“So your parents never broke away?”
“It never occurred to them that they needed to break away.”
“That’s so amazing.”
“Amazing? For hundreds of years, that’s what people did. One generation after the next. Then along came the 60’s.”
“But to buy into all the old fashioned stuff…”
“You’re not getting it. My parents got upset with their parents plenty. Really upset. But they couldn’t imagine their parents not being in their life. They weren’t unusual. The families of all of their friends are no different.
Family’s everything. My mother had a cousin who could only find a job in Michigan. He and his wife and kids had to move there. It was upsetting. Everyone put the best spin they could on it. It was only a few hours by plane. They could get together for the holidays. But the fact is they could see each other maybe once or twice a year. No one said anything but it was like losing them. Their children wouldn’t know their cousins…
There was another family that lived away for no good reason. The assumption was there was something wrong in their family.”
She sees he isn’t reacting. “What I find remarkable is that you’re mystified by all of this. The real mystery is what’s happening with my classmates.”
“There’s no mystery. When they’re around their parents they can’t be themselves. Students have complained to me.”
“You mean the new person they’ve invented. Okay. I told you about my mom and me. It’s true. She has a hard time with me being different. But at this point, Mark’s mocking everything my father says. Everything. I don’t know what he’s trying to do! He has to know my father is reeling.”
“He’s mainly angry, but you just have to look closer. He’s hurt, really disappointed.”
“You can’t expect Mark to deny who he is.”
“When we were younger my parents understood. He was a teenager! Like me. We had to see everything the same way as our friends. We had no choice. So that gave us a pass.. But now it’s more than that. This isn’t teenage stuff. The youth culture is who you are supposed to be. As an adult! That’s new. Thinking like a teen-ager permanently.”
“No one’s claiming that’s how you should be.”
“Are you kidding? They are. When my parents didn’t see things like my grandparents they stuffed it. They kept quiet.”
“They were scared of them?”
CC’s exasperated that all of this seems so foreign to Jeremy. “Not scared– they didn’t want to hurt their feelings. But it’s more than that.. It took my mother 20 years to tell her father that she ate ham. And that was only after he got suspicious and started questioning her. I mean she felt free enough to eat the ham, but it wasn’t important for her to let her parents know.”
She thinks further. “Actually I didn’t realize until my grandmother died that my mother never had ham or shrimp in the refrigerator. In case my grandmother came over and saw it. She ate it and fed it to us but she got rid of the evidence. She never told her mother that she loved bacon. Bacon! It’s her favorite food.
Mark is in my father’s face. I just don’t get it. It’s almost as if he hates my father. What did my father ever do to him?”
“Freud thought sons want to kill their fathers.”
Freud’s ideas are wild… Are you into him?”
“Not really. I’ve read some of his books but–”
“Mark talks about him a lot.”
“He’s going to be a shrink so…”
Jeremy goes to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator and studies its contents. CC follows him there. Nothing in the refrigerator appeals to him, so he takes out a small container of Dannon yogurt, his occasional homage to healthy eating.
She waves him off. He scoops up the blueberries in it, bringing them to the top of the container. He takes a spoonful of the jellied fruit, then puts the top back on and returns it to the refrigerator.
“So none of that fighting went on between your parents and your grandparents?”
“Maybe I gave the wrong impression. They fought plenty. I’m not talking about the Waltons. Things were just different. There was this line and you didn’t cross it. When it came to what you could eat, it was God’s laws. But not just that. Most families had something similar, a line. For serious transgressions. It wasn’t really defined but you had a good idea about what you were allowed to do.”
“How did you know about that line?”
She looks at him like he’s an idiot. “Not every thing’s put into words. You just know.”
“Sometimes my mother would be all over us, lecture us about respect, particularly when Mark got full of himself and went after my father, but that really wasn’t it. It just was the way things were. Like something horrible would happen if you crossed the line. It wasn’t spelled out, but you knew it was there. You could only go so far.”
She takes a breath before continuing. There is sadness in her voice.
“Wherever the line was, Mark stomped on it. He took pleasure doing it, like he was a hero. And then it was gone! For everyone. I don’t know when it happened… What my classmates are doing… They’re shedding any part of themselves that resembles their parents and the way they were raised. How do you do that? You can’t make up a new you.”
“Why not? Why shouldn’t you decide who you are, who you want to be? Why not be liberated from the old bullshit?”
