Anita sails the baby over her head. “Earth to Spaceship Bertie,” she says. “Earth to Spaceship Bertie. Can you read me?”
The baby’s laugh sounds forced, like Johnny Carson’s when he’s blown a joke. Last week she caught Bertie practicing smiles in the mirror over his crib, phony social smiles for the old ladies who goo-goo him in the street, noticeably different from his real smile. It occurs to her that the baby is embarrassed for her. Lately she’s often embarrassed for herself. This feeling takes her back fifteen years to her early teens, when she and her parents and her younger sister Lynne used to go places—Jones Beach, Prospect Park—and she’d see groups of kids her own age. At the time she had felt that being with her family made her horribly conspicuous; now she realizes that it probably made her invisible.
The house is quiet. Since she’s been back is the first time Anita can remember being in her parents’ home without the television going. She thinks of the years her father spent trailing her and Lynne from room to room, switching lights off behind them, asking who they thought was paying the electric bills. Yet he never turned the TV off; he’d fall asleep to the Late Show. Now the TV is dark, the house is lit up like a birthday cake, and her father is down in the finished basement, silenced by the acoustical ceiling as he claps his hands, leaps into the air, and sings hymns in praise of God and the Baal Shem Tov.
In the morning when Anita’s father goes off to the bet hamidrash, the house of study, Anita and her mother and the baby watch Donahue. Today the panel is made up of parents whose children have run away and joined cults. The week Anita came home, there was a show about grown children moving back in with their parents. It reminds Anita of how in high school, and later when she used to take acid, the radio always seemed to play oddly appropriate songs. Hearing the Miracles sing “What’s So Good About Good-bye?” when she was breaking up with a boyfriend had made her feel connected with lovers breaking up everywhere. But now she hates to think that her life is one of those stories which makes Donahue go all dewy-eyed with concern.
The twice-divorced mother of a Moonie is blaming everything on broken homes. “Don’t you ever become a Moonie,” Anita whispers, pressing her lips against the back of the baby’s neck. Another mother is describing how her daughter calls herself Prem Ananda, wears only orange clothes, has married a boy the guru’s chosen for her, and, with her doctorate in philosophy, works decorating cakes in the ashram bakery.
“Cakes?” says Anita’s mother. “That’s nothing. Only my Sam waits till he’s fifty-seven to join a cult. After thirty-three years of marriage, he’ll only make love through a hole in the sheet.”
“A hole in the sheet?” Repeating this, Anita imagines Donahue repeating it, then realizes: incredibly, she and her mother have never talked about sex. Not ever. Imagining her mother or Donahue, Anita sees only close-ups, because if the camera pulled back, it would see up her mother’s housedress to where the pale veined thighs dimple over the tops of her Support-hose.
Anita goes over and hugs her mother so hard that Bertie, squeezed between them, squawks like one of his bath toys. The baby starts to cry, her mother starts to cry, and Anita, not knowing what else to do, presses Bertie against her mother and pats and rubs them as if trying to burp both of them at once.
Anita takes nothing for granted. When she lifts her foot to take a step, she no longer trusts the ground to be there when she puts it down. She used to say that you could never really tell about people; now she knows it’s true. She never once doubted that Jamie loved her, that he wanted the baby. When he came to visit her and Bertie in the hospital and began crying, she was so sure it was from happiness that she literally didn’t hear him say he’d fallen in love with somebody else.
She’d made him repeat it till he was almost shouting and she remembered who this Lizzie was: another lawyer in his office. At a garden party that summer, Lizzie had asked to touch Anita’s belly.
Just as Jamie was offering to move out of the house they had rented for its view, for their vision of children standing at the Victorian bay window watching boats sail up the Hudson, a nurse wheeled the baby in, in a futuristic clear plastic cart.
“Spaceship Bertie,” said Jamie.
Anita’s sister Lynne says that men do this all the time: Jamie’s acting out his ambivalence about fatherhood, his jealousy of the mother-infant bond. This sounds to Anita like something from Family Circle or Ladies’ Home Journal. Lynne has read those magazines all her life, but now that she’s going for her Master’s in Women’s Studies, she refers to it as “keeping up.” Lynne can’t believe that Anita never had the tiniest suspicion. A year ago, Anita would have said the same thing, but now she knows it’s possible. Whenever she thinks about last summer, she feels like a Kennedy assassination buff examining the Zapruder film. But no matter how many times she rewinds it, frame by frame, she can’t see the smoking gun, the face at the warehouse window. All she sees is that suddenly, everyone in the car starts moving very strangely.
Anita’s mother believes her. Overnight, her husband turned into a born-again Hasid. Perhaps that’s why she hardly sounded surprised when on the day she and Anita’s father were supposed to drive up to Nyack to see the baby, Anita called to say that she and Bertie were coming to Brooklyn. Over the phone, her mother had warned her to expect changes. Daddy wasn’t himself. No, he wasn’t sick. Working too hard as usual, but otherwise fine. Her tone had suggested something shameful. Had he too fallen in love with somebody else?
