I’d do just that, throw myself into her arms with a weeping apology, but instead I stood silent, stubborn, cold myself, and after a while she left me there in the room and went downstairs again. In the evening my father returned home and learned, what? Enough for him to come upstairs and tell me, unambiguously as to my character, though ambiguously as to precisely which deed proved it, what a cruel, thoughtless, ungrateful little boy I had been, and how much my mother loved me, and that I’d better apologize. We went downstairs together into the kitchen where my mother, short, plump and stiff-backed in her flowered housedress, stood at the stove, stirring a lamb stew. With as much effort as if I were pushing a large dry rock out of my mouth with my tongue, I said, “I’m sorry.” She turned away from her stew and said, “Your apology is accepted, but don’t you ever dare do anything like that again.” “I won’t,” I promised. A few days later we went away for our two weeks, and our lives returned to normal. In that curious fashion of small children lost in the immensity of the summer sky over an endless beach, by the time we returned home I had forgotten Ruthie. For decades it was as if she had never existed. Yet the terrible and wonderful thing is that as I re-immerse myself in all this now, a man verging on old age, knowing I hurt my mother in the worst way I could have chosen and about as badly as a seven-year-old could innocently accomplish, my love for Ruthie and my longing to be with her are as sharp and desperate as if I’d just been sent to my room, and they tell me that if I could go back and rearrange those fourteen minutes, what I would do is have Ruthie say, “Daniel, of course I love you. Of course we can run away together.” And she would take me by the hand and we’d go off to that glorious and magical city of my imagination in that beautiful apartment full of living pictures where every night she’d put her arm around me and hold me until I fell asleep. And we’d live happily ever after.
In Signs of Life, Norman Waksler deftly weaves stories of change both brutal and subtle, encounters both urban and urbane. Covering life fr...
Published on Aug 29, 2008
In Signs of Life, Norman Waksler deftly weaves stories of change both brutal and subtle, encounters both urban and urbane. Covering life fr...