Henry waits outside by a potted tree with the Times unfurled. Convincing himself he had nothing to do with it? Will the nurse, once she has finished with me, go out and give him the once-over as well? Will he cut her down to size with a sharp look and an even sharper retort? Or will he find her more attractive than me, more competent; will he soften, might they talk about me?
* * *
It’s a slow afternoon, and the chandelier sways in the quiet, its five miniature lampshades forever askew above five ‘candles’; the overall effect that of little girls playing fancy-dress with a box of old rags. Teardrop crystals dangle on bent wire loops throughout. Henry’s grandmother, Abbie, brought the chandelier with her from Galicia. She disintegrated the whole jangly business and set its various bits wrapped in velvet among the luggage (for they came as a family of twelve). The central brass tube was safely swathed in her own indestructible black suitcase. Abbie is one of those subtle geniuses who would make an excellent spy should the SIS ever need someone to infiltrate Russia.
The chandelier with its squeaks and clacks is usually what alerts me when a customer comes in. I am mostly alone in the shop so the sound is welcome in that I will not be taken by surprise, though the chance of the encounter being even a marginally interesting one is small. I know this from having worked here seven years. And it’s not so much because of who the clients are as it is a result of the inherent limitations of our sphere of interaction, and the one-dimensional, mild, servile persona I’ve taken on, along with my chosen uniform of a certain kind of forgettable blouse and skirt. Then again, perhaps the customers are in fact a pack of boring old sods.
I am here because of someone else’s desire. I am here because of Henry’s unhesitating love. I am here because ten years ago Henry decided (or pretended) that I was a divine being full of light, and though now I resemble nothing of the sort—I’m just a mum, as ordinary a sight on Brick Lane as a dustbin, and similarly shaped—Henry looks at me with hopeful eyes, as though he expects he’ll see that shining creature yet again, and that I will be the one to bring her forth. This, despite the fact that I carry no trace of the fashionable young girl I was when we met. I look in the mirror and she is clearly gone. I look some more and then I have to look away and try not to cry. Back then, everyone said “marry him,” so I did; simple; life resolved. Mum said he was a good man from a good home—his maternal grandfather was a respected if impoverished Jewish scholar, a well-known rabbi in the old country, and she (Mum) thought a cocky little chap such as Henry, who apparently had inherited none of the maternal grandfather’s attributes, would be perfect for me; indeed he walked, as he does still, with an air of wilful confidence, while I merely try not to bump into immovable objects or other people. My other sisters and my brother either didn’t care one way or another or they were unsure of whether to offer advice to the eldest. Henry was also the eldest in his family. My twin sister Rose didn’t seem quite as enthusiastic about him but I didn’t care, drunk as I was on all the attention from Mum and Dad. His ambitious plans for business impressed them, and he loved me, if all the markers of love I’d read about and seen at the cinema were to be believed, and so finding myself practically already his wife—for we were positioned in every photograph as eternal lovers—I had only to hold the pose, and here we are married with one small boy thriving and another on the way. Henry positively swaggers now (though I still shuffle along, trying not to bump into anything, etc.).
I am expected, as I can tell from literature, cinema, and laundry soap advertisements, to, graciously and with good humour, accept my role as an adult and as a parent, and to spend my days meditating on how to be a good example of both. Instead, I am dazed, rather bewildered, and I just want to go home, though the word no longer has a specific referent in spacetime, and I feel dreadful because I know that isn’t how a woman is supposed to feel. I am in equal parts resentful of and beholden to my husband for my life, and I don’t know what he knows of how I feel, or whether how I feel is supposed to matter. Does anyone ask the cow in the pasture how she feels? It all sounds rather pathetic, I know. But I have decided I’m allowed to wallow today, for it is my birthday. I am 24 years old.
“Many things in this paraffin shop are translucid,” says Lucy as she wanders in from the bakery next door, as though she were reciting in front of a classroom. “Lucid means full of light. It also means sane. What a funny language.” She stands still in the middle of the room, looking around as though she were here for the first time.
“Been reading, then?” I ask.
“I found a pile of old magazines in the attic last night. The previous tenants’. The first issue of Literary Gem magazine. 1854. Philadelphia. An essay written in the first person. In which our hero goes on a swimming adventure, loses his way and nearly drowns, recovers miraculously, and so on.”
“I see.” I’m counting and categorizing fuses on the glass-top counter.
“At one point, he’s swimming along, looking for water that’s ‘clearer and more translucid.’”
Here she fogs up a glass display case with her breath.
“Then what happens?”
“He swims towards it. Next door, when we bake, the steam fills the shop and fogs up the window so you can still see through it, but only partially. I suppose that makes it translucid. Or is it translucent?”
“Don’t know.” I want to answer her in Yiddish, but it isn’t good enough. I put the fuses back in their cardboard box and close the lid.
December 15, 2008
Goose Lane Editions Launches New Online Media Resources
December 15, 2008
New From Gaspereau Press