Scene 16, Time Travel
Summer of Love, 2009.
As Stalker and I fell in love, each conversation was a revelation. We both grew up in crowded Bronx households, in families that instilled religion (and guilt) within us. We had gone to the same high school, had friends in common. We loved so much of the same music. We both watched movies as much as possible, and dreamed of dancing like Astaire and Rogers. We both loved to talk, to write, to sing and to get in front of a microphone. We both sought novelty and excitement, to entertain and be entertained.
And we both were fascinated with time travel.
My keen interest started with A Wrinkle in Time in fifth grade. I closed the book after the last page, sad it was over. I closed my eyes; I was in awe, felt transported. That is the best book I have ever read, I thought. And by then I had read most of the wall of children’s fiction at the Sedgwick Library. The Sue Barton series, the Mary Poppins series, the Pam and Penny books. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series (yes, Little Women had sequels, as did Mary Poppins). Helen Keller’s biography. Helen Keller’s autobiography. I had read them all.
But Wrinkle in Time, that was my favorite. A couple of years later, I lived for tv broadcasts of the The Time Tunnel. Later, Back to the Future movies and television’s Quantum Leap. Time travel! Time confusion? Foreseeing the future? Determining the future? Do overs? I loved it all!
And so did Stalker. Quantum Leap was his favorite. And the Twilight Zone.
He wanted to reach back into time. Desperately.
“I saw the gun and I yelled, NO! I leaped up, I reached to grab it, but I didn’t have time. Where did that thing come from? Deborah pulled the trigger on the Magnum and it flew into the air. In slow motion, I saw the gun fly; I was in mid-air, my hand was still stretched out, reaching for it. NO! But she had pulled the trigger. WHAM! It was done.
“If I can just go back. I just need a few more seconds to get that gun out of her hand. WHAM! It was flying.
“The chamber had only the single bullet. She knew what she was doing.”
Only one bullet?
“She knew I would turn it on myself if the chamber had another.
“I need to go back. I just need another minute, to grab that gun. I would give anything to grab that gun.
“I didn’t save her then. But I will have another chance. I made a vow.”
My heart ached for him. Could my love save him now?
* * *
Scene 17, Summer of 1970, Part 1
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12
Dave had said we would get married in 1971, as soon as I turned 18. In June 1970, I graduated Bronx Science. And Dave broke up with me. Life = cancelled. I couldn’t see my way without him. I went into shock. Stopped eating. Stopped feeling.
As we got dressed one morning in our bedroom a couple of weeks later, my sister said, “I haven’t seen Dave in a while. Where is he?” I couldn’t speak. My streaming tears were her answer. I couldn’t tell my parents; I was too ashamed of my failing. No one brought it up again. A suffocating, humid, empty Bronx summer stretched in front of me.
Then I kicked into survival overdrive. Realization! No longer did I have to append myself to Dave. I could do what I wanted, now that I did not have to fit into his plans. I could try something new, have a new experience, go somewhere! Ah, excitement and relief helped to assuage my broken heart. Freedom is always a good choice for me.
But how to pull it off? I had no money, no connections. Then there were Daddy’s published rules and Mommy’s unspoken ones. These included: do not go out after dark without a male protector; do not travel to unfamiliar places (unfamiliar to them!) without a male protector; do not travel on the Jewish Sabbath at all; eat only kosher food; come home every night by the time we tell you; blah blah blah. If I broke the rules, Daddy was known to write up stricter ones as punishment. The year before, I came home from school one afternoon to a new “constitution” taped to my telephone. “The New Rules. You will come home directly from school and stay in your room except to eat meals in the kitchen and go to the bathroom. You will not visit friends after school. You will not use the phone. You will stay in your room until further notice.” I was not just in prison, I was in solitary confinement! My sobbing lasted so many hours, they called the family doctor. “I always thought she had emotional problems. Give her one of her father’s tranquilizers and send her to therapy.” Yeah, let him try to live with them and stay sane. And Daddy is on tranquilizers? What?
To get out of the Bronx, I needed a loophole.
I found one. Daddy abided by The Jewish Press; he trusted the weekly Orthodox paper and everything in it. In its back pages, I found the classifieds. “Wanted. Mother’s Helper for summer at upstate bungalow colony.” I phoned. I put aside my jeans and donned a skirt. (I had lost enough weight that my skirts hung on me. Now they reached my knees, satisfying the Orthodox dress code!). Thank you, Dave, for teaching me the subway system, so I could get myself to Brooklyn for the interview.
Two sisters, each with two boys, were going to Greenwald’s, near Woodridge. They needed help. As was the custom, wives and children would enjoy being in the country in a community of rented cottages with a communal swimming pool, while their husbands stayed behind in the city, working Monday through Friday. The men arrived in the country for the weekends. The mother’s helper shared the vacation at no expense to herself. In fact, she earned twenty dollars a week, plus room and board!