“My grandmother would turn over in her grave if she heard you say that.”
“That’s not how I see it.”
“I heard what you said before, and I can accept that, but really, how would she know? You think she’s up there watching you?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. I would know…”
She watches him as she proceeds: “My grandmother is part of me. She’s alive in me.”
“Give me a break” is written across Jeremy’s face.
“She is. I can almost hear her voice. My grandpa Joseph was the son of Joshua. He made gold jewelry. Beautiful gold jewelry.” She fingers an earing. “Look at my earrings. Touch them.”
Her expression is insistent. Jeremy touches her earring.
“My grandmother gave them to me. Joshua was the son of Samuel. He taught Joshua how to make jewelry.”
CC touches her earring again.
“And Samuel was the son of Pincus, who spent his life studying the Torah. He was a rabbi. People came from the surrounding towns to hear Rabbi Pincus’ opinion of what the Torah had to say about their behavior. They needed to know where they stood. It wasn’t just them, my grandmother told me a rabbi who understands the Torah, and explains it, was very important to everyone. And reading a new portion of the Torah every week? They were fascinated. It was like the adventures of God.”
She’s amused by her phrase but she says it with a straight face.
“Is that how your grandmother put it?”
She smiles. “No that’s mine, but my grandmother laid it all out for me. We don’t get to hear what God wants from us. People complain about his silence. Rabbi Pincus explained what he wanted. God was talking to them from the Torah.”
“That was a jazzy message.”
She ignores his irreverence. “They asked Pincus to speak at all the surrounding Shuls. You asked me about pride–my grandmother’s eyes lit up when she told me that.”
Despite seeming to give the impression that he is not taking CC seriously, he has been listening.
He notices the way CC lit up when she spoke of Pincus.. “When you mentioned how synagogues from other towns wanted him to speak at their services you were proud.”
She’s pleased he noticed. CC goes to the window and looks out again.
“Pincus was my grandmother’s favorite. He was always examining things, thinking about everything. He was the son of Joseph, another Joseph, who was a chazzan. They say Joseph had a voice that would make the angels cry. Joseph belonged to Moishe.”
At this point she has an identical lilt to her grandmother as she had repeated the family history.
“I get it.”
Ignoring him, CC continues.
“Moishe, means Moses, and Moses was the son of Solomon”
Proudly she proclaims, “Solomon. King of Israel.”
“He was the king?”
Once again CC lights up. “His mother thought so.”
“Have you been to Israel?” Jeremy asks her.
“Where’s this coming from?”
“My grandmother. My grandmother, who you say is dead. Better yet, her grandmother told her these stories. So now we are talking about 4 generations,
Temporarily won over, Jeremy kisses CC tenderly.
“I am kissing your grandmother,” he tells her, not completely in jest. She smiles, pleased that he’s beginning to understand. He so often seems closed. Her smile becomes brighter.
“My room-mate thinks my grandmother and me are connected at the hip. She can’t believe things I’ve told her. It’s funny. She thinks being beholden to my grandmother makes me less of a person. It makes me more. My room-mate thinks I’ve been assigned an identity which keeps me from finding out who the real me is.
It’s the opposite. What I got from my grandmother is the only part of me that is substantial, that seems like me. The rest is swirling around like the wind.”
“You can’t see your room-mate’s point? What students are doing now is gaining their freedom, their independence, replacing all the do’s and don’ts that are a thousand years old. Nobody knows where the rules came from, or why they still exist. Why can’t you replace them with, a better conscience. Something that makes sense, that corresponds to what you believe is important.”
“You just invent a new conscience?”
“A conscience formed from your ideals.”
“Ideals are pie in the sky.”
“Our ideals are the best part of us, what we believe in and value, deep deep down”
“What? …That the rich should share what they have with the poor, that we should be helping black people get out of their hole, that we should not destroy the planet, that women should be in charge of their own bodies? Are you against any of that?”
“The core of your conscience should come from that, what you believe. What kind of morality did your parents, your grandmother give you? That you should fast on Yom Kippur? That Mark and Jay should wear a yarmulke in shul— You can’t do this. You can’t do that. How does that make you a better person? Growing up means you deciding what’s important. Creating your own conscience.”
“ You just like the sex part. Do your own thing,” she proclaims in a silly voice. “You can do anything you want and it’s okay.”
