LUCKY IN LOVE
SIX PEOPLE ATTENDED my mother's wedding. Her mother Mae, my aunt Rose who was carrying twins though no one suspected at the time, Rose's husband Lou, my mother's best friend Peshy who lived upstairs in 6D, Rabbi Wax, and, of course, the groom.
My father was not among them.
Solly Birnbaum -- Solomon on paper but the royal association didn't take -- was around the corner outside Fishman's Pharmacy pacing and smoking cigarettes and wondering how he was going to make it through life with Blanche Levine married to someone else. The fact that Solly was himself already married didn't enter into it: he was prepared, so the story went, to leave Estelle at the drop of a hat, just the drop of a hat, if Blanche would only give him the word. But Blanche hadn't, so on an overcast Sunday in March of 1959, Solly Birnbaum stared at the gray Bronx sky from the corner of Gun Hill and Jerome and shuddered at the thought of his beautiful Blanche, his adorable Begonia Blanche, sleeping with someone else.
"So what do you think he does?" my mother says to me, winking a little and gently poking Solly with her elbow, the two of them perched on the sofa like careful miniatures. It's eighty-five outside, seventy-five in here with the air-conditioning, and both of them are wearing sweaters. I've flown down to Sarasota because, though my mother won't say what it is, I know Solly's not well; I hear it in her voice.
"I don't know, Mom, what does he do?" I say. Solly's got his eyes closed like he's dozing but I know he's listening because right then he smiles.
"Well," my mother says, settling in, her hands clasped in her lap. This is her favorite part. "He went to the phone booth in Fishman's and called us up." She leans toward me. "Imagine that? He goes right in and calls the apartment, interrupts the whole wedding."
"And?" I say. I like this part, too, though lately the facts have been beginning to change, the truth as slippery as a fish. Each time my mother tries to catch it, it slides away and something different pops up, biting the bait.
"And he asks to speak to Rabbi Wax!"
"Rabbi Wax," I say. Last time it was my grandmother, and before that, Rose. It doesn't matter, though, because Solly always says the same thing.
" 'This can't go on!' he yelled into the receiver," my mother says, a stage whisper so as not to wake Solly, who's now really asleep. " 'She doesn't love him! He doesn't love her! I love her! She loves me!' " My mother sits back. Solly lets out a little snore. " 'Too late,' " my mother says in a ponderous baritone, imitating the rabbi, like God enunciating the Ten Commandments. " 'Whoever you are, young man, you're calling too late.' "
IT'S NEVER TOO late, my mother has told me with pride and conviction many times, and after a brief interlude of forty years, she and Solly did get married. That was last September. By then Estelle had been dead two years and Bertram Katz, the original groom, also my father, had long since flown the coop. Now Bert's in Sunnydale, my next stop after leaving here; his latest woman, one Ina Katz, no relation, has left him, he says, for younger prey -- his words. He's lonely and wondering if he's made too many mistakes in life. Fortunately, I'm not one of them, so I don't worry that he's referring to me.
The buzzer sounds and I get up and let in Yvonne, the visiting nurse. She's here to check Solly's sugar again, the levels all out of whack, something not right and it's not the insulin. Blanche says it's only that Solly's not doing a good job monitoring, is sneaking sucking candies when she's not looking.
"Wake up, Mr. Birnbaum," Yvonne says, tapping Solly briskly on the shoulder, no time for pampering, appointments the next hour with probably half the building. My mother, meanwhile, has been softly stroking Solly's hand.
Solly opens his eyes, quickly sits upright. "Just a little snooze," he says, blinking himself awake. "Heard every word you said."
"Let's go," Yvonne says, almost shouting, though neither Solly nor my mother is hard of hearing. Solly pulls himself off the sofa with effort and shuffles with Yvonne to the dinette, where a little army of paraphernalia awaits: needles in cellophane, little glass insulin bottles, a stack of alcohol preps, a magnifying glass, his flip-top glucose meter. He looks bad, aged ten years since I saw him last fall doing the Kazatzka at Leonard's, looking like a real pistol.
