“Yup, the girl is Ada Landau.” Then he turned the photo over and looked at the back: Saul Sharfstein and Ada, Swan House, April 1940, in brown ink.
She said, “I think it’s the most romantic picture I’ve ever seen.”
He turned it over again and they both considered it. They were a man of seventy-eight and a woman in her mid-thirties, sitting away from the others, patients and visitors and nurses clustered on the rear patio of the Westchester Home for Senior Citizens—Union of Progressive Jewish Charities. A formerly grand house. It was fall 1996 and he had given her the photo yesterday, as promised.
Her mid-length satin hair (incurling along the bottom edge) stood still like drapery when she moved her face. He was a big man with deep handsome eyes.
Eventually he said, “I guess I see what you mean. She was beautiful.” His voice had the rough authority of a heavy truck advancing.
“It’s not only that. She is beautiful, and you’re handsome, but that’s not what I mean.” She looked right at him and the intensity of her eyes shook him—they had the improbable iridescence of a glow-in-the-dark sea creature. “What I mean is,” she said, “the way she’s resting her fingertips on your chest. Your right arm pressing her close—you can see how strong it is. And there’s something in your face. . . .”
She shook her head without looking up. “I mean—not that lust isn’t included.” She looked up and smiled back tentatively. Her voice was a surprising dark clarinet alto. She had long legs and her all-over blondness, mother-of-pearl. Her jaw line was more emphatic and her skin coarser than they might have been, but her pale distant prettiness (white daffodil) affected him powerfully.
He felt the high heat of her curiosity playing over him like a flashlight beam.
“Possessiveness?” he tried. “Ownership?” Then, half to himself, “Arrogance?”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “You promised you would.”
It was a sunny silver afternoon in New Rochelle, the day after a hurricane. Torn-off oak, maple, birch, and tulip-poplar branches lay in acrobatic splits all over the patio. There were stems and scattered petals of yellow mums and pink cosmos and the coarse, sweet autumn smell of the torn mums.
“April 1940. Well.” Reluctant sigh. “Poland had long since been occupied: beaten bloody, collapsed. Stomped by those German boots. The noise, the flags in your face, those roaring songs, roaring, like a furnace. And those goddamned boots. I would’ve made it so that no German could wear boots ever again. Verboten. Five thousand years from now German kids would be asking their mothers, how come I can’t ever wear boots?”
She was listening hard, leaning forward, two fingers posted at her temple in semi-salute to keep the hair out of her face in the wind.
“So.” Lapsing back into quiet. “Poland was occupied, Denmark occupied, Norway invaded, Western Europe smoldering. Mobilized.”
He looked at her closely. She held her face up for inspection and then turned to show her profile: self-mocking little smile.
“Don’t you know there’s a law against beautiful young ladies harassing old men?”
“Could you have me arrested?”
“You better believe it.” He swept a twig off the ground and twirled it between his fingers. “Anyway, that was April 1940.”
“What was she doing in this country?”
“You really don’t know anything about it, Miss . . . sorry, what was it?”
“Please call me Gwyn. No, nothing,” rushing to catch up with the question. “All I know is, I’m jealous of Ada.”
“Jealous? Gwyn, honey.” But now he was gentle and remote. She felt the tug on her line but then nothing: a fish who couldn’t decide. “You do know nothing.” He lunged for another twig, then dropped it.
“True, but couldn’t I be jealous, just . . . anyway?”
“Maybe it’s a deeper question than you know.”
“Then tell me about it.”
Despite his old-man’s voice and lined face and hands, there was no slack in him; he filled his body to the boundaries. “Thousands of Jews frantic to get out of Europe and one little girl frantic to get back in.” He stopped. “And save them. Not just the Jews. Europe in general. She’d been in this country with her family for several years. She had a life here. She was happy. She was sixteen when she first came, nearly seventeen. But she was Belgian; she wanted to go back. But she was also in love with me. Sort of. And that’s it. Basically that’s it.”
“No, please. Come on.”
He looked up at the clouds, bright pewter edges against a perfect sky.
His face was imposing: handsome eyes quietly watching. A manly profusion of silver curls around the heavy gold wristwatch on the heavy copper wrist. Usually a vague question gathered at the center of his eyebrows, which were pulled together slightly as if by drawstring. He might have been (in his well-made blue blazer, his loafers, his open-collared white shirt) an ex-CEO or retired general or multimillionaire, or all three.
“Yes, come on. You said you’d tell me. And what was Swan House?”
“What was Swan House? What was it all about? Who the hell knows.”
“But please. You said. Please?”
He tried looking blankly distant but gave up—the smile broke through; and then (for her benefit) he shrugged, turning himself in, feeling pleased and ridiculous. Time stopped momentarily, snagged on something. The breezy surf-sound rushing up around them, falling back.
“Ada arrived in America in 1937. Her father had been hired by Owen Lawrence, Jr., heir to the shipping fortune, to be a tutor for his son Raymond. Prepare him for Princeton.”
“Owen Lawrence Junior,” she repeated carefully, using her pale dry lips and no voice. The wind had kicked up and he barely heard her.
“Ray was fifteen. . . .”
“I know you’re a poet,” Gwyn said in a sudden sprint, eyes shining through her own personal ocean of mysterious fervor, reaching a hand out (with a blue-green flash off the small stone in her ring) to touch his wrist, a wait-hear-me-out gesture that made him stiffen. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I know you wrote a poem called ‘Swan House.’ I’m sorry, I do know that.”
“Was a poet. A bad poet. Why are you sorry?” She had touched him and he wanted to touch her back. She had joined the staff here two weeks ago. He had noticed her that very first day, and for some reason she had seemed to notice him too. Yesterday she had asked him for an old snapshot—so nervous she was barely intelligible. Today he had handed it over.
“Well, I mean,” she said, “just, I know you’re a poet, and you wrote that poem. ‘Swan House.’ ” She scanned his face, but what she saw made her look down in confusion. “I mean: I apologize, I withheld information.”
“There is nothing a beautiful young girl can say or do to an old man for which she needs to apologize. No such thing exists.”
“Nothing? You’re very sweet. But I’m not so young, and you’re not so old. And I’m not so beautiful, either.”
“Don’t kid yourself. You’re not a nurse, are you?”
“No, I work with computers: databases, that stuff. Please, go on.”
“Ada’s father, professor of Greek in Louvain—one of the few Jews in the world to hold such a position at the time—came to America with his whole family. Not that he cared about being a Jew. His eldest daughter was the one. Ada cared, in her weird, outrageous way. She wasn’t religious, in fact she was ignorant; she wasn’t a Zionist, she was 100-percent European. And yet by 1939 when she said the word goyim—Gentiles?” (she nodded and he coughed once, intensity taking him outside his normal voice range)—“it would make my skin crawl, the sheer concentrated ferocity. . . . Out of this little girl. This gorgeous little girl. You’re not Jewish are you Gwyn?”
She shook her head (although he saw her hesitate first, for just an instant): “Born and raised Episcopalian.”
“Okay,” reassuring smile, which seemed to be called for; “it’s no crime.”
“The father, the professor, was a handsome elegant man with heavy eyelids. With the clinging traces, like aftershave, of a mocking, conspiratorial smile; it vanished when you looked at him too closely. The professor and his wife and Ada and her two younger sisters moved into the fabulous Lawrence mansion—Swan House. Which had plenty of room for everybody. I’m still not absolutely sure why I’m telling you this.”
“Because I begged you to.”
“Well, that’s a reason. As my rabbi, God bless him, used to say: that’s a reason. So. Why the hell did he come?” His voice expressed a focused puzzlement that still bothered him, like a face he couldn’t quite place. “Quit a prestigious university position? Not for money. Maybe foresight.
“I always wondered whether he’d maybe felt the need to get Ada out of there. Get her away from something or other. Some man or other. Ada laughed that one off. She thought I was funny. That was okay. A man wants to amuse a girl. But over time I became more and more positive there was something to it. I don’t say I wasn’t paranoid, I was, but all the same. . . . So: the professor set to work educating Raymond, who was a sullen boor. So stupid.” He looked into the forest beyond the patio, sharpening the recollection by focusing his gaze.
“Ray was strongly suspected of being a homosexual, but the case was never absolutely clear and the Swan House staff always left a margin for doubt in their minds, out of respect for Mr. Lawrence. They admired him. Everyone did. He was a lovely man. He’d lost his wife when he was young, and never remarried. He had a beautiful alabaster sadness; I guess I wrote that in a poem once.” (Actually he had written it only a few weeks ago, in one of an endless series of private poetry logs. He filled one notebook and then, before starting fresh on an empty, burned the old one in the barbecue pit on the patio, leaving a sooty spiral backbone behind.) “You could see into Mr. Lawrence as far as befitted his dignity, which wasn’t far; and then the view stopped.”
She crossed her legs, and the swish of her stockings was a sound so close to a feel, he wanted to groan. She smoothed her skirt. He looked at the swell of her upper leg beneath the summery beige.
He looked at the sky.
“Ada and her family arrived in January, and that May I showed up at Swan House with my Dad, and met her. May ’37. She was nearly seventeen and I was eighteen. ‘Miss Landau, may I present Saul Sharfstein.’ Mr. Lawrence introduced us. Mr. Sharfstein was charmed. Or let’s say—staggered. Miss Landau nodded and walked.
“She was shy. Tense. Coiled tight. It made her sparkle, crazily Desperate animal. Foreigner—uncertain of her English; her gorgeous French-lit, moonlit English. Everything about her was electric. Her grace and delicate darkness and long neck and fluent hands, in summer her bare arms; her wildly articulate eyes.
“But then you noticed her essence”—he had made a fist, which was hovering near his mouth—“which was . . . let’s say, she was almost inconceivably high-strung. As if her whole life felt like ice beneath her feet that might crack at any second. She was the only girl I ever knew, the only person, who could dominate a room by thinking. You’d watch her; you couldn’t help it. You’d watch her as if she were actually doing something.” He shook his head.
“She was a beautiful skater, snicking backward in frozen sunshine on a lake in a park in a forest, beckoning with her cupped hands—”
His voice had grown rougher and he stopped abruptly, stalled-out. He looked at the distance. “She was so damned stagey, so histrionic she’d be acting even when there was no one to see her; but, genius has its privileges. Don’t I know it. Lord. First time I ever saw her, she was up on the roof patio looking east as if she were staring out to sea—toward Belgium—hair blowing, beautiful pose; although she had no idea I was watching, and wouldn’t have cared anyway.”
Fast clouds pulled the sunshine shapes into sharp focus, then let them blur and erased them and started over.
“You know,” he said, clearing his throat, “you’re an awfully . . . movingly . . . attractive girl.”
Her eyes flared like a struck match and then (settling down) she said, “You sound so shocked.”
“No one’s ever said that to me before.” Her words moved in slow procession. “Someone once said I had good legs.” After a moment: “My grandmother used to say I was pretty. But I never believed her.”
“Do you have good legs?”
“Well.” He saw her throat moving, considering. “Yes. Want me to prove it?”
Utterly still: the oaks shifted uncomfortably in the wind.
“No,” he said, “proof not required. I’m sorry.”
