We had values. We had Le Creuset pots. We had fold-out couches in our living rooms, where we slept with our husbands at night. Beside these couches, we had books stacked on the floor: Modern Library editions of Kafka and James Joyce and Georges Sand. Beneath these high-minded selections, we had Lorna Doone and Anne of Green Gables, touchstones from a time when reading in bed was our guiltiest pleasure.
We had blue jeans long before other women wore them. We had degrees in literature and anthropology and biology, hard-won in night classes at City College. We had aspirations but did not yet have careers. We had cookbooks with French recipes that confounded us. For a few years, we tried to muddle through until we gave up on the fancy dinners our children despised and turned back to the roasted meats of our childhoods.
And we all had children: two or three apiece, whose strollers we tucked beneath the stairways in our buildings.
We were individuals, of course, but we seemed so much alike, I still speak of us today in the plural. Each of us had endured bookish, lonely childhoods in the outer boroughs; we had been the pride and bane of our immigrant parents’ lives. When we found one another along the broad avenues of what, growing up, we had reverentially called The City, we recognized one another as landsmen, all of us dark-haired women who carried the inflections of our parents’ Yiddish in our speech. Our cramped apartments were fine with us; we would never in a million years live in some bourgeois outpost in Long Island, and the only way we’d return to Brooklyn was in a coffin. We called ourselves The Quorum. We called ourselves the Collective Unconscious of the Upper West Side.
Our children played in a bleak little playground near the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. We invaded the place with our sand toys and tricycles, the bags we packed with apples and breadsticks. While we pushed our children on the swings, we talked about Carl Jung, whom we understood in a handful of telegraphed phrases, and Ingmar Bergman, whose films played downtown and which we desperately wanted to see. On the grounds of the Cathedral, several peacocks wandered freely. Sometimes, we took our children over to see them, although the great birds frightened us with their manic darting, their unholy screaming and reputation for viciousness. The hens were a dull gray, nothing much to look at, but the males were magnificent. I think we wished to see ourselves in them: rare and graced, transcendent in their vaguely shabby setting.
It was during this time of strollers and failed cassoulets that Rebecca Redl moved into the building where I lived with my husband and our two boys. I first saw her sitting on the stairs, reading a book. Instinctively, she shifted her body while men in brown uniforms lifted chairs and bookcases up and over her head. At first glimpse, I took her for a girl of twelve or thirteen, because at that age, I, too, would have read through the apocalypse. Her hair fell to her shoulders, black as obsidian. My first impulse was to touch it, the way it shined. Although the shirt she wore was so big and loose it nearly swallowed her whole, her loveliness had a sleek economy, as it is with certain lucky girls before their bodies assume an adult’s heft and gravity.
A few steps below, a little girl with the same dark hair smoothed and re-smoothed her skirt over her knees.
On the second-floor landing, a man smoked a cigarette and gave curt direction to the men who carried the furniture up the stairs. This man was tall and lean and had cropped silvery hair. Later, I would learn that he was her husband, his name was Eric Redl, and he was a professor of philosophy at Barnard, some ten blocks north. I don’t remember how I came to know these things. Rebecca and I never exchanged such information about our lives.
The little girl buried her face in her hands when I introduced myself, and Rebecca, with some reluctance, it seemed, told me her own and her daughter’s name. I asked Rebecca what she was reading, and she held up a thick hardcover. Buddenbrooks. I hadn’t read Buddenbrooks, but I told her I had loved the hundred and twenty pages of The Magic Mountain I had managed to complete while my sons napped.
“I wouldn’t say I ‘love’ this book,” she replied in a way that foreclosed further discussion. Nonetheless, I was willing to look the other way. I felt generous then. I had a husband whom I both loved and respected; I had two healthy, vigorous boys; I enjoyed the company of like-minded women. I told Rebecca about us, how we met at the little playground near the Cathedral every morning, and how her daughter would have instant friends.
“Instant friends,” Rebecca echoed, and I heard in the blankness of her voice the simple-mindedness of my presumption.
Later, I made soup for her, my mother’s vegetable bean. The day after I delivered it, she left the pot outside my door, scrubbed clean and without any sort of note inside.
