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The Melting Pot
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Lynne Sharon Schwartz
All rights reserved.
The Melting Pot
Rita suffers from nightmares. This morning's: she is summoned from San Francisco to New York for her grandfather's funeral, where she causes a catastrophe. She enters the chapel with her Russian-born grandmother, Sonia, on her arm, she sees the sea of men and women segregated by a carpeted aisle—solid people, bearers of durable wisdom—and her legs become immovable weights. Everything in her hardens, refusing to move towards the women's side, where she belongs. Even her teeth harden. Sonia, a scrawny, vinegary woman in perpetual haste, tries to drag her along, but Rita cannot be moved. Suddenly from the closed coffin comes a choked, rising moan almost like a tune, the voice trying to break out in protest. Rita's grandmother gasps in horror, clutches her chest, and collapses. All the mourners look at Rita and gasp in unison, like the string section opening a great symphony. One by one, they topple over in shock, both sexes heaped together, mingling. Rita's teeth clench in the dream, biting the hands that fed her.
She wakes up and holds on to Sanjay, who grunts in his sleep. The nightmares dissipate more quickly when he is there. He is a very large, smooth man and she clings to him like a rock climber. In the limbo of waking she cannot even remember which house they are in, his or hers—for they are next-door neighbors, only a wall between them for six years. They live in similar narrow row houses with luscious little flower beds in front, on a sunny San Francisco street lined with eucalyptus trees.
Sanjay, a seeker of practical solutions, thinks the ideal solution to Rita's nightmares would be for them to marry. Why should they live on opposite sides of the wall, like those silly lovers of legend? They are not children, there are no watchful parents hindering them.
"One day soon it will strike you," he says now and then in half-humorous, half-cajoling way, a man of many charms, "that it is the right thing to do. It won't happen when we are making love, but at a more trustworthy moment. Maybe after you have asked me for the fifth time to fix your dishwasher, or after I have consulted you for the ninth time on how some fourth cousin can satisfy the immigration authorities. Some very banal moment between us, and you'll suddenly know. You will want to belong to me forever."
Rita usually laughs. "You've seen too many Fred Astaire movies." But she is afraid. She doesn't want to belong to anyone forever. She has grown up watching that. And she is afraid she won't know how to fit herself in, fit with another life. She looks at their bodies, which do fit sleekly together. Parts of them are the very same color, side by side. The palms of his hands are the color of her thighs, his cheeks the color of her nipples. "What would our children be like?" she says lightly. "What would they call themselves?"
She is not really worried about possible children or what they would call themselves. She mentions it only to deflect his yearnings, because Sanjay has three children already, grown and married. The oldest, who has gone back to India to study his roots, is Rita's age, twenty-eight. It is only natural that Sanjay's fatherliness should appeal to her, a fatherless child—that and his size and bulk, his desire to possess and protect, his willingness to fix her dishwasher and to accept the silences during which she tries to extricate herself from her history. His willingness to accept her history itself. But marrying him seems so definitive.
Now she sits up, leaning on her elbows. The room is suffused with a pre-dawn tinge of lavender. It is Sanjay's house. Of course. There are the faint smells of cumin, coriander, anise—bitter and lush. They are strongest in the kitchen but waft through the other rooms as well. Sanjay's daughter comes two afternoons a week to cook for him. She was born right here on Russian Hill, but she cooks the way her mother did. She doesn't know that her father and Rita eat her food in bed. Sanjay cannot bring himself to tell his children he sleeps with the young woman next door, although he is ready to present her as his wife.
"Why do you let her do that?" Rita asked at the beginning, three years ago. "Doesn't she have enough to do, with the baby and all?"
"I don't ask her to. She insists, ever since her mother died. She's very old-fashioned." A soulful pause. "And she's such a good cook."
"What do you cook when you're alone?"
He made a wry face. "Hamburgers. Tuna fish."
Besides the lush smell, she sees it is Sanjay's house by the shadowy bulk of the large chest of drawers, the darkened sheen of the gilded mirror above it, the glint of the framed photograph of his wife on the chest. When Rita first came to his bedroom Sanjay used to turn the photograph to the wall. As a courtesy, she assumed, for he is a man of delicate feelings, of consummate discretion; but she wasn't sure if the courtesy was directed to her or to his late wife. Now, grown familiar and cozy, he sometimes forgets. Rita has always imagined that she reminds him of his wife, that he wants her because of a resemblance. With the picture facing front, perhaps they two are communing through her body.
Well, all right. Rita is used to being a link, endlessly malleable. She is used to reminding people of someone, and to being loved as a link to the true loved one. Even at work, she helps people locate their relatives, and at times she is present at the reunion and watches them embrace. When they finish embracing each other they often embrace her too, as the link. She helps them find ways to stay here. If they succeed in becoming citizens, then Rita is the bridge they pass over to their new identity.
