Published Short Story
THERE COMES A YES
On that bitter Ithaca morning when the wind-chill factor was
forty below, Leo Bernstein drove home from the post office after
mailing Beth more of her boxes. He was listening to his favorite
Blues tape, Professor Longhair nasally whining "When your baby leaves
you, you feel so all alone." The mid-January gloom mirrored his
mood--his grief and disappointment at the failure of a relationship
to which he had brought great expectations. He stooped under the
burden of his pain as if his bookbag were filled with rocks. He
needed to find sandbags to hold the walls of his self together to
keep it from flooding the villages of self-esteem, the gardens of
satisfaction, the inns of confidence.
On December 31, 1989, the decade's last day, Beth had handed
him a note as they walked into the house and announced: "I am
leaving." Driving his car, she had picked him up at the airport and
let him grumble in voluble good humor about fog delays. Once home,
without even taking off her full-length mink coat, she had handed him
the note, turned on her heels, got into her packed car and left. The
note read: "Dear Leopold: I am no longer committed. I love you but
can't live with you. It's time to move on with our lives. Love,
Beth." Knowing that she would be taking not only herself away but
also her debilitating depression, Bernstein recalled Mikulin's
devastating words to Razumov: "Where to?"
He had failed to rescue her from her grim history: two
decades of a sexless marriage following teenage years in which she
and a domineering older brother had lived alone as virtual orphans.
Her father was dead and her mother hospitalized for depression. Once
her mother had tried to stab her with scissors; afterwards, she had
lived in the frosty climate of a self-righteous brother who thought
he had a pipeline to God.
Her brother, John the Baptist, sent her cryptic letters
citing odd passages from Zachariah while proclaiming: "A Christian
woman does not live sinfully with a Jewish man." Bullied by a steady
barrage of letters and haranguing phone calls, she had begun to
complain in the autumn that "my spiritual life is not growing here."
It was as if her religion were a hammer and she were a precious stone
being battered by it.
Reinforced later that autumn by a quack New Age Jungian in
Little Rock with whom she consulted by phone in psychobabble, she was
convinced that leaving Leo was the most "loving thing she could do."
But when he thought of the lake and ocean sunsets they had shared;
the intimate dinners; the gentle moments; the laughter; the European
trips; the energy of their conversations on politics, books, and
family; and their joy in each other as they wandered through museums
for hours, he had such a sense of wasted potential. Had he not been
captivated by her elegance and vibrancy, the flamboyance of her
dress, the ebullient "Here's Leo" whenever she saw him? Given how
well the warp and woof of their lives meshed, he thought bitterly
that if Beth and he were a standard, ninety percent of marriages and
relationships would be dissolved immediately.
The memory of her picking him up at the airport that morning
was engraved on his psyche. Had she not greeted him with a kiss as
if everything were ok? It was typical of the way she lived as a kind
of double agent in her own world, a mole burrowing beneath the
surface amenities and creating another self. The social self, the
face with which she gregariously interacted with others, gave way as
she sunk into the slough of despond to the other self--depressed,
self-conscious, fastidious, self-doubting.
As she drove away, he was already putting her pictures in
drawers, even while "shoulding"--"I should have done this." He felt
betrayed after working assiduously on this odd coupling. While he
had seen signs of what he should have recognized as clinical
depression, he had believed that with patience and gentleness he
could overcome the psychic monsters that tortured her and slay these
interior rivals for his affection. She was always carping about the
abrasiveness of life in a university town: "In Little Rock I am a
personality; here I am just your companion." Yet when he had met
her, she had spoken fervently of wanting to leave Little Rock, "the
place where my marriage exhausted me and my ex-husband discounted
me." She had spent two decades with a heavy drinking, denigrating
husband who became, as the years passed, an unwitting parody of Oscar
Wilde. Her family had arrived in Virginia colony more than three
hundred years before and had helped settle three states. Her
Southern aristocratic tradition had little space and less tolerance
for the abruptness, impatience, and assertiveness of either
Northeastern academics or Jews. For the last few months, Beth had
been saying with increasing frequency, "I am empty; I am numb. I
have no friends here." For Leo, love was not a gas tank, but a
fountain that perpetually renewed itself each day.
Gradually, her behavior became more and more idiosyncratic.
She would blurt out: "There is something ominous and oppressive in
this room." One bizarre night she had asked him to kneel together in
prayer for their relationship. Bernstein, in his gargoyle masque,
imagined an indifferent God playing tennis while ant-like humans
continued to dial his number.
