Commentary Magazine


Love in Bloom A Story

Now close to forty, Harris “Heshy” Bloom wanted to get married in the worst way. Meeting people was his first problem, after that came others. Too old for dating bars, he froze on ski weekends and still came up empty. Summers were a little better, but by the High Holy Days he had run out again and had to depend on friends to fix him up. This didn’t always work out either. On the phone he mumbled, partly for romance, the rest stalling. To get more authority he dialed Information, asking for nonexistent numbers. Waiting, he wondered what it was like to be a phone and filled himself with carbon particles. Black. Blackness. Why no message units? It could be worse. What if the receiver was left off the hook, with me humming, helpless. Worried, Heshy couldn’t stop biting his nails, but developed a grip for holding his cigarette to conceal it. Time he gave also to revising past estimates, checking current ones. By the middle of the afternoon he was exhausted. Lunches, he wolfed down a sandwich and tried to cut a few z’s in his swivel chair.

Modern science comes lately to confirm the truths of ancient wisdom. With Phyllis, Heshy finally hit on the easy way; get her pregnant. It turned out to be a snap, though the first time she’d made him stop so early that it almost didn’t pay. What’s more, she refused to stay over, though he offered to make breakfast himself. Nevertheless she got dressed, ate the last of the tuna, smoked a cigarette, and went home. Later she confessed she’d been on the pill all the time.

Even after she moved in with him, Heshy had trouble figuring out what she wanted. Why, for example, did she insist on keeping her old apartment? Let her do one or the other. Also she attached too much importance to her job as a production assistant for Howie Soda at Tandem Films, a local unit. Soda had her running her tail off for no money getting props and lining up production sites. In addition he let her read scripts, nodding absently when she gave her opinion of them. She was learning the business, she explained. Heshy agreed. The trouble was she wanted to swing for a couple of years more anyway, with no hangups about marriage.

Terrific, but where did that leave Heshy? A scriptwriter for a commercial film house, he had earlier taught in a junior high school, but left for more money and better conditions, really because he knew it was only a question of time before some gidge accused him of doing dirty things to her in the supply room. Even if he got off there would always be a doubt. In the film business it was true he could no longer call himself a professional man, but he had known that was to be his fate ever since he had thrown up while taking the law aptitude boards. Here, at least, he could meet actresses, models, God knows who.

In the meantime, one after the other, all of his friends got married. Only Charley, the cocksman, remained, along with Joel “Uncle” Cravitz, who for the last six years on and off had been going with a girl with two kids, unable to bring himself to marry her or even bring her home for a Seder. Why not, Heshy couldn’t figure. What was the difference? Joel paid most of the bills anyway and on top of that ate his heart out when the kids went to visit their father on the weekends.

Now, having put in nearly three years with Phyllis himself, Heshy longed to come home to find the laundry done, the dishes put away. He wanted to sit down to a meal.

In quiet moments, Heshy knew what his chances for this kind of life were, with Phyllis anyhow. But against breaking off was the memory of the first time he had seen her. In a one-piece tank suit, no cap. She bathed like a European, her arms spread apart, one foot in front of the other, as though she were walking a crack in the sidewalk. As the waves came up to her body, she leaned forward to meet them, sitting gently on the water or putting both hands in front of her face as though she were coyly trying to stop someone from tickling her. When they grew too high, she gave in altogether, turning her back and kneeling and then rising with the swell. It was then that she had seen Heshy staring at her on the beach. She smiled and waved for him to come in with her.

Phyllis made dinner at his place a couple of times, but preferred cooking in her own apartment, where she knew where everything was. Also, since she was going to all that trouble anyway, she might as well have someone over. By the time they finished with the drinks it was at least 9:30, and Heshy wasn’t even hungry any more. At first she invited his friends, but she complained lately about each couple. This one didn’t like her, that one she didn’t like, a third was always busy, a fourth never said anything. All right, let it be her friends. No good either. He didn’t get along with them, so what was the point, after all? Who was left? In addition, they were no longer able to decide on what movies to go to, a sore point even in better days. Time, Heshy knew, was beginning to run out on him. All right, on Phyllis too, but twelve years slower.

No chance for deception any more, he had to sell her on having the baby. That almost ended it right there. Ordinarily persuasion was not in his line. His delivery came from the neighborhood he had grown up in. That meant a lot of intensity no matter what the conversation was about, with facts immediately transformed into convictions. Questions were another story. Those he swung like heavy objects or shot out like a rubber band off his fingers. In short, while enthusiastic, he didn’t so much talk as reveal things. With COMMENTARY. Opponents sprung up everywhere. Who wanted to give in?

