Vergessen/You Must Forget – Rebecca Bihn-Wallace
Before I was a woman, I was a girl.
My mother used to turn me around in front of the mirror, and say, Look at you. One day you’ll be just like me. For a long time, my head could tuck neatly under her chin; even when I was a teenager, it was something we enjoyed doing, my long limbs a pale reflection of hers, my hair a shade lighter. You don’t fit, she exclaimed one day. Indeed I did not. Sometime around my eighteenth birthday, I had enjoyed my final growth spurt. I shot up to five feet seven inches–that was tall for my family. People said I was a beauty; they said I could model. I became a painter instead.
Today I am wearing the red skirt, the one that Rich likes. It is nearly dinner time. Emmeline Weinberg is waiting for us. “You done in there?” he calls from the kitchen. “She’ll be wondering where we are.” (Emmeline Weinberg is always wondering where someone is). “Just a minute,” I call. I imagine Emmeline turning me around, taking note of me. Eyes: hazel. Hair: light brown. Skin: olive.
I had met Rich at a party at the end of the war; he had just been shipped back home. No one knew who he was yet. I had stared uncomprehendingly at the name card on the table where his wine glass was resting. Rich White. I watched him as he moved around the room, enjoyed his comically long gestures. Until, when he came to get his glass, I decided to be insolent.
“Your name can’t possibly be that,” I said, watching him while he fingered the edge of his name card, as if struggling to remember who it belonged to. “Rich White? What are you, a cartoon character?”
He raised an eyebrow, and grinned.
“It was Weiss before we came over.”
“Before who came over?” I asked aggressively.
“My family. Ages ago. To America. Brooklyn, in fact.” I envied him instantly: his family, then, lacked the tragedy that mine–and so many other people I knew in those years–had. “Didn’t want to sound too German, you know,” he said, and then flinched, only just registering my accent. “Your English is very good,” he added magnanimously.
“I’ve been here since ‘38,” I replied, and then Emmeline Weinberg tapped her glass elegantly and made a toast.
“To all you lovely artists here tonight,” she cried, that tremendous ringing voice of hers carrying over the motley crowd, “I’m so glad to have you. Please, there’s plenty of everything–and it’s an open bar, don’t forget.” The crowd laughed, but Rich did not smile. Until then I hadn’t noticed how differently dressed he was than everyone else: he wore a tuxedo that must have been nine or ten years old, judging by the faded cummerbund and limp cuffs. It was too big for him; the pants were so large you couldn’t see the break where his knees should have been. As if reading my mind, he pressed his hand flat against his stomach.
“I lost weight in the army,” he said.
“So did I.”
He burst out laughing: I was pleased. Then he stared into his glass. “So how do you know Emmeline?” I asked, sensing as soon as I had said it that it was the wrong question. Attaching myself to her rendered me like everyone else in that party: poor, transplanted, overeager, stupid with sorrow over something we had only just begun to hear about. Which, of course, I was.
“Uh, let’s see. She kind of took me under her wing after I finished at Pratt. Bill was my teacher–professor–when I was studying there.”
“The one who died in the boating accident.”
“Ah, yes,” I said delicately. “Yes, of course. I’ve heard her speak of him.” Speak of him? Now I sounded like a stage actress. And Emmeline never talked about her husbands. I hoped Rich didn’t see through me. Perhaps he did; perhaps he didn’t.
“What do you call yourself?”
“What?” I said stupidly.
“Your name, silly.”
“Oh. Rachel. Rachel Eckhardt,” I cried above the noise. The band had begun to play a slightly purple version of Stormy Weather that crescendoed over the crowds of women filling the dance hall. Women, there were so many women; women who had sucked in their waistlines and filled their busts to compensate for their lack of pinup potential, women in pre-war mink stoles and diamonds, women who scorned the excesses of the New Look and instead wore little black dresses, and women, women like me, who wore jewel-colored things that might have been popular six or seven years before, who felt shabby and pretended that their misplaced style was due to their being bohemian, or, as was the case with me, European.
“And where are you from, Rachel Eckhardt?” I was surprised to find that Rich was still talking to me; I was surprised to find that we were dancing.
“I was from Berlin. But now I live here.”
“I heard it was bombed.”
“The people are pretty hungry over there, too.”
“Rationing will do that to you.”
“You still have folks over there?”