I was surprised, then, when Rebecca showed up with her daughter at the playground a few days later. The little girl, whose name was Vera, wandered over to the edge of the sandbox. Clutching her doll, she watched the other children dig.
In a manner of speaking, Rebecca became part of our group, but she held herself above it, like someone who refuses to join the party and demonstrates her refusal further by waiting outside the room on a wooden chair. The two of them would arrive late in the morning, Rebecca wearing a man’s shirt and Vera a perfect little dress. Rebecca would nudge her daughter to go play, but Vera stood to the side with her doll while her mother read on the bench. Sometimes, one of us prompted our children to give her a turn with a tricycle or shovel, but whenever she was offered, Vera just shook her head and gnawed on her doll’s soft arm.
It crossed my mind that Vera might be mentally retarded, and I told myself that would be a terrible thing, a tragic thing, for a clearly intellectual woman like Rebecca. But one day, Vera approached as I was unpacking my boys’ snack. Her eyes widened as she watched me hand out Fig Newtons and pour juice from the Thermos. She stared while Joel and Peter devoured their food in thirty seconds flat. Over on the bench, Rebecca turned a page in her book. I handed Vera a cookie, and she wolfed it down. I thought nothing of it. We mothers fed and comforted one another’s children all the time. I handed Vera a second cookie, which also disappeared in the wink of an eye.
“These cookies are my favorite kind,” she piped in a voice as pretty as a bell. Then she skipped away, back toward her mother.
“I gave your daughter two Fig Newtons,” I told Rebecca at the bench, when I saw her fold down a page to mark her place.
“Oh.” She glanced up in my general direction.
“I hope that’s all right. I know people feel differently about sugar and so on.”
Rebecca laughed sharply. “I have no opinion about sugar.”
Vera looked down and raked her fingers through her doll’s hair.
“I wasn’t sure what to do…she just seemed so hungry.”
“She had breakfast at nine.”
“I just know that some days, my boys get hungry every hour….”
When Rebecca blinked, I noticed, because her gaze had been perfectly steady until then. With that blink, I knew, she’d put her essential self out of reach.
But I pressed on, with a dogged insistence on good will, at which I both marvel and cringe today. “What are you reading?”
It took a moment for the information to compute. “I admire your powers of concentration. Most days, I wouldn’t trust myself to get through a fashion magazine.”
Rebecca stood up. “You’ve been very nice, but I think it’s best to be honest. I am not interested in friendship.” Her voice was neutral, not unkind.
“Fair enough,” I said, as lightly as I could manage. I walked back to the sandbox and called my sons out for lunch.
“I want to be friends with you,” my husband said when I rehashed the exchange that night, after the boys had gone to bed.
“I know, I know, but it’s just so rude. I mean, what did I do? Gave her kid a couple of cookies. The crime of the century.”
“She wanted you to know what you can expect from her. At least she was direct.”
“You’re no help.”
“Like I said, I like you.” Harry pulled me toward him.
It was a temptation I couldn’t resist: letting drop a few sideways comments to the others while she read on the bench in the park. La Nausée! Why couldn’t she just say it in English? Dresses her daughter up in fancy clothes but can’t be bothered to bring a snack. Why do some people even have children? Even today I wonder: why was I so undone by this woman’s refusal to count me as one of her own?
One memory I’d almost forgotten but seems important now to recount: once, at the park, I heard Rebecca singing softly while Vera danced around her, swooping and twirling like a top. When I moved closer, I recognized it, the same wordless, minor-key melody my mother used to sing to me. Rebecca met my gaze, soft and open for just a moment, until she turned away and closed her arm around her daughter.
It was fall, then winter. The weather and a spate of colds kept me and my sons away from the park. The colds turned into croup, and I spent several nights with each of them outside the steaming shower and many days trying to keep them occupied in our small rooms. By this time, Rebecca and I exchanged only brief nods when we passed in the hallway. Often it was easier to feign absorption in the mail or my grocery bags and pretend I never saw her at all.
One day, Eric Redl appeared at my door, dressed for work and carrying a briefcase. It was a Tuesday morning, nine-thirty, and already my living room looked like a shipwreck. Vera stood beside him, clutching his arm. When I stepped toward them, she sidled closer to her father, as if she’d climb inside his body if she could.
