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Simon Sobo Writing

A collection of opinion pieces and chapters from his novels

Spartacus and Death (from book 2 of 1968 Changed Everything)

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Chapter 2

Spartacus

 

While Dr. Weiss has been unhappy that Jeremy is cheating on Carol, she is not taken aback. Carol’s the best thing in his life, but he’s demonstrated his lousy judgment again and again. His high IQ does a very bad job of handling the equally large stupid part of him. As he describes the tension with CC, she is not surprised.

“You bring it on yourself,” she says.

“How?” he asks in a challenging way.

“You do. Your desire to argue. What is that? Where’s that coming from?”

“You’re wrong. I don’t want to fight with anyone. What’s going on in my head is ‘Hey, listen to this new thought I just had.’ That’s it.”

“But when you don’t get back what you expect, down goes your ego. And up goes your anger. ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ I know you believe that’s innocent. And maybe it is. But half the time you come across as ‘Stupid you.’. . . Ever watch three-year-olds putting each other down?”

“Maybe, but—”

“You’ve made a big deal about that boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ Like you’re that boy. Innocent. Saying the obvious, the truth, what everyone else is afraid to say. But the boy isn’t trying to make a point about the others. He simply spits it out. You’re not that boy. You’re the guy who wrote that story, accusing everyone of being chickenshit fools. You don’t just have ideas. You want to put down others. It isn’t even aimed at anyone. You just got this machine gun that has to be shot, spraying it at everyone else. You get away with it in the classroom, but with CC—how do you expect her to react? Or for that matter, anyone?”

In a voice that, for Jeremy, is surprisingly modest, but well known to Dr. Weiss, he answers: “Spartacus—”

Dr. Weiss cuts him off, seizes the opportunity that she has missed before. “You’ve brought up Spartacus a lot. What is that, anyway?”

“He didn’t grovel.”

“Great,” she replies in a sarcastic tone, which disarms him. “Being a rebel, making a lot of noise, doesn’t change anything. It’s just another way of hiding from your fear.”

“Whoa! I’m hiding? That is so far off. As long as I stand up for myself I’m in charge.”

“In charge—or it feels like you are in charge?”

“I don’t come here to listen to your word games,” Jeremy counters. While he’s determined to not let her have a field day on him, his voice remains thin and defensive, which encourages Dr. Weiss to press on.

“Making noise doesn’t eliminate fear. Great—you can shout out to everyone that you’re not afraid, but you can shout so loud that you don’t recognize that you are afraid.”

“So what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, but you can’t get rid of fear when there is good reason to be afraid. Spartacus was killed. He knew that would be his fate. That’s hardly victory.”

“But he put up a great fight. What would you like him to have done—hide in a corner, cry and beg for mercy?”

“How old were you when he became your hero?”

“Twelve, thirteen. Something like that. When I saw the movie. I don’t know. . . Why?”

“Because he’s a loser. Great––he didn’t grovel. He didn’t cry. He didn’t panic as death closed in on him. Those shots of him on the cross are glorious, aren’t they? And you know what that means?” The doctor stares at Jeremy. “He’s a loser.”

“So, you saw the movie?”

“Yes,” Dr. Weiss replies.

“Spartacus’s pride kept growing the worse his situation became. I think that’s great—amazing really. I wouldn’t mind being like that.”

“You mean before you’re crucified. Losing is losing. Fine, he did it with style, but why would you want to be like him? Do you enjoy pain? Do you want to die?”

“Die? Don’t think so. And I definitely don’t enjoy pain of any type, but we all are going to die and everyone knows pain. I think Spartacus handles it well.”

“Maybe, but Spartacus knew his death was coming soon. Not later. That’s not everyone?”

“And you think there’s something wrong with thinking like that?”

