Fiction, Vol. 6.3, Sept. 2012
Tamar sat before her vanity, cinching her wet hair with a tortoise clip. Arms up, head straight like a dancer, she found her appearance romantic, nostalgic, like a painting she’d seen once at L’Orangerie in Paris. Tangerine light, filtering through her windows from late autumn leaves, cast golden shadows on her empty walls. Mystical with this orange quality, her apartment could have been anywhere, anytime—until the New York street noise cut through from her fifth floor window, bringing with it the shuffling stop and groan of a city bus. She drew herself to attention. Soon, she’d have to go. She’d wear the de-feminizing slacks and shirts that had become her trademark—but at present, water trickled from her shining limbs, and she ignored the staining mess on the carpet, rubbing her feet back and forth comfortingly on its soft fibers. It was an oddly sentient day. Her face and figure seemed at once old and new in the mirror, her reflection revealing a person who may have been disappointed yet still hoped for unspeakable tenderness.
At thirty, with her hourglass hips, full breasts, and flat belly, she wondered when her body would show her age and whether it would go to ruin. When was her last lover? Eight months ago? Six? She thought of the last slew of casual sex partners, particularly the ones to have lasted beyond one simple night. More relationships ruined by her need to control?
For a moment, the mirror-stranger chided her, put a finger to her lips, and she felt that the way she chose to define herself could shift at any time, any moment, simply by her saying: “I won’t be harsh anymore. I won’t be demanding. I won’t do things that mean nothing. I won’t be me.”
Then a thought of her flyaway father destroyed this musing. Her natural scowl returned, her reticent identity restored in the mirror’s unblinking eye. “‘You fit into me,'” she said, thinking of him, recalling an Atwood poem she’d read, “‘Like a hook in an eye. A fish hook. An open eye.'” She did not know if she quoted imperfectly. When her phone rang, she answered it briefly, then she hung up. Her light thoughts evaporated now, but just before her shower, during her shower, she’d felt softer, pretended an imaginary lover she knew well waiting behind her bedroom door, or in her kitchen making breakfast, one who would call her Tammie like her father had when she was young—before he disdained her.
This lover would never be cruel, would never leave voluntarily, and he would never disappoint. He would be handsome, too, she decided, perhaps with tiny square specs. He would not demur to her like the cowards at work, and she would not want him to. She would be his moon and wrap herself around him as if she held the last remaining child to her breast after an accident with few survivors, and she would be complete, they would complete each other—but the fantasy between sleeping, waking, bathing, and preparing for her day left hurriedly as she donned liquid eyeliner in harsh, black strokes. A bit of it burned in her eye. My day fits into me, she thought… A fish hook. An open eye.
And how ridiculous to even imagine a lover, she thought. Was she daft? She had no lover, no children. The kitchen was filthy from last night’s dinner, and there would be no one there to greet her except a tiny beta fish in his small square bowl with a mirror behind him so he might flare at himself, entice and later be hostile toward himself. She yanked on her bra and panties as an industrial rhythm filled her head, life awaiting.
Pitching her towel into a hamper, she readied herself for work, humming a battle tune. Only later did she realize it was a rapid, military-style march. This made sense. She had already engaged in acerbic communication with her assistant before ever getting dressed. Standing naked in her apartment, angry, it had been strange to pontificate in moist and shaking flesh, but her office was full of hard voices and difficult manners, the kind her father hated: “I want those papers on my desk, now, Julia,” she barked, chest and ass bouncing with her vehemence. “Get someone up here today. Yesterday! I don’t have all year!”
She did not truly think this day would be different after a second latte from the convenience cart convinced her that the ulcer she’d begun to imagine being lodged in her stomach might actually be real—no matter what she’d hoped.
My stomach burns, and I can’t be a warrior and a flower at the same time,” she said to no one. “But we all know what happens to flowers. Crushed underfoot.”
Charles lifted Karin’s envelope to his lips and inhaled. Tapping his toe on the curb and yanking the onion-thin missive from its folds, he examined Karin’s script, wondering if today would finally be the day. Hesitating before the street, he read her letter again, until her voice seemed to float above the words, fusing audibly with her small, sweeping scrawl: voice and ink, ink and pen, throat and word.
Since you’ll get there before I do, Charles, her letter read, wait for me at the station with a red carnation. I’ll be there as soon as the Lieberman’s daughter has her baby—as soon as mother no longer needs me, maybe in one more year. There are many things I can’t now relate. Dear Bumblebee, I wish you were here almost relentlessly, but at the same time, am glad you’re not. Paris is irreparable. We’re poor. The streets are full of strangers. Who would have thought? We’ve moved to Loiret where Mother makes miracles of single chickens and Lisette has grown three inches since you last saw her.