Pulling into her parents’ driveway, Anita thought: he looks the same. He opened the door for her and waited while she unstrapped Bertie from his car seat, then sidestepped her embrace. He’d never been a comfortable hugger, but now she missed his pat-pat-pat. She held Bertie out to him; he shook his head.
“Bertie, this is your grandpa,” she said. “Grandpa, this is Bertie.”
“Has he been circumcised?” asked her father.
“Of course,” said Anita. “Are you kidding? My doctor did it in the hospital.”
“Then we’ll have to have it done again,” said her father. “By a mohel.”
“Again!” yelled Anita. “Are you out of your mind?” Attracted by the noise, her mother came flying out of the house. “Sam!” She grabbed the baby from Anita. “Can’t you see she’s upset?”
The commotion had comforted Anita. Everything was familiar—their voices, the pressure of her mother’s plump shoulder pushing her into the house, the way she said, “Coffee?” before they’d even sat down.
“I’ll get it,” said Anita. “You hold the baby.” But her mother headed her off at the kitchen door.
“It’s arranged a little different now,” she explained. “Those dishes over there by the fridge are for meat. These here by the stove are for milk.”
That night they couldn’t eat till her father had blessed the half grapefruits, the maraschino cherries, the boiled flank steak, potatoes and carrots, the horseradish, the unopened jar of applesauce, the kosher orange gelatin with sliced bananas. During the meal, Bertie began to fuss, and Anita guided his head up under her shirt.
“Is it all right if the baby drinks milk while I eat meat?” she asked. Her mother laughed. “Edna,” said her father, “don’t encourage her.”
Bertie cried when Anita tried to set him down, so she was left alone with her father while her mother did the dishes.
“What is this?” she asked him “You never went to shul in your life. Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Ron didn’t speak to us for a year because on the Saturday of Cousin Simon’s bar mitzvah, you forgot—you said—and took us all to Rip Van Winkle’s Storybook Village.”
“I did forget.” Her father laughed. “Anyhow, we didn’t miss anything. Simon was bar-mitzvahed in the Reform temple. The church.”
“The church!” repeated Anita. “Dad, what’s the story?”
“The story, Anita?” Her father took a deep breath. Then he said:
Once upon a time, a jeweler was taking the subway home to East Flatbush from his shop on 46th Street. At Nostrand, he finally got a seat and opened his Post when he heard loud voices at the far end of the car. Looking up, he saw three Puerto Rican kids in sneakers, jeans, and hot-pink silk jackets which said ‘Men Working’ on the fronts, backs, and sleeves. When he realized that the jackets had been stitched together from the flags Con Ed put up near excavations, he found this so interesting that it took him a while to notice: the kids had knives and were working their way through the car, taking money and jewelry from the passengers and dropping them in a bowling bag. Then he thought: only in New York do thieves wear clothes which glow in the dark. The boys didn’t seem to be hurting anyone, but it still didn’t make the jeweler comfortable. He thought: is this how it happens? One night you pick the wrong subway car, and bingo! you’re an item in the morning paper.
Halfway down the car, they’d reached an old lady—who started to scream. Then suddenly, the lights began to flash on and off in a definite pattern. Three long blinks, three short blinks, three long blinks—by the fourth SOS the muggers had their noses pressed against the door, and when it opened at the station, they ran. ‘Thank God, it’s a miracle!’ cried the old lady.
Meanwhile the jeweler had his head between his knees. He was trying to breathe, thinking he must have been more scared than he’d known. Then he looked up and saw a young hasidic man watching him from across the aisle.
‘It wasn’t a miracle,’ said the Hasid. ‘I did it. Follow me out at the next stop.’
Normally, this jeweler wasn’t the type to follow a Hasid out onto the Eastern Parkway station. But all he could think of was: had his wallet been stolen, he’d have had to spend all the next day at the Motor Vehicle Bureau, replacing his license and registration. He felt that he owed somebody something, and if this Hasid was taking credit, keeping him company was the least he could do.
On the platform, the Hasid pointed to a bare light bulb and said, ‘Look.’ The light blinked on and off. Then he waved at a buzzing fluorescent light. It blinked too. ‘I lied before,’ said the Hasid. ‘It wasn’t my doing. Everything is the rebbe’s. . . .’
Anita’s father stopped when her mother came in, drying her hands. “Bertie!” Anita’s mother cried, picking the baby up and waltzing him into the kitchen. “Don’t listen to this nonsense! A whole life ruined for one blinky light bulb!”
“It wasn’t the light,” said Anita’s father.
Anita wanted to ask if his story really happened or if he’d made it up as a metaphor for what happened. She thought: something must have happened. In the old days, her father didn’t make up stories. But she forgot her questions when she heard her mother in the kitchen singing “Music, Music, Music” to Bertie, singing “Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon,” sounding just like Teresa Brewer.
