An Atlantic “First”
by L. M. Rosenberg
It begins with weather and with one person in particular standing in front of an unlit window, staring outward into a New England snowstorm that has sprung forth from the first warm days of May like a child from the skirts of its mother. She is standing in a library watching the furious snow slide over red blossoms—cherry or apple or plum once but now tattered rags of color on a bit of wet twig—the leaves of the tree shining and the flat palms of the ivy glistening and farther out in the brick courtyard two black canvas chairs facing one another, nearly touching, in the attitude of confiding lovers, or old companions too deaf to suffer distance. And I think of how I have come here, watching snow on a red brick courtyard containing not one but two black chairs, intimately arranged.
The snows of my childhood have drifted down into this one. And so I have been standing here motionless, staring out because memory falters at every snowfall, the haunting ground of old beloved images, demanding attention of the still, quiet, adult human heart that patters on in its ignorance.
throwing that mechanism slightly ajar, as a curtain is thrown open by the stirring of the lightest wind.
So memory unfolds.
My parents, who loved one another in their fashion, never learned to live together in peace. They stood as monuments of resistance to my sister and myself and we spent our childhood in silent rebellion against their terrible bondage of love. They fought constantly. My sister Sarah, the elder by four and a half years, ran out of the house and away when the onslaught began. I remained inside, behind the locked doors of my bedroom, trying desperately not to listen, or, if listening, to understand.
There was a single summer when I was fourteen years old and my sister was about to be married, and there was a terrible heat wave all over—from Italy to Norway, and covering the entire map of the United States—and I couldn’t concentrate on any of it, because I knew that I was dying of cancer, and was trying to keep it a secret.
I sat alone, it seems to me, all that summer in the small airless pink room that was for me neutral territory, and that remained in spite of itself eternally a child’s room. It is pink and white yet.
Nothing could cool the room off in summer. I opened the windows and the hot air blew in. The air-conditioning didn’t reach it, because I kept my bedroom door shut, and the fan we brought in broke after two days and, as a mere matter of course, was never replaced. Things which did not find easy solutions in our household seldom found them at all. So I perched on the pink and white slipcover of my high bed, moody and sweaty, reading and rereading with an unending capacity for absorption and horror the third volume of our encyclopedia, letter “C,” to find out about cancer. I smuggled in Diet Pepsi and ate pretzels by the box and cherries and green grapes by the pound and was in spite of it, as my father said, skinnier than a bathtub ring: proof positive of the disease that was eating away at me, body and soul.
“Will it never end?” my mother intoned, speaking of the waves of heat that spread through the house like fire, and of the plans for the wedding, and of a nervous blinking of the eyes I had suddenly developed and with which I coped by wearing sunglasses to breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“Who’s the girl behind the Foster Grants?” my father asked. “Anyone I know?”
My mother lifted her upper lip. “I’m glad you’re amused by all of this, Kent. I really am. Because you are certainly paying for it through the nose.”
This latter expression, a favorite of my mother’s, conjured forth for me immediate, vivid visions of my father spouting bright blood through the nose in recompense for one of his minor trespasses. My mother was the stuff that Old Testaments are made of; my father, New.
“Two eyes for an eye,” my mother said.
“Try to avoid arguments,” my father told me, instructing me to become a conciliator like himself, a seismograph of other people’s explosions.
“Why is Sarah having such a big wedding?” I asked. I was not innocent, asking it. Our family spread its guilt around like butter.
My mother kept her back to us at the kitchen sink. “That is a very good question,” she said. “Why don’t you ask your father that question? I’m sure he must have an answer.”
My father didn’t stir in his chair, or look at me reproachfully. The sins of the fathers were not inherited in my family; the sins of the children could not even be acknowledged.
“Never mind,” I said.
“Your sister,” my mother declared, “is going to drive every member of this family insane. She is driving me insane right now. Kent, she wants all of us to wear yellow to the wedding. You, me, and Margaret.”
