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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
"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
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
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
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
from the September 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine