I Hear You Talking
The Baerlis didn’t use napkins. Whenever I went over to my friend’s house I’d forget and revert to type (I was a napkin user) and reach out for one, flapping my hands helplessly in the air like a blind person. This irritated Greta very much. She’d have to explain once again that her mother didn’t believe in paper napkins; they were a waste of money, which I thought oddly inconsistent with the way the Baerlis lived. They were so modern! They’d been buying modern like crazy since the end of the war. And then the part about not believing in, as though napkins were a religious issue, that always made me feel left out. The way I felt in grade school during morning exercises when we had to say the Lord’s Prayer. When we’d get to “for Thine is the Kingdom....” all the Catholics would snap their mouths shut and look up very bored so we could see who they were, because Catholics didn’t say that part of the prayer. I’d envy them, how smug they looked, but then all the Protestants would bellow “for Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory...!” as loud as they could so we’d know who they were, and I’d envy them too because I wasn’t anything. Though my ancestors were Russian Jews, I wasn’t brought up in any religion. My father when he was alive said his own father would whup him if he passed by a synagogue and didn’t cross the street to avoid it, and sometimes to tease me he’d say “I’m a Hindu.” And my mother when she was alive used to say “Jesus loves little children,” and that about sums up the religious training I got. During morning exercises I’d switch back and forth between the Catholics and the Protestants, taking turns at yelling For thine is the Kingdom or snapping my mouth shut and looking bored. So when Greta said her mother didn’t believe in napkins it gave me a momentary twinge of loneliness and exclusion even though I was already in college, way past the days of grade-school morning exercises.
In my house we had napkins—paper, linen and for company even damask. I shouldn’t say my house because it wasn’t really mine. I was an orphan, not a metaphorical one, a real one, living with my elderly grandmother—she’d be ninety soon and already into her second childhood, which was what her live-in companion-housekeeper said. I never felt a sense of belonging, never felt it was my house. It was just a place I’d been put; farmed out, so to speak. The house was in a New Jersey suburb, a part of town the locals called the East Hill, where all the rich people lived, and where nothing ever changed. Nothing in my grandmother’s house had changed since it was built, because she had servants and when you have servants you don’t bother modernizing the kitchen, for instance, because you never go in there. If you didn’t go into the kitchen you didn’t care whether it was bright and colorful and modern. The servants were expected to cook the meals and clean up and no one cared if they had fun doing it—if they had to beat the egg whites with a hand mixer and squeeze the orange juice with a glass reamer and mop the floor with an ancient mop that smelled sour. Whereas my friend Greta’s kitchen, small as it was, had a slide-in booth upholstered in red leatherette and one of those new Formica tables the corners of which were contoured and bound with gleaming chrome in the exciting postwar design we saw in dream advertisements all during the war. And the Baerlis had finished their basement and they already had a television.
Greta was my best friend since Junior High. I sat in back of her in math class and stared at the absolutely straight white part that bisected her scalp between two thick straw-colored braids that were pinned in a coronet around her head. It looked really frumpy and old-worldish, and I supposed she had to wear her hair that way because her parents were German immigrants. At the nape of her neck was a little wisp of hair that didn’t make it into either of the braids and was tightly curled. I couldn’t resist flicking out the curl with my finger and watching it spring back.
“It’s cute the way you have that little natural curl,” I told her, and Greta looked at me with her eyes wide and frightened and whispered “It’s not natural. My mother puts it in a curler. Don’t tell anyone!” and that’s how we became friends.
Both of us were in college now, Greta having long since thrown off the shackles of braids, wearing her hair long and wavy and hanging seductively over one eye (which upset her mother terribly, Greta admitted, but then her mother had to get over it).
When I visited, she and I would go down to the Baerlis' finished basement to play ping-pong, and it would be pitch dark except for the light coming from the television screen shining on Mrs. Baerli. She’d be sitting in front of it looking so pleased, her ankles crossed, the Bendix washer humming in the background. She’d jump up when she saw me: “Have you seen my new meat slicer?” (She liked to show me things.) I’d wondered what that enormous thing was, sitting on the ping-pong table under a shroud. She whipped the cover off.