“Would you mind?” Eric asked. “I have to teach a class at ten, but I’ll be back after that.”
“Of course.” I reached for Vera’s hand, but she pulled away. She wore a mismatched skirt and sweater. Her chin was streaked with jam.
Eric leaned toward me. “Rebecca’s gone,” he whispered.
“Gone? Where did she go?”
“That’s what it said in her note.”
She took off for Paris without so much as looking back…Already, I’d begun composing the story I’d tell the others, but then I saw Eric kneel down and rest his hands on Vera’s shoulders. I caught the terror in his eyes. “I’ll be back in one hour. The big hand will make one circle around the clock. Not too long, right?” He spoke quickly, as if he could build with his words a fort no grief could enter. But children always know. Vera clung to him and sobbed. Even Joel and Peter came over to stare with alarmed curiosity.
Over coffee in one other’s kitchens, we floated theories about Rebecca’s disappearance. Most of these centered on a secret lover. Didn’t we all dream of sitting in a Left Bank café with some dapper Jean-Pierre? About this we agreed: she was a terrible mother to have done such a thing.
I might have left it alone, chalked it up to the unfathomable mysteries of the human heart and forgotten her entirely. But one afternoon, while the boys were napping, I went out to the common storage space beneath the stairs to look for the gifts I had previously hidden for Peter’s birthday. Crouching there, I retrieved the items I had stashed in a shopping bag—a toy truck, a picture book, a rubber ball—but I couldn’t find the clown doll I had also purchased. When I looked in a second bag, stuffed behind our neighbors’ box of Passover dishes, I found not the doll but a stack of ten or more composition books. I believed at first the books were mine. I had filled dozens of such books for my college courses, transcribing my professors’ every word about the Krebs cycle or the atrocities of Robespierre. By doing so, I believed I was freeing myself, fact by fact, from the narrow expectations that had confined my parents’ lives. But when I moved into the light and opened one of the notebooks I found not my own tidy print but a script so sprawling and wild it burst beyond the lines on the page.
March 26, 1954. Weltschmerz. Literally, it means world-pain, but Professor Redl told me it is the distance between the world as you want it to be and the world as it really is. Why doesn’t everyone feel this? How can one have a brain and not feel this gulf?
Professor Redl? On the journal’s inside cover, I found printed in somewhat neater block letters: The Journals of Rebecca Zaperstein, November 1953-July 1954. Then one of my boys called me back, and I had to leave everything under the stairs.
When Eric stopped by to ask if I could watch Vera again while he taught class, I could have pulled him aside and told him about the journals. But I did not. I did want to part with them yet. I was curious. I was nosy. I was what my mother used to call a kokhlefele, a meddler. That afternoon, while Joel and Peter napped, I went back under the stairs and pulled out one of the notebooks. I read hurriedly, hunched with the flashlight, poised for the sound of footsteps.
September 14, 1953. Mama was wrong. Barnard is no different from anywhere else. I have nothing in common with the other girls. All they care about is finding a husband. By now I should know better. Very few people care about books and ideas, which are as essential to me as air and water.
I had little sympathy for rich Barnard girls. I myself had worked six days a week as bundle girl at Abraham & Straus through my years at City College; I’d studied for exams during my lunch hour.
October 17, 1953. I have never been one to cry but these days I am crying all the time. Today I was reading Wordsworth and I felt such a strong yearning for the kind of quiet he said is necessary for one truly to perceive the world. I wish I could be happy with what I have in front of me: the leisure to read and write and think. But it is my curse to want more, to yearn for something higher, something I can’t even name.
One afternoon, Eric stopped me in the hallway with a brush of his hand. “Did she ever mention another man? A lover?”
“But you and she were friends.”
Friends? I recalled Rebecca’s blank, incredulous voice.
Three mornings a week, I watched Vera so Eric could teach his seminar. I bundled up the children so they could play outside after a snowstorm. I made play dough for them out of flour and salt. But like a drinker who wakes each morning with the best intentions to stop and loses his resolve by lunch, I left the apartment every afternoon with my flashlight to read more from Rebecca’s journals.
