by L. Shapley Bassen
Sunday, March 4th, 2001, Marwa set aside homework (fine-tuning preparation for the Intel Science Fair in Brooklyn in two weeks) to accompany her Stuyvesant High School classmate Judy and her father out to a cemetery on Long Island to put stones on Judy’s mother’s grave. Judy lived uptown from Marwa in Greenwich Village. A monster snowstorm was predicted for Sunday night through Tuesday; TV meteorologists were frenzied, storm-tracking this and Doppler-4ing that. Dr. Yamaguchi, Judy’s father, was less depressed than Marwa thought he would be because he was “getting a chance,” he said, “to drive his midlife-crisis-red Nissan out of the City.” Marwa had stayed over at Judy’s on Saturday night so they could get an early start. Marwa didn’t understand the Yamaguchi family mood, especially since eight-year old Nina was coming along to the cemetery for the first time, but she had felt honored when Judy had asked her to come along.
Dr. Yamaguchi was about the same age as Marwa’s father, in his fifties, but that was about the only similarity she could see. Dr. Y (Why?), as he liked to be called, was mid-height. While he was not fat, he had a distinct belly that pressed against the belt of corduroy slacks.
“I am not a fashion-plotz,” Dr. Why apologized.
Judy suffered not only over paternal wardrobe but also her father’s “faux-Yiddish that he somehow thinks makes him an honorary member of my mother’s tribe.”
Marwa could not think of an occasion that could compel her father ever to apologize or speak faux anything. He was tall and trim. “A banker is not a shopkeeper.” She had never seen her father even in slippers without socks. But Dr. Why didn’t care Judy and Nina weren’t sons.
Dr. Why was a Japanese-American who had married a Jewish woman. Because of the impending blizzard, they wouldn’t be going after the ceremony to the condo of her Lensky grandparents. Judy’s Lensky-Yamaguchi mini-genealogy included Dr. Why’s parents, both deceased, who had been in the concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens during WWII. He had family living “in Northern California where the mud slides,” Dr. Why added from behind the wheel.
Beside him, Nina was occupied with changing a CD.
The sporty red sedan had just crossed over the Williamsburg Bridge and was moving toward a huge cemetery. Marwa had an early memory of this garden of stones. She had asked How do stones grow? Her older brother Sharif said Stupid girl. She thought (1) stupidity was bad; (2) girls were stupid; (3) there was an important difference between stones and living things.
Dr. Why started singing. Nina put a CD in and pressed Play.
As Nina sang along with the motherly teapot from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Dr. Why stuck to, “Life is just a bowl of cherries…Don’t take it serious, life’s too mysterious…”
“My father prides himself,” Judy said, “on singing a song when another one plays.”
Dr. Y tapped his head. “You should see what flashes in your brain. ‘You work, you slave, you worry so’–”
“–But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go,” Nina sang.
“Nice, Dad,” Judy grumbled.
Marwa patted Judy’s hand. “Commiserate with the shark guy’s kids.”
“What?” Dr. Why said.
“Archaic sharks on the Discovery Channel, Daddy. They were a hundred feet long with teeth shaped like triangles the size of my hand,” Judy said.
“I don’t want to imagine their kids,” Dr. Why teased.
“Not the shark guys, Daddy, the sharks had the teeth,” Nina said.
“Toothless scientists studying ancient sharks?”
“Yes, Daddy, the scientists were utterly toothless,” Judy said.
“They were not. They sat inside the shark’s jaw,” Nina opened her mouth wide. “They could both fit inside it!”
Marwa thought of repetition. Arachnids had eight appendages, the octopus eight arms, oxygen’s atomic number was eight. She said, “The Chinese consider eight good luck. They exchange eight tangerines for the Chinese New Year.”
Nina said, “I’m eight.”
“Ijtihad,” Dr. Why praised. “It means the ancient Islamic tradition of questioning. Ijtihad.”
The car had moved past the wide ocean views rimming Brooklyn’s Atlantic shore. The highway curved to parkway to eastern Long Island. Marwa looked out at the reddening trees. They would green next, willows haloed in yellow with neon forsythia. Purple, yellow, and white crocus were budding out of patches of old snow.
