“Do you remember one of the first things you asked me about was pride, what makes us proud in my family?”
She says this calmly, carefully avoiding an edge in her voice.
“I’ve been thinking about that. I may write a paper about pride for my psychology class. It’s important. Mark’s always going on about people’s egos.
“It’s a big deal for him?”
“I think he’s like most guys. How you get it by outdoing someone else. It’s about becoming king of the mountain. The best basketball player deserves to be the king, the best swimmer at the Olympics, the best scientist wins the Nobel Prize..”
Jeremy kicks in. “What about in junior high, the guy with the best putdowns.” He’s pleased by his example. “What about the best gossip at Fresh Meadow Country–” CC’s eyes warn Jeremy to veer off that example, which he does. “The best gossip in the faculty lounge.”
“Except I have this cousin Gabriel. Don’t know where he got it from, but he’s always had this aura. My mother calls him little Buddha.”
CC smiles contentedly as she pictures Gabriel.
“He has no aspirations. Some people just have it.”
“You mean the world is his oyster.”
“Something like that. I wish you could bottle it His smile…”
Jeremy takes her hand. “When I see your smile.”
CC ignores him. He never lets up. She goes to her coat and takes out a piece of paper with writing on it..
“This is what I wrote so far for my paper. About my mother.”
“You and your mother.”
“What do you mean, me and my mother?
“I don’t know. You have a thing.”
“Maybe. But I’m not imagining this. There’s something… Grace…Something. It’s not put on. Almost everything she does.”
CC reads what she’s written.
“Breakfast. The way my mother eats her grapefruit.”
“Is that the title?
CC ignores him. As she reads she is picturing her mother.
“Just watching her cut the grapefruit…. Maybe it’s her fingers– they’re long and thin and elegant. Always perfectly manicured. She has this ring. Simple. Small sapphires surround her finger. The way she holds a grapefruit knife, by the tips of her fingers.”
“Boy. You got it bad.”
CC is undeterred.
“She spoons out the seeds from the flesh, carefully sprinkles sugar, sometimes honey. One by one, very patiently, she puts each piece in her mouth, quietly relishing the flavor.”
CC continues to read.
“Her soft boiled egg is in one of these egg cups, sitting high up, like a throne. She taps on the shell gently, removes the top half. Then scoops the egg out, putting it on buttered toast, allowing the yolk to soak into the bread.”
CC speaks as if in a reverie. She salivates
When the toast and egg are ready. One at a time she cuts it into bite size pieces, places each in her mouth, as if she has found a treasure. She barely chews, savoring the taste of each piece.”
“I don’t get it. What are you saying?”
“She’s eaten breakfast like that a thousand times. Calm, unhurried.”
“Still don’t get it.”
CC tries again. “My mother has this friend who’s worked in a courthouse for years.”
Once again CC reads what she’s written.
“At the start of every court session the clerk announces: “Everyone rise.” Then the judge, in his robe, enters. The clerks voice is identical every single time. The judge’s pace, as he walks to his seat, the way he sits down and places his glasses in front of him, undoes his watch putting it at the same place over to the left. When he’s done he takes this little breath, barely audible Every detail, always exactly the same.”
“So you’re saying people’s rituals make them proud?”
“Mastery of the moment. Everything in control.
“And it’s infectious. Ever listen to Walter Cronkite?”
“No TV” he reminds her.
“You should get one.”
“My father once told me how, with certain judges, even if it’s some terrible crime, the sessions are dignified throughout. He likes that. It elevates what they’re doing. As justice should be.
She pointedly turns to Jeremy’s. “For you breaking down the old, interrupting things– you’re proud of that. You and my father are complete opposites. He thinks that’s the whole point. Elevating our experience with rituals.. Otherwise everything just flies by. It’s chaos.”
CC hesitates with what she is about to say but then goes forward.
“When he was in the air force, my father said he enjoyed marching in step with the other men in his unit. More than that. He once marched in this really big parade. All the men spiffed up in their nicest uniform standing straight and tall, marching in perfect unison. He said being part of that, thousands and thousands of men united, he described how terrific he felt, how proud. I guess that’s why they train soldiers to march like that, to be a part of this powerful machine. Soon enough, in combat, potentially feeling alone and helpless, whatever is left of their esprit de corps can see them through.