Once she had driven off on the decade's last day, he had to
face not only loneliness and blighted hopes and the nibbling at the
very core of his confidence, but also humiliation and embarrassment
in front of his children, his parents, and his friends. People told
him how sad he looked. His image of success was tarnished. As the
years stretched out from the breakdown of his marriage, his idealized
vision of a passionate recoupling and mutual nuturing melted like the
winter snow. Yet in his darkest days, he repeated his mantra to
himself: "Cynicism is the mortality of attitude; sarcasm is the
mortality of speech."
Wearing the mantle of St. Leo of Perpetual Responsibility,
Bernstein felt that in divorce and the failure to quickly remarry and
rebuild a nest, he had let down the home team: his children, his
parents--tightly married for fifty years--and the memory of his
maternal grandparents who had, while visiting, rattled his parents'
bedsprings into their late eighties.
As the first days of January passed, Leo preferred feeling
guilty to being wronged and savored the juices of blaming himself.
Yet, he also needed to look at Beth's behavior from a steep and icy
peek, from a moral and emotional Everest. At times it seemed to him
as if Beth lived in words divorced from feeling, as if life were a
giant zeugma. Everyone--virtual strangers--was "honey" or
"sweetheart" or "darling." For her the words of the world were the
life of the world. Because he was magnitized by her throaty,
sensuous voice which savored the taste and sound of words, it was
difficult when her words lacked proportion as if she were speaking in
a sound track for the wrong film; she said "yes" and did "no." He
was used to a tradition that grumbled "no" and did "yes."
Always hedging, Beth had left behind many of her possessions.
Each day in the first half of January, he put away some of her
belongings or those that they had bought together on their travels.
He was conducting his own funeral. Gradually, as he rearranged his
home, he realized that possessions are not merely the accumulations
of our history, but part of the anthropology of self and the allusive
patterns that define our narrative: a stuffed chair passed down from
his grandparents' Victorian living room; a mahagony breakfront from
his parents' suburban home; a loveseat he and Katherine, his ex-wife,
had bought; a Tiffany lamp his brother's ex-wife had made; a glass
Italian dining table that Beth had carefully selected at a
contemporary furniture store.
As a couple, Beth and Leo had been dying gradually. The
mourners' Kaddish danced through his head: Yasgadal, V'Yisgadal
schmei rabbah. He kept recalling a recent academic funeral.
Bernstein disliked memorial services, yet he was committed to the
vestigal idea of departments as extended families which Jews in
On an unusually hot afternoon, the mourners progressively
nodded off as one after another of the departed Levinson's close
friends read from his last critical book. Levinson had been a
decent, empathetic man and, for many, the conscience of the
department. But, tired of being an outsider and flattered into
playing a role in the demise of the very humanistic values in which
he had believed, Levinson was, to Bernstein, like one of those who
had rearranged the deck chairs of the Titanic. Levinson had entered
into the sacred walls of Ivy League academia at a time when, as
another Jewish colleague had put it, "One couldn't have a Hebrew
National Pastrami hanging out of one's back pocket."
A thin, unhealthy looking man whose hands often shook and who
savored his martinis and cigarettes, Levinson had, like Bernstein,
nurtured and stimulated students who were off the beaten track. As
the service droned on, Bernstein began to wonder if the reading would
be translated into Hebrew and instantly reread in that tongue. God
was getting His due on the Sabbath from the apostate Jew who had
strayed from his tradition as he had strayed from his principles.
For it was on the Sabbath, a day when Jewish funerals were not
permitted, that this service droned on and on as if orthodox Rabbis,
rather than nine Gentiles, were dovening. Bernstein looked up and
saw nine colleagues--not one Jew, and one short of a
minyan--transmogrified into bearded men with long black robes, payes
yarmulkas. Every other member of the audience, even the widow, had
long since fallen asleep. Why was the service of a fellow humanist
in which paragraphs were read atesting to his love of literature so
deadly? Bernstein thought of Auden's line: "About suffering they
were never wrong. The Old Masters," but did they have a take on
boredom induced by reading literary criticism aloud?
The ancient and crusty Professor Deluge, who was making a
subspecialty of reading at the memorial services of those he
outlived, remarked, "When I was called to read for this service, I
thought it must be for my own." Always controlling his destiny, Leo
thought about how he should plan his own funeral; he always regarded
these occasions as auditions--unless he had himself frozen in his
backyard until a cure was found for whatever killed him.
Unfortunately the ground might thaw in August, and he might rot
unless he bought space in a human meat freezer in California. In any
case, Bernstein thought that he would leave a document insisting that
at his funeral songs of Professor Longhair and Dr. John, Wilson
Pickett and maybe The Coasters and The Rolling Stones be played, as
well as a little Mozart, and that his sons read some Stevens
poems--short ones--and Molly Bloom's last twenty or so lines.
His feelings of loss, loneliness, and betrayal had
echoes--echoes of his high-school girlfriend's sudden breakup with
him in his freshman year at college at her parents' behest, of his
ex-wife's drinking and her gradual emotional abandonment: her final
announcement that her mothering days were over, that her career was
her life, and that "the kids," seventeen and thirteen, "were adults."
Katherine had proclaimed that Leo could either parent the children
himself or they could--as she and her younger brother had done when
she was ten and her alcoholic parents divorced--"fend for
themselves." As in the months before he left his marriage to
Katherine--a marriage that had flourished for two decades and had fed
his dreams of reclaiming a concept of home--his hands kept falling
asleep until he awoke with hands of stone. History repeats itself
with a difference.
Leo's memory reverberated with images and echoes of the past.
One night he had overheard Ben say to his drunken mother, "I want my
mother back," and Leo had been overcome with guilt and grief; that
memory plagued his conscience, and was a catalyst for providing a
permanent place for his kids. A few nights after Beth left, he
dreamt that he woke up, put his hand on the shape sleeping next to
him, and found it cold; he called Beth's name, but she did not
respond. He leaned over and listened for her heartbeat. Panic
overcame him. He leapt up and called for an ambulance. But he knew
it was too late. In spite of his diligence, his careful monitoring,
the fragile pacemaker had failed; her heart lay still.
Bernstein was a man of seasons. No matter how secular a Jew
he was and no matter how little he went to temple, Rosh Hashanah
implied a new beginning, renewal. But when he had gone to temple in
the Fall, he had intuitively known--as he had known once before with
Katherine--that this would be his last Jewish New Year with Beth.
Was it not Beth who had nourished his increasing turn to Judaism?
Hadn't they shared the ritual of lighting Friday night candles,
Passover Seders with his sons, and Hannukah?
Working on the relationship had become the relationship. The
cables that held them together became badly frayed. Perhaps their
moment of demise was like the place where Wordsworth had crossed the
Alps in The Prelude--without knowing it. Looking back, he realized
that he and Beth had become separated at some indeterminate point in
the past until in the short dark days of December only crumbs of a
shared emotional life remained.
When Beth left to be with her ninety-two year old aunt,
Bernstein knew that she was attending their death as a couple. "I
need to go there; she is the last of my family; I have to reconcile
with her." The alleged reason for the visit was to say her last
goodbye. Once there, she did not return for weeks. Each night she
called to say she would be back in a few days, until Bernstein
announced, "If you want to be welcomed back, the time is now."
Leo resented that his life had been a function of Beth's
whims to travel. Every week or so for three years, she simply
announced she was off to see family or friends, to attend this
reunion or that graduation, and left, and they had not bonded with
other couples or friends or planted roots in fertile ground. A woman
who avoided being with her husband and who had sent her now-grown
kids to boarding school at an early age, she had always kept in
motion: "I've never been in one place for two weeks," she had once
remarked; to which he responded, "I've never missed making love
within a two-week period." Bernstein had told her more than once, "I
am not interested in romantic rendezvous in New York or Paris, but
with whom I have dinner Tuesday night."
After her long absence, she came back and they muddled along
for a few days while they put the finishing touches on their final
decision. "Can you forget the past? Can you stop hitting me with a
two-and-a-half-year club that keeps growing?" "I can forget the
past." It used to be, he thought, "You have no grace notes." Now it
was, "You cannot forget the past." He was tired of working for
tenure in his personal life and of hearing what was wrong with him;
he was what he was and if he could be rough around the edges,
demanding, and abrasive, he rarely lost his exuberant good humor,
wanted to please, and awoke each morning ready to embrace life and
the woman he loved.
The memories of their last days were etched on his memory.