“You mean I can wear my mother’s bra?…Who knows. Maybe one day the movement will bring us there. You never know…Just kidding,” he quickly adds.
He turns serious. “Sex is a small part of this. The March on Washington. Hundreds of thousands of people, holding hands, singing We Shall Overcome. That came from the bottom of our hearts.”
“You were there?”
“It was life changing.”
“Mark says the same thing.”
“The point is that those feelings don’t have to exist for just one day. I was at a friend’s wedding. In the church people were singing this hymn. Singing it sweetly. You could see it on their face. They were singing to God. They were sure he was listening. Everyone in that chapel was connected to everyone else, and to God!”
CC is picturing it as Jeremy speaks.
“Why should you only have occasional moments like that? Why not surround yourself with people who have your ideals, who’ll keep you devoted to them. It’s the best you. Why not give it the place it deserves?
“Communes,” she says with a note of irony.
“Exactly. Why not surround yourself with people who share your ideals. Live together. Live your ideals.”
“Been there done that.”
Jeremy is surprised. “When was that?”
“Last year. My friend, Leila. She graduated last year. For years she had been miserable. Well not miserable. She had friends. She went to parties. She had a few boyfriends. Some of her relationships were nice. But she began to feel that she was never going to find the person she was looking for. She even tried a lesbian relationship. That wasn’t it. Most of the time she felt isolated, lonely. The hours, the days passed. She didn’t have a purpose. She said she had felt that way for so long she didn’t think it could ever be different.” CC hesitates for effect. “Everything changed after she joined a commune.”
“I’m not surprised. Feeling united with other people that share your ideals. It’s like what I described in the church. Bonding the best part of you, with the best part of them.”
“It’s true. It transformed her. All of a sudden she had confidence. Before she always seemed to be adrift… worrying. Her eagerness to be liked–she said that really messed her up. Usually she feared, no matter how well a relationship was going, that it was only a matter of time. One misstep and she was finished. Or other people would see who she really was. And that would be that. Or they were “friends,” but she didn’t feel connected. There are so many students at school, just like her.
After she joined the commune. Poof. It was gone. Now, her relationships seemed solid. Her tranquility–it’s true. You could feel the difference. Being in the same room with her, calmed me.
I wanted that. To be part of something bigger. To belong. I haven’t felt that since I was a little girl. With my family. I knew I had them. Never thought about being without them. Oh once, when I was four, at the beach, I got lost. But the rest of the time? It was nice. Belonging.
Mark convinced me to go ahead and do it. I joined her commune. After I did it Mark bragged to all his friends about me.”
Jeremy listens quietly.
“Everyone talks about alienation, the modern condition. We read some essays in sociology.” She looks at him with the enthusiasm of one who has made a great discovery.
“My alienation was gone.” She hesitates thoughtfully, But then…Take that shit eating grin off your face. You know where I am going?”
Jeremy answers “We believe this. We believe that.” His sarcasm deepens. “Like an old married couple. We liked that movie. We didn’t like that one.”
“Exactly… I only stayed two weeks. I mean it started out great. I moved my stuff into Leila’s huge room with 2 others. We were strangers— but there was this warmth. You could feel it almost immediately. To finally belong somewhere. It was like family. It felt great…
People just wandered in and out of each other’s rooms. Drifting. Like everything belonged to everyone. I’d seen it in the movies–people at church finishing the last hymn. As the service ended turning to each other. Hugging. Speaking softly, caressing every word that was said to them, what they said like honey, like they were in heaven… I’ve seen it in the synagogue At a Bar Mitzvah. When the service ends, everyone hugs each other. “Good Shabbos. Good Shabbos. The smiles. The warmth. It’s the real deal. That’s what I expected the commune would be. You’re right about it. Not just that moment. 24 hours a day.”
“Wow. You really got into it.”
“That’s how it was in the beginning. It felt so nice, so different, being part of that.”
“My earrings disappearing didn’t feel so good. Leila told me that they were “borrowed”. These, the ones I showed you from my grandmother. Leila told me– actually all 3 of my roommates thought I should be flattered that something I loved, was loved by someone else.
I got them back. Saw this girl brazen enough to wear them to dinner. CC shakes her head back and forth. She was shocked when I confronted her. She accused me of being possessive. Her friends agreed.”
Jeremy has a nasty smile. He’s also enjoying the story. He’s heard it before.