She’s still blonde, but the blue of her eyes has deepened. In case you’ve wondered, my hair is dark as before! Lisette is precocious. You always loved her so much. If she hadn’t been four, I might have been jealous, but jealousy seems foolish to me now. It’s Tuesday morning, and I lie in bed, remembering that afternoon at Normandy and the sandwiches you made with the crusts hacked; I remember how the gulls swooped down and ate them—and how we laughed. You kissed me then with the lightest pressure, and I remember your face was stained with my lipstick as you left. I must say, I liked you in pink!
But I do have a question for you, Charles: Why can we not suspend time in a package and unwrap it at will? Your mouth felt soft as peaches that day, and if I run my palm across my mouth, I can pretend you kiss me now, in this ugly room, which is a small comfort here with so many dear ones packed together like boxed sweaters. There was a crack in the left lens of your spectacles. Have you repaired it?
Over and over, I think how you draped your jacket on my shoulders that day and sang, “I love you, Karin,” then turned as if I would reject you. Then, I thought to say something witty or pithy, maybe something bold, but I said, “That’s nice,” and your face fell. I should have said I loved you. I would have meant it. I should have gone away with you, but do you believe I thought Paris was the city I’d die in? Here in Loiret, Mother wheezes and cries. Lisette whines. A dull look stays in her eyes. If there is regret, this is the tree it pins its aching dross upon…
And to think I thought you thin, and that it would cause a rift between us at the worst of times! Think of it as a girl’s foolishness, though it’s hard to imagine a girlish bone in my body now, which is laughable, I suppose, but the laugh would break my heart. Again, a black note. I’ll start again (I put this letter down hours ago, and have just resumed):
It’s noon. The overcast sky smells of sulfur, mold, and grit. Out my window, a girl hops in the street with her friend. She’s four, maybe five, with scarlet ribbons. Her friend is a new little boy with blue suspenders who follows her every step—if I hadn’t been so foolish, she might have been our child… Do you forgive me? I’ll pretend you’ve said yes and that I’m in America with you so Europe can vanish.
The lure of its cobbled walks has gone. If you’d asked me to leave this week instead of before, I’d surely agree, but I’m glad we were able to resolve things that day in mother’s dark room—though I know I was cruel. Please tell me you forgive me. Tell me I’m still dear to you. My mind plays tricks on me here; I forget flowers, words, names, but never you. I wish I could hold your hands under the stars at the Trevvechio’s like we did that June when your sister got the mumps, stealing kisses under the moon, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing such things now, and yellow does not go well with my dresses, of which I have two: one to get married in, and one for other days. The second is in tatters, as you might expect. Think of me fondly. I’ll write when I can.
I love you.
Charles stepped away from the curb. As always, the closings of her letters burned him since they forever worried he would forget her, he would not think of her, he needed a reminder. He paused in the street, imagining her, creating a melody from her name. Would she look different now, less like a girl? It had been years, he knew—so many things were possible. He smiled, tucking the letter in his pocket and thinking they’d speak French like when they met, the Parisian French that warmed his ears. He hoped she’d notice his manlier build and sharp brown suit, muttering, “I’m no longer thin, Karin,” then looking at the concrete sidewalk.
As he scanned the ground, a black Omni zipped past, almost knocking him back. A dull wind swept past his ears. He thanked his stars he’d not been hit. Broken bones were not a good way to spend the winter—bones, bones. What had she said? Not a girlish bone? He doubted it.
Even as he touched her, when he touched her, he’d always feared she’d break. His stomach rumbled. His wool scarf felt too thin to block the wind, even wrapped twice, so he rewrapped it tighter and crossed the boulevard, regarding the shoddily maintained facades across the way. One of these had fallen to strike a pedestrian last May. And how typical of New York, he thought—the city was crumbling slowly, like a rock in a milk jar, the old buildings languishing. One after the other, historic landmarks dropping like kicked women, especially the older buildings.
It was sad to visit the once-immaculate churches, the rain seeping through their foundations, remaining inside the sacred walls till they swelled and cracked. Structures built for grace and grandeur were lost due to neglect, due to the elements—and he knew how that worked. Nothing lasted forever, not even Rome.
Truthfully, he’d little cared for this notion when he worked for Aberson and Crowl, neck-deep in blueprints for repairs, struggling to keep old structures whole on shoestring budgets—but if only for an ounce of prevention, as his mother often said, they may have been saved. Either way, long-since tired of convincing spendthrift landlords to pay to avert invisible disasters, his new bakery job was a relief. Twisting dough each morning, he felt infinitely lighter.