Now, five months later, watching the parents of cult members on Donahue, Anita decides that her father’s story left out all the important parts. Such as: why he really joined. There’s no overlooking the obvious reasons: old age, sickness, death. If they’d been Protestant and he’d converted to Catholicism, no one would have wondered why.
She remembers a weekend this past summer when Jamie was away on business (with Lizzie, she thinks now) and her parents came up to keep her company. Her father drove her to the supermarket to shop for their visit and for Jamie’s return. At the checkout stand, the kid who packed their order insisted—over her father’s protests—on wheeling the cart out and loading the bags into their (the old man’s, the pregnant woman’s) car. Like her father, Anita was angry at the kid. Couldn’t he see that her father could have done it? Not for nothing did he swim fifteen laps at the JCC pool every Sunday morning. But the crazy thing was: for the whole way home, Anita was mad at her father too.
Her father is still in shape. And despite all the rushing to shul every morning and from there to work, he seems pretty relaxed. What’s hurting her family, Anita decides, is the unpredictability, the shaky sense that everyone is finally unreliable. What’s bothering her mother is that the man she’s shared her bed with for thirty-three years has suddenly and without warning rolled to the opposite side. She must wonder if the sheet with the hole in it has been there all along.
Anita wants to tell her mother that there’s no guarantee; you can’t know anything about anyone. She wants to ask: what’s so strange about a man wanting to sing and dance his way into heaven? But if they’ve never even talked about sex, how can they talk about this?
Anita bundles Bertie up in so many layers he does look like a spaceman, and takes him to the library. On the subway, she notices that the lights flash on and off. The train is almost empty and she thinks about muggers in hot-pink Con Ed jackets, but feels that Bertie is a kind of protection. Babies are unpredictable, like crazy people; she’s heard you can sometimes scare muggers away by pretending to be crazy.
The librarians in the Judaica section eye Bertie so suspiciously that he exhausts himself trying to charm them and falls asleep in Anita’s arms. Juggling baby and purse, she pulls out some reference books on Hasidism and sits down.
She’s surprised at how much she already knows, has picked up from growing up in New York, college, reading, and sheer osmosis. She starts Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, then decides she must have read it or else heard the stories somewhere. She thinks of Jamie’s friend Ira who’d visited once a year from his Orthodox commune in Cambridge, bringing his own food in an Empire Kosher shopping bag. She can’t remember him telling stories.
For information about her father’s sect, she’s directed to the microfilm section. The librarian hands her a flat box, then seeing that it’s impossible for her to thread the machine while holding Bertie, gives her a sour smile and does it for her.
For some reason, they’ve microfilmed whole editions of the city papers. Anita likes flipping back through the pages; it’s like reading a story when you already know the end, only eerier. Meanwhile she learns: fifteen years ago, her father’s group came from Hungary via Israel to their present home in Brooklyn. In the centerfold of the Daily News, there’s a photo of the rebbe walking from Kennedy airport to Brooklyn because his plane from Jerusalem had landed on the Sabbath, when he wasn’t allowed to ride. Taken at night, the picture is blurred, hard to read. The rebbe is all white hair and white beard, Mr. Natural in a beaver hat. On the next page is an ad for leather boots from Best and Co.; thirty dollars, fifteen years ago, an outrageously low price.
Ironically, the reason Anita can’t concentrate is that she’s being distracted by the noise from the Mitzvahmobile parked on 42nd Street, blaring military-sounding music from its loudspeakers. She pictures the Hasidim darting from one pedestrian to another, asking, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
One afternoon, not long after she and Jamie first fell in love, they were approached by the Mitzvahmobilers, and Jamie said, Yes, he was Jewish. They dragged him, literally dragged him, into the trailer. The weather was nice, and nothing in those days seemed like an imposition, so Anita had waited on the library steps till Jamie emerged, looking pale.
Apparently, the Hasidim had tried to teach him how to tie on phylacteries, but he just couldn’t get the hang of it. He’d frozen, his hands wouldn’t work. Finally they’d given up. They’d placed the phylacteries in his hands, then covered his hands with theirs and just held them—one on his forehead, one on his arm near his heart.
On Friday nights, Anita’s father sleeps at the bet hamidrash so he won’t have to travel on the Sabbath, and her sister Lynne comes for dinner.
As children, Anita and Lynne fought, as their mother says, tooth and nail. Now it’s simpler: they love one another—so Anita feels disloyal for thinking that Lynne is just like Valerie Harper playing Rhoda. But it’s true, and it’s not just the curly hair, the tinted glasses, the running shoes and tight designer jeans. It’s Lynne’s Master’s thesis, “The Changing Role of Women as Reflected in Women’s Magazines, 1930-60.” It’s her job as a social worker in a family-planning clinic and her boyfriend Arnie, who’s almost got his degree as a therapist and is already practicing on the Upper West Side.