"I picked up the most adorable pocketbook," my mother says, practically springing off the couch, trying not to watch them. She strides toward the back of the apartment. I follow. "Maybe you need a new bag?" she calls out. She's like one of those little tornadoes in the cleanser commercials on TV, whipping purposefully down the hall. "Great selection, all discounted, five minutes from here, I'll give you directions."
"Why don't we both go out for a little while," I say when we're inside the bedroom. She's already in the walk-in closet. The closets here, she's told me on the phone, are even better than the ones in Queens, cleverly fitted out with movable white shelving, finally enough space for all her shoes and pocketbooks, a special section at the end for the garment bags that hold her cocktail dresses. She's brought every one of them, all her stylish off-price New York clothes, every stitch, for her new life with, finally, the right man.
"Nah, nah, you go, you'll enjoy it," she says on her tiptoes, reaching up. She's got a pocketbook in every color, three or four for every season. Bert was a lousy husband, unfaithful and unreliable, but they had a great social life, once upon a time.
"It'll do you good to get out," I venture. My mother hasn't left the apartment in a week, according to Yvonne, who let it slip during the first visit of the day, seven-thirty this morning. Even the groceries were delivered. "Solly'll be okay for a few hours," I say. "Yvonne said she'll set out his lunch when they're done and check back on him before she leaves the building."
My mother turns to me, a neat row of thick pullovers directly behind her that she'll never wear in Florida. Pink, yellow, baby blue, pastels to set off her honey-brown hair because sixty-eight is too young, she says, to throw in the towel and go gray. She's holding a square box that says Leather Mart on the side, and for a second I think she's going to let down her veneer of cheerful bravado and stop pretending nothing's wrong. "You've got to get out, Mom," I whisper. "Even for an hour. For your own sanity."
She inches toward me, starts to open the box. Then her face hardens, a look of resentment crossing it like a wave, and all of a sudden she's looking at me as though it's my fault she's been cooped up, my fault Solly's sick and that her long-awaited shot at happiness isn't turning out as planned. She leaves the closet, tosses the box onto the chenille bedspread, snatches up her old white patent-leather purse with the fake gold clasp and cracking sides, and marches out of the bedroom.
"Elise and I are going out," she barks at the front door and is immediately out in the hall. I give Yvonne a little wave -- Solly has his back to us at the dinette -- and Yvonne shoos me out. Go, he'll be fine, go. I pause a second, waiting for Solly to say something, but nothing comes so I pick up my bag and go out. My mother is already halfway down the corridor.
LAST YEAR, WHEN Blanche was still in Queens, she told me at the Empire Deli that she and Solly Birnbaum were getting married.
"That's really great, Mom," I said, folding my hands, forcing myself not to take another pickle. We had a standing date: I'd drive into Queens from Long Island once a week straight from work to meet her for supper, just the two of us, without Steven and the kids. She got a break from playing Grandma and I got to inhale the aromas of the Empire: pastrami, half sours, steamed franks. It was as if there were a nasal barrier at the Great Neck exit of the Expressway: no real deli smells allowed into Nassau County. "When did this come about?" I said.
She tipped her head and made a small smile. Solly and Estelle Birnbaum had been family friends for as long as I could remember, and after Estelle died I saw a few sparks, some flickers between my mother and Solly. I was glad. Bert had taken off while I was a teenager, and though my mother never seemed to harbor the sort of bitterness I saw in my friends' mothers who'd been abandoned by the once-man-of-their-dreams, she was entitled to her share of happiness. "Oh, we've been thinking about it," she said, evasive.
I nodded therapeutically as if she were one of my clients. "So you've been seeing each other for a while? I mean, not just friends?"
She tipped her head again, both of us watching the waitress make her no-nonsense delivery of our meal. The wedding news had to be the explanation for my mother's food choice. Who ordered salad at the Empire? A hunk of iceberg, a sliced egg, and an unripe tomato quarter. It could only be the excitement, living on love. A waste of a great culinary opportunity, as far as I was concerned.
I picked up my corned beef on a bulky and smiled at my mother, waiting for the answer.