“I’m not sure you can change it, and that worries me,” Dr. Weiss says. “Is death that close?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Then why Spartacus? You could have chosen Superman or Batman—winners. That’s what most kids want. Why Spartacus? I mean, the guy’s in trouble. Taking on the Roman Empire. Not a good strategy for survival. . . Winners. Truly winning. A happy ending. Why is your hero someone who is sure to die? And soon!”

“Yeah, as a gladiator he was going to die soon anyway, so why not grab a bit of glory?”

“Fine, but is that who you are? You love martyrs? Oh right, Che is one of your heroes. The brave dead guy. You once had a poster of him.”

“But I took it down when I heard how many people he had shot. I’m not interested in revenge. Wronging rights, yes, but—”

“Spartacus lives in the shadow of death from the very beginning. Is that you, Jeremy? Fighting everyone because you are doomed?”

“No.”

“I hope not. . . Seriously, do you think about dying a lot?”

“Not a lot, but yeah, sometimes. I mean, with my mother it was always there.”

“But why all this fighting with people? Why are you at war with what everyone else thinks? What’s the difference? What are you trying to prove?”

He’s never before had a second thought about Spartacus. After a pause, he responds: “Spartacus gives me courage, courage I have to have.”

“Maybe to excess. Your repeated flirtation with danger—what the hell were you doing making your car skid with CC. Why? Why aren’t you looking out for yourself, getting your thesis done like most guys trying to move forward? It’s not heroic enough?”

“I want my thesis to be good.”

“You told me you want it to be a masterpiece.”

“When was that?”

“You did.”

“So. . .”

“It isn’t just grandiosity. It’s believing that such a state exists. Sure, everyone wants to fulfill their dreams, but dreams are about what doesn’t exist. Not for anyone. Even the king has worries, plenty of tsuris. The person you want to be doesn’t exist. Getting back to the main point. Why did you pick a loser as your hero?”

“Superman is not a person,” Jeremy says. “Spartacus was a person like me. He was real. What’s wrong with seeing him as a great man and being inspired by him?”

“Inspired to be him. Jeremy, defiance gussies you up. Makes noise, a lot of noise. It tricks you into believing that feeling brave is all that counts. It isn’t.”

Dr. Weiss waits for Jeremy’s answer, which is not forthcoming. She continues: “It isn’t half of what it’s cracked up to be. You know that song lyric, ‘Whenever I feel afraid. . .’?” She sings, “’I whistle a happy tune.’” Then she continues, “That would have worked just as well for you. You don’t need Spartacus. In the end, Spartacus’s courage did nothing for him. Hero schmero. Dead is dead. James Dean. ‘Rebel Without a Cause’? That’s a dead-end role to play. As in dead. Dead.

“You think so?” Jeremy asks meekly.

“Yes” she replies. “Which brings us to your mother. . .”

“I don’t want to talk about her.”

 

 

The rest of the chapter:

 

CC is waiting for him when he arrives home from his early-morning appointment with Dr. Weiss. Dr. Weiss had been doing her best to break Jeremy, believing it’s the only chance for him to straighten out. But breaking is breaking. She’s had the desired effect. Jeremy is feeling low. He is almost broken. Nevertheless, one look at CC and he is restored.

CC’s in the kitchen, playing house. She has cleared the table, putting aside her book bag, his sweater, and both of their key rings. Until now their eating has been grabbing something & eating standing up. Their coats have been left on the kitchen chairs, unnoticed.

This morning, though, CC is on a mission. She’s cleaned up the kitchen, gotten things organized. She’s set up two place settings. She’s trying a new tack. Although Jeremy’s feelings for CC have grown, the opposite is true of CC. Her interest in Jeremy has been shriveling. So perhaps a nice breakfast—she’s determined to give Jeremy and herself one last try.

“I’m making scrambled eggs,” she tells him. “You want?”

“Sounds nice.”

She’s found Carol’s whisk and is working the eggs up into a foam. “I make them loose and airy, like my father taught me.”

