The Face Tells the Secret

The Face Tells the Secret

by Jane Bernstein


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Everything has been hidden from Roxanne G.—her birth name, her sister, her family history—until her “boyfriend” tries to ingratiate himself by flying in her estranged mother from Tel Aviv. That visit is the start of a tumultuous journey, in which she first learns about a profoundly disabled sister who lives in a residential community in the Galilee and later begins to unearth disturbing long-held family secrets. The process of facing this history and acknowledging the ways she’s been shaped by it will enable Roxanne to forge the kinds of meaningful connections that had for so long been elusive. In this way, The Face Tells the Secret is the story about a woman who finds love and learns how to open herself to its pleasures. The Face Tells the Secret is also a story that explores disability from many angles and raises questions about our responsibility to care for our kin. How far should Roxanne go to care for the wounded people in her life—her mother, her sister, the man who professes undying love? What should she take on? When is it necessary to turn away from someone’s suffering?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781947548787
Publisher: Regal House Publishing
Publication date: 10/18/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 315
Sales rank: 595,588
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jane Bernstein is the author of two novels, three memoirs, and a children’s book she cowrote with her daughter. Her essays, which have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun, and many other journals, have been anthologized in such places as True Stories Well Told, Love You to Pieces, and Best American Sports Writing 2018. She is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a Fulbright Fellowship and is a member of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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I was too young to remember our journey to the U.S., so life, as I recall it, begins on a cold morning, in the back of a garden apartment in New Jersey, not far from Bell Laboratories, where my mother worked. The sun is bright overhead, and I'm wearing a new wool winter coat, double-breasted with brass buttons, and breathing, or rather, teaching myself to breathe by inhaling deeply through my nose and exhaling through my lips, practicing, as if without this practice, I would not know how to do it. Though I recall no adults nearby while I am breathing, someone has teased me for standing with my mouth open, "catching flies," which is why at four, I am trying so hard to do it the right away.

And now a year or so has passed. It's late afternoon, a raw runny-nose kind of day, and I'm alone in a playground at the back of this garden apartment complex, a dusty square with three creaky swings, a seesaw, and a small slide. I avoid all of this equipment, but the slide is what I fear most. I'm afraid of climbing the metal steps, of reaching the top and having to extend one leg and then the other, of having to loosen my grip on the railings enough to slide to the bottom. But now I've come here by myself, determined to conquer this fear. It feels as necessary as learning how to breathe. I can't say how it is I'm alone at dusk on this bristly afternoon, only that I never could have made myself go up that ladder, awkwardly reposition myself at the top, let go of the railings just enough to stutter down slowly, again and again if anyone were with me. I know this, just as I know this is not a photo I am "remembering." We had no photos. Nor was it a family story. We had no family stories. Now it seems that it makes no difference if this memory, like the one in which I teach myself to breathe, is real or manufactured. They are of me, these pieces of experience, and when they return to me, I am surprised by the clarity and emotional truth of each.

My mother, Leona Garlick, was a physicist. She worked in psychoacoustics and eventually became the first woman department head at Bell Labs.

She was different from the other mothers — we were different. She said this proudly, which lead me to believe that "different" was a more polite way of saying "better." Certainly she was more beautiful than the other mothers, with thick black hair, dark eyes and full lips she colored red, and she was a scientist, "not the least bit maternal," a descriptor, like "different" she used with great pride; "maternal" being something that described housewives, while she couldn't "waste her time on such nonsense."

Her words, her expressions, live in my brain.

I cannot remember her in everyday life — at the dinner table, watching a show on TV, wearing pants. Only waiting for her, knocking on the door of the office she'd set up in the house my parents bought near Bell Labs, pink from my bath, teeth brushed, dressed in pjs. Her office was a sacred room, completely different from the rest of the house, which was tidy and well-furnished and spare, with no tchotchkes at all. Her space was cluttered with books and journals, towers of stacked trays, and gifts she'd been given over the years: a red-tasseled scroll from China, a netsuke from Japan, a ceramic burro, a brass clock, inscribed with her name. Knocking softly. Daring to open the door an inch. She might swivel in her chair, might lean over, might let me put my lips to her cheek, carefully; even then I knew she did not like to be touched.

Also a treat was being allowed to sit on the edge of her bed while she dressed for an evening event, to watch the faces she made in the mirror when she dabbed on eye shadow, applied her lipstick, blotting the excess by placing a single square of toilet paper between her lips, pressing hard, then scrutinizing herself from each angle, close up, from a distance. Or sitting on the top step when the scientists came over, where I could see her in the wing chair, waving her arms languidly while she spoke, cigarette between her fingers, legs in sheer hose. The way the room went silent while she spoke; the way they waited to laugh until she did, these men. And they were all men, in those days, and she was the queen.

Once a visitor from another country wanted to say hello to me, and my mother had called warmly from the bottom of the stairs. "Roxanne, come and meet our guest." She escorted me into the living room and let me stay until nine o'clock. I know because she said, "All right, upstairs. It's nine o'clock."

On another night, I raced downstairs after the company had left, crying, "Mommy!" and was stopped by her angry visage. "Aren't you a little old to call me Mommy?"

How old had I been? — Six, seven? After that, I had not known what to call her and was too shy to ask. Mommy was too babyish. Mom was like a dumpling caught in my throat. Mama was too European. Mother was the name used by the scrubbed, well-mannered children in the stories I loved, when Nanny escorted them into the drawing room to say goodnight.

Because my mother had important things to do, the girl picked me up from school, gave me milk and cookies and sat with me until my father, a math teacher, came home. The girl was an older black woman, with shiny hair that looked to be of one solid piece, and long slender fingers. She held my hand when we walked home, brushed my hair gently, making a neat part, letting the comb tickle my scalp, and tying my hair in two pigtails. I cannot recall her face, only those beautiful hands with the long fingers and oval nails.

Then there was the Polish girl with grayish skin and moles on her cheeks; "beauty marks," she called them. She ate cookies with me, three for every one I was allowed because she was bigger, she said. After the Polish girl was a high school student with blonde eyebrows and long blonde hair. She wore pink lipstick, and one of her arms was short and hung loosely. This girl was determined to ignore me. Something about her willful lack of interest made me act in a different way with her than I had with the others. I followed her from the kitchen, and when she picked up the boxy phone and carried it as far as the extension cord would go, I trailed behind and talked at her, while she talked into the phone, traveling, phone in hand, trying to turn away from me, the cord twisting around her.

"I hate her," I told my father. Unable to explain why, I asked why her arm was like that, and he breathed heavily, which he did when he was disappointed, and said I must never be cruel. "She's a human being just like you." I was ashamed and did not know why, only that she continued to ignore me as if it was her official job, and I continued to follow her everywhere, until at last she quit.

After that, I wore a house key on a chain around my neck and let myself in through the back door.

Branches scratching the windows, voices, a stranger ringing our bell; the moan of the siren, which meant someone's house was on fire. These were the daytime sounds that made me rigid with fear. At night, I was jolted awake by crying, screaming; angry words in a language I felt but did not understand. Trembling in bed, I was unable to move. Though I could not say it was her, my body was heavy with the knowledge, and in the morning I watched, waiting from a distance, careful not to get too close. If I felt the tension abate, I might hum and twirl into the kitchen and be very cute, and sing, "Bar-rump went the little green frog one day," or "When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbing along along," or another song I'd learned in school. Sometimes I was told flatly to stop being cute, though she might pause and smile and say, "That was cute."

I loved my mother so much.

My classmates brought in ant farms and erector sets for show and tell. I asked my mother if I could bring her, and she said yes. The morning she was to come to school, she wore a tweed suit, a silk blouse, and long gold chains, one with a watch in a locket. It was all so thrilling: the heels of her pumps clicking on the old wood floor; the word "pumps"; the square briefcase she carried with its brass lock that clicked smartly, like a soldier's salute; the way she stood in front of the room. The teacher moved to the corner of the room, where she sat knock-kneed in a small chair. while my mother leaned against her desk.

The children's hands went up. I watched with pride as she pointed a polished nail to call on a boy. Her answers were so patient.

No, she was not a medical doctor. She was a scientist.

No, test tubes were not used in her lab: she had electronic equipment.

I got a hall pass so I could walk her to the front door of the school and stand with her until my father pulled up outside. After my parents drove away, I skipped back to my classroom, heels noisy on the linoleum. I felt special as I slipped into my seat.

All afternoon, I was swollen with pride. My mother.

At recess a boy said, "Why does she talk like that?"

"Like what?" I said.

Our teacher said, "Dr. Garlick grew up in another country and has an accent."

"No she doesn't," I said.

Later, I was able to hear her as that boy had done: I could detect the subtle differences, the way she'd mastered the w, except when she was mad, but the th continued to elude her. Den you vill go vidout dinner.

But at the time, what the boy and teacher said felt like accusations, and they were wrong. My mother didn't have an accent or come from somewhere else.

But what were we? A year or two later, while I'm leaning against a damp brick wall at recess, picking at the mortar, a moon-faced girl walks over. She stands very close and scrutinizes me: hair, blouse, shoes. She squints, as if to see beneath my clothes, then asks, "What are you?" I don't know what to tell her, but I think maybe my father does, since he's a teacher. When he gets home, I ask, "What am I?"

The question makes him uneasy. "Who wants to know?" he asks.

"A girl at school," I say.

"Why, is she an anti-Semite?"

"What's an anti-Semite?"

I follow him to his office, watch him open the clasp of his accordion briefcase and arrange the papers on his desk. When he goes to the bathroom, I prop myself against the door, smell the cigarette smoke that escapes from the gap near the floor, wait for the flush, then slide into a sitting position against the wall while he goes into the bedroom to change his clothes, asking, asking, until eventually I understand that "Jewish" is the answer to, "What are you?" The definition of "anti-Semite" is: "People who don't like us."

"I'm Jewish," I tell the girl the next time she approaches. She studies me in that same up-down way, hair, clothes, shoes, and says, "I'm Catholic," and walks away.