“Yellow?” my father said.
“May I please be excused?” I asked, rising from the kitchen chair. My father nodded.
“The girl is unbelievable. Truly unbelievableno, you may not, Margaret. Yes, yellow.”
“Well, it’s not such a bad color,” my father said.
“No. No, it’s not so bad. For someone like your cousin Zeb who has no pallor in her face whatsoever, it would be just fine. It might even do
“Please don’t start,” my father said.
“May I please?” I asked.
“Kent, will you please try to be sane about this? None of us owns anything yellow. It’s sheer insanity. We’d all buy expensive outfits, and we’d never wear them again.”
“I would,” I said.
“No you wouldn’t. Margaret, you are excused from the table.” I got to my feet slowly. “And
please, Kent, tell her not to sit behind closed doors
in this terrible heat. Margaret, please leave your door open, just a crack. In heat like this, it’s just not healthy to be sitting behind closed doors.”
“You heard your mother,” my father said.
From my room I still heard the murmuring of their voices; sharp sounds, like glasses clinking against each other.
There is a sound that I always associate with summer, which is the sound of ice rattling in my father’s glass. When I was much younger, it was a sound I associated with comfort, with the heat of summer evenings beginning to ease up, and the arrival of guests who were never unpleasant. When I was eleven years old my sister cornered me in the hall halfway between my bedroom and the bathroom and asked me, out of the bright blue sky as far as I was concerned, if I thought that my father was an alcoholic.
“No,” I said instantly.
Nonetheless I had sensed all along that my father, who was the unquestioned hero of those embittered battles of childhood, had emitted a sourness, a quiet danger signal, which had something to do with the smell of tobacco on his hands, and the smell of summer liquor on his mouth as he kissed us goodnight, interrupting another quarrel to lift us onto his lap for a moment, to hold us there. For that instant of time we were safe, we were home free.
It was many years later that I found his childhood photographs in the basement, yellow with age and sliding out of their cardboard holders. My father stood captive in front of his older brother, looking nearly Oriental, his brother towheaded and fair. They held an inner tube around them and while my uncle smiled, my father squinted helplessly into an antiquated summer sun. A later photograph showed him with a tense mouth, in an army uniform. Still another was a photograph of his own mother and father, arms linked together; the man dressed in golf clothing, the woman, who could not possibly be my grandmother, wearing a feathered hat and the easy smile of a coquette. I might have expected the photographs to crumble at my touch, or turn to salt, like Lot’s wife at the instant when she looked back to that place from which she had come. But I placed the pictures back on the pool table that was an old Hanukkah gift to me, thick now with furry dust, face down as I had found them. When I went to show them to my sister a few months later they had disappeared, and I didn’t dare ask about them.
My sister met her husband Frank at a beach, where he was working for the summer at a hot-dog stand. He came from South America, and although his accent was musical, it was so thick and incomprehensible that I decided to disregard it, and him, altogether. Three months later my sister announced, with her usual economy of words, that they were going to be married.
It threw a wrench into the intricate family system for one thing, to have someone named Frank suddenly admitted into it. Generations of Jews had rolled cigars by hand, sewn inner linings, hawked vegetables, and bought up real estate so that no offspring of theirs should ever run to the beach one incredibly hot summer and run off not many months later to marry a hot-dog vendor named Frank.
At first my mother declined to understand.
“What did you say his name was?” she asked my sister.
My sister replied with the infinite patience of her hardworking ancestors, all of whose dead hearts she was breaking: “His name is Frank.”
“And what does he do?” my father asked again. “He runs a hot-dog stand,” my sister said. “Frankfurters,” my mother said. “What did you say his name was?”
This time my sister refused to answer.
“Is that your idea of a joke?” my mother asked.