“So then…not?” His face fell. “I’m Jewish, too.”
“Are you now,” I said.
“Yes. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” he said. He had dark hair, high cheekbones.
“I forgive you,” I said. “My sister’s in Switzerland,” I added.
“Will she come over here?”
“No. One move is enough for her.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, for the second time that night. He smelled good: I leaned in closer. I had never been able to resist the smell of cigarettes, the smell of aftershave, that the men I knew then carried with them.
“Rachel Eckhardt,” he said softly to himself. I waited. “Do you want to get drinks after this?”
A glamorous meeting, a post-war meet-cute–that was how I liked to think of us then. I had never dated an American before. It seemed to me to be a violation, full of pretense, for I no more belonged in New York than I did anywhere else. And yet here someone stood, someone who held the naive belief that he could carry on as before, or at least begin anew. I would try to remember that later, would try not to envy the blank hope that his masculine future held, so unlike mine.
In the four years since that day, since that sweaty dance on a fractious evening in 1945, Emmeline has encouraged me: Rachel Eckhardt the painter, Rachel Eckhardt Rich White’s sweetheart–has encouraged me in spite of my habitual hesitance, in spite of my instinctive dislike of pity and sympathy even its most genteel form. Four years on, and Emmeline is holding a dinner for us: well, for Rich, really, but there has to be something of a celebration for me, too, on account of being his girl. In the apartment we nominally share, his paintings lie stacked against the walls: huge red things, neat blocks of color, that the critics are going mad for all of the sudden. My paintings I treat differently: I keep them locked in the studio that I have just begun to rent, the curves of my brush strokes too self-conscious to see the light of day.
These paintings are monumental in their privateness and in the effort I make to keep them hidden. I had thought, before the war, that I would always be a figurative painter; abstraction struck me as being almost exclusively for men. For only a man could get away with such haphazardness, such a bold departure from reality. I had a horrible fear that if I painted in this way people would see my work as being too simple, too imitative, or, worse, that they might ascribe it to some ordinary part of my life–a pot, a pan, a dish. They would think it was a wry comment on domesticity, which at the time I thought I had to be above. After the war, of course, there was nothing and nobody for me to paint, and anyway nobody would have wanted to see the things I’d seen. And so I had become an abstract painter of sorts, though most would not call me that, not yet. In fact I don’t know if they really think of me as an artist at all.
“This is Rich’s girl, Rachel,” Emmeline likes to say. “A refugee.” I had been in the country eleven years. Surely I had acquired more than just refugee status? I tried, and often failed, to see myself in other people’s eyes. They looked at me sympathetically; they knew I had lost people. And so they stayed away. Mostly.
I was not a man: could not speak freely of my upbringing, nor of the phases that had dominated my work: my early craze for collage, for example, and then the year-long period when I’d been unable to make anything at all. Then Germany invaded Poland, and I had material to work with.
But because I was not a man I could not emerge to people as the survivor that I was. I was female and therefore things happened to me, not the other way around. Always irritation, that boyish disregard for the Old World, at the edge of Rich’s sympathy for me. I had mostly ceased speaking about it.
“C’mon, we’re going to be late.” We are getting ready for this party, this dinner in our honor: it is only half past six and Rich is hustling me forward.
He doesn’t watch me dress anymore.
I step out of the bathroom, preen a little: smooth the seat of the crimson skirt.
“I’m ready.” He is halfway out the door.
At the parties, invariably, there will be the kinds of people who might like to buy Rich’s paintings. They are skeptical at first, some of them, but they are easily won over. As I had been. Once. This color, they will marvel. It’s something, isn’t it.
I guess so, sir, he will say. I always know whether someone is going to like his work. After a success he will become jaunty, will put his hands in his pockets and grin at me. Sometimes I bask in his warmth; other times I look away–down the rusty fire escape of Emmeline’s penthouse apartment, for example, where pigeons gaze at me quizzically, as if waiting to supply me with their questions, questions that I would just as soon ask of them.
Rachel paints too, he will say.
I am a painter.
I try not to occupy myself with such distinctions.
“Do you have the champagne?” he is asking me. We have made it to the subway, against the odds; I’d wanted to take a taxi, but Rich had said no on account of the cost–and also, I suspected, because he wanted more time to talk with me. As it is I can hardly hear him above the roar.
“Rachel. The champagne we got for Emmeline.”