She reached across the table and laid her thin hand on mine. "I think I can finally tell you the truth, honey. You're not Bert's child. You're Solly's."
I held the sandwich in midair. Was she talking metaphorically? "What do you mean?"
"Just that. Solly's your real father."
"You mean -- ?"
"You slept with Solly Birnbaum? Before I was born?"
My mother made a weak smile, sheepish, as if expecting someone to finally give her a good scolding.
"I can't believe this," I said, putting the airborne roll on my plate. "After forty years I'm supposed to believe that Bert is not my biological father?" This did not make sense. I had talked to my father last week, heard all about his trip sightseeing for alligators. How could he suddenly not be related to me? I lowered my voice. "Who knows about this? Are you sure you're not making this up? Some magical wish after years of unhappiness that your true family be constituted once and for all?"
She shook her head. "I'm not making it up."
"What about Jeffrey?" It was a stupid question. My brother was five years younger than me, Bert firmly in the picture by then.
"No, just you," she said. "I told everyone you were a few weeks early. But you weren't. I was pregnant at the wedding."
"And no one knew?"
"Solly knew. And Rose, I think. She was mad at me for a long time and I never found out why." She picked up her coffee. "I think she suspected."
I glanced around. The place had filled up, people in every booth. Across the aisle two men were bent over their menus, studying them like they were gastronomic Talmuds, running their fingers along the plastic and reverently repeating the words to each other. The Madison: turkey and chopped liver with cole slaw and Russian dressing. The Jefferson: . . . I turned back to my mother. "And all these years," I whispered, "with Estelle and Dad and the four of you together so much, nothing ever happened? Nothing between you and Solly?"
My mother stiffened. "Of course not. It wouldn't have been right. He was married, I was married."
"And Dad?" I said, leaning across the table as far as I could go, my plastic pearls threatening to drag in her Italian dressing. "Does Dad know?"
"Your father? Bertram?"
"My father, my father, the guy I've been calling Dad my whole life."
She looked up, chin raised, defensive. "No." She looked away, then back at me. The defense had evaporated. "Maybe. I don't know. Maybe that's why he was such a philanderer all those years. Maybe he was paying me back."
NOW, IN MISS Daisy's Pancake House on Ocean Drive where everything, including the pancakes, has the consistency of mashed potatoes, my mother has gone off to the ladies' room, allegedly to wash but I know it's to primp. I sip burnt coffee and watch the dishes that are being delivered to the other tables, wonder why in the world my mother has picked this place. Is she feeling old? Has she lost her sense of taste since moving to Florida?
A tray with three plates of waffles goes by. They look like the frozen kind, deep airy squares that taste like cotton and function mostly to hold in the whipped cream and runny strawberries. In her day Blanche Levine was a knockout. Hair done up in a French twist or a fifties pageboy, perfect makeup, a taste for clothes. I've seen the pictures, she and Rose posed on the roof of their building like a couple of red-lipped models, someone's sheets flapping in the background. For her first wedding, despite the fact that she and my grandmother had been living on air, subsisting for years on a nothing insurance policy left by my grandfather who'd delivered milk for a living, plus whatever Blanche brought home working six days a week at the accessories counter at Stern's, she managed to appear in a snazzy knee-length lavender silk dress with tucking down the front, a choker of real pearls, and a matching lilac hat like a perfect half shell. For her second wedding she did no less, and on not much more money: a white linen suit with black piping, white sandals with heels too high for even me to manage in, and a single red rose pinned on her lapel, her one concession to her matronly status.
From the other end of the restaurant she makes her way toward me. I give a little wave. She looks haggard; the primping has been ineffectual. She arrives, slides into the booth, pulls her old-lady cardigan around her. One quick glance at the menu, and she puts it aside.
"What'll you have?" I say, smiling, trying for upbeat.
"I'm not hungry," she says. "I'll stick with coffee."
"Mom, you've got to eat. When did you last eat -- breakfast? It's one o'clock." I eyeball the menu, pump up the enthusiasm. "The omelettes look good. Western, cheese, tomato. Choice of toast or English muffin."
I look up, hopeful. Her feeble attempt at makeup has failed, and black smudges have formed under her eyes so that she looks ghostly under the fluorescents. She seems to be daydreaming. "Did I ever tell you what Solly did on the day you were born?" she says.
I give up and close the menu, shake my head.
"He ran out to get you the biggest stuffed animal he could find," she says, her eyes suddenly brighter. "Absolutely the biggest." She leans forward. "And where do you think he went?"
I shake my head. Where?
"FAO Schwarz," my mother says, triumphant, giving the table a little tap. "Only the best. You know what it was?"
"No." "A giraffe! You remember the giraffe? It was huge, as big as me." She sits back, smiling. I have no idea if this is the truth. Or if there really was a giraffe and it came from someone else. Or if Solly bought not a giraffe but a baby teddy bear or the cheapest wind-up toy in Woolworth's because how could he justify such an extravagance to Estelle?
"You loved that giraffe," my mother says wistfully. "It was right next to your crib. Don't you remember?"
"Not really, Mom, I'm sorry. Did we have it long?"
She sighs, looks up at the ceiling. "Did we have it long," she repeats to the ceiling tiles, then looks back at me. "I don't know. I only know when you got it."
I nod. A waitress in a pink-checked apron is heading our way. She's got a ponytail and those pointy-shaped glasses from the fifties. I want to ask her if maybe she remembers the giraffe.
"Good afternoon, ladies," she drawls pleasantly. "You need a little more time?" She knows the clientele, is overly patient, overly kind, and I long for the gruff waitresses from Queens and the old impatient Blanche who got antsy if no one appeared to take her order within twenty seconds of sitting down.
"I'll have the Swiss cheese omelette," I say.
"All right," the waitress says, writing it down slowly, mouthing the words. Swiss. Cheese. Omelette. "And what about you, ma'am?" she says to Blanche.
"Just coffee," Blanche says, drawing her cup and saucer closer.
"That's all?" the waitress says. "No waffles, flapjacks?"
Blanche shakes her head. I'm not sure she knows what a flapjack is.
"All right, then," the waitress says, collecting our menus. "I'll be back to freshen your coffees."
We smile and she leaves us. Blanche has slipped back into pale melancholy, whatever had flickered with the giraffe now gone. "Don't make mistakes, Elise," she says, picking up her cup and staring at what's inside. "Don't have regrets."
AFTER EXACTLY TWO hours, with Blanche checking her watch every twenty minutes, we're back at the apartment. Blanche doesn't have a key.
"What are we going to do?" she says, panicked. The white patent-leather pocketbook hangs open like a mouth, a mountain of crushed tissues and a lipstick threatening to spill out. "I forgot the key, I never forget the key! I'm always with Solly so we lock up behind us, or I take the car so I have a key! But we took your car, the rental car, so I don't have a key!"
"It's okay, Mom," I say, and reach for the buzzer. "We'll just ring the bell, Solly'll get it."
"No!" She clamps an icy hand on mine. "We can't!"
"What do you mean, we can't?"
"Solly's not supposed to walk," she blurts out. "He's not supposed to get up by himself."
"What are you talking about? What's the matter with him?"
She looks away, stares at the door that seems posted there like an armed guard. The pocketbook is still gaping, mute. "Nothing," she says, stoic. "Nothing's the matter."
"Mom, obviously something's wrong if Solly isn't supposed to walk. You can't hide it from me forever. What is it?"
She watches the door, says nothing.
I glance down the corridor. I feel like we're a couple of intruders. "Does someone else have a key?"
"No one? No neighbor? What about Yvonne?"
"Is there a super in the building?"
She turns to me. "This isn't Queens, Elise. They don't have supers here."
"Well, they have property managers, someone or some company. They have to be able to get into an apartment." I put down our shopping bags -- a pocketbook for Jessie that I know isn't weird enough for her fifteen-year-old taste and which she'll end up insisting I keep, and some bath towels Blanche has picked up, as if she and Solly didn't already own thirty between them. "I'm going to the lobby to see who's listed as the manager and what their phone number is," I say. "Every building has that information posted somewhere."
"It's Rain Country Management," Blanche says, not taking her gaze off the door. "Next building over. Ask for Sheila."
"You've done this before? Locked yourself out?"
"Once or twice." "You or Solly?"
She turns to me, seems to crumble. "They're the ones who found him."
"Found him?" The elevator dings at the end of the corridor. We can't stand here and have this conversation. I snap her pocketbook shut, pick up the shopping bags, and steer her by the elbow to the elevator, then down into the lobby. We sit in matching upholstered chairs next to a fake fern.
"Solly fell," Blanche says, looking tiny in the big chair, her voice even tinier. "I wasn't here. I was out, I don't remember where, shopping or something."
"What kind of fall? Did he trip?"
"He got up from a chair too suddenly. He was five minutes away from a coma, his blood sugar had dipped so low. Ten, fifteen minutes more until anyone found him, he would've been dead."
I start to pull my chair closer. The fern is in the way; I push it with my foot. It's light as cardboard. "So someone came in, revived him?"
"It was luck, dumb luck. Next door was a man fixing the dishwasher. He heard a thump and called the management quick. They came right away, dialed 911 before they even left their office." She looks away. "Ten years he has diabetes and now, all of a sudden, it's doing this. Like it was waiting for him to finally be happy."
I reach across, squeeze my mother's hand. What is there to say? I turn professional. "Of course you're upset, of course you're anxious." She keeps looking at the wall. I sound shallow and useless, canned blather coming out of my mouth. "Naturally you're feeling protective, afraid to let him be by himself in the apartment."
She whips back at me. "And what should I do -- leave him to fall again? This wasn't a simple fall, Elise." She pulls her hand away. "He was in the emergency room for hours, all night I waited there before they stabilized him. He has a hematoma on his hip the size of Manhattan."
"What's a hematoma?"
"A bruise," she says, irritable, as if I should know. "But no ordinary bruise. A bruise that isn't healing."
"You have a doctor you trust?"
She waves my question away. "You know what these doctors are like. They come here to make money. You think they're interested in a long-term relationship like Dr. Benvenito at home? They see Solly come in like this, they write us off immediately. Treat us like morons who don't understand anything."
"But you've never let anyone treat you like that, let a doctor patronize you."
"It's different now," she says. "They have all the cards. They scare you with all the terrible things it could be."
Behind us the elevator dings; I hear the flip-flop of beach shoes. My mother looks at her hands. A couple about her age, dressed for the pool, matching towels neatly folded over their arms, watch us on their way to the door. I smile politely, wait for them to pass, which they seem to do reluctantly, almost warily, and it occurs to me it's not us they're concerned about, it's the chairs and the plant: they don't like the fact that they've been moved. "Busybodies," Blanche murmurs when they're gone.
I inch closer to her. "You have to fight the doctors, Mom. Take charge, like you always did."
She shakes her head, looks again at the wall. "It's harder now, with Solly."
"What do you mean? If anything I'd think you'd be stronger, even more determined."
"Sometimes love makes you strong, Elise," she says. "But sometimes" -- she looks at me -- "sometimes love makes you weak."
THE DAY AFTER our news-breaking dinner at the Empire last year, I called my mother. It was six in the morning; I'd waited four hours to dial.
"What am I supposed to do with this information?" I said, revved, three cups of coffee pulsing through me. I picked at an English muffin, meant to absorb some of the acid. It wasn't working. Darts of pain were playing ping-pong in my abdomen.
"I don't know, honey," she said, sounding tired. I hadn't woken her -- she was an early riser, at work by eight, preparing for a day of having to say no to welfare cheats. Every week at least a few dozen situations broke her heart. "Can you ask a colleague for advice? They would help you."
I tapped the tabletop. That's what Steven had said. Make sure you get a courtesy discount. Not that he hadn't tried to be supportive when I gave him the news, rolling in at nine o'clock just when he was prying Jessie off the phone and getting the boys to bed. Solly instead of fly-by-night Bert? he said to me in the bathroom where I'd herded him, the only place we could get a minute of privacy. I should think you'd be glad. "Therapy doesn't help with this, Mom," I said, frustrated.