It was easier to create than to fix. Yes, the bakery job was pleasant, and then each day at noon, because she abhorred anything but midday trains, he went home, put on his dress clothes, and went to the station. But Karin had not yet come. It had been three months, and there had been no more letters, but no matter: He knew where to go.
And his brown suit looked fine with his burgundy dress shoes, which he’d retrieved last fall from a box mistakenly thrown in with older boxes during his move. He considered the callus on his instep, breathing deep to avoid wincing, as he paused beneath an awning to regret his lack of gloves. Thrusting his fingers beneath his neck scarf, he shivered.
His hands were cold, but reeked of onions and flour, the stray odor of crushed blueberries sweetening this. His stomach grumbled again. He would eat anything but bread; the bakery had dimmed his taste for it.
Stopping at a hotdog stand, he said, “One dog, please, no bun,” and the vendor dropped the steaming morsel into crinkly white paper. He took a bite and closed his eyes, at sway, then looked up to see a black woman in a bright jade dress swaggering toward him on the walk. Huge and boisterous, her hair in a half-blonde, half-ebony weave, she flared like a needed splash of color in his eyes and swung through the gathering crowd, taking more than her side of the road.
He stepped aside as she smiled, saying, “Well, aren’t you handsome, sir! With that flower in your lapel!”
He tipped his hat, noting her red earrings, thinking of several other good omens this morning: an embryo in his breakfast egg, two women walking past in nearly identical red dresses, a hospice worker stopping by with crimson poinsettias, and best of all, a girl playing hopscotch on the street outside the bakery, wearing three scarlet ribbons. He’d watched her while cutting the dough, kneading it with his fingers and thinking: This is the girl Karin told me about. She will come today.
The black woman’s earrings were not just red, but glowing with flashing lights, the kind that held tiny holiday bulbs. This was a good day, a grand one. Still, as he got closer to the station entrance, striding forward, he worried whether he’d missed Karin at the station last week. His fever had been 103, and he couldn’t leave his building, but, “She didn’t come then,” he consoled himself. “You saw no omens that day, Charles. You’ll find her.”
He stepped forward from the curb into a chorus of horns.
Tamar phoned the doctor’s at eleven, professing an interest in talking about her father’s therapy, but the nurse had left her on hold so as soon as someone got on the line, she was prepared to give her complaints about his case. He’d wandered around lately, she’d say, and he talked to himself while running bizarre errands—but when the doctor finally picked up, “I don’t have much of a window to chat, young lady,” he announced, spouting some random “we care” message she was sure they’d made him memorize in Putting Off Patients School, one that truly translated to “kindly fuck off, and good-bye,” because he was, as she well knew, always in a rush.
She tapped her red enameled nails on her desk. “Listen, I’ve got a problem. I can’t control him from here. Tell me, what should I do, doctor?” she asked, furious at having to waste more work time dealing with her father’s lunacy, especially after she’d begged him to stop doing crazy things, to just stay where he should. Inevitably, his only response was to ask who she was and what she was doing there. “Leave me alone!” he’d screamed on more than one occasion.
In some irrational way, as the children of his patients must often do, she decided, she’d managed to decide it was the doctor’s fault, his acting out, his worsening memory. “You see,” Tamar told the doctor slowly, “he doesn’t know me as his daughter anymore, but my mom is dead, and the other kids won’t—” She paused from a clutch of emotion in her throat, trying to think of happy things until finally the constriction loosened. “Not a stitch of help from Eitan. Talia either,” she stated. “I just thought you could—”
“What do you want me to do, Tamar?” the doctor asked dryly. “I’ve heard all this before. Should I drug him until he can’t move? Would that suit your lifestyle?”
She played with her paperclip holder, dumping then tossing the clips—only barely repressing the urge to say, “Thanks very much. Yes, that would be good—at least until the Jamison account is finished.” Instead, silently, with the phone to her ear, she listened to him wait for her reply and stared out her window.
On the sidewalk, a large black woman hustled down the street in a wild, green dress. She looks happy, Tamar thought, but felt listless as the woman peeped through office windows, glancing in to where workers toiled—and Tamar hated the woman then with all her might. Happy woman, easygoing woman. She wanted to hurl something heavy through the plate-glass, a brick or a rock perhaps, anything to deter such joy and progress—but “Tamar?” the doctor asked, dragging her attention back to the phone. “Tamar? Are you there? I asked what you want me to do…”
Yes, I’m here, but I’d like to be outside, she thought, despite the weather, my arms swinging free, wearing an open coat, happy and fat as I please. I’d like to find a—
“Tamar! Can you hear me?” the doctor asked. “Have we lost our connection? You know, I have another appointment in three minutes.”
