Tom said he might try to take the kids to the Washington Monument after he dropped us off at the museum. I said that sounded hard—I was feeling guilty about leaving him alone with their three plus my two as it was. But Ellie said, Hard? Hard was what she did every day of her life; hard was being alone with the kids every single day, all day long, and not just on a Sunday morning when your little sister was finally down from New York for the weekend. I tensed up, waiting for the rest of her sentence—about how rare my visits were, how short (another six hours, according to a furtive glance at my watch), and how I only came to see her when my husband had to work and I didn’t want to be alone with the kids.
Fortunately for me, however, Tom got her worked up over something else. “All day long, hon?” he said.
Ellie, who’d been looking straight ahead, turned suddenly toward him, as if she’d been slapped. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she said.
“You’re alone with the kids all day long?”
“I am home from work by three fifteen, hon. You have to admit.” Tom was an attendant in a nursing home where everybody loved him; one patient even changed his will before he died, leaving his dilapidated Chevy Chase house to Tom, who knew just how to restore it.
“I can’t believe this!” Ellie said. She turned around to look at me. I was sitting in the back seat, hoping not to get called on.
“You can’t believe this!” Tom said. “What can’t you believe?”
“Why are you picking a fight with me?” she said. “Oh, I know. You’re trying to impress Tracy. Last time she was in town you also picked a fight. I’m sure she thinks we always fight.”
“I do not,” I said.
“Oh, come on, hon.” He laughed and reached across the armrest to pull her close, but she wouldn’t let him. “I know how hard you work.”
“You bet I do.”
He rubbed his knuckles across the back of her head, grabbed a fistful of wild red curls. Gradually, she let him draw her near him. They were fine again. Damn. One of these days I really wanted to see him give it to her. For my sake, at least—for me, who couldn’t give it to her, not without consequences. But Tom didn’t need to back down so fast: she never came at him in a rage, fists clenched. She never screamed at him or, worse, talked to him in that chillingly cold, defensive tone of hers. As long as he was calling attention to the discrepancies between reality and her view of the world, why didn’t he point out that when she was in charge of the kids “every single day of her life, all day long,” she wasn’t also in charge of my two, the way he would be today? Boy oh boy, was he a softie. And I knew why, too. Sex.
Tom pulled up to the curb to let us out and rolled down the window to hear what Ellie was saying. “On second thought,” she told him, “maybe you should just take the kids home. But make sure the basement door is shut. And locked.” Tom pulled away, and we waved to the two boys—one hers, one mine—sitting in the way-back of their old white station wagon. Once, when Tom had been in charge of the kids and the basement door hadn’t been shut, Ellie’s youngest, my niece Lucy, had tumbled down the steps in her walker. She came away with only a bump on her forehead—but now, whenever Ellie went out, she gave Tom a long list of Dos and Don’ts. She couldn’t understand why reciting this list annoyed him; she couldn’t understand why the few times she went out and left him with the kids, he couldn’t just tell her to have a nice time.
“Maybe if you didn’t always tell him to check the basement door?” I suggested, as we walked toward the museum.
She looked at me as if I’d accused her of something. Then she looked at me as if she were going to accuse me of something. “I have to,” she said finally. “I can’t step outside the house until I do. Some people knock on wood; I have to tell Tom to check the basement door.”
My sister Eleanor is someone who feels that the kind of people who have a pen handy when they need to take down a phone message are people for whom things always go right—Chosen people, lucky people, people watched over by God—not a function of habit or character. I, of course, was a Chosen person—evidenced not only by the fact that I kept a pen by the phone, but also by the fact that I had a son with two kidneys. Ellie’s son had only one, and though the pediatric urologist assured her he was fine—the kidney he did have was perfectly healthy—she was always on the lookout for bad news. “Why do you think he’s wanted to see us every six months for the last five years?” she said to me. She didn’t appreciate my efforts to look on the bright side.
As we joined the line for museum members, I was careful not to praise Ellie for having remembered to borrow the membership card from her neighbor—at ten in the morning the line for non-members was already half a mile long—for fear she would feel I was calling into question her organizational skills. Which were poor indeed.