“Did he march in goosestep?” Jeremy kids. CC expected that, but, CC can see in Jeremy’s eyes that his sarcasm is only half hearted. He’s enjoying her observations. Her pride is growing as she continues.
“Then there are people who take pride to the next level. With a tad of sarcasm she adds. “People like you. People in show business.”
Jeremy tenses up. CC tries to be gentle, to not sound too challenging.
“You are who you are. If you have the talent to pull it off, why not. Did you ever see Nureyev leap and fly through the air? Defying gravity? The audience is exhilarated, like they are soaring with him. They share his pride for pulling it off.
That’s what I felt with you, when you went off about Wittgenstein. I felt like I was going right along with you into the stratosphere. When you finished I wanted to leap up, give you a standing ovation.”
Jeremy doesn’t react. He’s waiting to see where this is going. She continues.
“It’s so strange. If a performer doesn’t get there, watch out. He pays a heavy price. An accountant might fear his boss, but that’s it. He’s expected to do his job competently. Nothing more. The last thing he wants is the spotlight.
Performers have to go beyond that– way, way beyond. Perform magic. The audience craves it. They expect it. They want to be exhilarated like I was when you got going.”
The tone of her voice changes. “It takes courage to really go for it.”
“Because you are on the edge of humiliation, Fail and the audience can turn on you. They blame you. They can’t stand you for trying. It’s not like they say, “Good try” It’s more like where does that shmuck get off acting like he is someone. Like he’s better than us. People used to throw rotten tomatoes and eggs.”
Jeremy is quietly listening, still expecting her to lower the boom if he lets his defenses down.
“Did that ever worry you before a lecture?”
“Not really. I usually feel like I am about to knock the class’ head off.”
“Knock their heads off?”
“Get them exhilarated. Even when a lecture is going so-so, or poorly. I think it’s just a matter of time ‘til I connect.”
“Which is my point about pride. You ever watch championship ice skaters? One slip and they are toast. You can see how tense they are. But when a champion falls, a real one, they get right up. On their face, you can see their determination. Their pride Like what you just said… I got a leap coming up that will amaze you. And when they pull it off. The glory at that moment.”
She continues: “Did you ever notice how entertainers need award ceremonies, one after another. Accountants don’t get that, doctors, lab technicians. They just do their job without applause. That flying trapeze. The biggest fear entertainers have is that they are like everyone else. Ordinary. You talk about what goes on in Great Neck like they are stage performers. You have that kind of contempt for them showing off.”
“For showing off when they have nothing to deliver. An Eldorado?”
“It’s not nothing. They are living their lives, yeah, showing off is a big part of it at the club but basically they are just going along with what is expected of them, what everyone does. You’re disgusted by that but there is nothing more to it.”
“Anti-semites, that’s what they can’t stand about Jews. That superior look on their face. Like they are hot shit. They want to wipe it off their face.”
“Maybe, but that look on our face. That’s why we accomplish so much. Going for it, expecting to be more–”
“I don’t know about that.” The subject is making both of them tense. He wants to call a truce. “We’re always disagreeing.”
“It’s your hot issue not mine.”
“I admit it. I can be obnoxious. I don’t like the people at you parents’ club. You don’t agree. But it doesn’t have to cause so much tension between us.”
Jeremy let’s that settle in. He takes her hand.
“Never mind the club. I like your ideas…like them a lot. What you just said was interesting. You’re really smart? Do you know that?
Whatever anger she has about his hatred of the club, dissolves. “Do you really think so?” Her tone is deferential, grateful, surprisingly like her tone when they began, student with teacher. He continues:
“Your curiosity… You want to figure things out. It leads you to terrific insights.. You come up with interesting answers to questions no one else has even thought of. Or dares to think about. I love that.”
She knows it’s true, but until now she wasn’t sure he noticed:
“Mark told me the same thing.”
“I’m his kid sister so I assumed he was doing his big brother thing, encouraging me.”
“No really. I like the way your brain works.”
She is happy. Very happy.
“Coming from the old master.”
He smiles. They’re finally back in synch, happily rolling along.
“Old master, Right. Twenty—six and I got it all figured out.”
“Twenty-six?” she says surprised.
“What about it?”
“You’re only a few years older than me. I thought you were a lot older.”
