LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART TWO

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[…continued from previous post.]

I began my summer of staying home to lose weight by immediately leaving home again.  I had been invited to accompany a new college friend to Atlantic City for four or five days.  Amy was a graduating senior whom I’d always secretly admired but never before gotten to know, as we had neither friends nor academic interests in common. We came together during her last semester on the basis of a shared reluctance to go home on weekends.

She was tall, slender, and classy looking: long shiny dark hair, long shapely legs, and a soft, well-rounded bosom of movie star proportions. She was also an astonishingly good classical violinist and, equally impressive to me, owned thirty-five cashmere sweaters (some formerly her mother’s), which she didn’t save for special occasions but wore every day, in rotation, with jeans.

Amy was now suffering through the end of what she declared was the most profound love affair she would ever have in all her life. He was a genius, she said quietly. He was also married, unhappily of course, and could not leave his wife, a Catholic. Although he had many times led beautiful Amy gently (ever so gently) to the brink of consummation over the course of their two years together, professor and student in erotic endeavor as well as in her musical studies, he had steadfastly declined to rob her of her technical virginity; it would be both unfair to her and an act of infidelity to his wife.

He wanted to preserve her purity because he loved her. (“And he does, I know he does,” she whispered, her cheeks pink with recollected passion.) The most he would permit, during their clandestine after-hours meetings in his office, was for her to express her desire by gratifying his, on her knees on a small oriental rug with which he had thoughtfully decorated his office for that purpose.

Now she was graduating and wouldn’t see him again. How was she going to survive, back with her parents in their Upper East Side apartment facing the park? They didn’t know about this life-altering relationship and wouldn’t understand if they did. She simply couldn’t leave campus those last few weekends while there was a chance he might be able to plead some unfinished work in the office (he composed as well as taught) and call her on the dormitory phone Saturday or Sunday afternoon to meet him there.

I listened with shining eyes. Why was I not the heroine of such a heartbreaking drama? Well, I knew why. Who could possibly love my plump cheeks, round chin, round stomach and thighs? But hearing about a love like that was second best to suffering it myself. I eagerly accepted her invitation to come with her on the four- or five-day Atlantic City trip after her graduation. She needed to get away, she said, before the many dreary and loveless years of living at home. [How, she asked rhetorically, could she ever love again, after Him?]  I too needed some time away to shrink my stomach in preparation for spending the whole summer with my hypercritical mother, who had occasionally begun asking the heavens what would become of me after college.  What better place and company for that than the seaside in June with lovely heartbroken Amy?

“You won’t meet anyone in Atlantic City,” said my mother. Did she mean no eligible man would cross my path, or no man would be interested? Meeting men was absolutely not the purpose of this trip, I declared. We were just going to get some sun while Amy recovered from an unhappy love affair. No, I couldn’t answer any more questions because the man was married and rather famous in musical circles.

We went by bus. As we emerged from the Atlantic City terminal, it began to rain. We’d rented a small furnished room, bath down the hall, on the second floor of a rooming house near the Boardwalk – the idea being we wouldn’t be in the room much so why spend money to stay somewhere fancy? Fancy it wasn’t: two single beds, one bedstand with lamp, a single bureau, a shallow closet and a sink. We unpacked and peered out the window behind the headboards. The rain was now a downpour.

“Good thing we brought books and umbrellas,” said Amy. “We can go sit in a nice hotel lobby and read.” I had no better ideas. After a modest lunch at the nearest cafeteria on Pacific Avenue, we put up our wet umbrellas and fought the winds coming from the Boardwalk to reach a hotel. In deep lobby chairs we read all afternoon. Early dinner in the same hotel. Then up with the umbrellas again to struggle back to the rooming house. I finished my book in bed.

It continued to pour for four more days. No beach. No healthful walks on the Boardwalk. I didn’t regret the loss of beach; I had no bathing suit that fit and had brought only shorts and a few short-sleeve shirts left over from high school summers in case we were going to do a lot of lying around on the sand getting tan. But I had counted on the walks, to begin burning up the multiple thousands of excess calories I must have deposited on my person since the last time I had been, briefly, at what I considered a desirable weight.