“It didn’t take long for everything else to change. I bought some Mallomars. My roommates went ape shit. Not Leila. I snuck one to her, but then she was worried people would find out. One of them turned me in. At this big meeting they brought up the Mallomars. Everyone was offended. Or pretended to be. No I think they were offended. I don’t know where their head was at. They were conducting a war on processed foods. On corporate agribusiness. They reasoned with me in the deepest most sincere voices. Said I was being poisoned at the supermarket. They were disappointed in me…”
“I said nothing. That night, at dinner, I was with one of them and I ate brown rice and alfalfa sprouts.” She sticks a finger down her throat with a false gag. “I wanted to prove my loyalty, to belong again. If that meant brown rice…”
Jeremy laughingly joins her. “I can do without that ideal.”
“I actually called Mark to check it out. He surprised me. He told me the only case of malnutrition that he had ever seen at the hospital was this patient who belonged to a commune that only ate macrobiotic food. I guess that sort of did it.
I didn’t give up the commune. Not immediately. Well in a way I did. Once he stuck a pin in my balloon the magic disappeared. Started thinking about all of it. The togetherness I had felt was gone ….I began to realize how weird it was that I had to hide my Mallomars… I felt policed. In my own home.
When I brought Oreos to breakfast a week later, that was it. It was intentional. I knew how they would react. They called me a subversive, wanted me to leave. Their food code was worse than my grandmother with her kosher kitchen. Like I had brought ham and put it on one of her kosher plates…”
Jeremy remains amused.
She continues, “They had no sense of humor. I don’t think I heard anyone laugh the entire time I was there. That’s the down side of ideals. When they are taken seriously like that, they have to be enforced. People were watching me, watching each other. Watching themselves. It was a police state.”
“What!” she says sarcastically. You actually don’t like communes.”
“Not exactly, but–”
“Since then I’ve thought about it a lot.
“If it just happens, if you glide into that space naturally, when your ideals uplift you, and you are uplifted along with other people, that is precious. But it’s a moment. When you try to stay there, you have to force yourself and everyone else…
Being constantly focused on ideals makes people sanctimonious. You become a vigilant nut. You catch the slightest hint of racism, or lack of seriousness about the environment. Or whatever. This girl down the hall actually was a vigilante. She would have sent people to the Gulags.”
“You know about the Gulags?”
“We read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
It is an opportunity for Jeremy to go into lecturing mode, which he grabs: “People did that in Russia when they were trying to make communism work. Trying to create a Utopia… You hear stories about the Communists and none3 of it makes sense. How could Sartre support Stalin? How could all kinds of intellectuals in Russia and elsewhere, people who felt so passionately about inequality, people who wanted to do good–how could they ignore the gulags? But you got it exactly right. Idealism leads to incredible stupidity. Your ideals mean so much to you. You so much want what you believe in to be real that you ignore what is happening all around you. You justify a dictatorship.
People get turned in for impure attitudes, not by cynics but by true believers. The Communists were so carried away by their ideals and the future they thought they were going to create, that every other consideration faded away. It’s easy to understand. At least in the beginning. A friend would be arrested and disappear. Maybe you had had misgivings about his loyalty to the cause. So you half understood he should be reeducated. Then this other thing kicks in. Without unanimity, the whole togetherness thing falls apart.” Jeremy once gave a lecture on this subject. He continues.
“Millions of people were turned in by neighbors who doubted them. And even after they arrested them and abused them, members of the party still craved the togetherness. Unity was essential. They held these strange trials. They wanted public confessions. It didn’t matter that they tortured their prisoners to get them, that they threatened to torture their families if they didn’t confess. They sent them to camps in Siberia. Millions died of starvation or the cold. But they insisted it was not to punish them. They were sent away so they could be reeducated. They tried to believe that. Convinced themselves.
Those trials–everyone had to know. Maybe not in the beginning, well maybe not.”
Jeremy’s not done. “ It was the same in Nazi Germany. I heard this lecturer. There was this city of close to a million people in Germany. Can’t remember the name. Hollywood always makes it seem like the Gestapo was everywhere– spying on everyone. There were maybe 20 or 30 SS in the entire city! That was it. But tens of thousands of Bolsheviks, homosexuals, Jews were arrested and sent away. The spies were their neighbors!