But the plans for the wedding were set in motion and the family capitulated with the remarkable good grace it always showed in instances of certain defeat. It was in fact the only thing my sister could have done. Had she hesitated however briefly; had she first introduced Frank to the family or permitted a moment’s judgment, a moment’s interrogation, her battle would have been lost, and she would have ended up either as she had predicted she would all along—unmarried—or tied to someone on whom my dusty ancestors would have placed their violent blessing; someone whom my sister would have eventually loved, someone with whom she would never have been able to live. Instead she chose Frank, and she chose him with the accuracy of a drunk playing a winning game of darts.
Their intimacy astonished me. My early blossoming cynicism vanished at the first sight of them clinging to one another’s hands at the dinner table. My sister lay down on the living-room couch with her head in his lap as the family watched television. I was open-mouthed at their audacity, and was given no method with which to dissect and then comprehend what seemed a sudden and irresponsible complacency on the part of both my parents. Sent as a child in the role of the seemingly innocent younger sister, I had repeatedly been told to open my sister’s bedroom door whenever she had male company. Many years later, in fact, when I had my boyfriends over, the phone would suddenly ring in my room and at the other end would come the terrifyingly close voice of my mother, calling from the other line, her words as clipped and precise as a telegraph message: Margaret. Please open your door. It was a moment of entire horror for me, one which has permitted me also to believe in the existence of guardian angels; God’s spies, eavesdropping. Yet here were my sister and her future husband necking together, or close to it, on our living-room sofa, while the rest of us tried to focus our attention on the wavering blue light of the television.
They never argued. She called him “Boo” and he called her “Boo,” and I made faces behind their backs. Calling for one another through the stupefying heat of the house, they sounded like lost and drunken cattle. Still, I was impressed by the silence between them; the neutrality of peace, the face of calm settling strangely over the face of love.
Such paradise could not survive, and did not. Frank was invited to dinner one night, and he left the house in the afternoon, promising to return from a friend’s house on time. At six o’clock the roast beef was ready. At seven, after elaborate delays, we began to eat without him, miserably passing the potatoes and passing the butter, with an intimacy in which we could have touched knees underneath the table, but instead avoided one another’s eyes. I breathed my sympathy in my sister’s direction, but didn’t dare speak it aloud.
At seven-thirty I heard my mother and father fighting behind closed doors.
“Will you let her alone?” my father was saying. “This is her affair, not ours.”
“You are talking about my daughter!” my mother shrilled in response. Her voice was like knives being thrown.
“She’s my daughter, too,” my father answered.
There was the sound of their closet door rolling open like the sound of thunder, then closing again. My mother was looking for her bathrobe, and her voice came out muffled, as if it had been sheathed.
“I find your indifference difficult to comprehend,” she said. “I find it difficult to understand that you care nothing at all about your daughter’s future. God knows where he is right now. She’s marrying a bum, that’s what he is, a bum, and you are not even going to raise your hand to do anything about it. What kind of a man are you?”
My sister and I were drinking coffee. I filled my cup three quarters of the way with milk and sugar, and stirred it, as loudly as I could.
“Don’t pay any attention to them,” I said feebly. “They just like to argue.”
Small, tin-colored tears were rolling down my sister’s face, over the curve of one high cheekbone and heading toward her mouth, soft with sorrow.
“Do you think that Frank is a bum?” she asked me.
I stirred the coffee some more. “No,” I lied. At the time, anyone who wasn’t a millionaire, or within a month’s prospect of becoming one, was in my estimation a bum.
“Well, he’s not,” she said, answering either what she knew to be my secret thoughts, or the two enemies battling on worn territory a few rooms away. “He works for his living, and that’s more than our parents have ever done.”
“What do you mean?” I said, edgy at the sound of an accusation,
“Well, they’ve never worked. Not really. Daddy’s never done anything really hard. And Mommy’s never done anything at all.” Her use of the names “Mommy” and “Daddy” contrasted mournfully with the anger in her voice.
“Never mind,” I said, drinking the coffee which had quickly become cool. “You want some dessert?”
The voices in the other room rose.