Instead, we had to read on our beds for as long as we could after coming back from breakfast in the coffee shop around the corner — our wet umbrellas propped open on the floor to dry – before venturing out for a repeat of the first day’s activities. Amy didn’t mind. She enjoyed observing hotel guests from the depths of a comfortable fauteuil in each hotel lobby we visited, and even began to develop a preference in lobbies, based on some perceived distinction between the clientele on view. She said it helped take her mind off Him.

Not having a Him on my mind, I soon lost interest in gazing at wet strangers hurrying into hotels and began to resent having spent what little cash I had on such a vapid travel experience. I suggested finding a movie. Atlantic City couldn’t be without movie theaters. Amy thought movies inappropriate in light of her grief and asked me to be more understanding. I grew increasingly hungry. I had been eating very little at our meals in hopes of maybe losing a pound or two even without the walks. The unfamiliar abdominal emptiness, coupled with so much sitting and listening to her now tiresome ruminations about what He might be doing at any particular moment, was tempered only by the growing certitude my stomach was shrinking.

On the fifth day, the sun came out. Amy pulled on her bathing suit, in which she looked gorgeous. I buttoned my shorts, with effort. And off we went – to the beach, to the beach! — bearing towels, baby oil and sunglasses. We had about six hours before having to slip old cotton dresses over the beachwear, collect our bags from the rooming house and catch the bus back to New York. It was enough to achieve what we’d allegedly come for.

“Mmmm, you got a nice tan,” said my mother as I unlocked the door that evening. “And it looks as if you lost a pound or two. You want to eat something?”

I began at once to work at losing more.

[To be continued….]

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WRITING SHORT: 13/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Phone call from younger son to mom. Son reads mom’s blog. (Most of the time.)

Son:  Hey mom. It’s July 23. Happy birthday!

Son’s mom:  Thank you, sweetheart.

Son:  Anything special on for today?

Son’s mom:  Well, your brother and the kids came down Saturday. Bill brought me a dozen yellow roses. We’re going out to dinner. (Pause.) Did you know my parents were married on July 23, too?

Son:  No I didn’t. Quite a coincidence.

Son’s mom:  Back when I was eleven, twelve, I used to say I was born on my parents’ wedding day. I thought it sounded risqué. A very pregnant bride being rushed to the hospital right after saying “I do!”

Son:  I guess it could happen. How many years earlier did they really get married?

Son’s mom:  Six. Then my mother wanted a baby. She got more than she bargained for. Thirty-six hours of labor. Husband out of a job in the middle of the depression.  I heard all about it. Especially the thirty-six hours of labor. She used to joke I didn’t want to come out. They had to pull me out with forceps. Lazy from the day I was born.

Son (tactfully):  Was that why they didn’t have another?

Son’s mom:  Maybe. But my mother also felt one was enough. When I was pregnant with you, she was not supportive. She asked what I needed another for.

Son (quickly changing subject):  Those little summer posts you’ve been doing lately: how does it feel to just crank one out and be done with it?

Son’s mom: Well, I don’t really just “crank.” It takes time to come up with a topic at least some people might be interested in. Bill says I could write about anything. I don’t know about that.

Son: Sure you can.

Son’s mom: You think? Suppose I wrote about being born on my parents’ wedding anniversary. How would readers feel when I criticize my mother to everyone?

Son: They’d be fine with it. It’s not as if you’re complaining about everything every day.

**********

So son’s mom listened to son. Was son right?

WRITING SHORT: 5/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

When I was a young child, July 16 was one of the two dates in the calendar I knew as well as my own birthday. It was the day my mother was born. The other was January 18, my father’s birthday. They were as important to me as Christmas and the presents it brought.

The year she turned forty, my mother turned her back on July 16.  “Don’t remind me!” she said. It was the era of pin-up girls. She must have felt she was finished. (She would live another forty-nine years.)  She didn’t understand the birthdays of the people we love are worth celebrating no matter how many have come before, because we’re so glad they’re here for us to love.

My mother hasn’t been here to love for more than two decades. After I grew up, she also made loving her very hard for me. She didn’t succeed. I think of her every July 16. I probably always will.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #7

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Danilov’s Advice, 1945

Her mother’s despondency didn’t lift. Anna dealt with it by spending as little time with her as possible. Every school night she worked in her room for three or four hours on her Latin, English, Algebra and Biology assignments, including the ones for extra credit. On Saturdays she always tried to arrange a visit to one of her new high-school friends from another borough. On Sundays she took long walks all around Kew Gardens and Forest Hills no matter the weather, peering into the windows of other people’s houses and daydreaming of life in another family. Behind the closed door of her room she also made frequent and lengthy entries in her diary, including every detail of her mother’s complaints about her, so there should be some record of them.

Since this will not be read by anyone till I am gone, I can confide from the inner recesses of my soul and hold back nothing. Someday I will be famous, and after I am dead people will want to know all about me. That is my motive for writing in this secret book. It is an account for posterity of what is going on in my life, so that future generations will not have to speculate about missing facts.

It did occur to Anna that those future generations might think her conceited for being so sure they would be interested in her, but she was certain that someone out there in the centuries to come would want to know what she had really been like, and then admire her fortitude and other good qualities. Besides, it made her feel much better when she unburdened herself in pen and ink, and right now that was the most important thing.

One November weekend when her father was home she went with him to buy the Sunday paper. Being unable to keep up with him when she was little, and even the business later with the belt, seemed so long ago and insignificant compared to her present circumstances. Besides, it was no problem at all to keep up with him without getting out of breath now she was fourteen; they could even have a conversation while they were walking. She told him she was having a lot of trouble with her mother. Nothing she did was ever right. She didn’t know any more what would please her.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back again. Suppose her father didn’t believe her? After all, her mother always cheered up when he was there. Surprisingly, he nodded thoughtfully.

“Did you ever hear of the Danilovs?” he asked.

“Only the name,” said Anna. “Mother used to mention the wife sometimes. Wasn’t she a famous opera singer in Russia?”

“Yes, she was. And he was a famous orchestra conductor. They were here in New York for a series of concerts in 1914 when war broke out so they couldn’t get home again. And after the revolution, naturally they didn’t want to.   He — Danilov — was about my father’s age. A fine musician and a real man of the world. Very helpful to me when I was young and just off the boat.”

“I never met them,” said Anna, wondering what these Danilovs had to do with her mother troubles.

“Of course not,” said her father. “They moved to L.A. just after you were born. But before that, I always felt I could go to him when I needed advice.”

“And?”

“And,” said Anna’s father, “after I had been married to your mother for about six months, I realized I was tired of her. I was only twenty-four and she was already very boring. I wanted a divorce. So I went to Danilov to ask what to do. You know what he said?”

Anna shook her head, even though she had already learned in English class that the type of question her father had just asked was rhetorical and therefore required no answer.

“He said, ‘So what if you’re bored? You get divorced, you’ll find another woman, and in six months you’ll be bored with that one too. This one is young and pretty. Why go through the trouble to change? They’re all the same. Manage with what you’ve got.'”

They had reached the front door of their apartment house. For a moment Anna was flooded with pleasure to learn that her father found her mother boring. Then she wondered what lesson she was supposed to draw from this confidence. Manage with the mother she had? That’s what she was already doing!

“Don’t tell your mother,” said her father as he felt for the keys in his coat pocket. “It’ll be our secret.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she was seeing her first shrink, that Anna began to wonder why her father had been so ready to share advice from a so-called man of the world with his fourteen-year old daughter about wanting to leave her mother. Did he think he was comforting her? He had even seemed in a particularly good mood for the rest of that day.

Then, having leveled the playing field as best he could, he went back to Philadelphia and Anna went back to managing.

EIGHT TALES FROM A GIRLHOOD LONG AGO: #5

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Belt, 1943

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.

“So?”

“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.

FROM MY FATHER (Part Six)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[My father died at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. When he learned he was dying, he began to write a memoir of his early years. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped before he felt too weak to continue. So what I am offering here is all there is. Since English was not his native language, I’ve cleaned it up a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech. 

This is the last installment of the typescript. Readers who may have just now stumbled upon these memories of his can find my transcription of the earlier pages in the previous five posts of this blog. I wish there had been more to offer. But after the August 12th, 1984 entry below, he put away what he had written and never came back to it.  Perhaps my mother discouraged him. (“Who will want to read it?”) Perhaps he felt too tired and weak to continue what would have been a considerable undertaking. I will never know….]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

By then [1909], we had a new helper for Mother: a nice young Russian peasant girl who came to work for the family a couple of years before. Father had an addition built to our living quarters: a kitchen with many cabinets and room for the Russian girl to sleep there. Our own living quarters were expanding as the family was growing up; there was a piano in the house now, although no one could play it, but just in case Monia needed an accompanist to play his pieces with a piano.

