(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Tova Mirvis
Descending into the subway, Jeremy’s eyes darted, as they always did, to the people nearby, none of whom were looking anxiously around. Was he the only one who still worried about being stranded too far above ground or trapped too far below? So many years later, Jeremy still felt a quiet swell of panic upon entering his office in the Citicorp Building. Its sloped peak was the tallest in its immediate vicinity, and as planes flew up the East River, visible from his window, he worried that his fear would guide them like a light-stick toward his building.
As a child beset with a nightly assortment of fears, he’d made bargains with God, trading obedience for protection. He had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, and though he no longer was observant, a part of him still believed that he could bargain his way to safety. One night, he’d lain awake in fear, and his father came into his room, sat beside him and took out a prayer book. The words his father pointed to were ones he knew well: The Lord is my light, whom shall I fear? He’d said the psalm, but what really comforted him was his father next to him, and the wish that he would stay there the whole night through.
His father had often talked of those who left Orthodoxy in anger, forging fiery trails of rebellion as they wandered foolishly, recklessly from the path. Now Jeremy was among them. For months after he’d stopped wearing a yarmulke, he had expected to put his hand to his head and feel the small crocheted circle there. For far longer he was sure that its imprint was still discernable in his hair. He hid each trespass, censoring what he said to his parents. Long ago, he had imagined himself angrily, bravely demanding his right to be his own person, while others times he imagined timidly sneaking the words in as a casual aside at the end of a conversation. All these would-be scenarios took place at far-off future dates, but his father had died before Jeremy could tell him, before he allowed himself to wonder if his father already knew.
When the subway came, Jeremy pushed his way into the crowded car. He couldn’t think about the press of fear, not now. If he forced those feelings into smaller and smaller spaces inside himself, perhaps one day they would disappear altogether. At 96th St., the passengers rushed across the platform to the express train, which miraculously waited. He transferred to the Shuttle, then got on the downtown 6 train. A seat opened, and Jeremy squeezed himself into the valley between two people. With exhaustion the most effective salve against fear, Jeremy closed his eyes.
After a few minutes or an hour, he awoke. An empty car. A black tunnel. A screech of wheels. The car was turning, and out the window, he saw a sign for City Hall Station. He had missed his stop. Or was on the wrong train. Or survived an emergency by sleeping through.
As the train curved through the tunnel and quieted, Jeremy pressed his face to the window to catch sight of a station he hadn’t known existed. It was eerily deserted, yet even in its neglected state, the station’s one-time grandeur was evident. The ceilings were vaulted and arched, lit with skylights held in place by ornate wrought iron canes. A grand staircase, just visible from the train window, lead to the street level. The walls were decorated with bursts of red and green tile that had darkened with age, but still revealed their intricate handiwork.
With Jeremy’s face against the glass, the train sped up and reentered the dark tunnel. Intent on seeing what was rapidly disappearing from view, he craned his neck backward for one last glimpse, and as the subway hurtled forward, a passageway had opened inside him, a vista to somewhere else.
When he got home from work that night, so late that his eyes burned with exhaustion, the kids were asleep, but Nina was in her usual spot by the window, and she startled at the sight of him in the doorway.
“How are the neighbors tonight? Are they up to anything exciting?” he asked.
“I’ve stopped watching them,” she said.
With more work still to do, he spread his documents out on the table, and Nina looked over his shoulder at them.
“There’s unexpected opposition and the client is flipping out,” he said.
“Do they have any legal basis?” she asked.
“Not as far as we know, but I’m a little behind,” he admitted.
“What does your boss think?”
“He’s nervous, but every time I talk to him, he’s either rushing out of the office or distracted.”
“Did you ask him what’s wrong?”
“Yes, I took his hand and told him that if anything was bothering him, he could talk to me.”
“Really. What do you think it is?”
“Midlife crisis? Who knows,” he said.
This was the moment when he should tell her about his glimpse of City Hall station. But having become so accustomed to lying to his boss about all the work he had yet to complete, it was easy to do the same with Nina. It was the same way he had been with his father, pretending to be Orthodox. If he had told his father that he no longer believed, his father would have felt betrayal. If he were to describe to Nina his afternoon outing to the library to learn more about the subway station he’d glimpsed, she’d add up the hours when he could have been home. From everyone, he was stealing time, defying expectations, but what of his own life belonged to him? There was no room to consider what he really wanted. He had always imagined that when he no longer thought of himself as Orthodox, he would only feel freedom, but of course it wasn’t so simple. The world was supposedly wide open, but he had found other ways to close himself in.
When Nina gave up and went to bed, Jeremy stayed at the table, intermittently dozing. He fought the urge to join Nina, or to ask her to wait up. When it grew light, Jeremy went to the window and picked up the binoculars Nina had left on the windowsill. Apparently she was still watching after all. At first he’d enjoyed her interest in their neighbors’ lives; he’d always felt like one part of her hovered dreamily overhead, but close enough that he could still pull her back. Lately though, she seemed out of reach and he’d started to wonder what the neighbors’ lives really meant to her. He held back from asking because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. At the end of the day, in the perpetual middles of the night, he had no energy for a long open-ended conversation. He would surely fall asleep if he attempted any such discussion; there was no room in his day, equally no room in his mind for anything more.