He takes two sliced bagels out of the freezer, pulls them apart, and drops them in the toaster. They are from Zabar’s in New York, reputedly the best bagels, so naturally he’s got plenty in his freezer. Carol has her own supply of frozen bagels, from a neighborhood bakery in Brooklyn a block from where she grew up. They are clearly better than Zabar’s bagels, even if Jeremy won’t admit it.

“Do you want sesame or poppy seed?” Jeremy asks CC. “Got them at Zabar’s,” he says proudly.

“Poppy.”

“You got it.”

Soon the toaster pops. She spreads plenty of butter on his bagel and hers. She watches it melt, the cold, solid pat rapidly becoming liquid—the crusty outside, the toasted soft dough inside saturated with butter. Bagel perfection. She’s in that kind of mood. Appreciating simple things, or at least trying to. She has the same reaction as Carol. Zabar’s bagels don’t compare to those from the bakery her parents go to in Great Neck. She tries to remember the name of that bakery, but then she realizes she never noticed its name. It was just there. Cake Box? Cookie Bar? Nanny told her the bakers were Russian. Not surprising, since most of the customers were the children of Russian Jews.

Despite sensing CC’s flagging enthusiasm, and his therapist unloading on him, once again Jeremy is in Wonderland. The previous night their lovemaking was fulfilling for him. A breakfast aftermath tops off his fantasy: Jeremy the king, and CC a happy geisha girl, eager to please, happily making their breakfast.

When the eggs are done—loose, as she promised—she proudly carries the frying pan to the table. She puts some of the eggs on his plate, watching to see if he has noticed how fluffy and loose her eggs are. When she made eggs his way, her father savored every forkful. Not just eggs. Whenever she successfully fulfilled what he taught her, it made him happy. And that made her happy. The eggs were a special case of it.

It’s no different here. CC’s enthusiasm is contagious. Jeremy feels the love. Any food would appeal to him, no matter how it was cooked, but he senses how special the eggs are to her. She gives him two-thirds of the eggs and takes the rest for herself. But then she realizes how hungry she is. After seeing how little is on her plate, she takes back some of his eggs. Jeremy watches with a smile, pleased with her boldness. She has begun to feel comfortable enough with him to be an Indian giver.

It’s all new to CC. She’s never made breakfast the morning after. It’s always been a date and then back to the dorm, or sex in a guy’s room in his fraternity house. The one time she slept with someone who had an apartment, the eggs he cooked were rubbery—but to be fair, it wasn’t the eggs. Nothing he did mattered. Vaguely, she would have liked something to develop, but it didn’t. That was true from the get-go. She was vaguely attracted, but it went nowhere. Her feelings were clarified the next morning, the moment he touched her. Sex the night before was just that. Not lovemaking. She was aroused, on and off. But in the morning, when he hugged her his morning smell turned her off. For a split second she felt nauseous, but that went away as soon as he let go of her and they sat down to eat.

Compared to that history of morning-afters, and despite her reservations about Jeremy, their chemistry at the breakfast table is refreshing. She is no longer drop-dead in love, but her eggs, the bagels, the table setup with cloth napkins and silverware, her happy anticipation of his surprise when he arrived, the smile when he saw her wearing an apron—it’s been very nice. His hunger and his satisfaction as he finishes his bagel please her equally. It is perfect punctuation for their lovemaking the night before.

Her mother repeatedly told her: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It starts the day right.” She or Beryl usually gave them cereal and milk, but sometimes her mother’s proclamation was fulfilled. Eggs rather than cereal. And a number of times Beryl was inspired. She cooked Jamaican porridge. CC watched her make it. Cornmeal, flour, milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla, sweetened to a thick, creamy porridge. Beryl made it extra hot, which forced CC to start with nibbling the porridge from the edge of the spoon, a wonderful introduction which, eventually, as it cooled, led to huge spoonfuls of deliciousness. Her and her brothers’ delight made Beryl proud of being Jamaican. Making porridge brought Beryl home to breakfast with her mother. “More, More,” she and Mark pleaded, but Evelyn intervened. She didn’t want them to get fat.

