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Hilma Wolitzer (b. 1930) is a critically hailed author of literary fiction. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia University. Born in Brooklyn, she began writing as a child, and published her first poem at age nine. Her first published short story, “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” appeared in print when she was thirty-six. Eight years later, she published Ending (1974), a novel about a young man succumbing to a terminal illness and his wife’s struggle to go on. Since then, her novels have dealt mostly with domestic themes, and she has drawn praise for illuminating the dark interiors of the American home. After publishing her tenth novel, Tunnel of Love (1994), Wolitzer confronted a crippling writer’s block. She worked with a therapist to understand and overcome the block, and completed the first draft of a new novel in just a few months. Upon its release, The Doctor’s Daughter (2006) was touted as a “triumphant comeback” by the New York Times Book Review. Since then, Wolitzer has published two more books—Summer Reading (2007) and An Available Man (2012). She has two daughters—an editor and a novelist—and lives with her husband in New York City, where she continues to write.
I found myself lying in the middle of the bed on those strange new nights, like someone staking claim to territory in a wilderness. How was I supposed to sleep anyway? And I had to sleep, because it restored my body, if not my spirit, and because it was a dark and peaceful place to go. But I needed something, some ritual to work as a soporific. When Jay was there we had our own rituals, worked out over the years, and I missed them as an essential part of missing him. I suppose every married couple has something, a certain rhythm to the conversation, a settling of two bodies in the space of the bed. I imagined this happening everywhere, in apartments across the city, shoes dropping, droning synopses of the day's events. Complaints whispered, kisses, covers flung back, children calling out revelations in their sleep.
Jay and I always ended up the same way, our talk fading in final whispers: Are you asleep? Are you? Then one of his hands reaching above the pillows to hold the broad rail of the bed firmly, as if he were on a moving vehicle. It seemed there were always at least two perfect points of contact between us, sometimes foreheads and hands, or perhaps buttocks and soles of feet. Was it my need or his? I reached out now and found only the vast landscape of the bed, and myself alone in the quietest of nights.
I was used to sleeping alone when I was a child. But then the bed was narrow and chaste and not meant for confrontations. My parents' voices were on the other side of the wall like sounds heard through a drumskin. And I had rituals even then. Songs sung in a humming night-voice, lullabies that incorporated magic and kept me safe from the terrors I invented. Kept the shadows inanimate and peaceful, and the voices low and affectionate, or chose to drown them out altogether.
I tried my own voice out now in the bedroom. Hello? It sounded like a voice spoken in a furnished room. And there was no one to answer.
I needed something all right, something to relieve the lousy burden of consciousness. I thought if Jay could be there, even in my imagination, that would be the magic, the ritual that would give me peace. So I put him there in the room, his clothes falling in silent drifts everywhere, his bad habit. This room looks like a bomb hit it. Can't you ever pick up your own things? But in fantasy I held my tongue. I simply recreated his gestures, the clockwinding, those great stretches that brought his fingertips close to the ceiling. Then down at the foot of the bed for a few push-ups. Too tired, giving up. Good night honey, whispered through the floorboards to the mean old lady in the apartment under ours.
Then I moved to my own side of the bed and let my hand fall idly onto the cool empty space next to me. I remembered how Jay and I used to talk every night. It was the perfect time for the baring of feelings and the continuing exchange of histories. There was a sibling quality to us, the innocence of a brother and sister telling everything to one another. After all, we had each been that lonely creature, an only child. Used to the silences, that inward turn of the imagination, the inevitable bloom of fantasy. We confessed everything, giddy with the idea of a permanent companion at last, a night-friend, an answering voice.
I told about being afraid of shadows, dreading murder or worse in the ghostly form of monsters. "I slept with the light on until I was twelve," I told Jay.
"Poor sweetie." He stroked my face as if he were comforting the frightened child.
Encouraged, I told more, about singing into the basin mirror in a locked bathroom, imagining music behind me, enraptured audiences in front of me. I wanted to be a famous singer, even though I had a thin, timid voice. I didn't even really like singing that much, just the idea of it, the razzle-dazzle of lights, applause, fame. Something magical to bring my parents together, joined and proud in the front row, the way they were at rare moments such as school plays, graduations.
"What did you dream of the most when you were a kid?" I asked Jay.
"I don't know." He squinted as if he were trying to see, at the far side of the bedroom, the shadow, the afterimage of himself as a small boy. Then he remembered something. "Mostly just a feeling of power, I guess. Making myself into some kind of big shot. Building myself up every night, deflating again every morning."
"Then were you very unhappy?" Up on one elbow, almost hopeful, remembering my own bruised childhood.
But Jay shook his head. "No." He smiled. "Maybe I was too dumb to be unhappy. I didn't know any better. I thought the Bronx was the world, my family the population. Listen, I remember that I loved the wallpaper in our living room."
"Colonial figures, a man and a woman in white wigs bowing to each other all across the room. Gorgeous. Mismatched. In the corner he bowed to half his own behind."
"We had flowers, pink and silver."