Shmuck. But he was smiling at himself. What else could he do? In careful detail he investigated her offer in his mind. But the logic of pantyhose had always eluded him, and messed up his fantasies.
“May of ’37. I’d come out to Swan House for the afternoon with my father, whom the professor had hired to give Ray music lessons. Sort of a subcontract. My father said, if he learns anything about music I’ll be flabbergasted; he’s got artistic sensibility like a Cossack. But it was a job, and he liked the professor all right and admired Mr. Lawrence. I came along just to keep my Dad company. It was a 90-minute train ride—up from Brooklyn to Grand Central, then out to Westchester, with the city breaking up all around you in chunks, floating off into the green countryside. Gradually the laundry lines and rooftop water-tanks and chimneypots would disappear and you’d get a lone black Ford, ticking along moodily on a road through a field. After that first Sunday, I kept coming—because this impossibly beautiful, seductive, kittenish, snooty, petrified creature lived there and I could not stop thinking about her. Six months’ worth of Sundays before I finally coaxed her into talking to me. Week after week. My father understood perfectly. He’d say, ‘nu, progress?’ and I’d shake my head.”
“Damned right.” A cheerful growl. “But understand—with a girl like this, any young man in the world would’ve done the same. And her hard-to-getness—naturally, it was a challenge. I had plenty of girls, but none like that.” Unexpectedly long pause. “None like that.
“I wanted to be a poet. In fact, according to me, I was one, full-fledged at eighteen. Big, beaming kid, curly black hair. Strapping. That’s the word. Big shoulders.” Using both his lined, taut hands to show her how wide. Then he closed his eyes and gave himself another ironic, affectionate smile. With his eyes closed: “She said to me once, I believe in greatness; you only believe in goodness.” With his eyes closed the windshaken branches made the light flicker like an antique movie.
He seemed more comfortable now and she said, “You’re a little frightening from a distance, but when you smile, it’s—totally different?”
She let her sentences come unglued and curl upward into questions less often than most youngish women nowadays. “The young man you were is always there,” he said, “under a million layers of yellowing varnish.” The oak leaves tossed and glittered. “I was nothing but smile. Smile and mouth. Always mouthing off, always smiling. Pretty harmless. If someone said something nasty to me, I’d be left holding the smile, not knowing how to get rid of it. . . . Why is a lovely girl like you not married?”
“No one like you ever asked me.”
He nodded—“I see”—registering the joke, one for her. He grabbed a branch off the ground. “I was popular, real smoothie; course, no one could ever figure out what the hell I was supposed to be when I grew up—charming the pants off girls is not something you can take up professionally. Girls can get out of their own pants, if it comes to that. I was a poet, fine—which didn’t answer the question. But people were kind. My folks above all. I was so much less sure of myself than I seemed. Same as most teenage boys, I guess.
“My cousin and best friend Izzy once asked me—we were walking down the Coney Island boardwalk at top speed, as if we had some place to go; a hot spring day—we lived in Brighton Beach near Coney Island—my hands stuck in my pockets, tie loose in the breeze; the two of us shuffling through big crowds of chuckling pigeons, boys screaming girls shrieking on the roller coasters, knish guys walking the beach down below us and shouting—with that flat, swallowed-up sound beach shouting always has, y’know? And the smell of Coppertone, cotton candy, hot dogs and mustard and cigar smoke and those long, gentle rollers off the Atlantic; Lord, that day hangs so clearly in my mind, like a coaster car about to drop. And he asks me: Saul, listen, schlemiel, you think you’re the first guy in history to ever read a poem, or write a poem, or fall in love with a girl or get laid? Pipe down. And I—” He broke off.
“Anyway: right around then, I first met Ada, and a few weeks later I’m telling Izzy, forget all that, cancel everything, because this new girl redefines the whole concept of female, no woman in all recorded history has ever had her sheer, lyrical, blah blah blah, which of course was all true, and he says in his dry intelligent voice, ‘shiksa?’ and I say ‘Belgian!’ like it was some sort of rare exotic species, and I add ‘Belgian Jew’ just to clarify, and then he says, in his imitation newsreel voice, for which he was justly celebrated, ‘Welcome to tiny Belgium, ladies and gentlemen, world famous for the allure of the Flemish female. . . . Does she look like a Rubens?’ ”
She watched him, her eyes still phosphorescent. “Nothing to say?” he asked gently. “Only I’m supposed to talk?”
She colored, and a vast volume of leaves sighed, and she said, “I have nothing to tell, I’m a nobody, nothing, a failure; I want to listen to you.”
“You’re a failure? Gwyn, honey, don’t. ‘I’m a failure’—that’s my line. It’s an old man’s line.” His voice turning hoarser, louder. “Don’t say that, it’s irresponsible.” He felt strangely breathless—that she should have spoken those words which were his, and impaled him permanently; she had no concept. None whatsoever. None.
Her eyes reproached him but her voice was contrite. “I’ll say whatever you want me to. Just please go on.”
“Y’know, nearly all men do figure out eventually”—chastened, propitiatory—“what they want, and who they are. And nearly all of us die without ever telling anyone. Not a soul. Not our wives or daughters or mothers or fathers or sweethearts or dearest friends, or whatever we’ve got. If anything. Men just aren’t physiologically equipped to confide. Virtually every one of us takes his secret with him, the one fact that would’ve made people sit up and say—no, not really?”
She looked at him hard and shook her head slightly, opened her lips (just barely) to speak—but then didn’t.
“Naturally I tried to chat her up, Ada, which had always worked before, with all sorts of girls. But she’d just give me a look and walk away. Often she seemed to be trembling slightly when she put me down. Mainly she stayed out of sight, and my father was off some place with Ray Every week I brought her flowers. Hopefully. Innocently. If I actually succeeded in presenting them and she said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Sharfstein’—ice cold, condescending, scared—that was a stupendous triumph. She didn’t spit in my face: break out the champagne! Well, that’s what young men are like—if the girl is beautiful enough.
“Week after week, every Sunday: never entered my head that I’d fail to get her eventually. I was there because of Ada, but gradually I started noticing Swan House, too. Lord I was impressed, awestruck. Velvet silence, majestic, mysterious; like the girl herself. Like Ada. One of the first things I ever heard her say was, ‘No one’s ever heard of Swan House, but I think it’s one of the most fantastically beautiful masterpieces in the entire world.’ She was talking to my father, not me. But it gradually sank in, as I showed up week after week and waited patiently, with my tongue hanging out: she seemed to feel for Swan House what I felt for her.
“Which was good, because—at least she can feel. She was emotional, she was passionate, but I sometimes wondered: is it part of her magnificence to be just a little cold, abstract, removed from ordinary humans? But the way she loved Swan House reassured me.”
“If you can fall in love with a building,” Gwyn asked tentatively, “does that mean you can fall in love with a person?”
It seemed like a long time before he finally said, “Good question.”
He continued. “The place was called ‘Swan House’ because of a moat around the garden temple at the peak of a hill. There used to be swans in the water, but they were gone long before my time. The temple was designed so you’d want to see into it but you couldn’t.”
“A garden temple? It’s a romantic idea, isn’t it.”
“Certainly is.” Their long, deep thoughts intersected far away, crossing searchlight beams. They both felt it happen. He looked at her, but her face said only, “speak more,” so he did. “I hung around watching Ada watch Swan House—barely got to see her at all. When I did, she’d barely speak to me. But I kept coming, because she was dazzling and I would have given everything I owned—admittedly not much—to hold her hard. To achieve that, I would have given 50 years off my life. And I guess I did.”
“I had three girlfriends that summer in Brooklyn—Arlene, Angela, Marnie. Arlene’s mother always used to say it with the accent on the first syllable, Arlene, as if it were a Yiddish name—Shayna, Chava. . . . All three with their energetic faces and smooth skin and pulled-back, soap-smelling hair. We’d go to Coney Island. Or I’d take Arlene to a movie and we’d sit in the big rustling crowd and when the newsreels came on, you got a kind of shared seriousness, even the kids; you’d feel the whole crowd drawing itself up. Hitler would appear. People would snicker and snort, uncomfortably. Afterward I’d kiss Arlene in the dark corners of the big echoey lobby of her apartment house. She claimed, years later, that once I’d dragged her out onto the front stoop at my Aunt Lettie’s, out of a steam-heated Chanukah dinner with a billion screaming cousins into zero-degree Brooklyn cold—‘in my cotton blouse,’ she tells me, ‘so you could recite Shelley’s “Hymn of Apollo” as if you had just written it, or you’d bought the rights or something, you were so ecstatic about this poem—and my teeth were chattering and I was practically turning blue; but I realized how much the thing meant to you when you didn’t cop a feel, or kiss me, or anything, which I’d thought was the whole point of taking me out there. But all you did was recite this dumb poem. I was touched.’
“I had a teenage weakness for Shelley. I admit it. But anyway: Ada was wholly different.”
“Actually I was married.”
Like a package tumbled from a shelf her words stopped them both. Before he could speak she rushed ahead: “I only wanted to correct my false statement. Please—go on.”
“When were you married?”
She shook her head with childlike vigor. “I want to hear about you.”
“Gwyn, honey you sound frantic. Why? What’s so important about hearing about me?”
“It is. It just is. Please?”
“And the reason is?” But she only shook her head. “You want to be mysterious?”
“No, oh no,” she said, “only just . . . don’t torment me; just tell me the story.”
“What if I like tormenting you?” Playfully.
“Then do. Just please tell me the story first.”
He gave a long low question-mark whistle and then waited in case she should say more. She looked at her lap. She traced carefully on the convex upper surface of her crossed leg the imaginary outline of a flower. He watched her softly looping fingertip and sighed without meaning to. “Please?” she said again. Bright roar of the wind gathering strength. He continued.
“Ada seemed unhappy and simultaneously so self-contained that I got to thinking, even before I’d really met her, that she must have a lover or boyfriend back home in Louvain or Liège or someplace. That wasn’t such a crazy guess, was it?” Still looking down she mouthed the word “No” with deliberate emphasis. Then she looked up and smiled. A strange thought passed through his head and disappeared before he could focus on it, an exotic bird come and gone.
“I kept trying. She kept ignoring me. Finally I came up with a plan. It came to me on the train home to Brooklyn, just as the Park Avenue tunnel came rushing up around my ears, a moment I will always remember. Always. I thought, well, yeah, sure, I could do that but—hell, that’s it! Sure, that would work!” He was smiling faintly, not at her.
“If I could tell her the real story about the secrets of Swan House, that would get the empress’s attention. This lithe scared empress whom I always imagined, for some reason, slipping one hand and then the other through the neck hole of her summer dress and then standing with arms raised high and wrists together as it slides to the floor and drops around her elegant slim ankles. So. I just had to get Mr. Lawrence to tell me all about it. How? Tell him I wanted to write a book about Swan House. Why? Because Swan House was an unknown, neglected artistic masterpiece. The whole thing came to me in an instant, you know how it works. Not in this elaborate form. But the idea came straight from Ada, from that one overheard comment. And I knew he loved the house. Ray on the other hand didn’t give a goddamn about the house, so it all fit beautifully.
“It was a pretty good plan, wasn’t it? Don’t y’think? It was beautiful.”
They both smiled.
