It had been forty days since Frieda’s stint at the hospital in West Orange; forty days since her body spluttered to a halt during Saturday services at synagogue, in the confused clambering space between rising and bowing; though no one, at first — save Morris, slowed, a widening gap blooming between what he saw and what his body was capable of doing — immediately noticed, amid the shuffling of siddur pages, and the creaking of knees that had formed in the soil of Old World Poland, and the wrappers of hard candies crackling, bribes parents had meted out to their finger-twisting, tongue-clicking children; and the un-modulated whispers of those whose hearing aids kept screeching in and out of pitch; the swish of tallises as men stood and sat; until Frieda’s body abruptly folded in half like an old pincushion, limbs thunking into the pew before her, and then there swirled an unceremonious thicket of shouting, of where is Dr. Rubenstein, and where is Dr. Feinberg, and where is Dr. Rosen, even though he was actually a pediatrician, and everyone knew he should have retired at least five years ago, his fingers chewed up by rheumatoid arthritis; and only quiet Ethel Siderski, a fragment of a woman who always came to synagogue alone, and slipped out, ghostlike, immediately after kiddush — never staying for a plate of whitefish salad or even a slice of gefilte fish — who had watched a man’s life drain out of his veins in a frigid forest just outside of Warsaw, had seen his cheeks deflate and his eyes calcify into marbles, and whose face appeared, even now, twenty-odd years later, sometimes in her dreams, even though he had really been no one to her at all — had the sense to press two quiet fingers to Frieda’s neck, feel for the pulse striking away beneath the skin, which was timid but there. And then thought, yes, it’s alright now, the oxygen ballooning back into her ears, as someone dialed 911 on the payphone outside the Hebrew school classrooms, and the ambulance sirens began to sound on the opposite end of town.
It had been forty days since the white-walled hospital, Frieda soon intimately familiar with the elevator’s pervasive scent of chicken soup, and the fluorescent lights she passed beneath on the stretcher, like police spotlights — made her feel she’d transgressed to be there — and the way a certain plump-faced nurse, fastening a blood pressure cuff around Frieda’s arm, leaned in so close her flowery drugstore perfume made Frieda’s eyes water; and the way the reedy doctor, recognizing her accent, looked at her askance, at her two daughters stationed at either of her elbows, one jumping in with a missing English word when her mind offered up only emptiness, and the other snatching up and filing away the medical jargon the doctor dropped like breadcrumbs; afflicted by not a scrap of Frieda’s anxiety, Frieda’s shyness, the feathery quality of Frieda’s voice, for her daughters were American (had shed the vapors of their German accents by fourth grade; had surpassed Frieda’s height by high school; had both married Jewish men they’d met in college — men who were kind to their mothers, and shoveled out hers and Morris’s car after blizzards, and had grown up nourished by sugary cereal and parents who’d told them they loved them; and though they would never split the cooking or cleaning with her daughters equally, and would occasionally succumb to protracted spells of stubbornness or anger, they would care for Frieda’s daughters when they were ill, and massage their feet when they were pregnant; would show unabashed affection to their children, as the men of Morris’s generation had never known they were meant to: her daughters’ husbands, clothed in suits, waking up their children before they left for work in the morning; reading them bedtime stories before turning off their lights at night).
And so it had also been forty days since the doctor had asked her, How many cigarettes a day do you smoke? (again and again, though the answer was none) and, Can you tell me about your consumption of fats? Your stress levels? Family history of hypertension? Dorothy and Eileen exchanging meaningful looks (particularly at the mention of family history, which Frieda neatly evaded). Behind her, in a plastic hospital chair, Morris sat with his graceful wrinkly hands clasped tensely in his lap. Frieda knew, even without looking, the stony cast of his face, the inscrutability of his dark eyes. Knew also the little tics that might betray his fear: a twitch of his eyebrow or a clenching of teeth visible even when his mouth was closed; the latter of which she’d noticed in him only a handful of times: not when he’d passed the boxes of belongings to the German customs officer as they prepared to board the ship; and not the first day at the glove factory in America; and not even when Eileen’s infant body had gotten stoppered between Frieda’s uterus and the world during her delivery, fly caught in a web, the pitch of the doctor’s voice swelling precipitously while everyone else grew silent; but on the day they’d married, as Frieda’s parents marched her down the aisle of the small synagogue in their Bavarian town — the few neighbors in attendance humming anxiously in the pews — and she had glanced up before she was supposed to, and through her veil saw him standing there so pale and solemn, as though he were awaiting the angel of death. Looking back, she could not tell whether the fear in his eyes had been the germ of a premonition or simply uncertainty, now allotted undue weight.