“I’m glad we came,” I said instead, and smiled at her. When she’d first suggested the Holocaust Museum, I’d been less than enthusiastic. Why not the Smithsonian? I’d thought. Why not Arlington National Cemetery? My trips to Washington were a respite from my everyday life, which was steeped in things Jewish. But then I’d remembered that Ellie’s was not.
“Me too,” she said, “though, as usual, I’m dressed wrong,” and she looked around in that self-conscious way of hers.
“No, you’re not,” I said. But she was. She was wearing a sheer, multicolored mini-skirt with black tights. At least she wasn’t wearing a revealing top; she never would. She thought large breasts were unattractive and something to camouflage, except, I suspected, in bed, where I imagined she made the most of them.
I was dressed appropriately, in an ankle-length denim jumper with a cotton-and-Lycra body suit underneath. A body suit that made me look far less sexy than my sister in her loose black blouse and bright short skirt, and only proved her point about the virtue of leaving some things to the imagination. Zaftig is not sexy, but it is what I am, and I’ve always felt it to be in my best interest to reveal the truth about myself before someone else can.
When we got inside, Ellie asked if she could put the Visitor’s Guide inside my purse. The membership card too. Naturally, she didn’t carry a purse. I suppose she thought that women who did were Chosen, blessed, unnaturally lucky: instead of having to carry our keys or tampons or money loose in our hands, we always had a place to put them. Not that she thought having a place to put them was worth compromising her individuality and looking like everyone else. Carrying a purse was like dressing appropriately, or suggesting that a trip to the Washington Monument with five kids would be hard on Tom. Ellie didn’t bother with any of it, and she didn’t have to. Tom still rubbed his knuckles against the back of her head; he still grabbed a fistful of her wild red curls. And more.
Just the night before, as I’d been lying on the futon in their basement, I’d spotted a winged hopping insect, then two, then three. I ran up the two flights of stairs to their room to enlist help, only to find Tom wrapped around Ellie in the wood-frame bed he’d built. I pretended I hadn’t seen what I’d seen, that she laughed not because I’d interrupted their lovemaking but because of the image I’d created of me, hysterical amidst winged hopping insects. She got out of bed and slipped on a pair of leggings under her blousy nightshirt, and we went down the two flights of stairs together.
“Do you know why I was laughing?” she said at last, after we’d carried the futon up from the basement and set it down on the living room floor. “We were just starting to—”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. I felt awful, humiliated. I felt like a child. I felt the way I’d felt once in college, when, sitting in a bar with some of my friends, unable to take my eyes off a pretty woman several tables over, the woman suddenly stood up and called across the room to me, “What are you staring at?”
I said to Ellie, “Do you always leave your door open?”
She was kneeling down over the futon, converting it into a bed I imagined only she could create. My sister has a knack for knowing exactly what feels good against the skin, what looks good to the eye, what a dish needs to taste right. She tucked in the sheets, which had been washed so many times there wasn’t an ounce of stiffness left in them, then topped it all off with a huge wool afghan that had been in the family forever, and a handmade quilt she’d bought from the Amish. She liked objects that had a history.
She looked up at me. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “We close our door.”
“We think it’s important to be able to hear the kids.”
“Even then? You make it sound like being interrupted during sex is so much worse than being interrupted during all the other things I do all day long. Anyway, don’t worry. We hadn’t gotten very far.”
I sat down on the sofa, a midnight-blue leather sofa. I had always thought leather was a very bad material, because I had always thought my sister thought it was a very bad material. Now, ever since she’d decided that leather was actually one of the good ones—that it was only synthetic, unnatural materials such as acrylic and Dacron she didn’t like—I was recommending leather sofas to all my friends.
“I just can’t get over the fact that you were about to have sex with your husband,” I said, honestly, ridiculously, with a half laugh. “I feel left out.”
“Do you?” she said, looking up at me from the bedding. “Do you really? Well, I have to tell you, I’m glad.”
“You are?” Suddenly I was sorry I’d said anything, even though what I’d said was true. I had the feeling I’d just made a promise to her I wasn’t going to be able to keep.
“Yes, I am. I’m glad you felt left out. I’m glad you care enough to feel left out. I was beginning to think I’d lost you.”