November 5, 1953. Today is my birthday. I am eighteen. I feel nothing about this because all my life I have felt old.
January 15, 1954. Come out with us, my roommates keep telling me. You’re so pretty, they say, as if that has anything to do with it.
A woman with her head on straight: that was how I was always known. And I would have described myself in much the same way. It seemed I’d been born knowing there was a gap between our ideal vision of the world and its untidy reality; the matter had never caused me great pain. But in the process of reading Rebecca’s journals, I began to mistrust my own balance. Were my own bonds flimsier than I knew? Was my contentment about to shatter under more rigorous scrutiny?
January 28, 1954. I asked Professor Redl why he thinks modern thought begins with Descartes and not with Locke or Hobbes, and he explained that Descartes applied rigorous science, in essence, to “doubt-proof” his ideas and that he treated knowledge itself as a measurable property. I told him I find Descartes bloodless and he said Montaigne will be my reward.
February 13. When I asked Professor Redl why he gave me a B- on my paper, he told me I had under-explained the Mind-Body Problem. He told me I took too modern a view in my discussion of it and did not adequately look at the question of faith. He said he always grades hard on the first paper and he was especially hard on me because he knows how much more I can do.
March 20. Professor Redl said to be careful of falling too much in the thrall of Schopenhauer. He warned me against confusing alienation with freedom. He said refusal is seductive but it takes much more rigor to arrive at a genuine, soundly reasoned yes.
March 31. Professor Redl speaks the most beautiful French. When he read aloud in class today, all meaning vanished in the music of the language.
April 4. Where does desire dwell? I’d imagine Descartes would say in the body, along with hunger, thirst and the need for sleep, but I cannot imagine it as just a physical impulse, at least not for me, since in my (limited) experience there is always the mental element, which, though unrelated to bodily sensation, I have felt as strongly as anything in my body.
April 16. Eric was right about Montaigne. I see what he means about his startlingly modern aesthetic.
Had they already crossed the line that normally separates professor and student, or had Eric simply begun to occupy a more intimate place in Rebecca’s mind? I, too, had fallen for several of my professors, not because they were especially handsome, but because they had introduced me to the suppleness of my own intellect. Although these crushes were not rooted in the physical, I noticed every physical aspect of those men: the slant of their handwriting, whether or not they wore wedding rings, the rhythm and sonority of their speech. It was men like Eric who affected me the most, the serious, unyielding ones, whose terse words of praise kept me nourished for weeks.
June 16, 1954. Today Eric took me to see the sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. A revelation! I sat for an hour just looking at “Bird in Flight.” Eric is like the sculptures of Brancusi: very spare, abstracted, but underneath writhing with a wild force. We walked back through the park talking about how art is a much more powerful medium than language for expressing the complications of human perception. Suddenly we realized that fifty years ago today Leopold Bloom walked through Dublin’s streets. Eric bought me a rose to commemorate.
July 7. Making love is absurd and freeing and profound all at once. I pity all those girls their preoccupations with rings and respect and reputations and who owes whom what.
July 19. E. and I talked today about going to Paris. We could just go, he said. He said I shouldn’t worry about finishing my degree. I will learn much more just reading and being sentient in the world. He said in Europe men and women live together all the time without the formality of marriage. To be free! To read! To walk! I said yes! We drank wine to celebrate.
August 27. Pregnant. I can’t believe my body betrayed me this way.
August 31. I talked to Eric about getting an operation, but he cried when I even mentioned it. I love you. I want to marry you, he said. These are the words other girls wait their whole lives to hear. Even though it was 95 degrees out, I began to shiver. I couldn’t stop, not even when Eric put his arms around me.
September 12. City Hall wedding. Grotesquely fat clerk, Professor Steinsaltz as witness. We went out for lunch afterwards, but as always I felt too sick to eat.
February 27. E. took me shopping for baby things. The layette. The lady kept piling things on the counter and no matter what she showed him Eric just smiled and acquiesced. By the time we were done we had so many bags we had to take a taxi home. At home I let him unpack everything. Afterwards he just stood and stared at me as I lay on the bed. He asked, are you not happy at all about this?