It had been thirty-nine days since the reedy gentile doctor stood at the end of Frieda’s bed, explaining how the abnormal rhythms of her heart had momentarily impeded blood flow, cut off the organ’s oxygen supply, causing part of it to die. Frieda imagined the muscle turned to a grey, desiccated slab of meat, now suspended peacefully at her center as her body orbited around it; and Eileen thought of the neighbors’ cigarette smoke that had wafted up the stairwells of her parents’ apartment building, creeping under doors and through the cracks in window frames, into their sitting room, as her parents made their way, inch-by-inch, through the American newspaper in the evenings; and Dorothy thought of Frieda hunched over bits of leather in the kitchen when she and Eileen had been children, her mother sewing neat stitches late into the night, as the hours expanded, gathered weight, and settled. Dorothy thought of her mother, that first year in Newark, pausing unknowably to shut her eyes as she mixed the batter for spice cake the night before Rosh Hashana. Her mother, holding hers and Eileen’s hands at Shoprite when they were children, Frieda’s blue eyes flitting nervously over the cartoonish packaging of breakfast cereals; alarmed at the loud-voiced women from synagogue manhandling cuts of beef in the kosher aisle; reverently examining bundles of asparagus and leeks in the produce aisle like artifacts in a museum.
Morris thought of the hills behind the small Bavarian town where he and Frieda had grown up. How on lazy summer afternoons after finishing their chores, when the grass was still fine and soft, they’d roll down the slopes on their sides, heads facing one another, and then, sun leaking red through their eyelids, and hearts pounding, would race one another back up again. Somehow they’d done this for hours without growing queasy. But he remembered the ache contracting his throat as he doubled over, exhausted, at the top of the hill. And the sight of her, skirt swishing, running straight at him; her hair, it seemed, absorbing all the sunlight. And then the sensation of his tongue curled up like a hard stone egg, sudden stranger in his mouth.
She would take a blood thinner daily, said the doctor. She would lie in bed to rest her overtaxed heart.
And so it had been thirty-four days since Frieda had returned home and Dorothy and Eileen had fussed over her as she lay in bed; thirty-four days since they had parceled out the medication into a pill organizer on Frieda’s side-table, and stationed the walker — which she did not resist using, for she did frequently feel she needed something to support her rubbery bones, though she did not at all believe a faulty heart was to blame—next to it. They cooked Frieda foods she had made them growing up, as though it might restore an earlier, corrected version of her: brisket and kugel and on Shabbat, plum cakes, and though the fruit tasted faintly medicinal, unlike those Frieda had picked off the trees behind her house as a child, it turned the whole house warm and cinnamon-scented. If a bystander were to peer through their kitchen window as they ate, Frieda imagined, the scene would appear almost perfectly composed: her daughters with their smart bobbed hair, their husbands in pushed-up shirtsleeves, gesturing loosely, elbows on the tablecloth, and only she and Morris, dressed in knitted clothing a shade too warm for the weather, shrunken and foreign-looking and perhaps a little stiff, but nonetheless cushioned by love, or comfort, or whatever invisible axes bound people together across dinner tables at twilight.
It had been twenty-eight days since, sitting at a Shabbat dinner with her family — (she’d lost track of the date lately — which was unlike her, but guessed it was nearly summer from the fullness of the air when Eileen opened her bedroom window in the afternoon; from the steam she saw drifting off Newark’s sidewalks in the morning when Morris left for work) — she felt her stomach fly out from beneath her. Her torso jerked forward, but no one, not even Dorothy (among her girls, the noticer of details) saw her clutch briefly at the table; no one, of course, knew the metallic taste she felt under her tongue. She chewed a bite of the chicken she had not cooked. To her right, Eileen, telling a story, swirled her right hand in a circle; hands as fine-boned and lovely as Frieda’s had once been. (Hands clasping Morris’s, illicit, under the pews in the small German synagogue; now cramped by the repetitive motions of the sewing machine.) Frieda had noticed, lately, her hands grown colder; noticed dispassionately, too, other minute things: the tinny ringing in her ears after she stepped out of the shower; her variable appetite. The way sometimes at night her stomach contracted powerfully once — twice — three times — almost as it had done when she had been pregnant, and her body’s slights had been in service of something. Yet still, even sitting there at the table, a mist of contentment rising off the group of them, off the white Shabbat tablecloth, off her girls (these people she had birthed and clothed, taught to count as they sat at the mouth of the Bavarian town’s small river, shaping their mouths clumsily around the syllables of eins, zwei, drei), the pain was pleasing to her in a way she couldn’t fully describe. Besides, amid the hive of people orbiting her, it was nice to have something of hers alone.
(Hers alone, too, then: how the quinidine slipped its fingers into her brain, ran along its grooves, moved things around. Sometimes, just a meaningless flicker of neurons: she saw the blue sky outside her window momentarily deepening into sepia, or the edges of her vision blurring as she stepped outdoors. Sometimes — one evening after dinner, when it had been thirty-three days — a ringing in her ears as she emerged from shower; the faint hissing sound of butter sizzling in a pan. In her brain, the image bloomed from darkness like a photo emerging from fixative: her mother’s wrists, before the skin on them grew slippery; strong and capable, frying paper-thin pancakes in the kitchen of her childhood home.)
