Memories of the Melancholy Writer: Falling in Love

As far as Irina was concerned, there was nothing wrong with reading yellowish moldy magazines, that normally resided in the ugly wooden cabinet on the balcony of her third floor apartment, during her summer break.  Her father subscribed to the popular monthly science magazine imaginatively called Science and Life and never threw out the old issues allegedly on account of home improvement advice they carried on the last two pages.  Instead, they were banished to the family balcony and locked in their dilapidated prison never to be seen or read again.  When Irina discovered this treasure hoard in her constant search of reading material, she felt like Captain Blood who had just found a chest filled with emeralds and rubies in the bowels of the boarded Spanish ship.

She liked to pretend she was rescuing the unfortunate indifferently bound magazines from unimaginable suffering in total darkness and neglect giving them a chance to redeem themselves by proving their worth to her.  Once divested of their information, they were released to the local paper recycling center pedantically bound into accurate stacks, to be reprocessed and transformed into the new issues or books.  Something about this circle of life appealed to Irina enormously.  All school year she was waiting for summer break so she could unearth her hidden trove and unhurriedly read about breakthroughs in the fields of discrete mathematics, medicine, biology or physics while hiding behind the wall of wild ivy on the balcony of her old Polish building, bathed in the warm honey-colored light.  Being in her early teens when this conspicuous discovery happened, she didn’t understand most of the articles, but the sense of accomplishment of reading real grown-up stuff was so rewarding she didn’t let that trivial fact upset her.  Better to know something than nothing at all.

For her, the best thing about those magazines were the stories and excerpts from the books published in the section called Science in Literature.  Each issue was devoted to a particular science topic, so the stories had to reflect it as well.  Trembling from excitement, Irina ploughed through The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (in the Psychology issue), Strong Medicine by Arthur Hailey (in the Pharmacology issue), The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (unbelievably, in the Mathematics issue) and many others.  Irina wondered if her father ever made it to this particular section, knowing his taste in books.  He preferred war narratives and mysteries, not bothering with metaphysical connection between the mind and the matter.

Books were Irina’s refuge as long as she could remember herself.  She was taught how to read at the age of three by her exhausted grandmother, who couldn’t cook voluminous family dinners and read to her insatiable grandchild at the same time.  One day she made an executive decision and started Irina on her letters, and a few months later Irina’s parents proudly demonstrated her precocity to their astonished friends.  By the time Irina was thirteen, she’d read almost all the books in the family library and moved on to the local one, where she was on good terms with the two elderly librarians.  Both of them swore they’d never seen a mind so inquisitive and a memory so prodigious as in this tiny Jewish girl with sweet green eyes and a monumental nose.  Around that time her mother started throwing temper tantrums every time she saw Irina with a book.

“You have to stop this stupid reading and go outside!  Look at yourself – you’re losing your eyesight already and one of your eyes is getting smaller than the other from the excessive reading!” she’d scream in frustration.

“Bad eyesight is hereditary, Mom.  You and Papa both wear glasses, so there’s a 70% chance I would have bad eyesight as well.  As for the smaller eye, it’s because nature abhors symmetry.  Nothing is the same size in the human body.  One foot is always a little bigger than the other, one hand is a tiny bit longer and even the nostrils are not 100% identical.  Don’t worry about it, though.  Glasses would totally obscure this small difference.” Irina’d assure her mother reasonably, secretly proud of the fact she’d retained so much information from the Human Body issue.  Unfortunately, an answer like that would prompt her grandmother to deliver the stunning coup de grace, which Irina couldn’t contradict in any meaningful fashion:

“You’ll become a bluestocking and nobody’ll want to marry you!  Who needs a bookish wife?  Do you think you can be a professor or something in this anti-Semitic country of ours?  You’re a Russian- speaking Jew living in Lvov, Ukraine, where everybody must speak Ukrainian.  This is the place where dreams of stupid girls burn in flames.  Here, peel some potatoes for dinner, this will be a much better use for your time.”

Then summer would arrive, wrapped in the smells of warm earth and heated cobblestones, brought by the pointless flight of the lightest transparent spider webs.  It would awaken the huge walnut tree right outside the window of Irina’s room, so it can start its yearly ritual of gossiping with the wild ivy and morning glory flowers, which were growing on the balcony in happy fecundity.  Irina imagined that the tree, the ivy and the morning glory vines were her guardians, sent by the ancestors from another world, because as long as Irina was under their tenuous protection, her female watchdogs were happy – at least she was reading outside, breathing in fresh air.

She was fourteen when she stumbled on the Blood Disorders issue.  Irina was luxuriating on her balcony in the armchair with her legs propped up on the tiny stepstool, savoring a glass of lemonade and leafing through slightly wet pages of the fluttering magazine, when she heard a low susurrus from the Science in Literature section.  This was not unheard of.  Irina could always hear the voices of books and other published works, if she’d focus her attention on them.  These voices were usually guiding her through the library to the books she would ultimately select for reading.  The Science and Life’s voice was a low, defeated whisper, but this time for some reason it contained younger, crisper notes of love and other demons.

Puzzled, Irina quickly finished the article on anemia, making a mental note to check her iron and vitamin B12 levels at some point, and flipped to the story of the month.  She was mildly annoyed when she realized that the first couple of pages were ripped out, so the name of the writer, the title of the story and the beginning were nowhere to be found.  Who knows why her normally accurate father would tear out the pages from the periodical he knew his daughter particularly liked.  Maybe he needed a few pieces of paper to light the tiled stove in his room, and the poor magazine fell victim to necessity, since it was a December issue.

Sighing, Irina prepared to resign herself to a few minutes of confusion while trying to figure out the plot and characters, but the first sentence grabbed her attention with such power that she felt her heartbeat quicken.  “No one except the two of them understood the real basis or knew the origins of that unforeseeable love.”  Irina suddenly felt a light breeze that ruffled her short blond hair and made goosebumps spring on her arms.  And a few seconds later she was lost in the snow storm somewhere between Madrid and Paris in the luxury Bentley convertible along with Billy Sanchez de Avila and Nena Daconte.

They were a very young couple, teenagers, really, who married a few days ago somewhere on another continent and were in Europe on their honeymoon.  They belonged to the two of the most illustrious families in their unknown town and were rich, beautiful and madly in love, having just met on the beaches of Marbella three months prior to their wedding.  When the ambassador of their country met them in the Madrid airport, he bestowed on them the gifts from their parents: a mink coat and a huge bouquet of roses for Nena Daconte, and a key to the car for Billy Sanchez.  As Nena Daconte took the flowers, she pricked her finger on the thorn, but handled it with charm and grace.  When she realized that her finger had never stopped bleeding, she thought nothing of it at first.  Billy Sanchez, enraptured by the new car, drove for eleven hours without noticing that the mild weather of Spain had changed to the much colder winter of France, and snow had started falling around them, blanketing the countryside.

Somewhere close to Bordeaux Nena Daconte threw out the bloody handkerchief and stuck her hand out of the window, hoping that the cold and wind would have a cauterizing effect on her wound.  When she realized she was wrong, she made a feeble joke about how anyone who might want to find them would just have to follow the trail of her blood in the snow.  By the time they reached suburbs of Paris on Tuesday, her blouse, skirt and mink were covered in blood and her lips acquired a scary blue tint.  Billy Sanchez, crazed with worry, drove her to the hospital where a copper-skinned physician admitted her and immediately took her to the ICU.  Billy Sanchez held on to Nena Daconte’s hand until he was separated from her by the nurses and was eventually left alone, stupefied by the chain of events.

