Love | Fiction | Chicago Reader

Love 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

We are in love but you don't know it. You are slow on some of these ordinary things; you grow angry when I mention liberation theology, Adam Smith's unseen hand, proposals to ban land mines--things I thought everyone knew about, were in the atmosphere, but you are impervious to them, breathing your own mist. You think I am trying to show off. You know the Pre-Raphaelites and Sabbath prayers. We are in love but you don't know. I knew the moment I stepped into your old house to help you move. You were looking so young, like a teenager, in green, your hair held back in one of those oversized barrettes you wear, your face fresh scrubbed, innocent as a bobby-soxer. You had turned into someone else, someone small and unhoused. You were someone from the 1940s. I wanted to become a man, a tall dashing man. For the first time, I wanted another woman. I felt I should sweep you off your feet, put an arm around your back, dance with you. You told me which boxes to put in the car. You wrapped your pink azalea plant in your grandmother's quilt. You looked for your sleeveless down jacket. You couldn't find your Birkenstocks. I said I'd follow you, already sad at the thought of being separated for the 15 miles into the city, wishing for the first time that we had CB radios. But I said nothing. You said, Ceci, come on, get in my car and I'll drive you back later. We were like cops on a mission. Partners.

We listened to the radio. We made five trips up the three flights of your new apartment, parking in back, walking through doors like medieval gates. At every turn, vistas like the ghetto, like the cobbled streets of Vilna neither of us has seen. You locked both doors, five locks in all. You put the pink azalea next to the window.

We drove to a cafe on Sheridan. I ordered potatoes and cheese, and you got an omelette. There was confusion over substitutions. We waited a half hour. When I was still eating, a big homeless man in plaids asked, Are you finished? I'm hungry. I said no. I gave him a dollar.

You treated. I said, You don't have to. You said, For helping me. I said, You'd help me. You said, That's the only reason people are helping me move, so I'll help them later. So don't pay, I said. You did anyway and I left the tip.

I cleaned my plate.

We unroll your futon and sit against the pillows. You change your shirt, walking around the room, talking. If you knew, you would be in the next room. In the bathroom. You don't know any lesbians. Once I told you I might go to their Sabbath services. You studiously ignored that.

You unwrap your framed print of Rossetti's Beata Beatrix. You lean it against the wall, next to the Burne-Jones. You cannot find your hammer. We have tea, the first tea in your new apartment. It is Russian, loose and black from a tin box, poured in tall glass mugs. In your old house, you'd cut up apples and place them on the bottom of the cup. Your pottery candlesticks are on the table, the ones I knew from your old kitchen. I am an old Jew, you say. We met among old Jews, the only people under 50 at a lecture on the origins of Yiddish. Evanston Library, middle of the day, what did I expect? Not that I would meet my true love, her red brown Jewish hair streaming down her back in waves, her very serious dark eyes watching the speaker, her solemn face shifting to appreciate a joke. And soon you saved me, whisked me out of my Cinderella existence as a temp, got me an office next to yours at the community college, teaching English four days a week, half-paid-for insurance. Sometimes I feel we are as old as the rest of that library audience. It seems that no one our age keeps the holidays. You know an Israeli who asks you the date of Passover, asks why you light the candles, buy challah and wine. You don't like to answer. He's the one who told you about the vacant apartment in his building. We can see his kitchen table from across the courtyard. He is out. We can see a pot on the stove, a vase of yellow flowers.

Your family was famous. My cousin the genealogist said one of ours married one of yours. Your family produced Freud, Marx, famous rabbis that people have heard of. We are descended from someone out of favor with the gaon of Vilna. Frequently in hiding, misplaced. There are stories of boats missed, visits to doomed towns. My relatives were scholars manqués, artists manqués, poets manqués. My great-grandfather took an overdose during the Depression. His son studied law and was a genius at designing ladies' hats. The other side of our family is known for producing high-quality bubble bath that many dermatologists recommend.

Now we have the same job, same title (ESL Instructor II), same size index card on each office door announcing our names and office hours. We have the same degree--bachelor of fine arts--and we both fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelites in college, you for the art, me for the politics. We say the same thing about our job: Good for now, it leaves us time for other things. Though we don't do the other things, which presumably would launch us into our real careers. We celebrate the same holidays, we both can read Hebrew. We are not observant to the same extent--I don't keep kosher. Neither of us knows Yiddish.

You lock the five locks and drive me back to my car. I imagine you like a painting. I cannot imagine being lost in your hair.

I imagine you surrounded by flowers like Ophelia (alive), and our sharp small breaths.

I think of buying you tulips.

You say, Come visit always. You say, Parking's not that bad. You say, Come, we'll make a Sabbath.

Each morning at ten we talk on the phone. If we remember our dreams, we tell them. You dream me drowning in mud. You shouted and I said, Don't try, it's too hard. You went for help. You came back and I was on land, rescued by strangers. I dream we are entwined on the moon. But I don't say it. I dream we are in a Laundromat, yellow shag carpet. We are carrying bundles of warm clothes. They keep falling. The carpet is a meadow. There is a sun in each machine. Your clothes are the size of my hand. My clothes grow large, into sheets. We stretch out and fall asleep, our shoulders uncovered.

In our ESL classes, we talk to the students about their families. We hear of houses, guns, ghosts, rice fields, and open skies. I draw family trees on the blackboard. I teach them the word deceased and how to abbreviate it under a name. I explain that I'm from Poland and Russia.

No, I say, not really me, my grandparents. I have not been there.

Where were your children born? asks Hua.

I do not have children, I say.

Americans are rich, says Jimei. Why they not like children?

Teacher, you married? Teacher, why you not have children? You have brother, sister?

We make a Sabbath in your apartment. We are silent between the blessings of the wine and the bread--a ritual we learned from a book. We cover the bread--she is sensitive, says the story. She is sad the wine is blessed before she is, so we cover her ears. We talk about someday going to the lake first to greet the Sabbath Queen. We have heard too of nefesh yesere, the soul of the Sabbath that descends in peace. The old Jews of the Lower East Side saw it as the soul of socialism.

We pour sauce over pasta. I feel safe, I feel I belong here.

You talk of a man, his silences, his mystery consulting trips, the way he says your new apartment with its hardwood floors and secondhand furniture makes the new stereo look out of place. He has two sets of clothes for work--for the office and for the field, where he searches out toxic dumps. Can you see me with him? you ask. He is your size, has your wavy hair. He is always nervous, paces. When you went to the movies with him, he was too polite, held the door open for everyone. He quoted three different critics. Afterward you sat in his car and listened to an all-news station.

He coughed and kissed you on the lips and coughed again.

Can I see him with you?

What I don't see is how you could see yourself with him. What is there in him to draw you in?

We have dinner at your old friend Andy's. I meet his brother, and a week later when I sleep with him, you say, I didn't have that in mind at all.

You think he's too thin, too unsubstantial. A luftmensch, a man who lives on air. His voice on the phone sounds like a wire. He reminds me, This is just casual. But he says he feels passion. I say I love him because it rolls from my mouth during sex. I say, Let's go to Jamaica, one of those last-minute bargains. He says, There's not enough time. He dreams I send him postcards that say I'll love him forever. I send him blank cards with a note: Dreams don't mean.

You are glad when it ends.

You say, You need someone with more bone and muscle.

W e go to a cafe near school so often that we feel like regulars, but we don't look like most of the other clientele. We look soft and shabby next to the hard-edged punks who practically fill it up. They look like Death with their silver studs and black leather jackets and Cleopatra eyes. You hate them. I see them as perpetual trick-or-treaters. I don't tell you that I didn't look much different my last year of college. We look at a girl who has black hair with yellow roots, shaven strips above her ears.

What if your child had hair like that? you ask. I wouldn't care, I say.

You wouldn't allow it. You say, I won't allow my children to play with yours. I say, I'm going to be the kind of mother that other kids will tell their mothers about. They'll say, But so-and-so's mother lets them sleep out in the backyard.

I have an image of myself in a pink-and-white-striped 50s dress of my mother's, red lipstick, and curly but controlled hair, tiptoeing to the lawn where my little darlings and their friends are giggling and playing old maid by the light of a flashlight. Motherhood is easy, I'm thinking. Left to their own devices, children will be good. That image fades into one of Ethel Rosenberg, same era, snapped in her kitchen, a dishrag hanging on the side of the frame.

America treats its people badly, I say.

What do you mean? you say.

It fries its dissidents.

How can you feel that way and teach people to be Americans? you ask.

This is old territory. I say as always that we're as American as anybody else. Who should be teaching immigrants? Some CEO?

And then you say, as always, Yeah, you're right, it could be worse, indicating them, shaking your head toward the sharp-edged kids at the next table. They could be the ones explaining citizenship and gerunds.

And what else should we do? A job is what I'm waiting for, a real job--a job that involves changing things. Like the world. As long as there's no lobbying or fund-raising. As long as it's something I believe in. Pure in its way.

And you, you want to teach people about art. Which means, practically speaking, grad school. Art history for you, journalism or politics for me. But not yet, we're still young.

With you, it's not like a constant buzz. It's not the brief heady rush with Andy's brother. But I imagine us in five years, ten years, sleeping together in a cozy apartment with hardwood floors and thick tapestries, pursuing our separate lives during the day, meeting after work in cafes such as this one, maybe even this one, at this table, in these chairs, repeating familiar patterns of conversation and argument, grown precious because so familiar, so dear.

You give yourself a birthday party. Your old lovers are there along with friends from high school, some people from work, from earlier jobs, and from the new neighborhood. I buy you cheesecake from the place the cafe buys it. Andy says, I'm her oldest friend. I think, But I know her the best. And through you and his brother I know all about him.

I know about college road trips and about "Hiawatha," which his father used to recite to put the kids to bed. I cut the cheesecake, and Andy serves it.

Your eyes look black in the candlelight, you look like a Pre-Raphaelite in my present, a crown of dried flowers I bought at the Renaissance Faire. Everyone has given you things to wear. They are all golden and from other countries or eras: a tiny polished earcuff from Mexico, a small chai pendant, hoop earrings, an Indian scarf with bright threads. You are wearing them all and someone momentarily stuns us with a bright flashbulb. We are all your courtiers, bringing you offerings in candlelight and vanilla incense in an almost-safe urban neighborhood of new and old immigrants. We are adorning you like a tree, like a chorus in a school pageant on pluralism. I wonder what it is that makes people feel so proprietary. Are we creating you in our own image, are we feeding the image you have of yourself, do we see in you the golden dreams our grandfathers brought with them to America?

My great-grandmother, the story goes, came to America in 1920, alone. She was 55. Took trains from Kiev to Ostend, a boat to New Orleans, a bus to Shreveport. We do not know what she ate along the way, whom she spoke to, whether she crocheted on the trip or attempted to learn English. She was a pigeon-faced woman who had lived for 15 years on letters, written in Yiddish, from her sons in America. We do not have on record how she felt about the Revolution of 1905 or her preference for the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks. We assume she knew enough Russian to communicate with the peasants who traded in the market once a week. We do not know how she chose or was chosen by her husband, or whether she fantasized, like Catherine the Great, about horses. Her name was Soreh-Leah. We do not know of any nicknames.

She met her daughters-in-law when they were already mothers. She could not speak to her grandchildren. She made tablecloths and bedspreads, sat on the porch out of the way of "the colored girl," reading month-old copies of the Forverts. She insisted the chickens in the backyard be slaughtered in the ritual manner. She said she wanted to die in the Old Country, her body cleansed in the town mikvah, wrapped in a shroud sewn by the burial society, and placed next to the remains of her husband, killed in a pogrom. In 1928 the whole family accompanied her to New Orleans, bearing bundles of cloth from their store, a box of elementary-school readers, and a copy of my grandfather's degree from the Louisiana School of Commerce and Industry.

My great-grandmother Soreh-Leah left America just before the Crash, never having seen the Grand Canyon, a sweatshop, or the Statue of Liberty. She did, however, says my father, take a great liking to baseball in the last few years and would go with the family to games of the Saint Louis Cardinals' farm team, which had spring training in Shreveport.

In her later letters, she said Kishinev looked dry and brown after the tidy white clapboards and wild roses and sweet magnolia trees of Louisiana. Young people, she said, were studying in the gymnasia in Stalingrad and eating traif with the goyim. She missed the outings in the car for fresh ice cream straight from a local dairy, the bright colors the Negroes wore, and most of all, especially in winter, she missed the convenience of indoor, pull-chain plumbing.

My grandfather was a tailor and made ladies' clothing and hats. And what did your grandfather do?

My grandfather was a farmer. She killed in the war.

He. My grandfather, he--I am thinking: The trouble is in Chinese there is no gender difference in the pronouns. I think of Spanish, where the gender of the possessive pronoun is determined by the object possessed.

The object obsessed. Gender determines everything. Think of plumbing, electricity. Sockets, wires.

My grandmother is small.

She pick fruit from the trees. I have picture.

She make cakes for the children. It is sad.

Can you bring the picture tomorrow?

Will you be here tomorrow? If it's cold, they will be in class, in the junior college named for the disabled man who promised he would free everyone of the four fears. If it is warm, they will stay home with their children or walk to the lake. Will you be here tomorrow? Will you speak to me in your language until I understand everything, even what is not said? Is it possible to hear everything?

