Ways to Leave: A Memoir

Excerpt From

Ways to Leave: A Memoir

(Page 16-20 of 254 pages)

Zelda moves to Paris. There she is at the train station in Pulawy- we are all thinking we have seen this scene in a movie – the stylish dress caresses the slender hips of this stunning young woman as she leans toward the father she will never see again. Was she aware of this solemn moment, a goodbye that masqueraded as, see you soon, but truly was, I will always remember your face? She strokes her Papa’s cheek with her gloved hand and he smiles unsteady encouragement. Gey gezunterheyt…go in health. I have given what I could. I offer you all my heart.

I imagine the other children are there, the three youngers. Zelda’s half sister Finka, little Finka is weeping, crying, ‘Bring me with you’, and Fajga, Finka’s mother, Zelda’s step-mother, hushes her with, “You don’t need to go to Paris. What do they have there that you cannot find here? Do they have better kugel? Do they have eggs so fresh they are still warm from their mama chick? Do they find beets as big as watermelon with which to make borsht, sweet, sweet borsht with a spoonful of sour cream on top?” It is a fact that Finka, my Aunt Fanny, did grow up to have a farm, one with pigs and haricots verts, so something of that village life set her heart right. But today, at the train, she is holding onto Zelda’s arm like a handle and will not let go.

The stepmother pulls her back. Zelda tries to mount the stairs to the second class passenger car as Finka shrieks in agony. It is only when the shock of sound bursts from the engine that Finka is startled into releasing the arm and Zelda runs up into the train. She reappears at an open window and waves with her gloved left hand as the locomotive screeches out of the station. She is wiping her eyes with her right hand which holds a white linen handkerchief bordered in lace, a gift from their neighbor who had visited Paris once and told Zelda stories of fevered revelers streaming across the ponts, those lovely bridges, as the flaming sun recoiled behind the majestic monuments along the Seine.

And then there was Paris. It was 1927, and she was twenty and beautiful and alive. She moved in with her older sister, Madeleine, and Madeleine’s man, Henri – I picture the three of them (and later four, when baby Renée arrived) sharing a small flat on a tiny street like the Rue Pavée, in the Marais. An uncle in Paris had a tailor shop on Rue de Sévigné, and offered Henri a job, and Madeleine became a ‘finisher’ there. Our Zelda followed suit, no pun intended, on arrival. At the shop she learned to pull pieces of textile through the sewing machine’s needles, seaming arms onto torsos of jackets and blouses, threading, threading, cutting the material into the same shape over and over.

Perhaps Henri was Madeleine’s husband or simply her lover and the father of her child. It is useful to remember that in that city at that time marriage had no fixed shape. There were the proper sorts who, one may assume, chose the traditional route, but Zelda and Madeleine and many young people like them were taking a different path. They were communists, perhaps claiming that title from the outset, perhaps holding the beliefs but not even knowing that a name for the ideas existed.

They went to meetings, and people held forth. Was it only the men who spoke up, stood on soapboxes, wrote treatises? Lenin and Marx and Engels and all those dudes had written their manifestos earlier, late nineteenth century, and the October Revolution was back in 1917. Lenin died in 1924. There were several women in the French Popular Front government, but that was in the mid to late thirties. In France, women would acquire the right to vote only in 1944. A flicker of anticipation as I imagine reopening all those textbooks, all my papers from those European History classes. My senior thesis, Anti-Semitism and the Dreyfus Affair, should come in handy here.

But wait, look over there. Zelda, still wearing the clothes she put on that morning for her day at the shop, is climbing the stairs to the second floor office of the socialists, or maybe it was the labor federation, where she, along with Madeleine and Henri, will hear a speaker talk of the new order, the call for revolution by the workers, and then all those many tongues competing to be heard. This is Zelda’s reason for living. The discussion, the men, and I imagine it was the men, jumping to their feet, arms raised in frantic gesticulation, the new world. She cannot get enough – it is as though she has endured starvation for eighteen, nineteen, twenty years to light on this moment in time.

Does she speak, and if so, what is she saying? I can’t hear her yet. Is it about unions or about the menace building power to the east, the grumbling in Germany? Mein Kampf had already been published in 1925. Where had she been in the first war at age eight, nine, ten? No, how had it been – had her papa Luzer served or was he too old, too encumbered by all those mouths to feed? So much to know…

But now she is sitting in that packed room, moved by a frenetic elation, and if she were less shy, she would jump to her feet and kick her legs in a horah, a misirlou, a cancan of, This is why I am alive, this is the moment I will return to as I age and suffer, this is the time of my life.

A handsome man across the room sees her. I picture it like this… He is stunned. He is a leader, recognized for his intellect, who writes articles in Yiddish journals about the Soviet Union, later about the Spanish Civil War. When he speaks, the crowd swallows its pandemonium and opens its ears. He has something to say.

He says, “Who is that girl?” The desire is so palpable that the group of activists, socialists, workers, parts into a Moses-like scene. It is West Side Story, but the characters are Jewish, they speak a mélange of Yiddish, French, Russian, Polish, they wear housedresses and shirtwaists and puckered pleated pants and tired shirts, they have platform shoes, and there are straps on their delicate youthful ankles – all those shapely legs. The men have hats balanced rakishly on their full heads of dark blue-black hair. They are so young, these men and women, so awake. They gesture with their hands, their bodies tensed forward in their chairs like children itching to jump up and run in circles. They had arrived exhausted from their day at the factory, the shop, the stall, but now it is as if morning has broken.

Part this sea into a right side and a left side and down the middle walk our two protagonists, yes, let him share the spotlight with our Zelda for just a short moment – they move toward each other in that inevitable magnetic compulsion called love. No, lust. It surely was lust; it may have felt like love. Later it would be named, but no need to contaminate this. This is what we all long for – let them have it, let her have it. Paul and Zelda.

Paul spots Zelda, the newcomer to the group, and he watches her. She is lively, her dark green eyes alert, her coal black hair shimmering in the orange glow of the one lamp hanging overhead. She is listening intently, laughing, her teeth glistening, her neck slender, birdlike, a swan, a petite oiseau, mon petit chou, my little cabbage. Paul imagines unbuttoning her blouse, cradling her plump breasts in his practiced palms, she will be putty, no, clay, no… yeasted dough, yes, pungent, pliable, rising in his hands. He will fuck her to death. Jesus, where did that come from?

Okay, okay, full disclosure here. I am utterly biased. The dude turns out to have been a scoundrel of the first degree. How, I ask you, how am I going to portray him as anything other? I know, I know, I know she loved him, oh god, yes. Zelda didn’t just float down the river of love/lust, she cascaded, tsunamied into the whirlpool of all that came after.

But in that room, that particular night, it was not yet the morass. They weren’t, neither of our two characters, they were not yet unmoored. They were not yet bound to the future that would unravel one and plummet the other into the icy waters of betrayal. They were still free and young and beautiful.