1986, Portland, Oregon
My mother answered my letter. Yes, she had broached my father with my question: Would he accept Baby’s marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish? Even though it went against everything he had been taught? Even though his Orthodox relatives would reject me, and expect him to do the same?
I knew my mother would accept such a marriage, if only my father would.
My heart was still hopeful, while my mind knew the answer. How could he allow me a man who wasn’t part of our tribe? A man not — neither by birth nor by conversion — “suitable”? Unacceptable to my father’s siblings, their spouses, their children, to our ancestors in heaven, to the memory of those who died so we had the right to marry only other Jews and perpetuate pure blood lines. To keep separate from dangerous people shoving us into the gas chambers or driving us into the sea. “You must not trust those others, you know. They are taught to hate us, taught from the time they are children that we killed their God. How could they get over that? They all feel that way; don’t be fooled,” my father often told me — repeating what he had been taught, what he, himself had read.
My mother asked him my question, and wrote me his reaction in her own anxious hand.
“He said, ‘Oh no. Not another problem.'”
I heard the message: Please Baby, don’t give us any more problems. We have all we can take. Don’t try to marry a non-Jew; we are too Orthodox for that. We would have to shun you. We would act like you’re dead. We will sit shiva for you and . . . didn’t we teach you anything? You will be shaming us and showing the world what failures we are as parents and it will be the end and how could you do this . . .
Okay. No marrying James. Even if he asks me. And in the meantime, dear parents, we won’t talk about it. Don’t ask, and I won’t tell you. I was stupid to ask, to think for a moment . . .
I dropped the topic. Now I sat behind a wall even thicker and taller.
Not that I had to worry about James wanting to marry me. He didn’t ask.
“No one will ever want to marry you,” my father had said. The year – 1972. His voice was edged with undisguised disgust. “You’re so nasty; so fresh. You talk back, you don’t listen. No one would put up with you.”
I considered my choices. The most appealing: I could live with James, and just not let them know. Nothing official like marriage, such a public arrangement. So real. I could live a double life — didn’t I do that in high school? I could do it again. But aren’t I getting a bit old for these charades? That’s why I asked my mother to ask him . . . how wonderful if I could give up hiding. But, perhaps this is my fate. Over and over I do the same thing: being different people at the same time.
I didn’t see my way out.
Though I was an adult, already in my 30’s, I hadn’t yet reconciled my religious beliefs, my actions, and my father’s expectations. Would I ever? It was 1986, and I still believed in G-d. I believed in the sanctity of the Torah. But my day-to-day actions were inconsistent with such beliefs, weren’t they? I sinned: I drove on the Sabbath; I ate unkosher meat; I routinely broke 613 commandments from the Almighty. My guilt stole my soul.
I’m too weak to do the right thing. Too inadequate. Not disciplined enough. I behave badly. I’m ashamed of myself. There’s something so wrong with me, that I can not act as I believe.
Only later did I consider a simpler explanation: Maybe my actions were my truth? Maybe I didn’t believe, in my heart, what I used to believe?
I couldn’t face my father, his disappointment. I couldn’t ask my mother to lie to her husband just to keep my secrets. Better not to say anything more to her about James. Let them think what they will. Isn’t that why I live 3,000 miles away from them? So I can do whatever I want, without my father punishing me? Without my hurting them?
I made my choice: lie through omission. For as long as I could.
Fall, 1972. The Bronx
“You want to move out? No! You’re killing your mother. Take a good look at her,” my father said.
The three of us sat around the kitchen table. Tears ran down her face; she kept sobbing in bitter waves. When she looked up at me, her eyes were full of shame and pleading. I could not bear to meet her gaze.
All I had wanted to do was get an apartment with a girlfriend! I didn’t realize they would care. Didn’t appreciate how much she relied on my company, our chats over morning coffee, lasting so long I would miss my morning college classes. Since I could remember, she kept her pride, acting like she was doing me a favor giving me time or attention. I still assumed she could take me or leave me, that I was a bother, an annoyance to her, as always. A problem.