This time, however, inspiration carried him beyond Phyllis’s objections. Marriage no longer had to be involved in having a child. That was an older generation imposing its morality. There was even a magazine spread—it could have been Life or Look—showing famous movie stars without husbands, all pregnant, including a group photo, like the annual shot of debutantes mounted on a spiral staircase.

If that was the case, why didn’t he have the baby?

A woman needed a child. It was the only way she could really prove she was no longer a slave to the conventions of motherhood.

Still, Heshy didn’t get a firm yes until he pointed out how much misery it would bring her father.

Nevertheless, two months after Heshy had at last brought home a positive lab report, having spent at least thirty dollars in false alarms, Phyllis decided they needed to go through the legal formalities in order to take advantage of her Blue Cross-Blue Shield benefits. His friends could come to the ceremony, if not the reception following, at which each setting cost her father more than Heshy earned in a day’s work. When some of his relatives were also crossed off, Heshy objected more strongly, but a look from her ended the discussion. He had already made promises regarding the child, most important the name. If a boy, Harris Bloom, Jr. With a name like Bloom, he told her, it wouldn’t help. That was just the point. They had to show flexibility. Being stiff-necked brought only an escalation of tensions. If they weren’t prepared to compromise, why should anyone else?

Who had offered?

Heshy countered by suggesting that if they had a girl they could call her Phyllis Bloom, Jr. Always the jokester. He didn’t really want a child, did he, Phyllis demanded, climbing onto the sink and threatening, even now, to jump if he couldn’t be serious about his commitment to the life they had created. Over names, he wasn’t prepared to argue. That wasn’t enough, there were other conditions, among them that the child had to respect their rights too. Good enough, but would the kid agree? That was up to them. Most important was setting up reasonable rules for behavior and sticking to them, like going to bed at a certain time or what to serve at mealtime. Fine. Phyllis could buy Crunchy Granola till it ran out of her ass. That was another thing. If this was going to be an authentic experience, he would have to do his share of the shopping, as well as other things. Otherwise they would just be going through the motions. She had, she told him, no intention of taking his ego trip.

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With Phyllis by this time only four months away, Heshy begged her to slow down. Soda would have to get someone else eventually, if only for the time she was in the hospital. So why not now? Later on, Heshy hoped, she would nurse the baby. Phyllis looked at him as though once more she were seeing the flypaper in his mother’s kitchen at the lake.

“It isn’t only the money we save,” he told her. “I swear it. It’s the warmth and love you transmit to the baby. Where else can he get such closeness?”

“Bullshit,” Phyllis told him. “You believe that crap you’ll believe anything. He’ll get plenty of closeness for nine months. That’s enough for a lifetime. After it’s born, it will get the same warmth from your body as it would from mine. And if it needs more, your mother is just waiting.” It was, he heard Phyllis explain on the telephone to one of her friends, the prenatal period that really counted. After that, reinforcement could come from any mother figure. That’s what Heshy was afraid of.

Still, in the delivery room, which he discovered cost extra, she cried out to the nurses, “I want my husband!” and squeezed his hand until they wheeled her away. A treasured moment. Afterwards, groggy, Phyllis seemed content for the first time. She agreed to name their son Noah Martin. A small infection requiring penicillin kept her in the hospital an extra week and prevented her from breast feeding in any case. The next week she was back at Tandem, with a ten-dollar-a-week raise that she insisted go toward hiring someone to come in during the day. Mrs. Snow. Efficient, she had come to them by way of two of Phyllis’s friends, each of whom claimed she was a jewel, though a little old for their children now. Heshy was relieved to see that her hearing was still sharp. She did have trouble with her feet and complained constantly about having to walk up the two flights to their apartment. Also she was not always on time in the morning. With Phyllis gone, it was Heshy who had to give Noah his breakfast, each feeding lasting well over an hour. Waiting for his son to bring up gas, Heshy urged him with his eyes to form a connection. The child remained unfocused. “Noah, forgive me,” he begged silently.

Sure that after a while Phyllis would stop fooling around, Heshy thought the mother felt the same way. He should have known better. Mrs. Roy was happy to meet her daughter downtown for lunch as often as Phyllis would let her—at least once a week anyway, sometimes more. It was Soda she came to think of as her son-in-law, especially after he insisted that somewhere she must have had formal voice training. She did admit, however, that she had always been conscious of her posture, even as a child. It was something that just seemed to make some children stand out. Some kind of inner pride, maybe. She didn’t know. People had always noticed it about her, and she tried as best she could to give Phyllis the same thing, though sometimes she guessed you couldn’t always tell. Did Soda know what a battle they had had to make Phyllis give up chewing gum? When it began to drizzle, Soda insisted Phyllis bring her home in a cab.