He didn’t go to the Plaza Athenee, where a honeymoon suite was waiting for him, but took a room in the dingy hotel a few blocks away from the hospital and spent an agonizing week trying to see Nena Daconte.   Every day he was firmly rebuffed by the hospital staff because visiting hours were on Tuesday only and France was a civilized country where laws must be obeyed.  Not knowing French, Billy Sanchez felt mute, confused and forlorn, so on Friday he decided to make a trip to his country’s embassy.  The embassy official wasn’t impressed by his illustrious name and advised him to wait another four days and visit the Louvre in the meantime.  On the way back to the hotel, Billy Sanchez got lost, and by the time he figured out that the hotel’s address was printed on the business card in his pocket, he was so emotionally drained that he didn’t leave his frugally appointed room for another three days, busying himself with washing the blood off Nena Daconte’s mink coat and staring at the ceiling.

When he came to the hospital on Tuesday, he walked through the snaking corridors until he suddenly saw the copper-skinned doctor, who had admitted Nena Daconte a week ago.  What he told Billy Sanchez was unimaginable.  Nena Daconte had bled to death on Thursday evening, after sixty hours of failed efforts by the most qualified specialists in France.  Everybody was looking for Billy Sanchez: first at the Plaza Athenee, then at the embassy (the official who was talking to him received the cable with Billy Sanchez’s name an hour after he left), then his picture was broadcasted on the TV and his description on the radio.  Nena Daconte’s parents flew in and waited for him in the tiny hospital chapel, but eventually called off the search and took the embalmed body of their only daughter back home.  On Monday, when Billy Sanchez was overwhelmed with sorrow and love for Nena Daconte a few blocks away from the hospital where she was no more, the burial had already taken place across the ocean in the small cemetery a few meters away from the house where they first discovered their true selves.

Billy Sanchez refused the offer of tranquilizers and left the hospital without thanking the copper- skinned doctor.  He needed to find someone and beat his brains out in revenge for his own misfortune.  He didn’t notice that the dismal greyish January rain gave way to the beautiful white snow without a trace of blood, and the Parisians around him were celebrating the first big snowfall in ten years.

When Irina finished the story, she realized she was very cold.  The balmy summer day couldn’t warm her up anymore, and she was shivering like a wet kitten.  The desperation of a great loss bled through the disheveled pages right into her heart.  And for the first time in a couple of days, she suddenly didn’t want to be alone.  She walked unsteadily into the kitchen where her grandmother was making meatballs and sat heavily on the chair.

“What’s wrong with you?” Her grandmother was a woman of few words, and all of them to the point.

“I just read a very sad story,” said Irina, horrified by the tears that threatened to make their appearance any moment now. “Grandma, do you happen to know the name of a writer who wrote a story about a girl named Nena Daconte who bled to death in a Paris hospital on her honeymoon?”

“God forbid!” Grandmother spat three times over her left shoulder and stared at Irina accusingly.  “Why are you reading such terrible stories and then come into my kitchen to scare me like that?  Can’t you do something more productive than upsetting your grandmother who is barely standing on her feet today?  Clean and cut these carrots right now, and stop your whining.  These books are making you crazy!”

She thrust a knife into Irina’s meek hands and imperiously left the kitchen to retrieve some ingredient from the pantry.  She always regarded books as a waste of time if they weren’t related to any school subject.  Irina began to wash the carrots, quietly berating herself for not offering her help sooner and bringing up the story in her grandmother’s presence.  Who wrote it? she wondered as she was methodically tearing off the green tops and caressing the knobby roots.  It was written in exquisite language with flowing sentences, poetic descriptions and a hint of supernatural that transcended the fact that it was translated from Spanish, as the tiny script at the end of the page informed the inquisitive readers.  Irina absentmindedly peered at a carrot and resolved to go to the library to look for a Spanish writer the moment her ordeal in the kitchen was over.

And so The Great Search has begun.  Everyone Irina knew was questioned about The Story.  The plot was described, the names of the two main characters revealed, and the only clue she had – the fact that is was translated from Spanish – was mentioned repeatedly.  The local librarians didn’t know anything about it, but suggested to start with Don Quixote, since Irina seemed to be interested in Spanish literature.  The two thick Don Quixote volumes spoke in the voice of clanking metal and whinnying horses, which did not sound like the mournful, but crisp voice of The Story, but were interesting nevertheless.

She wisely avoided her mother and went straight to her dad, whose contribution was that Nena Daconte probably died from hemophilia; that was the same disease Aleksey, the last Russian prince, would’ve definitely died from if he hadn’t been killed by the revolutionaries at the tender age of six.  This piece of information didn’t help at all.

Thus summer passed in futile search of the needle in the haystack.  When Irina returned to school in September, she mentioned The Story to her classmates and even to a few teachers, but none of them had read anything similar to it.  Then one of the boys, Albert, whose desk was next to Irina’s in Russian Literature class, suddenly offered his help.  Albert’s relative, it transpired, was a librarian in the University Library, and had access to the best books in the world.  If anyone was able to figure out the mystery of The Story, it had to be him.

Irina and Albert, whom everybody called Al, met one September evening in front of the high school and started toward the University, lively discussing their math homework.  Half an hour into their conversation they discovered that both of them were history buffs and their favorite historical period was medieval ages.  Consequently, they never made it to the library on that day.  They went to the park instead and spent the next few hours debating the wisdom of Philip the Fair’s decisions to expel the Jews from France in 1306 and to annihilate the order of the Knights Templar in 1307.  The huge oak trees whispered around them as if they wanted to be included in the discussion.  Only when the weak gleaming of the street lamps enveloped Irina’s and Al’s faces in the ethereal liminal light did they come back to 1986 and run to their respective homes.

Since that first date they became inseparable.  They did eventually visit the University Library, but Al’s relative was as unhelpful as the rest of the people confronted by the mystery of The Story.  However, by that time Irina was under the spell of love so The Story took a place on the back burner for a while.  Secretly, she compared Al and herself to Billy Sanchez and Nena Daconte and came to the conclusion their situations had nothing in common, for better or for worse.  For starters, she was pretty sure neither she nor Al had hemophilia, which was the most important thing.  Also, they weren’t rich, beautiful and ready to get married, but that was beside the point.

Irina’s grandmother promptly stopped worrying about Irina becoming a blue stocking and started worrying about her getting pregnant.  Irina tried to alleviate this particular concern by explaining that she didn’t plan to lose her virginity any time soon and was waiting for a special moment, which she would recognize instantly if it happened, but didn’t know how to describe it.  Her grandmother wasn’t amused by this logic and pointed out that Al might hold a different opinion on the definition of the special moment.  Irina let it pass.  She was wondering about it herself quite a bit.

As it happened, the conspicuous topic did come up in their discussions from time to time when furtive kisses would exhaust Al’s restraint and drive Irina to the state of supreme confusion.  However, he never made a big deal out of Irina’s refusal to take their relationship to the next level.  She thought he understood she just wasn’t ready for the next step.  Privately, she decided to wait until her sixteenth birthday in September, and then hope that the stars would guide her to an appropriate decision.