I visited the first sister, Chana — who was 28 years old, trim and modern looking except for her sheitel — in her private house in Borough Park. The furniture was protected with plastic. Her husband, Rabbi Yitzchok Weiss, an Israeli, worked in the diamond district in Manhattan. Their son Avrumie was four, Schmuel just two. Chana was so excited with her find (me!), she put me in a taxi to go over to her older sister Essie. Essie’s living room was furnished simply, just with a playpen for the 18-month old. Yussie, two-and-half, was playing quietly by himself nearby. Essie, more casual than Chana, wore a tichel on her head. She loved me, too.
My parents were delighted! I’d be going off with two families who were even more religious than they were! I would be safe for the summer, and out of their hair, out of their worry zone. I packed my suitcase with my Orthodox Jewish Bungalow Colony costume, just long-sleeved blouses and skirts. I left behind my bell bottoms, workshirts and drug inspired-paraphernalia accessories, along with cigarettes, Acid Rock and Central Park be-ins.
I was happy and relieved. Yes, I craved breathing new air, without the stress of Dave and the loss of Dave and my parents’ rules and my wondering what do I do with myself? A safe haven. Playing straight was the price, and I was willing to pay.
How naive we were.
* * *
Scene 18, Summer of 1970, Part 2
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12, continued
Baby as a mother’s helper in the Greenwald Bungalow Colony near Woodridge, New York in the Catskills.
Back then, we felt in another world when only a few-hours car drive away. No computers, no email, no web cams; phones were permanently connected to the wall. A hundred miles was a tangible barrier, hard to overcome. Each Sunday evening I used the lone colony telephone, in the manager’s head bungalow, to talk to my parents for a few minutes, collect. Long distance calls were dear, made with care and fanfare in those days. “Yes, I’m fine. All is well.” I gave them the reassurance they wanted, no matter what. Telling them what they needed to hear had become a habit too hard to break.
And because of that, I had no guidance when I needed it most.
But all seemed well. The mountain air was breathing freshness into my spirit. Being away from the sticky, summer streets of the Bronx — away from the hope of running into Dave, of waiting for him to make my phone ring — I felt transported and started to heal from the breakup.
The colony had reliable mail service, of course. My parents and I wrote each other a couple of times a week, too, and they asked to visit. “Yes, Daddy and Mommy, you can visit here this summer; I’m sure I will be able to get away from my charges to spend an afternoon with you.” Later, after admonishment from my father, I wrote, “Thank you for visiting, Mommy and Daddy.” I had to follow the rules precisely; Mommy would be so hurt if I didn’t put her name first.
My movements were reviewed and corrected, with my father serving as master puppeteer. Ah, I appreciated this distance and chance to minimize his scrutiny, cut the strings, act on my own. I was 17, a high school graduate and away for the first time. Let me be! Enough already! I thought. At the end of the summer, I would be back home, living with my parents while I went to City College in Manhattan. Let me have this time, please.
Early mornings the mountain air was especially sweet, and I would take the boys for a walk around the colony — the littlest in the stroller, Schmuel and Yussie flanking it, Avrumie following close by. The Weisses followed the custom of delaying a boy’s first haircut, so Schmuel’s blond curls were pulled back into a ponytail for convenience; he was so beautiful, people mistook him for a girl. He didn’t care, he didn’t care about anything. He was fearless and happy and simply the most delightful child. Yussie was serious and dark. Avrumie met the world with trepidation and skepticism, but tried not to let it show. The little one was a blank to us; Essie usually left him in a playpen and we followed her lead. But, I should have given him more attention, even so. I wonder what happened to him. Most of all, I wonder what happened to Schmuel. Did the summer leave a telltale sign on him?
We called him Schloymala, because he was such a cute tatteleh.
Bungalows were rustic and rough cabins with no heat, no air conditioning; I think they emptied into a cess pool. They were used only for escapes from the summer in the City. Chana and Essie had adjoining bungalows at the end of the row, brushing up to the edge of the forest that I sometimes snuck into for a quick change of scenery and scent. Each bungalow had two simple rooms, and a bathroom with a shower stall instead of a tub.
The back room was a bedroom with two twin beds (the colony was well appointed for Orthodox Jewish family purity practices), a cot for one child and a crib for a younger one. The front rooms had a kitchen sink, stove, refrigerator and cabinets along one wall, and a table and chairs for dining. At the other end of the room, under a row of low windows, was a cot. That is where I slept — in Chana’s bungalow the first part of the summer, in Essie’s at the tail end. They didn’t explain the switch, but I suspected why. I tried not to think about that.