“I hear you just fine, but I don’t know what to do, doctor,” she finally replied. “Can you at least tell him again that he has to remain in the building? Repeat it a few times. At least do that much?”
“That’s the problem, dear,” the doctor said. “He doesn’t have to remain anywhere until he’s a danger to himself or others.”
“He’s a danger to your schedule, but to himself? And Tamar, you really…because it’s in the best interest…If you could hear yourself…have to…busy…father.”
Tuning the doctor out, Tamar glared at the black woman, who then fell in a lump to the pavement—as if she’d twisted her ankle or caught her heel in a grate. “Oh, no,” Tamar said then, returning her eyes to her papers. Guilty.
“Tamar? You could at least —” The doctor yammered, but she ignored him, watching the woman gingerly rise.
“A big help, as always, doc,” she said then, hanging up. “Goddamn, HMO vampires.” She maintained a brief, acidic pause where she cocked an imaginary rifle, aimed it at the receiver, and fired. “They should all be shot.”
The black woman—beautiful, blossoming, and bold—Eugenia to distant relations and telemarketers, Genie to friends, was on the way to meet her nephew Truman at the station, but she first had to pick up some dark chocolate. It had been eight years since Truman’s last visit, so she wanted to have his candy ready.
Still, the morning had not gone well since she’d fallen, so she hoped the fall would be the worst of this day. Truman, her favorite of her sister’s six children, would have loved the chocolate treat, but with an aching back, she sadly re-weighed her options. She’d been having an amazing day, had woken up without an aching back for the first morning in many weeks, then put on the green velvet dress that reminded her of blues festivals in Tennessee, cinching its large, gold-buckled belt as she’d donned those thin, emerald heels, three inches high, the last, her coat. Several scarves had followed, hanging free from her lapel. She’d walked out the door with her jacket unbuttoned, but after the fall, she had to close its folds, feeling colder as her vertebrae continuously absorbed their compression in that jarring bump, and the muscles in her back flared.
She pulled a compact from her purse, frowning; her hair, four hours done in the salon, had been wrecked, and she looked disheveled, not the perfect Auntie she’d wanted Truman to see. Luckily, a taxi pulled behind her just then, so she got in, regrettably abandoning the chocolate, saying, “Grand Central Station, please,” then asking, “Hey driver, do you know if there’s chocolates there for sale? My baby nephew loves chocolates.”
“Lady, it’s a super-mall these days. You can buy anything there,” he said, never glancing up. He looks Pakistani, she thought, pondering his tiny, dark eyes; then she noticed how the picture on his license did not resemble him—in fact, was not him—and so she stared out the window, just wanting to get there.
The car had already swung into traffic and wove at break-neck speed through more cautious vehicles. Other New Yorkers could be seen, still waving for taxis—so at least she was in one. “Lord have mercy on my soul,” she breathed. “Just get me to the station today.”
Charles waited on a bench, clicking his heels. It was 1:30, but he hadn’t lost hope. It was not that she’d told him specifically when she’d be there, but the notion of surprising her that he cherished, an unspoken way of relaying that he remembered her little habits and preferences. He spent enough time at home and at work thinking of her, removed—but the nature of waiting for someone felt more charged when one was seated in the area of their possible incipient arrival, and any moment, she could come breezing through those doors, wearing the scent of lavender and freesia, ready to kiss him hello. He adjusted his carnation and glanced at it. The flower was not a bit wilted; it was jubilant even, like a floral maraschino cherry, but still, he could not remove the bud from his buttonhole just yet.
If she walked by and saw him without it, they might never find each other, so he forced his hands down, folded them onto his lap, and listened to a scantily clad woman on a cell-phone ranting beside him. Her breasts leached from the sides of a stringy latex top, and she spoke in an exaggerated voice, swinging her nail-bitten hands, and declaring through swollen, plum lips, “Fuck that shit,” and “fuck him,” as a plastic-tipped barbell scraped over her teeth while she listened, and “Yeah. Yeah,” she said. “But a blowjob is definitely out of the question. He can fuck himself if he thinks—”
Charles stopped listening. Vulgar, he thought, but pretty. Then she stopped mid-sentence and glared, so he glared back. Then he stood to locate another bench, but, standing, was bumped by a swinging hip in a shade of green so bright it shocked his eyes. The woman he’d seen earlier! Yes, there she was, but now she frowned something fierce. The young woman walked off still hollering into her phone, so he sat back down, nursing his cheek where the hip had ploughed into it.
“Hey you!” the green woman suddenly said. “Sorry I bumped you. Can I sit here?”