“Next week, the last summer Sunday before my freshman year at Brooklyn College, I charged off to find Mr. Lawrence. He was sitting in his study. Heavy buzz of flies, carnations—you could smell them, oversweet. He was reading the newspaper, holding it in both hands in a way that made him look old. He smiled encouragingly when I knocked and put my head in. It made me sad, I still remember it—no one ever talked to him much.
“The book idea was just a stratagem. But when he stood up—I was standing, too, too excited to sit—and clapped me on the sides of the shoulders with both hands, I was startled. He was so Wasp-dignified, so majestic.”
He stopped perfectly still, gazing at her. Then looked away.
“well. I must have learned it from him. At length he said, very quietly, ‘I’ve waited my whole life for such an author and such a book.’ And then I knew I had to do it: actually write the damned thing.” A smile on the edge of toppling into laughter. “I’d talked us both into it. I hugged him. Which embarrassed me afterward, acutely. He was sort of frail; majestic nonetheless. We talked all afternoon.”
She looked at him with frowning intensity.
“Next week another long talk, and the week after, bull’s eye! He told me about the secret system. Triumph. Triumph.” Lifting two fists drawn tight, in memory of an ancient victory. “You see, Swan House—you don’t know this? The secret system?”
“Okay. Yes ma’am. Coming right up.”
“Mr. Sharfstein.” Her serious eyes filled with mild, complacent accusation as she tipped her head back and (brushing hair aside) said confidingly, in a murmur: “You’re picking on me.”
Flirtatiousness so hushed it amazed him.
“Call me Saul. If you’re capable of calling an antique like me by his given name. If it’s possible, please do.”
“I think I can manage.”
“The garden temple: a tall, open pavilion, made of bronze, weathered to a soft gray-green, with bronze Doric columns and a domed roof. There was a raised moat around it, running inside two concentric walls, chest-high, also bronze. The moat’s inner wall was actually inside the temple, you couldn’t see how far in, so the columns that supported the roof stood in the water. Got that so far? It’s hard to picture, I guess.”
“No, I see.”
“You could tell that the moat was just a moat, a ring around something, a donut; a chest-high donut, or in Ada’s case chin-high. And the play of light made you think there was a huge space inside, under the dome; that the floor dropped away, inside the donut hole; but you couldn’t really tell. They only tore the thing down eight years ago, can you believe? The S.O.B.’s. But of course you wondered what was inside.”
“Of course; what?”
“And you couldn’t see inside, and you didn’t know. You wanted to touch the cool bronze, rap the heavy hollowness of those big columns, but you couldn’t reach to touch. The moat was wide and deep, and the lip of the outer wall was too narrow to perch on.”
“What was inside?”
“I’ll tell you, but I have to get to that. So I’d walk around the moat with my sleeves rolled up and slosh my hands through the coldness; cool pressure between your fingers. Small fish cruising around the circuit. Slipslap of the water. Take your arm out pattering drips on the dry concrete path. Cool tightening of your skin wet to the elbow. Listening to the fountains—there were water jets in the moat, which also blocked your view to the inside—smelling the mossy cool, composing poetry. When you think you’re a poet, it really grabs hold of you.”
“You are a poet.”
He shrugged. “Nonetheless. Swan House was built in 1887, with a so-called public system and a secret system—the secret system meaning this temple—and people said there were other unknown regions too, tucked into the house somehow. And they were right.
“That afternoon Mr. Lawrence showed me old journals and photos and drawings, and the story started to come into focus. The whole time I was studying them, he was studying me. Measuring my sincerity—which kept growing the longer he looked at me. I was transformed over those three long afternoons into an almost-serious young man. Believe it or not. I was rising to the occasion. A downright miracle.
“Maybe I finally succeeded in getting Ada to look at me because of those conversations. Not because of my brilliant scheme, but because I’d actually changed. I’ve never thought of it that way before. Not once in 60 years. Sometimes you have to say a thing to think it. You know what I mean?” She nodded. “The week after—nearly autumn, 1937—he handed me a heavy bronze key. I’d passed the test. See: the whole secret part of the estate connected to the public part through a single locked door, just one—”
He shuffled a hand through his pants pocket and drew out a large dull black key. “And this unlocked it.”
“May I hold it?”
Her fingertips touched his palm as she drew it away.
“It still—exists?” Overenunciating, working her jaw around.
“Sure. The key does.” Eyeing her carefully.
“And . . . the secret system?”
“Part of it. Mr. Lawrence said, ‘Tell no one; don’t put it in your book. This is only for your personal information.’ But I was certain he wouldn’t mind my telling one other person. He knew I had a thing for Ada. He knew it better than she did. He was half in love with her himself, wasn’t he? Course he was; but y’see, that’s another thing that’s never really occurred to me before, not really. The mind is a crazy thing.” He stopped. “He was as shy around her as she was around him. I doubt the two of them ever had one real conversation, ever.”
Then he was quiet, digesting new truth. The wind came booming up suddenly out of nowhere and fell back.
“So. I was all set. I was so desperate for next Sunday to come, so I could find Ada and tell her all about it, lay these discoveries at her feet, I could taste it. I thought I would die of it. I think I almost did.”
Early October ’37; next Sunday, at last. Ada was sitting on a bench near the Swan moat, with a book—but then she looked up and I caught her smiling. She tried to undo the smile but she couldn’t, and we both realized it was funny. I sat beside her—the big, clumsy, curly, sex-crazed desperado sits beside her—and I said, ‘I know the secrets of Swan House. I know the mysteries.’ She said, ‘Ridiculous. Which mysteries?’ And I said, ‘You know perfectly well which.’ The existence of the secrets was no secret. She said, ‘Oh yes? Okay, tell me.’ A half-mocking challenge.
“I escorted her toward the house, toward a side-entrance to the basement. Down a half-flight of stone steps with soft spider webs in the corners like primeval cotton candy, and I creaked the hatch shut over our heads; over to a row of closets—our eyes readjusting to the dank burlap-smelling dark. I opened the second door from the right; snapped a cord taut: bare bulb. You have to get in here with me, I told her, into the closet; the panel won’t open unless the outer door is locked.
“ ‘You expect me to believe that?,’ she said, and it was such a great question I burst out laughing, and anyway I was manic at that point, I would have laughed at anything whatsoever. I was supercharged. I couldn’t have planned this layout better if I’d done it myself, I told her, but the fact is, Louis de Ferrara designed it, in 1887. She wanted to know: was the architect of Swan House actually a Sephardic Jew, as she had heard? Like her mother’s family? He was, absolutely.”
Absently he rubbed his thumb over his curled fingers, aware of her unaccountably hungry eyes floodlighting him.
“I told her some of the history as she stood and thought the thing over, terribly curious and nervous and beautiful, decked out in her full-bore 30’s elegance—fashionably tight, tailored, longish skirt, silk blouse with views between the buttons as she looked around, in her cloud of powdery fragrance, with sparklights shooting through her hair. Ordinarily she had a hat too, and white gloves, but she’d only been lounging. And sometimes a bow in her hair, or someplace on her dress. I loved to see her in bows and ribbons. They made her look like a package waiting to be unwrapped.
“Should she or should she not step into this godforsaken little closet in the basement with an obvious sex maniac? Standing right beside her, talking to her, felt like a million volts up and down my spine. Ferrara was an insufferably arrogant man, I was telling her, from what people say. The old photographs make him look like Liszt—tangled black hair and gaunt cheeks and a mole and staring eyes. Swan House was his masterpiece, along with the other structures on the estate, two apartment buildings that brought in substantial rental income—the place was self-supporting. Plus the ‘marble beach’ he’d designed—everyone called it that—a private war memorial to three Lawrence cousins who died at Vicksburg. White marble plaza, a perfect circle 30 feet across with a black iron railing, on Lawrence land in Connecticut at the lip of Long Island Sound—twice a day, with the rising tide, shallow waves would oversweep the plaza and the lettering on its surface: MAY THEIR MEMORY NEVER BE EFFACED, something like that, with their names and dates. Then the plaza became a tidal pool until the tide went out and the letters emerged again, effaced no longer. It was a haunting place, but it needed constant upkeep. In the 30’s it was already crumbling.”
“I wish I could see it.”
“So do I, but it’s gone. Then I said, let’s go, and shivering just a little she stepped into the closet beside me. Greatest moment of my life. The greatest. Her neck as she twisted around inspecting everything; the intricate, dodgy, racy lights in her hair-there was always something trapped and pantherish about her even when she wasn’t stuck in a little closet. We were inches apart. You had to turn the key to lock the door, and then—holding the key in position—you reached across and pushed open the secret panel. In that narrow space it was damned hard not to brush against her as I reached across to the panel, but I almost managed, and my reward, as I was fiddling with the key, was that she crouched down low and laid her hands flat to the gritty plank flooring on either side, as if she were feeling its temperature—there was empty space below us, which she must have sensed; and inside the tightly-stretched skirt, the shape of her legs and knees emerged clearly, especially the upper one—she had one knee high and one low, elegant always; and she looked up at me with gleams of hilarious conspiratorial satisfaction—and the panel opened: thwock.
“And she sprang up and we saw those remarkable cast-iron spiral stairs, one floor down and six up. The shaft lit, just barely, by the shallow glass dome way up high overhead—an echo of the garden temple dome, but in colored glass. She gasped. She was standing in front of me. She shot me her biggest, darkest, raciest look over her shoulder, and up we went.
“Turquoise-colored glass, inset with bright yellow diamond shapes—uranium glass. Something like an aquarium where you stand in the dark, in the magic fish-tank glow.
“And it was full of sound, a tall clock’s grave tock click, tock click. Six flights up, but we were kids. We didn’t care. It felt like you were climbing a mast; slightly precarious. She was overwhelmed by this luminous secret shaft hidden in the house she inhabited, and I was overwhelmed by her, I had no mass, I was sheer soaring energy. Ferrara’s motto was inscribed in the brick wall halfway up: “A Jew Knows Where Truth Hides”—only in Latin, which I asked her how to pronounce, and the answer was a dissertation with about fifteen different alternatives.
“My nose inches from her waist as I followed her scent and swinging skirt up the spiral. As you climbed, the stairs sent out shoots along the way, seductive little passages leading to secret rooms tucked in here and there—Ferrara described it as a secret stem of lilies at the house’s center—but best of all was the octagon way at the top, wedged in under the roof, where we were headed. Its three forward sides project out—a cantilevered bay at the very top of the rear façade—see?” Rising slightly, supported on his palms; twisting at the waist, gesturing with his chin. “Right there.”
“At the very top.”
“Wait” she said, “stop. Wait. You aren’t talking about this house.”
He looked at her in stagey surprise. “Naturally. This is Swan House. What did you think?”
“But then, what—?” She stood; bent over slightly at the waist, steadying her lightweight skirt against the wind. “I don’t understand. How on earth did it—get like this? This nursing home? And why are you, I completely don’t, I don’t get. . . .”
“Swan House became my house.”
“Yours? But then, I mean, how—?” She was breathless.
“I gave it to them. This nursing home. I had to. My money ran out. I couldn’t keep it up. They promised to preserve it. They haven’t.”
She shook her head slowly, staring at Swan House. “It all happened right here?”