It had been twenty-eight days. On the other side of the wall Morris listened, as he did every night, to the dripping sounds of the showerhead once Frieda had turned off the water (for she insisted she did not need help), and to the shuffling of Frieda’s bare feet on the tile as she brushed her teeth; Morris, straining to detect any stuttering footfall or unexpected squeak against the tile. When he heard her flick off the light, he shut his eyes; she entered the room seconds later, smelling of flowers. He waited for the darkness beyond his closed eyelids. Outside their window, in the distance, the New Jersey Turnpike breathed and smoked. Both Morris and Frieda fell asleep; unknown to each other, both dreamed.
Twenty days since Morris returned from the glove factory on an unremarkable late evening and found Frieda sitting on the leather couch, asleep with the radio echoing loudly through the apartment; bent low to her face and then, registering the puffs of her breath on his cheek, feeling ridiculous and still anxious, retreated to the galley kitchen to find something to put in the oven. Frieda half-stirred, thought she could smell something burning; when she woke again in the evening half-light, it was gone.
Ten days since Dorothy arrived at her parents’ apartment unexpectedly one August afternoon, letting herself in quietly. She’d left Hal at home, napping in his dress socks after they’d returned from synagogue — wishing to escape, afflicted by a nameless bad feeling that turned her tongue metallic (that bad feeling, she’d piece together weeks later, sitting shirtless and sweating on her toilet, with blood streaming down into the water, had stemmed from the pinprick-sized thing rooting itself in her uterus; a thing she’d never tell Hal about, once it had gone. What would be the point?).
That afternoon: Frieda, quiet, in bed above the covers. Frieda, (who’d been so anxious in Dorothy’s youth, asking for her daughters’ Friday night curfews to-the-minute, and then sitting in their kitchen late into the evening, back to the front door, waiting for the sound of a turning key) now remained silent, as though questions had finally become irrelevant. Dorothy laid next to Frieda above the covers, with her knees drawn up to her chest, head on Frieda’s shoulder. Frieda felt her daughter’s skull small, well-made, and warm; felt her daughter’s breaths grew deep and definite with sleep, Dorothy’s twilight brain prying below the freight of her anxiety.
When Dorothy fell asleep, Frieda slowly shifted her onto the bed beside her, smoothed her hair from her forehead. Through the skin of the dream, Dorothy registered a humming.
[When Dorothy returned home that evening, the moment she shut her eyes in bed next to Hal, the murmured word kept swimming musically up to the surface of her mind: mein Kind, mein Kind, though its source was a mystery to her, some oblique invention of her subconscious, for her parents had stopped speaking German many years ago; the minute their feet had separated from that land.]
On that final day of the month, Frieda awoke unusually late: Morris had already departed for the factory in the grim dawn, and now light sifted palely through the window. He’d left her a newspaper and several slices of stiffened toast on a plate on her side table. On the final day of the month she, aware of the blood coursing busily through the circuits of her body, crossed the bedroom, went out the hallway and into the kitchen to make herself tea. The newspaper, half-folded, was crushed at the edge of the table; but anyway she knew the date before she looked down at it. Though she and Morris had never marked it, the memory was gathered inside her mind, ready to collapse the walls: the greyness of the day; the smell of salt water stinging her eyes; the seesawing in her stomach as they stood on the ship’s deck. Even if she wanted to, she wouldn’t have been able to reconstruct the way she’d felt; for she had known standing there on the boat, light-haired and beautiful, nearly able to pass as Aryan, that in retrospect this moment would be one to which they would never allow words. And as she felt the ship set sail beneath her, she had only permitted herself one glance back at the foggy grey shore, which from a distance, was a sight so unremarkable that it might have been anywhere.
Now, sitting at the table, she wrapped her hands around the mug of tea and felt, dimly, her heart thrumming like a struck drum; and three-quarters of a mile across town, Morris paused at the sewing machine (for he, too, remembered the date; it had never left him over the years, though he had always hoped that it’d slipped, improbably, through the slats of Frieda’s memory) with the taste of something bitter beneath his tongue. He thought it might be the phantom taste of the herring that he and Frieda had eaten that final night in Germany, sitting across from one another at the small wooden table; the children upstairs in bed, and all the cupboards cleaned out, bare of the preserved foods Frieda had distributed to the Jews that still remained in the town — the Jews that, under the cover of night, slept or spoke to one another in whispers, windows closed against the darkness outside, the whispering of the long grasses at the mouth of the town’s small river; avoiding the carefully folded newspapers in their kitchens, whose headlines nonetheless bloomed darkly in their brains as they dreamed.
But back across the town, sitting in their bedroom now, Frieda knew the bitter taste to be only of bile. Two tongues in her mouth; some flood of aching days since the ship had departed, in whose numberless wake Frieda’s relatives had been packed into various trains, speeding to god knows where.
When the hand closed around her heart, she did not think of Morris or Dorothy or Eileen. She thought of the sound that had gathered outside the windows as she and Morris had lain in bed, not speaking, the night before they had left. When she had closed her eyes she’d heard it as close as a secret, languorous as a wordless piece of music, a rhythm known only to her threading through her ears: the wind, like dark blood rushing through an artery, and then finally, mercifully, the stillness.
about the author