I had left it on the table at home–at my apartment–the shy golden head of the bottle glistening in the early evening light.
“Habe ich vergessen,” I say. I only speak German to him when I am feeling especially flippant. He colors with anger: I regret it.
“Damn it, Rach. I got it especially for the party.” The woman sitting across from us looks up from her newspaper. His tone softens.
“Well, I think I left it on the table.”
He sighs. “Another time, then.” I know that another time means at another one of Emmeline’s soirées, in which I will stand awkwardly in the circle of wives once it is time for the men to have brandy and cigars, my ring finger, buried in the pocket of some scratchy crinoline outfit I am wearing because I think it is how I am supposed to dress, conspicuously bare. They brim with an anger that frightens me, those wives. They speak enthusiastically about their husband’s paintings and are venomous when talking about anything else: mistresses, for example, or their children who are shipped to summer camp in the Catskills the minute that school is out, or where the best place for recovering alcoholics is.
I scorn the dramatic hush that falls over these women when the conversation turns to their husbands’ work, and yet I feel it, too: for whatever charm or whatever success Rich has ever had gracefully colors my own. Fame by attachment; I have learned how to accessorize. He is the one Emmeline Weinberg is fond of, surely, not me.
What Emmeline lacks in physical beauty, what she lacks in the two marriages long behind her–one unhappy, the other cut short by sudden and impractical widowhood–she makes up for in generosity. She makes up for it with her guilt about her deep pockets; with her guilt about the finishing school education where her parents sent her to round out the New York vowels they themselves refused to drop, on account of pride, or something like it; with her guilt about her two children born safely in America and not into the horror that my sister and I found ourselves inadvertently brought up in.
Emmeline is also the only other woman who speaks to me about my work: not in relation to Rich’s, but on its own uncertain terms.
“Is Klaus going to be there?” I ask Rich. The train stops short, the lurch surprising both of us.
“Klaus Mueller? Yeah.” Rich looks sideways at me. “Your biggest fan, Rachel.”
“I’m serious. He likes your art. So does Emmeline.”
What are you painting, Rachel?
I can’t tell her that anymore, for I myself do not know what springs from my brush, any more than I know why Klaus Mueller, a fellow emigré who for all intents and purposes I should have a lot in common with, scares the life out of me.
This is what makes me uneasy about Klaus: his unadulterated interest in my work, his earnest proclamations that leave the room silent. He says things like, Germany is no place for us anymore. Or, now the battle will be for artistic freedom. You watch. It isn’t all over yet. He wears his misery so brightly: he lacks all sense of shame. I could never admit to my own displacement, my own tragedy, with his grace, his certainty: to say them is to acknowledge them, and to acknowledge them would be to admit that they still have a bearing on how I behave, on the way that I lead my life. These losses, which then defined me and still do, make me keep the rest of the world at arm’s length.
And yet he is German, Klaus, like I was. Not a Jew, but a member of that bright exodus of people who, like me, had come to New York in the late thirties, before it was too late. Rumors fly about him, all unsubstantiated but ultimately intriguing: he knew Walter Benjamin. He had an affair with Marlene Dietrich. His little brother froze to death at Stalingrad. He stowed away to the U.S. on a ship that was almost torpedoed. He is amiable but shy, prone to moods; sometimes he will leave the table to stand on Emmeline’s balcony and stare over the rooftops. I had joined him there once, and he’d looked so startled that I’d regretted it.
We dodged each other often, though we kept being thrown together: Emmeline, God bless her, thought that since we were both from Germany we would have some shared experience. But Klaus is from Cologne, and his father was a clergyman–and probably still is, though who would know–and he ran away from home to go and be an intellectual. My own parents had been nothing but encouraging of my ambitions, though of course they would have preferred me to be married to a professor, or to even perhaps become a professor myself. But by the time I was eighteen that was out of the question: the world had grown narrower, the streets of Berlin smacked not of danger, as they once had, but of ideological defeat, contented resignation.
But I do not say any of this to Rich. He grows impatient when I complain about the other refugees–emigrés–in our meager circle. Going back to Germany is, of course, out of the question, and yet some of them still fantasize about the place that Europe will one day be, buoyed by the Marshall Plan and other gestures of Western might. I cannot very well tell them that when I see Germany I see Auschwitz Dachau Bergen-Belsen David Eckhardt (deceased) Nadia Eckhardt (deceased). It pulses with its own meaning; it has become something apart from me.