I have ticket from the photo shop. What is that, color process?

Process, a way of making or doing something. What is the process for learning English? What is the process for registering for class? What is the process for getting your green card? What is the process for becoming a citizen?

And, teacher, what is proceed?

Proceed. Proceed is to go forward. We will proceed to the next lesson. We will proceed until the bell rings for the break. We will proceed with our lives until the time comes for us to be cleansed and wrapped in our shrouds and placed next to our next of kin. When I bought my new wallet, it came with a card that said, In case of emergency call ___. I showed it to you and you wrote God.

We make a Sabbath. You've washed your floors, there's the slight scent of Murphy's Oil Soap. Your floors are bright, reflect the candles. I've made the challah. We pull off hunks of it and add salt--a ritual we just read about--to make palpable the curse or prophecy: You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.

You praise my challah. It's thick, studded with golden raisins. I thought of you as I kneaded it, smoothed it with the heel of my hand, braided its ropes, brushed egg on the top so it would be brown and crunchy. Night is falling around us, and you've kept the lights down. I squint to make things even hazier. You look like me, I say. I always say this. No, you say, you look like me, which is what you always say. Is it the nose? I ask. Is it the eyes? you ask, or, Are it the eyes? Are it the ears? I ask. The hairs? you ask. The mouth? I ask. And then we drink more wine.

Igo to Michigan for a weekend retreat on prayer and ritual, and when I come back, you've quit smoking and I've decided to keep kosher. Who knows, I say, maybe my hair will turn reddish and you'll start growing taller. Until we are twins, I think. Until we are the same. Today you'll have none of it.

Why are you like that? you ask. We aren't the same person. An echo of the elementary-school playground--She's copying us, she's trying to be like us.

We're in your apartment and the phone rings. I reach to pick it up. You take the receiver away.

I wasn't going to pretend to be you, I say.

I am reading about hidden homosexual couples. I read of Jane Addams. I know you have admired Jane Addams since third grade, but I don't tell you about this. You would say that some wishful lesbian was making it up for a dissertation topic, that lesbians can't imagine anyone living a life without sex. Or you would just say, Oh, in the noncommittal, disapproving way you have, and wait for the topic to finish itself off.

But I root for them, the way I felt happy for Eleanor Roosevelt when those erotic letters were published, even though everyone said it was just the conventional way women friends addressed one another. Because I would rather believe in lovesome and love-full than loveless, I cherish rumors of the secret lives of stern-faced reformers. Being happy in each other, we find everything easy, George Eliot wrote. About a man. About a gnomish man and she was a horseface of a woman. But to have that contentment to float on--

Sometimes I get glimpses of it with you. Like odd sightings of God when edges of my disbelief burn off. But only glimpses. As if I'm on a tiny island and every so often notice the edge of a craft. No. As if I'm drifting on a raft and every so often look up and see the edge of something on the horizon. No, actually it's like being on the el, Howard Street line, and sometimes seeing, through short straight boulevards, through the trees, the lake flash in the sun. I know the lake's there but don't trust it not to disappear.

At the Art Institute is a painting by Anselm Kiefer called The Order of Angels. It is grainy and brown and black, like sand painting. Metal strips lead from labels at the top--Cherubim, Seraphim, etc--to mounds of brown and black swirls. In between is darkness that I think is the void, but the guide says it is God. The big black bags are sacs where angels are made, factories going in spite of everything, small smoky fires after the Great Flood. And now I begin to understand: You have always believed in God. You trust the shadow voids on either side of Sheridan Road. I always want proof.

I decide I'm calling you too often, decide to wait for you to call first.

Then you call. It's business. You ask me for authors your level five students would understand. I say Hemingway and Zoshchenko and Judy Blume and then I feel you just called for that, using me for information, and I say, real snippy, Anything else? And you say, What's wrong with you? You say, You just asked me about library cards last week, you always make me feel like I'm wronging you, a criminal, I have to walk on eggshells.

Fine, I say, if that's what you feel. I hang up, not reluctantly.

I unplug my phone for a week, and nod to you in the hallways. I realize it is easier than I thought not to run into you. I stay after class for long-needed student conferences.

At home, alone, I think of you. I think of love.

I love you because you said, after a dinner party at my apartment, that Deirdre, my salamander, goes crazy when there are people in the room, she splashes and crawls up the sides of her bowl. I loved you for noticing.