He shrugs. “I skipped some grades… The important thing is I meant what I said. You have an interesting way of seeing things.”
She unsuccessfully tries to appear not flattered. His comment is not a total surprise. Mark’s ideas drew her to him. Same thing with Jeremy. When she comes across an author who seems to have fresh insights, that person becomes one of her heroes. That she shares this very same quality, that she can generate novel ideas, and that Mark and Jeremy get turned on by them, means a lot to her. It emboldens her.
“Okay here is another theory I’ve been thinking about.”
“I was thinking about this when I was telling you about me and the communes.”
“We’re back to that?”
“Just hear me out.”
“What are you going to do with your ideals? You’re going to expect them to be fulfilled, right?”
“If you are not trying to make them happen what’s the point?”
“And if it doesn’t happen?”
“Where are you going with this?”
“I read this cool article in psych. How ideals serve an important role in our psychology. Man cannot live with bread alone. Basically they are a wish fulfillment, an expectation, which becomes a promise,.. An ideal about how things are going to be in the future– that’s what keeps us going day to day. Our dreams. Our hopes. No one could live without an idea that something better is coming.”
“Used to be, no matter how shitty your life was, and I guess for billions of people who have lived on this planet, it has been shitty. The idea of heaven kept them from getting too down. Isn’t that what they say in Hollywood. You got to hold on to your dreams.
Heaven evened everything up. The good got rewarded. Hell for those who deserved it. When day to day your life sucks, you wouldn’t be able to make it through without believing that it all has a purpose. Something like that. Justice will prevail. God! Heaven! The happy ending.”
“Right. Hollywood movies True love conquering all. They have been as popular with people al over the world as religion. Jeremy is with her.
CC continues. “You need that. Otherwise what’s the point. Heaven was the central meaning in people’s lives. For centuries! It worked well. Worked amazingly. I mean there was a down side. Some people suffered about the state of their soul, whether their sins would condemn them to hell. But the main thing, that despite what is happening day to day, all is not lost. It will all even out. The universe is just.
Your daily experience may tell you life is mean and nasty. But think about how amazing Christianity has been. If suffering can be seen as a trial, the cross everyone must bear, with the end result heaven, existance is made whole You can’t beat it! People need that.”
“It doesn’t always have to be religion. When people were stuck and there was no way out, having faith was crucial to keep going. But along came America. For a lot of immigrants, America took the place of heaven. Imagine what it was like for my grandparents. With the Pogroms, the Jew hating. There was a place you could go to truly start over. Where you can see your dreams come true. What’s that song in West Side Story. “There’s a place for us.”
“This was it! America. Yes they were crowded into tenements. The streets weren’t paved with gold as they expected, but the power of their dreams kept becoming real. My grandparents lived to see my parents make it. The condos my father bought for them in Florida. When they lived in the shtetl– no way they could imagine a condo in Florida. Near the beach. With the sun. With bougainvillea.
They’d look at my parents house in Great Neck. How big it is. How beautiful. The Eldorado! in the garage. Those sporty fins. No one in the shtetl could imagine being sporty. Sporty? What’s that? It wasn’t part of their vocabulary. Word like sporty didn’t exist except to describe foolishness.
Sporty? America outdid their dreams ten times over. The Spaniards searched all over South America trying to find El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. And there it is in my parents’ garage, made in America.”
She’s on a roll, he listens happily
“Never mind pride. Their life was a miracle come true. You may think my parents culture is show-offy, total bullshit. And it is. It is. But fuck you. You and Mark have no right to be contemptuous, treat it like it is nothing. My grandparents, my parents did well. Not just them. Millions can tell the same story. They made a decent life for themselves. Better than that.” She laughs “the Miracle Mile on Northern Blvd.”
“What is your point, Miss rah-rah America?”
“I don’t see people’s current ideals working out so well in the future. If the ideals in the commune, and in the counter culture, are what has replaced the hope my parents and grandparents had for their children, if that is the future that people are living for, it’s going to come back to bite them. When their ideals aren’t fulfilled, there’s going to be a whole lot of angry people.”
“I’m not finished. Something more follows from that. I had this conversation with Dora. People need to be in awe of something. Life is too empty, too disappointing without it. When God represented that, it was right there. Mozart reaching for transcendence, composing a spine chilling requiem, almost touching God.
