October 26, 2014
Mali Feuer stands outside her mother’s door, struggling to fit the key into the lock. The narrow, carpeted hallway is dim, stuffy. Talk show voices bark unintelligible words at her from inside the apartment next door. Now the key is in but won’t turn. With an impatient huff, she yanks her messenger bag off her shoulder, abandoning it to the floor along with her mother’s mail. Unencumbered, she tries again, this time pulling the door in tight and turning the key at the same time. The bolt clicks back, the door gives way.
Through the window, at the opposite end of the living room, a strip of the East River glimmers, winking at her in the sunlight. She leaves her mother’s keys and mail on the little table in the entryway, slings her bag across the back of a dining chair, and heads for the balcony. She pushes the door wide open to let badly needed air into the place—exactly, she thinks, as her mother would have done—and steps outside.
In the sunshine, she takes a deep breath and leans against the railing, mesmerized by the cars, the buses, and the people below her: everything in miniature from this nineteenth-story height. Mali closes her eyes. A silky ribbon of air caresses her face and, as if directed by a ghostly messenger from the past, she is transported years back and miles away.
She was six or seven. Her mother had sent her out to play in the garden. But it wasn’t too long before Mali tired of winning at a game of hopscotch against her imaginary friend, Kemma, or of drawing pictures with colored chalks on the asphalt of their steep, uphill driveway. So she went to sit on the red-tiled step by the glass-and-wrought-iron front door of their house and watched the cars and double-decker buses rumble up and down Finchley Lane, a busy road in north west London.
Funny that this particular recollection of living with her mother, who was absent from most of her childhood, should still be with her some sixty years later. She wonders how she has remolded this and other memories over time. How her ever-changing emotions, kneaded into the hard-baked facts, have become as indistinguishable from each other as flour is to dough.
She turns back to the apartment. Expecting a change? But, of course, nothing has. Except that the leaves of the philodendron, animated now, flutter with the breeze from the open door. But not so for Mali. She feels even more dazed and disoriented than when she first arrived. She inhales deep gulps of air. Could it be any other way? She takes in her surroundings. The living room is too calm. The leather couch is sad and forlorn looking with only a blue, woolly throw draped untidily over one arm to occupy it. Littering the coffee table, fallen petals surround the vase of long-stemmed yellow roses, their heads shriveled and drooping, as if they, too, are too spent to stay up. Even the crammed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves appear neglected. The crumbling, leather-bound volumes of Goethe, Schiller and Heine are arbitrarily squeezed between hardcover spy novels, paperback love stories, and the European history books that had belonged to David, her mother’s husband. Those old, tattered German books stand out in Mali’s mind as the remnants, the reminders, of a stolen time and place.
Sorting through the mail, Mali finds nothing urgent. Only bills. Bloomingdale’s, Con Ed, and a letter from the landlord releasing her mother from her lease. At the bottom of the pile, she recognizes one from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A similar letter had come to her own mailbox at home a few days ago. She had thrown it away, unopened, never thinking more about it, until the following morning when she had walked down the driveway to collect her Times. There, right in her path, staring straight up at her, was an envelope with the words, WHAT YOU DO MATTERS. As she picked it up, a sudden strange feeling came over her. Had those words been purposefully put in her way? An omen, perhaps.
Unable to throw the envelope away, she left it on the table by the front door, the words jumping out at her each time she passed by. That evening, she showed it to her husband, Michael. He laughed. A raccoon had gotten into the garbage, he said. He thought he’d cleaned it all up, but the envelope must have escaped him and been blown to the driveway by the wind. She laughed then too. And although she admitted a little foolishness to herself, she couldn’t quite let go of the thought that what you do does matter, and she brought the pledge card downstairs, adding it to her stack of bills to pay.
On the threshold to her mother’s bedroom, she hesitates at the door for a moment before going in. The sheets on the bed are pulled back, still unmade from the night last week when the paramedics had come to take her mother to the hospital. A thick book lies open on the bed, the jacket’s flyleaf folded over a page, as if waiting for her mother to return and continue to read where she’d left off. It’s Vikram Seth’s Two Lives. She had given it to her mother a few years ago. Picking up the book, she sits on the carpeted floor with her back against the bed and begins to skim its pages, mostly looking at the photographs. The memoir had originally interested her because of their families’ coincidental connection with the same two cities. First there was Berlin in the time prior to World War Two, where Vikram Seth’s great-aunt and great-uncle had lived, and Mali’s mother had grown up. Then, Hendon, the area of north west London they had all settled in afterward.
She stands, sets the closed book on the bed.