She drew the curtains—delicate white lace curtains that didn’t keep the light out—and said good night. I could have sworn that as she walked back up the stairs to bed there was a bounce in her step that hadn’t been there before.
The Permanent Exhibition began on the fourth floor, with the Nazi Assault, 1933 to 1939. We started reading our Identification Cards, little booklets we’d taken from gender-appropriate baskets near the entrance. Each one told the story of a different man or woman who had lived during the Holocaust.
“My person died at Auschwitz,” Ellie whispered to me.
“What? You’re not supposed to know that yet. You’re not supposed to know what happened to your person until we’re finished with the tour.”
“Give me yours,” she said.
“Oh, come on,” I said, and I stuck the little booklet into my purse. I hadn’t read mine yet—I’m one of those people who follow directions assiduously—but I had a feeling I knew what Ellie was looking for, and a bad feeling she would find it. “I hardly think the fate of a woman born sixty-five years ago in Lodz, Poland, whose name I picked at random from a basket, has anything remotely to do with me.”
“But it does,” she said. “It has everything to do with you. Let’s face it. I’m the type of person who picks the card of someone who dies at Auschwitz. You’re the type who picks the card of someone who survives.”
“It’s OK. Really. You don’t need to feel sorry for me. But don’t be smug, either. It’s not because of you that you picked that card. It’s because of who you married.”
“Oh, I see,” I said. “So now it’s not even my own good luck I have; it’s someone else’s.” Annoyed, I snuck another peek at my watch: eleven o’clock – only five more hours to go. When I’d arrived at Ellie’s on Friday, I’d regretted having given us so little time together, but now I remembered why I hadn’t come for longer, the way I had in the past, over President’s Day or Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend. It’s not because of you that you picked that card. It’s because of who you married. I was sick to death of hearing how good I had it, how lucky I was. Ellie could have married an Orthodox Jew, too, if she’d wanted to. But she’d chosen not to marry a Jew at all—and anyway, I for one could hardly believe that God meted out his punishments so neatly: for the sin of intermarrying, the kidney of her firstborn.
Besides, she’d gotten Tom—someone who offered to take five kids to the Washington Monument, and inherited Chevy Chase houses from grateful nursing home patients, and built his own bed. Someone who rubbed his knuckles across the back of his wife’s head and grabbed fistfuls of her wild red curls. My own husband didn’t even seem to know what color my hair was and wouldn’t have grabbed fistfuls of it if he had. Neal and I had a nice, pleasant, even-keeled relationship; but sometimes, when I thought of it, I couldn’t help picturing a flat line. No ups, no downs—like the EKGs on Tom’s patients before they covered them up with a sheet and sent them to the morgue.
Ellie and I were about to enter the Permanent Exhibition, but I had to use the ladies’ room first. Ellie waited outside for me. The smells and noises and bodies of other people made her gag; just the thought of them kept her from swimming in public pools. Sometimes I wondered, given her distaste, how she could stand having a body of her own. One time, during her period, she’d said to me, “Don’t you hate it when the tape from the pad sticks to your hairs?” I was so surprised by her admission that I blurted out stupidly, “I’m amazed to hear you have hairs.”
We began to walk through, looking at the photographs and films, but we were awkward with each other. We said things like, How could the world have allowed this to happen? Where was America? Where was God? How could Hitler have persuaded so many people to go along with him? It’s one thing to have one crazy lunatic but . . . And then, as we walked into a film-viewing room, I said something I’d read once, that you don’t want to know how Hitler got to be the way he was because once you begin to understand someone you can’t hate him.
Ellie nodded, a sober look on her face. If we’d been anywhere else, we probably would have burst out laughing: Look at us taking ourselves so seriously! Just listen to the platitudes coming out of our mouths! As if every person who’s traipsed through this museum hasn’t said the same things.
We spiraled down from the Nazi Assault, on the fourth floor, to the Final Solution on the third, to the Aftermath on the second. We sat in an amphitheatre and watched a videotape of men and women now in their sixties and seventies, talking about how they had survived. We kept trying to leave, but then we’d stay for the next person’s story and the story after that.
Finally Ellie said she had to get out of there.
“Food,” I said. “Let’s get something to eat.”