I remember how last month I read in the paper a description of your neighborhood as a wild assortment of old Russian Jews, old Poles, Russian emigres from the 70s, and young professionals. I called you because of the word wild. And then I asked, Has anything happened since we last talked? Which had been 15 minutes before. You said, Oh, a lot. I nearly believed you.

I love you because you still believe in God. Because in the times I do, I want to tell you. I don't believe in the liturgy; you don't believe in changing it, or even getting rid of the pronoun so that it is never He but always God God God--or G-d, as you write it, the same way one of my students writes it. He is a Jew, the one Jew out of the wild assortment in the room.

Our first love, separately, was the Pre-Raphaelite movement. You showed me romantic paintings, Elizabeth Siddal and Janie Morris the models. I told you about Janie's husband William, who tried to reform England by going back to medieval craftsmanship. I loved him for his energy. Because he tried to remake his country and spoke in long polite then torrential sentences about blackened skies and dehumanized men. Because he lashed out against imperialism. But Janie didn't love him.

Because he was unkempt and distracted and had a big scratchy beard. Because he leapt out of bed at 5 AM to weave. Because he thought if you found the right recipe a whole new society would tumble into place. Because he loved her as the Ideal Woman and she did not see in him the Ideal Man.

Love was between the craftsman's fingers and the thread, in the shaping of the clay. Love was in the changing from sand to glass, love was the river of fire he went through that transformed him from bourgeois to socialist. Love was the eyes seeing what the clay could become, was in the idea of beauty everywhere, of useful delightful beauty, love was in reform.

The reason we don't love our jobs: because we imagine our students speaking like statesmen. We aren't mothers who love watching the process of learning, who delight in each new word. No, we want them to hatch full grown. We want more, we want gold and riches everywhere.

We don't want to wait.

We want gold. We are greedy immigrants to this new land I can't find. We gobble all the seeds and end up with ground that lies fallow.

I decide to stop over, as if nothing has happened. You are doing laundry. I toss you warm clothes. I hold them against my cheek for one micromillisecond, thinking of my dream. What are you doing? you ask. Looking for a label, I say. I find the washing instructions. Obviously an import: Wash with cold water and snowflakes. I toss it to you.

I bring a copy of my great-grandmother's picture to class.

Teacher, she leave and go visit and not come back?

Why she came to America if she leave? She go alone to Soviets?

Teacher, you desire memory?

I pass around the Xerox, a copy of the sepia print at home, where she stares, openmouthed, into the camera. She looks angry.

I try to imagine her as a bush-league-baseball fan.

I say: In America, she went to baseball games. Have any of you seen baseball in Chicago? The Cubs, the White Sox?

This gets us through the rest of the afternoon. After class, you wait for me, we go to the cafe, unpack our papers, begin work. Like always.

W e go back to the cafe the next day. We grade, talk, drink coffee, watch punks. Then we gather our papers from the table and put them in our Crate & Barrel bags (mine gray, yours tan). Our red pens go into the vinyl pen holders in the zippered front compartments. It's already dark. I'm filled with the froth of two double cappuccinos. We decide to walk partway along the lake.

The moon is tangled among the branches of the three willow trees at Fargo. I stoop down for a handful of cold sand that feels like sugary snow. I say, Hold out your hand, and I sprinkle sand on your open palm. I grab--grasp--your hand. Listen, I say.

My fingers brush the side of your face. They touch your earcuff. Could I go through with this? Now?

You wriggle your hand free. You turn your head.

That's all it takes.

We keep walking.

You ask if I'm sure it's too late to apply to teach summer school at the downtown campus. You tell me that your Israeli neighbor has bought health insurance for his cat. You tell me about the video that the industrial cooking department offered to ESL. It's about catering a picnic. You say, I thought it might be good for explaining about holidays. They could talk about their own feast days and celebrations and maybe bring food the next week.

I ask if the sound quality's good, or if, at least, the movie's funny.

I don't know, you say. You offer to go to the AV room for the video. You offer to show me the newsletter you got in the mail about teaching ESL in Europe.

And so on, until we get to Devon, where you have to turn off to go home.

After a few steps you turn around and wave, as if to say, No hard feelings, and I smile and walk a half block to the el, climb up to the platform, and settle onto a bench to wait. I look down in your direction, even though you're bound to be out of sight by now; I see only winking cars and the outline of trees that stand in front of the lake, strangers on the other side of the platform. I look down at my naked hands and know without having to tell myself: This is how my life will be from now on, forever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by S.L. Wisenberg

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Alice August LaCapra State Farm
September 29
Performing Arts
Patience and Sarah Theater Wit
October 12

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories