She smiled ruefully at the memory and edged nearer. The woman who spoke so persuasively, her English vested with charm and an odd wistfulness, her words emphasized with waves of her long coral tipped fingers, surely wore lace fringed silk undergarments beneath the black velvet dress that fell in graceful folds to her knees.
Lydia approached the piano and face to face with the speaker, she knew, with absolute certainty that it was indeed Batya who held court. The blonde hair that had once caped her shoulders was silvered now and sculpted into an elegant chignon; her fine featured face was thinner, the skin pulled tightly over those legendary high cheekbones a shine with calcified luminosity, but there was no mistaking the cuff of her smile or the very tiny blue birthmark at the corner of her mouth. Her hazel eyes, so famously flecked with emerald glints, were unshadowed and unlined and she had not lost the habit of lifting and lowering her head as she spoke.
The wall beyond the piano was mirrored and, staring at her own reflection, Lydia studied the contours of her own aging face, the skin slightly mottled, dark eyes dulled by myopia, the slight sag of chin and cheeks, and wondered if Batya would recognize her in turn. The question lingered only briefly. Batya's eyes met hers and her voice broke off mid-sentence. She stared at Lydia and then breathlessly spoke her name..
"Lydia?" Surprise and confusion rimmed her tone and Lydia nodded gratefully. It would have saddened her not to have been remembered..
"Lydia," Batya repeated with new certainty and held her hands out ..
Lydia smiled and gripped them in her own.
The name ricocheted into a murmured question, asked by a woman of her tall companion who shrugged indifferently. Batya glanced at them, laughed conspiratorially and turned back to Lydia.
"I'm no longer called Batya," she said. "I've been Bettina for many years now. That's how everyone here knows me. But you're still Lydia, I assume."
"Always was and always will be," Lydia said.
Even during her years in Jerusalem, unlike the other foreign students at the Hebrew University, she had never assumed a Hebrew name. She had left so much behind that she could not bear the thought of losing that remnant of her American identity, however fragile it might be.
"Of course," Batya said. "I was the one who juggled names. Bashi. Baschia, Batya." She laughed, as though to mock those alien names that belonged to disparate chapters of her life. "But finally and forever, I hope, I am Bettina. Bet tin a." She pronounced each syllable slowly, as once she had pronounced each newly learned word in Hebrew and in English.
Still holding Lydia's hands in her own she led her to a window seat and they sat side by side looking down at the traffic that moved slowly down Central Park West. They sat quietly for a few moments and then Lydia pulled free, suddenly aware that the large diamond on Batya's ring was cutting into her finger.
"How strange that we should meet after all these years. Here. In this city. In New York," Batya murmured.
"Not so strange. I'm a New Yorker," Lydia reminded her. "I simply came home."
It was Batya's own route to this room, to this city, that required explanation. She waited expectantly but it was another question that was volleyed at her.
"You're married, of course?"
"Married, divorced and remarried," Lydia said and pointed to a corner of the room where Kalman was deep in conversation with a colleague.
"My husband," she said.
"Tall." Batya said. "But then you always liked tall men."
"As did you," Lydia said. "Kalman's a sociologist," she added. "We live just north of the city. We have three children." She offered the information in staccato bursts, stepping stones across the wild uncharted waterway of all the vanished years that stretched between Batya and herself..
"I have no children of my own," Batya said. (Bettina, Lydia reminded herself. She calls herself Bettina now.)"But my husband has a son and a daughter from a previous marriage."
It was now her turn to glance across the room, to point laconically to a portly man, his thick hair iron gray, an unlit cigarette dangling from his very thick lips even as he spoke into a cell phone.
"Morris Bluestone. I am married to Morris Bluestone."
She spoke his name slowly and Lydia wondered if she was supposed to recognize it and then realized that, in fact, she did. It was a name that appeared with regularity on lists of donors to hospitals and various Jewish charities, now and again flashing across the screen during major appeals for public television. He was, she remembered, on the board of Kalman's university, one of the sponsors of this very party, held to raise funds for a research grant.. He was an equal opportunity philanthropist, a man who used his wealth as a passport into rooms like this one where waiters glided across thick carpets and offered drinks and canapes from silver trays to well dressed guests who laughed too easily and spoke too rapidly, their heads incessantly turning to see who had entered and who had left. Lydia was somehow unsurprised that Batya (Bettina, Bettina, she corrected herself severely) had married such a man, that she was at home in this sybaritic world that Kalman held in such contempt. It was simply another piece in the jigsaw puzzle that was Batya's life.
