Beautiful World

 

 

Beautiful World

By Jennifer Anne Moses

 

Regina has dressed carefully for this moment--for this rare lunch alone with her daughter, Rose--but the minute she steps into Lublow’s, she’s sees that she’s managed to get it wrong again. Before she’s even seated at the booth in the corner where Rose, wrapped in gloom, sits studying the shiny menu, she can see a flicker of disdain cross her daughter’s face: the subtle narrowing of her wide blue eyes, the quick biting of the lower lip. And then Rose is standing, and forcing a smile.

"Mother," she says, allowing herself to be kissed. "I hope you don’t mind . . . ?"

Knowing exactly what her daughter is about to say, because, after all, the two of them go through the same litany every time they meet for lunch, Regina raises her palm to the sky and says, "Not at all, honey. I don’t care where we meet, you know that. I’m just happy to see you."

But she’s lying--or more accurately, fibbing--and both of them know it, and moreover, know that the other knows that she knows. But it can’t be helped. If Regina is to see Rose at all, it has to be on Rose’s terms. Which usually means one of the dismal little kosher restaurants that still flourish in the East Village, or one of the dismal little kosher restaurants that still flourish in Washington Heights. Restaurants, like this one, that serve perogies and blintzes and huge vats of Russian borsht, scrambled eggs and challah, tsimmis and kugel ("One coronary for me," Regina thinks of saying, "and my daughter would like an early-onset case of diabetes"), and are frequented by bearded men in black hats and thick eyeglasses, and women, like Rose, who seem burdened beyond their years, as if some terrible, eradicated illness--consumption, perhaps--had zapped them of their strength before they’d fully reached adulthood.

"Well, Mother," Rose, sitting back down again, says. "I’m glad to see you too."

Regina rather doubts it. As usual, Rose--whose name isn’t even Rose anymore, but Shoshana--is tense, her fingers fluttering from the menu to the salt shaker to her lips and back again, her feet tapping a-rhythmically on the greasy, slanting floor. She eyes her mother suspiciously, and as Regina takes off her raincoat, she sees that her daughter has, in a glance, taken her measure, observing, and then disapproving, of the dark blue dress, a Diane Von Furstenburg, chosen specifically for its wrist-length sleeves and below-the-knee hemline, the matching, low-heeled navy blue pumps, and the silk scarf tied around her neck.

God forbid a woman, even a woman of Regina’s age, should show even a square inch of flesh. But Regina is proud of her appearance, and believes deeply in her own inclinations. Or did. Recently, she hasn’t been so sure. Actually, it’s worse than that. She doesn’t know when or how it happened, but gradually, she’s lost her old sense of purpose: her sense that she matters in the world; that her life, however small, is important; that actions have consequences seen and unseen. She’s well past the age for what used to be called a "midlife crisis," but even so, in recent months she’s felt herself disintegrate, very very slowly, from the inside out, as if all the pieces that made up what she regards, loosely, as her inner self had suddenly decided that they’d simply had enough.

She is a tall, still-slender woman, with a regal bearing that can border on stiffness, with clear, largely unlined skin, and a taste for expensive, well-tailored suits. Her hair--which had once been as red as an Irish Setter’s--is ash-blonde, swept back from her face in a soft, shoulder-length wave, and meticulously well-kept. In deference to her daughter, she’s covered it up under a hat of light-blue velvet, with a black velvet band. The hat is out of style: she’d bought it years ago, on a whim, at Saks. Her makeup is minimal; her perfume non-existent. Clearly, however, she’s broken some law, though which, and how, she can’t imagine--why else would Rose be so adamantly avoiding her gaze? Rose herself (who will always be Rose to her mother, despite her protestations) is wearing what she always wears: a shapeless, old-fashioned dress that covers her up to her neck, down to her wrists, and nearly down to her ankles, with crepe-soled black leather shoes, and a sheitel, which, in the hopes that Rose would at least choose an attractive one, Regina herself had paid for. Cheap it wasn’t, either: made of real hair, imported from India, and luxuriant in both texture and color, the wig made Rose look like a little girl dressing up as a witch for Halloween; either that, or like a chemotherapy patient. But in one way, Regina supposes, the wig accomplishes its aim beautifully: it covers up Rose’s own lovely hair, a deep reddish blonde, or anyway, what’s left of it now that she’s gone the way of other women of her ultra-Orthodox sect and chopped it off, in accordance with the rules (whose rules?) or female modesty. Even her calves--or rather, the two or three inches of leg showing between her hem and her shoes--are covered up, swaddled in thick black stockings that remind Regina of the support-hose that her ancient mother has to wear.

But that’s the problem, exactly: Regina has forgotten about her legs, and instead of wearing dark stockings (or better yet, the bulky and unflattering leggings that Rose wears), she’s put on a pair of sheer panty hose. Her still-beautiful legs are visible from under the table, too-white, she understands, for this humid and gloomy place.

"So," she says. "How is Moishe? How are the boys?"

She knows the answer to this question: she calls once a week, usually on Sunday when she knows that she won’t somehow be violating her daughter’s idea of Shabbat, and asks the usual questions. Still, it never fails to astound her that she, Regina Elizabeth Weiss Mayer of West 12th Street and Block Island, has a son-law named Moishe. Moses is one thing: a good, solid name, with all kinds of noble antecedents, biblical and otherwise. But Moishe? Why, given the choice, choose a shtetl name, a name that practically shrieks a global rejection of all that is joyous, and passionate, and, most of all, interesting? And this little man, this Moishe with his sweaty puffy hands and his tangled black beard, is the husband of her only child. The very thought of their marriage bed makes Regina want to weep.

Not that she’s prudish, either. Far from it: alone among her contemporaries, Regina had gone ahead and slept with her first husband, Danny, before the wedding day! In fact, she’d slept with him before they’d even become engaged. Which might not have been any kind of scandal even then, but took some daring, on her part, some sense of knowing her own limits and desires to a degree considered to be both objectionable and unexpected for girls of her class and background. And then, after Danny had died--well, she had shared it with no one, but she had taken two different lovers before meeting, and marrying, Alan. She was relaxed in bed, too, generous and inventive, confident even now that she was desirable, and unafraid to share the pleasure she took in her own body. She and Alan are planning a trip to Jamaica over Thanksgiving, returning to the same small resort where they’d honeymooned, and where, much to her delight, she discovered that her intense, furry husband was fearless in bed, a colossus, really, doing things with her that even he, who was as sexually at ease as she was, hadn’t attempted before. Then, too--and most obviously--there was her work, in human sexuality, her students at the New School, where she taught a course called, simply, "The Meaning of Sex," and her volunteer work counseling pregnant teenagers. These days, the big subject in her field was gay marriage, but naturally she didn’t discuss this topic with Rose, or, for that matter, any of her work: she never told her about what she was working on (she’d just published an article called "The Myth of the Gay Gene," in Studies in Human Sexuality), or so much as mentioned the young women, largely black and Hispanic, clutching crucifixes and teddy bears, whom she met on the maternity wards at Metropolitan Hospital. She’s been doing this work for years--starting way back, when Rose herself was still Rose, a bright, sunny, intense and lovely girl at Swarthmore, eagerly soaking up what life had to offer--but lately it’s become harder and harder to do. Whenever she sits down with one of them, telling her about birth control pills and condoms, about safe sex and prenatal care, she always thinks the same thing: where on earth was the girl’s mother? But then she’d be called up short by her own vast disappointment, her own bottomless grief, her fury, her confusion, her guilt, when it came to her own child: Rose, the daughter she’d had after having suffered three late miscarriages, and who even now holds the key to her heart.

"Moishe’s fine," Rose says. "A little stressed out, what with his promotion. But otherwise, everything’s okay." Regina’s son-in-law does something with computers, she’s never known quite what, just that it requires a high degree of technical and mathematical know-how. He works for a firm (a firm? a shop? a practice?) of other such computer-experts--software engineers, designers, and the like--in Kingston, not far from where they live, in a sub-division on a rise near the Hudson River. Rose assures her that he makes good money, but Regina’s not sure what, in Rose’s mind, would constitute "good money" or even "enough money." Their house is too small and shabbily furnished, and Rose herself seems permanently exhausted. And no wonder, with five little boys afoot.

