On the July day he leaves his hovel, L. stands in his room, looking around at the empty expanse. He hears children playing in the alley below. He goes to the window and watches. Two girls skip rope, chanting.
I had a little bird, they sing, rope clapping to the words.
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window.
Then they shriek and fall to the ground, clutching their chests, giggling.
L.’s world is spun on its head. Now he deals with servants, people calling him “sir,” any food he likes at any time of the day, the palatial apartment filled with light. And, of course, midnight creeping, and free midafternoon siestas in the cavernous cool apartment, as the servants sit in the kitchen and gossip about the war. In mid-August, L. is deemed chaperone enough, and Rosalind stays home when they go to the Amsterdam or the Y. If Aliette’s father leaves for work a bit later than usual on those mornings, the servants’ bland faces reveal nothing. Rosalind begins wearing a long strand of pearls, and French perfume. She takes to sitting on Aliette’s bed, combing her hair and asking the girl about her dates with the Ivy League boys. Her voice is rich and almost maternal.
Aliette tells her father that she no longer needs Rosalind, that she is healthy, and he can let the nurse go. Rosalind becomes his nurse, for he has discovered gout in his toes.
One golden night at the end of September, they are all listening gravely to the radio’s reports of war dead, eating petits fours in Aliette’s father’s study. Mr. Huber and Rosalind go into his bedchamber to treat his gout. Through the walls, L. and Aliette can hear their murmuring voices.
L. takes the cake from Aliette’s hand, and lifts her skirt on the morocco leather couch. She bites his shoulder to keep from screaming. Throughout, they can hear her father moving about behind the wall, Rosalind’s heels tapping, the maid dusting in another room.
When Rosalind and Mr. Huber return, Aliette is reading a novel and L. is still in his wing chair, listening intently to the radio. Nobody notices the pearls of sweat on his forehead, or, when Aliette stands for bed, the damp patch on her skirt.
The marvel is, with all she and L. do together, that Aliette has the time to train. But she does, growing muscles like knots in her back, adapting her kick from the standard three-beat to a lightning-quick eight-beat flutter, better suited for her weak legs.
At the competition in September in the 200-meter freestyle, she is already ahead after her dive, and draws so far away from the other girls that she is out on the diving platform, wearing her green cloak, when the other girls come in. She also takes the 100-meter freestyle.
The captions below her picture in the Times and the Sports News say: “Heiress NY’s Best Lady Swimmer.” In the photo, Aliette stands radiant, medals gleaming in the sunlight on her chest. If one were to look closely, however, one would see a bulge around Aliette’s waist.
The slow rumble of influenza becomes a roar. September drips into deadliest October. In Philadelphia, gymnasiums are crowded with cots of sailors healthy just hours before. America does not have enough doctors, and first-year medical students, boys of twenty, treat the men. Then they too fall sick, and their bodies are stacked like kindling with the rest in the insufficient morgues. More than a quarter of the pregnant women who survive the flu miscarry or give birth to stillborn babies.
Aliette’s stomach grows, but she does not tell L., hoping he’ll notice and remark upon it first. He is in a fever, though, and sees nothing but his passion for her. She begins wearing corsets again, and she makes a great show of eating inordinately, so that her father and Rosalind think she is simply getting fat.
The plague hits New York like a tight fist. Trains rolling into the boroughs stop in their tracks when engineers die at the controls. After 851 New Yorkers die in one day, a man is attacked for spitting on the street.
Mr. Huber sends his six servants away, and they are forbidden to return until the end of the plague. Three of them won’t return at all. Mr. Huber, Aliette, Rosalind, and L. remain. They seal the windows, and Mr. Huber uses his new telephone to order the groceries. They buy their food in cans, which they boil before opening, and their mail is baked piping hot in the oven before they read it.
After the second week of quarantine, Rosalind becomes hysterical and makes them drink violet-leaf tea and inhale saltwater. She paces the apartment wildly and forgets to brush her hair. They cannot persuade her to make up the fourth for bridge, so they play Chinese checkers, backgammon, and gin. Mr. Huber suddenly unveils his collection of expensive liquors, and dips gladly into them. When he has had too much, he and Rosalind go into the servants’ quarters and hiss at one another. At those times Aliette sits on L.’s lap, and presses her cheek against his, until the shape of his moustache is embossed in her skin.
When her father and Rosalind return, Aliette is always balanced on the arm of a couch, air-swimming, as L. critiques her form. He makes her air-swim and do jumping jacks for hours every day. The cloistered life suits her. She is radiant.
After a month, Rosalind watches from a window as a coffin falls from a stack on a hearse, the inhabitant spilling out when it hits the ground. She goes nearly mad. She breathes into a paper bag until calm, and makes them wear masks inside. She forces them to carry hot coals sprinkled with sulfur. The apartment stinks like Satan.
When Aliette and L. kiss through their masks, they laugh. And when Aliette comes to L. in the night, she swings her coals like a priestess swinging a censer.
On a lazy day of snoozing and reading L. gets a letter from his mother. He doesn’t bother to bake it. He tears it open, Aliette watching, hand over her mouth.
In three sentences, in her shaking hand, his mother tells him that his father, hearse driver, was one of the rare lightning deaths. Amadeo toppled from his horse and was dead before he hit the ground. Two hours later, Lucrezia fell ill, her knees wobbling, joints stiffening, the fever, the viscous phlegm, the cyanosis, the lungs filling.
L. understands only years later that when his sister died, she died of drowning.
He stays in bed for one week and does not weep. He lets Aliette hold his head for hours. Then he rises, and shaves his moustache off. Its outline is white on his tan face, and looks exceptionally tender.
In the first week of November the crisis slackens. People emerge into the street, mole-eyed and blinking, searching for food. In some apartments, whole families are found dead when their mail can no longer fit through their slots. Rosalind, however, will not let the Huber household leave the apartment. L. reads the baked newspapers, saddened. In addition to his family, he has lost his novelist friend, C. T. Dane; his fellow swimmer Harry Elionsky, the long-distance champion; the actress Suzette Alda, with whom he once danced for an entire night.
Life picks up again, though some new cases are still reported, and the horror is not completely over. More than 19,000 New Yorkers have died.
Early in the morning of November 11, the streets burst into triumphant rejoicing in victory. Sirens blare, churchbells ring, New Yorkers pour into the streets, shouting. Newspaper boys run through the sleeping parts of town, shouting, “The war is ovah!” An effigy of the kaiser is washed down Wall Street with a fire hose; confetti pours down; 800 Barnard girls snake-dance on Morningside Heights, and a coffin made of soapboxes is paraded down Madison, with the kaiser symbolically resting in pieces within.
Many people still wear masks.
A mutiny occurs in the Huber apartment, and Rosalind wrings her hands as the other three rush into the street to join the celebration. They are all in their nightclothes. Mr. Huber dances a jolly foxtrot with a dour-faced spinster. When a blazing straw dummy is kicked down the street, L. turns to look for Aliette. She is standing on a curb, clapping her hands and laughing. As the dummy passes, the wind picks up and billows out Aliette’s nightgown. Through the suddenly sheer garment, he sees how her belly is extended above her thin legs.