Morris Bluestone crooked his finger at Batya and Kalman, at the opposite side of the room, caught Lydia's eye and pointed to his watch. He had had enough of this party which he had attended at the insistence of his chairman Funding for his department was always a problem and there were men with deep pockets at this party, men like Morris Bluestone, Lydia supposed, who had to be addressed with the false deference and artificial familiarity that greased their generosity ..
The two women rose and smiled, tacitly acknowledging their mutual intent. They would not introduce their husbands and explain how it was that they knew each other, how long ago, in a city they now visited as tourists they had been entangled in a net of intimacy woven of loneliness and uncertainty. They did not want the present to intercept their shared past, to impose itself on their memories of whispered nocturnal conversations in broken Hebrew and the fragmented melancholy, that haunted their solitary walks through a city wrapped in Sabbath stillness where no door was open to them.
Unarticulated questions hovered between them and they stood in awkward silence, as other guests prepared to leave, as empty glasses were collected and plates of barely nibbled canapes were swept onto trays. Batya gripped Lydia's arm.
"We'll have to meet, Lydia," she said and took a card out of her evening bag which she pressed into Lydia's hand. "Call me. Please,"
She glided across the room and Morris Bluestone laid claim to her, placing a thick fingered hand on her shoulder and then resting his thumb on the diamond pendant that glowed against the black velvet of her dress. She waved as they left and Kalman who had crossed the room, impatient to leave, looked quizzically at Lydia.
"That was Morris Bluestone," he said, staring after the departing couple..
"It turns out I know his wife," she said. "We were at the Hebrew University together."
His face palled with disinterest. He seldom asked about her years in Jerusalem just as he seldom asked about her first marriage. He would protect the good life they had built together and, like a skeptical contractor, he avoided questioning its foundation lest a dangerous flaw be revealed.
"I don't like Bluestone," he said shortly and Lydia took his words for a warning. He did not want the wife of a man he did not like to intrude on their life.
Lydia took out Batya's card the next morning and propped it against her coffee cup. Embossed lettering on thick cream colored stock, an address on the upper east side. Another address in the Hamptons. Bettina Bluestone. Original Designs. By appointment only. She wondered what it was that Batya designed. Clothing? Furniture? Ceramics? Jewelry? She had, after all, left the university for the Bezalel School but Lydia could not remember whether she had been interested in sculpture, painting or design. That was one of the questions she would ask when they met if indeed such a meeting ever occurred. It might well be that Batya did not want her to call, that she had offered the card merely as a courtesy. Lydia knew how she had treated other invaders from her past, those who had once called her by another name. She smiled as she slipped the card beneath her handkerchiefs and murmured the litany of names. Bashi. Baschia. Batya. Bettina.
"And now," Lydia thought, as she poured herself another cup of coffee, "I have known her in all her incarnations."
It was, of course, as Batya that Lydia had met her all those years ago, assigned as they were to share a narrow rectangular room in the newly built dormitory on the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus. Lydia had thought then that it was either a random coupling by the Bureau of Student Housing or a deliberate match by an enterprising official who thought that a privileged American and a Polish orphan, both graduates of an accelerated ulpan, could assist in each other's integration.
She was initially wary of Batya, put off by her habit of looking at herself whenever she passed a mirror, annoyed by the way she practiced the smile that oh so slightly curled her lips and briefly concealed the tiny blue birthmark It irritated her that Batya washed her long blonde hair each night, using Lydia's shampoo without asking her and exhausting the meager supply of hot water. And while Lydia was intent on her seminars, Batya was indifferent to her courses. She had wanted to study art, she told Lydia, but there had been no places at Bezalel and the university had offered her a scholarship, full tuition and room and board, one of those peculiar endowments from an American donor earmarked for a Polish orphan.
It was after all, better than nothing, an opportunity.
"How did you find out about such a scholarship?" Lydia asked although she really wanted to know what Batya meant by 'an opportunity.'