“Today it’s ruined. They tore off the roof patios and the gorgeous outdoor stairways; they wrecked the garden temple—”
“You mean—I’ve been working at Swan House? This is it? This is Swan House, where I am actually standing?”
“Sure. I thought you knew that.” Smiling so she couldn’t tell whether he really had or not.
“No I never, never dreamed, even dreamed—I mean I—when I was a little girl,” checking his face with a quick glance, “my grandmother used to tell me these stories about Swan House,” quaveringly emphatic, “which she always used to say really existed, she had seen it. . . .”
“Why on earth should your grandmother have known about Swan House?”
“Because Owen Lawrence Junior was her husband’s uncle.”
Silence as they both thought it over.
Then he laughed and said, “Huh?” And batted aside a stray bug from in front of his nose. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That’s my name,” she said. “My maiden name. Gwyneth Barnes Lawrence.”
“You told me that, but it never occurred to me it was that Lawrence.” Joke on him. But it was strange. A falling-backward sensation. “I see. Why didn’t you say so to begin with?”
“Because, why should you care? My grandmother told me that Swan House really existed, but naturally I came to assume in later years that I’d heard her, I mean, all wrong. I mean—” She was out of breath. She swallowed. “I had to assume I’d heard my whole entire childhood wrong. In my bedroom, as a little child. . . .” She sat abruptly at the end of his deckchair (he jumped his feet aside) without taking her eyes off the building. “I pictured it totally wrong, though, totally, like a medieval fairy castle; my refuge, which I’d reach some day. We lived in Nanuet—across the river?”—stroking her hair to the side—“and I was positive that Swan House was just over the farthest hill from my third-story bedroom window, I’d just somehow decided; on snowy blue-glittering Saturday mornings, alone.” She kept checking him with fast glances. “My geography was not so great. But knowing about this magic swan palace that was real and one day you could reach it, somehow—it gripped me, completely. I’d go up to my room. . . .”
She broke off.
“I take it your childhood was no fun.”
“No, not much. No. The 70’s were cursed. You can’t even imagine.” She broke off. “There’ve always been divorces, bitterness, mothers walking out on families and feeling proud. Well, maybe not always that. And fathers, bringing. . . .” She stopped. “Anyway, the 70’s: I come from the age of the special curse.”
Gently he said, “And I don’t?”
“Maybe we both do.” Then, “No. In America, the 70’s were rock bottom.”
He drew himself up and put one foot on the ground. Touched her cheek and then she was leaning (definitely leaning) against his hand and then he drew his hand back. Fiercely he focused his attention on the house. Her head still leaned to one side, questioning. The softness of her cheek was still present in his fingers, lingering music in a struck bell. “Go on?” she said.
He was looking at the large house. Wounded beast dying. Ever since the disastrous alterations of ’91 it hurt him to look, and he almost never did. When he had turned over the property in 1988, the agreement specified that nothing would be changed except insofar as nursing-home needs and code compliance required it.
“I thought I would grow up and my husband would be lord of Swan House,” she added, quietly. “I was a little kid. I wanted to be the princess, naturally. So this is it.” (A statement not a question.)
“This is it.”
She stared silently at the house.
“The agreement also stipulated that if I produced an heir, the heir would get it back, immediately—ironclad. Parents would take over as trustees. Ironclad. I wrote that in. I was sixty-six. Another little joke no one got. The lawyers all nodded like imbeciles.
“You can still see the basic shape. Huge but with flowing lines, like a Matter-horn on a long oval base. Who ever heard of an oval house? With gorgeous patios up on its shoulders?—now destroyed, of course. Too imposing ever to seem homey, or even housey Can only be a shrine. You’ve seen the stained glass lit from inside at night? The ultramarine and violet diamonds, and crimson and foam green and gold?”
“I’ve seen it. It’s stunning, but I pictured it all wrong.”
“Only the Jews, Ada said, build houses that exhale light instead of consuming it. She had all sorts of theories about Ferrara’s intentions and symbolism. Some of his notes were scribbled in Portuguese, believe it or not, so she sat herself down and learned Portuguese in about ten minutes and translated them. Swan House shows what Jews have done for Christians, she said; built them a gorgeous palace to live in, and now they’re itching to tear it down. Because the Jews, her theory was, had built European civilization, and the Nazis planned to destroy it, and the world was secretly pleased, because—”
“Wait!” Peremptory shake of her head. “Tell me about you and Ada and love and the octagon room. Only Jews see the whole world in terms of Jews. No offense, I just mean. . . .”
“Correction: only Jews and anti-Semites.”
“But what happened up there? . . . My husband was Jewish. It’s not. I’m sorry. I only—”
“Forget it, no need.”
“I always wanted to be Jewish myself. My husband laughed at me when I told him. About Ada—you were saying?”
He frowned for a moment and then continued. “I put my arm around her. . . .”
“Would you have laughed?”
Another puzzled pause. “Of course not. How could you even think such a thing?”
“You put your arm around her, go on.”
“On the sofa,” he continued, “up there in the octagon—”
“Which is still there?”
“Yes.” (She looked back over her shoulder.) “The trees tossing far below and beyond us. . . . And by the end of that afternoon I had made all sorts of progress.”
“No. No!” Frowning as his thoughts tightened around the idea. “I’d be taking advantage of you. Wouldn’t be right.”
“Except I want you to,” fiercely.
Which surprised him. “That doesn’t make it right.”
“It does,” looking straight at him. “Anyway,” she added, “you haven’t been all that fastidious with me.”
He told her.
“After all,” he concluded, “she was lonely. That’s half the battle—or maybe nine-tenths. . . . A couple of months later, December ’37, is when I first really seduced her, or vice versa.”
“Where did the steps go, leading down? Out to the temple?”
“I’ll get to that.”
“Okay—you first seduced her. And how did that work?”
He told her.
Afterward they both felt (tentatively) transported to the Land of Abnormal Time where you only went, ordinarily after sex, where no one counted and nothing mattered. But they weren’t quite there—as if they had been sent by fax. “And after all that, starting that same afternoon, she made a poet out of me, too. My happiness indescribable. She was happy also.
“A month later, January ’38, up in the octagon. . . .”
“Oh God,” turning to look again.
“We’d made love and I was reciting poetry to her, ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’—”
She closed her eyes. “Keats.”
“Keats. But the poem reminded her powerfully, she said—she liked to begin sentences with but, and she had a lovely light French accent—or did I say that already?”
“You’re telling me about—this is after you made love, but not for the first time. . . .”
“And it’s January 1938.”
“Right. And the Keats poem reminded her of the jewelbox of Sainte Chapelle in Paris, she said, with its beautiful windows—and I asked if it didn’t bother her that a Jew should love Christian art. But of course, of course, no, she said, because Christianity is a mere glaze over Judaism, a shrine with Judaism inside, not the dead bones of saints but the living truth, like the soul inside a man. How could she say that, in a world of Christian anti-Semitism? But no, she said again, that phase is played out, the anti-Semites of 1938 aren’t Christian but anti-Christian; didn’t I know anything whatsoever about modern Europe? But the rising giggle in her throat was taking over, she was laughing at me—and she was hungry.
“So I came back with milk, rolls, apples, other stuff. Milk.”
His thoughts went far away and came back slowly.
“No cigarettes, no liquor, milk; we were kids. I’d thought we could drink from the bottle, but she sent me back for glasses. I called her a petite bourgeoise, that’s how you talked in those days, and she threw an apple and knocked me on the head, and I wrestled her to the floor. Two giggling kids. I lay in her lap and she bent over me and recited le soleil éveille,à travers des feuillages, les vieilles couleurs des vitraux irreguliers. The sun wakes up, through the leaves, the old colors of the irregular windows. Rimbaud.”
Gwyn sat with her back to the house, turning every few minutes to glance at it over her shoulder.
“That expression you get after you look,” he said, “like a little girl sighing over a matinee idol—it makes you even more beautiful.”
It was more than he had planned to say. By far. But now she was watching him so intently that he had to go on.
“Ada wore her beauty on her sleeve—everyone who saw her said gorgeous. Yours comes from someplace deeper.” He stopped again, and drew in breath as if he were playing a difficult wind instrument: “don’t know quite—what I want to say.” A foolish stranded half-smile, as if he had opened the wrong door.
“That’s okay. Thank you.”
“I don’t mean that your appearance is not beautiful.”
“I understand. Thank you. Go on.”
There was more emotion in her eyes than he could account for, except by means of fantastic thoughts he chose not to think.
He looked at the sky. He frowned. He refocused with a grunt on the past. “January 1938, up in the octagon. The windows were open so we could hear the night overtake us, loose branches prickling, tumbling on the roof, dry leaves on the patio.” Squinting into the distance, trying to make it out. “Cold; smell of pine pitch; my first drafts of adulthood coming in through those windows. As it got dark the window glass turned opalescent like stiff shining hypnotized eyes. I had to lock her head between my palms, one on each cool cheek, her head pressed back on the rolled leather arm of the sofa, me hovering over her, and have her say the French poem again. That regal way she had. . . .” His hand paused in the middle of an idea, tracing it out. “Some moments make your life. Dots you connect, and there it is. Less than a year later—”
He stopped, making a fist and holding it vertically like a gavel, pressing his mouth to the top. She reached out a hand to touch his shoulder but hesitated; took it back.
“Less than a year later, right after the Hitler triumph at Munich, right after Munich and because of Munich, the pogrom of Kristallnacht. Germany was an hour away from Liège, where she was born, where they still owned a house with in-laws living in it. And she had family and friends in Germany. I found her that week in her bedroom with the sloping walls, at the end of the long hall past the library, reading about Kristallnacht, on her knees on the floor, with the newspaper spread in front of her, in tears so she could barely talk. She was reading the Manchester Guardian. She was gasping for breath. I sat down on her desk chair and just stared; she started to explain, with her voice snagging on tears. I could barely make out what she was saying. But then at some point she looked up at me and just for a moment, still crying, she smiled—she said, ‘You look so sad!’ ”
“So I asked her to marry me. Just popped out. She got up and hugged me. She rested her cheek on my chest—she was still crying—and she said, thank you for asking, I don’t know; I have to think.”
“I was only nineteen. But as I thought about it—first I asked, then I thought, that was me all over—it seemed exactly right. Obviously she ought to marry me. So, okay. Next day she telephoned, a rare event—usually we wrote each other, every day—with a crazy proposition: yes she would marry me, if I would take her back to Belgium, and we’d settle there.
“Why? German Jews were leaving in droves, they were desperate to get out,” his voice rising, “and we should go back to Belgium right next door? There were fascists in Belgium too, by the way; plenty. Plenty. She said: because I have to tell them the truth, not that Jews are just as good as filthy Germans but that Jews are infinitely better, that Germans would still be monkeys in trees if Jews hadn’t invented morals and holiness and presented it to them in the form of Christianity—and she went on, at fantastic length—Proust who created modern literature for them, Pissarro who created modern painting, Heine who perfected the German lyric, on and on, and literary German, would it even exist without Luther’s Bible, and where did they get the Bible? And modern English, would it exist without the Authorized Version? We invented them, we conjured them out of the slime. And I said: Don’t you think this might be unhelpful right now, explaining how we raised them from the level of apes and all that? And she said: You’re a coward just like the rest, terrified of the truth.
