One night, before I was old enough to go to school, I showered colored sprinkles all over the swirling blue linoleum floor of our kitchen. Then, enthralled by the magical world that was forming, I kept on sprinkling—over the countertops, the old metal-topped table with the drawer in one side, and the hard wood-backed chairs. When my mother, Sarah, came home, it surprised me that she couldn’t see the fairyland.
This memory whispers now in the sun’s warm, windless breath. Through openings in the treetops, the rays lift me into their light. I’m passing through Central Park on my way home from work—a day job, temporary. A quiet heat hums inside me like a cat purring—something wonderful, yet understated. The home pregnancy test is positive.
My mother’s voice, too, replays in my mind, “Listen to me, Rachel. Children need two parents, two parents”—the rule she pronounced a year ago when we were speaking hypothetically about my raising a child on my own.
If you say, “I’m going to Florida on vacation,” my mother will say, “I hear they are predicting a tornado.”
If you say, “I’m buying a car,” she’ll say, “Do you know how many auto accidents there are every single day?”
What will she say if I tell her I’m having a baby.
“On your own—on your own, without a husband?”
“Do you know what happens to such children?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do what you want to do.”
Another conversation, this one with Nadine, my cousin. Nadine, at 35, married Fred, 50, who had a son from his previous marriage. By the time Fred agreed to have another child, Nadine was in her late 30s. She tried Clomid. Then Pergonal. A couple of rounds of in-vitro. Nothing worked. Fred didn’t want to adopt. Nadine went out and bought a couple of Siberian huskies and the huskies reproduced. She takes care of those children now.
One night when I was waiting for Yaron to meet us at Arturo’s where Fred was playing sax, Nadine said, “Don’t wait too long to have a baby. It gets harder and harder to get pregnant.”
Yaron showed up an hour late. He’d been driving around asking people where “Hyooston” Street was until someone finally said, “Oh, you mean ‘Howsston.’ It’s one block down.”
I’m watching out for the roller bladers zooming by me. Skateboarders off to one side. Lots of runners heading toward the reservoir. Now that I have become two lives instead of one, I barely feel the incline toward 72nd Street and Central Park West.
During a phone call a day or so later, I tell Yaron about the test results.
“I’m not ready to be a father,” he says right away as though cutting off my words could end the pregnancy.
“Why not? You had your bar mitzvah.” I doubt that he will pass up an opportunity to joke.
There is a slight pause, during which I think of buying some prenatal vitamins and asking around for an obstetrician.
“Yes, Racheli, I did . . . but I made too many mistakes in my Torah reading so the rabbi said he couldn’t count it. I would have to come back when I’m a man.”
“And you never went back?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Well, I did a perfect job in my torah reading, and, according to tradition, I’ve been ready to be a mother for about 22 years. Yaron laughs.
“According to tradition, you don’t even have to read Torah.”
“I know because I’m supposed to be taking care of the children. Nachon?
“No, it’s because you’re so pretty. You know, with that haircut you have now and your dark eyes, your goyishe nose, your freckles, you’re like a cute little kid.”
“It takes one to know one, right?”
“So why should two kids be having a kid?” He laughs again, but I don’t.
“Yaron, I told you, you don’t have to stay.” I am trying to keep the edge out of my voice.
“But, if I don’t stay, the baby will not have a father.”
“Well, maybe not, but with my family, he will have plenty of father figures. They’ll all be vying for a role to play.”
“That’s true, and your father is the smartest man I’ve ever met.” I almost drop the phone. I have never thought of my father as being a genius, just kind of regular-old-Jewish-doctor-smart.
“Is he the only man you’ve ever met? I mean, yes, he’s smart, but I can assure you that he has plenty of blind spots.”
“I guess I have more blind spots, then. I can’t see his.” I laugh now.
“Oh, you definitely have more.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t have as many as either of you.”
“God made me less blind.” I say this in my coy, little-girl voice, a somewhat sickening habit I seem to have in certain situations involving men.
“Are you sure about that?”
