Looks Like Freedom But Feels Like Death Must Be Something In-between
Twenty five years ago light poured through the leaded glass panes of the patrician tower, collected in pools around them and reflected back off the polished stone floors, their radiance, their blessing, potential, and of course money. How they seemed to float just inches above marble floors, holding sweating glasses of wine—chalices really. Nobody bothered to notice, or were too polite to say that in contrast Inez ground her way, flint to stone, through college and then graduate school, as grim as Jane Eyre at Lockwood. She worked hard, unencumbered by the curses of imagination, talent or family money. She borrowed their light briefly. And what did she see illuminated? Her own plainness, as plain as freckles on the fat girls’ arms. Then the light was gone, the music silent, the room empty.
What remained? That constant nagging feeling of her parents’ immigration in her stomach—heavy, like cabbage and root vegetables. Her father locking the chain link fence behind him as he closed his salvage yards as she watched for the sidewalk. The feral cats that would scatter nightly when he closed the lid on the dumpster. Her parents were unwashed field potatoes. Oh, how Tante Raizel had pleaded their case—family lore had it that she, already in America for a few years, practically an American, went from office to office pleading, begging and flirting when necessary for their rescue. She sought out the Red Cross, the Jewish agency, every congressman she could corner. Years later, they lacked the warm deep golden polish of having been in America for generations. How had they repaid her? Scorpions, they stung Tante Raizel by never accepting their adopted homeland. They huddled in Brooklyn like they were hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the occupying troops to leave the city. When she died in New Jersey, the whole aging community of Yiddishist Bolsheviks mourned—the funeral was a pageant of old men with violins. After the cemetery her father loaded the borrowed station wagon with all the art from her house, (take the GW Bridge—cousin Louis directed,) and he drove it into Manhattan right to the address on the card of the auction house and dropped it all off. Cocking his head and squinting at the gilt ornate framed contents for one last time.
Were her parents arriving on the Saturnia as it sailed into New York harbor the same day as Julian’s mother walked through Central Park in tiny white gloves with faux pearl buttons eating ice cream and holding a pink balloon? The first time Inez met Julian’s mother she felt almost like she should have curtsied. She looked like she had stepped out from a Sargent portrait. Tall and regal in a sea blue dress with a sweep of graying auburn hair clipped effortlessly by combs. She remembered his mother’s well-established garden, spikes of pink foxglove, visited by bumblebees. Her own mother had some clay pots out on the fire escape. In that other life the garden moved with precisions. The early spring jonquils and hyacinths gave way to lilies that gave way to the mid and late summer anemone; and then bellflowers with the precise blue of Wedgwood—not the burdock of empty lots, not pots of mere marigolds. The grass formed the perfect cushion under foot. She was just another friend from college, they all pretended to have come from the same pool— glistening water.
They had all had the same control over their lives and outcomes. It followed then, that they proceeded in their chosen direction—ever upward. But that was not completely true. Outcomes for Inez were a sidewalk game with shells—the marble was under the other shell—not the one she picked. What was this mystery of life? In other countries and at other times they called it by name. Class. Unbelievably, it took Inez years to figure it out. All the people around her shied away from ever speaking in real terms about what would decide their futures. Nobody spoke the more common truth, in America you either inherited money, married it, or stole it. Plain and simple. Tra la la la, Inez is studying folklore—little fairies houses made from cookies and cake. Well, her parents were not singing. Go for teaching, her mother, suggested, accounting, nursing. She had a shaky position as an instructor at a City College— So, Julian again.
She put aside the article she was working on. She canceled her Friday class, office hours, and poured out enough food and water to keep the cats alive until she came back. The blue and white sashed dresses of girlhood were gone. What could she offer up? This morning she wore a linen suit, already wrinkled. The whole flight she gave herself to easy thoughts— It would be nice to catch up with people. Nice to get away.
Did Julian he have an eye for art or a head for business? She could never quite know, having neither herself. There was a period when he had either built galleries from raw industrial spaces or stepped in to save them from the brink of ruin. Then he hit the mother lode. A large, obscenely rich, oblivious family in the Midwest. To prove to her his transformation he even learned the phrase “the shmatah business.” Now he built private collections, collected collections for these clients that had all started collections. They would pay pay pay for something to hang on their wall that would make their friends go slack jawed when they heard the price and then stare in disbelief at the wall. They practically had price tags on the wall next to the frames.
[Please check back tomorrow for part three of this five-part story]