This summer wasn’t entirely devoted to reading.  Irina and Al spent a lot of time together rather innocently: going to the movies, hiking and talking, always talking.  They had an unlimited supply of different topics and were never bored in each other’s company.  Of course, both of them still read a lot.  Al preferred philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Nikolay Berdyaev, while Irina was doggedly looking for the mysterious Spanish writer, jumping from Spain proper to Latin America.  That was how she discovered Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Of these three writers Marquez was the one she liked the most, having absorbed One Hundred Years of Solitude within a week.  This book sang to her, accompanied by a dynamic Latin drum.  The combination of realistic narrative and surrealistic events was irresistible to Irina, and she and Al spend many days discussing the unusual residents of the mythical Macondo.

When September came, though, Irina discovered, with a little help from her friends, of course, that Al cheated on her with the school slut, Alice.  She was deeply wounded not just by the fact of cheating, but mostly by his choice of girl.

“How could you do this to me?” she demanded the moment she was able to get Al alone.  “I thought what we had was special.  What the hell does she have that I don’t?”  Irina swore to herself she wouldn’t cry in front of him, because the situation was humiliating enough already.  Red eyes and a puffy nose were not going to improve anything.

“Are you sure you want to know the answer?” replied Al.  He looked very uncomfortable and annoyed, but Irina knew he wouldn’t walk away without speaking his peace.

“You know I do” Irina was the wronged party, after all.  She felt she deserved an explanation.

“I am a man of flesh and blood,” finally said Al.  “You weren’t interested, and she was.  That’s all.  Did you think I’d wait for you forever?”  He was looking at Irina defiantly, sure of himself and his position.

Traitorous tears were trying to get out from Irina’s steely grip, blurring her vision and thickening her voice.  It didn’t matter what she’d say, she realized.  It was all over.  What was love for her was something else for him.  The special moment never arrived and, it appeared, for a good reason.  He really wasn’t Billy Sanchez, and their love never happened.  This thought strangely pacified Irina.  She wiped an itinerant tear and asked a question that had bothered her for some time.

“What are you even talking to her about?  I bet the last book she read was a collection of fairy tales, and that was quite a long time ago.”

Al turned to leave.  “We don’t talk much,” he said.  “I find it unnecessary.  Plus I don’t think you’d stop talking to me just because of this, right?  After all, it’s not like you have many friends.”

This was a low blow, and Irina felt it in her gut.  “You know my favorite quote from Omar Khayyam?” she said, trying to smile with trembling lips.  “You better starve, than eat whatever/And better be alone, than with whoever.”

She had a momentary satisfaction of seeing his cocksure expression waver a little.  “I’ll survive without you, Al.  Good luck with Alice.”

At that, she turned and left, trying to walk at a leisurely pace so as not to spoil the effect by running to the bathroom and bawling her heart out.  At least her grandmother will sleep soundly tonight, Irina thought with bitter humor.  No need to worry about unwanted pregnancy anymore.

Heavy tears were slowly falling from her eyes, making tiny splashes on the tiled floor.  If somebody would want to find me, Irina reflected suddenly, they just have to follow the trail of my tears.  The Story was ruling her life, whether she liked it or not.

The rest of the year passed eventfully, this being the last year of high school.  Everybody was getting ready for the college entrance exams and looking forward to self-actualization and adult life.  Al tried to patch things up with Irina several times, following her home after school and swearing that the fling with Alice was over and done; but she never accepted the olive branch of peace.  She couldn’t forgive his betrayal and was flabbergasted by the ease with which he threw Alice away when she lost the air of novelty for him.  But try as she might, she couldn’t forget him.

Luckily, Irina’s parents soon provided her with the ultimate distraction in the form of immigration to the United States.  In the beginning she felt like words were stolen from her mouth and whatever was coming out was colorless, like underwear washed too many times.  She enrolled in the ESL program in a local community college and was secretly mortified by the fear that she would never be able to speak English fluently.  In about three months, though, Irina shyly asked her teacher to recommend a book she could read.  The teacher suggested to start with anything written by the redoubtable Danielle Steel.

“You’ll see,” he said with a dry smile.  “She only uses about three hundred words in all of her books so if you read one, the rest of them will be a piece of cake.”

Having finished Family Album and No Greater Love, Irina graduated to Sydney Sheldon and read The Other Side of Midnight and Rage of Angels with the increasing degree of comfort with the English language.  These books didn’t whisper to her; they screamed in loud boastful voices, bursting with primordial energy.  She felt her reading senses assaulted by the glossy style and charming platitudes and bravely embarked on The World According to Garp by John Irving, which she bought for one dollar at a library sale, attracted by its sophisticated prep school drawl.  It took her two months to get through Garp’s intricate life story because of the complexity of the style and the abundance of the new words.  The pocket Russian-English dictionary Irina was always carrying in her capacious bag didn’t survive the long subway rides and midnight reading sessions and came apart at seams.  By the time she finished the book, however, she only needed to consult it in special cases.

In about a year Irina realized reading in English language was as enjoyable for her as reading in Russian.  The images conjured by the words on the paper were coming naturally to her once more.  Al was a distant memory, which didn’t pain her anymore, because she was preoccupied with the immediacy of her new life.  She was finally ready to continue with The Great Search.

One dismal winter day, when the sky was full of pregnant heavy clouds, Irina left the office where she was working as a Data Entry Clerk and took a stroll up the Fifth Avenue.  She entered the gigantic Barnes and Noble store and was immediately absorbed by its relaxing atmosphere and the multitude of soft voices coming from the sturdy shelves.  She had a curious premonition that something important was bound to happen that day.  Irina waited in line at the information desk, and when the hippie-looking sales assistant asked how he can help her, she tried to explain what exactly she was looking for: a story written in Spanish by someone who spoke of death and love as if they were two sides of the same coin.

The sales assistant was the first person in Irina’s life who didn’t become perplexed with her question.  In his opinion, he said, Marquez would be the best bet.  Irina readily agreed with this assessment, admitting that she had only read one book by this writer but was definitely open for more.

She traveled through the maze of book shelves to the letter M in the Fiction section, and soon became immersed into the world of mysterious people who lived on the edge of a dangerous abyss protected only by their connection to the things that were impossible to describe and could only be felt.  The characters from Marquez’s books were so full of life, yet so aware of death: it was disconcerting and exhilarating at the same time.  It was like falling in love.

Many years later, when she was telling her own children about this experience, Irina was still able to recall the atmosphere of the store, the low whisper of the books on the shelves and the moment of piercing happiness when she opened a collection of stories on the Table of Contents and read the title of the last story: The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow.  Not believing her luck, Irina fumbled with the pages until she found the first sentence: “At nightfall, when they reached the frontier, Nena Daconte realized that her finger with the wedding band on it was still bleeding.”

And just like that The Great Search was finally over.   Irina stood with the book in her trembling hand, not realizing that people around her were running toward the windows to look at the ethereally beautiful snow that blanketed Manhattan completely within an hour.

The Game of Chess: An excerpt from the story

“Please, not again!”

David was so tired of poking and prodding, he almost cried when he heard a knock on the door.

The hellish ordeal started two weeks ago, when a sharp chest pain suddenly interrupted his peaceful repose and made him gasp for air, like a fish out of its pond.  During the ambulance ride, punctuated by the wailing siren and Zoe’s anxious cries, David reflected on the fact that somehow he didn’t think he was dying at that time, which he tried to communicate to the people around him so they would just leave him alone for a bit until the pain subsided.  This profound conviction was shaken a little, when a middle-aged and suitably grim cardiologist told him that he had a massive heart attack.  Three days later another middle-aged and grim cardiologist performed a bypass surgery, and since that time David had been cooped up in the hospital with tubes sticking out of him every which way.  Most of the time he was in a morphine induced slumber, but sometimes he found himself in that liminal state, when he just hovered on the edge between consciousness and sleep, being neither fully here nor there.  But no matter where David’s spirit was, his body was still present in this world, and therefore, there was always someone at the door, checking his temperature, recording his blood pressure, reinserting his catheters, drawing blood, making him cough, examining his sutures until he felt that the only reason for his existence is to be the object of constant medical attention.  Then again, what can you expect at the ripe age of 86?

Today was one of the good days, though.  Faye, his favorite nurse, was a petite Asian girl, exquisite like one of the tiny German porcelain statuettes Zoe kept in the family china.  She had a gentle touch and a beautiful smile, so David minded it much less when she was the one who had to poke him with the needles or check his catheters.  He felt that physical discomfort might be a fair price for the pure aesthetic pleasure of watching Faye efficiently perform her sometimes unsavory duties.  Still, he would have preferred to be left alone once in a while.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Bernstein!” she chimed in her high musical voice that always made him feel like she is one breath away from bursting into a song, “No needles, no procedures!  You have a visitor.”

She ushered a tall cadaverous man into David’s room and disappeared behind the door.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Bernstein.”  The visitor tried to shake David’s hand, but quickly reconsidered the gesture, assessing the amount of tubes and electronic equipment near the bed.  He was dressed in a somber black suit with a tasteful dark red tie.  “My name is Joe Brown of Brown, Little, Maxx and Black, L.L.C.  I am here in the capacity of legal executor of Mr. Robert Rubin’s will.  You were a close friend of the gentleman, I assume?”

“Robert?  Close friend, you said?” David slowly searched the depths of his befuddled memory for the name, coming up with nothing.  “I am afraid I can’t recall him, Mr. Brown.  Maybe I am not the right David Bernstein?  It’s a rather common name, I think.”

“Well, let me see.”  Mr. Brown nimbly scooted around the bed to the chair and comfortably plopped himself down. “You are David Aronovich Bernstein, born October 29, 1930 in Odessa, Ukraine.  Graduated from Lvov Polytechnic Institute in 1953 with a degree in mechanical engineering and were employed at the Lvov Bus Factory.  Am I right so far?”  David shook his head, speechless.

“I thought so.” Mr. Brown permitted himself a satisfactory smile.  “You and your family immigrated to the United States in 1975, where you worked as an engineer at ConEdison until you retired in 1999.  We are very thorough in our job, Mr. Bernstein.  Mistakes are extremely rare in our line of work.”

“OK, I admit, you got the right person.” David frowned at Mr. Brown, trying to concentrate on the lawyer’s face, but finding that impossible for some reason.  “However, I still don’t recall a Mr. Rubin, which is kind of strange, since he apparently made a bequest to me in his will.  Don’t you find it peculiar, Mr. Brown?”

“Do you play chess, Mr. Bernstein?” The question came as a surprise, which was exactly how it was intended.

“I… I do, or, rather did, as a matter of fact.  But I just don’t see how this is relevant to our conversation, Mr. Brown.”  David was uncomfortable and this bizarre business was making him very annoyed indeed.

“In a minute you will, Mr. Bernstein.” The lawyer’s beady eyes securely held David’s muddled gaze, as if trying to transmit some vital information to him without actually speaking.  “Mr. Rubin was a Candidate Master, like yourself, I believe.  He played chess all his life.  As a matter of fact, death caught him in the middle of the game.”

“Wait!” David suddenly captured the tail of a fleeting memory.  “I remember now.  I did know Bob Rubin, although I never actually met him in person.  A long time ago I played a few games with him by mail.  I couldn’t always go to the chess competitions, but at that time it was possible to still pass the necessary levels playing games via letter exchange.  He lived in Tallinn, right?  Oh, God, it was such a long time ago!  I must remember to tell my children about it, they will love it.”  David unexpectedly felt a burst of energy and fumbled with the controls of his bed trying to lift himself to a more comfortable position.  “May I ask how he died?”

“It was a heart attack.”

The words cut through David’s foggy brain like a knife through a fresh loaf of bread.  “You don’t say,” he mumbled, trying to avoid thinking about his own very close brush with death.  “Poor Bob.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Bernstein,” said Mr. Brown, sounding contrite.  “I shouldn’t have upset you.  Would you like to see what Mr. Rubin had left for you?  It might cheer you up.”   The lawyer produced an old shoebox from his bag and put it on a bedside table.

“Yes, yes, of course,” David took the box in his hands and examined it carefully.  It was very old, held together with strips of clear scotch tape, and definitely not made in the US.  “Let’s see what it is.  I am actually extremely surprised that Bob would leave anything to me.  I mean, I’ve never even seen the man.”

He lifted the fragile lid and peered inside.  He saw an old chess set and a few yellowed letters in the envelopes that brought a whole lifetime of memories back.  He would’ve recognized those square envelopes anywhere.  Only in the USSR would people write the address before their name, with the zip code in a separate section at the bottom.  The whimsical pictures on the left side were so pale with age they were barely recognizable, but if you looked carefully, you could still make them out.  Bewildered, David picked up the first envelope with a picture of a biker tearing through a sketchy forest and carefully took out the letter.  And just like that, he was back in time of the five-year plans, survivor optimism, communism right around the corner and post-war hunger.

November 2, 1952

Hello, Robert.

My name is David Bernstein, and I am very grateful to you for agreeing to play a Candidate Master game with me by mail.  Due to my class load, I am temporarily unable to travel, so this is the only chance for me to get the necessary points.  I am 22 years old and studying to be a mechanical engineer at the Lvov Polytechnic Institute.  I have a sister named Irina, who is 15 years old. I’ve played chess with my father since I was 10.  I’ve been a member of Lvov Chess School for the past 3 years, which helped me to refine my game.  I hope you will enjoy playing with me!

Responding to your first move to e4, I’ll go to e5.

David.

David dropped the letter back into the box.  “Well, my writing style has improved markedly since that time, I can assure you.” He smiled sheepishly and looked at Mr. Brown, a little discombobulated.  “I just can’t believe Bob saved them,” he said, shaking his head.  “I wonder why he did it…”

Mr. Brown’s sharp eyes never left David’s face while he was reading the letter.  “I don’t know the answer, of course,” he finally admitted.  “I was thinking, Mr. Bernstein, would you like to recreate the game with me?”

“What, right now?” David was puzzled by the suggestion, but at the same time he felt the familiar tingling in his fingertips.  This always happened to him before the game.  He used to think his brain was charging his whole body with energy by sending electrical currents everywhere.  He joked once that this was probably how one might feel if plugged into an outlet.  “Are you a chess player as well, Mr. Brown?”

“I’ve been known to play a game or two in my time,” modestly answered Mr. Brown.

“Well, in that case I’m afraid I won’t be able to offer you an anything stimulating in my present state of alertness,” said David.