"Immigration law!" Her grandfather, Sol, expected the worst when she started. "You'll see," he grumbled over the phone, wheezing long-distance. "You'll be always with those refugees, you'll wind up marrying one, you with your bleeding heart. And who knows where they come from, what they—"
"Enough already, Sol!" Sonia's rough voice in the background. "Enough!"
"Sometimes these people have to marry someone just to stay in this country," he explains to his granddaughter, the immigration lawyer. "They see a pretty young girl with a profession, what could be better?"
True enough. In three years Rita has had several tentative suggestions of marriage. But she tries to find those desperate souls a better way. She reminds them that they came here to be free, free, and that marriage to a stranger is no freedom. Besides, there is Sanjay.
Sanjay works all day in a laboratory, or laboratory, as he calls it; he wants to cure hemophiliacs, bleeders. (Contrary to popular notion, hemophiliacs do not bleed more intensely than most people, only longer.) Sanjay knows almost all there is to know about genes and blood. Indeed, he has the exile's air of knowing all there is to know about everything. Yet he has been here for nearly thirty years, is a citizen, and, unlike Rita's jittery clients, seems very much at home. His face has taken on a West Coast transparency. His courtly speech is sprinkled with the local argot. Still, Rita suspects, even knowing all there is to know about her, he sees her as his entryway to the land of dreams. His bridge. His American girl.
Rita's present life is, in her grandfather's view, one of disobedience (like her nightmares), but as a small child she was quite obedient. She submitted when he found her costuming paper dolls in her bedroom on a Saturday afternoon and unhooked the scissors from her thumb and forefinger, reminding her that Jews do not cut on the Sabbath. Nor do they color in coloring books, trace pictures from magazines, turn on the lights, the toaster, the radio, or the television, use the phone, cook, sew, drive.... The way Sol explains it, they are defined by what they are forbidden. There are things they must not eat and not wear, not do and not utter. The most constricted people are the most holy, relieved from confronting the daily unknown with bare instinct, for happily, every conceivable pattern of human event and emotion was foreseen centuries ago and the script is at hand, in old books in an old tongue. She submitted. But she was allowed to read. A Little Princess was her favorite story, where the orphaned and hungry heroine is forced to live in a lonely freezing garret, until a kindly Indian gentleman feeds her and lights a fire in her room and finally rescues her altogether, restoring her to a life of abundance.
For the most holy people, the most holy season is fall, the most beautiful. Also the most allusive and most amenable to introspection, with its amber light, its sounds of leaves scuttling, brittle as death, on the pavement, its eerie chills at sundown, and its holidays calling for renewal, guilt, atonement, remembrance, hope, and pride, one after the other in breathless succession. It is the season to think over your past deeds and ask forgiveness of anyone you might have injured, for only after asking a fellow creature's forgiveness may you ask God's. God has a big book and keeps his accounts: Your fortunes in the year to come depend on your actions in the year just passed. (Karma, thinks Rita years later, when she knows Sanjay.) It is the season when Rita is required to get out of her jeans and beads and into a dress. Shoes instead of sneakers. Sweating great beads of boredom, resistance seeping from every pore to form a second skin beneath her proper clothing, she trails her grandfather to the synagogue to sit with the women in the balcony (so as not to distract the men) and listen to him sing the prayers in a language she cannot understand.
Her grandmother the atheist also conforms, sits in the women's balcony behind a curtain and fasts on the Day of Atonement, and this not merely out of obedience, like Rita. Sonia finds her identity in opposition. She conforms in order to assert her difference in the New World, as in the Old World others asserted it for her, in the form of ostracism and pogroms. But within the family's little conforming circle she has to assert her difference too, and so while her husband is out at the synagogue she fixes herself a forbidden glass of tea. Her wiry body moves quickly around the kitchen, as if charged with electrical current. Snickering like a child, she raises the steaming glass by the rim and drinks, immensely pleased with her mischief, her high cheekbones gleaming.
"You might as well have a sandwich while you're at it," says Rita, at eleven years old not yet required to fast, to choose between her grandparents, obedience in bed with defiance.
A sandwich would be going too far. They destroy the evidence, wash and dry the glass and spoon and put them away; luckily he doesn't count the tea bags, hardly the province of a holy man.
What is the province of a holy man? God, of course. Wrong. Rules. Sanjay could have told her that. His family's rules fill at least as many books. Rita's grandfather loves rules, constrictions, whatever narrows the broad path of life and disciplines the meandering spirit for its own good. The lust to submit is his ruling passion. It is part of the covenant with God: Obey all the rules and you will be safe. Sol takes this literally. He seeks out arcane rules to obey and seizes upon them, appropriates them with the obsessiveness of a Don Juan appropriating new women. Nor is that enough; his passion requires that others obey them too. His wife. His granddaughter. For the family is the pillar of society. The family is the society. And if a member disobeys, strays too far beyond the pillars, he becomes an outcast. At risk in the wide world, the world of the others. "Them."
So Rita rarely hears him speak of God. And Sonia mentions God with contempt, as one would speak of the meanest enemy, too mean even to contend with. "What God says I'm not interested in!" she shouts bitterly when Sol nags her back onto the little path of submission. "I'm interested in what people do right here on earth!" Alone together, Sonia and Rita never tire of cataloguing the discrepancies between God's reputation and his manifest deeds. They, obey in their hearts? It is to laugh. And laugh they do, showing their perfect teeth, as enduring as rocks. Of course they are women, their minds fixed on the specific. Perhaps they cannot grasp the broader scheme of things.
"What would be sins?" Rita asks her grandfather, thinking of Sonia's tea.
He pats his soft paunch thoughtfully with both hands. "Lying to your grandparents. Thinking wicked thoughts. Being unkind to people."
This sounds fairly mild. She tries to enumerate her greater sins but can think of none that any God worthy of the name would take notice of. With a new assassination almost yearly, the portraits of the dead promptly appearing on the walls at school, can God care that she listens to the Supremes on a Saturday afternoon, she and the radio muffled under a blanket? She asks her grandmother about sins but Sonia waves her arm dismissively, an arc of contempt scything the air. Rita infers that God, rather than mortals, has a lot to answer for, though she doesn't know what in particular is on her grandmother's mind besides the general wretchedness abounding. Poor people ride to Washington on mules. Longhaired students in Chicago get beaten by police. Rita passes the time in the balcony constructing cases against God on their behalf. Her father was a lawyer, she has managed to glean; she invokes his help. The cases are very good, watertight, with evidence starting from Abraham; no, Abel. But no matter what the jury decides, God remains. That is his nature, she gathers, to be there watching and judging, always alert for a misstep, but not helping.
Light is coming in at the window, a Pacific coast autumn light, creamy, soft-edged. As it slides up his face, Sanjay wakes, and Rita tells him about her bad dream, for she cannot shake it. She tells him how in the dream her father's father, the most obedient servant of his Lord, is taken, even so. How his obedience did not shield him in the end, and how she, by her disobedience rooted in a certain juxtaposition of genes, causes a shocking event, rivaling the one that convulsed the family twenty-six years ago.
"Heredity," says Sanjay sleepily, "doesn't work that way. You make too much of it." He has exchanged the faith in karma for the science of genetics. And he wants to help. He wants her to turn around and live facing front. Odd, since he comes from a country imprisoned in history, while she is the young West Coast lawyer. Sometimes it seems they have changed places.
"And don't you make much of it? Don't you tell me you get glimpses of your father's face in the mirror when you shave, but with a peeled, American expression? I feel my mother when I brush my hair. In the texture of the hair."
"That's different. You can inherit hair but not destinies."
He sounds so sure.... "I think in the dream he was trying to sing. Did I ever tell you that my grandfather used to sing in the synagogue?"
"I thought your mother was the singer."
"Her too. That was a different kind of song. He ran the store all week, but on Saturday mornings he was a cantor, he led the prayers. Then when I was about seventeen, he had some minor surgery in his throat and he never sang again."
"Why, what happened?"
"Nothing. He was afraid."
"Well that's exactly it. Something cosmic. That his head might burst, I don't know. It was just too risky. The absurd thing was, he had the operation to restore his voice. We never heard him sing again. So what do you make of a man who loves to sing and sings for the glory of God, then refuses to sing out of fear?"
"In his heart he still sings. He sings, Safe, safe." Sanjay composes a little tune on the word.
Rita smiles. "I thought immigrants always sang, Free, free."
"Not always. We"—he means his brother and himself, who came here to be educated and returned home only to visit—"we sing, Away, away. New, new." He yawns, and then, in a lower key, "Guilt, guilt."
All the indigenous American tunes, thinks Rita. But she is still smiling. He has a way of making heavy things feel lighter. He has a mild grace that buoys him through life. Maybe she should marry him after all. She is so malleable an American, she could become anyone with ease. And it would be a way to live; it would be safe, safe. She might even let her hair grow long and smooth it down with coconut oil, start frying wheat cakes and clarifying butter and stepping delicately down the hills of San Francisco as Sanjay's wife did, holding up her long skirts.
That was how Rita first saw them, the Indian gentleman and his wife. It was the day of her graduation from college, which her grandparents flew west to attend. Afterwards, she took them across the bay to San Francisco, to show them her new apartment. For she was staying on. Through a friend, she had found a summer job in a Spanish record store, and in the fall she would start law school.
While Sonia tore through the rooms like a high wind, Sol stood at the front window, holding the curtain to one side and peering out as though he were in a hostile country, a place you could get yourself killed. Though not much of a traveler, he had been here once before, briefly.
"Who are your neighbors?" he asks, gesturing with his chin.
Excerpted from The Melting Pot by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Copyright © 1987 Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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