Photo: Family Archive
By Yente Serdatsky
Translated from Yiddish by Jessica Kirzane
He was a nice man, and older than forty. He was average height, well built, with a chest as firm as iron, with a pale, round, bright face and a head of thick blond hair, and with large, blue, happy eyes.
She was a tall, slender brunette, around the same age. Her feathery hair was swept up high upon her head. Her face was long, smooth, gentle, and her dark eyes were fiery, grasping at the heart and awakening longing with their lonesome gaze.
The two of them still got along well. Years ago someone introduced them and they got to know each other, and now they met casually every Saturday at a familiar café.
She always arrived early. The waiter approached her respectfully. She ordered her meal and looked around. Seeing no one she knew, her face grew a little paler, her eyes lonelier, and she busied herself with eating.
When he opened the door, she gave a start, before she even knew for certain that it was him. She felt that it was him before she saw him. He glanced around the room and nodded to many acquaintances. He considered for awhile and decided that there was probably no more interesting place to sit than next to her.
“Hello! Hello!” She gave him a loose handshake, and he sat beside her and began a conversation.
The other patrons of the café knew that there was “nothing” going on between the two of them, and this made them all the more curious to know what the unseen bridge was that linked these two lives, these two souls, for a few hours every week.
She was a wealthy young woman, born in Russia. In her home country she had gone to school, and after she graduated she went on to study in Switzerland. There she learned philosophy and all kinds of other academic pursuits, but no trade or profession.
While she was learning she had been very happy. She had made many friends among the students, and clambered over the tall Swiss mountains with a large shawl wrapped around her arms. For a little while she learned how to ride a horse and a bicycle.
Her beauty and athleticism made her very popular and many of the young students were in love with her. She had loved one of them in return and they were married. She had his child, who died after a year. A while later she split up from him and they went their separate ways.
She was surrounded by other young people, but she never fell in love with any of them and she never remarried. Just like consequential atheists who are no longer able to believe in any god, so some women, after their disappointment in a man’s love, may never love again. She had such a nature.
She arrived in America about twelve years ago. From her studies she knew the circumference of the world in kilometers, the path of the stars, about the minerals and gems that are found in the depths under the earth, the history of fields and lands for as long as the earth had existed, the names of every plant, bird, and animal. She had only forgotten to learn one thing: how to earn a living.
For a long time she suffered. Then she found a position as an assistant to a bookseller. She quickly became used to her work. She earns a good salary and has been sitting in the corner at her desk for almost twelve years.
She lives in a four room apartment. Her aunt, an old lady, manages her household. She came to her from Europe and has been living with her for a long time.
The aunt, an interesting, educated woman, was once an important personage. Her husband, a student, was killed in the eighties, as a freedom fighter. She had been a teacher in a school and had enjoyed a large circle of interesting acquaintances. In her fifties her health weakened and these two lonely relatives came together to live in one home.
Their apartment was decorated tastefully, in the charming bright colors that the Russians from the south like so well. The bedrooms smelled of perfume, the parlor was set up to accommodate studying and reading. The kitchen smelled of flavorful dishes and the most Russian of borschts.
The old lady wore her hair high on her head. Her tall body was always cloaked in dark silk dresses. Her gait was smooth and proud, and she looked like the sort of grande dame that you read about in novels.
No strangers crossed their threshold and they were never invited to others’ homes as guests. Who could they befriend here in America? And who was their equal? The old lady needed no society, and the young lady, who might have wanted such society, had given up on her old life and didn’t have any interest in beginning a new one.
In the first few years she often found the loneliness unbearable. She spoke too much to her aunt, and they would occasionally go to the opera or to a concert. Many men would eye these two tall, proud women, and the younger lady would blush.
Now neither of them went out. The old lady was growing deaf and weak. The younger lady did not want to leave her alone in the house, and she was also uncomfortable going out by herself.
They sat in the house, where it was quiet, calm, and nice-smelling. There was a piano in the parlor. The younger lady often sat by it and played the Russian classics. The woeful, lonely tones of Viniovsky’s Romanza drifted across the room and the old lady, sitting in a soft chair, dropped her head to her chest with despair.
The younger lady played until she herself felt too depressed, until she felt tears coming, and then she got up, closed the piano, and paced slowly across the kitchen. She knew that when she was feeling such despair it was better for her to be alone.
A while later she prepared tea with cherry juice – strong, aromatic, Russian tea. They both drank it. The old lady brought out more and more tea. They grew happy, as though drunk, and they chatted about various things until they went to bed peacefully.