“No. I’m not sure about anything. Well, except I’m sure I want this baby.”
Yaron groans. “Couldn’t you have picked something else to be sure about?”
“I didn’t pick, Yaron. Sometimes, we choose. Sometimes, we’re chosen.”
“Well, I guess it will be okay.”
“Sure it will. Don’t worry. It will be okay.”
My father, Bernie, is the second person I tell because being a psychiatrist makes him liberal about these things. Years earlier, when I’d wanted an abortion, he’d said that that was okay, too.
“Rachel, if you want to have the baby, have the baby,” he says over the phone, in that suburban rabbi tone he uses every so often. The voice lilts up on the first syllable of baby and then drops down a tone on the second. I’ve heard Bernie tell his friends that women become more self-confident when they become mothers.
“But Yaron says that I’m ruining his life.”
“Let him take his life elsewhere.”
The next day, Yaron and I meet up for lunch. I have exactly an hour before I’m supposed to be back at the office. We’re at a Lebanese restaurant in the East 30s. It’s dark. The chairs are black lacquer with red cushions. We’re off at a corner table by ourselves. It’s a few minutes before noon, so the place is not yet crowded.
Appetizers are placed before us without our asking.
“Wow. This hummus is amazing,” Yaron says, “the best I’ve ever tasted.”
It is good, I think. It must be giving the baby some protein.
Hungry, we tear off quarters of pita and dip them into the hummus. For a few minutes, we don’t speak. Then, out of the blue, Yaron, says,
“My friends say I should just grab you and take you to the clinic and force you to have an abortion.”
I’m annoyed but I don’t want to have a fight.
“My friends say I should just grab you, too.”
“That’s it. Just grab you.”
Yaron’s mother, Ruth, was visiting a few months ago. We were at this same Lebanese restaurant. Uncle David was there, too, and Danit, Yaron’s sister, who had flown in with his mother. Danit is my age and recently divorced. Yaron was deciding what to order. Ruth snatched the menu from his hands and said,
“Never mind, Yaroni. I’ll order for you.”
“Okay, and I’ll order for you,” he said to her. “And Racheli will order for Danit.”
“Never mind,” Ruth insisted, “I know what to get you.”
Now, Yaron says to me, “Well, I’m the father. What about me?”
I feel like his mother—ordering for him.
“What am I going to tell my mother?” he asks.
“I thought you were out of the Army.”
“Not yet. Not that Army.”
Emerging from the park after work, I stop at the Papaya King for an “elixir.” Then I grab a slice of pizza. The developing brain must have cholesterol, I have read. Even though the baby is still only an embryo, still fairly brainless.
Yaron is supposed to pick up all the stuff he’s left in my apartment this evening. We’ve decided to separate for awhile so he can “sort things out.”
Back home, I put some Israeli pop music on the stereo. Shlomo Artzi, I think, or Shalom Chanuch.
I’ve been subletting my brother Gary’s studio apartment on West 85th while he’s in Europe. He has a lot of stuff in it, but it’s all very neatly arranged. It makes me imagine my brother as a human ant or worker bee, a person with an indomitable instinct to tidy up piles of papers, not get rid of anything, just straighten piles.
“The women here have too much attitude,” Gary said to me before leaving. “You smile at one in an elevator and she gives you the finger.”
“Jesus, what kind of smile are you giving the poor girl?”
“A smile. Just a little Gary smile.” A little Gary smile thins his lips. It is decidedly a “Hey, Baby,” smile.
“You mean a smile that’s a gift? You don’t want anything from her? You’re not about to ask her for her phone number?
“What’s wrong with asking for a phone number?”
“Nothing. I just don’t see it as necessarily innocent.”
“That’s ’cause you’re a New Yorker, too. Now, in Greece, in Spain, it’s different. Women still appreciate a man in those places. They’re open to what men have to offer them.” I look over at him. He’s not wearing a shirt. His pectorals are okay, I guess, if that’s what he’s offering.
“You know, Gary, it’s just because over there, they have no idea what you’re saying and you have no idea what they’re saying and so you can both imagine each other exactly the way you want.”