“I know you don’t want to move to New York, Eitan,” Tamar said, “but dad needs you.”
“He does not. You’re such a baby, Tamar—always whining. He does have a human relation in the city, after all—and that’s you. Besides, we’ll be down during the holidays.”
“December is too far away,” she said. “If your wife didn’t have you on such a leash—”
“Just call the home. Talk to papa,” Eitan said. “He always remembers you after a while.”
“You call the home,” she said then, ready to swallow her tongue. “You could at least do that.”
“Tamar, I’m busy,” Eitan said. “I do call the home. Call up Talia if you want to complain. Did I mention my wife is pregnant? And the children are screaming? I’ve got to go.”
She hung up, rapped her knuckles on her desk, then dropped her head. Damn Eitan for always making her feel worse. She dialed again. “Hello? Is Talia there? You busy?”
“Hey, I remember you!” the black woman said, grinning and shaking her finger. “All dressed up! You have a hot date? Oh it’s so good to sit! My feet are hurtin’, and my back, too. I had a bad fall. Almost broke my leg.”
“I’m sorry,” Charles said. “It’s very cold today.”
“Sure is,” she replied, like he’d noticed an insightful truth. “Freezing.” She dug in her purse for a sack of dried apples and ate them as the crowds rolled by. “Who you waiting for here?” she asked. “You know if they sell dark chocolate?”
“Don’t know,” Charles said. “I’m waiting for my fiancée.”
“How nice! Well, I’m Eugenie, and my nephew’s coming today, so I wanted to go to that chocolate place up the road from where we met, but my heel got stuck in a gutter, so bad luck, black as a Halloween cat—and I fell, but, oh! The pain is killing me!” She shrugged. “And I’m dyin’ to get home and take these shoes off, but not until I find Truman, ’cause I have to pick him up.”
“What time does he come?”
“Least another hour. What did you say your name was?”
“I’m Charles,” he said, showing her Karin’s photo, “and this is who I’m waiting for.”
“She’s pretty,” the woman said, looking close at the photo. “You sure she’ll be on this train?”
“I hope so,” he said, “I’ve been waiting a long time.”
“What’ll she wear?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, worried again. “I didn’t ask.”
“Well,” the woman said, letting her warm, apple-scented breath linger close to his face, “don’t fret. And don’t worry yourself about it none, Charles. I’ll help you look.”
He was about to reply, but just then she saw the chocolate store, so darted off, shouting, “I’ll be right back,” scuffling away in her high, high heels.
“You say he was here earlier, but he left around noon?” Tamar asked, her nerves stretched as tightly as the fabric strips on the potholder looms she saw in the craft workshop.
“Yes, ma’am,” the old lady said. “But he’s gone.”
“And you don’t know where he is?” Tamar’s gaze flitted past the entry hall where a few ladies sat, bent over, making decorative things—but when she looked too close, a lady in a mauve polka-dot dress spotted her and shouted, “Emmaline!” gesturing frantically. Though Tamar did not know the woman, she smiled sardonically, thinking: At least someone recognizes me here, and cursed her father again.
The lady at the desk had still not replied. “Listen lady,” she said, “I just want to visit my father and leave. You sure you don’t know where he is?” The smell of cooked cabbage drenched the halls, but the woman at the desk was impervious, her hair done immaculately, her eyes vacant. She just smiled and said, “I remember he mumbled something about the station, earlier. You might try him there.”
“What station?” Tamar asked, wishing the woman had a speed dial like a record player. The other woman who’d called out to her was determinedly grabbing her walker, ready to approach.
“Grand Central, of course,” Ms. Desk said.
“And how,” Tamar asked concisely, “will I know where to look?”
“Can’t help you with that, missy,” Ms. Desk said, tonguing a fissure between her dentures and gums, then sucking her teeth tight to murmur, “Don’t know. I suppose you could wait here if you wanted to, being that it just started to snow out there—going out’ll get mighty cold. Just look out the window.”
Tamar glanced away to see the flurries drift with unnatural quiet. Already the roads were salted, and it would be bad walking weather, but the crazy old bird still waved and called out. “Thanks,” Tamar told the secretary. “I’ll find my way out.”
She hurried to the street, shivering as the snow fell in flakes at her feet, twisting and dancing in the wind. She felt like a tiny person in a life-sized snow-dome then, and “Papa,” she said with a rare burst of exuberance, completing one of the few expressions he’d taught her as a girl, “Voila! La neige!“—Look, the snow!