She’s been studying the menu--unnecessarily, as she always, on such occasions as these, orders tuna salad and a cup of tomato soup--but is compelled to take another peek at her daughter, to see if, maybe, she can discern what’s on her mind, figure out why, all of a sudden, Rose had announced that she was coming to the city and wanted to see her, when she notices that Rose’s pale skin is sticky, as if daubed in clam juice.

"Are you feeling all right?"

"I’m fine, Mother."

"It’s just that--"

"I’m fine, Mother," Rose says from behind her menu. "I wish you wouldn’t worry about me so much."

Risking a squabble, or, worse, more lumpy silence, Regina presses on: "You look pale. You look pale and--sweaty. Like you’re going to vomit."

"Can we change the subject? I’m not going to vomit."

"Fine." She looks at the menu again, then, when a long-enough time has passed, she ventures speech again. "How are the boys?"

"Good."

The boys--Rose has five of them. Five little boys, each one tumbling out of his mother’s womb like he couldn’t wait to join the world, only to be replaced, a year or so later, by another of his sort. They were, in order of age, Jeremiah, Isaac, Benjamin, Abraham (whom they, thank God, called Abe), and the baby, little Ezra. Well, she thinks, it could be worse. They could have shtetl names, like their father. They could be Anshel, Mendel, Zev.

"Benjamin had a bad cold," Rose says. "But now all of them are good."

 

Amazing--astounding--that only a few years ago, Rose was still Rose, the grown-up version of the lovely, intelligent, and dreamy little girl who had come into Regina’s life five full years after she’d accepted her doctor’s verdict that she’d never be able to bear children. Regina hadn’t been a terribly young mother, but she hadn’t been too old to chase her little girl around the house saying "I’m going to eat you up!" or "Here comes the Kissing Monster!" while Rose shrieked in delight, or take her on long bike rides in Central Park, or, later, to the opera and the ballet, to Broadway shows and Japanese restaurants and openings of Jasper Johns and Picasso retrospectives. How she’d longed to be the mother of several children, to have them come tumbling out of her like lambs, but it wasn’t to be, and she’d been happy, and grateful, for her one.

Rose had been a graduate student when suddenly, as if she’d been abducted and brainwashed by a large and vicious population of beings from a far galaxy, she’d found Adonai. Her doctoral thesis, on medieval bestiaries, had just been published as a book by the University of Chicago Press--the final act, it turned out, of a fascination with medieval art that had started at the age of fifteen, when she’d first noticed the icons at the Met. Of course, as a New Yorker, she’d been in the museum’s medieval rooms countless times before, but this time, as Regina (who had been longing to see the Chinese jades) grew first restless and then bored, Rose had stood, transfixed, before a 12th-century French stained-glass window filled with angels and flowering vines. That she’d loved Christian iconography, its symbols and seraphim, its impaled saints and bloody Christs, had puzzled Regina, making her by turns uneasy and slightly embarrassed. But what right, she’d ask herself time and time again, did she have to be uneasy over her daughter’s scholarly fascination with medieval art, no matter how anti-Jewish its meaning might at one time have been? It wasn’t as if Rose’s interests were anything other than scholarly. Nor had Regina ever done or said anything to give Rose the impression that she had to limit her interests in any way. Rose hadn’t had any real Jewish education, nor had she asked for one--not even when one after another of her friends from Ethical Culture and Fieldston had their bat mitzvahs. But Regina wasn’t hostile to Judaism, or to religion as a whole: it just didn’t much interest her. Still, they dutifully went to services with her parents--Rose’s grandparents--for the High Holidays. They had Passover; they lit Hanukkah lights. In her forties, Regina had even become interested in Jewish history, taking courses at the New School, and reading widely on her own. There was no doubt about it: they were Jewish, if only at the margins, but they were proud of their heritage, so when Rose’s early interest in Christian icons blossomed into a full-fledged scholarly fascination, it was somewhat disconcerting. But all the crucified Christs in the world, all the blue-eyed Madonnas and bird-beaked Jewish villains would have been better than what Rose does now: which is, as far as Regina can tell, bear children for the greater glory of Hashem.

"That’s good," Regina now says. "They’re all so cute."