“I don’t understand you!” my mother shouted.
My sister shook her head. She was straining to hear my parents’ argument, and I was straining to block it.
“You want to hear some music?” I asked. “I can put something on the stereo.” She shook her head.
“He’s only one lousy hour and a half late,” she said.
I nodded my head, trying to look sympathetic and at the same time intelligently watchful. Even my facial expressions might be monitored at that very minute by the two voices that rose and fell wrathfully in the other room.
My mother suddenly pitched her voice outward. “Well, goddamn it, Kent. I’m not going to stand bv and see my daughter made a fool of!”
“You sure you don’t want some dessert?” I said.
“No,” she answered.
“You sure?” I asked her.
My sister pushed her chair back and stalked into her room, slamming the door behind her. It was a punctuation to my mother’s remark, but even so I felt slighted. I was surrounded by a table of halfcluttered dishes. I walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Peering in, and holding the door open with my hip, gangster-style, I took out a bowl of nectarines and brought them back with me into the dining room. I wondered if cancer increased the appetite. I thought it probably did.
By eight-thirty my parents still had not emerged from their bedroom, nor my sister from hers. I was beginning to feel bored and strangely deserted. I wandered from room to room automatically, cleared away the dishes, then washed and dried them by hand, although we had a dishwasher. I opened the diningroom curtains and watched the sunset turn into a bruise, then to the color of a plum, bleeding fast into the evening. I stared out past my own reflection, into the back yard. Then I went to the front door and sat out on the steps, chewing on the edges of lilac leaves which I was sure, as soon as I had put one into my mouth, were poisonous. I listened for the sound of cars. Everything was magnified because of the summer heat, and the dusty road; the approach of evening, the darkness.
Inside the house I heard my parents’ bedroom door open. I didn’t look behind me to see who it was, but a few seconds later I heard my father’s voice, touching against the higher edges of my sister’s; diplomatic, quick, tentative.
“—pretty late,” I heard him say, without conviction.
My sister didn’t say anything, or else the summer sounds swept the notes of her voice away.
“Don’t you think you’d better—”
“No,” she said, distinctly.
Then the voices became indistinguishable again, or I made them so, concentrating on the chinking sound of the crickets, and a long high sound, winnowing, of summer birds. I watched the street lamps come on against the deep blue sky: golden balls standing on ungainly iron stems. I touched a leaf to my lip and kissed it. I don’t know why.
My mother opened her bedroom door a little way. “Kent!” she called.
When my father didn’t answer, she stepped out into the hall, wearing a leopard-skin bathrobe made of terry cloth. I came back inside the house, shutting the door behind me. “Kent!” she called again. “Please leave Sarah alone!” I stood with my back to the front door, my hands behind my back.
My sister’s voice in response was tearful. “I’m talking to him,” she said.
“Kent!” my mother called again.
“I’ll be in in a minute,” my father said. “Hold your horses.”
My mother’s voice shot out like a whip. “If she’s going to sit in there and wait for him, she had damn well better wait alone!” She whirled on me suddenly. “And Margaret, I don’t want you talking to her either!”
“That’s right!” my sister yelled. “That’s right! Turn her against me! Try to turn them both against me! Just because Frank misses one lousy dinner!”
My mother advanced like a warrior. “Kent, did you hear that?” She stepped closer. “Lousy dinner? You call my roast beef a lousy dinner? That goddamned roast beef cost eleven dollars, Sarah! If you’re such a schtarke, why don’t you give Daddy the money for it—because it’s absolutely ruined now. Ruined! I couldn’t eat anything! Margaret couldn’t eat anything!”
My sister stormed into her room and reappeared clutching her pocketbook. “You bet I’ll pay you!” she said. “I wish I could pay someone to kill you, that’s what I wish!” She waved a ten-dollar bill at my father like a ratty green flag.
“I don’t want your money,” my father said.
“You had better take that money,” my mother warned. There was a familiar edge of hysteria creeping into her voice. “If you know what’s good for you, you’d better take that money.”