To her left was a French bakery and a French boutique, and how à propos, she thought, but in the resale boutique window she saw a dress that stopped her momentum, a retro cut number with three-quarter-length sleeves and a modest sweeping neckline. It was beautiful. The color was brighter than her dull slacks and pale yellow blouse but would look fine under her black trench.
Eying the dummy’s matching jewelry, she craved the entire outfit, and thought: This will please him when I see him. After all, her father had always said, “You look better in jewel tones, Tammie. More radiant with that dark hair.” She walked in the boutique as if lured, pushing down the ugly thought that he still might not recognize her.
Inside the store, she peeked at the dress when a salesgirl sashayed up in a short summer dress. What an odd outfit for winter, Tamar thought, but simultaneously found herself longing for the energy displayed by the pure light color and also the black woman’s ensemble on the boulevard earlier. Still, thank God the boutique dress wasn’t green or white! “Would you like to try it on?” the salesgirl asked.
“I’d love to,” Tamar said, surprising herself.
The dress did fit, as if made for her, the sleeves and hem perfect around her, but after a quick tour in the fitting room, she realized she had only pale pink lipstick to wear with it. Luckily the boutique had a burgundy one under glass, so she put it on her bill. She applied the scented wax to her lips, which smelled of flowers. So romantic, she thought, looking at herself. So different. Like her time spent before the mirror that morning.
There seemed a softer crook to her stubborn chin. Even the dress had come from a different era, a different time. Tamar handed the girl her credit card and applied mascara, muttering softly, almost like a prayer, “I’d like to be seen today. I’d like to be known.”
“Et pourquoi pas?” the salesgirl said with fabricated mirth. “You look magnifique! There are shoes that match the dress, too! Do you want them? Size seven and a half, narrow… Oh, and a purse.”
Tamar’s feet were at least an eight, but staring at the carmine shoes with fluted leather, she bought them anyway, shoving her toes into their narrow berth. She did not buy the purse though, because its clasp was broken. According to her mother, now gone ten years, a broken clasp always augured losing things.
She’d lost too much already.
Charles saw the black woman’s nephew a mile away, waving and whooping. How happy they look, he thought, and Eugenie was shouting and jumping, too, but awkwardly, because under her right arm was the sack of chocolates, which she held tenderly and offered as the young man arrived.
“Auntie Genie!” he called, sweeping her up in his ropy arms. “I hope you haven’t waited long?”
“Not long, Truman,” she said. “Gorgeous boy! You ready for New York?”
“Sure am.” Truman said, tearing at the bag of chocolates, “I love New York!” He was humming and saying, “Thank you, auntie!” through his full mouth as Charles watched. When he swallowed, the young man said fondly, “You look young as my sister, Auntie. Even thinner than before!”
“Don’t lie to this old bag, chile,” she said, “and don’t eat yourself sick.” Then she noted Charles’ eyes watching them, so introduced him. “Truman, this here’s Charles. He helped me look for you, so say hello.”
“‘Lo, Charles,” Truman said through chocolaty teeth.
“Hello,” Charles said and waved but looked away as Eugenie said, “How’s your mother, boy? Mind if we sit a minute?” He pulled out Karin’s letter, scouring it again and wondering when she would get here. Time was ticking.
He began to doubt himself, churlish in his disappointment, but when he glanced up again, he saw a fantastic sight coming toward him in a beautiful dress. As she neared, his eyes widened. It was her, same as before, walking closer with that slow, clumsy gate, stumbling in her shoes.
“Karin,” he said, standing with open arms. “I do love you. I miss you. I truly do.”
Tamar had walked the terminal for the better part of twenty minutes; the crowds had saddened and amused her. As always at train stations, she felt a sense of nostalgia, such passionate comings and goings.
For a moment, she feared finding her father, watching with envy as a little girl in a blue coat rushed out to greet her waiting mother. Tamar had no such sweet reunion to anticipate, only his lack of recognition, the stale companionship she received at her stilted office job, or the clutching frenzy of old, desperate people in a home. She needed a young man in life, something outside her career—even a brief, passionate affair. She looked down and blushed. These were not normal thoughts.
Though her shoes were too small, causing her pain as she walked, she felt unusually beautiful this day, like a hothouse flower, and noticed the eyes of men upon her, especially those of a Turkish man in a beige suit. She smiled and winked; he grinned and waved. In this renovated station, wearing her vintage dress, she felt out of time. Hundreds of children roamed free on the platforms, warming her with their bustle. The crowds seemed friendly and familiar, not hostile. She started to realize that, in many ways, she did not want to find her father at all, not until she got back her chilled demeanor.