The night before, Marwa maneuvered Judy away from morbid topics to a tetrahedron sculpture on a windowsill beside a giant geranium plant. It looked like Judy’s tiny two-dimensional Jewish star expressed in three-dimensional bronze wire nine-inch outlines stuck into a wooden base. They faced each other across the coffee table and put the sculpture between them like a Ouija board.
“None.” Marwa stood up and went to a tall glass centerpiece at the dining table. “Hey, this is new.”
“Hey, be careful, it’s my mother’s last extravagance. My dad only took it out today. It’s a Klein Bottle,” Judy said. “Hand-blown.”
The transparent object looked like a one-legged stork bent over, its beak hollowed into a tube against the one leg. Marwa made a face.
Judy said, “Wanna blow into it?”
Marwa took the fragile object out of Judy’s hands and replaced it on the table. “We do not,” she said.
Judy curtseyed, “You’re such a prude, Queen Victoria.”
Marwa wandered over to two large prints framed above the couch. “I like the Magritte with the men falling like raindrops. Like scales on a fish, all in one direction. Like worshippers bowing to the Kaaba.”
“You think conformity is beautiful?” Then Judy backed off, “Are you hungry?”
“I dreamed last night that I was eating my way out of a bathtub filled with spaghetti.”
Judy had chased Marwa into the small kitchen. They made grilled cheese sandwiches with tomatoes and sour pickles. Marwa didn’t tell Judy about Descartes’s three dreams or her own.
Nor had Marwa told Judy about seeing Denim Prix (Pree) two weeks before, during February break when the Yamaguchi sisters had been away in Florida with the maternal grandparents she was about to meet at the cemetery. Denim Prix was the highest paid male model in the world, and he lived in Marwa’s building in Battery Park City. She had met him in September.
Marwa’s parent were working that week in February, and Joey was looked after by Mrs. al-Banna, an Egyptian widow at their mosque. For this week that New York public schools had off, her mother took Joey to Mrs. al-Banna’s apartment over on East Broadway.
Marwa had been left to herself to work on the Intel Fair preparation, which she had dutifully done until the weather changed for momentarily to Spring. The sun rose into a cloudless sky, and the temperature climbed to fifty degrees. Marwa might not have known, so engrossed in spreadsheets and graphs as she was, had not a pigeon perched on her windowsill and pecked at the glass. It had been months since Marwa had seen a pigeon fly this high and close to the building. All winter, there had been only seagulls and terns in the distance over the Hudson.
Marwa stared at the blue-necked white pigeon. It quickly flew away, and then she looked down at the street. People were walking without coats. A carnival breeze was blowing at street level. Marwa decided to go out for lunch. Mounds of snow from the last storm remained, but melt was in the air, puddles everywhere. Marwa left her parka behind. She walked along the esplanade. The sun glittered on the river.
Pree wasn’t sitting on the bench where they’d met. He leaned against railing and stared at the water. He wore a dark wool cap pulled over blond curls. Pree turned and saw Marwa. The cap was a dark outline around a smile. His green eyes were outlined in brown. She smelled coffee brewing and thought his skin explained why coffee was called ‘brown gold’. She said yes to lunch nearby in a small cafe decorated for Valentine’s Day, all red hearts and bow-and-arrowed Cupids on the windows, doorway, and cashier’s counter. They found a table.
Marwa kept talking.
“The month of February is named for one of the aspects of the Roman goddess Juno. The whole month was sacred to Juno Februata, patroness of the fever — febris — of love. The original Valentine’s Day was Rome’s Lupercalia. Guys handed out proto-valentines with girls’ names on them to be partners in erotic games. I take Latin.”
Pree signaled a waitress who tripped when she saw him. She spilled the water she poured and rushed to put in their orders.
“It’s a good thing she’s not carrying knives and oranges,” Marwa said.