My father shook his head.
“All right!” my mother yelled. “All right!” She walked, almost ran, into the kitchen.
She came running back in with a pair of scissors in her hand.
“No!” I screamed.
She rushed past us and into my room, and squatted down on the floor with the scissors in her hand. She began to hack away at my pink rug with her scissors.
“All right!” she screamed at my father. “You’re so free with your money all of a sudden, you’re going to buy Margaret a new rug!” Her voice no longer sounded recognizable, or even human.
“I don’t want a new rug,” I said.
Even my father was awed. “I’ll buy her a new carpet,” he said.
But my mother kept working away with her scissors until she had cut a ragged square out of the carpet. As she held the cloth above her head, it looked like a piece of flesh-colored fleece. “Now you’ll have to buy her a new rug! You see that? Now you’ll have to!”
For some reason I started to smile.
“You wipe that stupid-looking grin off your face!” my mother yelled. I wiped it.
“Leave Margaret out of this!” my sister said.
I had the sudden impulse to take my father’s hand and make a run for the door, but resisted it. At that moment, the doorbell rang.
Everyone froze. They all stared at me, and I reached my hands behind me, finally turning around to open the door. Frank was standing on the front steps.
“Hi,” I said.
My mother whirled around, still holding the piece of the rug in her hand, spun away, and slammed the door of her bedroom.
“What was that?” Frank asked.
“Nothing,” I answered.
“You’re late,” my father said, trying to keep the thread of argument in place.
“I’m sorry,” Frank said. “What was that?”
“My mother,” Sarah announced.
My father looked like a frightened and cautious animal. “You watch what you say about your mother,” he said.
“What’s going on?” Frank asked my sister.
The bedroom door opened, and my mother stuck her face through it. She enunciated her words very carefully. “You go off with him after what he’s done to us, and you are never setting foot in this house again,” she said. “You go off with that bum after what he did tonight, and you’re never showing your face here again!” Her voice took a sudden swoop upward, like hawks in flight, but her face remained suspended by the door.
My sister burst into tears.
“You hear me?” my mother said. “So you better think very carefully before you do anything.” She glared at all of us, and then closed the door with a small click.
My sister ran into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her. My father, Frank, and I stood together in a clump looking foolish.
“That was a pretty thoughtless thing to do,” my father said to Frank, without conviction. “Couldn’t you have given us a phone call?”
“I could have,” Frank said. “I’m sorry.” He was already belligerent and, I noticed, a little drunk.
My father turned awkwardly on his heel and followed in the wake of my mother. Frank and I stood looking at each other for a minute.
“Excuse me,” I finally said, and followed my sister into her room.
She was throwing her things into a small blue suitcase. It was made of vinyl, and I suddenly remembered that she had taken it with her on a class trip, back when I was small. She had kissed me goodbye before she left, and we rarely kissed. She turned her cheek to mine, and it was like marble, cool and slippery, and I had envied her without knowing why.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“With Frank,” she said, without looking up, her hands like small windmills, piling bright flowered underwear and cotton shirts into the suitcase.
“Yeah?” I said. I was impressed and terrified, at the same time.
Then she turned to me and I saw that she was as frightened as I was. Her face was streaked with tears. I seldom saw my sister cry.
“Do you think she meant it?” my sister asked me, hugging a pair of denim shorts to her chest.
“Mommy never means what she says,” I said unconvincingly.
“I don’t know,” my sister said, and her throat made clicking sounds, holding something back. I glimpsed sight of myself suddenly in the mirror and saw that I looked like a sorrowing monkey. I was abashed that I could still feel self-consciousness.
“She always says stuff like that,” I said. “You know. Then she forgets all about it.”
“I don’t care,” my sister said.
I thought of Frank waiting outside the door, pacing in the hallway like a tiger. The image frightened me.
“You’re going to go with Frank?” I asked, as if I hadn’t heard.