I did not start yet on my music lessons. The Russian girl liked me very much and devoted much time to me. She would put me to bed and before I would fall asleep she would tell all kinds of wonderful fairy tales. I loved all her stories and she was telling them very masterfully. Later, I read Anderson’s Fairy Tales, and most of the stories she told me she was repeating word for word. Most likely she had the book and was reading the stories before she was telling them to me, although sometimes I would ask her to tell me again some story that she told me long time ago and which I liked very much; she would remember everything and the story sounded the same like I heard it the first time.

August 12th, 1984

She was not making much money, I guess, but she always was buying me candy and presents, and even once she dressed me up in long pants, which I was very proud to wear because up till then I was always wearing short pants, like all the little boys were wearing. Then she dressed up herself in her best velvet Sunday dress, and both of us went to a photographer to take a photograph together. It must have been very expensive for her; most likely all of her wages for the month went on this memorable outing. I still remember the photograph: she was standing tall and very erect, holding my hand, and I was standing very close to her, coming up to her waistline. Her name was Masha, or Mashenka. I never knew her last name; everyone in the family called her Masha.

She was always there to help me in every way. When there were guests, or the family stayed up late in the living room where our sleeping couch was, she would put me up in her own bed in the kitchen, and when my couch was available would carry me still sleeping in her arms to the couch and tuck me in for the night. When she told me the stories before I fell asleep, she was holding my hand. She was a plain-looking Russian girl, with typical Slav features, but to me she was the most beautiful person in the world! When I started to take music lessons on the cello in the music school, the cello was bigger than I in size, and Masha always walked with me to the school, carrying my cello, and waited there till I finished with my lesson, and again walked back home with me again carrying my cello for me. The school was not too far, about 15 minutes walk from our home. Masha stayed with us until I was about 10 years of age. Then, saving up some money for her marriage, she went back to her village to marry someone arranged by her priest and parents.

When Masha left, Mother needed another girl to help out. I never knew how did Mother find the girls to come to work for us until, after Masha was gone, Mother took me along one day to go and find another girl. We went to the center of town, where there was a large park. In that park there was an area specially reserved for women who wanted to find a job as houseworkers. There I saw very many women of all ages sitting on the ground and chatting among themselves until a prospective employer would appear. Then they all would spruce up and sit neatly and quietly. Mother would look the younger ones over, would talk to some, ask questions, and finally — when decided on one –would tell her all about the job, salary and other details that the job entailed. If the girl agreed to accept the job, she would give Mother her passport. (Everyone in Russia had to have a passport, which had to be registered with police in each city or town where the person was to reside or work.) Mother in turn would give her our address and ask her to come with her belongings next morning. Then, the ritual would be to take the girl to public bath house, and after her bath to dress her in everything fresh and clean and then bring her home to start work!

And so, coming back to the time when I was 7 years of age, my real preparation for entering Gymnasium started, as well as my entrance into music school to study cello. The cello was not my idea of the instrument, but Father’s. He heard a cellist play a solo piece in Odessa and was enchanted with the idea of having another son play the cello, which had such a lovely sound, like human voice!  And this is how the cello became my instrument.

I was not very enchanted with the idea. The instrument was very big, bigger than I was in height, and it was very difficult for me to carry it around. It did not have beautiful case like my brother had for his violin. I always had to find an empty corner where to keep the cello, and it was not always easy!

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[Although those are the last words of the typescript, my father also drafted a list, before he began, of the topics he initially intended to cover in his account of his first nineteen years. There are twenty-seven topics in his list, of which the typescript addresses only the first five. The list also stops short of what he promised in the Introduction — the story of his adventures in getting himself out of newly Sovietized Russia and on the way to, as he put it, “U.S.A.”  I did hear two of those “adventures” at the dinner table when I was growing up. So I will try your patience next time with a “Postscript” of sorts, in which I tidy up these matters and also set down my thoughts as I typed my way through what you’ve just been reading….]

AT ROSCOE

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[A story.]