“Still, this was just discussion. Theoretical. We assumed we’d work it out. Just give us a few months. She thought I’d agree to go, and I thought she’d agree to stay.
“And meanwhile she was turning me into a poet. She said, you are a poet, because when you write about something I can see and feel it and my life is made larger. My poems encircled her, they were vines tangled around her, couldn’t stand up without her; I wrote poems on her body. She wanted me to. I shouldn’t be telling you this.”
He had been talking for a while. His voice was dry, and rougher all the time.
“She once said, give me poetry, not lingerie. She said it in French and it rhymed. Hear the rhythm? Dactyls? Said it in French and it rhymed? We used to capture rhythmic sentences on the wing and present them to each other like butterflies.”
“You actually wrote—in—what? Ink? With a pen?”
“Not with a pen. There were no ballpoints then. Forget it. Various kinds of grease pencils, markers, laundry markers. We were nuts.”
“Just tell me how you did it. Explain. Exactly.”
“Would only make me sound depraved.”
“Tell me!” twisting the words like a handkerchief.
She looked wrung out herself.
“Should I get you a drink?” He was already in the process of standing.
“Maybe soda? Thanks. Maybe—tonic water?”
He came back with two gin and tonics and she took one, sipped once, shivered. The shadows were getting longer. Gripping her glass tight and pressing it against her chin she fixed him with playful, commanding eyes. “Tell me about writing on her body. How, where, what, everything.” So he did.
“I took her to Coney Island and wrote a poem about that. She reworked the draft. That turned into my first published piece.”
“The one that starts, ‘The paper sun slides past the edge of time—/the belly-dancing hands of cigarette smoke climb, /the coaster’s resting, barkers in their caves; /the tapered gullcry arches to a point/(five feet of silence for the wash of waves)’ . . . and then tells about Ada? Poetry for Everyman—Young Americans of the 1930’s?”
He looked blank for a moment. “Wow. First-rate research.”
“Go on. Please. I got it on the web.”
“No, I hate the web, totally, I hate, just, this whole entire. . . . Please don’t think—” But her sudden clap of passion was dissipating like smoke after a gunshot. “I’m sorry. Go on.”
“You hate this whole damned age you live in?”
“So does everyone who’s unhappy.”
Suddenly in tears: “You can patronize me but. You’ll be wrong.”
Now he looked unhappy, but she shook her head and pulled the tears back hard and said, “Go on.”
“Once I asked why she didn’t write poetry herself.” He was shaken and his voice was dark and drifting. “And she said: I don’t have to, you’re my disciple. I told her that was an odd way of putting it. She said, don’t you write my sayings in that notebook? True, I sometimes did. She said, you dominate me physically, why shouldn’t I dominate you intellectually?—just teasing. Bear-baiting. But there was always that certain recklessness. She said, the German plan is to kill off God and replace Him with Hitler. To kill God, she said, it’s simple: forget about Nietzsche, just kill the Jews. You have to listen to them, they always say the Jew, never the Jews; the Jew is poison, the Jew must be eradicated. What’s wrong, no plural in German? But which Jew do you think they’re really talking about, which Jew do they hate so much? Which Jew do they hate most? You know. The Jew they worship! The Germans have always been crypto-pagans. You have to live there to understand. There’s a reason the Reformation happened there: Christianity was always alien to Germany. Once a century, they try to shake it off.
“And more like that. And as for me, I just kept asking her to marry me. Each time I wanted it more. It had to be, we were intertwined tighter and tighter. Each time, same answer: if we settle in Europe. And each time, that prospect seemed more and not less insane.
“How could I agree? As the months passed, her plan got to seem not just stupid but suicidal. But she wanted it more and more. Still, we had time. Then it was September 1, 1939 and the war was on—Hitler invaded Poland and two days later Britain and France declared war—and the argument was unresolved, and time was up.
“I was about to start my junior year at Brooklyn College. I said, please marry me, we can’t go to Europe now, but after the war—I promise. But the war made her more frantic to go. I’d say, what can you possibly accomplish in Europe now, and she’d say, ‘Coward! Some man.’ The war made her crazy. Crazier. And for me the problem wasn’t just the craziness of going; I loved this country and my parents and Brighton Beach and the boardwalk and Steeplechase and Swan House and a lot of things.
“But most of all, her. So I stood at the window of my parents’ living room; desperation. Leaning with both palms on the radio where several issues of Lit. Quart. with my poems inside were proudly propped. Looking out that window in the evening, you could feel the whole live city in the palm of your hand, up to Manhattan, over to Far Rockaway The girls’ jump-rope chants and the flat smack of the boys’ pink rubber balls and bicycle bells and the grainy hum of roller-skates, and moms shouting out windows at their kids—and the odd wheeling screaming seagull, and pigeons and salt air—and my own face in the upper windowpane. A small room, overcrowded: gold picture frames, worn red oriental rug, skyblue Palestine box for the Jewish National Fund. Newspapers. Sheet music. My mothers’ pins and thimbles rolling around in a ceramic ashtray. Lord I miss that place, my parents’ place.
“An outsider would have thought I’d reached absolute maximum unhappiness when I was home with my Mom and Dad—I stormed and raged and kvetched. But that was only because, when I was with my parents, I was free. They understood. They were frantic that I shouldn’t go to Europe, naturally. But they knew I didn’t want to go; they saw the whole picture.
“I’d ask Ada, what do you gain by going back now, and either she’d curse me out or she’d say, one symbolic act can be more powerful than a million men. I’d say, why should anyone even notice you over there, for God’s sake, and she’d say once I’m there, I’ll find a way to make them notice. Hitler wants to chase the Jews out of Europe; can I let him?
“And what could you answer? These were arguments on a different level from real life. Not only were Jews desperate to get out but, once the war started, no one would’ve given ten cents for Belgium’s chances. For now, things were all quiet on the western front, but everyone’s parents remembered 1914, when the first thing Germany did was smash up Belgium like a baseball bat smashing a dollhouse. My Dad used to call her ‘your beautiful little fruitcake.’ ‘Your beautiful French meshugeneh.’ I’d say, Belgian, Dad, and he’d say, I notice you don’t argue with the other part.”
“But at last my father said: call her bluff. Late one night at the kitchen table, he was stubbled and exhausted, shirt unbuttoned, no collar. Thick sloping neck like a wrestler; clarinet under his arm. Cool heavy bottle of cherry soda on the table, slippery with condensed droplets of salty humidity. Yiddish newspapers, English newspapers. The narrow window propped open wide, gasping for air on a hot night; Mom asleep; my Dad and I often sat up late. He switched off the radio. Poland going under. I don’t know what to tell you, he said, except: call her bluff. He meant—how can I explain—maybe she’s bluffing, probably not; in any case, if you have to go to Europe, then go and that’s all. Because part of my problem was, I needed them to say it was all right. And they didn’t want to say it but they knew they had to; and finally they did.
“So next day I told Ada: fine, we’ll go to Belgium right now and get married and settle there; finished, the end, done. And then she said, quit college after two years? That’s what you want to do? She had a point, but what did she want from me? What?” Hoarsely indignant, as if Ada personally were listening in. “She said, at least finish the year, or at least the term. I said, fine, so let’s say we’re engaged and plan things, and she said, but I ought to leave right now; who can plan? There’s a war on! And then I really felt like putting my fist through a window.
“I understood better all the time how little I knew her, or she knew herself. It’s easy for me to say now: she was a certain type of genius, or nut, and a genius just can’t be normal, but I sure as hell didn’t see that then. I was a kid. . . . And I was scared. All I knew was, we were getting more unbalanced all the time. Maybe I loved her more than she loved me—or, as I liked to think, she loved me just as much, but Europe was grabbing her tighter and tighter around the throat.
“So we fought; she wouldn’t even let me announce our engagement. But she didn’t leave for Europe, either, though she kept saying she needed to, wanted to, had to. And meanwhile I loved her more all the time; my ego and writing and lust and love kept on expanding in one big whoosh, like that last big firework that closed the show the night I took her to Coney Island a few weeks later, a Saturday night—fall ’39.
“We watched from the boardwalk. A big, easygoing crowd; on hot summer nights people used to sleep on that beach with their kids—can you imagine, today? The ocean’s slow shuffle in the dark, and then the fireworks; long whistle, sky explodes. Dazzle lights the crowd. I pull her closer, clamp her in front with my chin on her head, my arms around her. Whistle and burst. Whistle, burst. Suddenly she asks: would you wade into the ocean to save me? Face twisted ’round, close to mine. Boardwalk neon mirrored in her urgent eyes. Would you follow me into the surf? Whistle. Burst. The ocean’s long heaving sigh. The lightning dazzle. What could I say? Of course! She says: so do it. And I say: but you won’t let me!
“The last one was a huge gasp of a ring that got huger, huger, huger and then just hung there enormous in mid-air . . . and I had to make love to her immediately. Couldn’t wait. Whispered in her ear. She said, d’accord. I grabbed her hand and we’re off. She’s two arm-lengths behind me, the length of my arm and hers, running to keep up as I yank her through the crowd, down the short stairway to the street, off toward Brighton Third Street where Izzy lived, and I got Izzy outside in his bathrobe cursing, in the alley beside his parents’ home, he never forgave me—which Lord knows I don’t blame him for: here I am with this gorgeous girl who belongs to me, standing there with her chin up showing her proud profile, panting defiant, and me discreetly intimating to this poor, hard-working shmuck with his deep brown serious eyes that I needed to screw her this instant, so if he would just please, kindly, hand over the keys—how could I have done it? Gott in Himmel. How could I, I mean—what kind of jerk. . . . Well.”
He swept a hand helplessly over his hair. Silence, a whole agonized minute.
“Memories that make you want to stick a knife in your guts. But. In another way, you wouldn’t trade them for anything on earth. I got the key off Izzy. Key to the dance studio off Neptune Avenue his father managed, where Izzy worked on weekends. Up to the second floor, to the back room. Ratty old sofa in brown-black tweedy stuff. Nothing ever moved me more than her narrow shoulders on that coarse brown cloth, her bare back. Lord, the human female’s sheer narrowness in your arms is the most beautiful thing on earth.
“On the subway back to Grand Central she said, in French again—and now I was angry at myself, seething, I could picture Izzy, I could see already, this image is gonna haunt me for the rest of my life; you know, afterward you feel like a shmuck, never before—but all the same, I was thrilled with myself and the whole universe; she said, I have to get out of here. You’re making me stay. I won’t have it. I won’t stay. And I said, I’m not making you, it’s just that I love you, I want you, I want you safe, I want you here, and she said—you want, you want, you want. Who will do this thing if even I won’t? And I said, for the millionth time, why even you? And she said, who if not me? And then startled me by saying in Hebrew, which I’d never heard her speak before but she’d been studying—famous words—‘If I’m not for myself, who will be? If not now, when?’
“And let me tell you: there was no Jewish Hitler, and that’s the tragedy. There were Jews of earth-shaking willpower who knew what Hitler was, but didn’t choose to take him on, or didn’t deign to. A Ben-Gurion, a Trotsky. Wittgenstein—ferocious man, war hero—couldn’t be bothered with Hitler. A David Marcus, or the young Yigael Yadin; who knows. They all had the violent willpower and sheer craziness to confront Hitler—that’s what it came down to, not an army, when Hitler started he had no army—but they didn’t do it. Hitler was one man. What Jews lacked wasn’t the will to fight, but they had no fuehrer of their own.
“And then there was my own petite amie, my girl, my little friend. On the train to Westchester she was still picking fights, but at last she leaned against me—discreetly; with her hand in my hand. She said, but after all, I love Swan House. I said, also me? And she said, also you. Why was I bugging her for reassurance when she had just given me more than most girls, in a whole lifetime. . . .?”
Gwyn said, so softly he barely heard: “How can you be great if you aren’t even good?”
He frowned. “Easy.”
“Well. Maybe I’m wrong.”
He stared into the forest for a while before continuing.
“It was three A.M. or something when I finally made it back to Brooklyn. I got off at Stillwell Avenue, the el station near Coney Island, and walked over to Sheepshead Bay, which had a wooden footbridge where there were always men fishing, day and night. Late-night salt-marsh stink. Blinking orange tips of cheap cigars. Did I mention I loved Brooklyn? And miss it? I hung over the rail, watching the bob and dip of scattered lights, and the black water.
“And at the end of 1939, just a few months later, it all blew up.” He stood, slowly: “I’ll be back. Will you wait for me?”
He shrugged his crumpled sports jacket back into place and, smoothing his hair, prepared to set off for the house. She held the key out to him.
Her legs were crossed again and she smoothed her skirt again and the bottom fell out of his will again.
But he only said, “Keep it.”
“May I? Thank you very much.”
He leaned low and kissed her forehead.
He headed off toward the house—large and slow and straight, jingling coins in his pants pocket, nodding vaguely to the patients and nurses on the lower patio, traveling slowly down the steel track of his own thoughts. He could have passed for ten years younger. Fifteen. She watched him disappear into the building.
“Late November 1939: her father died suddenly. He had a stroke, and died the same night. Seven weeks later to the day, Owen Lawrence died. Also a stroke. Evidently. Your great, whatever he was, uncle; one of the best men I ever knew.”
It was getting dark and the patio crowd was thinning. “Both, just like that? Had they been sick?”
He sighed and shrugged. “Another drink?”
“Maybe.” He stood again, walked back into the building and returned with two glasses; sat down, said, “I ought to get you something to eat”; came back eventually with a box of graham crackers. They each took one.
She said, “You know what I think? The road to being great leads through being good.”
“I doubt that.”
They crunched their graham crackers. She said, “Go on.”
“The day after her father died Ada announced, I’m going back to Europe now, I have to; I think my family will come with me. A small voice, barely there, through the grief. Like Paris on shortwave.
“I said—okay, I’m coming too.
“And she said no, not now, I have to take care of—everything. I said, so when are we getting married? She said, I can’t think of that now. I said, but we’ll live in Europe, settle there right now, anything you want—anything. And she said no, I can’t think about that now.
“And it was monstrous to press her the day after her father died, the day of the funeral. It’s just, I was frantic.” Dense voice, slowly unrolling. “That’s no excuse, it’s an explanation. In the weeks afterward I’d hold her and she would cry for hours. It was all I could do not to cry myself. In some ways we’d never been closer; every night, the instant I closed my eyes I’d see her face. Do you know what it is, what it is to. . . .”
He stopped. She didn’t know.
“I talked about her to anyone, just to say her name. But when I asked her again, she said no again.” His words were getting softer, slower. “And then Mr. Lawrence died. And she and her family were all alone at Swan House with Ray Lawrence.
“So. Another funeral. Again she put on her black hat, again with the veil. We stood side by side, first in church, all waxed wood inside like a coffin—I’d never been in a church before—and then at the cemetery. Ray Lawrence never said a word to us. Naturally we offered our condolences. But he looked away, ferociously. He knew something we didn’t. I felt as if I’d fallen asleep in afternoon daylight and woken up confused in the dark. You know that feeling?”
“Her despair, my despair; and understand, as a bonus, our ties to Swan House cut forever. We assumed. Ada and her family were allowed to stay on temporarily—a servant let them know—on condition they were packing to leave. Of course that did not mean they had to leave the country—we could’ve found them a place, or they could’ve stayed with us, and they were here legally and no one would’ve bothered them anyway—but they were determined to go back to Europe, because Ada was determined.
“She and her mother and her two little sisters were packing. I was out of my mind. Ada was like a girl about to swan dive off a cliff: completely terrified; completely resolved.
“A cold day, early in February 1940—the first time since her father died that we made love. Afterward she told me it was no longer right because. I don’t know. I don’t know what she said. She wouldn’t let me any more. That’s what it came down to. She said, this is only for now, but. . . .
“Up there in the octagon we danced. Holding her, humming tunes into her hair—a gritty trickle beneath the lace fringe of ice and snow at the edge of winter, winter and spring separated by one long heavy sigh. She’d always looked me straight in the eye, but now she’d turn away. When I talked, she’d nod without hearing. Auto-pilot. Finally it was our last Sunday, the very last, they were leaving Tuesday. We met in the forest. Out there.” Showing the direction with his chin. “I was persona non grata at Swan House. We snuck into the basement entrance. We climbed to the octagon. She said, go ahead, because I can’t leave you like this. And I said,” he took a deep breath, “no, because I would not be suffered, out of pity—”
He broke off.
“Years later I could have killed myself a dozen times over, thinking about that afternoon. But sometimes I also think, it was the first time in my life I ever knew restraint—not goodness, but a place where you have a view of goodness in the farthest distance. Restraint. A place I’d never been to before.
“But that night when I got home, I banged my head against the wall. You think it’s only an expression, bang your head against the wall? It isn’t. Head against plaster.
“The day came, and I pulled up at four on a Tuesday morning at silent, enemy-occupied Swan House—it was Ray’s house now—in a big old borrowed ’36 Reo sedan. I’d been summoned to drive them out to Long Island, where the Pan Am Clipper departed for Lisbon at eight.
“In April 1940 it was too dangerous to sail, anyway on French or British boats. In the moist spring dark I loaded the car. Four or five heavy valises; the rest had been sent on ahead. One of the few times in my life I couldn’t talk, not at all. If I’d said even one syllable I’d have burst into tears, like a jerk. So I heaved and shlepped, upstairs and down.
“It’s a heavy time of night. Magnifies sounds. Fixes them in your mind. Crunching pebbles of the driveway. Swish of skirts as they got in. Creaking springs as we sit. The car rocks slightly. Her mother in front beside me, Ada behind me and her sisters beside her, silently crying. I step on the starter and the engine scrapes around and rat-tats and I’m about to put it in gear and there’s Ada’s face next to mine. The warmth of her breath, perfume, raised veil—leaning all the way forward. Dearest, she says, whispering, in fact you were right, come with me. Marry me there. Come as soon as you can, join us. You were right. I am sorry.
“Well. I said yes. Burst into tears anyway. I kissed her mother. Then her. Go figure.
“We drove into the dawn. Pink line spreading outward both ways from the center. We were happy, sort of, but we’d all been crying, every one of us. What a production number.
“The minute we were alone I wanted to ask her why in God’s name, why, did you have to wait till now to tell me? But of course we were never alone. So I asked her anyway, mildly, as we drove. And she said, as soon as you join us in Europe we’ll have plenty of time to talk. Also I left you a note in the octagon, you can always go back there and sneak in. They’ll never find it, no one even knows any more that the octagon exists, except Ollie—Ollie was the head janitor. Ray doesn’t know, she said. The note explains everything, just in case somehow we can’t rendezvous right away.
“We pulled up at a White Tower in the Bronx for donuts and coffee. Afterward I stood with Ada and her mother at the curb as we waited for the girls. The warm-red neon of an all-night Chinese restaurant blinking on, off, on; across the street, a parking lot full of city buses crouched on their rounded haunches, those bulbous fenders—with a far-off square of Manhattan skyline right above them. Peach sky, lavender towers. Fresh spring smell, and a dark humid depths-of-the-earth breeze from a subway grate nearby. A sheet of newspaper wandering casually down the empty sidewalk. Blink on, blink off. No one said anything and I thought, this is just so beautiful; more than Europe could ever be.
“Out to that huge, heavy silver Boeing airboat rocking in the sound. We’d never seen anything like it. Whistling breeze, slap of waves; smell of machine oil and the sea. I hugged her little sister Claire, and her little sister Laurence-strange coincidence of a name. And I hugged her mother; and Ada said, see you soon.
“We hugged. We kissed. We were engaged again. Or maybe I should say, we were engaged at last. What am I doing even trying to tell you this story?” Leaning way forward, looking at the ground.
“They were going to stop in Paris with her father’s cousin until I joined them, then we’d all go on to Belgium together. She wired me when they got to Paris, ‘Jusqu’ici rien n’a pu guérir mon coeur qui souffre toujours du mals du pays. Until very soon, your Ada.’ From a poem by Gerard de Nerval. Until now, nothing could heal my heart, which still suffers from homesickness. Idiomatic ‘toujours.’ Okay. So.”
“It wasn’t so easy to arrange, and I had no money. I had to borrow. I got 1 bumped from my first flight, had to wire her again: leave May 6, arrive Paris evening May 7. I thought of sneaking back into Swan House to pick up the note, but I had no interest in running into Ray—he’d probably have me arrested—and anyway I was going to see her soon. And I was busy getting everything set. And the fact is, I didn’t want to see her note. I wanted to see her. You see what I mean. It’s not so strange I didn’t go back. I never even considered it, really.
“Then it was me boarding the Clipper, and the thing went buzzing and churning forward and lifted off like a ship tearing itself out of the ocean, with the earth thrown back, shrinking into a corner of the window—it was a hell of a thing, taking off in a flying boat. The morning sun flooding the huge tall cabin. You could see the Trylon and Perisphere at the World’s Fair back in Queens, blazing white.
“And the strange way it worked out, I was in Europe when I heard from my parents about Swan House. They told me about the plain envelope—no telegram, no special delivery, just a plain envelope and a plain legal letterhead informing me, roughly twenty-one weeks after Mr. Lawrence’s funeral, that Swan House and all the associated properties had been left to me. I was instructed to show up and do some legal procedure or other, swear some sort of statement, but that was cut and dried.
“Ray got millions in cash and securities, but I got Swan House and I was stunned. I reread my parents’ cable a thousand times.”
The wind had backed off but they heard it speaking in the trees. The lower patio was empty.
“That was later. Meanwhile—from Lisbon you went by railroad to the edge of Spain, then you walked into France across the bridge at Hendaye. I was lightheaded from sleeplessness and excitement and lust. Just drifting. The Sud Express ran north to Paris. Then a cab through the Paris dusk to the address she’d given me. I’d never been out of the States before. I was nervous and exhausted and in awe of where I was. France was at war and you felt it, even though nothing much was going on at the front. Men in uniform everywhere. Strange feeling for an American. On top of which, I was in a state of absolute sexual delirium. I’d spent the whole trip daydreaming in minute detail about her body. Complete inventory.
“Through a gate into a courtyard, then up a dark winding staircase with my valise banging along at my side—and my heart banging. I was in such a hot frantic hurry, I remember cursing out loud when I stumbled over a chunk of plaster or something on a landing. Now she was minutes away, seconds away—specifically her face and her floating-fragrant hair, her shoulders and waist and the incurve of her back and her soft arms and all the rest, moments away, moments—and I knocked on the door. And the instant it opened, I knew. I saw it in the maid’s face. Ada wasn’t there. The maid took one look at me with my valise and my panting, desperate smile, and it all fell into place for her, smug spidery woman in a gray uniform, jubilant to be delivering such a huge surprise. Such a knockout punch.
“She had a note for me from Ada.” For a moment he pursed his lips and drummed his fingers on the chair. ‘My darling I’m sorry but I simply couldn’t wait, had to go on, please come and find me here in Brussels where I await you, don’t disappoint me, until soon, your Ada.’ She gave an address.” He opened his palm, fingers spread, talking to himself with his hands; posing questions.
“It had never occurred to me, not for one instant, that such a thing could happen. That she wouldn’t be there. It was—my self-assurance completely gone. Like a drug that wore off all at once. Back down the dark staircase. Out onto the street. Suddenly my valise weighed a ton and I was too tired to think and I was no longer excited to be in Paris, I was terrified. At an hour when everyone else was rushing around in his own little French world, going home at the end of the day, you felt especially desolate.
“I walked a few blocks and came to a hotel and went in and got a room. I was so exhausted, my mind was dipping and spinning and doing loop-the-loops but I couldn’t sleep. Next morning I managed to get myself to the wrong train station, there seemed to be roughly a million of them; didn’t make it onto a train until mid-afternoon. It was overloaded. Felt like we were reeling and stumbling along. Unscheduled stops, pauses, halts in the middle of nowhere. It’s only a couple of hours to Brussels ordinarily, but it took us more than twice that. Columns of French soldiers shuffling along the roads. When it got dark we slowed to a crawl, because all signal lights were dimmed in the wartime blackout.”
“Belgium was not at war, but it felt jittery. In Brussels it took me a long time to get a cab. Then I set out for the address she’d given me. Boy, this time I suffered, waiting. Suffered. This time I understood the equation. Would she be there? The driver couldn’t find the address; we kept driving up and down a street named Avenue Louise. Ancient gasping black box of a cab. But the driver was patient enough. He spoke slowly in his strange Walloon French which I could just barely, partly, understand.”
“And what happened?”
The first words she had spoken for a while. Her voice felt like a warm buzz. They had nearly reached darkness together.
“It seemed like we’d been over the whole city twice by the time we finally arrived at a small crouching brick house, with a single light on—and the premonition had already hit me. Another maid. Another note. Kindlier maid, pretty, with a little boy clinging to her legs. ‘We were so close to my home in Liège I simply had to go, please follow me here, it’s so close, just an hour or two from Brussels’—and she gave the address. And she added what she called ‘my only poem’—‘aux Etats Unis I am beaded up, In Europe I soak like Dew into the ground.’ And a postscript after that. ‘Darling, speak loudly for the Jews.’
“It was too late to set out again. The maid said I could stay the night but I checked into another hotel nearby. Up the rickety spider-cage elevator—you know the elevators they used to have in Europe? Those open cages? Down a tall ominous hallway red-carpeted, smelling of mildew.
“For the whole next day—it was Thursday”—he had picked up another branch and flexed it double; its outward push sculpted his right hand—“I lay on the bed in my hotel room. On it, not in it; overcome. Temporarily paralyzed. Holding her note in my hand, looking out the tall, narrow window—and I did nothing. I was so furious I could barely think. At last” (a swift soft crackling as the branch broke) “I was truly angry at her, for everything. For months of torturing me until she said yes at the absolute last possible moment, and then, here I’d come all the way to Europe” (he flung it away sidearm, so hard he grunted; it sailed over the chain link fence into the woods) “in the middle of a war, and, what kind of game was this, she couldn’t even sit still long enough for me to catch up with her? Once, okay, but twice? All sorts of dark suspicions. I wasn’t even sure she was in Liège. I thought, connect these dots—Paris, Brussels, Liège—how do I know she isn’t going straight to Germany? Next stop, the Reich.
“There are limits. You reach a certain point and all the wicked doubts you ever had come to the surface and the ghosts gather—dark, hard, twisting your stomach; that whole long day I lay there in a black rage.”
“I was wondering,” she said, in an extra effort to make herself speak in the smooth narcotic twilight, “as you were telling it: could there have been some other reason for this sudden decision to get married after all, right away? Was there, really?”
He looked at her wearily (only his eyes shifted). “It doesn’t matter. I don’t know.
No. No there wasn’t.” (Clearing bark flakes off his jacket and pants with impatient glancing swipes.)
“The problem with real life is, there are always too many explanations. Some you can bear, some not. Well, it was an awful day—the hotel fronted on a small plaza with trolley tracks, the tracks turned sharply in the plaza; two-car trams swinging stiffly around that curve. Evil clacking. Brussels has a sort of grotesque medieval darkness—steeply pitched roofs straight out of a nightmare, like one of those loony, bloodthirsty German folktales. And when I turned on the radio, all I heard was Nazis shouting; every station I could find was German. I knew Yiddish so I understood the substance. Denmark was newly occupied, there was fierce fighting in Norway—which the British and French seemed to be losing.
“It wasn’t until late that night that I finally reached equilibrium; a man needs to be able to read. Those notes of hers finally sank in. The language she’d used became real at last. She was an expert tease, had no difficulty being ironic, or deliberately unclear, or provocative, but those notes”—his hands were clenching and unclenching didactically, his voice rough and hoarse and tired but patient. “You see what I mean? Absolutely straightforward. Meant just what they said. She simply couldn’t wait to see the town she was born in. That’s all. Nothing so complex about that. You see? And beyond that—”
“No, I don’t see.”
He looked up. “What don’t you see?” She considered, then shook her head: “Please, go on.”
“Very late, long after midnight, it finally all came clear to me, how it all fit together. She just wanted to go home and take up her work, start doing whatever she felt she had to do, her destiny; bending history, like—bending an iron bar. Hitler had nothing she didn’t have. And he didn’t, at least not at the start. It’s true. She was charging ahead, plunging into Europe the way a knife plunges when some irresistible force is driving it in.”
The wind seethed. The sun was setting, warmth withdrawing, shadows crept higher: flames of darkness.
“So I fell asleep satisfied at last, desperate to see her, and certain that I would, imminently—and of course the very next morning, May 10 at dawn, the Nazis hit like pit-vipers, and the invasion of Belgium was under way.
“The whole city was on fire with talk and sirens. Lord I hated myself, viciously. My memories of that morning couldn’t possibly be right. I see myself holding a taxi driver by the shoulders, shaking him—I would never have done that; but I was searching frantically for a driver who would take me to Liège. When I found one at last and we set out finally down the Chaussée de Tervuren, we hadn’t been on the road ten minutes before we hit a solid wall of chaos—stopped traffic—military, civilian, horses.”
She crossed her legs again, swept her hair back with both hands and hugged herself in the cool, without taking her eyes off him.
“I got out and walked forward to the military roadblock; I could hear artillery in the distance and feel it, wasn’t even sure what it was, at first—got to know it real well later—a steady low mumbling thud thud thud, first time I ever heard war; and a faint buzzsaw of distant aircraft, flashes of silver on the horizon far ahead, and I finally reached a small tough-looking redheaded sergeant who wouldn’t let me through: no civilians. And I remember screaming at this man murderously at the top of my lungs, alternating French, English, and Yiddish, my girl is on the other side, I must go get my girl—and he said very calmly again and again, ‘Impossible.’ Admirable calm. So I pushed past him, broke into a run and two seconds later there were men all around me with rifles leveled—another first for me; they grabbed me by the arms and heaved me back over the line. Act of kindness. Probably could have had me shot or something.”
He leaned over and grabbed another stick. Put his feet on the ground, straddling the chair.
“Somehow I wound up next day in the American consulate in Brussels—cavernous empty hallways, whole parade of smug-looking, patronizing men telling me to get the hell out of Brussels right now and go to London.” Absently sliding the stick across the canvas cushion. “I tried four more times to get to Liège but some of the fiercest fighting of the whole war was going on around there and on May 13, Liège fell.
“The next five weeks, a pure delirium of remorse—no blood in my veins, no air in my lungs, just remorse, which is acid and burns. My parents were wild with anxiety, trying to get me to come home, and they alone kept me sane. Their presence at the other end of the telegraph. I leapt into action like a falling tower of blocks striking out in a dozen directions wildly as it collapses. I should have stayed put and let the invasion wash over me and then gone to Liège. But I went to London, like they kept telling me to. Get out of the war zone. We can’t assume any responsibility, et cetera. Better chance to reach her from London. Center of the world. All this song and dance.”
“My last night in Brussels I met Owen Harrison—my life is full of Owens—who used to work for the U.S. State Department in Brussels but got fired for being a drunkard, is how he put it, and went to work for the United Press syndicate; always sounded like a cover story. He promised me he would look for Ada and her mother and sisters, and if I kept the UP’s Stockholm office informed of my whereabouts, he would let me know. I didn’t take it seriously at the time but I figured, what the hell. I’d showed him a picture of Ada. He’d said, my God she’s beautiful, something like that. It moves a man to see a beautiful girl in a snapshot; so she’s real, she belongs to some normal, ordinary jerk like me. Moves a man. Brings it home.”
“What photo was it?”
“The two of us.”
“The same one you showed me?”
“I don’t know. Don’t know. So I went to London—and in London is where I heard from my parents about Swan House. A weird nightmare, wanting so badly to tell her, not being able to. If I could only have hired a hot-air balloon and just shouted it to all Europe: the octagon. The temple. No one but Ada could have grasped what it all meant: ours, a miracle. And obviously—I see it now, but I didn’t then—he had meant this place as a gift for Ada at least as much as for me. Could even have meant it, I guess, as a final declaration of love.”
Pained sigh: “A love-gift for another man to give,” Gwyn said, “after you die, and never a single word to your beloved?” She shook her head raptly.
“I’m only guessing; I don’t know his motives, really. . . .
“Anyway, as the days and then weeks passed, there were a dozen London offices I was in touch with every day, Belgian, American, British, Jewish, international-thousands of other desperate people crowding the same offices—and the military picture went from black to blacker and Paris fell, I was sure London was the wrong place and that I needed to go straight to Germany—as an American I could do it, in principle—and then cross back to Liège.
“So I went to Lisbon. There were Lufthansa flights from Lisbon direct to Berlin. But to get an entry visa for Germany you needed approvals from the foreign ministry and the police and the Gestapo; at one point I thought I’d made it and was actually on the plane when two Portuguese cops came aboard and very politely marched me off. With mustaches, looking like twins. Perfect parody of what Americans at that time thought of Europe, land of fancy stupid uniforms and comic-opera bureaucrats and pompous people. The breezy heat of that airfield, gasoline in the lemony Portuguese air. The ripping whine of spinning props. I’d been picturing the contemptuous way I’d speak to Nazis when I arrived. The German radioman smiled at me as I’d gotten on board, and I didn’t smile back. Hero that I was. But they marched me off.
“You needed some kind of pull I didn’t have. Or maybe no Jews got in, I don’t know. Certainly damned few ever wanted to. Then someone told me you could get in from Switzerland—go to Switzerland first by train to Madrid,” he held up one finger, “then another train to Barcelona,” holding up two, “then a bus to Geneva across unoccupied southern France,” three. “You had to pack food, there was none to be had en route—and France was stunned silent, turned to stone. But I did make it to Geneva, and then to Basel, hard up against Germany; slattering all over Europe like a BB in a frying pan—” Running his palm over the cushion between his knees.
“All Switzerland was tensed up tight, expecting a Nazi invasion any moment. Naturally she was neutral—just like Belgium and Holland and Denmark and Norway. But in that Basel hotel on a Tuesday morning, I looked north into the distance across the street, at a hazy blue-green slot between a brick technical high school and an office building; that slot was Germany! I was dizzy as usual from all-over exhaustion . . . but fairly calm at that particular moment.
“I thought I was getting closer. I could feel it. A warm, bright room with dust motes in a sun shaft, lustrous oranges in a soft-silvery nickel bowl; I was tipped back on the desk chair, watching the square Swiss flag, white cross on red, smacking the breeze outside my window; and Basel’s own flag, curled bishop’s crook, black on white, I’ll never forget it. My thoughts at that moment were pornographic, I guess you could say, but gentle—of a time we were parting near the rear porch of Swan House,” pointing out the direction, “and I had backed her into a corner out of sight and run my hand up her blouse in back and got her half undressed and she was pushing me away but laughing so hard she could hardly speak, and there were tears running down her face, which made it harder for her to fight me off—I was improvising some sort of funny story; actually I remember what it was. I was capable of virtually any outrage against her person, in broad daylight; she was utterly game. Nothing fazed her.”
The gathering night coarsened his face as if he were a scratched photographic plate disappearing into the past; hollowed his cheeks; made his white shirt-collar glow a faint pale blue against his darkening skin.
“A knock on the door and the boy with a telegram, which I was sure would be news at last of my visa to enter Germany. But in fact it came via Stockholm from Harrison who was still in Brussels. ‘No proof positive,’ it said, ‘but exhaustive repeat exhaustive looking having produced no trace of any of the four since the morning they left Brussels afraid only one conceivable conclusion letter follows so terribly sorry Harrison.’
“I had to stay in Basel until I got the letter; I couldn’t risk—”
“But the letter only said, they’d arrived in Liège so recently it was hard to trace them; someone thought they had disappeared on foot with a group of would-be refugees making for Brussels by way of Saint Trond, but the group never arrived in Saint Trond, and never returned to Liège, and fighting was heavy all over that region and the whole group was presumed dead.
“I went back to Lisbon. I couldn’t stay in Europe: no money, no way to get any. Sailed on a Portuguese boat back to New York. Had to wait a while to get the boat. Remember sharing a room onboard with four other men. Ship was packed. Staring at my face in a mirror. Needless to say, I had changed.”
Long silence, filled with wind. He rubbed his cheek with the flat of his hand.
“You did find out for sure, though, what happened to them?” Her voice was too eager and she toned it down. “Eventually?”
“No.” Another silence. “Years later I made it to Brussels, shortly after the liberation, still in uniform, war still on—I’d just been promoted to major, believe it or not, no particular reason; and I found her name on a list with one sister, but not Claire or her mother. Reported deceased, 17 May 1940. Not conclusive. I found her mother’s sister in Antwerp in 1946. A man had told her that, years ago, he had seen the four of them ‘from a distance,’ Ada and Mrs. Landau and her two little sisters, gunned down by German warplanes strafing refugees in an open field near Saint Trond. Mowed down in an open field. Target practice. But what is that, anyway? Third-hand hearsay. This man her aunt heard from was deported during the war, and also presumed dead. ‘From a distance.’ Meaning what? But I’d rather believe it than not. I’d far rather believe it.
“Ada’s aunt: nearly blind. Widow. I sent her a check every month until she died, but she was the only relative I ever found. The only, on either side. The rest, all dead. Owen Harrison was a wonderful man. He was my friend for the whole rest of his life, and he stayed here at Swan House many times. He died in 1981, same week I filed for bankruptcy. His daughter still writes me. I paid for her college-decades ago, but she still writes. Wonderful girl.
“So. ‘From a distance.’ That’s all. But Europe is not Mongolia. Everyone is accounted for. There was uncertainty to begin with. For a while, the line is slack. Then it tightens up gradually, and one day you wake up and the slack is gone, and the story is over; you don’t even know just when it ended. You picture rescues, reunions; then you stop picturing them. But you still dream about them, now and then. Wish I didn’t.”
“And the note, back at the house,” aghast sympathy overlaying her eagerness like a cool cloth, “in the octagon”—respectfully hesitant. “What did it say?”
He looked down.
“It must have explained,” she was nodding her head slightly, unconsciously urging him on, “how, I mean—because it seems like she foresaw exactly, somehow anticipated—”
But he was silent, and stubbornly kept on being silent.
She said nothing; only looked at him, puzzled.
At last he said, “You avoid something because you lack courage to do it. But eventually” (the wind came licking up around the big trees past the fence) “the not-doing takes on a life of its own. And past some point. . . .”
“I don’t see what you’re saying.” For the first time her voice sounded impersonal, official. Even cold.
“I mean,” she said, “it’s not as if—you never read the note.”
They were alone in the clear violet dusk.
“I mean, that would be just,” she said, “just impossible. Wouldn’t it?” Her voice retreating into confusion. Then she took a deep breath and smiled, as if she could draw forth a reassuring smile in return.
“The day after I landed back home in Hoboken, I came out here, and it was empty except for three servants, Ollie and his wife and her old mother, who didn’t know where to go.” A trace of bitterness from the large man with the lined face and the comfortable, comforting voice and deep handsome eyes, fading into the dark. “I had the manuscript of my book with me, Swan House, which was also a book about her—my intention was to destroy it here.” He cleared his throat like an old man. “I went up to the octagon and found the note waiting on the sofa, just as she had said. In an envelope that said on front” (again clearing his throat, as if he were aging in a rush while she listened in) “ ‘for Saul only Saul’
“But I couldn’t open it. Impossible. I dropped the manuscript in a heap, and put the unopened envelope back on the sofa where she had left it. And I slipped over a line at some point, who knows when? ’58? ’65? Past that point, I knew: I never would go back up there.”
Feeling returning to her numbed voice like blood to her face. “It’s still up there? You just left it there?” Like a child at the teary edge.
“Aside from the war years, I spent my whole life here.”
“So this whole place,” she said, “is just one huge, unopened . . .?”
“Shrine. With her words sealed inside. It’s a perfect piece of art, a shrine with a perfect blank inside, unreadable, sealed forever; but sublime because it’s her. All I can do” (again clearing his throat, his voice thinner and weaker and more transparent with every word) “is, guard it.”
“But you’ve done that, that job is finished.”
Wind on the empty patio. She half-rose, took one step and crawled onto the lower slope of his deckchair. She tipped herself sideways, folded both legs beneath her and tugged her skirt down to cover her ankles, gathering herself into a tight small space. “Climb aboard my magic carpet,” he told her, wearily relieved. “Someone once said that to Rita Hayworth, in an old movie.”
“But what does it say? Don’t you have to know?” Gently, confidingly, in almost no voice.
“Why do Jews exist? That’s what I have to know. That’s what I’ve got to find out. For Ada’s sake.”
They sat side by side across the empty patio from Swan House, with its lit-up cascade of stained-glass diamonds—deep blue and violet, crimson and foam green and gold.
She rubbed each bare arm briskly with the opposite hand. He took off his jacket and draped it around her. She said thank you, and drew the lapels together with a satisfied shiver.
He put his arm around her, cupping his palm around his own jacket sleeve, drawing her close. She said thank you again. She leaned against him. He drew her closer. He was stiff and upright as a carved caryatid with a marble universe on its head. Looking straight ahead of him, at lit-up Swan House.
Suddenly: “Take me up there with you.” She pulled away to face him as he sat back again in the chair, rearranged his legs. Laying her words down carefully—but so excited she had to swallow to keep afloat. “Don’t you see you could transform everything? Take me. We’ll go up there, and open it together, and then we’ll—”
“Gwyn darling, I could barely even walk up those stairs.”
“But that’s not the point. I’ve given my life to” (she waited him out, eyes clamoring) “what I’ve given it to.”
“Waiting? But you don’t have to!”
“No: guarding. Gwyn, sweetheart, not everything can be explained; not everything can be put into words.”
“Yes, yes, I understand!” She twisted to face him and grabbed the arms of his chair so hard to boost herself up, she winced as her ring dug into her squeezed-together fingers. Then she spoke straight into his face: “Look, I understand what’s in the letter, or might be—”
“The worst thing in the world.”
“You admit I know?”
“How could you?”
“Then here it is.” He started to speak but she talked right over him. “It says she was pregnant, that’s why she had to get married, and she didn’t want to face you so she thought, what the hell, I’ll give this a try, but marriage meant nothing to her and you meant nothing to her, because she was this . . . genius of history. And you’ve been apologizing your whole life to this girl who wasn’t fit to”—she stopped, breathless—“she never loved you, and not only that but there’s an even worse thing about that letter, an implication, a conclusion, that you can’t possibly—”
“Leave it!” Grim growl.
“Because, when she marched out into that Belgian field she not only—”
He screamed it right into her face.
And then added, quietly, “I’m sorry.”
She unpropped herself and wilted onto his chest. Minutes later she spoke again, with the side of her head pressed to his front, looking away: “It’s just, you’re so good, and she was nothing.” He noticed he could feel her words with his lips—because (he noticed) they were resting on top of her head. And then a conversation in tones so mumurously soft (a pastel wash, almost transparent) that it seemed to be happening inside their minds.
“I believe I’ve forgiven her. I didn’t know it before, but I do now. Dropping her letter without opening it, that was the act of forgiveness. You see?”
“I lived my life as a buoy marking the spot where a great soul was lost—or maybe as a gravestone, maybe as a monument to an idea. The idea that man is great, and the Jews are great. And God is great.”
They were quiet for a while. She toyed with his lapels.
“But if no one can read the words on the monument, what’s the use?”
“You can read them.”
“What about your life?” Her words emphatic, her voice still soft.
“All right, then, I’m the place where flower meets sunlight, and even God notices and says thank you. ‘I am the eye with which the universe beholds itself and knows itself divine.’ Y’know where that’s from?”
She shook her head.
“Thank God you made me think of this again,” he said. “It’s Shelley’s ‘Hymn of Apollo.’ ”
“If you really can’t take me up there. . . .”
He kissed the top of her head. “I can’t.”
“Then let me stay right here forever?”
After a moment’s pondering he said, gently, “Why do you want to knock down and smash up my life?”
“To make room for a better one.”
“It’s not right. It’s impossible.”
Holding her head between his hands he moved her gently back, pointed her face at his and kissed her decisively. “And that’s goodbye,” he said, “and good luck and God bless you. It’s impossible.”
But a moment later they were kissing vigorously and when she spoke again her words came out in a gasp.
“Evidently,” she pulled another deep breath, “it is not.”