“I guess so,” my sister said. “What else can I do?”
I shrugged my shoulders and sat down on the edge of the bed. “You want some help?” I asked, hoping she’d say no, so that I wouldn’t be made an accomplice.
“Are you going to tell Mommy goodbye?” I asked.
My sister shook her head.
“Where are you going to go?” I asked.
“To a hotel, I guess. Someplace.” My sister zipped the suitcase around with a tearing noise, and lifted it from the bed.
She was crying again. “Meggy,” she said. “You tell Mommy goodbye for me.”
I suddenly understood her, and horror made the hair on the back of my neck rise.
“You’re not going to elope,” I said. “You’re not going to do that, after all the plans and everything.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Mommy doesn’t want me to marry Frank. And I don’t want Daddy to spend all that money if he doesn’t really want to.” She was crying like a child now, wholeheartedly, and open-mouthed.
“Of course they do,” I said. I went over to her and put my arms around her neck, swaying a little. “You know they do. Of course they do.” She shook her head and I went sputtering on like a flame expiring in an implacable wind. “Of course they want you to. Of course they do.”
There was a knock on the door. Frank poked his head in. His eyes were dark and overcast, like black summer clouds. “Come on,” he said, “I’m taking you outta this nuthouse.” My sister was silent for a moment. “You comin’?” he asked her. “Or you stayin’?”
“I’m coming,” she said. We had broken apart, and I stood with my hands half open, grasping the shattered edges of space, letting the hands fall to my sides.
“So long,” I said.
My father wandered out later that night in a plaid cotton robe that just reached to his knees. His legs, I saw, were already becoming old.
“Have they gone?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said. I was overwhelmed with pity for him suddenly, and with pity for my mother who was watching television alone behind her closed door. I suddenly saw how much alike we were, the three of us, survivors. I could not cry.
My sister and Frank eloped and were married in a civil ceremony, and then came back two weeks later and were married again in the large wedding we had planned. My mother, father, and I wore yellow. My mother looked splendid, and content as a cat. Her eyes, I have neglected to say, were the color of bright amber.
I did not understand until many years later, making an abrupt U-turn on a wet highway and returning to a place I had sped from in fury, that my sister had been following a correct and inevitable line, passed down by ancestors whose hearts had turned to dust and ashes, in leaving us all that night. Or if not correct, then necessary, true to her nature, true to what had been expected of all of us.
The summer broke in a wild August rainstorm, shredding flowers and leaves from the trees, and scattering the memory of the heat to four winds. The garbage cans went rolling down the street like children’s toys, spinning thunder.
I remember during that summer storm I woke shivering, and discovered that rain had drenched my covers, which I held fisted up around my neck.
I climbed out of the bed and went to watch the trees lashing in the back yard. It was almost dawn, and I could barely make out the outline of pale green leaves. There was water pouring from the skeleton of a rusty jungle gym which we removed a few years later, and which left its imprint forever on the yellow grass there.
I walked out into the living room, shivering with cold, and saw my father reading under the light of a single lamp. The blue light of the television was on, but the sound had been turned down. It was a program, I remember, about farmers. My father had once wanted to be an agricultural engineer, and instead he had taken over his father’s business. Life fell like a burden from my hands, and from the steel roofs that dripped iron rain onto the patio.
I thought of my mother breathing unevenly in her sleep, in her bed, and of my sister’s room, the door left open like the door of an empty closet. My father looked up from his book, holding his place with his finger, and waited. Light glinted from the metal rim of his glasses into my eyes. My lungs suddenly filled and I was gripped by an immense longing, as inconsolable and unending as the rain, a longing that flung itself through me, and lifted in me, and spun me around as I stood blinking in a dim corner of the room.
“Daddy,” I began. I stepped toward the lamplight, hesitating. The bottom hem of my nightgown was wringing wet in my hands. And I sat down with him in the pool of spreading yellow light, and fiercely I cried. □