Photo: Eugene Weisberg
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Nessa Rapoport
One loves, the other is loved: so Nana taught us. I look at the beautiful bones of her face and speculate about this pronouncement. My grandmother has always been beloved, and so my grandfather, long dead, assumes a peculiar poignancy. Once, in some rapturous, unimaginable youth before she married, Nana was the ardent lover. But no one is alive to tell us about the object of her affection, and she will not disclose his name.
We are sitting in the living room of my mother's house, waiting for the funeral to begin. Outside, the sky is the eerie pewter I remember from my childhood, lightless even at midday. In this room six years ago, before our mother recovered the furniture yet again, Tam and I were laughing at the weather. Then, too, it was noon when I realized, after her baby's naming ceremony was over and the last guests had straggled out, that the day would not improve, that, to quote Tam: "This is it."
I had fled to New York, whose winters are tamed by the city's determination to outwit the season. Tam not only stayed in Toronto, betraying our pact to leave the minute we could, but chose a profession that forced her to rise most mornings at four in order to be on the air. For her, the half year of darkness is permanent, I think to myself. And then think: Permanent darkness.
Paralyzed, I stare at Nana, imploring her to rescue me, but she is stoic, not emitting whatever feelings she no doubt has. The fact is, my sister, her eldest grandchild, is dead. The silence in this room is not the anticipatory hush preceding a family celebration but the void of what cannot be accommodated.
In speaking my sister's name, I have invaded Nana's solitude. I look at her carefully and observe, even in the somber room, that the skin beneath her eyes is gleaming. No one has seen my grandmother cry.
"Laurence is coming," I state, more bluntly than intended.
Nana's lips draw into a pucker of distaste. Once again Eve has said the wrong thing. Why doesn't my admiration of my grandmother offset her reservations about me? One reason might be that as soon as I utter Laurie's name, my body ignites, despite the house's chill, despite the fact that it has been years since I lay naked on my grandmother's bed at the cottage, tonguing Laurie from his kiss-bitten mouth to the taut circles of his bent knees.
"Typical." I hear Tam sniff. "I'm not even in the ground."
Whenever I come home, I fancy myself an outlaw. Years ago, one of Tam's friends asked me at a party, "Does your mother feel like a failure because you had to leave Toronto?"
"'Had to leave Toronto'?" I ranted to Tam afterward. "Does he really believe all human beings want to live four blocks from their parents so they can eat together every Sunday night at the Bagel King? I chose to live in New York, as any person with–"
"I know"–she said tolerantly–"a large soul."
"'Inviting thighs,' I was going to say."
"Oh, Eve," said Tam, predictably.
Then I smile, because she has been brought back to me. My grandmother turns away. She may not want to judge me but she cannot help herself. I, who secretly view myself as her true disciple, find that at thirty-five I am back in my usual role in our diminished family.
I concentrate on the dark green velvet that successfully masks the previous sofa while my mind considers when my father will arrive from his house; whether or not my mother will be collected enough to come downstairs; if Tam's children, in the new enlightenment, will be brought to the cemetery; and, the thought that closes my throat, what Tam looked like at her death.
I know her body as well as I do my own. Tam did not allow me into her room in these last weeks, to the separate anguish of my parents, who believed she was trying to spare her little sister. Despite their pleas, she stoutly maintained that for my sake I should not come, that we had chosen to speak only by phone. My mother reluctantly acquiesced. My father, in a conference call he imposed, negotiated with each of us in turn, but we were united and implacable.
When he gave up, it was with one of his favorite exhortations. "At least you girls get along. If I ever hear that the two of you are fighting, even after I'm dead–"
"–you'll turn over in your grave," Tam said.
Normally, in this abnormal situation, we would have giggled morbidly in the knowledge that she seemed headed for the grave a lot sooner than he did. But my father, holding forth, was not listening to himself. "Which would not be the first time," I could hear Tam say acerbically.