April 13, 1955. Home with baby. Feed her, change her diapers, try to comfort her when she cries. These things should be simple but she stiffens and screams after her bottle and there’s nothing I can do to soothe her.
Vera colored at the table while Joel and Peter built houses from blocks and then torpedoed them with toy airplanes. Unconsciously, she stuck her tongue out when she colored, as if reaching for some bit of knowledge that dangled just beyond her. When I went over to see what she was drawing, she covered the paper with her hands and twisted her body toward the wall.
One day, though, she came over to me and tugged gently on one of my curls. I crouched to let her twine my hair around her finger. That was all she wanted, to twist my hair and watch it spring back when she let go.
May 3. Tried to read “Ward 6” but kept loosing the thread of the sentence by the time I got to the end. Comprehension swims within my grasp then V. starts to cry again. E. says to forget Chekhov for now and concentrate on Vera. He gets to continue with his work. Am I supposed to give up everything just because we have a baby?
May 6, early morning. Up all night with V. Every time I put her down, she cried. I was the one who got up each time because E. has to teach class today. He says I can sleep when she sleeps. But she only sleeps when I hold her and yesterday when I fell asleep in the chair I almost dropped her.
June 25. Why don’t you take a walk, E. keeps saying. Fresh air will do you good. So today I put V. in the carriage and walked up to campus. At first it felt good to walk in the sunlight, but I’d forgotten the semester was over and the place would be deserted. Still I sat on the steps of Milbank Hall and hoped to see anyone who might remember me.
July 1. At dinner E. talks nonstop about his work. He drones on and on and on, so in love with the sound of his voice. I count the minutes until he’s done and I can wash the dishes in peace.
July 16. E. is angry that I no longer want to sleep with him but he is too much of a coward to have it out. I cannot stand the feeling of his hands, his hunger, on my bloated body. He is weak in the same ways I am weak. I have no respect for him, no love, no affinity.
“Have any of you read The Red and the Black?”
“Ha. That’s a good one. I don’t think I have the brain cells anymore.”
“I think Danny has some kind of inner alarm that goes off whenever I pick up a book. He can be in another room, but the moment I turn the page, it’s ‘Mommy, Mommy.’”
“It’s moments like that when I think putting them in Skinner’s box wouldn’t be such a bad idea.”
“Is it really possible to live on peanut butter sandwiches? If so, Jenny will be living proof.”
“I put dinner on the table and give everyone two choices: take it or leave it.”
“Rebecca what’s-her-name would be rolling her eyes at this conversation.”
“She’d only care if it were in a book written in French.”
I said that. Everyone laughed, but the satisfaction I got from laughing flickered and died.
August 8. The ring of flame around the burner, the knives in the drawer, the mouse pellets under the sink. Escape beckons in every corner of the house.
When Harry played with the boys, their shrieking laughter sounded muted to me, as if I stood apart, behind a wall of thick glass. When Joel and Peter bickered, I barely heard their rising voices; I sat at the table, adrift in Rebecca’s words, until Joel hit Peter on the head with the birthday truck. I shouted at him. I dragged him by the arm into the bedroom and it gave me a small but terrifying satisfaction to slap him. While Joel howled behind the door, Peter began crying, too. I didn’t go to him. I just sat at the table with a can of Harry’s beer. Had I once been a hungry, nervous student at Bronx Science with my sights on medical school? Peter crawled into my lap, wiped his face on my shirt, claimed his comfort. All I could do was rub his small, hot back.
And there was Eric. He had enrolled Vera in a nursery school, but every few days I saw him in the hallway, leading her by the hand. How are you, I’d ask. We’re getting by, he’d answer, but his face was abject. Sorrow deepens some people’s beauty, and this was true of him. His gleaming surfaces had been abraded, and I detected something passionate, almost devotional, about his grief.
How are you really? I asked him one day when he was alone, and he told me Vera had wakened several times in the night, calling out for her mother. It’s very hard, I offered in reply.