I had missed the shift. Of course, now I could see it. My siblings were gone — I was the last one. That had changed things.
But how could she let herself get so dependent on me, that she could not handle my growing up and leaving? That wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
“I will never forgive you if you do this to your mother,” my father said.
I stayed, but I knew I wouldn’t stay forever. I couldn’t stay just for her. Even if he didn’t forgive me.
Maybe I never forgave him.
One evening, when I was little — about five, I guess — the family was having supper in our pink, eat-in kitchen on the second floor of the five-floor walk-up. We still lived on Grant Avenue, in the Bronx. Daddy had strict rules governing . . . well, governing everything. Some were religious rules, some his own rules — I was too young to know which were which. The Torah says to honor your father, so I guess they were all religious rules. At least, Daddy led me to believe they were; disobeying your parents is a terrible sin; I must obey him. disrespecting your parents is unforgivable, he taught me.
Here was another master rule: as long as I lived in Daddy’s house, I had to do what he told me. “When you grow up and get married, then you can do what you want.” I longed to grow up and get married.
I was in Daddy’s plain sight each evening at the supper table, so I had to be careful. I tried my best, but it was so hard. So much to remember.
He liked a quiet meal to help his digestion. He always had a sensitive stomach. So sensitive, it got him in the end. But that was many decades later.
Usually he sat quietly, surveying his kingdom of the kitchen from his designated chair, back to the wall so he could see the whole room. Sometimes, he told stories or played jokes on us. He might give Mommy instructions on how to prepare his food differently next time. Sometimes he and Mommy would argue, but he would demand that stop right away; it was ruining his appetite, his digestion, his meal. Mommy would look like she would explode, but keep her mouth shut. Usually.
The children were to be his silent audience; we had our orders. A few years later, I tried to bring my books to the supper table, to keep me company in the silence. But, he forbade that. He took the phone off the hook, so he could have “peace.” So boring. I tried to leave the table as soon as possible, but first I had to ask his permission to be excused, using the right words and the right tone of deference; and even so, he didn’t always grant immediately. And no one had better sit in his chair, or else! And you better eat what your mother cooked for you. Even if the hamburger or the boiled chicken or that glob of fat floating in the chicken soup disgusts you. Or you’re not leaving the table. Ever.
“Do you hear me? Look at me! I’m talking to you! How do you answer me? Speak up! I can’t hear you.”
That one particular evening, that little-girl joy — that lived secretly inside of me — broke out; it broke through his gloom and I got the giggles — the way five-year olds do.
“Stop it!” Daddy said.
I couldn’t stop. I wanted to, but I didn’t have control. I giggled and laughed at my own giggling and . . .
“Cut it out! I am warning you!” Daddy said. He wore a red plaid wool shirt, with two chest pockets full of pens. Red, blue, black ones. A yalmulke was on his head. He hadn’t shaved yet that day; he looked rugged and tough. He was angry now. I was defying him, doing this on purpose just to test him, he said. His brown eyes were turning darker and his voice was getting deeper and louder. He was so much bigger than me.
I tried to stop. But I was laughing and crying because I was laughing to hard.
He was directly across the narrow table. He could reach over and slap me if he wanted. But he didn’t. He could take off his belt and chase me. But he didn’t. Not this time.
He raised himself off his chair as he took hold of his glass of soda. He liked tall glasses — he would pour his tea or juice or soda right up to the brim, seeing how high he could make his drink without going over the edge of the glass. He took hold of that tall glass of cold coke, and flung his arm across the table. The coke flew out of the glass. I didn’t see it coming, it was so fast.
In an instant, quicker than I could duck, the flash flood of his rage — the flying cold soda — hit me in my face.
I stopped laughing, in shock. The air in the kitchen froze and the pink walls turned red and the clock stopped. I was drenched. Sticky, wet, disgusting soda soaked my hair and my white cotton blouse and my blue pedal pushers. Humiliation. I froze. I had no voice.