"Yes, everyone’s doing fine," Rose says again, as the waitress comes around to take their order, and Regina, for the twelfth time in the last half-minute, wonders what on earth Rose wants to talk about, and why she has come, without either children or husband, a full two hours south of her home in Sweet Falls Estates, in the town of Clear View, unless it was something important.

"Who’s watching the kids?" Regina asks--an obvious question, really, given that there are five of them, and nothing resembling a nanny.

"They’re with Golda Rubin," Rose says. "You know, the rebbitzin’s sister. You met her last time you came up. She’d just had her third?"

Ah yes--how could Regina forget? Another young woman, with enormous dark eyes in a pale moon face, rendered exhausted, miserable, and deprived of either imagination or humor, in order to live by God’s Big Fat Book of Many Many Rules.

"She keeps them when, for whatever reason, I have to go out," Rose explains. "And I keep hers for her, too."

She can’t help it. The words escape her lips: "My God, Rose! Eight children! In your little house! I don’t know how you do it!"

Rose’s eyes once again contract, and Regina has the terrible feeling that she’s going to be punished: sent to her room, deprived of dessert, put in the corner with a dunce cap on her head. One is not to take the name of the Lord in vain, Mother. You may scoff at our ways, but I must ask you, when you’re in our home, to abide by them.

"Sorry," she says.

"Listen, Mother," Rose finally says, as the waitress brings her a cup of tea and a tray of Saltines, which Rose rips open, devouring them as if she hasn’t eaten in a week. "I’ve got a doctor’s appointment. It’s nothing to worry about." She waves her hands over the table, as if to banish any protestations on her mother’s part. "I’m pregnant."

"Pregnant." It’s all she can say.

"And I’ve been having some spotting."

"Spotting."

"Really, Mother. It’s nothing to worry about. My doctor at home doesn’t think there’s anything to worry about, the signs are all good--heartbeat, weight--and I feel all right, but she wanted me to get a second opinion, is all."

"A second opinion?"

"I’ve got an appointment to see a specialist at two this afternoon."

"What kind of specialist?"

From outside, the sound of tires squealing to a halt, followed by angry voices. Whadda ya think you’re doin’? Didn’t you see my turn signal? Fuckin’ idiot.

"Mother," Rose says. "I’m carrying twins."

Get a life, asshole.

"I’m happy, Mother. Really I am. I wish you could believe me," Rose says, suddenly as direct and simple as she had been before. Before the visits to the mikveh; before the little synagogue in Flatbush; before the matchmaker and the Women’s Institute for Hebrew Studies and the rav. Regina reaches across the table for her hand. But then, just as suddenly, Rose closes up again, snatching her hands away into little fists, casting her eyes on her stomach, and making tight little nods of her head, as if willing herself to be civil.

 

Even before she gets home and learns, from her younger sister, that their ancient mother has fallen and may have broken a hip, even before Alan walks in and announces that he’s going to have to cancel their Jamaica trip--something to do with rescheduling a conference--and before her older sister calls to say that their mother hasn’t broken a hip after all, but seems to think that their father is still alive and won’t stop asking for him, Regina has the first, dreadful glimmerings of a migraine. It’s a yellow one this time--yellow gold flecks shimmering around the head and neck of her taxi driver, along the avenues, and off the cars--and, she knows from long experience, it’s going to lay her flat. . . .

All the words that she’d like to say, she can’t. They push through her mind anyway, a relentless, throbbing torrent.

Why are you punishing yourself like this? Do you really hate me so much that you’d confine yourself to a life in jail? Because that’s what it is, Rose, jail. Only you chose the bars yourself. You know full well, and I don’t have to tell you, that the minute you give your own will, your own sense of how to live your life, over to that rabbi of yours, you’ve all but cut yourself off from everything that you once were, because it’s one thing to be proud of your religious heritage, and to seek God, and I know that your father and I didn’t give you any kind of real Jewish education, and I admit that we made a mistake there, that we were so swept up in the simple joy of being alive that we neglected to teach you where you came from, but we gave you something that we thought was even more important: a chance to be yourself, and an education to allow you to find your own way.

But since you seem so determined, I must say that I just can’t understand why you won’t at least accept financial help from me. From me? It’s not even my money. Your father made it. It rightfully belongs to you. And you’re going to get it anyway, one day. Who else would I leave it to? But it would give me infinitely more joy to see you get it now. And no, I wouldn’t care what you did with it, so long as you didn’t give it to that rabbi of yours--so long as you spent it on yourself, and your husband and children, and not for some new wing of the Solomon Pishker Torah-Talmud, or to buy books for some yeshiva in Jerusalem.