"You find out about such things when you have to. That is what I have learned. After everything that has happened to me." Batya stared out the window, across the rockbound Judaean landscape toward the ugly cement block enclave of apartment buildings for new immigrants that the Rosscoe Development Corporation had planted on that desolate stretch of hills.
Lydia, consumed with homesickness for a home she had fled, did not ask what had happened to Batya. She did not want to trade tales of sadness. Batya, she knew, would reveal her secrets, sooner rather than later, and she was not mistaken. Struggling toward sleep that very first night, she listened as Batya, speaking haft in Hebrw, haft in English, pausing now and again to ask for a word, an expression, began her story.
"In Poland, I was called Baschia," she said. "I was named for my mother's cousin, an important woman, a rich woman."
Lydia waited but the cousin vanished from the tale. Instead Batya spoke of her mother, that is, the fragile, elegant woman she had called her mother, who practiced the piano for hours each morning and afternoon and took long naps and even longer baths. Batya described her dressing gowns of watered silk and the stylish dresses of soft wool she wore with tasteful scarves when friends were invited for a musicale.
Her father was a municipal judge, a stern autocratic man, his posture erect, his voice resonant with authority, proud of his well appointed home with its oriental carpets and upholstered furniture, the gilt framed paintings that hung on the walls, the sets of leather bound classics on polished book shelves, proud too of his talented wife, his well behaved small daughter, of his ability to read Maupassant aloud in French. It pleased him Batya too began to play the piano. Her mother taught her simple compositions and smiled benignly as she played..
"And then I asked her to teach me to sing," Batya confided as Lydia struggled to stay awake.
"She said that she couldn't sing. That she had an awful voice. She was--how do you say it?"
"A monotone." Lydia supplied the word impatiently
"Mon-o-tone." Batya repeated, committing the word to memory and continued her story.
She had remembered her mother singing a particular song when she had been very little. She had hummed the melody, tried to pluck out the tune on the piano and, inexplicably, she began to weep. Her mother protested ignorance. She did not know such a song. Her father grew angry and because she feared to incur their displeasure, she did not mention that song again.
Lydia fell asleep as Batya hummed the haunting tune.
Over the weeks that followed the rest of the story unfolded and Lydia, instinctively wary, listened with increasing interest, alert for inconsistencies, dissimulations. Their dormitory buzzed with smiles that were not true, references to relatives who were dead, to lovers who did not exist. They were of a generation brushed by war, so desperate for normalcy that they created it. My parents, said an orphaned girl. My brother, said the solitary survivor of a German family. But Batya offered complex details, named names, described places.
As an adolescent, with a new found group of friends, Baschia did incur that displeasure. The judge and his wife did not like the young people their formerly obedient daughter invited to their home, the girls who fined their eyes with kohl and dusted their faces with pale powder, the boys who read Tolstory and Turgenev, their breath smelling of the Gauloises so easily available in Warsaw. They particularly did not like Lola, a Jewish girl and Baschia did not tell them how Lola had taken her to a distant part of Warsaw, where the gleaming skeletons of buildings under construction were silver bright against the cobalt sky.
"The ghetto was here," Lola had said. "My grandparents died here."
And although the night was not cold Baschia shivered and could not stop her teeth from chattering. It was, she told Lydia, as though a chill had penetrated her body.
One evening she told the judge and his wife that she was going to a concert but went instead to a party in a distant suburb. She missed the last bus back to the city. There was no phone and she could not call. She tiptoed into the apartment the next morning and found them waiting for her in their elegant salon, her father dressed to sit in judgment in his dark suit and spotless white shirt, her mother wan in a faded pink dressing gown. He strode toward Batya as she stood in the doorway, trembling in anticipation of his anger. He lifted his pink palmed hand and slapped her hard across the face.
"Slut," he said in a voice she did not recognize. "Zhid bitch slut. Liar. Thief. We should never have taken you in. Your fault," he shouted at his wife. "All your fault."
He slammed out of the house then and Baschia clutched a chair for support, bewildered and nauseated. She turned to the weeping woman she had called her mother who struggled to her feet and spoke vaguely of taking a nap, taking a bath.