Not that obesity was Evelyn’s concern when she occasionally got inspired for their breakfast. Very cheerfully she served the French toast her mother used to make, challah soaked in egg yolk and butter with melted brown sugar, then baked and served with maple syrup.

CC wavered about what kind of breakfast to serve—her father’s or her mother’s favorite. She thought maybe she could approximate the challah with the white Wonder Bread Jeremy had, but she had never made French toast for her mother. Whereas, at least for a while, making scrambled eggs for her father exactly as he liked became a ritual, a special bond between them.

Jeremy doesn’t thrill her by that standard. It’s clear he isn’t thrilled with her eggs. They are just eggs, which he shovels in with gusto but without particular appreciation. No way those eggs could welcome the day to come. If he only knew that loving those eggs would have been a lot cheaper than a diamond ring. Jeremy could have made a very effective ruckus over the eggs and been spared large payments on his Visa card every month.

CC’s growing misgivings about their relationship hasn’t led her to the conclusion that she and Jeremy are finished. Perhaps that’s the main reason she has fussed. Perhaps it was to fulfill a fantasy, cooking for a lover after a nighttime of lovemaking and deep, satisfied sleep. She’s never had that particular fantasy, but she has witnessed the experience in several movies, domestic contentment smoothly completing the passion of the night before. No particular movie comes to mind. Yet the fantasy is securely part of her romantic expectations. Even if there is very little romance left. So strong is her attachment to movie experiences that playing it out for the first time seems as if she is reliving it.

Jeremy is somewhere else. Although he quickly recovered when he saw CC playing the part of a chef, the mood he was in after leaving Dr. Weiss’s office has returned. It has left him in his head. Having Spartacus knocked off his pedestal has thrown him for a loop. Spartacus has been such a large part of Jeremy’s triumphant vision of himself.

“So how did the session go?” CC asks him.

“What my shrink doesn’t understand is that what counts is not letting your spirit be broken. Staying in charge. That’s the whole ballgame.”

Jeremy has relied on that conclusion again and again, and it’s worked, providing dignity regardless of what might have been troubling him, sometimes overcoming potentially humiliating circumstances. Thinking of himself as Spartacus has worked very well.

Spartacus, like the other gladiators, existed at the whim of his captors. His Roman owner had paid good money for him from General Marcus Scaurus, who would sell off the defeated warriors he captured, particularly the best warriors. Whether or not Spartacus was tortured on a given day depended on his guards’ whims. However, whatever the guards did or did not do was trivial compared to what potentially awaited him and all the other gladiators. It was only a matter of time. Certain death in the arena. It was worth the price of admission for the thousands of onlookers in the stadium to see gladiators killed. And it is not that different for modern viewers. Being able to witness killing is mesmerizing entertainment. A stadium full of people might cheer the glory of the gladiator or relish the sight of a hungry lion tearing him apart. The important thing was to watch death from the comfort of their seats. There were no movies in those days, no TV, no story of any kind. So they needed ripe flesh. Their greatest pleasure came when the gladiators put up a terrific battle before succumbing. Spartacus never batted an eye. Bring it on, his eyes seemed to proclaim.

“Do you remember my Sisyphus lecture?” Jeremy asks.

CC nods.

“Sisyphus chooses his fate. Doing that puts him in charge. That’s the existential anthem. Authenticity. Spartacus played it out.”

“That’s what Camus says in his book, right?”