“See?” she said triumphantly. “Electric. It slices any way you want. Paper thin!” She rubbed her fingers together when she said “paper thin,” and immediately my brain went on a rampage: I thought paper thin... skin... parchment... lampshades... even though I knew it was wrong of me because what the Nazis did wasn’t the Baerlis' fault. They were German but they’d lived here long before the war and were very patriotic. But then my brain went on rampaging and I remembered the stout German Fraulein I had when I was small and still lived in New York City (German nannies were called “Fraulein” back then), and how she’d run into another Fraulein when we were on the way to the 95th street playground, and the two Frauleins would stop and chat while I stood on one leg and then the other, so bored that I would start counting the Ja’s. Ja Ja they’d punctuate every sentence, Ja Ja! Once the other Fraulein, speaking English now, told how she’d gone to Florida with the family she worked for and gotten sunburned and put her skin peelings in an envelope and mailed it back to Germany to prove that she’d been to Florida. “Now they’ll believe me!” she said, laughing. All that went through my head when Mrs. Baerli showed me her meat slicer that could slice paper-thin.
“You don’t have to get cream cheese all over your lips,” Greta said when I groped for a napkin. We were sitting at her Formica kitchen table eating cream cheese on rye bread, our favorite snack to eat while listening to our latest LP record acquisitions. Both of us were terribly hungry, ravenous most of the time and wished we weren’t. Mrs. Baerli called it “appetite.” “You have good healthy appetites!” she’d say. But we didn’t want healthy appetites; we wanted to reduce, be fashion-model thin. We restricted ourselves by eating only an open-faced cream-cheese-on-rye, just one slice of bread instead of two, but then we’d slice the rye into thick slabs and trowel on the cream cheese and then have seconds—open-faced seconds.
“You don’t need a napkin,” Greta said. “Just try to be more careful.” She licked her lips fastidiously with the tip of her tongue, round and round, to demonstrate.
I’d come over to her house in a taxi—I had a charge account in my grandmother’s name at the local cab company—hugging my latest LP purchase in my arms. I’d managed to find an album of the Vivaldi concertos Cocteau used in the sound track of my favorite movie, Les Enfants Terribles. Greta had bought Enesco’s Rumanian Rhapsodies. She looked at my Vivaldi-Cocteau purchase and said “Yes, but first I want you to hear . . .” meaning we had to listen to her LP first before we could listen to mine. “Yes, but first I want . . .” was something Greta said a lot.
Greta was twenty-one, and I was a very young twenty because I’d skipped a grade in elementary, after my parents died in a terrible car crash—the driver of the other car that crossed the line was killed, too. I might easily have been in the car. But I wasn’t. So I was sent to live with my grandmother because the rest of my family didn’t know what else to do with me. They had children of their own, whom they sent off to boarding schools and military academies as soon as ever they could, so what would they want with me? It was the beginning of the school year, and I was ready for the second half of fourth grade, which was the way they did things in the NYC schools but they didn’t do things that way in the Jersey schools. The principal said either it was back to the beginning of fourth or skip to fifth and she said “I’ll take a chance and put you in fifth.” That’s why I was only twenty to Greta’s twenty-one, but both of us were the same in that we worried we’d never get married.
She was putting a Danish on her plate. Her father was a baker and worked nights, so I seldom saw him, but his presence was made manifest by a swing-out base cabinet in the Baerli’s kitchen filled with day-old baked goods he brought home. Floor-to-counter deep in pastry!—it seemed miraculous to me but it put Greta in a bad mood. She’d open the bin and fling Danishes onto a platter in a desultory, haphazard way, making a tower so ridiculously high it tottered when she pushed it toward me. She was overweight, not seriously. Just baby fat she wanted to get rid of, complaining it was hard when you had a father who was a baker. (I wished I had a father who was a baker, or any kind of father for that matter.)
“You eat them,” she said crossly, and then, just because my eyes had lighted up, she added “They’re stale.”
“I’ve got to find a place of my own,” she whispered, pulling the platter away from me and back toward her. She began breaking off pieces of Danish, very tiny pieces, nibbling in that disdainful way people do when they want to eat something and at the same time they don’t want to eat it, spoiling the other person’s pleasure. She’d scrape out just the fruit or custard filling from a Danish and leave the rest. While there I was, wanting to eat my Danish down to the very last delicious crumb.
"I’m looking out for a place” she said in a whisper.
“Close your mouth when you talk,” Greta said, rather illogically since I couldn’t talk with my mouth closed. “Close your mouth” she said again. “I can see stuff, cream cheese, strings of it hanging between your teeth. And what I just said was, I’m looking for a place, an apartment.”
“Sh—sh,” she hissed. I noticed Greta had been hissing a lot lately. “Don’t talk so loud,” she continued hissing. “I need a place to live, a place of my own.”
“What are you saying in there?” Mrs. Baerli called from another room.
“Nothing,” Greta called back.
“I hear you talking,” Mrs. Baerli said. She came into the kitchen and settled herself comfortably at the table with us. “What are you talking about?”
“Ma-a!” Greta said. “I said—nothing.”
Mrs. Baerli stood up. She was barrel-shaped, but then out of the lower half of the barrel came surprisingly slender sprightly legs, and above the barrel, on top of her head was a black bun, inky black, no shadows or highlights. It looked painted. Greta told me it was dyed. Mrs. Baerli reminded me of Mrs. Katzenjammer in the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids, mother of naughty Hans and Fritz.
“Have you seen this?” Mrs. Katzenjammer—Baerli went over to the sink and held up a bottle. Joy, it said on the label. “They have such wonderful things now. See; this is liquid, you don’t have to use soap powder for the dishes anymore.” She squirted some Joy into the sink. “See all the bubbles? And how do you like my new dishes, have you noticed?” She pulled a dark green plate from the dish rack. “They don’t break. You could drop it, and it wouldn’t break!”
I loved Greta’s mom. She had such a zest for life. I think she liked me, too, because she so enjoyed giving advice. Living with my senile grandmother and her companion, who didn’t like me one bit (she was fond of saying “I was hired to take care of an old lady and next thing I know there’s a nine-year-old child foisted on me), so I needed advice very badly, and I always listened eagerly to Mrs. Baerli.
“So, how are you?” she asked me, taking her place at the table again next to Greta and across from me. She gave me a squinty smile and patted my hand. She knew I was having a hard time and had had a breakdown recently. I could have answered merely “Fine, thank you” but I didn’t, I took advantage. I’d say something like “Well . . . not so good,” with a hangdog look, or I might even mumble “I’ve been crying buckets.”
Mrs. Baerli would lean toward me eagerly, place her other hand over the one that had been patting mine. “Everything will be all right, you’ll see! Everything works out. What you should do is live one day at a time, that’s all. It’s like stringing beads to make a necklace! Each day another pearl,” she’d say and her smile would widen and gleam. She had good teeth, all the Baerlis did; they came by them naturally. My own teeth had suffered from the loss of my parents, orthodonture begun, then never finished. I still had the initial metal bands cemented on my lowers, bands that the wires were supposed to go through, but they never did.
“Every day,” Greta’s mother would admonish me, “is one more pearl. Before you know it you have a necklace!”
“If I had to do it all over again,”(when Mrs. Baerli got warmed up she didn’t care about continuity) “If I could live my life over, do you know what I’d do? The one thing I’d do different if I had a chance?” (I could hear Greta’s feet shuffling under the table. She’d heard this over and over; so had I but I didn’t mind.) “I’d get more sleep,” Mrs. Baerli said. “You’re surprised? You didn’t think I’d say that, you thought something else? I’d get more sleep. Take care of your health—health is everything!”
It wasn’t that Mrs. Baerli’s advice was particularly relevant—the part about stringing pearls to make a necklace, that part, yes; but the part about getting more sleep, I didn’t see how that would solve anything. It was the way she sounded, her bright-eyed optimism, her motherly assurance that I just lapped up.
“That’s right,” she said, nodding at our snack, the open-faced cream cheese sandwiches. “Eat cream cheese. It’s good for you. It makes a beautiful complexion. You see the cream cheese forces its way through the pores, makes the skin creamy white. Like Greta’s, see? You want a nice skin like Greta’s?”
Of course I wanted a nice skin like Greta’s, but then her background was Nordic or Alpine, one or the other, and that, I was sure, accounted for her beautiful complexion. We’d studied the three European backgrounds in sixth grade geography: Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean. There were illustrations for each, and our teacher told us to study the illustrations, and then she’d go up and down the rows and have us tell which of these three groups our forebears had come from. The Nordic picture showed a little girl in a close-fitting cap and an embroidered blouse and skirt over lots and lots of petticoats with a fjord in the background. The Alpine picture showed a boy with a Tyrolean hat and short pants with suspenders and the Alps in the background. The Mediterranean picture showed a girl wearing a mantilla and waving a fan and a castle in the background. In all three pictures the children appeared to be caught in mid-dance. I squirmed miserably in my desk chair because my ancestors didn’t fit into any of those pictures. In fact I’d seen old photographs of my Russian Jewish ancestors in a drawer in the library of my grandmother’s house. They were all dressed in black, all scowling or staring wildly, some appeared to be raving mad. I couldn’t tell about their complexions from the photos but I was sure they had bad skin. And that’s why I had bad skin and Greta didn’t, and not because she ate cream cheese. (When the teacher got to me and I had to announce my heritage I mumbled “Alpine” choosing a middle ground as safest.}
“Acne is from crying,” Mrs. Baerli now pronounced definitively. “Just look in the mirror sometime when you’re crying, you’ll see the pimples breaking out.” She stood up turned toward the sink to do the dishes, then said “Why am I doing the dishes? Here—you girls do the dishes.”
Greta dried and put away because she knew where things went and I washed, enjoying the novelty of swishing around in hot sudsy dishwater and dying to get my hands on the bottle of Joy—squeeze squeeze squeeze!
“That’s too much!” Greta said sharply, “you don’t need that much. You’re wasting it!”
Later that evening she said “Don’t just let the water run like that!” I was staying over night, brushing my teeth in the Baerlis' bathroom, letting the water run full blast the way I always did when I brushed my teeth. I considered the running water a kind of background music to teeth brushing. But Greta reached in front of me and turned the water off with a jerk. “You’re wasting water. You’re supposed to fill a glass, like this!” She took the Baerlis' bathroom tumbler and filled it with water and stuck my toothbrush in it. “You dip your toothbrush in the glass, didn’t anyone ever teach you how to brush your teeth?”
“No,” I said crossly. “Nobody ever taught me anything. I just grew—like Topsy.”
Greta could be bossy but she was a true friend, stuck by me through thick and thin, listened to all my horror stories about where I lived and then would say “come on over to my house, we can listen to records,” or “let’s grab a bus to New York and go to Bloomingdale’s” or “let’s go to the movies,” so I was grateful for her friendship.
When we were in bed Greta whispered again: “I have to find a place of my own.” We shared her bed. She needn’t have whispered, because her younger brother Walter in the bed next to us was comatose. Greta and her brother had to share the room so the Baerlis could rent out their upstairs. Walter was sacked out from mowing lawns all day. Mrs. Baerli liked to tell me about this, spinning it into a proud saga of how her Valter had started out with just a hand mower and had gone around ringing doorbells and then earned enough to buy a power mower and now he had so many customers his whole after-school and weekends were filled with lawns, people liked him so much. He was so hardworking and honest, and he didn’t spend his money, he was putting it all away for college. That night Walter had fallen asleep in front of the TV, and Greta and her mother tried to wake him but it was impossible. They had to carry him up the basement stairs one of them taking his shoulders and the other his legs.
At first I just went on watching the TV: Bishop Fulton Sheen was on, and I couldn’t tear myself away from those piercing eyes, that black cassock. I craved his dark admonishments the way I hung on Mrs. Baerli’s pronouncements. But I could hear Greta and her mother having a hard time heaving Walter up the stairs, and I thought I’d better go help.
Even if Walter hadn’t been a very husky sixteen-year-old, inert bodies are hard to drag. We had to stop frequently to rest, and where the basement steps turned a corner with a little landing we stopped for a long rest, and that’s when I made a big mistake. Masterful explosions were issuing forth from the sleeping Walter, and I laughed. Of course I thought Greta would laugh too, but no she didn’t. She glared at me, didn’t like my laughing at her brother’s farting.
We got Walter into bed, and when Greta and I were in her bed she whispered again “I need my own apartment.”
It was a hot sticky summer night, not a good night for sharing a bed and several times she ordered me to move over.
“Would you mind getting your big sweaty hip off my hip?” was the way she put it, which was unkind of her. She knew I was self-conscious about the lower part of my body. I wasn’t roly poly like Greta, or barrel-shaped like her mother, but I had big thighs. At least I thought I did—big Eastern European thighs.
“What for?” I said about her needing an apartment.
“You know ‘what for.’” she said. “I have to have a life of my own. I can’t go on sharing a bedroom with my brother.”
I understood about not sharing a bedroom with her brother but I didn’t really understand the ‘life of my own” part. Didn’t she have a life of her own, going to Barnard—one of the Seven Sisters colleges—even if it meant living at home and commuting? While I was stuck in a huge scary Midwestern university where I went on purpose (because nobody cared where I went, and I thought I’ll show them! by going far away) and where I hadn’t met a single person of my Eastern European persuasion and where at the end of every spring term, the beginning of summer, I had my breakdowns. But most of all Greta had a father and mother who loved her and looked out for her. That was my idea of a life.
“What do you mean, 'life of your own?'” I asked.
“Oh God!” I knew Greta was rolling her eyes, though I couldn’t
see. “How can I have any ‘you know what?’”
There was the hiss again. “Sex life,” she said with a long sibilant “s.”
For some reason I thought of the way Greta made hamburgers—chopped steak she called it—when we were alone in her house for supper. The way she shaped the meat, not round but oval, and she’d pat and pat and fuss and pat some more and then she’d put Velveeta on the patties laying down the squares of Velveeta on top of the meat as though she were making a bed and the Velveeta was the bedspread, holding the corners with her pinkies curled and telling me virtuously that the Velveeta was for extra nutrition. Which I could never understand—why either of us needed extra nutrition.