When she returned from her aunt's funeral in mid-December, their
present had become awash in a sea of words. They had once created an
isthmus of loving words--an isthmus now overpowered by storm-driven
seas of hurtful words. "You are speaking to me as if I were a
child," she said when he asked her to wipe bottles of wine before
putting them on the shelf. "Beth, you are not being blamed or
scolded." "I don't want to hear your fucking criticism!"
The inevitable hovered over their last days, yet Bernstein
faintly thought he heard the siren calls of hope when they
reconnected at dinner or enjoyed a brisk walk in the cold December
air. Her strategy was to negotiate the best possible sale of her
share of the condo they had bought together; his strategy was to
avoid the empty spot he knew he would feel on her leaving. As she
packed the treasures from her travels, bare shelves and half-filled
boxes occupied their rooms.
He remembered the expression of a former colleague from
Kentucky: "Some days the bear eats you; some days you eat the bear."
In his home, the bear had been feasting on him for quite some time,
and it might be time to disgorge himself before there was nothing
left but bare bones. Indeed, in his worst moments he thought of Beth
as a vulture trying to pick at his bones as he lay gasping for
breath, ever hopeful of a miraculous rescue and nourishment. Yet at
other moments, he walked down the corridors of what might have been
and recalled picnics in local gorges, drives in the South of France,
dinner in the ancient Jewish ghetto in Rome, and the thrill of
exploring Minoan ruins on Crete.
On that sunless January morning after mailing Beth her boxes,
he returned to the house to find his son, Ben, celebrating the first
awakened hours of his twenty-second birthday. He sat reading the
Sports section in the wake of his finished breakfast--hacked-at
butter with a knife sticking out of it, the debris of his Cheerios in
the bowl, a half-filled juice glass: "the mark," Bernstein thought,
"of Katherine's influence." Ben's mother would rather paint a house
than clean it.
An open letter lay on the table. Ben's friend Lisa had
written to him, "I still love you, but don't feel the same about our
relationship. It's time to move on." Were hurtful words like an
epidemic, Leo wondered, moving rapidly through the population? Ben:
"I am depressed. This is the worst time of my life. I can't work.
I don't want to go back to school. This is the pits. And my car
needs a new transmission which I can't afford." Bernstein: "We'll
get through our bad days together. I'll help you with the car."
"So much pain," Leo thought. "Pain is catching, and the
immunological system can't insulate itself against it. I caught
Beth's, and Ben is catching mine." Later that afternoon when Teresa,
Leo's former lover, stopped by to see how he was doing in the face of
his emotional earthquake, Ben spoke disparagingly of "love as
hysteria." He understood the rules of single life, and cautioned
Bernstein about misleading Teresa: "Lying is the worst thing." In
turn Bernstein encouraged him to date, only to be told that "no one
compares to Lisa; she is the only one."
He knew loneliness was a condition, like a toothache or a
knee pain that never quite receded; it could only be displaced.
Perhaps his need for companionship was an emotional handicap, but
after a full day of writing and reading alone, he craved company, and
company meant a loving woman. Reconnecting with Teresa meant
avoiding, for a time, singles volleyball, keeping in touch with
prospective replacements as if he were recruiting for a team. It
meant that he would not have to accept unwanted invitations, go to
third-rate movies, and put himself on display to female shoppers in
the dating mart.
Fear of future pain generated lies, hedging, the romantic
soul diminished to its realist practicality, the taking care of self,
the storing up, like squirrels, of hoards of emotional acorns in the
face of winter, the flirting, the flattering, the unctuousness, the
waste of precious energy in the search for the emotional Holy Grail.
Headline in the Bernstein Daily Gazette, his fantasy newspaper:
Prospects for Life Partner Diminished; Volume of Prospects Running
High, but Quality Thinning.
Ben and Leo Bernstein comforted and advised one another
without their usual tension. Ben was living with Leo until he
decided on his next step. Bernstein had a limited repertory but
could cook three or four impressive meals, a feat which had proved a
great wooing asset in the interregnum between Katherine and Beth.
Ben and Leo cooked together; Ben taught Leo some tips on seasoning
the pasta sauce; when they shopped together, Ben taught him to shop
frugally and buy comparable off-brands. To please Leo, Ben even, on
occasion, overcame his constitutional antipathy for neatness.
Bernstein recalled his simple but functional salmon recipe and began
to make explorations in the kitchen, while chastising himself for not
watching and learning more from Beth's culinary prowess.