“Do you ever get that feeling when you know you need something but you don’t know what it is?” she asked. “I used to get it all the time when I was nursing. All of a sudden I’d feel like crying, and ten seconds later my milk would come in.”
“The only thing for that,” I said, “is a glass of water.”
“Exactly!” she said, and looked at me appreciatively. I flushed with pleasure. Long denim jumper and purse notwithstanding, I—and perhaps only I—knew what Ellie needed.
Outside it was sunny, thank goodness, since we were both cold as hell from the museum. We took the Metro to Dupont Circle, and ended up in a department store basement where we spent three dollars on two pieces of Godiva chocolate. We laughed at how ridiculous it was to spend three dollars on two bite-sized pieces of chocolate, but then, on our way back to the Metro after we’d finally found a place for lunch, we stopped at the same counter and bought two more pieces for dessert. As we stood there, I began to feel anxious about the time—it was almost one o’clock by then, and I had a four o’clock flight – but I didn’t say anything to Ellie. She would have accused me of hastening the end to an already ridiculously short visit.
“You know something?” she said, chewing. “I don’t know who the hell I am. I could have ended up anywhere.”
“Who couldn’t have?”
“You,” she said. “You have no idea how lucky you are to be married to someone who knows who he is.”
“Lucky is my middle name,” I said, but my sarcasm flew right by her.
“You’ll never leave New York because there’s a reason why you’re there. Neal’s got a great job, in a big law firm. He’s got all those Orthodox synagogues to choose from and day schools for your kids. But Chevy Chase? Why Chevy Chase?”
“You own a house there, for one,” I suggested, hoping to remind her that, for all our luckiness, Neal and I could hardly afford to rent an apartment in New York, let alone own one. But Ellie was unimpressed.
“You can always sell a house,” she said, “and move to Seattle. Or Salt Lake City, for that matter. They have nursing homes there too. Then I go to the Holocaust Museum, and I think, why not Israel? Yeah! That’s it! Israel—the only place for a Jew to live!”
“But is a Jew the only thing you are?” I said. “Is it the most important thing you are?”
“What’s that supposed to mean? To you it is, but to me it isn’t?”
“I’m not judging you, Ellie,” I lied. I was always judging people. I was one of the most judgmental people I knew.
She gave me a suspicious look, which I deserved. Then she said, “And don’t think it’s because of you that you’re so Jewish, either. It’s—“
“Because of who I married. I know.”
Ellie seemed satisfied. At least I wasn’t lying to myself. At least I wasn’t deluding myself into thinking that I had any convictions about anything, that it was I who took pleasure in lighting the Sabbath candles or in refraining from “20/20” on Friday nights. Sometimes Ellie and I talked about whether or not I would ever have another child, a third child. She was sure I would—she was positive. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t think I wanted to; it was simply that I was married to someone who always got everything he wanted, and what he happened to want was another child. Boy, did she know me well. Boy, did she know how to keep me from having as many children as she had. Because now, even if I were to decide one day that I did want another child, I couldn’t—not without her thinking she’d been right all along. Some things just weren’t worth it.
We’d left ourselves with just enough change to pay the fare back to Chevy Chase, but somehow the machine in which Ellie deposited her money indicated she was a nickel short. For a full minute, she just stood there, staring at the machine as if instead of being a malfunctioning piece of equipment it were God Himself, providing yet another sign that she was not one of His Chosen people. I, however, standing there with a Metrocard securely in my left hand, was.
“Do you believe this?” she said. “I mean, can you explain this one?”
Her poor luck was getting harder and harder to explain. Why did the machine cheat her and not me? Why did her person die at Auschwitz? Why was her first child born with only one kidney when mine was born with both? The two of us had been pregnant at the same time, and each month we’d happily compared notes about our doctor’s appointments—how much weight we’d gained, how strong the baby’s heartbeat sounded. But then one day, when we were in our eighth month, Ellie went for an ultrasound. She had no amniotic fluid, she told me that night. The ultrasonographers could find only one fetal kidney. The baby might die if left in-utero, but he might also die if Dr. Goldman induced at only 35 weeks.
Now, five years later, Ellie told me that sometimes, when she was driving down a pretty street on a pretty day with the windows open, listening to the Cranberries, she’d think of writing Dr. Goldman a letter, thanking him for being so wise: he’d weighed the risks, allowed Ellie to go full-term, and delivered a normal healthy baby whose only limitation appeared to be that he’d never be a kidney donor. The thing was, though, that as soon as she turned the music off, or turned onto a less bucolic, more commercial street, a street lined with Burger Kings or Dairy Queens, she could no longer remember why she’d want to write a letter like that.
We went up to the man in the information booth, who kept his back to us long after he knew we were standing there.
“Excuse me?” Ellie said, but she was hardly asking him to excuse her. I knew that tone of voice; if anything, she was asking him to excuse himself. “I just lost a nickel in that machine over there—“
The man handed her a voucher which, when filled out and submitted to the Transit Authority, would someday, maybe in the year 2020, get her the nickel back.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I need it now. I don’t have another five cents. Why should I be penalized because your machine is broken?”
“Maybe your friend could make you a loan,” he said into his microphone, careful not to look at us.
I started to tell Ellie that I had my bank card with me, that we’d just have to go find a cash machine, but she shushed me. “She doesn’t have any money either,” Ellie said, “and besides, why should she be penalized because your machine is broken?”
The man still didn’t look at us, but reached into his pocket and slid a nickel through the slat. I wanted to take him aside, to explain that I wasn’t usually like this, that it was only when I was in Ellie’s company that I ended up traveling around a city I hardly knew without an extra cent—that, if anything, I was on his side.
Instead, I accompanied Ellie back to the fare machine, nodding agreement as she talked about all the passive-aggressive clerks and civil servants and merchants she’d come across in her lifetime. She couldn’t help it, she said, she was even beginning to feel that they owed her something. If the Kiddie Korner catalogue was irresponsible enough to send her a coat without all its buttons, and then careless enough to send her another one before Ellie had even returned the first one, she hardly felt it incumbent upon her to return the first one at all. Why should she have to run to the post office, when it was their negligence to begin with? “And besides,” she said in a babyish voice we used with each other when, because of guilt or embarrassment or shame, we couldn’t say what we needed to say in an adult voice, “now the girls have matching coats.”
The kids were playing in the tool shed in the backyard when we got back; Tom was sitting at the kitchen table, an old-fashioned picnic-style table with a bench on each side, reading the front page of the Washington Post.
“Do you see what I mean?” Ellie said to me as we walked in. “This is why I have to tell him to shut the basement door.”
Tom said, “They’re fine. I told them not to play with the saw or the drills.” If he were the type of man who winked at people, he would have winked at me then. I could tell that he got just the tiniest bit of pleasure out of needlessly aggravating her.
Ellie went outside and told the kids to find something else to do. They cried and complained, but Ellie was adamant. That was another difference between us: I pretty much didn’t care what my kids did, saws and drills included, as long as they were happy. I was afraid of people’s unhappiness. Sometimes I even thought I was more afraid of my children’s unhappiness than I was of the possibility that they could get seriously hurt. In my experience, unhappiness made people mean.
Ellie came inside and gestured for Tom to look at the kids. With only a little griping, she’d gotten the three girls to ride tricycles in the driveway, and the two boys to play on the tire swing that Tom had rigged up to the big oak tree on the back lawn. She opened the freezer and stuck her head inside.
“Have you ever tried these?” she said to me. She held up a tin of Sara Lee ready-to-bake rolls.
“I know, I know,” Ellie said. “But these are even better than from scratch. Really soft and buttery.”
Clearly, the next thing I’d be recommending to all my friends were Sara Lee ready-to-bake rolls.
Ellie turned on the oven and popped them in. Even if they could have been microwaved, she didn’t have a microwave to put them in. She didn’t like microwaves and had turned down a friend who had offered Ellie her old one, free of charge. She’d offered Ellie her toaster oven, too, to replace the antiquated inefficient toaster Ellie had bought in a junk store years ago, but the toaster oven was brown and Ellie didn’t want to sully her quaint all-white kitchen just for the sake of a piece of evenly-toasted toast.
Tom got up and poured water into ceramic mugs with pictures of fish on them for the three of us. Ellie said she’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t drink out of ceramic mugs because of the lead, but when Tom asked if he should use water glasses instead, she just shrugged. She opened the oven, and we both stood there in front of it; we were still cold from the museum. We ate a whole pan of rolls straight from the cookie sheet, burning our mouths because we were too impatient for them to cool.