Eric grabbed me and pinned me against the wall. I braced myself for a slap. I did not try to shield myself or shout at him to stop. Whatever happened next would be the logical result of my trespasses. He pressed himself against me and kissed me, with all of Harry’s ardor and none of his tenderness. I felt Eric’s erection, but I understood this as a purely physical response, nothing to do with me. His kiss was as good as a slap. I brushed my teeth five, six times that day, but all day I tasted his smoky breath.
January 14, 1956. V. began crawling today. She looks like a crab with her left leg stuck out straight. As she made her way across the floor she laughed her low bewitching chuckle. I know one thing: I love this girl.
September 28, 1956. Vera loves to hide her doll under a cushion or behind the window blinds. She shrieks with glee every time she finds it. I’m surprised at my own enjoyment of this game. V. is thrilled to find her doll every time!
February 12, 1957. I see now that the answer to my survival is to live a divided life. While I did not choose my current circumstances, I can accept them. I can play the wife, iron E.’s shirts, proof-read his papers. Meanwhile I can hold myself apart: private, inviolable.
May 3, 1958. Our new apartment is sunny. V. loves to run up and down the long hallway. The extra bedroom will be my study. I think I’ll hang white curtains in the window.
July 18. Today was a perfect, cloudless summer day. Decided to take V. to the carousel at Central Park. We walked all the way, and the air smelled of pressed linen. She chose a white horse, and I took the black one beside her. We rode the carousel three times. Simple pleasure, what other people feel all the time. Before we started back I bought us each an ice cream. When the man handed her the cone, V. pressed her lips against it. I love today, she said, and I told her I did too.
Oct. 26. V. and I played tea party and then we played school and then hospital. When I finally told her I wanted to read, she lay on the floor and cried. I locked myself in the bathroom but of course one cannot escape oneself.
December 3. I hope to God E. never reads this. V. horrible all day, whining about everything. Dragged her shopping and when I was done she planted herself in the middle of the aisle and refused to move. No matter what I said she refused. Finally, I walked away. She didn’t move. I walked up to the door, but she kept standing there. I waited a few more minutes then left the store. I thought she’d come running after me but when I reached the end of the block she wasn’t there. I watched the cars stream past thinking I should just go on; she’d be better off without me. How do people do it? How did Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary find the courage to do it? Someone honked and I realized where I was and what I’d done: I’d left my daughter alone in a store. I ran back and found her up front eating a lollipop. She’d been crying so hard her eyes were red. The clerk’s face was filled with silent accusation. I hugged V. and told her I love her, I never meant to leave her. On the way home I bought her an ice cream, but it just made her shiver to eat it. A few blocks later she got sick all over everything. Back home I cleaned her up, but I was not as tender as I should have been. No one knows what it’s like to fail every day at the thing that comes so easily to everyone else.
The journal ended here. On December Fourth, Eric had come to me with the news that Rebecca had left. I pressed my palm against her careening script and remembered how, at the park, she had sung just for Vera, how they’d shared their private dance. I wished my touch could travel through those pages to offer her some measure of peace. At the same time, I wanted to be rid of her. I closed the notebook. I left everything as I’d found it under the stairs.
Back at the apartment, I’d left the front door wide open. I rushed into the boys’ bedroom, where they were still napping. I nearly fell to my knees to see them there, unharmed. Sleep revealed the residual plumpness in Peter’s face, but in the past few weeks, Joel’s body had assumed lankier, more grownup proportions. For almost an hour, I stood in the doorway and watched them sleep. I could not stop drinking in their beauty, but I knew I had to wake them or else they’d be wild all night. Finally, I roused each one with a kiss on his sweaty hair.
That night, Harry and I sat together and listened to Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. When the yearning second movement came on, I took his hand. I always loved Harry’s hands: their square, honest shape; the printer’s ink that ringed his nails despite his daily washing with a pungent soap. I moved closer and inhaled his scent: the cleaning solvents, the metallic tinge from the type and slugs, the Schlitz beer he drank after work.
“Let’s move this operation to the bedroom,” he murmured. We unfolded our bed and began undressing as the Quintet ended. We made love for the first time in several weeks and afterwards, I felt both absolved and chastened. I had, in a manner of speaking, committed an infidelity. I had been unfaithful to the person I had, until recently, believed I was.