In the summer of 1937, Anna and her mother and father went away to a place in the Catskills called Roscoe. It was during the two weeks her father didn’t have to work. Anna was six. There was a big main building with rooms for guests and a dining room where everyone had meals and also a lounge where grownups played cards, checkers and chess, and listened to the radio and talked after dinner. The swimming pool was on the lawn behind the main building; it had a shallow end for children, and all around it were places to sit and lie in the sun. There were also two much smaller buildings down a slope on the right called Annex A and Annex B; they had only guest rooms in them. Anna and her parents were in a room in Annex A because it was a little cheaper than the rooms in the main building, which each had a private bathroom. The two Annexes had only one bathroom to a floor. But each room in an Annex had its own little sink for light washing up, so sharing a bathroom wasn’t so bad, said Anna’s mother.

The Pool

If you got tired of swimming and sunning at Roscoe, you could go for a stroll to the village in the late afternoon, when it was cooler. In the village was a little store with a wooden floor where Anna’s mother and father would have iced coffee and buy Anna an ice cream cone. But most of the time they stayed beside the pool, where her mother put lotion on herself so as to tan instead of burn, and chatted a bit with other ladies. Her father didn’t use lotion; he sat under an umbrella and had lively conversations with other husbands.

After Anna came out of the children’s end of the pool, she would spread her towel on the grass to hear what was going on. Usually she settled near her mother, because she didn’t understand what the men talked about, like how President Roosevelt had saved us and the bad things that were going on in Germany. But sometimes she found a shady spot near her father’s chair, and that felt better than getting sweaty in the sun where her mother was, even if she couldn’t follow the conversation.

Soon she began to notice that not all the ladies stayed in the sun. When her father was talking, a few of them always moved over to listen. “Your father is such a wonderful raconteur,” said one of these ladies to Anna. “What a lucky little girl you are!”

 Divorcee

The guests at Roscoe were all married to each other except for one lady who wasn’t married any more, although once upon a time she had been. Anna was sorry for her at first because she was the only one without a husband, but the other ladies seemed not to like her. They especially disliked the way her bathing suits showed off the tops of her big boobies, which didn’t droop even a little bit. She also wore makeup all the time, even to the pool. And when she walked, her behind wiggled from side to side. Whenever this lady went to sit under a pool umbrella where the men were, the ladies who stayed behind in the sun near Anna’s mother would talk about her — in soft voices, so she wouldn’t hear.

 Luck

A man sitting by the pool said to Anna’s father that nothing was like it used to be and nowadays you sure needed luck to get by. Anna’s father said, “I’ve got news for you, mister. You always needed luck.” Then he told a story about coming to America with Anna’s mother.

The story took place a long time ago, before Anna was born. Her father and mother were in a big city called Constantinople, in a country called Turkey. They had arrived there on a ship from Russia. Then they needed special papers from the United States in order to get to New York on another ship. But there was a problem. A very powerful third country called England wanted to keep ships from coming in or going out of Constantinople because Constantinople was the only way in or out of Russia by water, and England didn’t like what was happening in Russia. (What was happening was that it wasn’t Russia any more; it had recently become the Soviet Union.) England had many warships, and could do what it wanted, said Anna’s father.   So Anna’s father and mother needed to get those papers very fast, before England decided to act.

“Anyway,” said Anna’s father, “the United States had an office in Constantinople where doctors gave health inspections to anyone wanting to come to America. If you were healthy you could come, but if even a little something was wrong — then you couldn’t, until you went to another doctor and were treated for whatever was wrong with you. Which of course took time. And money.”

“Why was that?” asked a lady who was listening intently. “If it was just a little something?” It was the lady with the big boobies, who had no husband.

“Well,” said Anna’s father, who seemed not to mind being interrupted. “Those doctors in Constantinople weren’t American doctors, who can fix you up one, two, three. No siree! They were Turkish doctors. Out for all they could get!”

Anna’s father went on with his story. He and Anna’s mother arrived at the health inspection office early so he could look around. At the front of the nearly empty waiting room he saw a chair and a small writing table that held two saucers filled with colored buttons — red buttons in one, black in the other. Behind the table he also saw several open medical examination rooms. He didn’t know what the buttons were for, but he put a few of each color in his pockets.