"It doesn't? What does it help with, then?"
"It helps people with neuroses and lousy adjustments, with things they can change or control." I waved a hand, irritable. "It doesn't help with a suddenly revised ancestry, a totally new genetic makeup."
"I don't know about that, Elise," she said. I could hear her at the stove, putting on her old percolator. "What about all those people who suddenly find out their grandparents are Jewish? Or the boy in last week's Times who went to meet his father, the lady who'd had a sex change? Don't you think therapy would help them?"
I tapped faster, annoyed. Of course she was right. I should look on the bright side. At least my father was Solly, not Estelle. "I know it's a shock," she said. "I don't blame you for being upset."
Outside, it was getting light. Inside, the coffee was declaring victory over my digestive system. "I'm not upset. Just confused."
Silence. She was thinking. I stretched my neck, suddenly exhausted. I had four clients before lunch. "Did I ever tell you what Solly did on the day Jeffrey was born?" she said.
"Yes. When Jeffrey was born."
I stared out the window. A cardinal landed on a branch. "No."
"Ah, well, then." I heard her pulling her chair up to the old speckled table, probably glancing at the yellow clock that was supposed to look like the sun, pointy rays sticking out like Medusa's snakes, waiting for her half bagel to finish toasting, a slice of Muenster and one of tomato ready on the plate, her grapefruit juice already poured. An orderly woman with a disorderly past. "First we brought you over to their place when I went to the hospital."
"Their place? Not Aunt Rose's?"
"Nope. It was Solly and Estelle who took care of you. All day, well into the night."
This didn't sound right. I was five. Wouldn't I have gone to Rose's to be with the twins, or to Grandma Mae's? Was Blanche embroidering the past here, trying to make whole cloth out of a few questionable threads? "They took you to the zoo," she said. "Out for ice cream, popcorn, the works."
"The zoo? It was open?" "Of course it was open, it was always open. Solly took the day off from work to be with you." She paused. The cardinal flew off, impatient. "It was also to help Estelle, of course. Remember, she had Philip and Howard by then, two boys, and wild, too."
I took a pointless nibble at the English muffin. "But that wasn't all," Blanche said. "When it came time for dinner Solly took you for a special treat." She stopped, waiting for me to ask.
"And what was that?" "Your first dinner out at a restaurant. Patricia Murphy's, on Sixty-first Street. Or maybe it was Sixtieth."
"We went to Manhattan for dinner?"
"Absolutely. What was the rush? I wasn't coming home, and God knows where Bertram was."
Upstairs, the water was running. Steven. In ten minutes he'd wake the kids. They'd come stumbling down for breakfast looking for Froot Loops and clean socks, oblivious to my exhaustion, my vigil, the fact that the day before I'd found out our gene pool had changed. "You had a wonderful time," my mother said. "You told me all about it when I came home from the hospital. The fancy tablecloths, the tall glasses, the popover girl."
I tossed the English muffin into the trash. The pipes banged: Steven in the shower. Around midnight last night he'd offered to take off from work today if I needed him, I was probably feeling a little stunned. I'd rolled off of him, then rolled my eyes: And abandon my seven scheduled appointments? Their mental health would have to come first.
"They were good to you," Blanche said.
"Solly and Estelle." There was a catch in her voice. "She was a good friend, Estelle." Blanche sniffled, probably digging around in the pocket of her robe for a tissue. "I miss her."
SHEILA AT RAIN Country Management gives me a spare key. I thank her profusely, more for saving Solly's life than for the key, but she looks at me blankly, doesn't know what I'm talking about. Maybe it was Cindy or Ruthanne in the office that day, she says. I nod awkwardly, promise to return the key, then go back to Blanche and take her upstairs.
I open the door with dread; now that I know Solly shouldn't walk alone, I'm terrified of what we might find: Solly sprawled, comatose, on the floor, or groping desperately for the phone, or, worst of all, bleeding from the head after crashing against a piece of furniture on the way down.
Instead, Solly's on the couch reading the newspaper. I quickly survey the room, see that he can make the dinette-couch-easy-chair circuit without having to let go. Next to the couch, neatly folded, is a walker I haven't seen before. I'm guessing Yvonne has put it there and that my mother had hidden it for my arrival.