Rich used to say to me, Yes, but you are here now. You should be proud of yourself, you started all over again. Not many people can do that.
Rich and I are silent then, perspiring ashamedly in the heat of the subway car. He places his hand on my knee; I squeeze it, then remove it.
“Do you know who else is going to be there?” I ask softly.
“Dunno. The usual suspects, I guess. Another guy, a new guy, can’t think of his name.”
“No. Damn. Now it’s bothering me. Wait–Max Fleischman. Didn’t you know him once?”
Eleven years before, Max Fleischman and I had both been trying to be artists, among other things, but at the time we had nowhere to paint, nowhere even to hang our work. And so our existence then was defined not by our capabilities but by what was lacking: the release of non-Jewishness, of uniformed paths we could take. We had both left Berlin, parting acrimoniously as lovers will do, the prospect of freedom a bitter salve for the life we were leaving behind, the life we chose, or rather that I chose, not to spend together.
And now I am sitting with Rich–American Rich, artist Rich. Picture me now: I am sitting very still, in a red skirt and a black silk blouse. My hair is half pinned back. Only the ends are curled, to show that I am bohemian, that I am just as content to let it lie lank and unruly. Rich sits next to me in his white summer shirt and charcoal trousers, neatly tailored; he has long since lost his soldierly gawkiness, and will not be able to comprehend the sweat that has broken out on my upper lip, under my arms, even between my thighs. My cramps have started, too; I have my period.
It has always come at the worst of times, rumbling and clawing its way through the lower half of my body, so that my hips and my knees and even the bottoms of my feet throb and my skin hurts to the touch. I’ve had it for the better part of twenty years, of course, and yet it never fails to surprise me. My period spoils the lush days of summer, the coziness of winter, everything in between. Private, invisible discomfort. When I was younger I used to wish that it would show, that it would make me thin and haggard; I wanted others to acknowledge the burden of my femaleness. Now I know that nobody cares. Nevertheless, when I look at myself in the opposite subway window, I look for dark circles, paleness, signs of the sudden and tremendous fatigue that has overcome me. And yet my face stares back, long and predictable and unmoved by anything that I might be feeling, unforgivingly normal in spite of the raging war that appears to have overtaken my stomach.
Sweat is trickling down my back, too–because it is August in New York, after all–but also because the prospect of seeing Max Fleischman, who may as well have dropped off the face of the earth, considering the way we ignored each other once we’d both fled Germany, terrifies me.
Now picture me in Berlin, eleven years before, in the summer of 1938. I have, at long last, obtained a visa. The deliberations have been agonizing, even though it is my mother who has encouraged them. Persecution has left her quick, unyielding. She is the one who has written to people, who has bombarded the American consulate with telegrams and letters.
“I have a friend who knows somebody called Emmeline Weinberg,” she says one day. “Apparently she sponsors artists who are trying to come to New York.”
“Mutti, there’s no way I’m moving to America.”
“Why not? You think it’s going to get any better here? Someone spat at me at the butcher’s yesterday.”
“You act like it’s so easy.” I pause, staring into my coffee. “I can’t just leave all of this.” A lie, of course: for I am twenty-two, unmarried, free of obligations to anyone but myself.
“Can’t you?” she asks. She leans forward then; her face is still and strange. “Now you listen to me, Rachel. You get out of here as soon as you can. Don’t think of me. Think of yourself. I’m asking you–I’m telling you–to leave me. Leave your father and me. We’ll be fine.”
“She and Moritz will be in Switzerland soon.” The clock strikes twelve, startling me. “Du musst vergessen, Rachel. Du musst,” my mother tells me. “It’s the only way to move forward.”
And then there was Max, of course. We used to meet at his apartment and study together; by then the universities were closed to people like us. We used to complain about how we couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t do anything. In bed, we dreamed of other countries.
“Switzerland,” he would say.
“But it’s so boring.”
“You and every other Jew in Germany.”
“Don’t be such a pessimist,” he would say, brushing my cheek. “We’ll find a way.”
I cannot express to you the urge that I had then to surrender to that horror. Suffering, death–these were predictable, these I could manage, surely. It was the prospect of actual decision making, actual direction, that terrified me. When the New York visa came, the ink on the lettering barely dry–only then did I grasp the enormity of what lay before me.