"Not until you tell me the truth."
She remained standing as the story was told in a voice so faint that it barely seemed able to sustain the weight of the murmured words. Baschia, the judge's wife explained was the daughter of a Jewish family from a small village not far from the market town where the judge and his wife had sought refuge during the German invasion. She had been pregnant, her third or perhaps her fourth pregnancy, all of which had ended in miscarriages and she miscarried yet again and fell into a terrible depression. She and the judge had envisioned their life with a child but another pregnancy could prove dangerous. They were advised to adopt. The Polish woman who cleaned for them confided that a Jewish family had entrusted their baby to her. A little girl. A blonde little girl. Bashi or Bashele, her parents had called her. A sweet child. The judge as frightened by his wife's sadness as she was frightened by his displeasure saw to arrangements. Money changed hands, birth and baptism certificates were obtained. Bashi became Baschia, the cleaning woman moved to a distant city and when the judge and his wife returned to Warsaw after the war, it was assumed by everyone that Baschia was their own child.
"And that is how we thought of you," the judge's wife said bitterly. "Until now."
"But what of my parents, my real parents?"
"The Jews?" An indifferent shrug. "How would we know? We never even knew their names. Most probably ..." her voice trailed off and Batya finished the sentence for her.
"Yes. Most probably they are dead."
"What did you do then?" Lydia asked but Batya's eyes were closed and she did not answer.
But the next night, as they sipped their cups of bitter instant coffee, she answered that question as though her narrative had not been interrupted, her voice, that distinctive, well remembered voice, rising and falling in the half darkness.
She had left the woman who was not, after all, her mother. Drained of all emotion, she went to her room and packed a suitcase, selecting her best clothes, her warmest boots. She found the metal box where the household money was kept and she put the folded notes into her purse. He had called her a thief and she would not prove him wrong. On her way out she passed the salon. The woman who had taken her to the park and taught her to play the piano and brushed her hair, sat there, tears glinting on her cheeks, her hands clasped, still wearing that faded pink robe. Baschia did not say goodbye. She slammed the door and went to Lola's home. Lola's father took her to an official of the Jewish Agency who, with some difficulty, arranged for her immigration to Israel.
"So I was no longer Baschia. I became Batya. As simple as that," she said as she sipped her coffee now grown lukewarm and looked, with wistful envy, across the rockbound landscape to the Rossco apartments, lamp lights aglow in rooms where families gathered to eat their evening meals.
Lydia's heart turned at the thought of the weeping woman in the pale pink dressing gown and wondered how much Batya had omitted and how much had been invented. Still, it did not matter. Identities were up for grabs in Jerusalem where lives were reinvented. Just as names were changed, as the Goldsteins became Zahavis and the Singers became Zamirs, so family histories were refashioned into crazy quilt narratives in which unmatched patches were loosely stitched with silken threads of fantasy. The truth was dispensable as new lives in a new land came into play. Lydia herself embroidered her past, creating an intriguing pattern threaded with unhappy love affairs, mysterious familial conflict and vague idealistic yearnings.
They had settled into a hectic student routine. Lydia taped posters to the cinder block walls, Batya fashioned curtains from remnants of fabric begged from a shop on Jaffa Road. They shared the cost of a hot plate and a radio, both bought second hand. Their schedules overwhelmed. They dashed from classes to their part time jobs, spent long hours at the library. There were days when they scarcely saw each other, nights when they were too fired to speak.
But Wednesday afternoons were an oasis of calm. It was the day of 'early closing and they would return to their room to eat the sandwiches Batya purloined from her cafeteria job and listen to the weekly edition of Chipus Crovim--The Search for Relatives--on Kol Israel. It was a program geared to the reunification of family members and friends who had vanished during the horrific holocaust years. The announcer offered names, dates, locations. Yetta Freund last seen at Treblinka, Avraham Karp of Haifa seeking information about his daughter Chana Rivke born in 1936 in Riga.
Occasionally a survivor phoned in. A woman in Beersheva, her voice trembling, pleaded, with her sister Baila to contact her. "Leah Kovner is sure she saw you on a bus in Tel Aviv. Please, Baila, call your only sister, Henia."