One night while they were getting in each other's way making
a salad together, Ben asked, "Do you remember when I was six how you
saved the life of a baby by stopping and jumping out of your car and
running in front of a truck thundering down a hill just in time to
pick up and save the baby who had crawled out of a house and was
making its way across the street in front of the oncoming truck?"
Bernstein was pleased that Ben remembered one of his finer moments,
even while with gratitude suspecting that Ben's recollection was an
effort to cheer him up in his dark days.
Two lonely, hurt, and confused men living together that
frigid January when the sun refused to shine for more than an hour.
He enjoyed his son's teasing him about his 1950 set shot, his failure
to make the "J" or his inability to use his backhand in squash or
racquetball. Perhaps they shared a common ethnic heritage that
persevered in the face of dark times and affirmed the centrality of
They talked about the past, the glory days of the family,
Ben's Bar-Mitzvah and the "hoops" that day with family and friends,
his tennis successes, the divorce, his ex-wife's alcoholism. One
night Ben remarked, "When you left, we were a dysfunctional family.
Monty Python's world's worst family. No two people liked any other."
"What about you and Stan?" Ben: "We tolerated one another." After a
pause, Ben, laughing, couldn't resist adding: "Among the things
thrown in your last years were butter and shoes." "That is not
true." "Mom says you are lonely." "Yes."
The dikes held. Leo's self-esteem emerged, notwithstanding
cracks and warping. The battle wounds began to heal. As he reshaped
the narrative he told himself, he exculpated himself from the world
of "should" and began to believe that he had done his best and been a
good partner. Joseph Conrad was right, he thought. Work was a
sustaining illusion that kept the inner reality at bay. Writing
helped. So did Leo's credo that every day was a sacred vessel to be
filled with good experiences. Yes, falling down and getting up were
the same motion.
From his bedroom he could see the bare, brown branches set
against the rising sun over the pond, the evergreens against the
light, the imposing stark hills in the distance, a dusting of snow on
an arctic morning. That the winter equinox was well behind and the
days were beginning to lengthen, spoke to him of renewal. Unbowed
under the weight of snow, the towering evergreen on the left
sustained him. He loved winter "snow days" when the university
closed, mail was not delivered, and the banks were shut down, when he
could subtract himself from the hurley-burley of day-to-day academic
olympics, do some quiet reading and writing, live at a slower pace,
and discover a little island within himself as he puttered around his
house. His Crusoeism.
Slowly, as January gave way to February, and February to
March, he began to spend more time with Teresa. She was Beth's polar
opposite. She dressed in earth colors, had limited experience
outside the bedroom, and dreamed of living in what she called a
"thanksgiving house with a fireplace and a bay window" coupled with a
man who loved her. She wrote better than she talked. At times,
particularly when with strangers in a social situation, she didn't
know what to say; when she addressed the smelly rabbit living in her
house, she spoke bunny talk in a higher octave: "How is foofy today?"
Leo had by now rearranged the psychic furniture to virtually absolve
himself of blame for Beth's departure and to believe, no matter how
well he had loved her--loved her still--he could not have prevented
After a while, he settled into a routine where he had weekend
dinners with Teresa, and managed respectable fish and pasta dinners
himself. A refugee from an abusive husband, she too was a battered
veteran of the marital wars. In many ways a child-woman, Teresa
tried to arrest time with long, dyed-blond hair. Her way of avoiding
bills was to not pick up her mail; yet she revelled in the pleasures
of photographing flowers blooming, foliage, and sunsets, and knew how
to focus on the small capillaries of a relationship that fed the main
vessels. In his single days in the mid-eighties he had encountered
women who believed in reincarnation, tarot readings and body massages
to discover psychic weak spots, but Teresa's belief in flying saucers
and a conviction that Jesus was born in a manger Christmas Day in
Bethlehem, psychics, horoscopes, and the possibilities of economic
metamorphosis offered by lottery tickets were a challenge for Leo the
Aristotelian who lived in the ineluctable modality of the visible,
or, as Joyce put it, what you damn well have to see. With his head
in her lap, he could process his day, relax, and be made to feel that
he mattered. For some years she had been his refuge in times when
the emotional volcanoes threw their ash upon him, a psychic spa to
which he went periodically for partial cures.