But what is Jewish? My parents considered themselves more fully evolved than our church-going neighbors with their bathtub virgins, or the typical suburban Jews with their kosher kitchens who ate spareribs and shrimp at the local Chinese restaurant. We had no Chanukah bush, like some of these families. We celebrated no holidays, had no family traditions, no siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts. It seemed, then, that "Jewish" was a category, a label for a box. But the box was empty.

When asked my religion, I learned to say, "Nothing." Later, when it puzzled friends who knew I was born in Israel and that my father taught at a Jewish school, my answer became more insistent. We were nothing. It was a milder response than the one given by my mother, who often held forth on her hatred of all religion.

For a long time, I believed that my mother's dislike of me stemmed from my problems with math. I love reading and drawing, the smell and texture of everything in the art room at school, the fat, waxy crayons, the jars of paste, with brushes attached to the lids, the coarse colored paper. I also love "the woods," an undeveloped triangle of land with berry bushes and scrubby trees, holes beneath the brush made by burrowing animals, and beautiful caterpillars I bring home in metal Band-Aid boxes. But numbers are as unyielding as the languages my parents spoke. In class, while everyone else's pencils glide across their pages, their erasers bobbing, I tear my paper while trying to scrub my errors, then ball up the mess I've made and throw it on the floor.

My father begins sitting with me at the dining room table every day when he gets home from school, sadness in his breathing, his stale smell, and his chalky sleeves, the annoying kh kh sound he makes to clear his throat. My failure, his irritation. "It's easy! Look. It's easy!"

Is this what he says to his students at Solomon Schechter?

You must finish this before I get Mother.

Looking up at him, obtuse, angry. Everything compressing, hardening inside me.

Every year it gets worse. Even now, I can't say if my failures were willful or unavoidable, only that I could not do those problems, could not disappoint my parents, yet disappointed them every day.

By middle school, I was like a bird that makes a nest with straw and tinsel, strands of audiotape and plastic bags. In my nest, along with the scary nighttime sounds and languages used to exclude me, were blue aerogrammes with Hebrew writing. A holocaust survivor who came to our school: she was part of that nest. The book with photos of living skeletons in striped pajamas: piles of bones, of shoes, of purses, the mournful girls who looked at me from the pages, as if to pull me into the picture where I belonged.

Somehow, I knew that my father had family in Israel, and my mother had been sent to live with cousins she loathed in Lyon, France. Eventually, I had enough detail to construct a Cinderella story, in which she was beautiful and smart and made to scrub the floor on hands and knees while the ugly sisters, real miskeits, both of them, had fancy clothes and went to balls. (I, too, was a miskeit, skinny and messy, with dark enough skin that the class bully, when he was done mocking me for my name, called me "jungle bunny," a slur I failed to understand, but felt as a slur.)

I must have asked before I knew not to ask, because I recall the way my mother looked at me when I came close to an unmentionable topic, her gaze so fierce I quickly averted my eyes in shame. I got that look in another situation: I was thirteen and had gone to a classmate's bar mitzvah, and when my father came to pick me up, it took a while before anyone could find me. My mother had asked where I'd been and I cheerfully confessed, "In the coat room with Richie, Neil, and Robby." I saw the look on her face and never again spoke about boys.

* * *

In this time, when my mother's dislike of me weighed heavily, I met a girl in orchestra named Mindy who played the violin — I, improbably, played bass. I admired from afar her plaid mini-skirts and the color-coordinated knee socks. "Admired" is too mild: I couldn't take my eyes off her. I loved the way she wadded up her gum and placed it carefully in a tissue, the way she flipped her hair before positioning the violin on her shoulder, the way she crossed her ankles when she played. At eleven, Mindy had already "developed"; I loved the way she plucked at the hem of her sweater, pulling it away from her body to minimize the curve of her breasts, a habit she retained in middle age.

And then there was Mindy's house and her family, with an ebullient mother — a fashionable blonde dance teacher named Muriel — an older brother, and a fat beagle named Muttnik. Every day after school, Mindy and I would make ourselves a snack, curl up together in her parents' huge unmade bed, with its piled-up pillows and comforter, and watch TV. We'd kick at the dog sleeping in the bedclothes, and he'd ride the waves, groan, fart, hold his ground. The disorder was splendid, not just the messy house, with lipsticked butts in ashtrays, but the noisy relationship Mindy had with her brother, the hair-pulling and fighting in the back seat of the car, their baroque means of torture — Indian burns, noogies, half-nelsons — which did not hide their attachment to each other. Once Mindy's brother called their mother a bitch and she said, "Get out of my sight," and threw a spoon at him, and the next night, he was at the table, amusing them with the yoyo tricks he'd learned — Around the World, Walking the Dog.

The morning after my first sleepover, Mindy climbed into bed beside her mother, and I stood in the doorway until Muriel said, "Come, tsatskelah. I don't bite." I curled beside her and never wanted to leave.


Excerpted from "The Face Tells the Secret"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Jane Bernstein.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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