Lynne and Anita kiss hello. Then Lynne puts her arms around their mother, who’s stirring something at the stove, and hugs her for so long that Anita starts feeling uncomfortable. Finally she zeroes in on Bertie, ensconced in his yellow plastic recliner chair on the kitchen table.
“Look how he holds his head up!” says Lynne.
Bertie’s been holding his head up since he was two weeks old, and Lynne’s seen it, but Anita refrains from pointing this out. Together they set the table, then Lynne pulls her into a corner and asks what she hears from Jamie.
“Oh, he’s coming to see Bertie tomorrow.”
Lynne stares at Anita, trying to ascertain if this “means” anything. Then she gets her purse and starts rummaging around. She takes out a tortoise-shell case, brushes tobacco dust off it, and gives it to Anita, who knows what it is before she opens it: eye shadow, a palette of different colors.
“Thanks,” says Anita. The gift moves her and reminds her of what she’s always known: her sister is less of a feminist or a Rhoda than a real magazine reader, a girl who believes in her heart that eye shadow can change your luck.
For Lynne, their mother has cooked the same company dinner she made when Anita first came home. But without their father’s blessing, the meat tastes greasy, the potatoes lukewarm; the gelatin has a rubbery skin. His absence should free them, thinks Anita, but he’s all they talk about, in voices so low he might as well be downstairs.
With Lynne’s coaching, their mother talks, and Anita sees she’s been wrong: her mother’s unhappiness isn’t philosophical, it’s practical. Imagine being forced to start keeping a kosher home at the age of fifty-three! Two sets of dishes! The doctor says salting the meat is bad for her heart. The smallest details of life now have rules which Sam won’t let her break; she has to take the train to Essex Street to buy special soap for him.
If it gets much worse, Lynne suggests, she might consider a trial separation.
“Who would it help?” their mother asks. “Would it make me happier? Would it make Daddy happier?”
“I doubt it,” says Anita.
“What would make me happy,” their mother says, “is for Daddy to turn back into his normal self.”
Anita wonders what would make her happy. Lately, she’s not sure. Bertie makes her happy, but it seems important to remember: he’ll grow up and leave her. If you can count on anything, she thinks, it’s that.
She senses that Lynne is talking less about happiness than about punishment. Lynne feels that their father is responsible for their mother’s troubles, just as Jamie is for hers. Anita thinks that no one’s to blame for her parents’ situation; in her own case, she’s partly at fault.
Her first mistake was to gain so much weight when she was pregnant. Why should Jamie have faith she’d lose it when her own doctor didn’t? Now she has, but clearly it’s too late.
Her second mistake was to quit her job, even if it was the lowest editorial job in the world, the slush pile at Reader’s Digest. Most of the submissions were for “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met,” and most of these had never done one unforgettable thing except die slowly of some horrible cancer. Jamie liked hearing about them; he said they made him feel better about his day. And after she quit and took to reading long novels—anything so long as it went on for more than four hundreds pages—it wasn’t the same. She’d try to tell Jamie about the Baron Charlus or Garp’s mother, and he’d be staring past her. Once, to test him, she said, “My doctor said it’s going to be triplets,” and he just kept gazing beyond her out the dark kitchen window at the lights moving slowly up the Hudson.
Which reminds her of her third mistake: they never argued. Lynne, who fights with Arnie over every little thing, has told her that she and Jamie were afraid of their anger. Maybe so. Even when Jamie told her he was leaving, Bertie was there, listening to what for him was their first conversation. How could they have fought?
Anita wonders what happened to that part of her that used to fight tooth and nail with Lynne. She imagines Jamie and Lizzie litigating over every avocado in the supermarket. It’s the only way she can stand thinking of him in the supermarket with somebody else.
Once, visiting friends in Berkeley, Anita and Jamie went to an all-night supermarket for orange juice. They took a joint for the ride and got so stoned that, when they got there, they couldn’t move. They just stood near the vegetable bins, talking, laughing, marveling over the vegetables, those California vegetables!
Once more, Anita feels like she’s watching the Zapruder film. She’s the only assassination buff who can’t even handle a magnifying glass, who wouldn’t know a smoking gun if she saw one.
Anita’s wasted the morning trying to think up interesting things to tell Jamie. She’s saved the last eight years up in little moments to amuse him. It’s all right, though, it’s not as if she’s staged them for his benefit. If she didn’t tell someone, she’d probably just forget.
The problem is, today she can’t think of one. She blames this on living in her parents’ house, where nothing interesting ever happens. She feels that living there marks her as a boring person with no interesting friends she could have stayed with. But that’s not true. She and Bertie would have been welcome in the editing room of Irene’s Soho loft, on the couch in Jeanie’s Park Slope floor-through. But being home is easier, she doesn’t have to be a good guest. If Bertie cries at night, her mother comes in and offers to sing him Teresa Brewer.
One thing she could tell Jamie is what she’s noticed at the Pathmark: more and more people seem to be buying huge quantities of specialty items, whole shopping carts full of apricot yogurt, frozen tacos, Sprite in liter plastic jugs. She’s heard that American families hardly ever sit down to dinner together. So who knows, maybe there are millions of people out there, each eating only one thing. She could tell him how she took Bertie to the park to see some other babies. He’d slept the whole time, leaving her with the other mothers, none of whom even smiled at her. At one point, a little boy threw sand at a little girl. The girl’s mother ran over, grabbed the boy’s ankles, and turned him upside down. Anita expected coins to rain out of his pockets like in the movies, but none did. After a while, the boy’s mother came over, and instead of yelling at the woman who was shaking her upside-down son, said, “I’m glad it’s you and not me.” Anita felt as if she’d stumbled in on a game already in progress, like polo or a new kind of poker with complicated rules which no one would stop to explain.
But the last thing she wants is to sound like some pitiful housewife drifting back and forth between the supermarket and the playground. She wonders what sort of lawyer Lizzie is. Corporate taxes, she hopes, but fears it’s probably the most interesting cases: mad bombings, ax murders, billion-dollar swindles.
She’s tempted to tell Jamie about her father, how for a week or so last month he’d been instructed by his rebbe: instead of saying grace, he should clap his hands whenever the spirit of thanksgiving moved him. In the hour-and-a-half it took to eat—with her father dropping his silverware, clapping, shutting his eyes as if smelling something sweet—Anita tried to predict these outbursts, but couldn’t; she’d thought of the retarded people one heard sometimes in movie theaters, shouting out randomly, for no reason. She could tell Jamie how her father came home in a green velvet Tyrolean hat with a feather; apparently, the rebbe had given out dozens of hats to illustrate his sermon: the righteous man must climb this world like a mountain.
But she knows that telling Jamie would only make her angry at him for not being around tomorrow when she’ll need to tell him the next installment. Nor does it make her happy right now to think that Jamie knows her father well enough to know: in the old days, he wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Tyrolean hat.
The obvious subject is Bertie. Everything he does interests her; she thinks he’s a genius. Why can’t she tell Jamie about his practiced smiles, about his picking up his own Cheerios? Why? Because what could be more pitiful than thinking that anyone cares if your five-month-old can pick up his own Cheerios?
Bertie’s victory over Cheerios should be their victory. Instead she can hardly talk about Bertie; it’s as if she’s accusing Jamie. Bertie should be the mortar cementing them; as it is, he’s part of the wall.
When Jamie rings the doorbell, Anita half-hopes that Bertie—who hasn’t seen his father for two weeks—will not recognize him and scream. Bertie looks at Jamie, then at Anita, then at Jamie, then smiles a smile which anyone could tell is his real one.
Anita’s mother says, “Jamie!” She says, “There’s apple cake in the fridge if you kids get hungry.” Then she backs out of the room. It’s so uncomfortable they could be high schoolers dating—except for the presence of Bertie and the fact that Anita and Jamie didn’t know each other in high school.
“Can we go for a walk somewhere?” Jamie is staring to the side of Anita’s head at Bertie. Anita feels as if he’s asking Bertie out and is one of those guys who’s scared to be alone with his date. She’s the friend he drags along, the chaperone.
“Sure,” says Anita. Bertie’s wriggling so hard his feet jam halfway down the legs of his snowsuit and she has to thread them through. She knows she’s making herself look incompetent, making the process of dressing Bertie look harder than it is.
On the way to the park she can’t think of anything to say. She doesn’t want to discuss specialty items at the Pathmark or the upside-down boy. Of course she’s done this before, rehearsed whole conversations which turned out to be inappropriate. But never with Jamie.
The playground is chilly, almost deserted. In one corner, two five-year-old boys are playing soccer while their parents—all four of them in pony-tails—hunker on the ground, passing a joint. There’s a dressed-up Orthodox family sitting in a row on a bench. By the swings, a young mother says to her daughter, “Okay, ten more pushes and we’re going home.” And finally there are some boys—ten, eleven, twelve—playing very hard and punishingly on the jungle gym and slide, as if it’s the playground equipment’s fault that they’ve grown too big for it.
“When is Bertie going to be old enough for the slide?” asks Jamie.
“Tomorrow,” says Anita.
The mother by the swings counts to ten, and when the little girl says “Ten more!” grabs her daughter’s hand and pulls her out of the park. Jamie sits down on one of the swings and stretches his arms out for Bertie. Holding the baby on his lap, Jamie pushes off. Anita can’t look till she reassures herself: she trusts Jamie that much—not to drop Bertie. She sits on the other swing and watches Bertie, who is leaning forward to see where they’re going before they get there.
“Look how he holds his head up,” says Jamie. “That’s my boy.”
“He’s been doing that for four months,” says Anita.
Jamie trails his long legs in the sand and stops with a bump. “Anita,” he says, “just what am I supposed to do? What do you want?”
Anita wonders what she does want. She’s not sure she wants to be back with Jamie. Bertie or no Bertie, it’s too late. Something’s happened which can’t be fixed. Basically, she wants what her mother wants: for everything to be the way it was before everything changed.
“I want to know one thing,” she says. “Remember that garden party at Mel’s?”
“What about it?” says Jamie.
Anita remembers a buffet of elegant, salty things—sun-dried tomatoes, smoked salmon—which by then she wasn’t allowed to eat. “I want to know if you and Lizzie were already. . . .” She thinks: if a woman could walk clear across a party to feel her lover’s wife’s belly, her lover’s unborn child inside it, well then, you really can’t know anything about people.
Jamie says, “Of course not,” in a tone which makes Anita suspect it began at that party, or thereabouts. She wonders: did their fingers brush accidentally over a Lebanese olive? A long look near the pesto and sour-cream dip?
“It wasn’t Lizzie.” Jamie’s swinging again, distractedly. “It wasn’t you.”
“Who was it?” she says. “Don’t blame Bertie, he wasn’t born yet.”
“It wasn’t the baby. It was me. Listen.” Jamie stops himself by grabbing the chain on her swing together with his. The seats tilt together crazily. “When I was in the seventh grade, there was a kid in my class named Mitchell Pearlman. One day we got to talking about our dads, and Mitchell said that his was a photographer. He’d been everywhere, done everything. Had he fought with the Mau Maus? Sure. Sipped tea with Queen Elizabeth? Of course. Lived with the Eskimos, crossed the Sahara on a camel? You bet.
“Naturally we thought he was lying till we went to his house for his birthday. The minute we met Mitchell Pearlman’s father—mustache, jeans, big silver belt buckle—we began to think Mitchell was telling the truth. After the cake and ice cream, his father brought out the pictures of himself in front of the igloo, the camel, arm in arm with Jomo Kenyatta, dandling the baby Prince Charles on his knee. And for months after that, for years, I hated my own father. I wouldn’t speak to him.”
“So?” says Anita. “I don’t get it.”
“So when Bertie was born, I suddenly thought: in a couple of years, he’ll be me in the seventh grade. And I’ll be my father. And he’ll go out and find his own Mitchell Pearlman’s father. And he’ll hate me. I thought: we’ve made a terrible mistake! We should have waited to have Bertie till I was Mitchell Pearlman’s father! Does this make any sense?” There are tears in Jamie’s eyes.
Anita thinks: not much. For one thing, the chronology’s wrong. Jamie fell in love before Bertie was born. For another, Bertie isn’t Jamie and Jamie isn’t his father. Jamie’s father owns a dry-cleaners, while Jamie is a labor lawyer with interesting cases. She wants to shout at him that exchanging long looks with a lady lawyer over the pesto is nothing—nothing at all—like fighting with the Mau Maus. But she doesn’t. She’s beginning to see that her sister’s right: this is something some men do. Jamie himself doesn’t understand, any more than Mitchell Pearlman’s father understood why he found it so easy to leave the wife and kids and take off across the Sahara.
She imagines Jamie ten years hence, taking Bertie out for the afternoon. He’s one of those weekend fathers she never really noticed till she was pregnant, and then she saw them everywhere. She could always tell how uneasy it made them to take their kids places whole families went. Recently she read in the Times: there’s a health club in Manhattan which, on Saturdays and Sundays, caters exclusively to single fathers and their children. Ten years from now, there will be hundreds of these places.
She imagines men and children lolling in a steamy pool, pumping exercycles, straining on Nautilus machines. There are no women in her vision, it’s as if all the mothers have died of some plague. She hears the cries of the children, sees the shoulders of the fathers rounded as if from the weight of the children tugging their arms.
The only thing she can’t picture is how Bertie will look in ten years’ time.
For weeks, her father has been asking her to come to a service in his shul. “The worst that’ll happen is that you’ll have fun,” he says. It’s made Anita a little nervous, like having a Moonie ask her to go away for the weekend. But the day after Jamie’s visit, she agrees. There’s nothing but football on TV.
“Can me and Bertie sit in the same section?” she asks.
“Don’t be smart,” says her father.
When she comes downstairs in a turtleneck and good brown corduroy jeans, she sees him really suffering with embarrassment. She goes and changes into a long skirt from the back of her closet, Indian print from the 60’s.
On the drive down Eastern Parkway, Anita and her father don’t talk. Again she has the peculiar feeling of being on a date. There’s not much traffic on this Sunday, and everything seems so slowed down that she’s slow to notice: her father’s whole driving style has changed. He used to zip around like a cabbie—teeth-grinding, swerving, cursing. Now he keeps to his lane, he’s got all the time in the world. His elbow is out the side window, cold air is rushing into the car.
“Can you shut that?” says Anita. “The baby.”
“Sure,” says her father. “Sorry.”
“What kind of service are we going to?”
“Turn the car around,” says Anita.
“Don’t be stupid,” says her father. “Would you have preferred a funeral? All right. Next time, a funeral.”
“What next time?” says Anita.
“You’ll be interested,” says her father. “The ceremony is outside under the stars.”
“Stars you can see from Crown Heights?” says Anita. “I’ll be interested.”
In the old days, her father used to start looking for parking places miles in advance. She remembers hours of accelerating, then falling forward as the brakes squealed in the search for a spot in Chinatown. Now as they pull up to the block on which hundreds of Hasidim are milling around, her father cruises smoothly into an empty space.
The short winter afternoon is darkening. The street lights come on. The air is crisp and clear. The men wear nearly identical black coats, the women’s are of various subdued hues. Most of the women are in high, good leather boots which remind Anita of the ad on the microfilm. It’s easy to spot the converts like her father in his fur-collared car coat, the young men in denim and down; it annoys her that several young women wear paisley skirts much like hers.
The crowd spills off the sidewalk, blocking the northbound lane, but the two cops parked in their squad car ignore it. Leaning on other cars, Puerto Rican kids in sweatshirts and down vests idly stroke their girlfriends as they watch the Hasidim assemble. The wedding canopy is already up, held by four men who keep switching the pole from hand to hand so they can warm the free hand in their pockets.
Suddenly everyone’s buzzing like bees. Anita’s father leans forward and says, “The rebbe.”
Anita stands on tiptoe. But from a quarter-block away, the rebbe looks pretty much like the photo: Mr. Natural. That’s another reason she could never join this sect: being female, she’d never get closer to the rebbe than this. She turns to say this to her father, but he’s gone—drawn, she imagines, toward his rebbe.
The crowd buzzes again when the bride and groom appear. The bride’s leaning on some women, the groom on some men. They both look ready to drop. When Anita gets a good look at the groom—gangly, skin the color of skim milk—she understands why the bride can hardly walk. How could anyone marry that?
Nearly rigid in his quilted snowsuit, Bertie’s getting heavy. Anita holds him up though she knows he’s too young to focus on the center of attention, too young to know there is a center. To Bertie, everything’s the center: the scarf of the woman in front of him, his own inaccessible fist.
Anita thinks: the bride must be freezing. Maybe that’s why she’s so hunched over as the women lead her in circles around the groom. Under the veil, she could be anything—old, ugly, sick, some covered-up temple idol. No wonder the groom is so panicky!
Even with all the Hebrew prayers, the ceremony is over in no time. They always are, thinks Anita, except when people write their own. Real religions and even the state seem to know: if it drags on too long, somebody will faint. Anita and Jamie got married impulsively in a small town on the California-Nevada border. What she mostly remembers is sitting in a diner in Truckee, writing post cards to all their friends saying that she’d just been married in the Donner Pass by a one-armed Justice of the Peace.
Her thoughts are interrupted by cheers; the groom has broken the glass. Then bride and groom and wedding canopy disappear in the crowd bearing them—and Anita and Bertie—into the hall.
Just inside the door, the men and women peel off in opposite directions. Anita follows the women into a large room with a wooden dance floor surrounded by round tables, set with centerpieces of pink carnations in squat crystal vases and groupings of ginger ale and seltzer bottles.
No one’s saving places, jockeying to be near friends. The ladies just sit. Anita stands for a minute or so, then sees two women beckoning and patting the chair between them, so she goes and sits down. She soon understands why the women have found places so quickly: it doesn’t matter where they sit, no one stays put for more than two seconds. They kiss and gab, then get up, sit next to a friend at another table, kiss and gab some more. Meanwhile the waiters are weaving through with bowls of hot soup, shouting to the women to get out of their way. But no one’s paying attention.
The woman to Anita’s right is middle-aged and kind of pretty. She’s Mrs. Lesser. When the waiter brings Anita’s soup, Mrs. Lesser pushes it away so Anita won’t spill it in her struggle with Bertie’s zipper.
“Your first baby?” asks Mrs. Lesser.
“Yes,” says Anita.
“I had my first when I was sixteen. Can you believe I’m a grandmother?”
Anita might not have thought it, but she can believe it; she doesn’t know quite what to say.
“Can you believe it?” Mrs. Lesser puts her big face near Bertie’s little one, and Bertie rewards her with his most radiant, sweetest, and most in-authentic social smile.
“Look at this baby smile!” Mrs. Lesser says to the whole table. “Look at this sweetheart!” It’s Anita’s introduction to the room at large, and all at once it’s open season on Bertie. Mrs. Lesser gets up and someone else sits down and starts stroking Bertie’s cheek.
These women have children and grandchildren of their own, thinks Anita. Why are they so interested? But they are, they’re full of questions. How old is he? What’s his name? Does he sleep through the night? Is he always so good?
Anita feels like Bertie’s ventriloquist. She has to make an effort to speak in her normal voice as she says, “His name’s Bertie. He’s five months old. He can pick up his own Cheerios.”
“Cheerios?” cry the women. “At five months? He’s a genius!”
The partition separating the men’s and women’s sections stops a few feet from the ceiling. Anita’s facing it when suddenly she sees three furry brown things fly up, then plummet, then fly again. Just as she figures out someone’s juggling hats, she hears applause from the other side of the plywood.
With each course, a different woman is making Bertie smile and nibbling from whatever plate the waiter has put down. First comes stuffed derma, then a platter of thick roast beef, little round potatoes, canned peas. Anita picks up a forkful of peas. She isn’t very hungry, it isn’t very good. No one’s eating much; even the fleshiest ladies are just tasting. But every woman who sits down offers to hold Bertie for Anita, or to cut her roast beef. They say to Bertie, “Too bad you can’t eat roast beef, pussycat,” and “Next year at this time you’ll be munching little brown potatoes.”
Slowly at first, the men begin dancing. Anita feels it through the floor before she hears it. Stamp, stamp. Soon the silverware is rattling, the peas are jumping on her plate. The stamping gets faster, there are shouts. Anita wonders if her father is dancing. Probably he is. The door between the two sections is open, children are running back and forth. No one would stop her from looking. But she doesn’t, she just doesn’t.
Singing, clapping, the men make their own music. The women have help. Two men come in with an accordion and a mandolin. The women dance sweetly in couples, a dance which seems part waltz, part foxtrot, part polka. Mrs. Lesser reappears, and when a sprightly gray-haired lady to the far side of her makes swaying motions with her arms, Mrs. Lesser says, “If you’re asking, I’m dancing,” and away they go. A tiny old woman approaches Anita and says, “Would the baby care to dance?”
All the women want to dance with Bertie. Young and old, they keep cutting in, passing him around. Anita catches glimpses of him, first with this one, then with that, sailing, swaying to the music, resting his cheek on their pillowy breasts. When Mrs. Lesser sits back down, she asks where the baby is.
“Dancing,” says Anita.
Mrs. Lesser cranes her neck. “He’s smiling,” she says. “He’s the belle of the ball!”
Suddenly there’s a whoop from the other room, and Anita sees the groom’s head and shoulders over the partition. From the angle of his head, the stricken expression, she knows that this is the part where the men hoist the groom up in a chair and dance. Then the women gather and raise the bride’s chair. The music gets louder and the women begin circling the bride, dancing with enough intensity that Anita goes and finds Bertie and takes him back.
At last the bride’s chair is nearly touching the ceiling. Above the partition, she and the groom look at each other. Anita wants to study this look. She thinks it’s something she should pay close attention to. But she’s only half-watching. Mostly she’s concentrating on not dropping Bertie, whom she’s holding up above her head.
“Look, sweetheart,” she’s saying. “Look at the lady in the chair!”
Bertie sings when he nurses, a sweet satisfied gulping and humming high in his nose. On the night of the wedding, Anita falls asleep while he’s nursing, and his song turns into the song in her dream.
In her dream, Bertie’s singing “Music, Music, Music” just like Teresa Brewer. He’s still baby Bertie, but he’s up on stage, smiling one of his phony smiles, making big stagey gestures like Shirley Temple or those awful children in Annie. One of these gestures is the “okay” sign, thumb and forefinger joined. The circle his fingers make reminds her of the Buddha. It reminds her of a Cheerio.
Anita wakes up laughing, wondering how a little baby could know words like “nickelodeon.” She gets up and, without detaching Bertie from her breast, slips a bathrobe over both of them and goes downstairs. Except for her parents’ bedroom, where earlier she’s heard her mother preparing for sleep, every room is lit up. In the kitchen, light is shining from around the edges of the cellar door. Anita and Bertie go down.
Opening the door to the family room, she sees her father sitting cross-legged on the cork-tiled floor. His eyes are shut and tears are shining on his cheeks. But he’s not so out of it that he doesn’t hear her come in. Looking up, he seems frail and embarrassed, an old man caught doing something he’s not supposed to do.
Anita wants to apologize and leave. Then it dawns on her that she’s not down there to bother him. There’s something she wants to ask, but she’s not sure what it is. She wants to ask why all the lights in the house are always on. She wants to ask who he thinks is paying the electric bills.
Anita’s father stands up and dries his eyes with his palm. Then he says, “Hold up your hand.”
Anita holds up her hand and he lifts his, palm facing hers, a few inches away. He asks if she feels anything.
She feels something. A pressure.
She remembers how when she was in labor with Bertie, she held Jamie’s hand. Just before the nurses let her start pushing, she turned to Jamie and said, “I don’t think I can do this.” “Sure you can,” he said, and squeezed her hand so hard she’d thought it was broken. By the time it stopped hurting, the contraction was over and she knew she could go on. Now she sees that Jamie didn’t mean to hurt her. He was scared too.
Her father’s hand is still a few inches away, but its hold feels as tight as Jamie’s. She can almost feel electrons jumping over the space between them, electricity drawing them as close as she is to Bertie, who just at that moment lets go of her breast and sits up, watching them.