“Don’t put your faith in Max,” my father had said, watching me shrewdly as I stared at that sudden emblem of freedom, newly bought. “You’re too clever for him, Rachel; you’ll find out soon enough. An idealog will never make you happy.” (My father had always believed too strongly in the power of my intelligence. He often mistook my selfishness, in fact, for bravery).
And so when the time had come, when Max Fleischman, who I suppose must have wanted to marry me, had a visa to Sweden–how happy he was, he hadn’t looked so relaxed in a long time–I couldn’t bring myself to go with him. For I had access to New York by then, the access which he wanted but hadn’t managed to get.
“We’ll see each other again someday,” I had said, lying through my teeth.
“No we won’t. If you think any of this is going to stay you’re crazy,” he said, gesturing towards the stylish furniture, the velvet curtains, the sunlight streaming through the window. The Persian carpets that belonged to my father’s family, or at least the few we hadn’t sold since the Depression began and whatever money we’d managed to save through the inflation of the twenties had been lost. The framed pictures of my sister Uma’s wedding in 1937, she and Moritz riddled with anxiety, dreaming on their honeymoon not of the children they would have, the life they’d lead together, but of visas, exit permits, passports. The mirror my mother and I had stood before, measuring ourselves.
You don’t fit.
And so I had gone. I had kissed Uma’s cheeks and let her hold me tight, her fingers digging into my back through the thin cotton of my summer dress. I had hugged Moritz. And when the time came to leave my mother, to leave my father, I did so.
Max wouldn’t come to see me off; he was too angry. Once a letter came, telling me he was safe in Sweden. Nothing else.
And now he is here, standing before me, in Emmeline Weinberg’s apartment, on an August evening in 1949.
“Max,” I say.
“So you two know each other?” Rich asks.
“Yes. We knew each other. In Berlin.” His voice is the same. Emmeline looks at me.
“How lovely, for old friends to be reunited,” she smiles. “Come, Max, we must get you a drink. Whisky? No? Really?”
My ears are roaring. I’m in Sweden now. There’s no reason for us to stay in touch but I thought I should let you know I’m alright. Klaus is staring at me.
“What? Oh. No thank you.”
“An old Berliner, huh?” I stare at him: he’s never sounded this jocular before.
“Of sorts. He lives in Sweden now–has for a long time.” I had told Rich about Max once, of course, and he had nodded understandingly. But I never brought him up again: what was the use? People like me had had to do that, to be as cavalier as our relatives permitted, cutting ties, shedding people as if they had never mattered to us at all.
Only looking at Max do I think of Berlin. I blush with the guilt of recognition.
My sister Uma, the only other person who could remind me of that time, had written me often after we both left, even once the war began. When our parents’ letters stopped we assumed the worst, and were correct.
It is so difficult, I had whined to Uma before the war ended, before we knew what had happened, I don’t have any money. Never mind that Emmeline Weinberg took me under her wing and fed me, gave parties all throughout the war with black-market sweets piled high to the ceiling, while Uma and Moritz sat in Zurich, bored to death and knowing that the worst was soon to come. They decided not to have children. (How can we bring them up in a world like this?) I didn’t blame them.
David Eckhardt. (1887-1944). Auschwitz.
Nadia Eckhardt (née Blum). (1890-1943). Auschwitz.
On her only visit to America, in the summer of ‘46, Uma had told me slowly and deliberately that that the part of town where we grew up had been bombed. You have probably seen the pictures already, the grand aerial footage, the kind they played on news reels after the war–the city liberated by its destructors, by those who had been willing to take me in, on a prayer.
“We went back, in the new year, you know,” Uma had told me. “And it wasn’t there. I don’t mean that there were bits and pieces of it; I mean it wasn’t there.” Every cousin, every aunt, every uncle gone. Childhood playmates. Max’s parents. My parents. The professors who had frequented my parents’ home.
“I’ve seen your paintings,” Max says.
“Have you?” Rich asks.
“I mean, hers. Rachel’s,” he says, flustered. “At Emmeline’s gallery a few days ago. They aren’t what I would have expected.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean that they are better than I would have thought.” Now he is blushing: I have forgotten how hard it is for him to admire other people’s art. “And you have had exhibitions?” he asks. Why is he speaking English? It has rendered his speech stilted, solemn.