The worst of several burdens I am trying to ignore is that Tam and I fought continuously since she got sick, as if the disease had afflicted our relationship along with her body, and that two weeks before she died we argued so vehemently we did not speak again. As children, we had a truce that the sister who leaves the house after a fight has to shout into the closing door, "I love you, I love you," in case she were killed in a car crash before mending the rift. Now I have committed the ultimate offense, whose consequences I must bear alone.
Do all people have one story that haunts them throughout their lives? Nana has told me hers so often I can recite it in her cadence. Unfortunately, the tale has a moral I provoke, not by any conscious act but by my face and manner. In a deferred legacy, I resemble her fabled sister Nell, source of Nana's unremitting grief and self-reproach. As I listened to Nana's words, I could not tell whether to be flattered by the attention or repelled by the analogy.
"Nell was the most beautiful girl," Nana would declare in wonderment. "You cannot imagine her loveliness. Pictures never did her justice; she had such a way about her."
I have dissected the snapshots of Nana's sister many times, looking for that beauty and carriage, but, like Zelda Fitzgerald's photographs, the extant few of Nell do not yield the mysterious allure that was the cause of so much suffering.
"She made trouble wherever she went," Nana said. "When our sister Abigail finally had a beau to call on her, Nell had only to toss her head and the boy never looked at Abby again. Of course, Nell tired of him in a week. The girl was born without a conscience."
At this point in the story I feel a familiar disquiet, leavened by my amusement at Nana's unselfconscious narration. "Pull up a plant to see its roots and kill the plant," she was wont to say if I pressed her to concede her intent. I am not unmindful of the fact that my grandmother is comparing me to an amoral tease.
"On my own wedding day, when I went to put on my silk stockings–" Nana opened the box to find them snagged and torn, borrowed by Nell without permission and brazenly returned.
I do not change the subject. Like someone afraid of heights who is drawn to stairwells and precipices, I am fascinated by Nana's version of her sister, whom I knew only as a skittery, defeated old woman with a nimbus of faded hair.
The hair is an indispensable part of the tale. Nell had thick red hair, not the carroty red bemoaned by Anne of Green Gables, but mahogany curls with lights of copper that she styled in elaborate, varied arrangements–a more trivial example of her flair for life that should, according to Nana, have rendered her sister immune from life's blows rather than enticing them.
Nana's reverence for physical beauty can oddly humanize her magisterial intellect. More often, it is tiresome. Nana herself is beautiful, which she knows but will not allow. And I am no femme fatale luring men into disastrous entanglements. I would never betray my sister, either by ruining her clothes or stealing her beaux. Yet some part of me is thankful to be the reflection of my grandmother's obsession, however distorted and to my detriment. Nana's love is imperial and remote. At least I compel her interest.
Waiting for the doorbell to chime is like waiting for Canada to change. I have never been able to explain to my family why this country's most soothing feature, its sedate proceeding from one occurrence to the next, is such an irritant to me, inciting behavior more outrageous than I'd planned.
"Drama queen," says Tam inside my head.
Although I do make inconsistent attempts to deflect the way my family perceives me, on the morning of my sister's funeral even I am amazed at what I've wrought.
Over the years I have tried not to think about Laurie. Once, when I asked Tam if she ever ran into him, her verdict was definitive: "Boring and suburban."
But lately, each time I came home, I did enact one ritual. I sneaked into the den to look up his name in the phone book. The sight of his address–always the same–was equated in my mind with his reassuring constancy, a devotion I had forfeited by leaving the city as I did.
Yesterday, I saw that Laurie had moved. His wife's name was no longer beside his. When I read the new numbers next to his bare name and thought, "I'll ask Tam what happened to his marriage," I felt shaky. I should have called Simon in New York, as I had promised. Instead, I memorized Laurie's number.
Hearing his machine message, I intended to hang up. Then I announced myself and said starkly, "My sister is dead." I breathed so that I wouldn't cry, and then put down the receiver.
At once I remembered the first long-distance call between Laurie and me. We had not spoken in a week–a lifetime at seventeen. Laurie and I had made an intricate plan, taking into account the time difference between Toronto and Florence. But when the operator called on the anticipated day, the circuits were busy, once, twice, again.
My mother was nothing if not a romantic. Applying her charms, she cajoled the operator into trying continually, on behalf of starstruck lovers everywhere. When the operator finally informed me my party was waiting, I was so overwrought I could not talk. Nothing seemed momentous enough for the occasion.
I sat on my bed, atypically mute.
"This has to be the most expensive silence your mother ever paid for," Laurie said.
Last night I stared at the phone, willing it to ring. Throughout the evening people called; I delivered the funeral arrangements mechanically. At midnight, in defiance of a code I didn't know I lived by, I picked up the receiver and called Laurie again.
"I thought it was too late," he said. He knew about Tam: What could he do to help?
The timbre of his voice had an extraordinary effect. I entered an idyll of our lovemaking so tactile I could dispel it only when he repeated my name.
Astonished, I invited him to come to the house before the funeral began, an idea unconventional enough for him to question it and then decide aloud that whatever might comfort me, the mourner, must be right to do.
Since I've come home my mind has been running frantically in and out of the past without transition. Nothing I think about seems to hold still long enough to catalogue it in its appropriate tense.
And so it has been more disconcerting than usual to return to my mother's house. Although I am under the roof beneath which Tam and I grew up, the decor reflects my mother's endless faith that physical transformation will produce a more profound change, as if interior design were a spiritual term. This conviction has sanctioned her to redo the living room with unsettling frequency. I can never be sure where I'll be when I walk in.
Several years ago, I had entered a subtle space of unbleached linen and dun-colored cotton, the summer house of an industrial magnate. At the start of Tam's illness, the room hardened to glass and metal. But on the morning of my sister's funeral, I find myself waiting for Laurie in an English sitting room, not unlike the parlors of Nana's youth.
Nana and I face each other on matching velvet sofas, accompanied by oversized cabbage-rose chairs. Braided tassels cinch the draperies, released onto the floor in moiré splendor.
Today, Laurie is the curiosity I have allotted myself. Nana used to like him, until she knew we were sleeping together. She grew up with his grandfather, children of the only two Jewish families to summer in their tiny Ontario town. The connection was all that protected me from her wrath.
Not that she and I, ever, said a word about sex. It was not proper form for a woman born in the reign of King Edward VII. We are ten years from the millennium, but Nana is unable to shed the post-Victorian constraints of her childhood.
The look on her face when she acknowledges that Laurie is on his way recalls instantly the silences that would descend upon Nana and me.
I want to tell her not to worry. I am braced for the nice man with an incipient paunch who will offer condolences to both of us. My ear is alert for the doorbell when Laurie appears, conjured, in the archway of the living room.
Laurie was a boy when I loved him, his youth an emblematic condition representing not only his chronological age but an essence, a nectar I could imbibe to counter my persistent sense of dislocation in this city. He was wholly of his place and era, belonging in Toronto, where he would inherit his father's business or go into law, as, in fact, he did; marry someone from his neighborhood and live happily ever after, while I sought grandeur and danger in New York.
But when Laurie steps inside, "boring and suburban" are hardly the words that come to mind. Tam and I must have different taste in men, I think. My hands, folded decorously in my lap, are already tracing the planes of his face as if I were eighteen and still in love with him. My fingers are inside his mouth. His clothes fall away, and I see what he looks like naked.
I feel myself color at my imagination's transgression and lower my head. When I look up, I can read his face. He was never as articulate as I, and in my clairvoyance I know that he is struggling to say something to Nana and me, and that he is too full of feeling to say it.
When he clasps Nana's hand, a final surprise overtakes me. I begin to cry, mortifying myself and embarrassing my grandmother. Laurie moves away from her to me and lifts me up.
My body reads every muscle I intuited moments ago. Although my tears, unconnected to my volition, will not stop, I am alight with desire, not the easy flirtation I foresaw but the real thing, the encounter of memory and chemistry that happens rarely and seems irresistible.
Is he feeling it as well? In my experience, "vast," says Tam within, the body cannot lie. Laurie steps back as if scorched, and his voice, formal, discreet, inquires after my mother and my father, civility restored. But I know something is going to happen. And I hear Tam, confirming that I'm right.