“So,” Ellie said. “Talk.”
“Let’s see,” I said, but I wasn’t really thinking about what to talk about. While Ellie had been finishing off the crumbs, I’d nervously cast a look up at the antique clock which hung above her sink. Sure enough, it was two o’clock and I could think about only one thing: how I was going to bring up having to leave for the airport. No matter how I did it, Ellie would be furious—she always was—but this time, since I’d come for just two days, I was afraid she’d be even more furious than usual.
Ellie said, “Why is it that we always have plenty to say when it costs money to say it?” I laughed. It was true; long distance, we talked longingly—and at great length—about getting together. We talked about all the things we would do, with the kids, without the kids, during the time we had a baby-sitter. We talked about the movies we’d go to, the movies we’d rent, the playgrounds we could walk to and the national parks we could hike in. But now, when we actually were together, I could think only—and longingly—of being apart.
I looked at my watch again, as covertly as I could, the way I did in my therapist’s office when I suspected she was about to say we’d have to stop there for the day. Then, casually, I asked what time Tom thought we’d need to leave for me to make my flight.
Ellie knocked over her mug of ice water, then stood up and started yelling. “Dammit!” she shouted. “Shoot!” I tried to help her mop up the water with some paper towels she found at the bottom of her broom closet—she didn’t like the way paper towel dispensers looked—but she wouldn’t let me. “Go catch your plane,” she said. “When does it leave? Midnight?”
“No,” I said. “Not midnight. Try four o’clock.”
“So leave,” she said, still wiping the table, though it wasn’t wet anymore. “Go ahead. What are you waiting for?”
“You said you had to leave, so leave.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“What are you sorry for? Don’t be sorry.”
“I’m sorry you’re so unhappy.”
I’d been there for two days, but it was the same to Ellie as if I’d been there for two minutes. I thought of what she had told me when she’d been pregnant with my nephew—how she had no amniotic fluid, how the baby might die if left in-utero, how he might die if Dr. Goldman delivered him prematurely. I’d cried and cried when she told me, just thinking about it; I’d cried as if my nephew had been my own son. Then, when I did have my own son, I became friendly with a woman at the playground who had had two children born with only one kidney. When I told her what I knew of my sister’s story, she said she didn’t want to say anything against my sister, but why the hell would someone distort things so? Then she went on to set me straight: Ellie couldn’t have had no amniotic fluid. She’d probably had an index of seven or eight—the low end of normal, but normal nevertheless. Babies could do just fine when delivered at 35 weeks; there was no reason at all to think he would have died; her own son was delivered at 34. But after a while I hardly heard her, and I wasn’t interested. How could a person, an unchosen person—someone even more unchosen than my sister—speak so coldly, with so little passion? You hardly felt sorry for her anymore.
Tom was washing out the mugs and scrubbing the buttery cookie sheet—trying, I suspected, to make up for my defection with his added devotion. Ellie had finished mopping up the spill and was sitting at the table pretending to read the Style section of the Post. I knew it was crazy, but I had the sickening feeling that she was physically going to stop me from leaving. I didn’t know exactly how she was going to do it—whether she would hide my suitcase, or rip up my airline tickets, or lock the kitchen door from the inside, or slash the tires on the old white station wagon—but I was convinced that she would try.
I slipped guiltily and slowly out of the kitchen, then picked up speed when I was out of her line of sight. I knew that if I wanted to get out of there, I’d have to work fast—packing, getting the kids ready for the plane. There was a small window with Ellie, after she finished her raging and railing but before she had time to hone her fantasies of persecution and revenge, when she was like a small piece of bruised fruit, and you could get out for the price of your conscience.
Eve Horowitz is a freelance editor and writer living in Jerusalem. Her novel Plain Jane was published by Random House, NY, in 1992, and was the recipient of the Ohioana Book Award for fiction. It was also a nominee for the Harold U. Ribalow Prize for the best English-language book of fiction on a Jewish theme. Her weekly blog “Therapy in the Holy City” appears in the Times of Israel, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/eve-horowitz/.