“Yes. Just a few,” I say. Rich looks from me to Max and back again.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he mutters, and does exactly that. Ah, you underestimated me, my dear: I am a transplant, part of the artistic residue that Germany spurned, humbled by loss and guilt, a dark place in the pit of my stomach where my mother and my father rest, loving and reproachful.
“Rich is very sensitive,” I say. Emmeline comes in just then. Hors d’oeuvres, then dinner. Max and I talk about anything, anything but what happened. He tells me about Sweden, about wives number one and two–the first one was an actress, the second is a ballerina. Wife number two is Jewish; she understands better about things, he adds. Looking at Rich, Rich neatly dressed in his white shirt and charcoal trousers, I know that the same cannot be said for him.
“It is hard to forget, you know,” Max says. We are making our way through the fish course, he more successfully than me.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Why? You are not responsible for Hitler.” I had thought, stupidly, that he was talking about my departure to New York. I sigh. He sighs.
“And yet you are here,” Emmeline says. “You have made it. It’s so good to have all these bright artists in my home.”
Never mind that her patronage embarrasses me, that I only wish I could have extended it to my mother; my father; all the people I loved.
As Max talks I catch sight of myself in the window; the panes are newly cleaned. I wonder if I look worse than usual; I wonder how I appear to him. Even my face, in its current form, has become uncharted territory. The downcast eyes, the melancholy slope of the nose, the lips curving upward underneath it–these are all unfamiliar to me. If my face were a map, then where would the lines go? They have appeared at the edge of my eyes, around my mouth, etching themselves in without my knowledge or consent. My mother used to tell me that people wear their lives on their faces, whether they want to or not. There is no preventing, then, the person that I have become, the person that I will become. I see Max’s reflection too, and it’s just as short and hawkish as I remember; only that what once might have been craggy, or attractive, now looks too clever for its own good.
“Rachel?” Max is talking to me again.
“What?” I ask.
“Max is wanting to know what you think of the Truman Doctrine,” Emmeline says pleasantly.
“Because I do not think it is good for America to assume all this responsibility, you know,” Max says between mouthfuls of food.
“But—” I say.
He has finished the fish course now; someone is hovering over him with a dish of reddish sorbet, of which he takes an ample amount. I am overcome with a flash of dislike towards him. He is still talking.
“You will only become the bullies of the world, like the Soviets and the Germans,” he says. “You watch.”
“As I recall,” Rich says, “We stood up to those people. And will continue to do so.” Jesus Christ.
“How can you be so certain?” Max asks genially. He used to do this when we were together; I remember it now. The needling. He doesn’t understand that Rich will take him seriously, doesn’t understand that in America this is not polite conversation. Rich has never had much time for critics anyway.
“Look, you’re living in Sweden. I’m not going to spell it out for you because you probably don’t think it applies to you,” Rich snaps.
“You have found yourself a real American, Rachel,” Max says. Their faces are all turned towards me now: Emmeline, Max, Rich, Klaus; the other guests, guests whose names I have forgotten and will be unlikely to remember anytime soon.
“Well, Rich and I aren’t married,” I blurt out. Max looks wounded and pleased, as if he has won a particularly painful battle. “I see. You are not completely reformed, then,” he says, at which point Emmeline’s mouth hangs slightly open before she recovers herself and calls for more wine. I move my elbow slightly, which causes my own glass to slide off the mahogany table and shatter near Klaus’s foot.
“I’m so sorry,” I say to no one in particular, and leave my chair, bending over inelegantly to brush the shards into a neat pile, careful not to let them scratch my hands.
“Don’t worry about it, Rachel,” Emmeline says, knitting her eyebrows. “Klaus, there’s a broom right there, would you mind getting it?”
“No, of course not,” Klaus says. By the time he turns around and bends down to help me, ignoring the crack of his knees as he does so, I am overcome by a serious cramp. I can feel the bones of my abdomen unknitting, and the hair stands up on my arms.
“Excuse me,” I say, and, standing up, find myself barreling towards the powder room, the ladies, the john–I do this sometimes, I try to remember how many English words I know for the same item, the same place. Grateful for the reprieve of the cool bathroom–always a safe place to be during a bad dinner party–I sigh and put my head in my hands, letting my skirt fall to my feet. Breathe in, breathe out. Wasn’t that what my mother had said to me, the first time I’d had my period? How was it that she had prepared me for everything but her absence?