Blue jeans, a brown leather belt hanging from them and a blue and white pin-striped man’s shirt—just what her mother had always liked to wear—lie neatly draped over the white wicker chair next to the bed. The clothes look oddly deflated to Mali, as if the body that had once inhabited them has been spirited away by the wave of a magic wand. A few small white pills dot the bedside table.
Before she leaves the bedroom, she stops to look at the photographs crowding the top of the chest of drawers. Most of them are of Julia and Steffi, Mali’s two daughters, in various stages of growing up. Then as mothers themselves, with their own young children. Behind the children’s photos, a faded wedding portrait of herself and Michael, their faces appearing so young and serious to her. On the opposite side, and resting against a framed, eight-by-ten formal sepia of her grandmother, is a loose snapshot, its wavy edges curling inwards. Mali sits on a park bench, in this photo, and her mother stands behind her, leaning in, so that their faces appear stacked, one above the other. As she smooths out the picture, she tries to remember when and where it was taken. Then studies the two faces in the glossy print. Apart from the color of their eyes, a similar grey-green, they never did look alike. She leans the picture back up against her grandmother’s and turns away.
Her cell phone rings, the sound muffled in the back pocket of her jeans. It’s Michael.
“Hey, how’s it going?” he says.
“Okay, I guess.”
“Do you want me to come into the city?”
Still preoccupied with the photos, Mali doesn’t answer him right away. How the years have flattened and compressed her memories. Not so differently, she decides, from beach stones polished smooth and shiny by the sand and sea.
Finally, she says, “Only if you want to,” though she wishes he would.
“But you don’t have to.” And when she hears a slight sigh of relief through the phone, she adds, “I can’t imagine I’m going to be here all that long anyway. I’m really tired.”
“Let me know what train you’re catching, and I’ll pick you up from the station.”
After hanging up, she quickly checks her email before slipping her phone back into her pocket. She doesn’t want to be bothered with work at the moment but finds she can’t keep herself away. The business will survive one day without you, her mother would always say when trying to get Mali to spend time with her in the city. Logically, she knew her mother was right, of course. But the truth—and what she could have never told her—is that she’s a consummate worrier, always imagining disaster lurking around the corner, a fiery monster clawing at the fringes of her existence.
So, what were those things her mother had wanted her to keep? The big glass ashtray that had belonged to Mali’s grandmother? Or the wrought-iron candlestick, the only object her mother said she’d taken from her parents’ Miami Beach apartment after her father’s death? Where will she find these? Mali closes her eyes. Tears gather beneath her lids. She holds them back. Slowly, and to her surprise, she realizes how, despite everything she’s thought until now, she will miss her mother terribly. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. Hasn’t she spent most of her life, one way or another, longing for her?
A sudden blast of sirens from the street below gives Mali a start. She goes out to the balcony, only to catch the tail end of flashing red, yellow, and orange lights, as they race up the avenue toward their emergency.
The sun has begun to set. Mali feels a slight chill in the air after the warmer-than-usual October afternoon. Rubbing her arms, she comes back into the living room. At the small secretary, she switches on the light and discovers a large manila envelope resting against the cubbyholes at the back of the desk. Surprised to see her own name in over-sized, black-marker letters scrawled in her mother’s childlike script, she rips open the envelope. Dozens of odd sheets of blue, yellow, and cream-colored paper fall out, all torn from various-sized spiral-bound notebooks. “Oh my God,” Mali whispers, stunned, as she gathers up the handwritten pages and rearranges them into their numbered order.
Distracted by the familiar handwriting, she’s unable to take in the words at first. Instead, she can only see the blue airmail letters of her childhood, stubbornly stuck in her mind’s eye, like a patchwork of wet leaves, moored in chaos to a window. My Dearest, Darling Mummy, was how she had always begun hers, as if, in doubling the words of endearment, she could make up for their separation, could suck up the ocean between them and diminish the vast emptiness her eight-year-old, aching heart had fallen into the day her mother left.
Setting aside the pile of letters, Mali goes to the window and stares down at the street once again. Even from this height, she can hear the cars and buses rumbling along the avenue, their honking horns, their squeaking brakes as they slow to stop for the traffic light at the corner.
But suddenly, an aching curiosity to know what’s in her mother’s letters is so overwhelming, she comes right back to the couch, where they sit, just the way she’d left them. Careful not to disturb the vase of yellow roses and the dried petals that continue to float to the dark, polished wood of the coffee table, she puts her feet up, slips on her reading glasses, and looks at the first page. But this time, before she can even focus on her mother’s words, a strange eeriness grabs ahold of her. It’s her mother. She’s reaching up to Mali from the grave, her words tight and trembling in Mali’s fist, as if for the final say.