As the days lengthened and the embers of possibilty with
Teresa held some slight potential of a warming flame, Bernstein made
his skiing debut just prior to his fiftieth birthday. He rolled, he
fell, he got stuck, he couldn't get up the hill without skidding or
down the hill without falling. He turned head over heels until his
outsized nose was stuck ostrich-like in the snow and his feet were
pointing outward as if he were standing on his head in the glacial
cold. When he fell, the skis released and fell on top of him. He
was a threshing machine casting skis in every direction. Unable to
keep from skidding while waiting on line in the lift and while
holding on to ropes, he skidded under the rope and the poles went
flying out the other side. He fell as he exited from the lift, and
he fell even when he was being held up by the instructor. As he went
up the life--er, lift--his poles were on the inside and he couldn't
exit from the chair. On the ski lift he felt like a kosher chicken
awaiting ritualistic slaughter on the hill. He could not stop, and
had passing relationships with trees and fences as he skied into
bogs, poles, people, and other skis belonging to the people on whose
feet they were attached.
By the end of the day, instructors fled as he approached them
asking for a chance to go down the hill. No wonder, they had to ski
backward holding on to his skis to support him. He probably caused
an epidemic of ski instructor winter hemorrhoids. After he was hit
by the chairlift, he said, "I could be home writing my novel."
Several weeks after Beth's departure, Leo had another dream,
one he had had once before: "I have been a sailor, too," he said to
the ancient Indian Brahman as he disembarked from the Indian's boat
and walked away. "I have sailed my ship through the shoals and waves
of life. And my bark--me--is what you see." The Indian--whose
short, squat appearance recalled Beth's son and whose face resembled
hers and her brother's--had impressed him with his elegance and
worldliness and aura of knowing something that Bernstein could not
possibly know. As he left the boat, the turbaned Indian--who now no
longer seemed impeccably dressed, whose manners now seemed to cover
an abrupt, self-serving manner--began acknowledging the folly of the
caste system and his family pretensions. And his seemingly
magnificent boat was just a raft in a small pond. They parted with a
perfunctory formal hug that acknowledged that they both knew. And he
was pleased because he wanted to be understood, to make the other see.
The first time he had the dream was a few days before he left
for Washington in late December. When he had told Beth the dream,
his voice had cracked; she didn't notice. He recalled a wonderful
line from Diner: "If you don't have good dreams, you will have bad
Gradually as the interior blizzards and fog abated, he turned
to the warming sun, the tulip and daffodil bulbs bursting, the
leafing trees. With his approaching fiftieth birthday on the
horizon, he needed to take stock and to measure the internal weather.
The dikes held for Ben, too. In early March, after Ben had
departed for New York to teach tennis at a club and, perhaps, to keep
hope alive with Lisa, Leo's younger son, Stan, arrived. On his
second son's shoulders had fallen the volcanic ash of divorce and his
mother's alcoholism. Stan had retreated deeply into the caverns of
sports fantasies and barely had enough energy to apply for college.
But Stan was thawing out from the emotional freeze in which he had
put himself to avoid the hurt and embarrassment during Katherine's
Complaining about his freshman year, he said, "Everything is
tracked from kindergarten through graduate school. Besides, I want
to leave Union because I don't have opportunities to meet people.
The fraternity system segregates people; they are each other's
friends and I am on the outside." "I said you could join a
fraternity. Or get good grades at Union College so you can transfer
After a moment, Leo continued: "Let's talk about the next
three weeks and the summer. I want you to be a partner; I want you
to help keep our house clean." "I choose not to vacuum." "I have
asked you for years not to eat downstairs," Leo's voice rising in
anger as it did when he began to lose control. The enlightening
family seminar continued. Stan: "Get out of my face." Leo: "You
are abusive to me." Stan: "Shut up." With his characteristic
optimism for repression, Leo tried to forget these conversations,
conversations which wrung him dry and made single parenting a heavy
burden as if he were carrying a thousand-pound canary on his
In a loud, high-pitched, aggressive voice that reflected his
frustration, Stan burst out: "I want to get a nose job. I am not
having much fun. I don't really connect with girls; only ugly girls
are interested in me." "But my nose is twice the size of yours and
broken; your great grandpa's was twice the size of mine and he did
all right." "Your nose was fine until it was broken; and besides you
have a distinguished adult look." "You are as handsome as Ben," Leo
responded, forgetting the insensitivity of such comparisons. "Ben
had Lisa and she is beautiful." "Ben didn't have a girlfriend until
he and Lisa got together after his sophomore year." "My nose is
broken at the end." "Let me have a look." Leo walked over and saw a
nose that was a little wide at the end but whose total stature was
not in the same league as his own. "If you want a nose job, we'll
arrange it. Your social development was retarded by the way you
lived with Mom during her troubles. And you withdrew. But many
eighteen-year-olds have social problems." "I'm nineteen." "Do you
make friends easily?" "No."