Mid-day Saturday the younger woman was free from her work. She didn’t like to go home because on Saturdays a black woman came to clean the apartment and the disorder in her home made her nervous. The office where she worked was not far from the café. She went there to eat her lunch. Years ago she had met an old friend there, a Swiss student. He had introduced her to several people there. Now she went there every Saturday, like a religious Jew goes to shul on Shabes.
He lived an entirely different life. His business office was downtown. He spent several hours a day there. He didn’t work very much, and he earned just enough money to live well and comfortably. His home was far away in the Bronx across the street from a park, on a little green hill. He lived there with his family – a wife and four daughters, the oldest seventeen years old.
He had a large, comfortable wooden house with verandas and large, spacious rooms. Around his house on all four sides were bits and pieces of a garden, and at the entrance to his house were flowering trees. Inside, in the rooms, there was comfortable furniture with all sorts of decorations. Soft carpets lay on all of the floors, and there were soft couches and hard leather chairs, and silk accessories to catch the eyes.
His house was similar to a wealthy Turk’s harem. For days on end there were only women and more women in his home. Truth be told, there were no women from other families; in his “harem” all of the women were his own. He loved them all very much and felt content with them.
His wife was a slender woman with brown hair and a very pale and beautiful face. His two oldest daughters were blonde, taking after him. His two younger daughters resembled their mother. They were all beautiful, and they all wore colorful silk clothes. His home was full of white necks and white arms, and five pairs of adoring eyes looked at him and loved only him.
His wife’s mother often came to visit his wife and daughters at home. She was a happy, beautiful, healthy woman, fifty-six years old. A wealthy widow, she often bought presents and brought them to his home, even though she had three other married daughters. For this reason he liked her very much.
Almost every evening his three sisters-in-law came to his home. They were young, cheerful, carefree women. They all had older and younger children and almost all the children were girls. (The women followed in the footsteps of their mother, who also had only girls.) His nieces came along with their mothers. Their liveliness added a wonderful graceful quality to the house.
All of the women loved him and he felt very good about this. When he finished his work he didn’t go to clubs, restaurants or theaters, as other men do. He came right home. Through the beautiful rooms he could smell a rich supper, on the table the wine sparkled and a whole harem of beautiful women, his own wife and daughters and his relatives, looked at him, smiling and hanging on to his every word.
When he finished a glass of wine he felt cheerful and proud. He began to entertain everyone, the way an adult amuses small children. He told jokes and after each joke his belly quivered with laughter. He told lighthearted anecdotes about what he had heard and seen on the streets during the day and what he had read in the newspapers. He spoke and the women watched his mouth as he spoke, and swallowed each word, and at night as they lay in their beds they thought for a long time about his clever speech.
So his life flowed peacefully, happily, day after day. One day just like the next, but all days were easy, happy, and all was well with him.
Saturday was a bit more difficult for him than other days. The office closed midday but his house was empty all day. His wife, his sisters-in-law, his daughters, all of his relatives went shopping. They went into all of the stores to buy fashionable items and they didn’t come home until late in the day.
He had nothing to come home to, and it was lonely for him. He grew hungry. He didn’t think about it for long, and he took the car and drove to eat his lunch in the same familiar café.
Why in that particular café? Once, twenty years ago, he was one of the crowd there. He had run to lectures, to meetings, and believed he was going to remake the world. After that he became busy with business and forgot all about it. But he had respect for his old friends; he wanted to see them every now and again, to say hello to them, and he felt lucky when one of them recognized him and nodded to him when he came in the door.
He found her more interesting than all the others. She was such a small, delicate woman. He sat next to her, ordered his meal, and began to converse with her.
He spoke and she listened. With her he talked of much more serious things than with the ladies of his “harem.” She was nothing like them. He behaved entirely correctly toward her. Speaking about serious subjects didn’t come easily to him. It sometimes seemed to him that she didn’t understand him, and he would look her in the eyes and touch her with his hand.
She stared at him eagerly with her beautiful black eyes. Her face reddened, her heart pounded. She watched his mouth and didn’t miss a single word he said.
The men at the other tables could overhear all that he said. Knowing smiles played on the lips of the nearby men (very few women frequented this café) as if to say: “Listen to how he talks about opera! Listen to how he talks about Bolsheviks! Listen to how he talks about literature!” So they all listened and decided that either he was a simpleton, a vulgar young man, or a huge fool. This is how the men at the surrounding tables assessed him, but she, the all-knowing, Swiss-educated student, didn’t notice the foolishness that he spouted, she didn’t pay attention to his words at all. Her face aflame, her eyes bright, it seemed to her that his talk was terribly interesting.
As it grew darker, both of them stood up. She had to go to another part of the city, so they said goodbye in the café.