And I didn’t understand why she needed a sex life. I knew we both wanted to be married but that was different, entirely different. That was about finally having a family and a home you belonged in and Greta already had that.
“But why—why would you want to leave home—”
“Sh—sh! You’re talking too loud,” Greta whispered. “Just drop the subject!”
I refused to drop it. I was too upset.
“Why?” I raised myself on my elbow, raised my voice, too. “Why would anyone lucky enough to have parents ever want to leave them unless it was to get married!”
“What are you talking about,” Mrs. Baerli called from the kitchen. “I hear you talking!”
“Nothing!” Greta called back. “We’re not talking.”
“I hear you,” Mrs. Baerli said again. She came into the room. “I heard you say apartment. What apartment?”
“Nothing Ma. I didn’t say apartment.”
“You’re not leaving home, getting an apartment!”
Greta didn’t say anything for a moment. Just looked sullen. Then she said—and I was amazed at her courage—”well what if I am? What if I am looking for another place to live, maybe a share!”
Mrs. Baerli gasped. “It’s not right, a girl your age, and New York City? It’s not safe! Besides, you disgrace your mother! You disgrace your father! What will people think of us, that we didn’t give you a good home? a good upbringing? You want me to have a heart attack? And your father, you want he should have a heart attack?”
“Ma, I have to have a life of my own! I can’t go on like this.”
“Like this? What’s like this? You have a good home here. A nice girl leaves home when she gets married! Do you want to break my heart?”
Greta and her mother argued and argued, Greta not giving in one bit. Then it got worse, because when Mrs. Baerli said “The Bible says honor thy father and thy mother, and if you disgrace us you’ll see God will punish you!” Well Greta said right to her mother’s face: “I don’t believe in God.” Poor Mrs. Baerli let out a shriek and Greta said “I’m sorry Mom, I’m sorry it upsets you but you can’t make me believe what I don’t believe.” That started a whole new argument. “How can a daughter of mine . . .” and “that I should live to see the day. . . .” That kind of thing. So between leaving home and not believing in God the arguing went on so long I dozed off. Every now and then I’d wake up and hear them still going at it, the room ablaze with light now, Mrs. Baerli in her alarm having switched on the overhead to do battle. She was crying and then Greta started to cry too; it was terrible. Greta knew I didn’t believe in God either, but did I get up and take a stand with my best friend? No, of course I didn’t. There I was all smug and snug under the covers while she had to face her mother, and I knew the next morning she’d say it was all my fault. I’d got her into trouble by not dropping the subject when she told me to, and talking too loud and then deserting her by going off to sleep.
Just before I fell asleep for good, I thought about the times I let Greta share a taxi with me when we’d been to the movies or visiting a friend. We’d stop at Greta’s house first. She lived near town in a neighborhood where the houses were close together and pretty much look-alike, with little front lawns that were going to put Walter Baerli through college, and brick steps with black railings going up to scalloped white storm doors. A friendly neighborhood, nothing like where I lived—big houses set way back from the road and no people. I’d go for long walks when I couldn’t keep back the tears, and I wouldn’t meet a soul, or see any cars.
Greta’s mother always made her say exactly when she’d be home—Mrs. Baerli wanted to know when to start worrying. If we were late Greta would be so scared and nervous she’d stop paying attention to me as we neared her house and practically tumble out of the taxi and run up the walk. Mrs. Baerli would be standing guard in the doorway, looking, or trying to look as though she’d been there for hours, though of course she must have come out just when she heard the cab pull up.
She’d grab hold of Greta, and the sudden way she did it made me think of those party favors that you blow on and then they curl up, woosh! That’s the way she curled her arm around Greta, woosh! I wouldn’t have minded someone doing that to me. From the cab I could hear Mrs. Baerli making angry barking sounds and Greta pleading with her. Then for one moment they were just an image, a mother holding her daughter very tightly, silhouetted in the lighted doorway. The next moment Mrs. Baerli would pull Greta inside and close the door and then the porch light would go off.
I’d give directions to my house to the cab driver and he’d turn around and laugh. “I know, I know,” he’d say, “Think I don’t know where you live, that big house up on East Hill, all the times I’ve taken you there?”
I knew he meant it in a friendly way but I was feeling bad, and it made me feel worse. When we got to the house, there’d be no use in knocking, the windows would all be dark. No one was up. I had my key. And the nice cab driver kept his headlights beaming on me till I was safely inside.