But now is not the time for crying.
The blood is terribly heavy. There’s no one to tell about it. Uma would know what to do.
I wash my hands assiduously and lean against the cool door until I know that enough time has passed to where my absence will be noticeable. Through the frosted glass, I see a shadow outside. I open the door.
“Hi, Rachel,” Klaus says. “I was just going to come in to wash my hands, if that’s all right.”
“By all means. Did you cut them?”
“No, no. I just got wine on them.”
“Oh.” I move slightly to the side, letting him slip past me. He turns on the faucet and looks at me.
“Are you alright?” he asks.
“So Max is an old friend of yours?” Klaus asks. I look up at him, search for the sarcasm underneath the word friend, but am surprised to find that there is none.
In the bathroom, he seems taller, and I notice that there’s more silver in his hair than before. In the peculiar light of that August evening he seems more relaxed than I can remember him being. Why is this so? He used to strike me as uncommonly pessimistic, and I’d almost disliked him for his ability to speak about things as they were, rather than what they ought to have been. He’d only ever wanted to talk about Germany–Remember when Hitler was elected? Remember when they burned the Reichstag?–so that I’d come to avoid him, nodding cooly when he greeted me at parties, closing my ears to his unrelenting pragmatism, his uncommon kindness to the female sex. How is it that I have refused to know him?
“Yes, Max was an old friend of sorts, I suppose,” I say, unable to keep from sighing.
“So ein idiot.”
“I think he must still be angry with me.”
“He went to Sweden. I went to New York.”
“We were lovers, Klaus.”
“Sure, that much is clear. But we all had to go somewhere, Rachel. I wouldn’t feel too bad about it, if I were you.”
“How are your parents?” I ask sharply. “It must be nice to visit them now and again.” His face falls, and I cringe at my own unkindness. Only until he flushes red, the crimson going all the way from his collar to his hairline, do I understand his guilt, the guilt of his non-Jewishness.
“They’re well, thank you,” he says. He pauses. “I miss it, Rachel.”
“So do I.”
“Are you ready to go back in?”
“Yes,” I say.
But as we’re walking down the hallway, back towards the living room, Rich pulls me roughly aside, whispers in my ear with his winey breath that we must go, that he’s not going to stand for Max’s needling, the son of a bitch should be grateful Emmeline is even bothering to host him.
“But–” I say, but it is too late; we are leaving, now we are in a cab, and I have to roll down the window to keep from throwing up.
That night, Rich insists on going back to his own apartment, even though it’s halfway across town. He’s taking his paintings, too. I don’t understand what’s happening until he calls a taxi and makes the driver wait while he stacks them neatly in the back, one by one. Then his sketches, clasped with twine; then his paints. “Rich,” I say, and then can’t think of anything else.
What to do? Call after him? Yell? Make a scene? All of which I lack the energy and investment to do.
I walk to the studio, two blocks away. It’s pitch dark, uncertain; it takes me a few minutes to the find the right switch. The flush of bright white light startles me, and I begin crying, although my tears lack the gusto that I ought to have, given what has just happened. And yet here are my paintings, from one end of the room to the other: looming, and, as of late, grayer. Circles; high ceilings. A study of Berlin. Mutti. (How is that your mother? Rich used to ask me worriedly, as if he were missing something. Which, of course, he was).
In the studio I pity myself; I think; I dream all kinds of things. I can’t tell whether I’m happy or sad that Max is married. Is it possible, then, that I don’t care? That eleven years have done the trick? Time and space in which he has married twice, time and space in which I have painted, and painted, and painted, and dutifully attended Emmeline’s soirées to meet the connections that I need to support myself. Time and space without my parents; without Uma; without Moritz.
Strange to find that time and space have turned a lean and charming artist into a self-satisfied expatriate of dubious intellectual talent. Max, that is.
I need to visit Switzerland, I need to see Uma and Moritz. A miracle that we even made it here.
That should have constituted some sort of breakthrough, that party. I should have known that the person I loved was not the jaunty American that I had acquired by some miracle, nor the small, morose Berliner who had bragged to me unconvincingly of a Swedish Jewish ballerina who made him very happy, his boasts rife with the sting of a cut I had never meant to inflict. Ah, no. It was silvery old Klaus who made a study of me.