“Don’t worry about it!” hastened Mr. Brown.  “We won’t actually be playing a new game, right?  Merely recreating the one you played with Mr. Rubin.  We have your moves in the letters, of course, so all we will have to do is to come up with countermoves.”  He smiled unexpectedly.  “Could be therapeutic.”

Waiting

I am always waiting for something.  When I was a child I was waiting for specific birthdays.  For some reason I thought that something very important is going to happen to me when I will be 19, 30 and 45 years old.  I was right so far: I got married when I was 19, my son was born when I turned 30, and I can’t wait for my next birthday to learn what life has in store for me at 45.

I was waiting for my kids to stop getting sick all the time, for my lucky stars to tell me what to do in terms of my career, for my parents to move closer to me, and most of all, for peace in my soul.  I am longing to be content with my life, but some unconscious black spot is always present in the back of my mind.  I feel that I lost my way somehow and not sure where to go from where I am.

I keep thinking that I am on the cusp of some defining event right now.  Everything that is happening around me is telling me that I am waiting for something.  I don’t know what it is.  I just hope it’s worth the wait.

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Waiting

Perla: A Short Story

Her overjoyed parents named her Perla, and there never had been a better match between the name and its bearer, for her skin had the creamy color and the rosy undertone one customary sees in a mother-of-pearl.   She was the source of almost hysterical joy for her mother, tiny Rochl of the troubled eyes; and unabashed adoration for her father, the imposing Meyer, whose corpulent figure could be found making a nuisance of himself in the nursery at least ten times a day.  Perla was the only living child of Meyer and Rochl Litvak, and her five early departed and fiercely mourned siblings were probably annoying the Almighty every blessed day with their incessant pleas for her health and happiness.  Meyer owned the biggest clothing store in Odessa on the prestigious Deribasovskaya Street, and as such was in the perfect position to shower his precious daughter with the most luxurious layette that could be purchased for money in the year of our Lord 1897.  The elderly grandparents, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, in short, the crème de la crème of Odessa, were bringing their good wishes along with the mounds of toys and tchotchkes to the sprawling Litvak house in a steady stream for days; and every little trinket was properly cataloged and stored in a safe place, waiting for the time when the baby would surely have the need for it.  It was a huge blow, therefore, when a few months after the happy occasion the family realized that Perla couldn’t hear anything but the most obnoxious noises.

At first poor Rochl was so devastated, that she even voiced an opinion that cast a huge doubt on Adonai’s involvement in the lives of his chosen people, because if He did care about them, He surely couldn’t have punished her so cruelly for the sins she’d never committed.  She was promptly severely reprimanded by Meyer’s minatory stare and a choir of scandalized relatives.  Who was she, after all, to question His will?  Our Lord, obviously, was trying to test the family’s resolve and devotion to Him in these trying times, and so they, the family, had no other choice but to accept the gift and the accompanying challenge with gratitude and submission.  After all, Perla was a woman, and a silent wife might mean a happier husband in a long run.  Assuming there would be a husband, of course.

This pious resolve was tested one more time a year later when Katz’s crazed horse ran amok and reared mightily with a horrifying scream right in front of Litvak’s first floor balcony, where Perla was innocently sitting in her baby crib.  She didn’t make a sound, but kept staring fixedly into space with her bottomless black eyes for hours after the incident, rigid, immobile and utterly unresponsive to the anxious prodding and probing of her mother.  The doctor, who was invited to see the baby, determined that she was in shock and would get better by and by.  In the next few days, however, Perla had her first epileptic seizure, and the fragile hope that she might one day have a semblance of normal life was shuttered once and for all.

Utterly destroyed by this new development, Rochl and Meyer went through the normal circles of hell reserved specifically for the parents of sick kids.  First they consulted the doctors who the extended family and multitude of friends were swearing by, then the most celebrated and highly paid ones, then they moved to the quacks and charlatans, and finally gave up on physicians and magicians alike.  With mute horror and quiet desperation, they accepted the fact that while Perla was a beauty, the likes of which Odessa had not seen since it was founded by an itinerant Spanish warrior turned Russian Admiral a century ago, she was deaf, mute and prone to seizures that plagued her at the most inopportune moments.  In the face of this calamity, tiny Rochl became almost invisible, and Meyer’s good humor retreated into the darkest corner of his soul, to be called upon only on special occasions, like Simchat Torah, Chanukah or Purim, when the public display of happiness (or what passed for it in this instance) was absolutely necessary.  Silence reigned in the once loud Litvak’s house.  Even the naughtiest of nephews were quiet as lambs at the family dinners.

When Perla turned four years old, though, something changed in Meyer’s demeanor.  His generous nature couldn’t cope with his unhappiness in silence any longer.  He opened his house to the impoverished branch of his family and once more it was awash with children’s laughter and adults’ screams.  Even the perpetually sad Rochl came to appreciate the benefits of this arrangement in time.  Seeing Perla playing with her little cousins, one could almost forget her unfortunate condition, because it was obvious that her mind was lively, her attitude cheerful and her behavior always gracious and polite, as befitted a Jewish girl from a good family.  She communicated by means of elegant gestures and timid little sounds, that were almost adorable, and the other children reciprocated in similar fashion.  From afar the whole lot of them looked like a flock of birds, ready to fly away any minute, chirping and warbling contentedly.

As the time passed, Perla grew even more beautiful.  No longer a cute little child, she was a teenager of unsurpassed grace and poise, and countless matchmakers were spending sleepless nights tossing and turning in their beds trying to figure out a way to find her a husband.  Alas, the moment prospective parents of the groom heard about her shortcomings, they were politely refusing all further discussions of the match. By the time Perla was 17 years old, Rochl and Meyer had all but gave up on the idea altogether.  The thought that the worst thing that can happen to a Jewish girl had happened to their dear child crushed them, but they both had learned to live with disappointment.  Rochl was deeply involved in all negotiations around impending nuptials of all family members of marriageable age.  Everybody was supplied with a suitable dowry and the proper lineage of prospective husbands/wives was scrutinized in minute detail by her.  Perla was constantly by her side: always a bridesmaid, never a bride.  And Meyer lost himself in his work.

One day he found himself on his knees before the illustrious person of Madame Farber, noting the length of the hemline she was not entirely happy about.  The widow of a prosperous Kosher butcher, Madame Farber was getting ready for her next marriage, and needed a whole new set of clothes to impress her future husband.  Tall and stout, and a possessor of a fiery temper, she wasn’t an easy customer, and Meyer caught himself swearing silently, as he was attending to her sometimes outrageous demands.

“Just look at this dress!” boomed Madame Farber in a voice powerful, but a little stifled, owing to the tightness of the collar and a snug fit around the mighty waistline.  “It’s way too short; look, I can see the tops of my shoes, and I can’t breathe properly in this bodice!  Who was this thing made for, a stick with short legs?”  Swallowing a comment that would surely have sent the worthy widow storming out of the store, Meyer was trying to come up with a suitable answer when he heard a polite chuckle in the corner.

“If you pardon my interference, Madam and Monsieur,” a young man approached the piece de resistance with a polite bow.  “I happen to completely agree with Madam Farber; this dress was made for a woman of less generous proportions, but, oh, what a beautiful piece of work it is!  Just look at the lines of the sleeves, this perfect combination of ruffles and laces, these exquisite buttons and gorgeous silk inlays!  I must pay you a compliment, Madam, for only a woman of impeccable taste could’ve picked this masterpiece of a dress!  All it needs is a few small alterations and I would be more than happy attend to it, given a chance.”

This tirade was met with astonished silence from both Meyer and his customer.  Eventually, a small wheeze came from the blue ruffled tower that contained Madame Farber.

“If you want something from me, young man,” she announced, “you might consider not wasting your time here.  I don’t pay for compliments.”

“Oh, no, Madame,” smiled the unknown visitor.  “I was just reflecting on the fact that it would’ve been such a privilege to work on this dress and to make its beauty a perfect counterpoint to yours.”

“Who are you, and what are you doing in my store?” demanded Meyer, finally finding his voice in the face of this unprecedented assault on his home turf.

“My name is Benny Rozenthal and I am a dressmaker,” bowed the young man, “I don’t mean any disrespect, Reb Meyer.  I just arrived from Olevsk with my mother and, having heard from other people about your fine establishment, came to offer my services to you.”

“And why do you think that I need your services, Benny from Olevsk?” asked Meyer, laboriously getting up from the floor, where he was stuck during his whole conversation.

“Well, one doesn’t always know what he needs, until he gets it, my mother always says,” sagely answered Benny.  “I could be of a great help to you, Reb Meyer.  I know everything there is to know about making clothes.  My father, God rests his soul, was a dressmaker, as was his father before him.  I was brought up in our small shop among the dress pieces and learned to sew at the same time I learned to talk, I think.”

“Now, that’s something I believe,” muttered Meyer.  “If you sew the same way you talk, I wouldn’t be surprised if your clothes came out dripping with honey, just like your words.”

“You know what, young Benny,” Madame Farber suddenly chimed it, “I might allow you to work on my dress, and if I like it, I’ll put in a good word for you with Reb Meyer.”

“And who will pay for it if you don’t like it?” inquired Meyer, feeling his blood pressure rising.

“I will!” Benny almost screamed.  “I will reimburse you the cost of the dress and the materials, but I swear, Reb Meyer, if you give me this chance I won’t disappoint you!”

Needless to say, the dress was a smash hit with Madame Farber.  She requested that Benny would alter all of her clothes from that point on, and he happily agreed to it.  In time, his bubbling personality and genuine passion for clothes gained him Meyer’s approval as well.  And so it happened, that one stormy October evening about six months after the fateful encounter in Meyer’s shop, Benny was invited to the Litvaks’ house for dinner.

He arrived on time, dressed in his best clothes and clearly scared out of his wits.  His desire to make a good impression and not screw up was so obvious, that Rochl caught herself wanting to smooth his hair in a motherly way and tell him that everything will be all right.  He resolutely looked at his shoes, which were shined to perfection for the occasion, and grew red as a beat when somebody asked him a question.  When all the family members filed in and took their places at the dinner table, Benny finally lifted his eyes and beheld Perla for the first time.

If Benny was shy and tongue tied before that, Perla’s appearance effectively put the kibosh even on the little sounds that were coming from his direction.  Meyer didn’t know what to make of it, because he spent countless hours telling stories about Benny’s gift of gab.  Not willing to embarrass his guest, though, Meyer gently stirred conversation toward the subjects that required only minimal participation from him, with Rochl supplying most of the table talk.  When Benny left, stammering words of appreciation and eternal gratitude for the honor undeservedly granted to him, and leaving a pleasant smell of cologne in his wake, the family verdict was that the boy was pleasant, but unremarkable.  Meyer was a little perplexed and in the morning resolved to ask Benny about the mystery of his behavior at dinner.

“Say, Benny, what happened to you yesterday?” demanded Meyer, the moment he laid his eyes on Benny.  “I spent the past few months peddling your talent to my family, and you chose the first time you meet them to go all silent on me!  What was that all about?”

“Oh, Reb Meyer, I must be honest with you,” answered Benny.  “At first I was just too intimidated by your wonderful family, but when I saw your daughter, I suddenly understood that my whole life was about meeting her.  She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I am just so happy, I could cry!  Reb Meyer, I know I can’t offer much to a wife yet, but you know that I am a good dressmaker, possibly even a great one, I will work even harder for her.  I have ideas on how to grow the business, I will do whatever you want… Can I send a matchmaker to you?”

Meyer was shocked into silence.  “You know, Benny,” he allowed finally, “I knew you’re a little not right in your head the first time I met you, but now I am sure of it.  Are you saying you want to marry Perla, my daughter?”

Benny paled like a ghost and a fine sheen of sweat accumulated on his brow, but he drew himself up with all the willpower he possessed at that moment and said, “I do, don’t I?”

Meyer, as opposed to Benny, was turning puce.  “You know that Perla is deaf and mute, right?  Because if you are joking about my daughter’s future, I am going to rip your vest off and stick it into your mouth right now, you little schmuck!”

Benny looked properly horrorstruck at the suggestion and at the revelation alike.

“Well, I didn’t know that, still being a newcomer in Odessa,” he retorted after a considerable silence, “but it seems to me that I can talk for the both of us.  So what if she can’t speak or hear?  Her eyes tell me she has a brain behind them, and that’s good enough for me. Maybe that’s why God gave me the gift of speech, because He, in His great wisdom knew, that my perfect match won’t have it at all!  What do you say to that, Reb Meyer?”

“Oh, Benny,” tears were welling in Meyer’s eyes and spilling on his mustache.  “That’s not all.  I love Perla more than life and she is my only child, but honesty compels me to tell you that she also has seizures from time to time, and that no matchmaker would even come close to our house anymore.  Can we just go back to work and forget this conversation before I embarrass myself any further by crying like a baby?”

At this Benny sat on the chair heavily, and lowered his head.  Minutes went by, and he still wasn’t moving.  Meyer wiped his eyes, turned away from him and went to the counter to open the cash register before the first customer’s arrival.  Suddenly he heard Benny’s voice, quivering with emotions. “Well, Reb Meyer, here’s what I have to say about this: Maybe our Lord wants to try me more than everybody else.  She is not perfect, but neither am I.  I don’t have a lot of money, and I am not a very learned man.  Maybe I’m not an ideal son-in-law, as she’s not the ideal bride my mother probably had in mind for me, but I tell you one thing, Reb Meyer, I will love her and respect her for as long as I shall live, and that should count for something.  Now, since the matchmakers won’t come to your house, as you’ve said, can I send my mother to you to discuss the match?”

Soon the whole Odessa was talking about the newcomer Benny Rozenthal marrying the deaf and mute daughter of Meyer Litvak.  People were offering different opinions on the subject, with the most prominent one being that money controls everything, and for a chance to become Meyer’s business partner, the young Benny sold himself into a loveless and problematic marriage.  Some kind souls whispered these suggestions to Benny’s mother, whose sharp tongue told them off in no time; someone congratulated Benny on a spectacular climb in rank at the expense of the health of his future progeny, at which point Benny lost his cool and went at that kind soul with his fists.  But most people were just curious about the details of the agreement and the size of the dowry.  Meyer and Rochl were ecstatic, Benny was almost incoherent with happiness, and Perla – well, nobody could really tell.  She was a dutiful daughter and would doubtless become a dutiful wife.  That much was expected of her, the rest was a mystery.

