Magnolias


         

magnolias

 
 
 
 

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Magnolias

Copyright 1996 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

I was deliriously happy as I waited for Bill in my Washington, D.C., apartment that Sunday night in the early 1960s. I twirled about my room, checked a hairpin here, an earring there, and listened to the clock ticking in my otherwise silent room. There is nothing better than waiting for the man you love to come to you, knowing that he will, and that that night he will be making love to you.

For a moment, a frightening thought pierced my mind. I remembered the night before, after Bill had gone home, when I had picked up the Bible that lay on my bookshelf. I had opened it haphazardly--to find a prophecy. It read:

For the punishment of the iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom, That was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands stayed on her. (Lamentations 4.6)

Would I be punished? Was it a sin to love a goy, a shaygetz? Was it a betrayal of my people?

I could not believe this was so. If there was a God, then, surely, that entity was the God of all the people and my loving a non-Jew would not be a sin. I did not believe the myth that cast the Jews as the "chosen people" with a special mission in the world. I did feel guilty about the loss of Yiddishkayt in my descendants should I marry Bill. But I would have to deal with that. Life was not perfect. "It isn't the way we would draw it," Mother used to say. And I was in love.

I thought about the night before when I had made this discovery and my decision to act on it. By that time, Bill and I had been dating for about six months. We met as office mates at the National Labor Relations Board where we were both attorneys. We had begun going out--a walk around the Jefferson Memorial, an evening at a Watergate concert, dinner at a country inn, down to Pennsylvania Avenue to see Charles de Gaulle ride triumphantly by with a beaming Dwight D. Eisenhower at his side. And I had come to love this shy, unassuming young man whose background was so different from mine.

I had been raised on the bugaboo that if I married a goy, no matter how many years the marriage lasted, there would come a day when he could call me a "dirty Jew." But this was a ridiculous canard born out of the ghetto mentality. Surely, that would never happen with Bill. I remembered the visit to his home, the small clapboard house off Massachusetts Avenue, with the pictures of Civil War veterans in the front parlor, all ancestors, all named Chappel (with a double "p" said Bill).

I looked at our reflection in the colonial mirror in the hallway and shook my head in wonder. There I was, with parents from a shtetl, a town, in Poland, alongside this tall, young American man whose ancestors fought in the Civil War. What twist of fate had brought us together and made us love each other in such a wild and inexplicable way?

But early that Saturday evening, such thoughts were far from my mind. From the minute Bill walked in the door and we looked at each other, it was good. It was always good between us, good when we looked, good when we talked, and good when we touched. "There must be a God," he had said, holding me in his arms, "if we can feel this way--there must be a God."

"Yes, my darling," I had replied. "There must be a God."

That night I had decided, once and for all time, that I was in love and that I would marry Bill. I knew it would be difficult. My parents would never get over it. They were not particularly religious, but they had a strong Jewish identity. They would never accept their only daughter's marriage to a gentile. It would kill my parents and alienate my brother. But a choice had to be made between my parents' and brother's lives and my own. And I had made it.

Now it remained for Bill to decide. That would present no problems. The problems had always been on my side; it had always been my parents, my religion, my concerns.

My reverie was interrupted by a knock at the door, and I ran to open it to let Bill in. He stood there, eyes downcast, arms full of flowers. Oh yes, the magnolias. Bill had promised to bring me some of the magnolias that grew so luxuriantly in the front yard of his home. And here they were.

I spent half an hour trying to arrange those magnolias. They were gigantic white flowers, like no flowers I had seen before. Tropical and lush, they looked out of place in my modern efficiency apartment. And they seemed to resist confinement there. I tried glasses, bowls, even my new casserole dish. I felt somewhat uncomfortable about that. Mother had always abhorred putting anything but food into food containers. Well, Mother was out of it now.

Finally, I gave up and Bill took over with the flowers. I stood by and marveled at his involvement. There he was, adjusting the water, moving the flowers around, cutting the stems, while all I could think of was the moment when he would take me in his arms, hold me, kiss me, and tell me he loved me.

Finally, the magnolias found their place, and we found ours.

Bill and I were on the couch, the couch that was always too small for his large frame. "My longshoreman," I had called him one night. "You don't look like a lawyer, my darling," I had said. "but like a great big wild longshoreman come from the docks."

At that, he had removed his shirt, and I had loved him, wildly and furiously, as one must love a longshoreman. And faced him calmly and coolly in the office the next day, the memory of our love shining in my eyes.

As Bill lowered his head to kiss me that Sunday, I lifted my lips to meet his. How Aryan he looked, with that shock of straight blond hair falling over his forehead. What was I doing kissing this goyish face, this face with its high cheekbones and angular lines? This face that wasn't dark and sad and Jewish. But then Bill's lips touched mine, and I forgot all about faces.

"Bill, darling," I said. "Do you know what I used to say. I used to say,`If you open me up, it will say Jew inside.' And do you know what I say now? `If you open me up, it will say Bill inside.'"

My Will looked pained at that statement. Perhaps he was pained by the sacrifice he realized I would be making--we would both be making. From now on, each of us would be walking in an alien world, a world where neither of us would be completely comfortable. I remembered the fairy tale of the mermaid who traded her fishtail for two feet, two feet that pained her and bled when she walked, but two feet upon which she could walk beside her beloved prince. She had thought the sacrifice worthwhile, and so did I.

As I lay on the couch enfolded by Bill's arms, he began to speak. "If anyone had told me six months ago that I could love a Jew," he began, "I wouldn't have believed him." Did I hear him right? Did he say that? He went on, but all I heard, over and over in my head, was "A Jew--a Jew--a Jew--a Jew--a Jew." He called me "a Jew," not "Sonyitchka," not "darling," not "sweetheart," but "Jew." I looked at myself lying in his arms, at my hands, the pink-tinged nails peeking out through the tapered fingers. I tried to see how those hands differed from other hands. Were they monstrous? Were those crocodile scales, dark and ugly and scabrous? Had Bill fallen in love with a monster and just realized he found that love repulsive?

How odd that this should come to me finally, not from a gang of hoodlums running after me in the dark, but from the lips of the man I loved as he held me in his arms. How foolish I had been to think I could escape. Why should I escape?

Bill was still talking, but I heard little of what he had to say. It had to do with loving me and leaving me. It had to do with terrors, the terrors of the world outside. "If we could spend our lives together in this apartment, I could do it," he said, "but I don't think I can do it outside."

I did not want to hear any more of his words, and I did not want to look anymore at his face. Finally, the torment ended. Bill ambled to the door, muttered a few more words, looked into my eyes one last time, and walked out of my life.

I stood a moment stock still, staring at the closed door, as if, at any moment, it would open, and Bill would walk back in, sweep me up in his arms, and tell me he loved me. Everything that had just happened would be erased, a nightmare that had happened to someone else. And all would be forgotten. But the door didn't open. And, after a while, I hurled myself on the couch and sobbed hysterically to the walls around me, "Why? Why? Why?"

But the walls did not answer.


Copyright 1996 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes This piece has been previously published in an e-zine called JoyZine at www.joyzine.zip.com.au

Sonia Pressman Fuentes is the author of a memoir, Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter. Information on the book and ordering it is available at http://www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes.

~~~~~~~

from the September 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

 

 

 

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