How can you do this to yourself?

How can you do this to me?

She’s been through this litany dozens of times, so often that it’s taken on a kind of voice of its own--a cross between Russell Baker, if he were a woman, and her long-dead grandmother--and anyway, it could be worse, though how, exactly, she’s not sure. Because, on top of everything else--on top of the singular reality that her daughter, her beloved Rose, is all but lost to her--it’s embarrassing, what she’s done. It is! Here she is, spending half her waking hours worrying about black and Hispanic knocked-up girls, counseling them about birth control and STDs and urging them, begging them, to eat right and stay away from drugs and go to night school and do anything it takes, anything at all, to free themselves from the burdens of unwanted motherhood, and her own daughter is overpopulating the planet and ruining her own life as surely as any crack whore in Bed-Stuy. How she hates fending off the questions, always posed as if out of real concern, about what Rose is up to and how many babies she has, and how is she handling all that? Mind your own goddamn business. As her taxi pulls away from the corner, she scrolls through her mind, looking for the pieces of other people’s stories, the failures and tragedies that she turns to, on occasion, to make herself feel better. (Even though she knows--of course she knows--that other peoples’ miseries are just that, miseries, and she has no right indulging in even the most diluted form of Schadenfreude.) Nevertheless, there they were, the evil tricks that even the most sheltered and privileged were prey to. Like her friend Ellen’s second son’s suicide, at the age of thirty-three: he’d doused himself with gasoline, and lit himself on fire on the front yard of his parents’ Greenwich home, killing himself quickly (though God alone knows that it couldn’t have been quick enough) and singeing his mother’s magnificent flower gardens. Or her college roommate’s son, killed in a car crash when he was only twenty-one, not his fault either, but the other driver’s, who was drunk and survived the crash with barely a bruise to show for it. Or poor Joe Heller--a cousin with whom all three of the Weiss sisters had grown up--who was hardly young, but who had been struck down, anyway, stricken with Alzheimer’s before he’d reached sixty, and now lives in a state of not-knowingness that Regina can’t even fathom. For that matter, there was her older sister’s own crazy brood, each (now middle-aged) child more not-quite-there than the next, each one angry, or belligerent, or just plain unpleasant long after the age for such displays of histrionics was over. Or her daughter’s best friend from summer camp, Karin, a pretty, free-spirited girl who had grown up to be a drug addict. Terrible--terrible terrible terrible. Regina had never been able to understand how the parents of these children could bear such loss, such grief.

Twins.

The yellow turns into a ball of fire at the corners of her eyes, travels down the bridge of her nose, and then into her temples. Her whole face feels hot, molten with the fire; her skull feels like it could crack open. The taxi driver lurches to a halt, sending waves of yellow flames down her spine and to the back of her brain.

The taxi hurdles down Amsterdam Avenue, as Harlem gives way to the Upper West Side, which in turn gives way to midtown, and then--will she ever get home?--to what used to be called Hell’s Kitchen, but now goes by the name of Clinton, like the president. Vietnamese restaurants; vegan restaurants; newspaper vendors; coffee shops; art galleries; Italian delis. Why anyone, let alone her own daughter, would chose to live in the furthest suburbs when all of New York beckons, with all its glorious promise, is something she’s never been able to understand.

Of course, it’s possible that she’s simply envious of Rose, as she had been, at one time, of her sisters. How easy it had been, after all, for each of them to bear children; how easy, how trouble-free. But this question too has long since been answered: she knows in her heart that envy is not at play. At least not in any obvious way, anything as crude as envy for another woman’s fecundity. She is perhaps, at least around the edges, envious of her daughter’s deep religious certainty; the complacency, if that’s what it is, of knowing one’s place in heaven and on earth. But what of it? If she’d wanted such certainties herself, all she has to do is sign up for any one of a dozen or more rigid theologies. Why not, for that matter, convert to Christianity? At least, she thinks, the Christians know how to have fun--not to mention that they have astonishingly beautiful music: Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew.