Chana and Essie told me to eat anything I wanted. I hadn’t brought any cigarettes with me because it was a good opportunity to quit — and Orthodox women usually did not smoke or drink, though not forbidden to do so. Further sparked by the country air and my emotional healing, I developed a robust appetite. I satisfied it with the bounty of apples and peaches the sisters kept on hand, instead of with smoking.
After the morning walks, Chana and I would take the boys to the colony’s walled-off swimming pool. It was women-only time, but of course the young boys had to stay with us. In the afternoon, when Chana and Essie would take the car somewhere, my lovely children and I would visit the two other mother’s helpers and their charges. Once a week, the mother’s helpers had a day off. We hiked miles to Woodbourne, Woodbridge, South Fallsburg; once we made it as far as Liberty. I got to walk all the way back to the colony, too, because the other girls refused to hitchhike. My legs grew stronger, my body more tan.
I didn’t feel the tedium set in for at least a couple of weeks. Once Chana asked, “Are you happy here?” She looked concerned. Of course, yes, of course, I said, never wanting to disappoint.
Friday afternoons brought a welcome change to the routine. The men came up from the dirty city, infiltrating our female world with their deep voices, cigarettes and wine; they formed their minyans. As they took their seats at the head of our kitchen tables, the rest of us deferred to their authority. The colony’s families observed Shabbos together. Friday evenings we carried tables to the common lawn, and covered them with fleishig tablecloths. Families shared their special Sabbath cholents and tzimmes in a pot luck feast. Chana’s husband Yitzchok’s cholent was my favorite, an Israeli version swollen with beef chunks, potatoes, carrots and aromatic spices novel to my tongue. Yitzchok, in his early 30s, was the tallest and the leanest of the men. Like most of the others, he had a thick beard, dark looks. But his cholent alone had a strong Israeli accent and mysterious, foreign Sephardic roots, just as he did.
I relaxed into the relief that all my food was kosher, that no one would look at me wide-eyed when I abided by Shabbos restrictions, and I had no explaining to do to my classmates. “I can’t do that, it’s Shabbos,” I would say. It’s what? ”Don’t call me Friday night or Saturday before sundown, it’s Shabbos.” Whaaat? “I won’t be at school, it’s a Jewish holiday.” Again? “I can’t eat that.” You can never eat at my home?
Perhaps this life was a better one for me. I should give up my evil ways and do what I was supposed to do; make G-d and my parents happy.
But during the summer, I realized my parents were not completely observant themselves. At home I had not learned all the customs and prayers practiced at the colony, nor had I been to a yeshiva to learn them. Prayers recited in Hebrew before eating? Didn’t know them. Prayers after eating? Didn’t know them. I did the best I could to fit in, but once again in my life, I had to make a forced effort to blend in. Once, I asked my mother why I hadn’t been sent to yeshiva instead of public school. “We weren’t that religious,” my mother said. “And children who go to yeshiva criticize their parents for not being observant enough.” She wore sleeveless blouses, slacks, and did not cover her head. She wasn’t going to have any child of hers expect her to do otherwise.
Someday my life will make sense. I will know who I am. I will resolve all these conflicts. I will stop playing parts and I will be where I belong. I will be accepted. I was prone to making such declarations and promises to myself; their looming, seemingly inevitable fulfillment kept me going.
One mid-summer night a thunderstorm lit the sky and Chana and I ran across the open lawn dodging the lightning. “Isn’t this dangerous?” she asked. We did it anyway. The fear made me feel alive.
Dave receded into a different time and place as I was awakening to my future. Rich and ripe cholents and peaches and country road hikes hastened my own blossoming. My tan kept deepening, my skin was glowing. My senses heightened. I began to eye Yitzchok’s cigarettes, the soft, fragrant, familiar smoke was too inviting; its old hold on me reawakened, too, catching me by surprise. He noticed my watching as he smoked. “Would you like one?” He extended out the pack. Under the watchful gaze of Chana and Essie’s widening eyes, I accepted a cigarette. Now on Fridays he brought an extra pack of Marlboros with him from the City, and left them with me for the week.
Then Yitzchok started to do other surprising things.
* * *
Scene 19, Deborah
The summer of our love, 2009.
“Let me grab another pack of cigarettes, Baby, and my bottle of vodka,” Stalker says. “I will tell you the whole story and then we will never have to speak of it again.” His voice was bowing under heavy resignation.
But once he tells the story, he can never stop telling it, again and again: the repetition of grief.
The night air passes my pink bedroom curtains and washes over me, as I lie in bed under a cotton sheet in my home in Portland, Oregon. With closed eyes I focus on Stalker’s voice traveling from the Bronx, filling my room through my phone’s speaker. I brace myself for his story and hope I can accept it fully without judgment. I hope I can contain it for him, and give him some relief.