Nonetheless, she roamed aimlessly across the crowds, stopping her hesitant, swivel-walk only when she saw a familiar emerald dress and its larger-than-life wearer. Curiously, she neared. Was it that woman? It was! And she stood not thirty yards away, a mocha-colored man beside her.
Beside him was an older man in a brown suit, holding out his arms. Her eyes throbbed as they recognized the familiar face. “Papa,” she thought, “I’ve found you,” but she said nothing, afraid her voice would break the tenuous spell.
Charles called to her even before she arrived, but as she neared, he fell quiet. What might he say, he wondered, that her dress reminded him of one she’d worn in Normandy? That she looked exactly as she had, a free spirit on the sand, as if the sea breeze had ripped her tension away, leaving her hair to float on her shoulders, uneven and marvelous, as it had years ago? No trace of ripped seams lingered on her dress, and this relieved him.
She’s here, he finally thought, here—with me. He remembered her question: Why can we not suspend time and unwrap it at will? “We can, Karin,” he said. “You’re here, and I’m here,” but just then, Eugenie shouted, “Hey, Charles. There’s Karin. Look at her!” patting his back with quick, heavy thumps, and he grinned at her vigilance.
“Yes, there she is,” he said, choked, still reluctant to speak. But when Karin drew close, he wrapped his arms around her, inhaling her flowery scent. The aroma was not freesia and lavender, but sweat mixed with musk. She’d changed her perfume, and he was glad. Out with the old. In with the new. He’d always known change was inevitable.
When Tamar saw him not ten feet away, her heart heaved. His arms were akimbo. He looked so happy that her eyes teared immediately, and it had been so long since he’d looked at her with any kind of pleasure that a blast of guilt stabbed her like a knife for her absences over the past five years. How petulant she’d been. How unforgiving. “Remember me?” she asked, rubbing her nose in the decaying fabric of his suit’s lapel as she leaned in. She almost called him Papa in the old affectionate way, but paused, still afraid to speak. This was a moment to think of the future, to start again, to be silent.
With kinder eyes, she noticed how silver his hair looked beside his aged face—how wonderful he looked. He loved her. He knew her. She would be fine.
In that moment, she smiled so widely that everything seemed to glow in her sight and she was glad she’d worn the dress, glad she’d left work early—even glad that she, alone, of all her siblings, had stayed in New York. His aloof French regret at his children’s Hebrew names no longer bothered her. His apathetic love. His hard, merciless character.
Tamar tucked her head on his shoulder, reminded of days in that dusty paper factory where he met her mother before receiving his degree, when he’d taught her to waltz on that factory floor during his thirty-minute lunches. She’d stood on his shoes.
He held something in his hand, an ancient paper, as he hugged her tight, but her elation began and lasted long after he let it slip from his shaking fingers, long after she flung her arms around his midsection again and squeezed with all her might, right up until he pressed his dry lips to hers, like a lover, declaring sentimentally, “Like peaches, Karin. Your lips are peaches, too.” She did not move, not even when he stepped back and said, “Am I too thin? Do you find me thin now?”
Tamar could not respond, only partially glad that the black woman and the young man had not seen this exchange. She was mortified: Her father’s lips on hers—passionately. There was nothing to be said. To her right, a bag lady approached with a basket of kittens, so Tamar watched her. There was one blind baby in the basket. She fixed her eyes on its mewling face, knowing it could not see her, then stood very still as if her feet were weighted, crossing and uncrossing her arms. Karin, he’d said: Who was he talking about, and who was he talking to?
“Ah, you’ve found each other,” the black woman said. “Your Karin,” and Tamar wanted to punch her so hard that those little green pumps would fly off her feet, but the cocoa young man dipped between the two of them just then and handed Tamar the paper her father had dropped. “Excuse me, Miss,” he said. “I think your father dropped this.”
“Thank you,” she said, but her father shouted, “She is not my daughter, sir. She is not my daughter!” so the young man looked away.
Tamar lifted the letter. At the top right corner was a date, one year before he’d married her mother. Like peaches, Karin, she thought, your lips—and she realized she did know that name, remembered hushed whispers heard just once or twice in her lifetime: Karin. The one her mother hated. The one her mother never quite measured up to.
In the here, in the now, her father beamed. “I am so happy to see you, Karin!” he said. “Did you have a good trip?”
“Papa,” she told him, unable to restrain herself, “I’m Tamar, your daughter.”
“I don’t have a daughter,” he said. “Don’t joke, Karin. You know I’m not fond of jokes. Aren’t you glad to see me? Alors! Tu m’as manqué! Est-ce—”
But when he switched to French, Tamar stopped listening. Still, in his eyes was such a misty look that she found it hard to drag her glance away. Then anger welled in her, pressing like a vise, and his happy face caused her to shout, “I’m your daughter. Tammie, old man. Tamar. Remember? Not Karin!” but his eyes only turned blank.
