By Harriet Garfinkle
Deborah; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1987
I used to be someone else: Deborah Kirsch, dutiful daughter and piano prodigy.
I practiced every day on the Steinway grand in our Cambridge house. On weekdays, Father, in his wool Burberry dressing gown, would shake me awake at 5:00 a.m. in the slate-gray dark to practice for three hours before school. He would click on the floor lamp and stand over me, tapping my shoulder, marking time. A human metronome.
If I got the phrasing wrong, Father would stop me by rapping his knuckles on the piano, saying, “No, no. What in the world are you doing? It goes like this,” and he’d hum a bit. Then he’d make me repeat it until both my back and his ached. Well, his always ached anyway, a consequence of the war.
During practice sessions, I could hear Mother watching me through lowered lids. Throughout my childhood, Mother closed half an eye to what was going on. Then she’d pour herself another gin, sometimes not even bothering to fetch the tonic from the fridge.
At lower school, I’d been an outcast, an errant grace note that quavered around the edge of the page, never landing in the melodic thread. “Deborah doesn’t play. She only plays piano.”
In upper school, it was even worse. I would walk down the halls in my rubber-soled Mary Janes—who wears Mary Janes at fifteen?—my eyes downcast. My shoes chirped like baby birds. Maybe to the other girls, with their bobbed noses and shag haircuts, it sounded like creep, creep, creep. They arched their backs against the lockers and stared me down. I was some strangely plumaged bird, landed in their midst. I pretended I didn’t care whether they liked me or not. I hated them, yet I wanted to be them. I cared enough to try to beat them at their own game. If only Father had allowed it.
I didn’t socialize. The other kids wouldn’t come over. They knew I wasn’t allowed soda pop or pop music. Who wanted to spend time with silly girls chattering about fingernail polish and how much they weighed that morning and how many calories were in a Dr. Pepper? Well, I knew how to take care of that. I could stick two fingers down my gullet and bring up any extra calories without breaking a sweat. Not that I ever drank that sugary stuff. They mostly drank pink-colored beer and Blue Lagoons anyway. They said our Victorian on Avon Hill Road was haunted. It was just another way they had of calling me crazy, cuckoo. They were right, of course. There were, in fact, ghosts.
They were Jewish ghosts with names like Pinchas and Gittel and Lev and Tova. They flew around outside my parents’ house and landed on their perches and whispered about love affairs and unborn children and who was too fat or too skinny or too self-centered. The ghosts drank single-malt whiskey from hand-painted bone china teacups, smoked cigars and cigarettes, and gossiped amongst themselves as they congregated on the roof of our house. They had been near-ghosts—starving prisoners—when Father’s troop of American GIs liberated them from Buchenwald in 1945. Too late. Now they were full-on ghosts, circling around Father, admiring him, jabbering in Yiddish. They were his groupies, had followed him to the New World, to the new life they would never have.
It amused me to watch them. They were like a flock of Jewish blackbirds, clad in taffeta skirts and woolen coats and felted hats, hovering around our house. The rustle of the tree branches sounded like wings of applause as they untangled their garments to fly off.
* * *
“Hey, Red, wanna play strip poker?” Nathan Brenner shuffles a deck of cards, his hands strong, almost man-sized. He has always made fun of my curly red hair.
We’re in Nathan’s basement, seated on an old steamer trunk filled with discarded clothing and his family’s decaying memorabilia from the old country. We’re fifteen years old and our parents have gone to their highbrow book club, what they call the Cambridge Philology Club. We’re supposed to be studying for finals, but we’re hanging out in the unfinished basement, where it’s cool and dark. There are hanks of various-sized rope hanging like nooses from hooks in the rafters, and loitering against the bare studs are shovels and pickaxes and other tools no one in my family ever uses—“The hands must be protected,” my mother always says. The wall across from us is lined with cans: peas, beets, green beans. And paper goods: towels, napkins, toilet paper. All bought on sale for the next Great Depression.
“I don’t know how to play card games. I’m not allowed.” I twist and untwist one of Nathan’s mother’s scarves. A Vera scarf.
His eyes are large behind his spectacles. “What games are you allowed?”
“Chess. I’m allowed chess.” I’m not allowed TV or pop music or trash novels or organized sports. Just classical music, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and chess. But he knows all that.
My only childhood friend—if you can call him that—has been Nathan Brenner. For years, he and I were a couplet of only children at Philology Club, while the Grunwald and the Citron kids were sent off with pocket change to an air-conditioned theater to watch Star Trek or ET. At ten, I was so bashful I’d hide behind Father, my head buried in his worsted wool pants. He would extricate me and steer me to the piano to play a few pieces—Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” or “Albums for the Young”—to polite applause.
