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Outside Annie could hear the sound of the wind. It made the branches of the maple tree brush against the wall. When she was a little girl, at night the sound of the branches scraping against the wall used to frighten her. Although even in her child’s mind she knew it was irrational, she always thought the strange sound was the Nazis slowly digging their way through the wall of the house. Her mother thought the invasion would come by way of the front door. They never discussed it, but Annie had always assumed that this was why she slept in the living room, with a cast iron skillet under the couch.
Annie could see from where she was lying that it had started to snow. She dragged herself over to a chair by the window. The wind had died down to a loud whisper, and it wasn’t snowing nearly as heavily as predicted, just enough to cover the rooftops of the houses and the sidewalks and the tiny front lawns with a patina of whiteness. In front of the house across the way, the head of the Virgin Mary was topped with a snowy white cap. It looked as though she were wearing a white yarmulke, the kind the rabbis wore on Yom Kippur. When Mr. and Mrs. Levine moved down to Florida, the Catallozzis, a young Catholic couple, bought their house. They were the only non-Jews on the block and they seemed intent on asserting their religious identity. During Christmas their house was defiantly ablaze with a thousand lights, and there was a blown-up Santa with a flashing red nose standing cheerfully on the lawn and a Nativity scene made of plastic displayed on the front porch. Three weeks before Easter, Mr. Catallozzi attached a gigantic Easter bunny to the roof their house, and the children and their friends hunted for Easter eggs in the pachysandra.
Looking out at the lovely whiteness, Annie was struck with the notion that her long-forgotten memory had to do with the color white, with a street filled with whiteness, with a sky filled with whiteness, with a flawlessly white and wonderful world. Maybe it had something to do with snow.
Winter had always been Annie’s favorite season, because of the snow. She would lie down in the cold whiteness on the patch of grass outside her yeshiva and make outlines of her body in the snow. Until the rabbi called her into his office and reprimanded her for it. Such immodest behavior was inappropriate for a frum girl, he had said.
The trip to the window had exhausted her and as she staggered back to bed the phone rang. She looked at the caller ID. It was Mrs. Reiss, probably phoning to find out if she was dead yet. Annie had been engaged to her son once. The local matchmaker thought they would make a perfect pair, since they were “both so educated.” Joining their chromosomes together would be a “service to humanity,” she had told her. David was living in Israel, where he had moved after finishing his PhD in physics at Columbia. Annie had just finished all the required coursework in graduate school for a doctorate in English literature, but she couldn’t bring herself to write her dissertation. She was going nowhere fast and she figured that getting married might give her something to hook into. At least it would get her mother off her back.
Finding a husband for Annie was the only ambition Ella had ever had for her daughter. She didn’t care if it was a happy marriage; she didn’t even care if the marriage lasted, or if it produced any children; all she cared about was that Annie be married. Ella had seen the humiliation her sister Sophie had endured from being an old maid and she couldn’t bear the thought of her daughter suffering that same fate.
It wasn’t until after they had spent several months corresponding back and forth that Annie and her intended finally met. David had a job teaching at Yale for the summer and the day he got off the plane he came to her apartment to meet her. He was tall, which was a relief, and he didn’t shuffle his feet when he walked. Overall, he was a welcome change from what had been cast before her so far.
At the end of the week, he proposed marriage. Annie told him that before she accepted she thought it was only fair to tell him that she wasn’t a virgin. When she asked him how he felt about that, he told her he would have to think it over, and after a weekend of deliberation he announced that he had decided to forgive her. That summer, she would go to visit him in New Haven every weekend. The head of the synagogue’s sisterhood arranged for her to stay at the house of one of the congregants. One evening after dinner, on the way back to the house, he suggested that they stop off at his apartment. He said that he had been thinking about it and that he had decided they might as well “do it.” Since she wasn’t a virgin anyway. It turned out that he was.
David went back to Israel in the fall and they resumed their correspondence. When Annie began to express misgivings about moving to Israel, he wrote back and told her that his first priority was Israel, his second priority was physics, and his third priority was her. It was only two months until their wedding and Annie had never seen her mother so happy, so she decided to grin and bear it, but when David came back to the States after his grandmother died and he told her he didn’t want her to come to the funeral because he didn’t want his sister to meet her since “she isn’t corrupt like you,” that was the last straw. She called David at his mother’s house and told him they were through.
After David, Annie went wild. A friend of hers from graduate school was moving to Arizona and she managed to transfer the lease to her fifth-floor walk-up in the Upper East Side over to Annie. Deborah also bequeathed Annie her job teaching English literature at an exclusive private school in Riverdale.
Annie had hoped that by moving out of Brooklyn she would be able to finally liberate herself from her mother. But she was never free. Not when she ate pig’s feet at the German restaurant on East 86th Street, or when she slept with Wolfgang Richter, the son of an ex-Nazi; one Sunday she went to a church in the neighborhood and knelt and crossed herself. But her mother was always there, like some invisible omnipotent being.
The illness started creeping up on her last spring. It had started with a cough that sounded like a foghorn. She didn’t think much of it and when she mentioned it to her doctor during her annual checkup he didn’t think much of it either. There had been an unusually large amount of pollen in the air that spring. The cough was probably just an allergic reaction to the pollen. Then she started spitting up blood.