His posture drooped, and he squinted through an old pair of glasses marred by a crack in the lens. He asked softly, “Must you be so mean, my love? I don’t tease you.”
“No, papa,” Tamar insisted, “Karin is gone. She’s gone. I’m Tammie!”
He did not speak.
“I know what happened to Karin, and so do you,” Tamar said, willing herself to stop, but at the same time, unable to. “Remember JoJo Klein’s letter, papa?” She closed her eyes as she pictured the places she’d visited on vacation six years ago on that long, sad spree across Europe. She remembered regarding the piles of shoes, the unfinished mattresses stuffed with human hair, and the photographs of watches and jewels. She remembered, too, looking in terror at showerheads where gas leaked out near high windows. “I am not Karin,” she shouted hysterically. “I am not!”
“Then I don’t know you,” he insisted with a trembling voice, and she said, “After Loiret, Karin went to Drancy, papa, then from Drancy to Auschwitz. Remember? You never heard from her again.”
“Auschwitz,” her father replied, staggering with a black look. His face dipped between his hands, his proud head drooped, and he sat on the bench as tears leaked through his closed fingers, covering his eyes—It was the first time she’d ever seen him cry, and it was painful to watch.
She wanted throw herself somewhere dark for saying what she had, but, “Please, papa,” she begged, “forgive me. I won’t say it again.”
He had no comfort for her. She stared at the quivering shadow of a face beneath his hands, and gingerly caressed his silver-white hair.
The black woman and the young man were now watching them intently, but her father did not move. His shoulders remained bent until he looked up again at the clock before searching the crowd. He no longer registered Tamar, and she felt five again, exactly how she’d felt after the first time she’d lied to him when he’d turned his back, refusing to speak to her for weeks. The shame had grown in her heart then, like a briar thorn, and how angry he’d been. “My daughter should not lie to me!” he’d bellowed. “I want nothing to do with you. Talk to your mother if you must tell lies—but do not talk to me!”
She wanted to feel angry at him again for how much he’d hurt her over such tiny things, but his tears had stolen her rage. He was so broken, and then he was nothing, floating off as if she’d never spoken. She knew she was nothing to him then—and this frightened her, realizing as she did that he would not try to speak to her again. This, if nothing else, prodded her action. “I’m Karin, Charles,” she said, forcing herself to speak. “And I can visit you often, but you can’t kiss me again because I’ve married… Just last year.”
Her heart broke to say these things, but her father looked up brightly like a lit Menorah. “Of course you’ve married!” he said. “I didn’t expect you to wait for me, Karin. I always thought you’d fall for someone else.”
“Then, let’s go,” Tamar said. “I’ll tell you the whole story in the cab. How I’ve missed you, p—Charles. Have you missed me?”
“Yes,” he said, “I have. Desperately.” His fingers traced a serpentine pattern in her palm before he said, “You’re the only woman I ever loved.”
Tamar tripped on a tile and nearly fell, wanting to shout, How could you? How dare you do that to Mama? but she said nothing, letting her tears blur her sight until they cleared the rims of her eyes.
“Don’t cry, my dear,” he said. “It’s not your fault. If you loved someone more; it’s only natural, but please stop crying. It pains me to see you this way.”
Tamar could not stop; her tears flowed like streams, and she followed him out. “I’ve changed my name to Tammie,” she said then. “So you must stop calling me Karin.”
“Tammie,” he said then. “A vulgar, American name. I liked Karin better.” He spoke conversationally, dismissively, and her heart burned.
“Well, that’s my name,” she said harshly. “So I want you to use it.” She softened as she noticed that he watched her in a way that made her feel young again and proud, like a beautiful, different Jewish girl, able to turn him away with a flick of her wrist.
Still, she felt battered by the wind and cold, as if naked in the crowd, while pretending to be someone else—Karin, not Tamar; not Tammie, Karin. She lost her identity in that instant, but it didn’t matter. She had the rest of her life to be someone he’d never loved, and the rest of his life to be someone he did.
And it was no small consolation, she realized suddenly, that she could finally know his true self, the one who longed for a lover she’d never met, the lover he’d turn to while dying or losing his mind, above anyone else—the lover who stayed fresh in the vaulted halls of his memory like a summer rose in the middle of a New York winter. And, she thought then, shivering with cold: Throw it up in the air like a coin. Toss it. Which would you choose? She’d already made her choice in the instant she sat across from him on the bench, after speaking the name of that horrible city, pleading for his gaze, hungry for it, but invisible.