At parties, Mother and Father would bubble over from their cocktails, tempers fizzling. Snarky remarks about women’s underwear and Father’s graduate students. I’d hide under the stairs. Nathan would pocket his glasses and crawl into the cubby beside me. He wouldn’t look at me, but he’d hold my hand. At school, he’d ignore me, his eyeglasses glinting, and pretend he’d never been to my house. Even at Chess Club, we’d face off without facing each other. Our eyes slid past one another, love notes passed under a door.
And now he wants to play strip poker?
Nathan hops off the trunk, dust rising with him, the caramel air making everything dim and sepia, like an old photograph. He puts aside the playing cards and carefully folds and places his eyeglasses alongside the cans of Chef Boyardee. He tugs on one of the coils of rope. With his one long lock of wavy, dark hair hanging into his deep-set eyes, he looks like the long-buried photos of his relatives—handsome, olive-skinned immigrants in woolen trousers and vests.
“Okay then. Let’s play a role-playing game. Sort of like Dungeons and Dragons. I’m going to kidnap you and hold you for ransom.”
“Ooh.” I feel excited. “Like Jamaica Inn?”
Despite the almost oppressive June heat, there’s a chill in the air. I can feel the goose bumps, the hairs standing up on my arms.
“What’s that?” He picks up the hank of rope.
“Oh, a Daphne du Maurier novel.” I try to sound casual. I’m not going to let on that all the men are murderers and rapists and thieves, or that I have that dog-eared volume hidden under my bed. I’ve never been kissed. It’s time. Kiss me, Nathan, kiss me now. Kiss me hard.
Nathan flicks the rope against his long leg. Once. Twice. Three times. The popping sound makes me shiver. He eyes me up and down, up and down. I try to contain my excitement. Kiss me now. Hurt me now, but just a little.
“You think you’re so special? Daddy’s little concert pianist? We’ll see how special you are.”
Wow. I have known this boy my whole life, but not really known him until this moment.
This game is fun.
He pushes me down onto an old wooden kitchen chair. It’s unyielding. I can be unyielding too. He will have to force a kiss out of me. Just like I want. Just like in my fantasies. I let him hold me there as he winds the rope around my ankles. He takes the scarf from my hand. I let him pin my wrists behind my back. I like that. He circles the hemp around my waist and arms and shoulders. I like that too.
“So, Deborah Kirsch. You think you’re worth something? We’ll see just how much your parents will pay to get you back.”
I like the chafing of the rough hemp against my delicate skin. It hurts good. It hurts in a way that makes my neck feel hot. And I like how he’s angry with his hands. I like how he’s hungry with his hands.
This is fun. Really fun. I can feel that tingling, prickling sensation. The feeling that makes my underwear too small for me.
“And if they don’t pay for you, well then…” His voice trails onto the hard concrete floor.
The silence in the room rumbles in my ears as he brings his face near mine, and I can smell the danger on his hot breath. My underwear gets smaller still. He blindfolds me with the scarf. He runs a finger along the outside of my throat, lightly, and then he winds his massive, sculpted hands—hands that could span more than an octave—around my thin neck. My underwear is choking me. This is more fun than any game I’ve ever played. This is serious fun.
He says my name. Softly. “Deborah.”
He keeps his fingers around my throat for too long. The blood is rising, like in my novels, buffeting us. He ties something into my mouth. A handkerchief? A gag, a muzzle.
Did he plan all this?
This feels scary. This feels too real. This is not fun. Not fun at all.
I don’t like this. And when I try to free myself, I’m even more scared. Nathan really can tie knots. Where did he learn that? Boy Scouts?
I feel scared for real, not pretend scared.
I want out. But I can’t talk because there is a filthy rag in my mouth, and that scares me even more. I don’t like to gag, unless I’m controlling the circumstances. He should know that. Why doesn’t he know that about me?
I jiggle. I jiggle and I bounce. I bounce the chair up and down. I grunt. I bounce harder and grunt louder. I don’t even know where he is. Maybe he’s gone, left me alone down here.
Where is he? Why doesn’t he help me? Nathan, please, this isn’t fun anymore!
The chair balances on one leg, poised, a dancer, and then topples over. I bang my funny bone and my arm and my hip. I land so hard that my breath loses me, and when it finds me again, it’s a sob. Snot runs down my face and I can’t wipe it away because my hands are tied, and I cry even harder.
I’m a puddle of snot and tears and self-pity—and then I hear him say, softly, “Deborah.”
So he is still in the room.
He frees my mouth from the truss, and when I start to say something, he breathes his breath into my body in a way that makes my underwear get moist, very moist.