“No, you’re wrong, Raych. I’m telling you. There was this one girl, Angelina, I met on my last trip. She knew how pure love could be. She didn’t even ask me how old I was.”
“Oh, she didn’t realize that you were her father’s age?”
“No, I’m not. Her father was in his 50s. I’m in my 40s, but why should age matter? And anyway, she didn’t care.”
“She didn’t realize. You look young.”
“She was what a woman should be. Simple . . . and not too tall.”
Yaron is here now. He’s picking up clothes and books that he has left in the apartment. The audiotape I was playing has finished and I am a little nervous about putting it on again. Yaron is slamming books into boxes. I am sitting, my body quiet, nothing to say. By his second trip upstairs, the slamming gets worse, so I wonder if he might be about to hit me or something.
Bernie’s life lessons repeat in my mind:
“You can’t judge a person in moments when things are going well, only in moments of stress.”
And . . .
“Listen to what a guy does, not what he says.”
I slip out and go downstairs to knock on the neighbor’s door. Steve, in the front apartment one flight down, is divorced, with a 7-year-old daughter, Kaylie, who visits on alternate weekends.
“Steve, remember me? I’m Gary’s sister. Can I come in for a minute?”
“Sure.” He opens the door wider so that I can slip in, then waits for me to say more.
I tell him what’s going on. His apartment has a few odd pieces of furniture in it, an old Queen Anne style armchair, next to a cheap melamine desk from Conran’s, and some milk-crate type cubes stacked up—repositories for books and clothes—like in a college dorm room.
Then I notice Kaylie’s small futon in repose against the windowed wall. On top of it, a stuffed pony, two bears, a Barbie and a Ken sit in a circle. A toy teacup and saucer stand in front of each. The party will resume in ten days at Kaylie’s next visit.
Steve pours himself a cup of coffee and me a cup of chamomile tea. The cracked ceramic mug is not accustomed to the herbal infusion.
Coffee stains blurt through the pale liquid. Neon blue letters on the outside of the mug configure “Dads are the best!”
“So how is it seeing Kaylie every two weeks?” I ask.
“It’s hard,” he says. “I miss her.” He looks down at the melamine tabletop. It too has coffee rings on it.
“How could you not? She’s so adorable. Look at that little tea party she set up.”
“Yeah. It’s hard . . . especially because of the tension between her mother and me.” He sips his coffee. I look at him as he does so. I think he is about 47. He has a five-o’clock shadow that gives him a kind of borrowed virility. His hair is sand-colored, but his beard has a lot of gray stubble in it, his eyes hazel. He wears wire-rimmed glasses this evening, which I’ve never seen on him before. He must normally use contacts.
I like the glasses. They add dimension to him. It seems that he’s changed out of his work clothes into a navy blue polo shirt, blue Levis and gray and white running shoes.
“Still?” I ask, about the tension between him and his ex. I was married once, but the whole relationship from start to finish lasted only two years.
“Oh, it’s even worse than when we were living together and fighting all the time . . . before the divorce.” He puts his cup down.
“Really?” I take another sip of my tea. It has calmed me down. I’m surprised that it’s worked because I’ve always thought chamomile to be a too-subtle herb.
“Yeah. The fighting was ugly but everyone knew what was going on. It was anger. A lot of anger going on. Now, Kaylie just comes in and says things like, ‘Dad, I heard Mom talking to Paige and she was saying that you’re irresponsible—that you don’t always want me to visit when I’m supposed to.'” Steve shakes his head. “How am I going to explain to my seven-year-old that I had an important job interview to prepare for that weekend? No matter what I say, it’s going to sound like something in my life is more important than her . . . and it’s not. Nothing is. But there’s no way to tell her. Because, to her, if she were the most important thing in my life, I would still be home with her and Barbara and I’m not. To a kid, love is clear.”
“Wow, what a rough situation!” My pregnancy is starting to seem comparatively free of complications. I’m glad that Yaron is moving his stuff out of the apartment.