And not just because they themselves were afraid of being turned in to the SS. We like to think it was that, but it wasn’t. It was their idealism, their belief, in a future in which the greatness of the German people would, at last, be fulfilled. That was more than enough to counter any pangs of conscience they developed about turning people in.
In their minds it was just as wonderful as the Utopia Communists dreamt of. They were excited by a future in which Germany would assume its rightful role in the world. I mean if you are German. The mean stuff? The usual rationalization: It was temporary. You can’t make an omelet without breaking the egg. Ya de da, ya de da.
That fantastic feeling you were describing, what you felt, at first, in the commune, being part of a wonderful group. Ever see films of the Nuremberg rallies. Hundreds of thousands of people. There’s no fear on their face. They are carried away, ecstatic seeing Hitler in the flesh. Then when he speaks, as they listen to his ideas, they really go ape shit. How they were once on their knees, but now! The greatness of the German people is at last going to be realized. And when they shout at the top of their lungs sieg heil, their voice becoming part of this amazing huge sound, hundreds of thousands of Germans in unison. Again and again. The drums, the bugles. The might of the united German people, taking ownership of the future. That confidence you felt in the commune about being connected. How about hundreds of thousands of them lost in an ocean of German people. I mean if you are German, and you feel that you have been mistreated.
Jeremy raises his voice into a shout:
“Seig heil! Seig heil!” Then lowers it, repeats himself. “Hundreds of thousands of people were in Washington led by Joan Baez, singing We shall overcome. It’s the same. Feeling part of something really big, important, hopeful, determined. People love that. They need it. You are not one lousy feeble person, living your life alone without purpose You are part of a huge moment in history. The Nazi rallies were bigger than the March on Washington.”
They are both quiet for a moment. Encouraged that Jeremy is actually critical of the communes, CC continues. “How come the antiwar movement never mentions the 50,000 unarmed civilians killed by Ho Chi Minh. He was inspired by the Chinese and Russians–did the exact same thing, land reform. Killing the peasants that had managed to buy and own land, taking their land for the “people.” You’d think the peace movement, if it was decent, would look back in horror at what happened. But the opposite. First the Russians, then the Chinese. True communists inspired by income inequality, half respecting them for going ahead with their plan, doing something, not just talk about it. Somehow the make love not war people never mention the killing. It was the greatest atrocity in the history of Viet Nam. They are locked on the good stuff. The Viet Cong not being Communists. How their fighting is really about nationalism, ending Western imperialism. Fifty thousand slaughtered on the altar of Marxism.
“Where did you hear about that?” Jeremy asks with skepticism in his voice.
“Jeffrey Satini. He’s head of the Young Conservative Club.”
“And you believe him? It’s amazing how people can make up lies.”
“I checked on it.”
“Fine. Continue what you started to say about communes.”
Jeremy’s disagreement about what she was told about Ho Chi Minh causes her to hesitate. But not for long. She’s built up so much venom on the topic. Plus he seems to agree with her about the down side of ideals.
“I told you how at first I felt like I had found family.” She shakes her head. “Some family that was. My crime –Oreos. Jay used to hide donuts. And he didn’t even buy them. My mother bought ‘em… Difference is, for us it wasn’t the principle of the thing. We just wanted to know where he was hiding them so we could get at them. He was pretty good at finding new hiding places.
It would never occur to us that it was because he was rotten. I mean he was, but so are we. It’s simple. If you take your ideals too seriously, you fall into a trap. I mentioned Jay lording over Mark what a goody-goody he was. What went on in the commune was a thousand times worse. Your ideals may be all about love, but you despise anyone who is an obstacle to the purity of your ideals. You think of yourself as full of love, but what you feel is the opposite, hatred for anyone challenging the spell you are in.
She takes a breath then continues.
“It’s one thing to be disappointed by people. But when you buy into a commune mentality you’re not disappointed. You feel betrayed. Anyone who isn’t going along with you. You hate them. Even if they kept what they did to themselves. They’re a threat to the community.”
“Jews used to stone people caught eating bacon.”
“I’m kidding. But Muslims stone daughters to death who don’t go along with their parents’ choice for their husband. If they run away and marry another man. Muslims don’t fool around. Families can murder a wayward daughter and not be prosecuted. Honor killings. It isn’t only that they married the wrong person. Left unpunished, that rebellious daughter is a threat to the entire community.”
“It’s true. My Oreos were treated like they were treasonous. “It’s just a cookie,” I argued.. They knew I was mocking them. People really hate you when you make fun of their sacred beliefs.”
Jeremy is smiling, enjoying her story. She continues.
“You have to live up to this idea you have of yourself that is holy.
All the time! That’s the rub. It’s one thing if you’re a Trappist Monk. They make vows of silence. They’re gently listening for God’s will. Quieting their own noise is the only way to find him. And guess what? They find him. As they softly chant, they can feel God’s presence.”
People in a commune try to live love. Some of their smiles seem like serenity, like they are there. I suppose they are. It’s alluring. It isn’t platitudes. It seems like they really are there. You can feel it. It makes you want to be like them. When they convert someone new–it’s like nectar to them. Can you imagine how missionaries used to feel? Saving people from hell.”
They are on a roll, but Jeremy’s curiosity is not a 100% satisfied.
“While you belonged to the commune, that calm you felt? Did it last for a couple of hours. For a day? What you saw happen to Leila–did it happen to you?”
“I told you it did, but it didn’t last. I suppose for some people it does, true believers.”
Jeremy sees that as an opening “It’s funny. With everything bad we are saying about them, I can’t close the book. I picture all these good hearted people. Together. You can’t beat that. To me, while you were part of it…It just seems like you were in heaven.”
That sets her off. She laughs.
“Maybe for ten minutes. Mark and I used to talk about heaven all the time, what it would be like. Angels playing harps.”
“Well that’s easy to dismiss. No one plays harps. But non-stop euphoria–imagine that!”
“Even if it lasted 10 minutes. Hell. Zen Buddhists are satisfied with an instant of Satori. 10 minutes has got to be an eternity.”
Jeremy’s delighted with this tangent. He’s also thought a lot about heaven. Their conversation is sort of a heaven–illumination, flying in every direction. He encourages her to go on.
“Mark and I decided heaven must be like the end of a romantic movie, when the boy finally gets the girl. Prince and princess, living happily ever after.”
She repeats the phrase, “Happily ever after.”
Jeremy’s voice raises: “Forever! That’s the ticket.”
She sighs audibly. She feels it too.
“It’s got to be nice.”
“You and Mark like Hollywood movies?” Jeremy asks.
“Who doesn’t? We used to watch them together. Before he went rogue.”
“He got hung up, became a creep about the happy ending. I could count on what he would say. “And then what?” It would ruin the movie. What’s the movie about if it isn’t that happy ending? Love conquering all?
Never mind the Nazi’s. Hundreds of millions of people–all over the world, inspired by that story, hoping that love was going to win, like the fairy tales their parents told them as children. James Stewart and Donna Reed, Clark Gable…Hollywood understood that adults needed that happy ending as much as when they were children and heard about Cinderella. True love fulfilled.
When the movie ended I wanted to hold on to that feeling as long as I could. Mark would trash it… Well. Not altogether. I could see he loved the movie and was moved. He wanted to be a believer. He just had to remind both of us that it wasn’t for real.
“So Mark was a party pooper.”
“But not until the end of the movie. He loved the fantasy leading up to it. He even loved the happy ending. But it was embarrassing to be sentimental. He didn’t want to be duped… Or maybe it wasn’t even that. He didn’t want me to see him being a softy. He had a certain image to maintain.” Her voice turns sarcastic “Smarty pants Mark.”
Jeremy’s pleased with how far they have gone with the topic. Like a wave coming to shore, the ideas have spread in every direction. They are both a bit relieved to not be hassling each other about politics per se. Jeremy is also pleased to be getting a taste of what Mark had with CC.
“In the end Mark and me worked something out. He agreed to shut up at the end of a good love story. He still had this look on his face like he wanted to mock the movie, but he didn’t say a word. And if I didn’t look at him… Actually a couple of times I did, without him noticing. I could see how carried away he was with the happy ending, but when he saw I was looking at him, that did it. He felt compelled to trash the movie. So I didn’t look at him and he said nothing.”
They are both smiling contentedly which is a mistake. CC has still not ventilated enough about her commune experience and that is where her mind goes.
“Forget about Mark. I was in the commune. After about a week –even before the Mallomars, I was noticing things. I was ready to stick the pin in the balloon myself.”
“What do you mean?
“Within days after my initial euphoria, I started getting angry. At first for a moment or two. But then it grew.”
“When my anger started it was directed at the people outside the commune for not getting it. I was part of this group who had realized…But it quickly became commune members. And myself! I’d get on myself for not having angelic impulses 100% of the time. It was the same old stuff. My conscience would find times that I had ugly emotions and lambast me for them. My shortcomings got highlighted more than ever. The bar had been set at an impossible height.”
“Sounds like something you’ve figured out in therapy.”
“It is. When my conscience goes to town–it’s the nastiest part of me. It grabs control. I landed up hating myself for not being ethereal. Heaven help me when that conscience takes over. Heaven help all of us when righteousness rears it’s ugly head. It’s mean. My shrink’s really into that. Calls it my sadistic superego. He pointed out that our parents try to paint it over with all these good intentions, that what they are teaching you is all about the good. But you know damn well their punishments are what you think about when you’ve done wrong. You fear punishment. Yes, they are teaching you right and wrong, about good and bad. But they’re punishing you, whatever that is. That gets your attention. You assume they will be pissed and they will be.”
Jeremy loves this stuff, loves hearing where her head goes.
“I’m not too different.” He tells her. If heaven were full of all these people with a strict conscience– me and everyone. It would be hell.” He puts his hand on his cock, imitates masturbation. “I couldn’t fool around.”
She is a little disgusted by his gesture, but she also has a residue of sexual interest. She smiles distractedly, then she takes the ball and runs with it, excited by where they are and still may go.
“It’s not even that. I can imagine me in heaven. I’d be really bothered. How come the others aren’t being as honest as I am? Are they stupid? Afraid of the truth? I don’t know why, but even before I was disillusioned with the commune, before the pin in that balloon, I get all bothered whenever I imagined heaven. In the beginning it was sweet. Perfect. But after I thought about it.” She shakes her head. “So I guess my reaction to the commune was predictable.”
Not only is Jeremy pleased with all this. CC is pleased to be articulating her ideas.
Jeremy adds a bit to her shtick “I can just see an angel walking up to you and tapping you on the shoulder, “Hey lady, I think you are in the wrong place.”
Jeremy pushes further. “So understand what that means. Hush up or you go to hell…. Some heaven. It doesn’t even have a Bill of Rights. No freedom of speech…”
He looks at her hoping that she’s appreciated his cleverness. She has, but her reaction doesn’t seem to register with him as much as he wants. He wants more. More. More. Always more. Fortunately, she is engaged enough for him to keep trying.
“Actually, the problems in heaven shouldn’t be coming as a surprise. When I am in a synagogue, even when I was a kid and believed in God, the service went on and on. I couldn’t wait to get out so I could stop whispering.”
“You went to synagogue?”
“On the high holy days.”
“Think about that, whispering. Idealism, holiness, satori are fragile. Anything but whispering decimates it.”
“That doesn’t make it less valuable, just because it’s fragile and has to be treated carefully.”
“It says something.” Thinking further she adds “Actually a lot. Because it isn’t real. Those moments you’re chasing. Whether you are whispering, or repeating a mantra. It’s fragile because it isn’t easy to get your common sense to disappear.”
Jeremy points to a book on the bookshelf.
She takes the book and opens it.
“Look for the highlighted paragraph. It’s near the middle of the book.”
“I found it… by Catherine Beecher (1800—1878)”
“She was the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Read it. She’s commenting on this utopian village, the New Harmony community in Indiana. It failed after two years. Read what she wrote.”
“To collect together a company of persons of all varieties of age, taste, habits, and preconceived opinions, and teach them that there is no God, no future state, no retributions after death, no revealed standard of right and wrong, and no free agency; that the laws that secure private property are a nuisance, that religion is a curse, that marriage is a vexatious restraint, that the family state is needless and unwise, and then to expect such a community to dwell together in harmony, and practice upon the rules of benevolence… What can be conceived more childish or improbable, by any person who has seen the world or known any thing of human nature! And yet such is the plan and expectation of the leaders of practical Atheism?…”
She closes the book.
“So am I. Starved!”
CC follows Jeremy to the kitchen. She’s hoping for something substantial. He opens a cabinet.
“There it is. Oreos!” he shouts, believing his timing could not be more perfect. He’s wrong. The joke part was fine but she was hoping for eggs, a hot dog, a steak, something like that. She says nothing. He takes the last three Oreos from the package. Offers one to her. She takes all three out of his hand. He takes the empty package out. Behind it are Cameos, vanilla Oreos. He takes two of them, and puts them on a plate. He brings milk to the table. She returns the Oreos so that now they have five cookies on the plate.
“Pick three of them.” he suggests magnanimously.
She does. She takes the three Oreos.
He looks at her with a hint of betrayal, but then announces. “I like the vanilla better.”
The milk and cookies distract them, but only for the moment. If anything chewing the cookies, and washing them down with milk, makes them more contemplative.
“That New Harmony community–Do you think anybody could live that way?” she asks him.
“No. Well maybe Swedes are capable of that. There isn’t a single good comedian in Sweden. They torture themselves and everyone else with their morality. I talked about how, when I’m at the synagogue, I can’t wait to get out of there. Just so I can stop whispering. It’s like the Swedes are locked into a Church non stop. Whispering their needs. Like Bergman with his priest father. We have some Swedish students. Being with them is like a thousand hour Bergman movie.
He continues: “There are more atheists in Sweden than anywhere else. But they are fanatical moralists. I heard they have jumped on the counterculture bandwagon, copying what is expected. Free love… Whoopee. They can’t do it. I mean if they were French. That could set me off. But they are so careful about what they say, how they phrase things. What kinds of thoughts they allow themselves.”
They are done with the cookies. They can’t find anything in the refrigerator that interests her. Jeremy leads CC back to the bedroom. He goes to the fireplace, where Carol had left good kindling and logs to start a fire. He looks for some old newspaper and matches. Everything is there. With surprising ease the fire is soon going.
“Carol has everything very organized. She likes having a fire.”
The fireplace has been here all along, but they had both gravitated to the bed. CC is seated in Carol’s rocking chair, where she often nursed Alyosha. He says nothing about CC wearing Carol’s robe, which she has found in the closet The incongruity of CC wearing a garment as familiar as that robe, plays with his head a little, particularly because she looks great in it. So did Carol. Well not great. Comfortable
He goes to his chair. They are both quiet, listening to the crackling sounds. That doesn’t last. While the fire was initially captivating, their restlessness dispels the calm they anticipated. Their thinking about idealism has set off a thousand more thoughts.
Bright eyed she begins. “Okay here is theory I’ve been thinking about.”
“Go on.” He tells her
“This came to me when I was telling you about me and the commune.”
He’s impatient. He’s pretty sure they’ve sucked thoughts about communes dry. It shows on his face.
“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 by bread alone. We need more. Basically they are a wish fulfillment, an expectation, which acts as a promise,.. An ideal about how things can 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. We were talking about heaven. The idea of heaven kept people 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! A happy ending.”
Jeremy is with her. “Right. Hollywood movies. What we said before. True love conquering all. They have been as popular with people all over the world as Christianity.”
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, existence is made whole. You have a purpose. You can’t beat that! People need that.”
“It doesn’t always have to be religion. Having faith was crucial to keep going. But then 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. The ocean, the sun. With bougainvillea.”
“We’ve been here before. How many times can you carry on about how great America’s been for your grandparents. Enough already.”
“I want to continue.”
“You have to?”
She waits for his disdainful look to fade. When it does she continues.
“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. Words 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 begrudgingly, glorifying America is a right wing ploy. She’s not thinking politically.
“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 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?”
“It worked great for them. 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 Jay’s wife, 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.
When 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. Dora’s right. We are worshipping the Beatles. Celebrity gods? That’s where we are heading. Without God, we are left to worship the famous. Which when you think about it, is pathetic.
“Where did you read that?”
She laughs, “I didn’t. Like I said Dora. She got me thinking.”
Jeremy is impressed: “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,
She’s right. Although they have had more conversations than a couple from Iowa has in a lifetime, in their book, they are strangers. They are not done fighting each other on a thousand different issues, not done learning about each other.
He likes CC’s independence. But more than that, he wants to know about the Gordons almost as much as she wants to talk about them. Partly it’s out of curiosity. Who is this Dora? What is Mark really like? Jay, her parents her grandmother? But also learning about them gives him the opportunity to change CC from the roots up. She may disagree with his perspective. He is confident, however, she will eventually see things his way. How could she not? His beliefs have won him over.
“We talk too much” she repeats. “We should 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.”