“He throws in a dozen categories of ways you can respond. He’s a bit pedantic—he has to list them all. But basically, that is it. If God is dead, if you are devastated by the realization that without God then ultimately everything is meaningless, you can kill yourself. Or, like Sisyphus, you can push the boulder up the hill. Yes, it takes every ounce of strength to keep the boulder moving up and not rolling back, crushing you if it does. But your will is a victory over despair. When you get to the top, it will roll down and you’ll have to start again. That curse, going on and on, never ending—being able to live with that could be bleak. Existential absurdity. But Camus has that ace up his sleeve. Choosing to do it. Choosing is what counts. It confirms your bravery. It’s his version of ‘I think, therefore I am.’ That is how Descartes proved he existed. ‘I battle, therefore I exist’ was Camus’s addition.”

Jeremy forms quotation marks with his fingers held up before him. His voice raises for his crescendo: “Authenticity! You acknowledge the absurdity, the difficulty of your existence. But by choosing it, you triumph over it.”

Having said that, Jeremy is feeling swell, a state that enamors him. Swell was Hemingway’s favorite word. And that is where Jeremy has arrived. But only briefly. Dr. Weiss’s words have done a job on him. He’s feeling self-conscious, aware he has used that word authenticity too many times in his lectures on existentialism. And as for swell, it has gotten very old. At one time being swell was powerfully peppy. It rarely failed to puff him up, to put Flatbush Avenue far away. But this morning he is pure fluff. Easily blown away. Unfortunately, this morning, after Dr. Weiss’s hatchet job, he needs to puff himself up. Authenticity seems pretentious, even to his ears. Usually, when he successfully visited that attitude, he could use either word—swell or authenticity—with aplomb. He isn’t sure why existentialism has caught on. Few people know anything about it, but using that word dresses up people’s vocabulary, makes it seem like they are talking about profound things.

So why shouldn’t he? He’s entitled to puffery. He’s given a lot of thought to existentialism. Saying authenticity out loud to CC should be special. He needs that. It allows him to resume his grand professorial role, returning CC to her familiar and happy mindset, wowed by her teacher’s brilliance.

But she’s moved on. It sounds like vapor, and she’ll have nothing of it. “And if you don’t choose it?” she asks.

“Well––”

“So Camus and my mother agree. Make the best of it? Okay, enjoy your life.”

Jeremy is not at all happy with CC’s retort. Long Island practicality and phony cheerfulness don’t come close to matching the profundity of Camus’s heroics. Perhaps he wrote it in a basement somewhere, but his writing provided the transcendence he needed, providing it for many generations, many thousands of his readers. Not quite the operatic heroics that the German existentialists are fond of, but those who sampled Camus could ignore his pathetic existence, the depressing books he wrote, and see a way to rise above.

Slyly CC asks: “Didn’t Camus kill himself?”

“No, he died in a car crash.”

“I heard he was speeding and crashed into a tree. Quite the drama! A deserving end to an artist’s life.”

“Well––”

“Is that what you were doing when you were driving so wildly—accentuating your existential authenticity?”

“You’re not hearing me. Camus wasn’t driving.”

“Oh.”

They are both quiet for a moment.

“What were you saying about Spartacus?” CC asks.

“Spartacus stood up against his oppressors. He wasn’t merely a gladiator You could see it in his eyes. They were on fire. He could see triumphs to come.”

“Yeah, nailed to a cross.”

Jeremy’s voice become emphatic. “Fuck you, and fuck you too, Dr. Weiss.” Despite the flak from CC, Jeremy is speaking with victory ringing in his ears—or trying to get there, which is almost the same thing. In his mind he’s Kirk Douglas, his eyes lit up by the future he’s fighting for. “Definitely Spartacus,” he repeats.

“You don’t have Kirk Douglas’s chin.”

“No one does.”

“I still don’t get what your thing is with Spartacus.”

“He didn’t grovel.”

“Great.”

“There wasn’t an ounce of fear in his eyes.”

“Kirk Douglas was getting paid millions,” CC observes. “What did he have to fear?”

She’s scoring. The image of Kirk Douglas that he has retained isn’t doing what it usually does for him. The pride he usually feels isn’t there.