“You always think, I’ll never be like that, like them, like all those angry people, taking it out on their kids. First, you think, I’m not going to get divorced. I’m not going to do what my parents did. Then, when you find the two of you are having problems, you’re surprised, but you say we’ll get counseling, we’ll work it out. And you try counseling, but too much water’s gone down the river already and you can’t swim back to where you were, can’t recover enough of what you once had to make you even want to swim back. You try a few of the counselor’s lame ideas like a “night just for the two of us” once a week, but it doesn’t work because either your heart’s not in it or hers or both hearts aren’t . . . “
“But if you can talk to each other honestly, doesn’t that help?” I am repeating a formula I’ve heard somewhere. I’ve never really figured out how to use the idea myself. Honesty is probably the biggest myth there is, I think. It’s a presumption. We’re incapable of being honest with ourselves, so how could we ever hope to be honest with another person. You might as well not even strive for it. Just lie outright in the way you think will be most helpful in a given situation.
“Well, it should,” Steve says. “In theory, it should, and sometimes you move upstream again a few feet, but in the end, the current is always stronger than you, so unless that current switches direction, there’s nothing you can do.”
“So you reached a point where there was nothing you could do.”
“I felt that way, but . . . ” He looks like there’s something else he wants to say.
“You seem to have a question about it,” I prompt.
“No, not really.”
“Well, I’m sure that Kaylie knows you both love her.”
“Yes, but it’s always going to feel like it’s not enough. And we’re always going to use her as a pawn for our anger game.”
“You seem to have too much awareness for that.”
“Awareness has so little to do with it, though.”
“Yeah, there is a disconnect. I know.” I hear Yaron bang something down the stairs. It must be the old suitcase he brought over for his clothes.
It’s one of those really old, hard cases.
“A huge disconnect. You know what I heard myself saying to Kaylie during her last visit?”
” ‘Your mother’s neurotic,’ I said. And then she asked, ‘Daddy, what’s nuh—rottick?’ And when I had to think of how to explain it to her, I wanted to kick myself. I said, ‘Kaylie, it means that your mother worries too much.’ And she said, ‘then isn’t everybody nuhrottick because everyone I know worries a lot.’ So I said, ‘yeah, we all are.’ But now of course Barb is going to know that I said she was neurotic so there will be more barbs from Barb coming at me through Kaylie. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“Steve, you’re a good guy. I’m sure you’ll find a way to break the cycle.” I get up to go upstairs.
“Hey,” he says, “I’m sorry I laid all this on you. You’ve got your own difficulties.”
“It’s fine.” I smile. I think being the first girl in my family after all those boys taught me to smile a lot. “It was actually refreshing, you know, to get an infusion of someone else’s difficulties.”
“Would you like to do something sometime? I mean if Yaron and you split up?”
Be sweet, I tell myself. He was kind to you. “Maybe,” I say, “maybe, but I’ve got a lot to sort through right now.”
“I understand. Just let me know when you’re ready . . . if you want.”
“I will,” I say, knowing I will never call him. He could be good to talk to—he was just good to talk to, in fact, downstairs in his apartment—but he isn’t for me. Too American; too upper west side; too something, I don’t know what. Not enough something else, I don’t know what. That thing you can’t explain. That thing that comes and goes. I just didn’t want to go out with him. And at the moment, I didn’t really want to go out with anyone. I mean, I guess we didn’t.
When I see that the apartment is free of Yaron and Yaron accessories, I decide to go to yoga class. Gayatri, 45, was formerly Ruth Gruber.
Gayatri means “song.” Gopi is 55 and was once Susan McMahon. Gopi means “cow-herd girl.” In the middle of “downward facing dog,” I remember that cows are sacred in India.
“Ah,” sigh Gayatri and Gopi, as they take turns pulling gently on my limbs and pressing on my back to deepen and intensify my postures, “you can tell there is new life in her.”
“Her aura of impending birth is already strong.”
“Breathe,” they tell me, “breathe and open.”
I stretch forward—as far forward as I can.