When she collapsed going up the stairs one day after work, her neighbor Brian Murphy carried her up to her apartment and called her mother and told her what had happened. Ella showed up at her door less than an hour later. She threw some of Annie’s clothes in a suitcase and announced that she was taking her home. Brian, who was a chauffeur, drove them back to Sheepshead Bay in his boss’s limousine.
Shortly after she returned home, Annie started to get better. Ella was convinced that the reason Annie was sick was that someone had given her the evil eye, and the first thing she did upon Annie’s return was to administer the treatment for casting the evil spirits from her body. The remedy consisted of soaking pieces of bread in salted water and wiping them into various creases of her body. Apparently it worked, because after five weeks the cough had all but disappeared and there was no more dizziness or nausea.
Those first few months at home with her mother, Annie was happier than she had ever been in her life. She would lie in bed watching soap operas all day, and in the evening, while her mother prepared dinner, she would sit at the kitchen table, sipping tea with lemon and rereading her way through Jane Austen. She decided to move out of the apartment in Manhattan and get her old job at the yeshiva back. There was no point in fighting it anymore. Her mother was the only person in the world she had ever loved; she was the only person she would ever love. For the first time in her adult life she felt peace of mind. But then she started spitting up blood again and the doctors told her it was too late. There was nothing they could do for her. And so they sent her home to die. None of the specialists ever managed to identify what was wrong with her exactly. All they could come up with was that the illness had been caused by some combination of “genetic predisposition” and “environmental insult,” possibly exposure to some kind of deadly toxin.
Annie was falling into one of her cavernous sleeps when she heard her mother’s key in the door. She listened to the sound of her stomping the snow off her boots, and the click, click, click, click, and clang as she unlatched the row of Medico locks and the police bar.
“Did you sleep?” her mother asked when she came into the bedroom.
“Sort of,” she said.
“Mr. Stein said because of the snow they didn’t get their delivery today,” Ella reported. “The truck drivers, they were afraid of the blizzard that didn’t come. But Mr. Stein said maybe Mr. Levy at the Walgreen’s by Avenue S would have some extras. He called, but the line was busy.”
“So was Mrs. Lipschitz relieved to have her modesty preserved at last?”
“She didn’t have a curtain rod,” her mother said.
“You didn’t go out and buy her one?”
“She expected, I’m sure.”
“Was she grateful, at least?” Annie asked.
“Oh, very grateful,” her mother said, grinning ironically. “She offered me a chipped sugar bowl from the 99-cent store. She said she got it for a wedding present for Mrs. Ruben’s daughter, but since I did such a nice job, she decided to give me the priceless treasure instead.”
“Fanny Ruben is getting married? She must be a hundred and twelve.”
“Mrs. Rabinsky found her a nice accountant. A widower with six grown children.”
“Well I hope you told Mrs. Lipschitz to shove her sugar bowl up her big fat ass,” Annie said.
“What did you expect?” Annie asked. “You’re always setting yourself up. I’ve never been able to figure it out. Is it your inferiority complex or your superiority complex that drives you to put yourself out for people for whom you have nothing but contempt?”
“What kind of nonsense are you talking?” her mother asked.
“Mrs. Reiss called while you were out,” Annie said. A look of pure, unadulterated hatred crossed her mother’s face, turning her eyes into slits of steel. Ever since the breakup she and Mrs. Reiss had become mortal enemies. David’s mother never missed an opportunity to tell Ella how happily married her genius son was. Two weeks after Annie broke up with him a matchmaker found him a beautiful Sabra from a wealthy family. Within a couple of months they were married and the poor girl had borne him seven children so far.
Ella pursed her lips together so tightly that the blood drained out of them. “You didn’t talk to her, I hope,” she said.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t,” said Annie, who usually never missed an opportunity to talk to David’s mother. Whenever she saw her on the street, or ran into her at a store in the neighborhood, she would go out of her way to say something to Mrs. Reiss. She liked to watch the woman squirm as she fed her little bits of poison about her godlike son. Once she had even told her, in not so many words, that David was lousy in bed. But she was too weak for any of that now. The phone started ringing and Ella went to the kitchen to answer it. When she came back into the room a little while later, she was smiling one of her sardonic smiles.
“Guess who that was?”
“Mrs. Lipschitz. Her daughter, she went crazy over the curtains. She said that if she could have such curtains her kitchen would be like House Beautiful. Hint. Hint. Hint.”
“Don’t tell me you said yes.”
“What do you think I am, an idiot?”
“So what did you tell her?”
Her mother grinned, and her beady little eyes shining with mischief, she responded, “I told her to tell her daughter to put the curtains up her fat tuchus.”
Annie opened her mouth to laugh, but instead of laughing her entire body was seized with an uncontrollable fit of coughing. Globules of blood the size of chickpeas came flying out of her mouth. There was a part of her that couldn’t help thinking what an interesting disease this was. The coughing fit seemed to go on forever, and when it was over a searing pain coursed through Annie’s midsection, making her feel as though she were being sliced in half by a red-hot sword.
“It hurts, Ella,” she cried. Her mother emptied the basket of pill bottles that lay in a heap on Annie’s night table onto the bed, and rummaged through the bottles, looking for the morphine.
“Here,” she said, victoriously, retrieving a stray tab of the precious narcotic that she found hidden in a crevice of straw in the basket. Holding her daughter’s head with one hand and bringing a glass of water to her mouth with the other, she gave her the pill. “You sleep now. I’ll go get the medicine. Sleep. Go to sleep.” With that she ran out of the room and within seconds was out of the house.