As people entered God’s cathedrals. Behold! The devout, their eyes lifting them into the sky, for that moment an intimation of heaven.
She continues. “With God dead, what is there without him? People are finding people to be in awe of. The Beatles. Worship celebrities? That’s what’s going to happen in America. Without God, we are left to worship celebrities. Which when you think about it is pathetic.
“Where did you read that?”
She laughs, “I didn’t. After I spoke to Dora. She got me thinking.”
Jeremy is enthusiastic: “You should write an article on that. It could be amazing if your predictions turned out to be on the money.”
For a moment they are peaceful, smiling at each other, the undertow of anger seems to have remitted.
“We talk too much. We should give our brains a rest, get out more.”
“And do what? We’ve been to Niagara Falls.”
“I don’t know. Get an egg cream.”
“This isn’t Brooklyn.”
“I guess you’re right. We’re back to the real problem. You don’t have a TV.”
Jeremy smiles: “Right.”
“I don’t think all our talking is so bad. You are getting to know me and my family.”
With the tension between them seemingly dissipated it is time to continue where they left off.
He reaches for her. “I want to know if you love me right this second. He unbuttons her blouse. She finishes unbuttoning it. She takes it off and then her skirt, folding them. He kisses her, but she’s not really into it. He has an erection and is soon inside her, but CC is not responding. She pushes him off of her. There are troubled looks on both of their faces. Questions…
“Was I hurting you?”
“Maybe if we try a different position.”
“I couldn’t shut my brain off.”
“I know how to fix that.”
“You’re back to being Superman?”
“Superman can pump you a thousand times in 12 seconds. I’ll bet that would turn you on.”
“Don’t think so.”
If I were French” With a Brooklyn accent he suggests, “Soixante—neuf. I can get into that.”
She doesn’t answer. He continues,
“Did you ever hear of the 8 Chanukah sexual positions?”
“So that’s it. You want to learn the 8 Chanukah sexual positions.”
She smiles: “You’re a sex fiend.”
She is quiet, thoughtful.
“I want to try to answer your question. Do my parents still love each other after 30 years?” Funny it was your question but that’s been bothering me for a long time.”
“I already know the answer…” He starts to sing from Fiddler on the Roof
For thirty years I’ve washed your clothes…
She interrupts him trying to get them back to a more serious focus: “It matters to me a lot.”
“Truthfully, I don’t think it’s possible. I’ve never seen it. My father’s 3 marriages– maybe he was just being honest each time he closed the book.”
Feebly he jokes “Come here baby. We got to finish what we started.”
CC ignores him
“Three marriages”…she trails off, “always in love with someone new…Like you.”
“Why do you keep mentioning that. I’m not like that. There’s been Marlene Schneider and you. That’s it.”
“What was it like for you– each time your father fell in love?”
“It wasn’t that bad. The first time, when my mother found out he was cheating. That was upsetting. Very upsetting. It blew up our world…But after that? Every time he fell in love he was so happy. It was an upper for me. He’d buy me gifts, take me to Dodger games at Ebbets Field. In the winter, we went to Knick games.
“So it was nice.”
“He’d get great seats. Once he was so much in love that he got court side seats. It cost him a fortune, but that time he was sure he had finally found the one. Bonnie. She was beautiful.”
“What happened to Bonnie?”
“It didn’t last. That shook him up. After Bonnie he kept going over what he had done wrong. He was hard on himself. He got depressed, which was rare for him. But he put it all to rest when he became convinced that he had fixed the problem. I’m not sure what he decided, but he was back to being himself, sure that love was just around the corner. He just had to play his cards right.”
“Is that what you believe?”
“I really would like to see the real thing.”
“I thought we’ve found it.” Given how they are both feeling, especially they’re failure in bed, both know she is lying for both of them.
“I mean being together year after year and still loving each other.”
She laughs to herself. They’ve been in this maze before. It’s easy to find the entrance, easier to get lost…
“If that is love?” She drills down to a smile which stays on her face as this time she sings. She has an uncanny ability to mimic singers. She’s listened to Fiddler on the Roof often enough to sound like Goldie.
For twenty—five years I’ve lived with him
Fought him, starved with him For twenty—five years
my bed is his
Jeremy joins her. They point at each other
If that’s not love, what is?