“See you next time!” she stammered, her eyes downcast as she straightened her tall, slender body.
“See you next Saturday!” He offered her his attractive white hand. “I had a pleasure speaking for a few hours with such a smart, interesting woman. Thank you.” As he spoke she blushed, and she rushed home with hurried steps.
When he arrived at home, he found only his wife. She had left the others after lunch to come home early. She’d had a feeling he would come home soon and didn’t want him to come home to an empty house.
She looked at his energized face and waited for an explanation. He approached her and said, “You know, Rosie, that she is very wise!”
His wife didn’t know who “she” was but waited for him to tell her more.
“She has a mind like a man’s, and eyes as deep as an abyss, and she is very educated! She studied for years in Switzerland.” He told her every word that he had shared with the woman.
The wife didn’t understand everything that he said, but from the brightness of his eyes and the passion in his face she understood that he had enjoyed himself. She began to feel suspicious and didn’t hold back. She said, “As I understand it, you certainly don’t hate this woman.”
He got hold of himself and looked at her with his large brown eyes. “What are you talking about, Rosie? What is bothering you?”
But Rosie won’t let herself be fooled. She fell onto a chair and sobbed.
Suddenly he began to laugh, came to her and held her in his arms, kissed her passionately and quickly said, “Once there was a man named Plato, a philosopher, who spoke of another kind of love. It’s called Platonic love. . . . Wait, wait, don’t hit me or anything, I really have never had any desire to kiss her the way I kiss you.” (He kissed her.) I have no desire to stroke her hand or her throat. . . . You are the only person I love in that way. She is a brain, a head, a friend with whom I can speak clever words. I love her, but not the way I love you. I don’t feel a fluttering of love toward her. . . .”
His wife didn’t know anything about Plato with his new kind of love. But she was thankful to that man Plato. She was thankful for his teachings because her husband was like a new man. He had never been so affectionate as he was that Saturday night, when he came home. . . .
When she came home, the old lady looked in her face and knew that she had seen him today. The young lady’s bright face, her cheerful eyes, also brought cheer to the old lady. She prepared food for the table. Her steps were lighter, like those of a young woman, and her old, lonely heart beat quicker.
It was too early to eat supper, so she brought snacks to the table and give them to the brown-haired woman, together with a cup of Russian tea. The home seemed warm, and fresh with a new cleaning, and there was a good smell in every corner. The gas lamps burned brightly, the tablecloth was white and clean, as though they were preparing for a beloved, important guest.
At the table the young woman couldn’t contain herself and she began to speak.
“Ach, and he is such a wise man! Speaking with him for a few hours is such a pleasure!”
The old woman added, “They say he is not only a smart man, but a fine-looking one.”
“That is true, he is also extremely handsome!” And she described for the old lady his head, his hair, his eyes, his hands. . . . Remembering that the old lady was going deaf, she spoke in a loud voice. In this passionate speech it seemed that her whole face, her slender figure, began to shake, and her words resounded.
“It seems as though you are in love!” smiled the old lady with a young, happy smile.
“What are you talking about, aunty?” The young lady jumped up. And she remembered that the old woman couldn’t hear so she came closer to her ear and said loudly, “It is nothing like that. It is purely Platonic love!”
This outburst resounded with pain and sadness, like the cry of a person with a broken heart. She stood up and walked across the room. The old lady looked at her despairingly. The loneliness grew and spread throughout their home.
Translation copyright © Jessica Kirzane 2014
Yente Serdatsky (the author), neé Raybman (1877-1962) was born in Aleksat, near Kovne (Kaunas), Lithuania. Her first story, “Mirl,” appeared in the Warsaw periodical Der Veg in 1905. Serdatsky immigrated to America in 1907, initially living in Chicago and then New York, where she published stories, one-act plays, and sketches in many Yiddish periodicals across the political spectrum. She served on the staff of the Forverts, and her writing appeared regularly in its pages until 1922. Serdatsky’s selected writings were published in book form in 1913. After a 27-year hiatus, Serdatsky’s work appeared in the Nyu Yorker Vokhnblat from 1949 until 1955. Her fiction and dramatic works often focus on the loneliness experienced by radical intellectual women and are notable examples of feminism in Yiddish fiction.
Jessica Kirzane (the translator) is a PhD Candidate in Yiddish Studies at Columbia University. She holds a BA in English Literature and Jewish Studies from the University of Virginia (2008) and an MA in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University (2011). Her scholarly interests include the representation of marriage in American Jewish fiction and the concept of race in Yiddish fiction. Her translations have appeared in Pakn Treger and The Trinity Journal of Literary Translation.