"Have a nice time, girls?" Solly says, putting down the paper.
Blanche goes to the couch, leans down to kiss him. I hold up the shopping bags like I used to do with Bert when my mother and I returned from whatever compensatory outing we'd been on, trying to make up for Bert's missing attention with a new blouse or a pair of slippers. It seems the way to act with fathers. Though neither Solly nor I have acknowledged this fact. It seems too personal, too private, too soon. "Yep," I say, feeling fourteen, pulling out a yellow towel. "Some new towels, a great deal, seven-fifty each." I lift up the brown shoulder bag for Jess. In the full light I have no doubt she'll hate it. "And a new pocketbook for a lovely granddaughter."
"Excellent," Solly says. His voice is hoarse, thin. It's an effort to speak. "Did you have lunch?"
"Oh yes," Blanche says from the little galley kitchen. She's directly behind the couch, separated from us by a half wall. Solly can't see her without turning around but I can. She's putting up hot water for coffee, instant. She's probably up to ten cups a day. Immediately I suspect she's smoking again.
"Yes? Where?" Solly calls out over his shoulder.
"Oh, a great deli on Atlantic," I say, perching on the arm of the couch so I can see them both. "Roast beef, pickles like you shouldn't know from, salami sliced thin, strudel for dessert." Solly smiles. It's easier having diabetes in Florida than in Queens, he says. The food is so lousy, he's not even tempted. "Okay, we went to a pancake place," I say.
"Pancakes. For people without teeth," Solly says. My mother coughs in the kitchen. Smoker's cough. "You couldn't take her to Romanov's, Blanche?" Solly calls. "You couldn't show Elise something nicer than eggs and maple syrup?"
"Who eats at Romanov's in the middle of the day?" my mother says. She's taking down cups and saucers from the cabinet, white porcelain with a rose border, from her good set. "It's a dinner place. The only people in there at one o'clock in the afternoon are old cockers, retirees with nothing else to do but eat."
"And what are we?" Solly says, talking to the middle of the room. "Upper management?" He looks at me, winks. "We're retired, too, Blanche, remember? That's why we moved here."
"I thought we moved here to enjoy the good weather. To have fun, go swimming, learn to snorkel. Get a good tan." Something in her voice makes me turn to watch her. Bitterness. She fills two cups with hot water before the lid of the teapot clatters into the third, splattering onto the counter and scalding her. She pulls back her hand, and I start off the couch to rush over but she holds up the other hand, furious, adamant -- I'm all right! -- so I sit back down.
"There you go, I rest my case," Solly says, cheerful, winking at me again. He's seen nothing of the kitchen. "That's what retirement is. Vacationing in the sun all day, every day."
I cautiously glance back at my mother. She's dumping in spoonfuls of coffee in each cup. It's going to taste like mud. No one will be able to drink it. "And we were supposed to start a new life, too, Solly," she says, the spoon banging against the porcelain. In a second she'll start saying things she'll regret. "We came to make new friends just as if we were a couple like everyone else, married forty, fifty years, starting a new phase together." The stirring is fierce, and if she doesn't break the cup she's going to knock it over and burn herself.
"And we are starting a new phase, Blanche," Solly says softly over his shoulder. "Just like any other couple, together for forty years. If not always married, at least always together."
I get up, go to the kitchen. Tears are sliding down my mother's face. I take the spoon out of her hand, lead her to the couch, where she sits down and puts her head on Solly's shoulder. Back in the kitchen I empty the cups, pour the coffee down the drain.
AT YVONNE'S INSISTENCE Solly and Blanche have gone to the doctor. The hematoma looks bad, and there are other signs, Yvonne catalogued them for me in the corridor after her evening visit while Blanche pretended to be busy cleaning up the frozen fish squares. Jaundice, something suspicious around the eye, and, most worrisome, gangrene in a toe. The toe will have to be removed, not today but soon, then maybe a second and a third because these things spread and you want to catch them early. He can be fitted with sp