"I thought my father was some kind of hero. He wore a hat. When he took it off there was a line across his forehead from the band. He left every morning and he came home again every night on the subway. He rose right up out of the earth under a sign that said, IRT. We'd walk home together and I carried his newspaper, like a dog."
"In your mouth?"
"Don't be cute, Sandy. We went upstairs and supper was ready. Jesus, I thought that lamb chops and mashed potatoes were the best possible food. And besides, I was madly in love with my mother."
"Don't laugh," he said. "It was serious. I figured on marrying her when I grew up. An endless supply of baby chops, done the way I liked them, somebody to rub Vicks on my chest forever. She was the queen of my dreams. I never noticed she had fat legs until I was in high school."
"A regular little Alex Portnoy," I said, patting his cheek. "Boy, in your heart you must have really hated your father."
"Ah, how could anyone hate him? He was the last of the good guys. Louie. Everybody loved him. Some of Mona's cousins still talk about him as if he died yesterday. He used to push me on park swings until his arms fell off."
All that happiness, all that love, returned and doubled. It was impossible, and a mean pinch of envy urged me on. "But listen, kiddo, what were you going to do with him when you grew up and married his wife? Wouldn't it have been a little awkward?"
"I didn't work all the damn details out, Sandy. I guess I figured he'd stay on, like an old family friend or something. You know. The king is retired. Long live the king." And Jay's eyes seemed to grow darker with reflection or sorrow. What he regretted, I knew, was that his father had never known him as a man, the product of all that gentle paternity, those endless pushes on park swings. "I wish I had a decent picture of him," he once said, looking through Mona's old photograph album, where she had written in white ink on black pages. Louie and me at Swan Lake, 1931. A pleasant day with Aunt Rose and Uncle Abe, May, 1936.
I thought I understood his frustration, a man with all that expensive equipment—lenses, enlargers, filters, lights—who had only a brown, fading memory of his father, taken ages ago through the insensitive eye of a plain black box. And it bothered him too that he could not remember his father, the true essence of him, but only anecdotes enriched by fantasy, and small memories of what it was like to be a boy at thigh-level to a beloved man, memories of wing-tip shoes, hats, cigars, and of a short, vulnerable figure, receding in the distance.
But where was the man? As mysteriously gone as the boy himself, and the young woman who had been his mother, shading her eyes shyly for the camera.
I felt ashamed then for begrudging him a refined and better version of his memories. God, sibling rivalry! "Oh, I wish I had known you then!" I cried, really wishing it, crazy about my image of him. A small thin boy with dark hair, waiting at the subway each night for the miraculous resurrection of his father. A boy who believed that veal cutlets came from wild animals called veals, who thought that babies were brought into the world through women's navels, who never, in early ecstasy, noticed his mother's fat legs.
We had worked so hard to convince one another of our infinite innocence, the dumb sweet quality of childhood that still clung to us and let us be forgiven for past and future sins. We were exhausted and we moved closer under the covers, touching hands. Jay's hand, with flat, blunt nails and long bones under warm flesh. His knees locked one of mine between them.
"Are you falling asleep?"
Then his hand leaving mine, reaching up to the bed rail and holding on.
Later, during the night, I came half-awake to Jay making urgent motions against my back. "Sandy? Are you sleeping?"
I remember I thought, Oh, God, why does he have to get so horny in the middle of the night? I groaned, hugging the side of the bed, trying to restore my dream.
But Jay was sitting up. "Listen, you were right," he said. "I must have hated my father. Unconsciously. I must have wished him dead. I remember I was afraid he'd come back during the night, like a ghost."
"Oh Jay," I said, coming dizzily awake. "I was only kidding. Youloved your father. Mona says you cried yourself to sleep for weeks. That you slept with his picture. All kids are afraid of ghosts that way."
"The subway," he said. "I still hate the goddam subway."
"Everybody hates the subway. I mean, what could you possibly like about it? Getting mugged? The noise? Fuck you all over the walls? Jay, your father must have hated the subway himself."
"Yeah," he said. "I guess so." He sighed, sliding down again, reluctant to give up his guilt.
And I was the guiltmaker. A strange and terrible power. But I could heal too. I giveth and taketh away. "Go to sleep, will you? The baby will be up yapping in about five minutes."
"Yeah," he said again, dreamily, his voice receding in the darkness.
We came together again, and I thought sleepily, my husband, my brother, my friend. "Shh," I whispered to myself, to him. "Shh." I pulled the cover up, enclosing us. Hansel and Gretel asleep in the woods, under a blanket of leaves.
I was drowsy now, able to sleep at last. Even with a last thought of Jay, reduced to a strange boyishness in his hospital bed, virginal and dreaming, but with a truly scary future.CHAPTER 2
Jay was sitting up in bed, not sure what to make of himself in that room, or of me facing him from the visitor's chair, with my hands like nesting birds in my lap. A bar of sunlight slanted in across the foot of the bed, bypassing the cyclamen that wilted on the windowsill. Jay said, "Try and bring a few books. There's that thing on Churchill on my night table and see if you can get the new Pauline Kael. Don't forget the folder in the bottom left-hand drawer."
I said, "Do you need more pajamas? Do you want another pen?" And we went on like that for a while in sentences that might have been simple translations in a foreign language class. Are you hungry? Would you like the blinds closed? What time is it?, until my hands flew up restlessly to the sides of my face. I brought one hand down and looked at my watch.
"Do you have to go?" The question was so quick and his voice so high with disappointment that I felt ashamed, as if I had been caught in a rude gesture.
"Yes," I said, "no, I could stay a while. The children ..." My words trailed off. In this new setting, the green walls and the modest curtains, we had nothing to say to one another. On the first day we had disposed of all the obvious comments and the jokes about hospital odors, about the voice on the loudspeaker summoning doctors as if it announced sales in the bargain basement. Ladies, ladies, for the next hour only, on our lower level ...
I stayed another half hour and then I left in a rush of activity when another patient was brought into the room to occupy the other bed. He was older than Jay and his wife walked behind him with her eyes down. "Excuse me, excuse me," he murmured, as if he had intruded upon us in our own bedroom.
Jay said, "I'll come with you to the elevator." He took my hand, now disguised in a glove, and we walked down the hallway. "Don't worry, sweetie—and drive carefully."
"I will. I'll bring the books."
"So long." His arm hooked across my shoulders, circling my neck. It was slightly painful, as if he were demonstrating strength and power that the sag of his pajamas and the shuffle of his bedroom slippers belied.
It had snowed lightly again and I wiped the windshield with my woolen glove until the sting of the cold came through to my hand. I put the radio on for company and part of the way home I listened to a song about eyes that haunted, like pools of night. "Like po-ols of night," I sang, "I ca-an't forget you."
Harry came to the door first. Even as my key turned in the lock, I could hear scuffling sounds on the other side. I bent to embrace him and he let me, his face passive. How was it possible to be so controlled at five? Then his brother pushed between us and my face was wet with passionate kisses.
The baby-sitter, who is a neighbor's adolescent son, came from the living room with a cupcake in one hand and a radio pressed against his head as if it were a poultice to soothe an aching ear. There were crumbs clinging to his lips. The sight of him, that half-finished look, his shirt on his shoulders as if it hung from a wire hanger, filled me with sadness.
"Hello, Joseph," I said.
He tried out his voice. It was the strange croak of a large flightless bird destined for extinction. "Hello," he said. "How is Mr. Kaufman?"
"All right. Was everything okay here? Did you have any trouble?"
He shook his head and then Paul, my younger son, wrapped his arms around the tower of Joseph's legs. "Don't go home, don't go home," he begged with a false cry of love. A three-year-old's such a baby, still capable of innocent deceit. But Joseph believed him and was flattered.
I too wanted to cry "Don't go home!" as if that tall stooped creature with bitten nails, who was already loping toward the door, could save me from anything.
I went to see Jay every day, twice a day when I could manage it. When Joseph was unable to stay with the children, his mother would come. But this was less satisfactory, because his mother had an insatiable hunger for medical detail, for terrible truths. When she said "How is he?" there was a light in her eyes that pierced bone and traveled bloodstreams. Her arms folded under her breasts, she waited for answers that I couldn't give. But she would know, even in the absence of words. Then, I thought, everyone in the building would know, as if a coded message were being sent in the clanking of the incinerator door and the moan of the elevator. Every day Paul said, "Is my daddy in the hospital?" When I said, "Yes, you know. I told you this morning, I told you yesterday," he smiled.
Harry didn't ask. He knew where Jay was. He knew my moods with the sensitivity of a lover, but he gave no sign and no comfort. At night his head banged against the wall that separated our rooms. I wished then that Harry was my favorite, that I could love his mystery more than Paul's easy charm. Everyone loved Paul best; he hardly seemed to need me as well.
Jay said, "I feel better today. I know I feel better because I'm going crazy in this place."
The man in the other bed lay back with his arms folded behind his head as if he were taking a sunbath. Every time I looked at him, he was looking back and he was smiling.
I smiled at him too. I smiled at Jay, at the nurses, at orderlies who sang in the hallways with the easiness of people working in a summer field. Then I tried not to look at the other man at all. "Jay," I said. "I miss you."
He turned his head and slyly, out of the corner of his mouth, he whispered, "I miss you too. I'll come home and you can give me the golden cure."
"Oh, I will."
His hand moved carefully and came to rest in the slope between my knees. I looked at the other man. He smiled and looked toward the window.
"I really feel better," Jay said. But that night he stayed in bed when I walked to the elevator.
Joseph's mother was the baby-sitter. "Everything okay?" she asked, and I looked away from the eager face, fat and flushed as if she had just bent over a hot oven.
Instead I cuddled the children, pulling Harry up onto my lap while Paul pushed to replace him. Then I opened my purse to pay her.
"They can do miracles today," she said cheerfully, and with the triumph of the last word, she waddled out the door.
Excerpted from Ending by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 1974 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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