Esther, more diminutive than I remembered from the night before, is at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette, waving away smooth gusts of smoke with nicotaine-stained fingers. She stands up and gives me a kiss.
“Did you sleep well?” she asks.
“Yes,” I lie.
I wore two sweaters and a blazer to bed and was so cold that I imagined icicles forming on the ceiling above the bed.
“Do you like eggs? How about an egg and a piece of toast? Do you like jam? Deborah, do we have jam? No jam. I can give you a little piece of toast with butter. Deborah, do we have butter? No butter. Maybe there is still that honey I put in the back of the cupboard. I’ll go look.
“Eggs are fine,” I tell her.
There is no honey. Deborah and her mother are now chattering back and forth in Yiddish. I understand most of what they’re saying. It’s about why there’s no butter or jam or honey. Deborah’s tone is snippily impatient, Esther’s is forbearing, sweetly indulgent. Old memories of mine – erased, I thought, by the distance of years – dart out of hiding. Images bombard me of a stifling apartment, Holocaust survivors staying for days or weeks, four people to a bed, people eating and talking at all hours. The doctor comes because I can’t stop vomiting. He says, My, my, she’s a very high-strung child, and takes everyone’s blood pressure before he leaves.
Esther fries an egg for me on the ruined stove. As she turns off the burner, the knob breaks and falls to the floor.
“We’ll hurry and write this book before the house comes down on our heads,” Esther says, and laughs a hoarse cigarette-limned laugh.
She wants to know about me. I tell her about my children, about my husband. I tell her about California and that we live a mile from the beach.
“The beach is deserted this time of year,” I tell her, “but this is the best time to walk along the strand and not get run over by a bicycle.”
She listens bright-eyed. I had imagined she would be a withered relic of the death camps, a human time capsule, buried in a house in Flushing and forgotten, but she bursts with life. I envision her as she must have been in pre-war Europe, a vividly present, sassy girl with a personality as unlocked as her daughter’s is shut tight.
A teenage boy, lank and dark-eyed, comes into the kitchen.
“My son the yeshiva student,” Deborah says.
He doesn’t look at me while Deborah tells him who I am and why I’m here. He’s bent at the waist, leaning forward as though about to pray, the yarmulke bobby-pinned to his brown curls pouting blank-faced at me from atop his bent head. When Deborah has finished talking, he raises up, grabs his books and is gone out the front door. I hear boys’ voices, loud at first, then fainter, then too thin to hear.
“Have you ever heard of Rabbi Schneerson?” Deborah asks me.
“I’ve read about him,” I tell her.
“Then you know he’s wisest rabbi in the world. He’s predicted the coming of the messiah. Soon. The meshiach will be here soon.”
Esther asks me if I’m religious. I tell her I’m not. It doesn’t seem to bother her. She prays at the sink before she sits down and eats a piece of dry toast.
I have the definite impression that both mother and daughter have decided they can trust me to be compliant, to listen to what they have to say, to write the book exactly the way they want it, and to get them enough money for plane tickets to Israel.
Before we go into the living room to get started, Deborah says offhandedly, “I tried to write the book myself, but gave up. I’ll give you what I’ve written. If you can use it, fine. If not, not.”
Copyright Nina Vida 2009