My mother took my hand hard and pulled me to the bathroom. Was she going to spank me now, for making him so angry? But, no. She surprised me. She helped me out of the blouse, pulled my cotton undershirt — soaked with the sticky mess — over my head, a wet mass of matted curls. She wiped me down and put me in clean pyjamas. I wondered if she would get in trouble, being kind to me like this, when I was so bad and he was angry at me.
After that, when Daddy was around, I didn’t laugh much anymore. I hid, usually in the hall walk-in closet. No one bothered me in there. Invisible. That’s how I liked it.
Years later my mother said, wistfully, “You and Daddy were so close when you were really little. You would sit on his lap, and play together. What happened?”
I wish I knew.
1986, Portland, Oregon
James took me on a road trip in his VW van, far north to Vancouver B.C. We rode in peaceful, comfortable silence. We spent two days in the city, in dull quiet. We drove back in awkward silence. Was he angry at me, that he wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t respond? Our first trip together, and he was done with me. Couldn’t wait to get me home and get rid of me. Well, better we found out now that it wouldn’t work, before things went too far. How could I blame him? I had nothing to offer.
The road was long, dark and empty. My stomach was feeling unsettled. What had I eaten at some truck stop diner? Something bad? It wasn’t agreeing with me. James seemed like a stranger, so far away, behind the wheel, concentrating on the black road, disconnected from me. So I didn’t mention my stomach. I tried to be good and not any bother. I didn’t really know him well enough to tell him I felt like throwing up. I could wait to get home, to throw up in my bathroom, in private.
The trip home was longer than I remembered. I barely make it to my bathroom sink, much less the toilet. My vomiting was violent. I hit my forehead on the faucet. A bruise.
“Oh, you’re ill! I know what you need,” said James.
He put me to bed. While I slept, he shopped and stocked my refrigerator. Next, I heard him opening and closing my kitchen cupboards until he found my largest pot. He was humming. Cheerful. Chop, chop. His mother’s original chicken soup recipe. Soup from scratch. He didn’t serve me the boiled chicken, like my mother did, after it released all its goodness into the broth and turned into a dried up, cardboard carcass. He discarded those chicken remnants, and cooked up fresh pieces to chop chop and put into the soup, brimming with sweated celery, onions and carrots.
He knew how to cook, how to cook everything from Thanksgiving turkeys to pot roasts to stews to chili to barbeques. His mother had paid the rent and clothed her children with her job as a cook. She taught him how to do it, do it the right way.
James didn’t run when I was sick. He stayed and took care of me.
He was all I needed.
“I wouldn’t tell my parents I’m moving in with you, James. They won’t approve. They will only approve if I marry someone, and someone Jewish.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“Move in with you. Just not mention it to them.”
“Okay,” said James. “You’ll be the one answering the phone then. I don’t like to answer it, anyway. And it’s fine with me if I don’t have to meet new people.”
James made it easy. I was thankful. Whenever he could, he would let me have my way. Nothing was a big deal. “Laid-back” they called him at the university. I appreciated that. At the time.
James had left his friend’s houseboat, and rented an apartment near his children. When I moved in a few months later, I gave my parents my new address. “Why are you moving?” my mother asked.
“To be closer to work,” I said. And the walls between us grew thicker and taller . . .
I stopped visiting family in New York. I stopped responding to wedding invitations from cousins. My old life belonged to a different person. I was in exile in Portland, Oregon. I tried to build another world, a new life with my new self. The letters and phone calls with my parents became sketchy, as I said less and less. Instead of becoming fuller and rounder, I downgraded to two-dimensional: screening and censoring myself to fit into expectations and requirements. Not to offend, not to upset, not to rock the boat. I could learn to behave. I can pay this price, I thought. I need James. I love him. He wants me. I can’t hold out any longer hoping that someone else, more suitable, shows up. That waiting was killing me, for sure. No one who is “suitable” will ever want me, anyway.
My relationships tried to take root in a shallow topsoil, skimming the top of a fault line buried in the bedrock below.
And my mind was getting closer to slipping and snapping as its jagged, mismatched pieces strained against the walls.
. . . to be continued
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.
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