“The Koran tells of Yusuf, Joseph, ‘the noble angel’ and the rich women. They cut their hands with knives intended for oranges when they first see him. When they see Yusuf, their hands just slip.”
The shaky waitress returned with their food and iced tea for Marwa, hot coffee for Prix.
Pree sipped and said, “It’s like acid.”
“The way the waitress looks at me.”
Marwa couldn’t swallow.
“I don’t want you to think I like it,” Pree said.
Marwa stared at a red cardboard heart. “The Catholic Church replaced Juno Februata with the mythical martyr St. Valentine. They said he was a Roman teenager who was executed at the exact moment his girlfriend received his invitation, the first Valentine.”
“People look at me as if I’m food. As if they’re starving.”
Marwa forced herself to take a sip of the cold tea. “There are a lot of people worse off.” It’s what her mother would have said.
He laughed and pulled off his cap.
Dizzied by his gold curls, Marwa thought of her hijab and blurted, “There wasn’t any observable differential.”
“What?” Pree asked.
“Deferential?” he asked.
“Differential,” Marwa said. “The diamond I told you about in September. At the bench on the esplanade. I don’t know why I lied like that.”
“To impress me,” Pree said easily, eating his sandwich. “It worked, but I didn’t believe you. Don’t you like your salad?”
Marwa looked down and saw the food. She took a forkful, swallowing with the help of the iced tea.
“Why didn’t you believe me?” she asked.
Pree shrugged. “I never believe anyone.”
As they were walking back to their building, he invited her to his apartment, then laughed when she said no. He twisted the gold ring on his middle finger
“I hoped you wouldn’t. But you say the view is lousy from your floor.” Pree put his hand on her arm. “You may never talk to me again — but I want you to know something. From the time I was half your age, there were people — of both sexes — who wanted to buy and sell me. And they did. I even thought they cared. But it got — old and it got — ugly. And now I wish I could outvirgin you.”
His hand steadied her. Then he let go.
“Oh,” he swallowed a curse, “that came out wrong. I don’t mean — I don’t know how to talk to anyone,” and Pree left her rooted there.
Why hadn’t she said anything or run after him, caught up? He didn’t want her. She hadn’t misunderstood him. It was just the sudden heat, the ides of February, all the others’ fevers for him including her own.
The memory and its heat were blown away by the bitter March wind at the cemetery. Dr. Why walked ahead, taking Nina’s hand out of her coat pocket and putting it with his hand inside his big brown leather glove. Nina had been quiet since they left the highway for the wide avenue that took them past several large cemeteries. They had stopped at a strip mall of grave monuments and a florist where Dr. Why bought green metal cones and three bouquets of daffodils. You could taste the storm coming, a metallic flavor in the icy air. At the gravesite, Judy’s grandparents and uncle and aunt were shivering. There were embraces and small talk. Dr. Why, Judy, and Nina stuck the daffodils inside the cones into the ground.
Judy’s Uncle Robert took out a prayer book and read, “Yis’ga’dal v’yis’kadash sh’may ra’bbo…v’imru. Omein.”
Judy’s relatives all repeated, “Omein.”
Judy and Nina joined in a second behind as their father did. The prayer went on for a short time, but Marwa knew it was over when a final-sounding “Omein” was echoed.
The grandfather cried, but Judy’s grandmother just pressed her lips together tightly and held her husband’s hand. Uncle Robert’s wife unfolded a piece of paper and read a poem. It was very short.
“‘Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing,/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling/ To keep a drowsy emperor awake;/ Or set upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.’”
Then each family member picked up a pebble from the ground and ceremoniously placed it on the top of the headstone. Marwa thought, Once out of nature, why would all the questions Nature forces us to ask even matter? They wouldn’t matter without matter. But they were the most important questions we asked here. Then a huge black crow flew to a tall yew hedge and folded its wings. It waited, flapped, cawed loudly, waited again, and then flew away. Nina huddled between her father and her sister, but she didn’t cry until Judy did. Uncle Robert’s wife had tissues. There were embraces again and tearful farewells. Back in the car, Nina made no move to put in a CD.
Judy asked Marwa if Muslims observed annual mourning.