I am astounded. This is better than any sex scene in any novel.
My first kiss.
Our parents would be so happy.
* * *
The next day, Mother runs her finger over my bruises. “Darling, your arm is all black and blue!” I love my mother, but she worries too much about me. And drinks too much to prove it.
“Oh, Nathan was teaching me tennis and I accidentally hit myself with the racket.”
Mother’s frown wants to smile. She fingers her pearls. “Maybe you shouldn’t play so rough. You know I don’t like you to play racquet sports. You don’t want to injure your hands.”
I know. You’ve told me before. A million times. The hands must be protected.
I suppose I’m like my mother. I suppose most women are.
Mother may have been shy, like me. She was never one to hear herself natter on. She majored in the history of art and played viola in her string quartet, Clair de Lune, all through college. She had crimped grooves into her fingers with so much playing. Her music had been the embodiment of all sensation, until she met my father.
Father had been a war hero, a liberator, an intellectual gymnast, a man of iron will, seducing her with his incantations and exhortations, with his soft, serpentine words. With Neruda and Lorca and Rilke and her beloved Verlaine, with words that caressed in French and Spanish and English. Arthur was Jewish, like her, but not too Jewish, not a shul-attending, payis-wearing Jew, but a Jew whose keen intellect was his tallit and kippah. He lit candles, put Carmen on the phonograph, and tangoed her around her heart.
He danced around words like extermination camp and final solution and arbeit macht frei and jedem das seine and Sonderkommando. He danced around the corpses of the six million. He sidestepped past the 1.5 million murdered children. He waltzed with his ghosts and clinked glasses and pretended that the music would go on and on and on.
She could hardly believe that such a great catch was still single at 32 years of age.
Father was fifty and Mother was forty when I entered my temporal body in 1972, a late gift for my aging parents. The ghosts had been playing musical chairs on the roof of our house, doing their damnedest to be reincarnated. There were four attempts and four stillbirths, souls that never made it from the astral plane. Four dead boys. And then, when my mother had almost given up the thought of having children, I landed. Arthur and Augusta wept when I was born. They had brought forth a child with music in her cells and a fine mind and a keen sensibility. They would shape this child to mean something more than the sum of them.
They named me Deborah—“little bee”—after the poem by Antonio Machado. “And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.” But perhaps I was too late to make the difference Mother was seeking, because at some point, she began to anesthetize herself. At first she drank fizzy gin and tonics, and when those were not potent enough, she mixed in a few pills—and then a lot of pills. She would say, “Chin-chin,” and down a few. A few too many.
“I am just taking a few, a few little pills to help me through the night. The nights are so oppressively hot these days. The pills help me sleep. My doctor would not have prescribed them if they were dangerous.” She’d announce this to no one in particular, to anyone who would listen.
I do think that Mother loved Father at the outset, that she’d found her intellectual match, so I’m not sure when the disconnect crept into her life, when she realized that life was not going to be a Debussy string quartet, and that the multicolored pills would not alter the andante pacing. She felt the whine of unplayed viola pieces by Wolfgang and Ludwig in the calcium of her teeth, grinding in time to the music. The pills deadened the sound, and the G and T’s just tasted so good.
Mother may have stopped kissing Father after she understood that he liked to dress up in women’s undergarments, that he had a special fondness for rangy Jewish men with fresh, freckled faces and eager intellects, meeting often with those skinny, splay-footed scholars in his corner office piled floor to ceiling with books. She had married a cool, aloof man who would let her down slowly, with those late afternoon trysts in the fading light on the Kerman rug in his office.
At some point, Mother decided simply to endure. But it would take her years to suture all the padded underwear and body parts into a semblance of understanding.
* * *
The summers at our shingled cottage on Martha’s Vineyard were a respite from the dissonance. We were summer ginks, whiling away the months puttering among the roses, making jam from beach plums, collecting seashells, reading Lévi-Strauss. And there was the console piano, always the piano. And Father standing beside me at the piano. Always.
Mother would pedal her blue bike with the bell on the handle for hours and would come back wind-tossed and sweaty and beautiful, and Father never looked up from his Oscar Lewis. He’d stopped seeing her altogether. She had stopped seeing herself. She looked at her reflection in the cocktail glass and saw a distorted image of the hopeful young woman she had been. Even her lips looked crooked, and her tongue had restless leg syndrome—it crept around her mouth and tiptoed through her nightmares.
It had to be enough, and it wasn’t. Instead, the cocktail glass was an hourglass ticking her life away grain by grain.
The metronome was ticking my life away.
And so, I suppose, in many ways, I am like my mother.