_____________

 

By the end of the year, Noah was moving like a leopard. Heshy tried to keep pace, bounding across the room, lifting his son high in the air. Then holding Noah tightly in his arms, he jumped with him, flying toward the ceiling together. A soft landing on the living-room convertible. Heshy looked for signs of disapproval from Phyllis. Busy checking the next day’s shooting schedule, she seldom looked up from mimeographed sheets. When she did, it was to stare deeply at some piece of furniture, as though somewhere within it lay the planet from which her ancestors had originally traveled to earth. What was she looking for, props? Life, she once told him, had no meaning except when shaped by the cinematographer’s eye. A fiyer oyf dir, he thought, and brought his arm up, fingers opening as though breaking from a basketball huddle. At the same time his lips formed Italian curses, dry sounds like sitting on leather.

“You’re disgusting,” she told him, “do you know that? You really are.”

“Disgusting? I’ll tell you what’s disgusting. That a child is growing up without his mother reading a story to him at night. That’s what’s disgusting. What are you waiting for? To take him to a screening?”

Phyllis turned on him. “You really resent my having a career, don’t you?”

“Only when it interferes with your son’s happiness and well-being.”

“Has he complained?”

“Does he have to? He’s the only nine-month-old in a play group.”

“Helene happens to be wonderful with children. Last year she went across the country studying how the Anaconda Sioux raise their young.”

“And this year the country is returning the favor. There’s another guy up there every time I come. Even Soda I saw a couple of times. I didn’t know he had any kids.”

Taken by surprise, Phyllis let out a cry. Then she looked at Heshy and saw the truth. Both waited, staring at each other. “You little kike,” Phyllis said finally, “you think everyone has a filthy mind like yours.”

In bed he tried to make it up to her, but as usual she complained that he was being too rough.

“How long does it take you?” she demanded.

“I was waiting for you.”

“Oh, go ahead. I can’t stand all that rubbing.”

What had she meant? Should he continue or try to make it on his own? And what if Noah were to climb out of his crib? Unlikely, but Heshy had heard of such things happening, his son to confront him years later with reproach. “Children can take a lot of different trips,” Phyllis assured him when he complained about the number of sitters they had used. Watching someone on top of his mother would be some trip. The planetarium.

“What are you doing?” Phyllis interrupted his thoughts. “Do you know what time I have to get up in the morning?”

“Don’t you care about your son at all?” Heshy demanded, outraged.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Phyllis sat up at once. “What has my son got to do with anything? Do you think because I’m not willing to erase myself completely as a person I can’t be a good mother? You’d like to believe that, wouldn’t you? Well let me tell you this. That child receives as much love and affection as any child in this building. And I’d tell that to any court in the country.”

Heshy watched Phyllis pull on her bikini underwear. It was her habit always to sleep in some kind of clothing, lately underwear. Was she in a hurry to get out in the morning? His first thought, a toothbrush, hers, what she would look like in case of an accident. If she was going to get run over in their bedroom she had nothing to worry about. “Why are you getting dressed,” he asked, “you going out?”

Phyllis went to the bathroom.

Not moving, Heshy, naked, lay spreadeagled on the bed until Phyllis at last came back to bed. At least this wasn’t going to be one of those nights in which she sat by herself in the kitchen, savagely smoking one cigarette after another. “What did you mean,” he asked suddenly, “any court in the country? What are you thinking about?”

Phyllis sat up and lit a cigarette, but said nothing. It must be Soda, Heshy knew. Would he marry her? And what about Noah? Would he ever know what it was to drink a cherry lime rickey? Who would teach him the stations on the line of the old IND, show him how to lift a puck? Soda? My God, Phyllis, why do you want to throw away everything we’ve had?

Still not looking at him, Phyllis seemed not to notice the cigarette either now almost burned down to her fingers. Was she going to make a religious experience out of this? He dug his nails into his palm, swearing to say nothing if she didn’t speak first. “Would you mind getting an ashtray,” she said finally.

“You know, it might be a good idea if you cut down a little.”

“Oh, never mind,” she said, and jumped from the bed before he could assure her he was going. She brought one back filled with butts. “Since you’re talking about good ideas, maybe we ought to live apart for a while. It might give us a chance to get some perspective on this.”

So it was true. Heshy felt as though he had jogged too long. One side of his mouth he was sure began to droop. “On what,” he insisted, “perspective on what? You haven’t told me anything.”

“There isn’t anything to tell. I simply feel we need some time to find out where each of us is at. You know as well as I do that we haven’t been able to relate to each other for a long time.”

Overcome by rage, Heshy knocked over the ashtray. “Let’s try to be honest for once, huh? You’re making it with Soda, all right. At least we can end it with a little dignity. That’s why you’re so tired when you come home at night, right? It doesn’t make any difference now, anyway.”

Nothing from Phyllis.