The next evening, I told Harry I was going out for a walk. I put on my coat and boots and then retrieved the bag of notebooks from underneath the stairs.
Behind Eric’s door, swing music played. My heartbeat was louder and more insistent than my knock. The music went quiet, and a minute later, Eric appeared, in stocking feet. His face looked bloated with sleep. I could not place him in the same universe with his urgent lips and tongue two weeks earlier or the Glenn Miller he had just shut off. One of his toes poked out from a hole in his sock. I could smell the spirits on his breath.
He said, “What can I do for you after you’ve done so much for me?”
I recognized but did not traffic easily in irony. “Rebecca left some journals under the stairs. I just found them. I thought you’d want to know.” I held out the bag. My voice was as fast and nervous as a child’s.
Eric took the bag, and everything else fell away, all his cleverness and courage and rage, everything except the sorrow that was always present in him, like the bass line in a song.
“I looked all over the apartment for these. She wrote in them feverishly, you might say obsessively. After she left, I looked everywhere for them and when I couldn’t find them, I assumed she burned them. It seems like something she’d do, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, of course not. Why would you?”
I began worrying the skin around my fingernails. “Anyway, I thought you’d want them. I knew they were hers because she wrote her name in the front.”
Eric didn’t register this evasion. He was muzzy with inebriation. “She was only eighteen when we met. Yearning and intense. The kind of student professors wait for and dread a little. The material was difficult, but she thrived on the difficulty.”
“I wish I’d had the chance to know her better.”
His laugh was a strangled yelp. “You can reach her at the poste restante.”
I smiled, baffled by the foreign words. I still wanted him to think highly of me; I wanted to be able to think highly of myself. “Come over for supper sometime. You and Vera.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Marvelous idea. Thank you. We will.”
Not long afterwards, Eric and Vera moved out. The same uniformed movers arrived, but this time they made the trip in reverse. They whisked the furniture down the stairs to the van double-parked outside.
I told myself I had done the right thing, giving him the journals. While many of the passages had to have caused him pain, the pain would be resolved with time, whereas his not-knowing would never be resolved, and he and Vera would be stuck in a perpetual state of waiting.
One thing was clear: Rebecca loved Vera as best she could. Didn’t they have the right to know?
That spring, a young woman began taking Vera to the park. We couldn’t help staring: this new woman was tall and full-bodied. She glowed with sunny good health. She helped Vera climb to the top of the slide and cheered her on when she slid down. She looked like a Swedish film star, a completely different species from us.
Vera had a pail and shovel for digging in the sand. She now played as children do, ferociously and without any trace of self-consciousness, until the blonde, whom we’d secretly named the Big Swede, called her home.
One afternoon, Eric Redl appeared in the park. His hair was trim again. His eyes caught mine, but he maintained the smooth, impersonal look of a man whose desires were being satisfied. I stood with the other mothers when Vera ran over to hug him. We watched him swing her around and we watched him kiss The Big Swede on the lips.
He didn’t let the grass grow, we said to one another.
Over time, many of us, the old guard, the Collective Unconscious, have spoken of our children’s earliest years. We have spoken of our fatigue and boredom and the aspect of performance, which is one of motherhood’s dirty little secrets, and of the loneliness we felt even in one another’s company. We entered a more confessional age, and so we confessed: our rage and despair and lust and envy, our abortions and affairs. From time to time I thought of Rebecca and her courage to write the unspeakable, and I thought of Eric and the secrets we never should have shared. Although I always thought of her with regret and good wishes, I never spoke of finding my dark double in those pages until now.
Many of us live in the suburbs where we swore we’d never set foot and also have condos in Florida. Many of us are dead. Harry died last year, and although people say the pain does ease, I am still waiting for this to be true.
I continue to live in the old building. After a period of decline, the place is full again with children. The mothers, and a few stay-at-home fathers, use the same park as we once did, near the Cathedral. On warm days, I like to walk over there, although I’m nearly invisible now, a woman of eighty, sitting alone on the bench with my cup of deli coffee. I watch the children playing—the wild ones, the preternaturally kind ones, and the silent observers—and their parents watching over them: all of them beautiful, preening, fragile.