The wedding took place during Chanukah in order to capitalize on the month of Kislev’s auspiciousness.  The bride was radiant, the groom was handsome, and everybody agreed later that the whole affair was beyond reproach.  The young couple settled in a separate wing of the Litvaks’ house and started their journey together.  It was apparent to everyone that Benny adored his young wife.  He started to recognize her sounds and gestures, and very soon was able to communicate with her on some level.  When he couldn’t get his point across, he would enlist the help of the youngest cousin Beila, who was still living at the house.  In a few months after the wedding Rochl realized that Perla was pregnant, and the family became delirious with joy and apprehension.  If abundance of prayers could guarantee robust health, Benny’s and Perla’s child would’ve lived to 120 without a single sneeze.  Rochl, of course, was worrying herself sick thinking all kinds of crazy thoughts.

“Meyer, Meyer, wake up,” she would whisper tragically into his ear in the middle of the night.  “I just can’t fall asleep; I keep thinking what would happen when Perla’s child would get hungry when everybody is sleeping already and start crying, and she won’t hear the baby, and Benny would have to get up and get her…  This is unseemly, isn’t it?  And the baby would wake up the whole house, and we can’t just barge into their rooms and tell her to get up, and Benny would get angry, and Perla wouldn’t understand why; oh, why, oh, what have I done in my life to deserve all this?”

Meyer would try to comfort her as best as he could, but he was secretly wondering about the same things.  If human pregnancy was any longer, the whole family would’ve ended up in a mental institution en masse from sheer amount of stress.  Against all odds, though, Perla carried the child without too many problems.  Her delicate condition made her even more beautiful and mysterious, and the seizures had not occurred at all.  She looked content and happy, and was obviously thrilled by her new life.

In due time, a perfect baby girl announced her arrival into this world by a squeaky wail, and the whole family immediately switched from worries about the pregnancy to worries about the newborn’s health and progress.  The young parents were overcome with joy at their daughter’s birth.  Perla communicated her desire to name the baby Rose by gesturing toward the enormous bouquet of eponymous flowers Benny had brought her, and he promptly agreed (although at that point he would’ve agreed to anything and everything she wanted).  Rochl’s worries turned out to be a complete non-issue, because Perla seemed to possess an uncanny ability to sense everything that was related to her precious child, and would jump off her bed the moment Rose would emit even a tiny cry.  Lacking the ability to pronounce her daughter’s name, Perla called her Sisha, and the sibilant sounds of this tender sobriquet were so weirdly comforting and sweet, that soon the official name was used on special occasions only.  The elephant in the room, of course, was Sisha’s ability to hear, and the whole family applied itself fervently to the task of determining it by clapping their hands above the baby’s pink ears unexpectedly, banging the doors when she was asleep, squeezing the shrill sounding toys when she was peacefully sitting in her mother’s lap, and doing so many similarly ridiculous things in hopes to elicit the long-awaited response, that Benny had to put a polite but firm stop to it after a while.  In a few months, it became apparent that Sisha’s perfect shell-like appendages could, indeed make out all the sounds, and at that point the exhausted relatives of various degrees of kinship at last ceased their enthusiastic assaults.

Happiness eventually found its slow way into the huge Litvak-Rozenthal household, and Rochl was finally able to say the prayers to our Lord without brushing off the tears.  But what do we humans know about the designs of our Lord?  Nothing.  Why do some people live all their unremarkable lives in a relative peace, and yet others are constantly tested, like somebody is trying to make sure that they do have the ability to survive through the darkest times?  No answer…

When Sisha was two years old, troubled times began to affect the cosmopolitan Odessa.  The year was 1917, and Russia was trembling under the stress of revolution, that uprooted families, made brother fight brother and turned the whole world upside down.  People were huddling together in their kitchens and whispering horror stories about pogroms and armies of rabble that were advancing on the city from different sides.  Criminal elements were controlling everything, and having a business was rapidly becoming a liability rather than an asset.  It became dangerous to be outside after dark, especially for people of means, so men hurried home the moment their work was done.

One balmy summer afternoon Benny realized that there was no way he would be able to make it to his house on time.  As he promised Meyer, he was able to grow the business exponentially since his marriage to Perla, but times being what they were, he reckoned that maybe immigration would be the best way to protect his family from the uncertainties and brutalities of the Russian Revolution.  It was this important matter, therefore, that he wanted to discuss with his French business partner, who promised to stop by the store.  Once the Frenchman came in, they fell into such a spirited discussion of difficult times, that a bottle of wine was produced and promptly consumed.  Puzzled by this circumstance the partners called for another bottle and some food, and then decided to relocate into one of the last reputable kosher restaurants to finish off the conversation.  Benny wasn’t drunk yet, just a little tipsy, and still in possession of his mental faculties.  Thinking about schlepping home in the dark coastal night wearing at three-piece suit with a handsome gold watch in the pocket made his stomach contract with fear.  He really didn’t relish the thought of being robbed, beaten, or, most likely, killed for it.  Suddenly his gaze fell on one of Perla’s numerous young cousins, Schmuel, who was passing by.

“Hey, Schmuel, bubele, come here, please,” beckoned Benny the gawky teenager.  “Can you take my watch to Perla and let her know that I’ll be home late?  I really don’t want to walk around with it in my pocket.”

“Sure, Uncle Benny, I’ll do it,” said Schmuel.  “But I am not going home right away.  I’ll be there in an hour or so, all right?”

“Well, now you have a watch to track the time, so I am sure you’ll make it there before long,” quipped Benny.  “Monsieur Fisher and I have a long night ahead of us.”  With that, he returned to the restaurant to continue with his business.

Young Schmuel didn’t go home in an hour.  He met with his friends and they started a game of soccer, during which he forgot all about Benny, his watch and whatever it was that he promised to do.  And so it happened, that Benny, unsteady on his feet and very much in his cups, arrived to the Litvaks’ house first.  Now, Perla, obviously, couldn’t nag him for being drunk, but she made her displeasure known.  Her facial expression, along with gestures and those queer sounds she made in lieu of conversation were well understood by Benny, but at that moment he felt like he was reproached unfairly.  Wasn’t he preparing everything for the family’s move to Paris?  Didn’t he deserve some reprieve from work and home life?  He thought he did, which he let Perla know by stating it firmly, wildly waving his arms in the process.  By the way, where might his watch be, he inquired by drawing a picture of what he thought was his watch in the air.  Perla, in her righteous indignation at this idiotic question just shrugged and turned to leave.  Benny, his reflexes affected by excessive libations, tried to take her hand, but missed and inadvertently hit her on the shoulder.  When she turned to him, not understanding, he made a move to hug her, but overshot and almost fell on her, pushing her against the door.  Taken completely by surprise, Perla lost her balance and fell with a small cry.  Benny wanted to help her up, but she pushed him away and ran out of the room.  He followed her, trying to apologize incoherently, but she moved with the speed of light.  Within moments she was opening the wardrobes, taking his clothes out and throwing them on the floor.

“Perla, what are you doing?” yelled Benny, finally mastering control over his tongue.  “Would you please stop that?”  But she wouldn’t stop.  Baby Sisha woke up and started to cry in her crib.  When Benny tried to take her out, Perla pushed him away from the crib and stood in front of him, white with fury, hands akimbo, blocking the baby with her body.  She made the sign of a cross with her fingers, then bumped her fists together, then made a strange curling motion with her fingers by her temples, and finally shook her head.  Benny was at a loss for words.  At this point, various family members started to show up, summoned by the commotion.  Rochl almost passed out, recognizing the sign of a domestic conflict.  In the midst of shouting, baby’s cries and Benny’s imploring pleas, Perla was as still as a mountain, not moving an inch, obsessively repeating her confusing pantomime.