“Look, Phyl,” Heshy said softly, wondering if there was still any action possible before they went to sleep. “There’s nothing to feel bad about. People change, that’s all. I thought we had a good marriage. Maybe I didn’t see what I didn’t want to. God knows, I guess you tried to tip me off in a million ways.”

Phyllis began to cry softly. Heshy sighed and put his arms around her. “Come on, Phyl,” he said, “don’t be silly.”

Asleep at last, Phyllis looked untroubled by anything that had happened. How they had left it, Heshy still wasn’t sure. She admitted nothing, and he wound up taking all the blame for being insensitive. Was she going to move out? Or was she just planning to miss dinner a little more often? Somewhere he assured her that marriages could be of different kinds and that the important thing was to hold on to what was essential between them. “I know what that means to you,” she said, half smiling. He leered, taking the blame once more. What he had in mind was the couple they had met who had just come back from an encounter-group weekend and were still flying. Each had made it with someone else in the group, the wife planning to keep on going. “This has really been a good thing for us,” her husband insisted, but drank plenty. Phyllis leaned forward to get the details. “How did you know which one it would be?” she asked. “Are you going away with him for a whole weekend? Will Jerry come with you?”

Could Heshy live with something like that, eating his liver day and night?

_____________

 

From the next room Noah sighed in his sleep. Heshy fled into his room to look. At first, he could make out nothing in the darkness, not even the outline of Noah’s face. Gradually more, but even peering as close as he dared without waking the boy, he could not find definition in his features. Reaching down, he picked Noah up, cradling him in his arms. Noah opened and then closed his eyes. “Should I show you a circus?” Heshy asked. “Do you want to have a Swiss-cheese-and-salami sandwich with me? I’ll make each slice thick as a doorknob. I’ll cover it with Gulden’s brown. And to drink, a little Hoffman’s Black Raspberry. Tell me what it is you want, son.

“If you were a little older, Noah, you could understand. We could take walks. Go through my old neighborhood.” Though he had been back only once, Heshy could still pinpoint who lived in any building as easily as he could reel off the properties on a Monopoly board, building costs included. He planned to visit his old Hebrew school and see if Rubin, the teacher, was still there. Rubin had given stamps as a reward for fast and accurate reading in the siddur. Once, when Heshy had crumbled chalk at the blackboard, Rubin sent him home early. Cocky, he tried to exit with a wave. The class cheered. Rubin addressed them solemnly. “For you,” he included all in his nod, “this would be a blessing. For him it is no blessing.” Rubin, how well you knew me.

Heshy wanted to wake Noah up to explain what might happen to him and what might be required. He would not understand everything now, but later the scene could come back to him, if not the words. He would know who his father was. Heshy drew Noah tightly against his chest and began to croon in his ear.

“I understand. You’re still afraid. Yes, yes, yes. But to be afraid and run away is still to be afraid only someplace else. And who knows even how to do it in a strange place, and all alone.

“Is it that you think I want to take something from you? I’m going to eat you and put you in an oven? Don’t be foolish. We have waked up together. Touched each other in the morning. What a shame not to know about such a good thing any longer.”

Heshy blew gently across his son’s eyes. “And if there’s a little clutching,” he asked, “is that so terrible that now you want everything to be finished for good? Where will it be different? Listen to me, not in this world. What then? You feel too young to throw the rest of your life away? But that’s not generous enough. I promise you there is more to it than you hear in a Pepsi Cola jingle. There is more than just bathing suits. And now if you change your mind and things are rearranged, you’re afraid they’ll get away from you. They’ll spin around and make you dizzy. So it’s you who has to grab and hold on, no matter what. And anyone who comes to pry loose your fingers is the worst sort of monster.

“The first time we went out we went to Riverside Park and flew kites, you remember? You got me a ray gun at the five-and-ten. It clicked and was also a flashlight. Such a gun I saw only once before. A Buck Rogers water pistol I won for naming Cocomalt Island for Little Orphan Annie.”

Heshy ran his finger gently along the side of Noah’s neck, kissing him behind the ear several times. The boy’s warm smell, the smooth, oily flesh made him tremble and he rocked back and forth on his heels. About to fall asleep himself, Heshy put Noah down and went back to bed.

In the morning Phyllis got ready to leave without saying a word about what had happened. Heshy stopped her at the door. “About last night,” he said, “I wanted you to know I’ve been thinking.”

“Yes,” Phyllis said carefully.

“There’ll be no split, that much I can tell you. Try anything funny and I’ll have detectives staring up your ass every minute of the day and night. Don’t think it’s going to be so nice for him either.”

“Why are you doing this to me?’ Phyllis begged, tears building in her throat.

“For the children,” Heshy said, his voice rising like a swelling that no compress would ever bring down.

_____________

 

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