As it was it took a long time for me to understand that. I didn’t let him into the studio until a year later, feeling generous and expansive in the spirit of the new decade. He had no need to analyze, or to explain, as Rich would have done. I was grateful for this. He understood, then, the flesh-colored arcs that were Mutti, the smears that were the story of Berlin. Or he didn’t understand but understood that perhaps that was the point.
White, gray, black: that was how I worked in those days, the brushstrokes meticulous, intentional–I didn’t feel that I could afford to be heedless the way that Rich had been, liberally attacking surfaces, laying the paint on so thickly that it would drip off the sides. For him, the canvas had always lain blank, shining, open. Nothing ever existed before he saw it, nothing had meaning until he had painted it, shaped it and shifted it into being. That was the peculiar gift of the New World, I suppose.
Not so for me. My work began not blankly but with the dead watching me, measuring what I had chosen to make of them. Red was too bright, too declarative, an ambitious and fashionable coloration that would bring me nothing. And yet for years, even after I’d married Klaus, I was referred to as Rich White’s diligent pupil, or as White’s brilliant protégée. Such epithets embarrassed me not only because of their kindly condescension but also because it implied a level of devotion to Rich’s work that, let’s face it, I’d never had.
Klaus, by contrast, seemed to have slipped as easily into my life as Rich had once stormed out of it, taking with him that extraordinary ambition and arrogance that, to my younger self, had once been so attractive. In fact, when Klaus and I were married, in 1951–we were both getting on a bit, I was thirty-five to his forty-two, the window for regeneration was closing–when we were married he bought my favorite painting. At first I was embarrassed and asked him not to hang it up. He didn’t argue with me, he instead put it in the closet, let it gather dust and cobwebs, as I had insisted I wanted.
I became pregnant soon afterward. It was a leap of faith, that; at first it was tentative, and I didn’t know if the baby would stay. Things had been taken from me before, and they would be taken from me again; how, then, could my body be capable of sustaining life? I feared rejection, I steeled myself for the tragedy of lost hopes, the impossibility of generating something new. This, however, did not happen. I made it through the first trimester unscathed, and sailed through the last six months with no complications. It was the birth that was the hardest. Our daughter came out feet first, and was nearly blue; I can remember screaming as they unwound the cord from her neck, and yet she turned out to be normal, healthy, safe. She began crying then, and so did I; we both wept for the bloodiness of the ordeal.
After the birth, I let myself look at Klaus’s favorite painting of mine once more, and was surprised by its boldness, its imitative insistence on pain, too much like Rich’s for my taste. I asked Klaus to sell it back to Emmeline, and he did; I never saw it again.
Only until the gray paintings really took off–and that was after I had my daughter with Klaus, when in the color red I could only see the bloody insistence of birth–only then did I became emigrée Rachel Eckhardt, a member of Emmeline Weinberg’s lively coterie, only then did I become a harbinger of the post-war era. Initially the lack of continuation frightened me; I seemed to have lost myself again, life was making unimaginable demands on me, I feared sabotage, some kind of collapse, too. And yet that wasn’t what happened.
Afterwards, finding out about us, Rich used to ask me why on earth I had taken up with Klaus. Not even Jewish, I should’ve known, he said, and he kept on saying this, even when I reminded him that he, Rich, was the one who left me. He left me because I was not a hero any more than Klaus was Marlene Dietrich’s lover; because I couldn’t forget and didn’t want to, because I didn’t belong with a Brooklyn boy who had lucked out of his brief encounters with evil.
And yet here something else has begun. When the paintings are shown, I am almost embarrassed by the effort that people make to understand them, and when they ask me questions, I grin silently because I realize that people are relying on me for answers that I am far from able to supply. The bids are very, very modest, but Emmeline is delighted, she is planning to promote me; Rich’s red squares have been replaced by gray darkness, by my depressed aptitude.
And here in our apartment, the apartment that Klaus and I have shared for seven years, is our daughter Naomi, small and dark the way that my mother was. She is screaming; she has stubbed her toe. Blood trickles across the pale wood floor. Klaus rushes to it; I rush to her. She shudders and wraps her arms around my neck; I smooth her curls, stand her up, make her look in the mirror. We are doubles of each other, or one day will be. “Du musst vergessen, Naomi,” I say. “Du musst vergessen.”
Rebecca Bihn-Wallace is an undergraduate studio art major and professional writing minor at the University of California, Davis.