There were dramatic, heart rending results. Lydia and Batya listened as two brothers were reunited, as an uncle reclaimed a niece, as cousins wept and remembered a grandmother killed at Buchenwald. Brushing the crumbs from their beds, they scoffed and wept, mocked the announcer's avuncular sentimentality even as they prayed that Shimon in Nahariya would find the daughter last seen during a Prague 'roundup'--his kleine Rochele. They agreed that the program had grown boring and repetitive but the next week, silently acknowledging their addiction, Lydia tuned in again to the litany of losses and sorrows as Batya fiddled with the hot plate.
And so they were listening one spring afternoon when Blume Feinstein of Bat Yam appealed for news of her daughter, Bashi, last seen when she and her husband fled their Polish village. They had entrusted their child to a Polish woman in exchange for a small diamond ring.
They had survived the camps but when they returned to the village the woman had disappeared and no one knew what had happened to her or to their child.
"Our Bashele," Blume Feinstein said. "Our beauty. She had, just at the corner of her mouth, a tiny blue mark, so tiny."
Batya leaned forward, touched her birthmark and stared at Lydia who turned the volume up. Blume Feinstein continued her story, spoke of how they had left Poland and come to Israel where, thanks to a compassionate God their son, Moshe was born ..
"I sing to Moshe the song I used to sing to my Bashele," she said and in a high, sweet voice, she began to sing. Batya sat on her bed, hugging herself and rocking back and forth, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Lydia went to the dormitory pay phone and called the radio station. She told the operator that Blume Feinstein's daughter, Bashi, was a student at the Hebrew University. She could not come to the phone because she was crying too hard to speak.
The story swept the country. It was the lead human interest story on Kol Israel news and it was featured in the weekend editions of every newspaper. The family reunion, arranged by the radio station, took place in the King David Hotel and Batya dressed carefully for it, choosing a dark skirt, a simple white blouse and a blue and white scarf. The judge's wife, Lydia remembered, had been partial to scarves. Batya's fair hair caped her shoulders and she carried a bouquet of roses.
Blume Feinstein was a short pudgy woman, her red gold hair ineptly dyed and crimped into a crown of stiff skull hugging cuds. Her very small features were buried in folds of fat. She wore a bright pink blouse of a gauzy nylon and a billowing skirt of a floral design. When Batya presented her with the flowers she wept and paths of blue mascara carved their way down the layers of pale powder that dusted her cheeks. Her husband, Hershel, Batya's father, was a small man, his shoulders stooped as though they had been weighted with unbearable sorrows for too many years. His dark suit, too heavy for the warmth of the spring day, hung loosely on his frail body but his hands were oddly large, the skin calloused and broken, the yellowed and cracked nails scrubbed clean. He held small Moshe's hand and the sallow, thin faced child stared at his newly discovered sister and then hid in the long dark folds of his father's jacket.
At the lunch in the hotel dining room, to which journalists and dignitaries had been invited by Kol Israel, Moshe overturned his water glass and held tightly to a single roll, ignoring the food on his plate. Photographers approached the table and snapped pictures. Blume and Batya together. Batya with both her parents and Moshe.
Batya was interviewed and spoke of her studies at the Hebrew University but revealed that she really wanted to study at the Bezalel Academy of Art. That interview and a montage of photos appeared in the weekend edition of all the major newspapers. HaAretz even carried a picture of Lydia and Batya which Lydia kept for some years but eventually lost during one of her frequent moves.
"You'll come to Bat Yam for Shabbat," Blume told Batya. "And you Lydia, you must come too."
Lydia went with Batya on that first Friday. The Feinsteins lived in municipal homing, a huge gray institutional complex where newly planted saplings struggled to survive in sand encrusted earth. The chair and sofa in their living room was upholstered in a busy floral pattern and sheathed in clear plastic. The balcony that overlooked the cements walkway was cluttered with discarded furniture, the iron rails shrouded with drying laundry. Damp towels and cloths littered every surface in the bathroom and Lydia gagged at the mephitic stench of the narrow water closet. Pots boiled over on the stove in Blume's tiny kitchen and the fragrance of simmering soups and roasting chickens mingled with the putrid odor of kitchen waste. Moshe sat at the kitchen table desultorily doing homework and Blume, her cotton house dress stained by sweat and grease, rushed from sink to stove, speaking incessantly in a polyglot of Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish. She asked too many questions of Batya, placed shabbat candles on the table which she neglected to light, rummaged in a crowded cabinet for napkins which she could not find.
Moshe spilled juice on his text book. Hershel smiled sadly, spoke very softly and got up twice during the meal to wash his hands. Batya sat in stony silence.
She went to Bat Yam again at the end of the month and returned with a grease streaked packet of food which rotted in the dormitory's communal refrigerator.
"I hate her cooking," Batya said as she tossed it out. "All that fat."
The visits became more infrequent. Batya was tired. She was busy. She was working on a portfolio to be submitted to Bezalel. She had sent their public relations office all the clipping of her reunion with her parents and she had been invited to reapply. "They know that if they give me a scholarship they'll make it up in the publicity, she told Lydia who marveled at her canniness.
Blume called Lydia at her office.
"Batya gave me the number," she explained apologetically.. "I worry about her. She doesn't call us. She doesn't come. Is she all right?"
"She's fine," Lydia assured her. "Just very busy."
She told Batya about Blume's call.
"What does she want from me?" I told her that I would go there for seder," she said.
"That's six weeks away."
"Lydia, the truth is I hate going there. I hate that flat, the neighbors, all that whining Yiddish, the smells, that greasy food. It's not what I was used to. And Blume, she keeps talking and he, Hershel. he never says anything, just looks at me as though he's about to cry. Moshe is just a bratty kid." She bit her lips, her cheeks flushed with shame, her eyes aglitter with anger.
Lydia was silent. She understood that the crowded noisy Bat Yam flat could not compare with the judge's elegant Warsaw apartment, that pudgy Blume and stooped Hershel were no match for Batya's memories of the melancholy woman who wore dressing gowns of watered silk and the distinguished jurist with impeccable posture who could read de Maupassant in French.
"Still they're your parents," she said at last.
"Yes. I suppose they are," Batya agreed bitterly and sealed the envelope she was sending off to Bezalel, a recommendation from the program director of Kol Israel.
Lydia joined Batya for the seder. It was a noisy, tempestuous evening with too much food and too many people speaking too many languages. Batya and Blume argued briefly and bitterly when Batya corrected Blume's pronunciation of a Hebrew word.
"I don't need you to teach me. Such a fancy educated daughter I have. Too good for us. That's what she thinks. Too good for us"
She spat the words out and Hershel cringed. Moshe glared at Batya and slammed out of the room.
"Leave me alone. Just leave me alone," Batya shouted.
They returned to Jerusalem that night. It was Lydia who kissed the weeping Blume goodbye. Batya walked past her silently as once she had walked past the weeping woman in the faded pink robe.
Two weeks later Batya was awarded a scholarship to Bezalel. Lydia urged her to call Blume and she was not surprised when a photograph of Batya and Blume appeared in the arts section of a Jerusalem newspaper. The accompanying article announced Batya's scholarship and retold the dramatic story of the family's reunion. Bezalel, Lydia thought cynically, was definitely getting its money worth in publicity.
At semester's end they dismantled the dormitory room and quarreled briefly over Batya's claim to the hot plate and the radio.
"Why shouldn't I have them?" Batya asked. "Just write to your family in America and they'll send you money to buy another hot plate, another radio."
"Don't be such a grasping bitch," Lydia snapped angrily and slammed out of the room.
When she returned Batya was gone and so were the radio and the hot plate. Lydia remembered the theft of the judge's money. He had called Batya a thief and so she had stolen. It was dangerous to hurl an epithet at Batya. It would be translated into a reality.
Still, they saw each other occasionally for months afterward. There were hasty meetings in crowded cafes, chance encounters in shops and movie houses but gradually and inevitably they drifted out of each other's lives. Lydia married and left Israel for England. She divorced and left England for America. It was then, with the desperate tenacity of the newly alone, that she focused on abandoned friendships and wrote to Batya in care of the Feinsteins in Bat Yam. There was no reply and her letter was not returned.. Lydia was neither disappointed nor surprised.
She completed her degree and remarried. Caught up in the whirlpool of motherhood, the hectic pressures of her job, the Jerusalem years receded into a mosaic of vague memories, isolated incidents On the rare occasions when she did think of Batya, Lydia could scarcely remember what she had looked like Or so she thought. Because she had, after all, remembered Batya. Remembered the sound of her voice, remembered the small blue mark at the corner of her mouth, remembered the forced laugh that contained not even the slightest hint of joy.
She did not look at the card again for a week, for two weeks and then one morning, Lydia reached into the drawer, pulled out the card and, without hesitation dialed the number. They arranged to meet for lunch the next day at a midtown restaurant. Lydia dressed with unusual care that morning but she did not tell Kalman where she was going.
Batya, whom Lydia belatedly remembered to call Bettina, was already seated when she arrived. She wore a cowl necked, body hugging dress of soft blue cashmere, draped with a paisley scarf, the judge's wife's style remembered and preserved.. Her only jewelry was a pendant, a crescent of hammered silver and copper, an odd but effective mingling of metals.
"That's beautiful," Lydia said and leaned forward to study the necklace..
"My own design."
"Ah. So it's jewelry you design."
"Yes. Of course."
They sipped wine, ordered their salads, asked knowledgeable questions about the seasoning and the dressing. Lydia thought wryly of the distant days and the soggy pitta sandwiches munched in that dormitory room at the edge of a divided city. They spoke of their lives, of their careers and marriages, wondered what had happened to the girl who lived across the hall, the orphan who had invented a family. They struggled to remember her name. "Gila," Batya said. "Gila," Lydia agreed.
They laughed at how Lydia had actually met Kalman waiting for an elevator, and how Morris Bluestone, newly widowed, had visited Batya's Tel Aviv gallery in search of a painting and left with a bride. It amazed them that they spanned the decades so swiftly that the condensations of their lives, after so many years, were so effortlessly succinct.
They tossed intimate confidences across the table.
Batya confided that her husband's children did not like her, that she sometimes regretted not having had children.
"But I would have been a terrible mother." Again that wistful joyless laugh.
Lydia told her of the abortion she had had in Israel, of the crushing misery of her first marriage. Together they recalled the cold of the Jerusalem winter, the long waits for the number 16 bus, the bitterness of the endless cups of Elite coffee prepared in a room with cinder black walls. They congratulated each other on escaping the sadness of their young womanhood, on reaching safe haven .They ordered dessert, proudly indifferent to calories.
It was only as the waiter poured their coffee that Lydia asked the question that had teased her throughout the meal.
"Batya, Bettina," the correction swift and smooth, "How are your parents?"
"My parents?" Bewilderment in her voice, a lifted eyebrow.
"Yes. Your parents," Lydia repeated. "Blume. Your mother. Hershel. Your father. And Moshe. That little Moshe. Your brother."
"My mother. My father. My brother. Abba sheli, Ima sheli. Ach sheli."
Abruptly she reverted to Hebrew, offered her replies in a staccato barrage.
"My father. He died of leukemia. More than twenty years ago. Moshe--yes--we did call him that little Moshe, you and I. He was wounded in the Yom Kippur War. He lost his fight arm but they made a wonderful prosthesis for him. He's married, has a family. They live on the Golan. He's an administrator at the regional school. I try to see him when Morris and I go to Israel."
"Blume. Yes, Blume. Poor Blume. She's very old. Very crazy. She still lives in that horrible Bat Yam flat. I suppose she manages. At least that's what Moshe tells me. But I don't really know. I haven't seen her for years."
"You quarreled?" Lydia was not surprised. Batya and Blume had always been poised on the edge of anger. They had disappointed each other and that disappointment shamed them both.
"No. We simply lost touch."
"Lost touch?" Lydia's voiced with incredulity.
"Batya, Bettina. Blume is your mother. You don't lose touch with your mother."
Batya stared at her and absently tied her scarf into a loose knot, a gesture learned from the judge's wife, Lydia supposed.
"But was Blume really my mother?" she asked and smiled slyly.
Lydia saw that a blade of arugala splayed itself across her expertly capped, glistening white teeth.
"I hate my teeth," Batya had confided one night and Lydia realized that inevitably, Batya changed what she hated, altered her teeth, smoothed her skin, left the university to study art. Lydia could not blame her. She too had obliterated all traces of her Jerusalem self, of the sad-eyed, dark haired graduate student who had walked through the streets of the divided city, divided herself in mind and heart, speaking one language and dreaming in another.
Still, she stared across the table at the woman who now called herself Bettina, and willed her, with an odd ferocity, to remember that distant Jerusalem afternoon when barefooted and exhausted, they had leaned against the cold cinder block wall and listened as Blume sang that heartbreaking lullaby. Could Batya have forgotten the heat of her own tears, the rhythmic rocking of her body? Could she deny now, what she had known then with such visceral certainty, such terror, such relief?.
"Of course Blume was your mother," Lydia said.. 'You know that. You recognized the song."
"Do you think she was the only mother ever to sing that song? It was a popular lullaby. Blume didn't have a monopoly on that melody." Again that weary smile, sly and dismissive.
"But the name of the town, the town where she and Hershel left you, where the judge and his wife found you?" Lydia struggled to remember the name of the town but of course that fragment of knowledge had vanished, swept away in the detritus of useless memories.
"Makover." The name was supplied without hesitation. "And we went there, Morris and myself. To Warsaw and then to Makover. We asked questions, but of course no one in that terrible village knew what had happened to the Jews. There were stories. Give them dollars and they give you stories. So there was a story about Jewish children hidden in a convent, about a boy adopted by a Catholic family. Two girls, the daughters of a rabbi, had been hidden in a granary but no one knew what had happened to them. There were others, the old people said, but of course, there were no names. I could have been any one of those children. I didn't have to be Blume's daughter. I wasn't the only Jewish girl named Bashi." She spat the name out as though it were bitter upon her tongue and Lydia remembered how Blume's voice had broken when she spoke it so softly into the Kol Israel microphone. Bashi. Our Bashele.
"But the birthmark?" she protested.
Batya's coral tipped finger lightly touched that blue dot at the corner of her mouth.
"It's not a birthmark. Lola and I went to a cosmetologist who knew how to do such things. Lola's was on her cheek but when I saw her in Warsaw it had faded. I wasn't surprised. Everything in Warsaw was different than I remembered." Her voice Failed off wistfully.
Lydia imagined Bettina and Morris Bluestone on that odyssey into her past, A prosperous well dressed couple traveling the roads of Poland in a luxurious car, in search of a vanished Jewish child called Bashi, of a vanished Polish girl called Baschia, their guide pointing out sights that did not interest them.
"It was a sad trip, a useless trip," she continued. "I tried to find the house I grew up in but I couldn't find the street, let alone the house. There's been so much renovation in Warsaw. I asked about the judge and his wife but no one had ever heard of them."
"Perhaps they never existed," Lydia said, her voice newly harsh. "Perhaps you simply wrote them into your story. They made for wonderful headlines. Jewish Cinderella Betrayed by Gentile Stepparents. Then the happy ending. The real family discovered. Scholarship awarded. Everyone lives happily ever after. Except poor Blume. Poor crazy Blume."
"Lydia, you really don't think that, do you." Batya's eyes blazed, her pale cheeks were raddled with the redness of rage.
"I don't know what I think. But it doesn't really matter, does it, Bettina?" Lydia spoke that name for the first time with ease. It suited the woman in the blue cashmere dress. It matched her voice, the hard edged accent, the practiced laugh.
"But it does." She replied in Hebrew, in the first language of their distant friendship. Her voice broke. She had abandoned her anger and Lydia feared that she might weep and knew that she did not want to comfort her.
Calmly, deliberately, Lydia studied the check and counted out the bills. She left the table without saying goodbye nor did she look back when she reached the door. She walked, with measured step down the sun streaked avenue and at the corner, as she waited for the light to change, her tears began to fall. That odd, but familiar sorrow surprised her. She felt herself bereft. Betrayed and bereft, yet she did not know for whom she wept or why. She wiped her eyes as the woman who called herself Bettina crossed the street against the light and, walking swiftly, purposefully, vanished from her view."
GLORIA GOLDREICH won the National Jewish Book Award for her novel, Leah's Journey. Her most recent novel is Open Doors published in November of 2008.
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|Article Type:||Fictional work|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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