After a moment of awkward silence, Stan began again: "Girls
that I would feel good about liking, don't like me. The only girl
who likes me is ugly, shy, and pisses me off." "You need to take
risks. Have you taken my suggestions about asking a girl out?" "It
would not be worth losing a friend; my relationship with the girl
would change. I don't know what to do." After a few moments of
silence: "Stan, when I was younger I had these problems. And when I
started to date after the divorce, I realized that I was playing in a
game without rules that I understood." "You had these problems at
fifteen; you let me read your diaries when I found them." "One has
to take chances; I've been rejected, too." Leo continued: "Can't
you think that when you are rejected that the mistake was the
girl's?" "It won't happen. I can't ask a girl out and risk
rejection." "Have you tried counselling?" Leo tasted his son's
disappointment and frustration, regretted every harsh word he had
ever spoken to him, knew Stan's hurt, knew what it felt like to be at
the edge, to be a marginalized outsider: "You need to take charge of
your life, and be active not reactive." He mouthed shibboleths and
hated himself for not saying something that could soothe Stan's open
A little make-believe, Bernstein felt, maybe even some hours
of escapist fantasy, could provide energy just as much as physical
exercise, as long as one could negotiate between the two worlds. In
his interviews for the Bernstein Daily Gazette, he often said to
himself, "What will I do when I grow up?" He admired those who wove
the tapestry of their own lives. Imagination and reality, he avowed,
need not occupy completely separate realms; we create our own magic
realms to fulfill our needs and fantasies. When he had read in the
New York Times that the average American had four minutes of sexual
fantasy a day, hadn't he remarked to himself that he must have
brought up the national average one minute?
Of course, death always won the game, a game which in his
imagination was like a chess game in The Seventh Seal. He thought
often of Dylan Thomas's lines:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Bernstein not only made it through his fiftieth birthday, but
revelled in the process: "My goal is to live to be one hundred and
to play tennis on that birthday." His spirits revived; once again he
followed the ancient ethnic rituals of kvetching, for complaining was
a sauce that gave the daily vessel's ingredients a piquant taste and
seasoned experience. Now he awoke each morning and groused to
himself unless Teresa was with him, in which case he barked in
corners to catch her attention.
The long awaited birthday weekend is over. With plane
tickets he provided, his sons and brother visited to celebrate. A
Bernsteiniad weekend of tennis, racquetball, basketball seasoned by
birthday dinners gnaws its way into the past. There is no magic
circle, only a series of mirages, or perhaps oases in which we enter
for a day at a time. We must live each day for itself; yet we also
live each day at the center of concentric circles of our past
histories. As we age, the journey--not the destination--matters.
How do we learn to live with the arabesque of uncertainty and to
respond to the pentimento of the past?
Once again he prepared his bark for the impossible quest to
find the clarity of a Raphael or Michaelangelo cartoon in his work
and days and love, to reach for what his beloved Wallace Stevens
called "ultimate elegance, the imagined land." He recalled his
favorite Stevens lines:
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
Like Ulysses and Joyce's Bloom, Leopold resumes his journey to
retrieve his emotional Ithaca and rediscover the identity of his
Penelope. Perhaps Ithaca is a state of mind as well as a place for
Ulysses. The harsh memories of Beth's departure has given way to
affectionate memories of the world they had once shared and the
pleasures of discovering each other's differences.
One beautiful Finger Lake's spring day is succeeding another,
the deer have reappeared in the backyard near the pond, the dogwood
and redbud are blooming, hope and promise are in the air. Bernstein
laughs at the memory that feeds the morning of the first day of his
second fifty years--the memory of dancing naked years ago to
Professor Longhair's and Dr. John's bouyant Blues with his friend
Lark, a New Orleans woman of ancient folk tales and wisdom; he heard
Dr. John's nasal chant, "If I don't do it, somebody else will." Lark
had said, "You remind me of the trickster and he is a worthy
character. In Hopi Indian tales, he is the figure of insight, the
one who emerges to befriend the friendless, to work his
interventional magic in the right places on behalf of the just and
worthy." Yes. Yes, Leo, Yes.