CC can’t resist her desire to go in for the kill. She sings, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

He doesn’t recognize the tune. “What’s that?”

“You don’t know Mr. Rogers?”

Jeremy shrugs. “You’ve mentioned him before.”

“You never watched TV with Alyosha?”

“You keep forgetting. We don’t have a TV.” He says this snobbishly. He doesn’t know what she is talking about, but he counters by continuing his lecture as if CC had not thrown a curve. Only half able to maintain his professorial persona, he continues, still hoping to nail it. “You lose if you submit. As long as you don’t. . .”

She raises her voice. “As long as you don’t what!” She can’t help herself, Her frustration is getting the best of her. And it is not a new reaction to Jeremy. But this time her irritation explodes as it has never done before, not even with Mark. She waits for it to sink in.

She continues: “The one thing I am sure of is that your end will be the same as everyone’s. Doesn’t matter how you stand up to it.”

“How you play the game counts,” Jeremy declares. He’s lived by that maxim. This morning, though, undergoing CC’s assault, it now sounds hollow. His thin voice emboldens her further.

“It’s what they taught my brothers in Little League,” she says. “Win or lose, sportsmanship is what counts. And that includes the loser sharing the winner’s joy.”

He responds to his own familiar phrasing. “It’s a question of finding strength inside.”

Her voice rises slightly. “You think what attracts me is Spartacus you, that I can see Kirk Douglas’s eyes blazing out of yours. Number one, I don’t see them. Number two, even if you could pull that off, even if you could have Kirk Douglas’s spirit coming out of you like fire, it would mean absolutely nothing. I saw the movie. That look in his eyes? What I saw is a handsome guy feeling cocky, probably eyeing a bunch of beautiful women who were hanging around the set. They were gaga over him. Or perhaps he pictured nine-tenths of American women falling in love with him. And all the possibilities that offers.”

Jeremy remains quiet.

She continues. “Or he’s picturing what he sees when he admires himself in the mirror. Kirk Douglas must have loved looking like he did, loved that mirror. Izzy Demsky, a Jewish boy looking like a warrior, transformed into Spartacus. That’s what the camera caught; that’s the moment you are holding on to. Your defiance is just that. Izzy Demsky making believe he is Kirk Douglas. Or Spartacus!”

She hesitates, takes a second look at Jeremy. She can see submission in his eyes. She’s satisfied. Her voice turns kinder. “It’s okay if you’re afraid. Just do away with the bullshit.”

She waits a moment before continuing.

“Yeah. At first, my attraction to you. . .” She pauses, again, smiles. “It was all about you being a hero. But now we are somewhere else. We’ve gone beyond that.”

She gently touches his cheek, looks for his eyes. But they are fleeing.

“I’m not interested in the shows you put on, in any of them.”

Before he can answer, she grabs his hand, squeezes it, as if to say, “Stop! Don’t speak! Listen!”

He obeys.

“I love your mind. It’s original. It’s refreshing. It has pizzazz. You’re a great teacher. But that’s not what’s pulling me to you. Not now.”

Jeremy takes her hand off of his and scowls. “This conversation has gotten out of hand. Is this what you do when you fall in love? Disassemble the other person?”

She hears him. He may be right. “Mark’s accused me of that. I was getting on him for something and—”

“What?”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s true. I do that.”

“What’s that about?”

CC is undaunted. “I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m like you. I see self-deception and I just want to tear it apart. Be warned, I can be relentless.”

“You’ve said I don’t know you,” Jeremy says. “True enough. I’m not sure if I like everything I’m learning.”

“I’m not going to apologize. We’re in a new place,” CC answers.

She hesitates for moment but then leaps forward. “You make such a big deal. You claim to be a warrior . . . for truth.”

“So?”

“So,” she echoes before continuing. “What’s wrong with getting at the truth about you . . . underneath your politics—all your garbage?”

“Garbage?”

She stares him down.

“So what is it I’m supposed to admit?” he demands.

“That you’re as afraid as everyone else.”

“I did already. Fine. I’m afraid,” he says in a monotone voice.

That doesn’t do it for her. “You can say it a dozen times, but that means nothing. If you’d admit you’re afraid, if you’d mean it, you could do something about it.”

“Such as?”

“How about something practical. . . Finish your dissertation.”

He rolls his eyes, laughs. “Et tu, Brute? First Carol, then Dave. Are you going to nag me like they do? I thought you were on my side.”

“I am. People who care about you care about your dissertation. You’re practically suicidal––”

“What about the man on the flying trapeze? I could have sworn you were there with me. Your eyes lit up when I read that to you. You were dazzled.”

“Yeah, I was dazzled. But that was before. This is now.”

She hesitates for effect . . . but that allows him to break in.

“All I ask is that you don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“Oh, the philosopher is drawing a line,” she says. “No looking around. Only what you deem open for examination.”

“No. I just think I’m entitled to my privacy about certain things.”

“That is so you. Rules are stupid, right. They don’t apply to you. You pick which ones you’ll obey.”

“So?”

She shakes her head in disbelief. “Because the rule about rules is that they come from someone else. It’s part of belonging to a community.”

“The stupidest ideas come out when people think like a group,” he says. “That’s what you were saying about the commune.”

With heavy sarcasm, she proceeds. “O-kay. So let’s look at things like you do. My parents are totally uncool. Totally. All they think about is what people will think of them at the club and how they look.”

“They’re scared of those stupid people.”

“As they should be. They’ve learned their lesson. When you break the rules that everyone else goes by, you are not going to be very popular. You’re a troublemaker.”

“You mean everyone is a conformist. And they should be?”

“You got it. My parents couldn’t care less about originality? In their way of thinking, it’s the opposite of being cool. It’s being a quack. The governing rule is simple. It’s their way or the highway. Meaning what everyone else thinks. That’s a thousand times more important than celebrating your originality. Who cares what you think? This is going to blow your mind. But the truth is simple. They want to think like everyone else. It’s the only way to be comfortable. To belong.”

“That’s pathetic.”

“You think that, compared to what you believe, everyone else is stupid.”

He watches her warily as she continues.

“You’re exactly right. They don’t care very much if what they believe is stupid or smart, true or not true. They don’t think about it. Being smart is getting along with everyone, thinking like everyone else.”

She waits for that to sink in before continuing:

“They’d never get on a flying trapeze.” She takes a deep breath and speaks emphatically. “They’d never think of that. They balance themselves on a high wire every day. That’s not always easy, but once you get the hang of it you do what you have to do and it becomes easy. There is a lot to learn, to grow. And that’s mainly about fitting in.”

She takes another deep breath, then another, trying to slow herself down.

Off in his own world, Jeremy’s unaffected. His eyes are elusive. She can’t stare him down. She wants to grab him, pound sense into him. Her voice rises. He still has that snotty look.

“Laugh at them,” she says. “Go ahead. But my parents have it right. They know they are like everyone else. They accept that. They just want to belong to this club, hang out with winners. People who have made it out of Brooklyn. They want to be part of that, to belong there. Sure, sometimes even to win among the winners, but not too much of that.”

“Good for them.”

“Okay, they’re lucky. My mother’s looks puts them up a notch. Three notches. I’m sure my mother and my father enjoy that. But bottom line, they want to belong with winners. You know, like in high school, the popular crowd.”

“Belong to what?” His tirade is automatic. “I thought they know they’re like everyone else. This whole money thing. Trying to show that you’ve got loads of money,” he intones. “Money, money, money. There’s gotta be a better way to define who you are.”

CC senses he knows where he is, a cornered animal if she continues. “Look,” she tells him. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?

“For the hard time I’m giving you. But it’s your doing, too. You like to argue.”

“My therapist said that. It’s not true.”