Pulling up in front of her house on West 12th Street, Regina pays the driver, tipping him heavily for the simple reason that she doesn’t want to wait even twenty more seconds for him to make change, and gratefully lets herself in through the front door. Inside, all is as it should be: quiet, filled with afternoon shadows, and somewhat haphazard. Regina, alone among her friends, has always preferred things to be comfortable, lived-in, and imperfect--what a former housekeeper had accurately described as "lived in"--rather than expertly decorated, with matched colors. The rugs are old, and of dark hues, wine reds and deep blues; the upholstered pieces show their age; there are silk shawls and throw-blankets tossed on the backs of sofas and chairs; in the kitchen is pottery; and on the walls, folk art depicting angles and birds mingles with formal portraits of Regina’s ancestors, done in oil paintings, the figures emerging out of black gloom. It’s her nest, and she couldn’t imagine leaving it for some other place. There had been no question that Alan would move in with her, and not the other way around. Since then, there have been changes: where the mantel was once crowded with family photographs, now there are Alan’s collection of African figures; an old-fashioned highboy had replaced Danny’s desk. Alan’s dense books, with titles like Suborganic Molecular Structures and The Birth of the Cell, now mingle with her books on reproductive rights, sexual dysfunction, and variations in androgyny. And, of course, there’s Rose’s old room, once containing a bed, a desk, and a dresser, now given over to Alan for use as a home office, with every last remnant of Rose’s former persona, the true Rose, the person she was born to be, gone. Rose herself had seen to that. At some point, after the mikveh but before her marriage to Moishe, she’d come to her mother’s home, collected the few personal things that she still kept there--an old stuffed rabbit, some books, the collection of glass paperweights that at one time had been displayed on her windowsills--and taken them. What she’d done with these things, Rose didn’t know, but she suspects that she gave them away. For none of Rose’s old things are to be found in her house in Sweet Falls Estates.

As she moves deeper into her house, she is aware of a sense of pride creeping in, for she knows in her heart that, though Rose seems to think otherwise, she hasn’t made her life out of stuff, and has been careful to make a real life for herself, a life not just unlike her sister Antoinette’s, but also unlike her mother’s. She loves her mother, and always has, but even as a young girl, she’d envisioned something different for herself, something more compelling than sitting on boards, entertaining, knowing the right people--such a fuss her mother had made! And yet Rose looks down on her life, her taste, and her jumbled, unostentatious possessions as if she lived in a mini-mansion stuffed with gold-lamé covered sofas, giant ivory sculptures, of elephants, say, or giraffes, and portraits of other peoples’ ancestors, complete with his-and-her indoor whirlpools, and walk-in closets the size of a racket ball court. As if her entire existence was made up of junk. Of course such places actually existed: they existed even among the ultra-Orthodox, who were in no way adverse to the pleasures of material gain. But her own house, which was merely a physical reflection of her inner state, and her own life, weren’t like that. It’s so obvious, too. Why can’t Rose see it? More to the point, why can’t Rose accept her love?

The yellow pain splashes behind her eyeballs, sending out sparks of light along the edges of the furnishings, and making her feel weak along the backs of her legs and upper spine. She gropes her way into the bathroom and takes two Cephpax. Then, despite knowing better, she walks down the hall until she is at the doorway of Rose’s old room, and from there to the desk in the hallway, where she keeps the old photo books.

There she is: a child of three on her father’s lap. And again: on a swing at her grandparents’ house in Rye. Blowing out candles, a pointy paper birthday hat perched on her head. And again and again and again, Rose in the beautiful world, growing from a delightful and easily delighted toddler to a thoughtful child to a beautiful teenager to an exquisite, intuitive, and accomplished young woman--in bathing suits and formal dresses and shorts, in college sweatshirts and blue jeans and sports uniforms, standing among a group of friends or on her own, gazing out over waves, or pine trees, or straight at the camera, where always, always, she could find love gazing back at her, from the eyes of her mother.

 

 

 

Copyright © Jennifer Anne Moses 2011

 

Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou (University of Wisconsin Press) and Food and Whine (Simon & Schuster). She's published dozens of short stories, essays, reviews, and articles. She also paints. Her website is www.jenniferannemosesarts.com.

 

 



 

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