“In the twelfth lunar month, Dhul-Hijah, at the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, for Id al-Adha, in late January or February usually, we visit the graves of our relatives. The Feast of the Sacrifice. But all my family’s graves are in Egypt.” Although no one asked, Marwa filled the silence by adding, “The Id marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s command, according to the Koran.”
“Did he kill him?” Nina said.
“No, it’s the same in Judaism,” Judy explained. “Abraham’s son Isaac. There’s an angel or a scapegoat instead. A goat appears. Abraham kills the goat. That’s where the word ‘scapegoat’ comes from.”
Nina said, “An escape goat? It didn’t escape. It should be an instead-goat. A steadgoat. Why’d God want to kill the son or a goat?”
“Abraham wanted to show Allah that nothing was more important to him than Allah. For us, it is a sheep, not a goat.” Marwa said.
“It was Abraham’s idea? Marwa, you said at Allah’s command. I don’t think he should’ve killed a goat or a sheep,” Nina said. “I’m going to be a vegetablarian.”
“A vegetarian,” Judy corrected gently. “A vegan. Tell Marwa where babies come from.”
“Doesn’t Marwa know?” Nina said.
“She’ll admire your theory,” Judy encouraged.
“Well, I don’t believe it any more, of course,” Nina began, “but when I was little, when I saw fat pregnant women, I couldn’t figure out how the baby would get out. Then I thought of belly buttons and figured baby buttons grew during pregnancy. When it was time for the baby to come out, a special baby button doctor knew how to unbutton the buttons. Like those trapdoor pajamas they put on kids.”
Marwa realized that Dr. Why had been silent since he’d started driving back to Manhattan. He didn’t utter a word until they were nearly at the Williamsburg Bridge, and then he asked Marwa about her Intel Fair project. He expressed surprise when she told him it was not only her synesthesia but also his research that had inspired her, but Marwa saw the Crayola Timberwolf grey in his voice and could almost hear a low howl.
Every September for a generation now, I remember that journey with Judy’s family. I take the subway downtown from my lab to the 9/11 Memorial. I don’t leave from my apartment on the West Side. I need to go to work first before facing Pree’s name carved with the others into the black stone around and far above the waterfalls in the recreated foundation of the Towers. On the subway, I always retrace my steps of August, 2001. It was as blistering hot as the blizzard cold in March. That August day, Judy got a tattoo to mark her loss of virginity the month before. I got my ears pierced. I told Judy ear-piercing was okay because Safiyah and Fatima had gold earrings. In the summer of 2001, Judy and I had internships in different university labs and were anticipating senior year in high school. Judy messaged me at Stonybrook from Hopkins in Baltimore. In that July, Pree took me on a chaste date to a movie star’s mansion in Southampton. In her absence (starring in France), Pree vacationed there. The celebrity offered her home as penance for being one of the many who had abused his youth. After the hot day of tattoos and piercing, later in August, I broke Pree’s heart. Even at virginal seventeen, I understood that he was sacrificing his desire to regain innocence to my lust for his experience. Of 9/11, I have many memories. I have a thin scar over one eyebrow where I was cut by something falling out of the sky. It is better than a tattoo. When I go every year and penitently place a pebble at Pree’s name, I remember the rabbi at the cemetery: “The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror which also means ‘bond.’ When we pray, we ask that the deceased be ‘bound up in the bond of life’ – tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that the person lives on in and through us.”
A native New Yorker now in RI, L. Shapley Bassen was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest for ‘Portrait of a Giant Squid’. She is s a poetry/fiction reviewer for The Rumpus, etc., also Fiction Editor at https://www.craftliterary.com/, prizewinning, produced, published playwright: originally at http://www.samuelfrench.com/author/1158/lois-shapley-bassen, now https://www.concordtheatricals.com/p/1563/the-month-before-the-moon ; 3x indie-published author novel/story collections, and in 2019, #4, WHAT SUITS A NUDIST, poetry collected works at https://www.claresongbirdspub.com/featured-authors/l-shapley-bassen/
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