Then you love me?
I suppose I do. Goldie/CC
And I suppose I love you too
It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty—five years
(with corny harmony they both sing out) It’s nice to know
For the moment they are happy with each other, particularly that last crazy harmony. Wasn’t bad. After that has sunk in CC continues:
“I know I keep going back to it. I keep asking myself whether my parents love each other.”
She gets up. Covered by a blanket she goes to a mirror, studies herself. She looks very hard at herself.
“Like I said, he loved her when she looked great. And she loved him when he looked at her like that.
“When was that?”
She continues to study herself in the mirror, one angle after another. “When they’d go out.” she repeats. “Especially, when we were on our way to the club.”
Both Jeremy and CC are aware, that they are going through the motions, mindlessly repeating and repeating conversations they have already had, as usual, hoping that in that repetition something new will arise. Perhaps it is their recent failure to connect sexually.
His voice sounds victorious. “So once again it is pride, vanity. Liking to show off. Your mother is no different than your father’s Eldorado?”
“He loved his Eldorado. It was very powerful. If the Eldorado was a women it would feel like a million dollars. I told you when she saw him looking at her like that it just lit her up. I guess like what you told me about Carol, when you looked at her with love. Don’t you ever look at her like she’s beautiful?”
“So, it’s true. In the end what matters is your appearance.”
“No. I look at Carol with love, the real thing. Her appearance doesn’t matter.”
“But doesn’t that mean a lot to you?”
“Not when it comes to Carol. There is no wow.” He hesitates before continuing. “I feel tenderness. Sometimes that’s as intense as being overpowered by beauty.”
“Do you feel tenderness when you look at me?”
The answer is on his face. The answer is no.
“My looks. That’s it?”
But it isn’t just showing off. Maybe that is your father’s thing, but for me it happens when we are here alone. Think of a sunny autumn day. The foliage. It’s gorgeous. It just fills me up. That’s not showing off. It’s what something beautiful does to me, what you do to me.”
“Yeah there is a bonus to showing you off, but I feel it in my heart? The first time I saw you. Since then, again and again. I look at you and that’s what you do. What you still do. It breathes life into me, fires me up.
He tries hard to identify what he feels.
“It’s her eyes. Her lips. I don’t know. The way she is looking at me.”
As much as they tread again and again over the same subject, neither feels they are getting closer to an answer. More than ever they are aware that they can’t capture his feelings.
“I once saw this quote “Writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. Maybe it’s the same for love. Poets try to capture it. They do but it’s gone so quickly. It’s elusive.”
“I suppose,” CC replies but that doesn’t stop her from continuing to look for a better answer.
Once again CC recalls that day at the club, when she first felt pretty. She’s already told Jeremy about it–not just about her mother’s pride. She could feel her father’s love for her growing. The look on his face was something entirely new. After they went shopping, his eyes sometimes lit up when she tried on a new outfit that was perfect, but at the club that day it was something different.
“It made me very happy that my father wanted to show me off, the same as he loved showing off my mother.”
“Is that how you feel when I look at you?”
“When it is the two of us I agree with you. You are not showing me off. You couldn’t even if you wanted to. I am your secret.”
“Was your mother jealous that day at the club?”
“Not at all. That day, he adored me. And she took full credit. It was her glory to claim, her good genes…, but also her preparation of me. Whatever grace I had came from her.”
“No. She still gets those looks from my father, far more than me.”
“I was asking because I’ve seen families where that isn’t true. At restaurants, the father loves his daughter more than his wife. She’s gotten fat or just old. Or she’s fine, but his 17 year old daughter is incredible.”
“I know. Nature has made it like that. Like June is for roses. Beauty peaks at that age. That’s when men go ape-shit, fall in love, propose.”
“So I have passed my peak?”
He laughs, “Are you kidding?”
And then. Silence. They look at each other trying to keep their smile alive. But they feel awkward as silence descends on them, surrounds them. Their unsuccessful lovemaking, the way they are repeating themselves now, talking over and over about the same thing. Have they reached that point that love eventually comes to? Has their perfection been exhausted? All that’s left is repetition, hoping memories of it can fire it up again. That often sustains couples long after the bloom is off the rose. As their relationships age it often doesn’t satisfy couples.
But then she drops her blanket and is naked. And everything is new.