“I’m sure it isn’t easy for you. Divorced parents. Losing your mother. People feeling sorry for you.”

Jeremy’s not as oblivious as he would like to be.

She continues. “I’ll bet that’s what your father sensed. He probably let you get away with almost anything.”

“You want to talk about that—fine. Maybe he felt sorry for me. That’s how Dave probably was with me when we first began hanging out. After my mother died. Maybe it gave me a lot of space to do what I wanted. Everyone looking the other way. Ah—the privileges of losing your mother. . . Regardless, my father cared. And I knew that. Maybe he tried to make up for my mother. Let me get away with a lot, but he cared. I never doubted that.”

At last a bit of plain people truth. Her tolerance suddenly becomes broader.

She smiles: “What you said about rich Jews isn’t crazy. Some people at the club take it to an extreme.”

“So you are finally admitting it.”

“What you have been criticizing is true. It’s not just you that feels that way. My father’s gone on about how crazy it can get.”

“He did?”

“Bar mitzvahs. People go into debt to pull it off big. To tell everyone they’re rich. His favorite is this guy at the club, Jerry Kline’s son’s bar mitzvah. That one topped them all. I was there.” She has a wide grin.

“Mr. Kline drove a huge Bentley into his backyard. Out came ten Broadway dancers emerging from the smoke.”

“Smoke?”

“From the clouds. They used dry ice. Then came Chinese acrobats. Then Neil Diamond.”

“Neil Diamond? Or someone with the same voice?”

“No—Neil Diamond. I think it was him. It must have cost a fortune.”

“Really?”

“I don’t know. That’s what my father said. Maybe Neil Diamond wasn’t there, but it was wild. The food. You name it. Kobe steaks, caviar, lobster, sushi, latkes with nova on top, noodle kugel, stuffed cabbage.”

“So, were your parents impressed?”

She laughs. “They were making comments all the way home. My parents aren’t big on show-offs. Not like that. Yes, once in a while—their Caddy, when it’s brand-new. For about a week my father feels on top of the world, at the club. But my father would never get a Rolls-Royce. Even if he could afford it. My father wants to be with his old friends from Brooklyn, wow them from time to time, but not completely outdo them.”

“I can’t tell you how happy my father was when Mr. Kline declared bankruptcy four months after that bar mitzvah. Both of my parents got a big laugh. Still, until that happened. . . I guess the Bar Mitzvah really upset my father. On the way home he couldn’t stop making fun of it. He couldn’t get over it. He made comments for months. Mark thought the bar mitzvah brought my father a lot of doubt—thinking about whether what was he doing for a living wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t able to give Mark or Jay a bar mitzvah like that. So the bankruptcy was sweet news.”

Jeremy chimes in: “It’s all so pathetic—money being that important. To question your life. It is such bullshit. Your mother is the same as your father about all of this?”

“About showing off like that? Absolutely. She doesn’t like it. But money means a lot to her, too. In terms of where they stand. Just not being showy. There is one woman at the club who wears wonderful jewelry. Eleanor Paulson. Quiet, tasteful. And very expensive. I’ve seen it in my mother’s eyes. She wouldn’t mind having that woman’s jewelry. Having that kind of money to buy things like that. My brothers’ bar mitzvahs were nice, but my father didn’t have to refinance the house to put on a show. What was your bar mitzvah like?”

“A buffet in the synagogue after the service.” He blushes as he admits it to her.

“It bothered you?”

“Why should it?”

“C’mon. You were thirteen.”

“Okay,” he concedes. “I was embarrassed. Compared to my friends. . .”

He blushes again. Clearly, he was a good deal more than embarrassed. Probably humiliated. It is the same in Brooklyn as it is in Great Neck.

She looks elsewhere, trying to help him escape. She is unsuccessful. She’s feeling his embarrassment with him. She wasn’t exactly strutting in class on the morning after her bat mitzvah.

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