“Jeremy,” Nina called, having woken up from the sound of his pacing, from the tapping of his pen, from the emptiness on his side of the bed. In a state that could no longer be called asleep but didn’t yet qualify as awake, she stumbled into the living room.
“What time is it?” Jeremy asked.
“Late,” she said.
Leaving his work on the table, he groggily stood up to hug Nina. He held on to her as though she had arrived in the living room on a rescue mission. He allowed himself to be led to bed, where under their blankets, Jeremy’s hand found her thigh. “Are you too tired?” They were always too tired. They were destroyed, ruined, wrecks; they were exhausted, they were sapped, they were crazed. Even so, small, tentative feelings of desire peeked out. Her body made a compelling case to forgo the extra sleep, or, in Jeremy’s mind, the equivalent of 4 units of billable time. But desire was no match for fatigue. He kissed her, she curled toward him, they fell asleep.
The next day Jeremy skipped work again and went to the Met. In the American Wing Courtyard, he gazed at John La Farge’s Welcome Window. In luminous color, encrusted with jewels of glass, an angelic-looking woman was depicted pulling back a curtain, bidding him to enter. How many people, and how many hours, had it taken to make such a creation? Even those craftsman in the back rooms whose contributions were anonymous, had they been aware of the grandeur they were creating?
The light rushed in, and the exuberance and defiance of the colors reminded him of the story he’d read about the day before about the tension between John LaFarge and his father. He’d googled it, wanting to know more. Had the son tried to lecture himself about the requirements of duty and responsibility? Had he eventually come to the realization that he had no choice; in the pages of his law books, had he seen only the glimmers of color? In Paris, where the son had gone to study, had a world opened up? Upon his return, had the son taken his father into his studio and declared, this is what I want to do?
There were other La Farge windows in Manhattan, mostly in churches, and on subsequent mornings, Jeremy came in late to work and went to visit them. How far he’d traveled from his former self, that he now spent his lunch hour visiting churches.
At the Church of the Incarnation in midtown, a caretaker noticed him as he walked in and Jeremy jumped, half-expecting to be told that he didn’t belong here. He worried he might turn and see Richard, here to collect his wayward associate. But it wasn’t only Richard he feared. Jeremy felt his father’s presence more viscerally here in this church than he did anywhere else. He remembered something that he hadn’t thought of in years. When he used to visit his father’s office, his favorite activity had been not to gaze out the windows at the view of downtown Chicago, but to open the bottom drawer of his father’s desk. In that drawer he kept supplies for his own hobby, building miniatures of boats, cars, and monuments. Jeremy used to carefully pick up the X-acto knives and small squares of balsa wood, his father showing him with great pride what he’d built, his eyes lit with a sparkle his son rarely saw.
Inside the church, the sounds of traffic grew faint, and the bustle of the city vanished as it had at the library. In a red velvet pew, a man sat with his head bowed, also seeking refuge from some part of his life. The walls were lined with stained glass windows, by Tiffany and William Morris, but Jeremy skipped past those to the one by La Farge which depicted a vintner looking down over his translucently bright purple grapes and the cherubic faces of young children. In the noon light, this window was the brightest; even without locating it on the pamphlet he’d picked up at the entrance, Jeremy immediately knew it was the one.
The window reminded him of a favorite phrase of his father’s. “My father planted for me, now I plant for my children.” Before, Jeremy had only heard in these words a sense of endless duty, but staring at the window, he also saw the glint of love. The language of work was their chosen dialect, but in all their conversations, he’d never once thought to ask his father if he liked what he did. Now it was too late. Their relationship would always be preserved as it had been then. Only in his mind, in his wishful fantasies, could it take on new forms.
The story he had been told about John LaFarge was probably more complicated than he had initially believed. John La Farge was a grown man when he’d gone to law school, a grown man when he’d run away in order to do what he wanted. Maybe his father had tried to prevent him from doing what he wanted but surely his own internal conflict stood in the way as well. Perhaps the tether on his own father’s love had been longer than he’d realized. It was easy to blame it on his father, easy to blame it on his work: the entire world, a waiting repository for blame. Jeremy felt the grotesquerie of his own weakness, the center of himself where everything was dangling, unfixed, unformed. He had gone to college, to law school, he had married, had two children of his own – cocooning himself in all the things he was supposed to be -- yet he had never grown past the larval stage of his own becoming.
It was as close to a religious epiphany as he’d ever come. He was reminded of something he was supposed to know: his life lay in his own hands. All the decisions already made, all the encumbering pieces in place, yet his life was still his to shape as he saw fit. No longer squelched, no longer silenced, he had the craving for something fuller, richer, his own. There was always more to be uncovered. In a city where eyes had swept over everything, here was the chance to claim what was still unseen, untouched.
Copyright © Tova Mirvis 2013
This excerpt is from the forthcoming novel, Visible City, which will be published in March by Houghton Mifflin and can be purchased here. For more information about this book, see www.tovamirvis.com.
Tova Mirvis is the author of The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her third novel, Visible City, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in March 2014. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.