Once school began again in the fall Anna didn’t see her father much except on Sundays, when he didn’t go to work. She would be on her way to P.S. 99 before he was up in the morning. By the time she came home in the late afternoon he had usually already left with his cello for the subway trip to whichever downtown hotel he was playing at. And because he had to be there from the beginning of the cocktail hour until they stopped serving dinner, he wouldn’t get back again until eleven or so, by which time Anna was in bed if there was school the next day.
Sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights she did still happen to be up that late, listening to records in the living room or talking with her mother about the movie they had just come back from seeing. But once they heard the sound of his key in the lock, her mother would jump up and say, “There’s your father. He’ll be very tired. You better go to your room.” Anna always went. If her time alone with her mother was over, why stick around? From behind her closed door at the end of the corridor she could hear their two voices at the other end, speaking a mixture of Russian and English. Although she had come to understand a few household Russian expressions, she could never quite make out what they were saying. After a while she stopped trying.
Then one afternoon during her last semester of grade school, she dropped her schoolbooks on the hall table, hung her coat up in the hall closet, and found her father home, apparently not in a good mood. He was standing with her mother in their bedroom and he wasn’t wearing one of the dark suits he reserved for going to work. Her mother gestured and put her finger to her lips — meaning, Anna supposed, that she should go quietly away and leave them alone. But Anna was not in such a good mood herself. She had got B+ on her most recent composition for English, unfairly she thought, and wanted to complain about Mrs. Seabury, her eighth grade teacher, who had refused to raise it despite Anna’s best efforts at persuasion. She planted herself in the doorway. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Why is Daddy home?”
She spoke to her mother, but it was her father who answered. “Anna, I want to talk to your mother alone.”
“Why?” asked Anna. “What’s so secret?”
“Anna, do as I say.”
“I want to hear.”
“This doesn’t concern you.” He sounded very stern.
“Why not? I live here too.”
Anna had never confronted her father before. Was she moving into a danger zone? She could feel her heart beating faster.
“Anna!” Her mother had her hand on her chest. She looked alarmed.
“When your father tells you to go, you go,” said her father.
“And if I don’t?”
Her father looked as if he didn’t know what to say next. “I’m your father!” he sputtered.
“Anna,” her mother pleaded. But Anna didn’t care about pleasing her mother just then.
“Who says you’re the boss?” she demanded.
Her father was breathing hard. Suddenly he unbuckled his belt and wrapped one end around one hand. “Lay down on the bed and pull up your dress,” he commanded.
Anna stared. Was this really happening? Neither of her parents had ever even spanked her before. Beating with belts was from stories about poor unloved little children growing up on farms in Europe in the last century. Besides, she wasn’t a little child anymore. She was twelve! She was nearly as tall as he was!
She tore the belt from her father’s hand and threw it on the double bed. Then she turned and ran to her own room, slamming the door behind her. No steps came after her in the hall. The apartment was very quiet. It was probably safe to hurl herself on her own bed and stare, enraged, at the ceiling. How dare he? Pull up her dress? Whip her? With a belt? She was never going to forgive him!
After a while her mother tiptoed into her room and sat next to her on the bedspread. “Anna,” she said. “He didn’t mean it. He really didn’t. He’s so sorry.”
“Then why didn’t he come tell me himself?”
“It’s hard for him to apologize. Men aren’t like us. They have pride.”
“I have pride, too.”
Her mother sighed.
“Did he at least say he was sorry to you?” asked Anna.
“No, but I can tell. He’s upset.”
“He’s upset? You think I’m not upset?”
“You have to understand, Anna,” said her mother. “You’re a big girl now. He just lost his job. The hotel is economizing. Live cocktail and dinner music can be cut. So they cut it. And now we won’t have money coming in any more.”
Anna sat up. Her mother had a serious expression on her face. So it was true. Anna tried to imagine what life would be like if her parents couldn’t pay the rent or buy food. “Where will we live?” she asked. “Will the landlord put us out on the street?” Why did this have to happen to her now?
“Well, he will try to find something else,” said Anna’s mother. “They did give him two weeks salary when they let him go.”
“Can he find something in two weeks?”
“We hope so. He’s certainly going to try.” Anna’s mother stroked her hair. She hadn’t done that for a while. “But he’s very worried. So it wasn’t a good time to make him angry.”
“How was I supposed to know he was worried if no one ever tells me anything?”
“We don’t want you to have to think about our problems,” said Anna’s mother. “You’re still a child.”
“You just said I was a big girl.”
Her mother ignored this remark. “But even if he was angry,” she said, “he would never actually hurt you. You’re his daughter, a member of his family. Believe me, that man couldn’t hurt a fly.”
“I still think he should have come to tell me he was sorry,” said Anna.
Anna’s father did find another job during the next two weeks, although not in New York. What he was offered was in Philadelphia. But it paid extremely well, said Anna’s mother, and might also lead to profitable side engagements playing at society parties and weddings, so they would be able to save money for the next rainy day. Unfortunately, he would be living at the Philadelphia hotel and coming home only every other weekend. Well, they would just have to manage, said her mother.
It was a big load off Anna’s mind to learn they would not be put out on the street. She also hoped that once her father had nothing more to worry about, he would tell her he was sorry about the belt. But he didn’t. He went off to Philadelphia without a word about it. He must have forgot.