Issue 40, Winter-Spring 1967
The next morning it was cold in the apartment. She sat on the edge of the bed, wrapped in an old plaid bathrobe and warmed her clothes over the electric heater. He was still asleep. Without his glasses, he seemed accessible, someone who could be talked to with understanding, without self-consciousness: his hair curling up into funny ringlets and the lines of his profile imprinting on the air a certain naive justice. A large suitcase lay open on the floor, overflowing with sweaters and socks. She wondered if anyone wore socks in Israel. Probably not.
She was leaning over, a frayed slip dangling from her hands, when he said, “What in Christ’s name do you think you’re doing?”
“I was just trying to—who’d ever think Rome would get this cold. You know there’s something sort of ungraceful about clothes when you’re not wearing them? I mean all the straps and hooks and things, they’re ungraceful.”
That wasn’t at all what she meant but she knew it was useless to pursue any discussion that even hinted at the possibility of becoming personal.
"I’m hungry,” she said, feeling hunger somehow a safe and noncommittal state of being.
“So am I. We’ll go out to eat, all right?”
He got up then and walked into the other room, leaving her alone to adjust to her ungraceful clothes as best she could. She dressed hurriedly, buttoning up the blue woolen suit she had worn the night before and ran to the mirror in the bathroom, hoping that some miraculous transformation might have taken place. It hadn’t. She continued to look not the least bit Slavic, eastern European or even faintly Semitic. She was combing her ordinary-colored hair when he came back, dressed with his usual care, the inevitable corduroy vest, the gray suit he’d had made by a Roman tailor. He had his glasses on and also his air of inviolability. She turned away from the mirror.
"Do I look awful?”
“No, of course not. Come on, let’s get going. I’ve got a lot of things to do today.”
She followed him into the living room that also served as his studio. It smelled of turpentine and burnt sienna. One of his paintings was standing on the easel, huge and dark with many edges separating, dividing, crossing each other. He had a flair for edges.
She noticed a new book lying on the table next to Goodbye Columbus and Act One—A History of the Italian Jews. She decided not to mention it and concentrated on putting on her gloves, an apologetic birthday present he’d given her. All his kindnesses were apologies though she could never discover exactly what he was apologizing for.
“Have you got everything?” he asked, holding out her coat for her.
They left the apartment and started down the stairs. There was an old piece of bread somebody had left behind on the landing. She called his attention to it.
“Look,” she said, pointing, “just like one of those neorealistic movies, all that’s missing is the girl in the black slip standing in the doorway.” She didn’t feel very clever today. He wasn’t amused.
Outside, the little piazza was deserted, except for a group of young Italians in front of the cafe, leaning against their motorcycles and arguing about something in Roman dialect.
“We’ll go to Rosatti’s,” he said, and they got into the car.
Driving through the morning traffic and then on the road that ran along the river, she looked out the window, concentrating on the moments jerking past; the trees that still in December managed to have leaves, how the sunlight was peculiarly clear today and sharpened everything you looked at until you wanted to blink it back into a more blurring normalcy. He appeared not to notice her silence.
He parked the car at the Piazza del Popolo and they got out and admired the obelisk with that proprietary admiration of people who have lived in a foreign country for more than a year and no longer feel obliged to react to every monument with extravagant enthusiasm.
“It’s one of the nicest spots in Rome, you know?” he said.
“It’s my favorite piazza.”
Having said all there was to say on the subject, they went to have breakfast. The door of Rosatti’s had an imposing sign on it, imploring everyone who entered to have a Buon Natale. Inside, the cafe was deserted except for a short man with a hat who leaned against the bar, seemingly hypnotized by the espresso machine. She thought he was probably a literary critic; they were always short and wore hats. It was too early yet for the writers and the painters who came everyday for an aperitif before lunch. The cashier contentedly counted up money and the short man continued to stare at the espresso machine.
“Please, can we sit down? I hate standing at the bar,” she said.
She followed him past a large table displaying stuffed animals with tinsel draped around their necks. She wondered which of the people who came here would ever be tempted to buy a pink giraffe. Certainly not Moravia or Pasolini or any of the other writers who argued at all hours about censor-ship and the stupidity of the Catholic Church.
He chose a table in the back and they sat down and order capuccino and a dolce.
“Just think,” he said, “the day after tomorrow I’ll be in Israel working on some kibbutz. Finally, I’m really going to go there.”
“Yes, just think.” She wanted to look brightly interested but the expression somehow eluded her.
The waiter set down the coffee cups and two dubious buns. She picked one up and began munching on it. She no longer cared what she said.
“What’s SO great about working on a kibbutz anyhow? All this mysticism about getting your feet in Israeli sand. After all, you are American.” She dared him to get angry.
“You don’t understand. It means going back to your people, the old traditions, belonging, all that jazz. It means being proud to be a Jew.”
“But why should it matter so much? It’s people that matter.”
She took another bite of the awful bun. It had bits of minced fruit inside, a further affront. “Because Jews are different. We’ve always been different and we’ve suffered for it. You don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish.”
“Oh, yes, I do. I do know what it’s like,” she said vehemently. “When I was in grammar school practically everybody was Jewish but me, and everybody took lessons: horseback riding and piano and ballet. And I didn’t take any lessons at all.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
She went on anyway.
“And everybody lived in marvelous houses with finished basements and they gave parties where you danced and drank cream soda. And in the seventh grade there was a boy I liked named Joel who gave a huge party for his bar mitzvah. Only I wasn’t invited. He told me about it afterwards. He said they gave him lots of presents. I remember he was very pleased about the presents.”
“It’s hard to be a good Jew, to know who you are and stick up for it. Take Maxine, for instance. She’s a good Jew, her grandfather was a rabbi and her family sends her religious calendars with all the holidays marked out. She can laugh about the whole thing and she doesn’t go to synagogue the way they’d like her to, but she’s a good Jew.”
She had listened to him so many times before tell her in the same mumbling incoherent way the story of the good Jew and she still didn’t know what he meant, except that Maxine was one.
"Yes, of course, Maxine.”
“Or me, even. So maybe I haven’t seen the inside of a temple for a long time but the holidays, lighting the candles, all that stuff, it gets me. I don’t know, it really gets to me.” His face had that inspired expression, the one he always had whenever he talked about his people and his tradition and his unique difference.
She carefully put the bun back on the plate and picked up her purse. She mustn’t cry here, she simply mustn’t. He would be very annoyed. The cashier would stop counting her money. The little man by the espresso machine might even take off his hat in surprise. She mustn’t cry.
"Excuse me, I have to go now. I just remembered I have to be some place.”
She got up abruptly.
“Wait a minute. You haven’t finished your coffee. Wait just a minute and I’ll drive you home.”
“No, it doesn’t matter. I’ll be all right. Call me before you leave, if you have a chance.”
She hurried past the table with the pink giraffe and ran out the door, running down the street toward her pension, running, not willing to cry yet, waiting until she got home and it seemed to her that she was running away from the sunlight, the clear peculiar sunlight that sharpened all the edges of things, dividing one from the other, running also from the field of brightness behind her where line after line of young men were bending, cutting, gathering in grain. And working, they sang together, the words strange and proud, they sang and he was there among them singing too, not really knowing the words but he was proud and suntanned like the others. He had his glasses off.