Soon the waiting room filled up and an official-looking person arrived, carrying a big leather-bound book. This person settled himself at the table with the buttons, took out two rubber stamps and a stamp pad, and began to call names from his big book for the health inspections: man’s name, woman’s name, man’s name, woman’s name. Anna’s father heard his name and then her mother’s. The person at the table motioned Anna’s mother into one of the examination rooms and her father into the other. “As soon as my examination was over — and it was very quick, let me tell you,” said Anna’s father, ” the doctor gave me a black button and said I could leave. But when Masha came out of her examination room, she had a red button in her hand! What did that mean? Which color meant yes? Which color meant no?” Anna’s father paused for dramatic effect. “How could I know? What I did know was that — red or black — we should stay together. So I took away Masha’s red button and gave her a black one from my pocket. Then we went together to the official with the rubber stamps. He looked at our black buttons and stamped our papers: ‘Approved.’ We made it onto the last boat out of Constantinople.”

“Oh, that was luck!” said the lady with the big boobies. “Except why did they give Masha a red button?”

“Masha still had long hair,” explained Anna’s father. “They told her she had lice. Of course she didn’t. It was a scam. I later heard that they said that to every woman with long hair. The treatment by another doctor would then cost fifty dollars, which the two Turkish doctors would split.”

On the way back to their room in Annex A, Anna told her mother what she had just heard about the red and black buttons. Suppose her father had guessed wrong? Would he have come to the United States alone? Would her mother have had to go back to Russia?

“Don’t think about that story,” said Anna’s mother.

“Why not?” asked Anna. “It was a lucky guess about the buttons, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” said her mother. But she wouldn’t explain what she meant.

 In Annex A

Anna’s father liked to play chess. So did some of the other men at Roscoe.   Mostly they played after dinner in the evenings, but one afternoon after lunch (which you could eat in a bathing suit with just a shirt or robe over it), Anna’s father said it was too hot for him by the pool and he was going to look for a chess game in the lounge. Anna’s mother went back to her blanket and towels on the grass where the women she was friendly with usually sat, and Anna jumped back into the pool. But she had drunk a lot of water and lemonade at lunch, and soon she needed to go. What a bother! It would have been so easy to do it in the pool; no one could see if you stood in water up to your waist. That was wrong though, Anna’s mother had said, because other people used the pool too, and some of the other children even swallowed the water by accident. So Anna dutifully pulled herself up out of the shallow end, told her mother she was going to the bathroom, and hurried along the path to Annex A.

The Annex was dark and still. The maids did the vacuuming and made the beds in the morning; Anna thought now she might be the only one in the building. She and her parents had one of the two front guest rooms on the second floor. Up the stairs she went, as fast as she could. The bathroom on that floor was at the other end of the hall, between the two back guest rooms. She squeezed her thighs together so as not to have an accident. And then — oh dear! — the bathroom door wouldn’t open.

“Hello,” she called, rattling the doorknob. “Is someone in there?”

No answer. How quiet it was. She could hear herself breathing.  “Please? Will you be out soon?”

Nothing. Not a sound.  It wasn’t right. Shouldn’t the person inside answer? At least say, “Just a minute, little girl?”

She tried again. “I really have to go.”  Did she hear a sigh from the bathroom?

The door stayed shut. She clutched herself between her legs and looked around for help. Someone. Anyone. That’s when she saw the door of the back guest room on the right was partly open and the lady with big boobies was sitting at a dressing table inside, combing her dark hair in the mirror and keeping her gaze fixed on the reflection in front of her as if Anna didn’t exist. Hadn’t she heard Anna talking to the person in the bathroom?

The lady was wearing nothing but a slip. It was peach-colored and satiny, with creamy open lace at the edges; you could see the outline of the tips of her big boobies through the satin. Even though the maids had made all the beds in the morning, this lady’s bed was messed up, with the sheets and bedspread thrown back every which way and the pillows tossed around. And even though this lady didn’t have a husband any more, there was something black thrown on a corner of her bed over the tangled sheets that looked like a man’s bathing trunks. They were the kind of black knitted bathing trunks Anna’s father wore.

Then Anna knew she shouldn’t wait any longer for the bathroom door to open. She turned, ran downstairs, out of the Annex, up the path towards the main building, and reached the children’s end of the pool just in time.  Her mother noticed she was back and sat up on her blanket. “Everything all right?” she called.

The sun was in Anna’s eyes. Waist deep in water, she squinted in the direction of her mother.

“Anna? Are you all right?”

That was a different question. Anna nodded yes, she was all right.