“What is she saying, for God’s sake?  What is she saying?” despondently wailed Benny.  Alcohol was rapidly disappearing from his body, leaving him weak and covered in perspiration.

“Uncle Benny,” whispered Cousin Beila.  “I think I know what it is, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Beila, honey, please just tell me, and never mind what I like,” pleaded Benny.

“All right, Uncle Benny.  She says, only Russians hit each other, Jews never do.  See, cross means Christians or Russians, I guess; fist bumps are for hitting, then she kind of makes the curling motion for the side locks and shakes her head, like, no?  I am scared, Uncle Benny, I never saw her in this state.” Beila said, sniffing.

Everybody got really quiet.  In this total silence Perla pointed to Benny, then to the door, and kicked whatever article of his clothing was closest to her.  Benny froze.  He fell to his knees and apologized profusely.  He tried to hug her legs, but she wouldn’t allow it.  Rochl finally fainted, and this upped the general mayhem by a couple of points.  Meyer ordered everyone out of the room, so Benny and Perla might try to resolve this nightmare on their own.  The family discreetly listened behind the closed doors to the one-way conversation, which culminated in Benny’s agonizing sobs.

Suddenly someone rang the doorbell, and people ran to the door, as if they were expecting a miracle worker to come in and solve all their problems.  When the door opened, it revealed the young Cousin Schmuel, who came in dirty, tired and perfectly happy, having just won a game.

“Hey, everybody,” he trilled, ignoring the long faces.  “Sorry, I’m late.  Uncle Benny will be late as well; I saw him at the restaurant with some French guy.  Here is his gold watch; I am supposed to give it to Perla.”

Let me now draw a curtain over this pathetic scene.  Perla never took Benny back, no matter how much he begged, explained himself, and swore of undying love.  Rochl and Meyer both interceded on his behalf, but were firmly rebuffed, much to their bitter disappointment.  Cousin Schmuel was utterly destroyed, justly blaming himself for the whole mess.  The family did not immigrate to Paris and was taken apart by the events of the Russian Revolution, civil war and subsequent repressions.  Benny died in Gulag, alone and miserable, accused of being a Polish spy.  Rochl and Meyer soon followed him to the early graves; their family ruined, their possessions expropriated and their way of life obsolete in the new world. Perla lived with her daughter until the end of her days, mute and withdrawn, moving furniture from room to room in fits of impotent anger.  Baby Sisha grew up to be a strong-willed young woman, fiercely protective of her mother.  She had accepted her life as a daughter of the enemy of the people and a mute harridan, and made the best of it, graduating from the Odessa University with a degree in chemistry.  She perished during World War II when the hospital where she was working as a nurse was bombed by the Luftwaffe planes.

As my grandmother, Beila, was telling me this story, she would always emphasize the fact that nobody ever understood Perla’s visceral reaction to the only mistake Benny had made in his entire life.  For years, whenever somebody brought it up, she would just repeat her pantomime about Christians and Jews, then turn away and refuse all further communication attempts.  She left this world, taking the answer with her, mysterious, defiant and beautiful, as God intended her to be.

First Story

OK, guys, don’t laugh at me, but I am working on a story.  Not only it’s a first story I am writing in about 24 years, it’s also in English, the language that still mystifies me from time to time.  It’s a work in progress, and it’s been consuming me for about 2 weeks.  I joined the Writing Club, and this is going to be a submission entry for one of the writing prompts.  To be perfectly honest with you, I find it a little disturbing that it’s rather easy for me to write something using a prompt, but the subject of the original story hasn’t revealed itself to me yet.  Vagueness, thy name is… well, you know what my name is, or at least some of you do.

I used to want to write a historical fiction novel, but lately got very intimidated by the  Outlander saga.  So much research!  Where do I find the time?  I would have to get right all of the period details, the accents, the food, the clothes…  not to mention to have a compelling story line… OK, not historical fiction, then.  I don’t like sci fi, so that particular genre is not for me by default.  Maybe not mystery either, since I don’t know enough about detective work.  Unless, of course,  I would be able to write a historical mystery like Umberto Eco or Orhan Pamuk, which, of course, is safe to say, will never happen.  I love both of these writers, but what they do with words and ideas is way out of my league.  Talking about intimidation!  These two can put a lid on my fragile resolve by simply being present on my book shelf.  However, The Daughter of Time is written in a different vein, but is a historical mystery nevertheless.  Hmm, I might think about that one.  OK, let’s continue inventory.  Comedy?  I don’t think so.  Romance?  Not a chance.  Drama, maybe?  Who knows.  Definitely not the non-fiction.  I am fed up with dystopian novels.  Could be fantasy, though… Or mythopoeia… You bet I can’t pronounce that one, but as long as I can spell it, it works. How will I ever chose?

The story I am writing right now would probably fit into ‘realistic fiction’ genre.  The writing prompt was: write a fictional story based off of a story one of your grandparents has told you.  This assignment somehow spoke to me.  I thought about my grandmother, who told me exactly 10 stories about her childhood and adult life, and I think I remember all ten of them.  She wasn’t a great storyteller, she was a science person, so when she chose to tell me something, it had to be something special.  So, without further ado, I present to you the first couple of paragraphs of my very first story.  Let me know what you think!

Perla (working title)

 Her overjoyed parents named her Perla, and there never had been a better match between the name and its bearer, for her skin had the creamy color and the rosy undertone one customary sees in a mother-of-pearl.   She was the source of almost hysterical joy for her mother, tiny Rochl of the troubled eyes; and unabashed adoration for her father, the imposing Meyer, whose corpulent figure could be found making nuisance of himself in the nursery at least 10 times a day.  She was the only living child of Meyer and Rochl Litvak, and her five early departed and fiercely mourned siblings were probably annoying the Almighty every blessed day with their incessant pleas for her health and happiness.  Meyer owned the biggest clothing store in Odessa on the prestigious Deribasovskaya Street, and as such was in the perfect position to shower his precious daughter with the most luxurious layette that could be purchased for money in the year of our Lord 1898.  The elderly grandparents, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, in short, the crème de la crème of Odessa, were bringing their good wishes along with the mounds of toys and tchotchkes to the sprawling Litvak house in a steady stream for days; and every little trinket was properly cataloged and stored in a safe place, waiting for the time when the baby would surely have the need of it.  It was a huge blow, therefore, when a few months after the happy occasion the family realized that Perla couldn’t hear anything but the most obnoxious noises.

At first poor Rochl was so devastated, that she even voiced an opinion that cast a huge doubt on Adonai’s involvement in the lives of his chosen people, because if He did care about them, He surely couldn’t have punished her so cruelly for the sins she’d never committed.  She was promptly severely reprimanded by Meyer’s minatory stare and the choir of scandalized relatives.  Who was she, after all, to question His will?  Out Lord, obviously, was trying to test the family’s resolve and devotion to Him in these trying times, and so they, the family, had no other choice, but to accept the gift and the accompanying challenge with gratitude and submission.  After all, Perla was a woman, and a silent wife might mean a happier husband in the long run.  Assuming there would be a husband, of course.