“When I came back to the Bronx from Richmond in ’74, I couldn’t tell my friends what had happened,” Stalker said. “I started to tell Simon, but before I got very far, he said, That’s really fucked up, man. He looked like he couldn’t handle it, so I stopped. My brother was gone by then, himself. My mother and sisters knew the major points, but I couldn’t talk it out. I told myself to get on with things. I took up with another woman, right away; took her in with her little girl. Instant family, as though everything was okay. Maybe I loved her, but probably I didn’t. That lasted six years, and since then I’ve mostly been on my own.
“My sister tells me to talk to a priest, to take communion, but I could never do that. I could never wash the blood of the murders off my hands. I have not been in a state of grace for forty years and nothing can change that. No priest can change that.”
Confess to me.
“Someday I will go back to Richmond; you will come with me, Baby. I will show you the theater where I played King Lear. Show you the house I lived in, and the other house, where Deborah lived after we murdered my unborn son. No, I shouldn’t blame her at all. It was my responsibility. I will show you the waterfall where she and I swam, naked, early on, when we still had our innocence.
On my birthday, she asked how old I was. Twenty? she repeated, incredulously. We had already been together for months. What did she think?
“Even though I was eight years younger than her, she knew I was in charge. She was a brilliant doctor, me, an undergrad. But I am an alpha male and she respected it. She could have had anyone. She had been with prominent physicians, wealthy business people. Her father knew everyone to know in Virginia. But Deborah and I were meant to be together.
“. . . I had been having a bad feeling, a really bad feeling. So early one morning I drove my black Corvette to her place. Another car was parked outside. I stormed into the house; I blasted into the bedroom like Conan the Barbarian rescuing Valeria, and found a 50-year-old disgusting man — a head of a department at the hospital — in bed with her. How could she let him touch her? I was studying karate since high school, breaking my toes on boards, and my muscles bulged all over. And I had a huge voice, and I let him hear it. That beer-belly coward jumped out of bed and out of the house, running for his life, leaving behind his clothes. I chased him down the street, shouting that I would kill him if I ever saw him again!” Stalker is laughing now. I’m remembering the movie Sideways. But I stay quiet, thinking of what this all means.
“You still there, Baby?”
I take it in, take it all in. Hold it.
“Meanwhile, all this time, Deborah said nothing, showed nothing. She calmly got out of bed, got dressed and left for work at the hospital as though nothing had happened.
“She said his wife called that evening and asked for his keys and wallet.”
You forgave her?
“She was free, white and 21. She could do what she wanted.
“By the way, that moron Patch Adams didn’t know a thing. And Robin Williams should burn in hell. Adams said Deborah was frigid. She wasn’t; but she took a very, very long time. One night I didn’t have the patience. I rushed things, really rushed things. Afterwards, she bolted up and said, What did you just do to me? What did you do?
“In a split second she was across the room, but I was quicker. I had to pull her off the open window, wrestle her to the floor, pin her down. She fought against me, so strong in her anger. I could barely keep her down, she was going for the window. She screamed and cried; my housemates knocked on the door to see what was going on. Let me die, let me die! She finally promised to calm down, and I let up on her.
“It got worse. I should have understood the signs, I should have known the signs.”
You were so young.
“But it was my responsibility. And it kept getting worse.”
* * *
Scene 20, Summer of 1970, Part 3, Baby as mother’s helper in Greenwald’s Bungalow Colony, the Catskills.
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12, continued
Some of my duties confused me. For example, I was responsible for keeping the four boys away from their mothers during the week. A challenge, to babysit two-, three-, four-year olds with mothers in plain sight. I tried to distract the boys when the Chana and Essie walked by, but often I failed. Another mystery — why didn’t they want to be with the children more?
I gave the boys my full attention to try to make up for this. I was relieved one time, when Chana turned and welcomed Schloymala as he ran after her breathless, his tiny legs peddling as fast as he could make them go, arms reaching out. “It’s okay. He can come along.”
Schloymala at two was active and athletic: climbing and hanging and running and smiling. But he didn’t talk yet, not a word, though we knew he was clever. He was everyone’s favorite darling, and even Chana confided in me that while her eldest Avrumie was a dear child, Schloymala with his blonde curls and charming smile was special. I hoped Avrumie didn’t notice, for as long as possible.
My heart filled; I loved Schloymala.
So when Rabbi Yitzchok pulled Schloymala atop his tall shoulders and said, “Let’s take him for a walk,” I went along. Far from the colony, we sat in a sunlit clearing scented with summer grass and pine. He picked a wildflower sporting a white bloom and threaded it through the third buttonhole on the front of my blouse. Schloymala climbed on top of his father. I inhaled the sweetness of the day.
I was confused. Surely this broke so many rules. But what is an employee to do? I sat still and did nothing. For now.
. . . to be continued
Also see Stalker, the Music
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.