My baby kicked, hard. I put both hands on my belly. I felt it turn, then kick again with impatience and aggression. This one, I knew, would be a boy. His father's son.
The bus rumbled and shook as it pulled away from the curb. A little girl holding a doll peered at me from the seat ahead. I smiled. The girl stared at me with wide, dark eyes, but she did not smile back.
My baby kicked again.
I said to myself, I will not think of baby Roberta. I won't. Not even that little girl staring at me will make me think of Roberta. I’m going to clear my head and think of something else.
Mike. I wondered if I should say to him, "Hey, Mike! Your son's in here, already kicking and I guess he doesn't like the accommodations. He's ready to storm out. And he probably doesn't want to hear one peep out of me. Just like his old man."
No, I don’t think so. Mike wouldn't put up with that kind of sarcasm, he'd put me right back in my place.
The little girl’s hair was black, and shiny. Her doll, which she held close to her face, was a blonde. I could see the tiny holes in its scalp, and shiny strands coming out of them. Roberta's hair also was black. But short, because she was only ten months old when she died.
I looked out the window at the cars parked along the curb, at the storefronts. People walking along. From behind me came the sound of a conversation. I hadn't been paying attention. I listened more carefully.
"Versailles. That's behind it all." one masculine voice said.
"No, he's hungry for power," the other said. I turned around, pretending to be looking at something else, and I caught a glimpse of the two young men. One had round, steel-rimmed glasses; on the other’s head was a black beret. Both wore dark overcoats. Books on their laps.
"Listen," Glasses said. "If the German people didn't believe they were being punished too harshly for the last war, well, Hitler wouldn't be getting away with it."
"So what was so wrong with punishing the Germans?" Beret said. "They just got what was coming to them."
"No, think about it. How would you feel? How did the American colonists in 1776 feel? After a while you can take only so much, you know?"
The little girl slid down in her seat, and disappeared. But I could hear her voice. A murmuring. She was talking to her doll. The bus hit a pothole, and I felt the jolt. How sweet it was, the sound of a little girl talking to her doll. Which is what I used to do...and my doll always talked back to me. Yes, she did. On sunny Sunday afternoons. I’d play with her as my father sat at the piano, singing an Irish ballad. My doll was not alive unless I picked her up, held her close, and talked to her.
"There's a significant difference between revolution and territorial conquest," Beret said.
"The underlying principle is the same, though." Glasses said.
"Advancement of self-interest."
"Ha! A flimsy rationalization."
"No," Beret said. "The perfect raison d'ˆtre."
Another rough movement in my belly. Jesus. It has to be a boy, I thought. And probably this one will turn out exactly like Mike. Exactly. Intent on having his way. Entitled. I can look forward to at least seventeen years of my waiting on him hand and foot, as Mike expects to be waited on.
I felt a burning in my eyes. I blinked. No. Don't cry, godamnit.
Maybe it would be all right if Mike didn't insist on the ridiculous idea that he had to be obeyed, always, no matter what he said. To me that was stupid. Daddy never insisted on that sort of thing.
"...Lebensraum," Glasses said. "Natural and just living conditions."
"Propaganda," Beret said. "What he wants to do is strangle the world into silence. So only he can speak."
I thought of those Germans in the newsreels, all those people along the side of the road, sticking their arms out in that ridiculous salute, eyes all glazed over, admiring that silly little man with his stupid peaked hat and that ridiculous little black rectangle of a moustache, the exact opposite of the white rectangle of a priest's Roman collar...
He speaks, and they all jump.
Mike. I can see him in a Nazi uniform, all full of himself, so self-important, barking orders.
But that's not the way Daddy is. That's not the way normal people treat each other. .
Mike just doesn’t have a clue. Not a flicker of an idea of what real love is. The kind of love daddy had for my mother. He loved her enough to give her up, let her go after her opera career. He understood how important it was to her. That's something Mike will never understand. And there’s no point trying to explain it to him. He doesn't listen, he never will.
I told my sister-in-law, Jane, about what my dad did for mom. Jane couldn't understand it at all. She put on this big frown, which reminded me of Mike when he runs into something he can’t quite understand. A frown and a slightly open mouth. Like, huh?
"He just let her walk out?" Jane asked me.
And I said, "Yes, because he loved her. He wanted her to be happy. And he knew she couldn't be happy as a mother, a housewife."
Jane shook her head. She just didn’t get it.
"We'll be in it soon enough," Glasses said.
"Roosevelt swears we won't." Beret said.
"Ha! Just wait. He'll find a reason. It's just a matter of time."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I wondered, does Eleanor wait on him hand and foot? Would you like strawberry jam on your toast, sweetheart? I mean, Mr. President? Does she worry about crossing him? I don't think so.
Men. You goddamned better do exactly what they want, or else there will be hell to pay. Mike can't stand to be contradicted. Can't stand for me to move one inch outside the narrow little path he's got laid down for me. When I step out of line, he gives me a hateful glare, or raises his hand. Keep it up, see what happens!
Momma’s boy. She taught him what a woman is supposed to do in this world. Which is to give him anything he wants. And not only that, you better keep a smile on your face, otherwise he’ll ask, what’s the matter with YOU?
"Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles..." Glasses suddenly sang out, loudly. The old man standing in the aisle turned, as did several of the other passengers. But Beret cut in with a rich baritone: “Freude, Schoner Gotterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium…”
I knew where that came from. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I turned my head, gave Beret a big grin. He winked at me, and continued: "…Wir betreten feuer-trunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!”
The little girl's head suddenly reappeared. Her chubby fingers gripped the steel tube that ran along the top of the seat. Such dark, wide eyes. Again, I smiled. She stuck out her tongue.
The bus dropped me off at the stop near the black, wrought-iron gate of the nursing home. It was a long walk to the top of the hill. Skeletal poplars lined the road on both sides.
Aphasia. That's the word the doctor kept repeating after Daddy's stroke. He explained it all so quietly and patiently, that doctor in his starched white lab coat and his shiny stethoscope dangling around his neck. It's expressive aphasia, he said, which means he is fully aware of his surroundings but can’t talk.
A nurse wheeled Daddy into the solarium. She leaned over and stuffed a pillow down at his right side. "There," the nurse said. "That ought to make him more comfy." She quickly departed.
Hi, Daddy," I said brightly. He did not respond.
The solarium was empty. A line of cushioned chairs stood along a far wall. Scattered on the tables were decks of cards, chess and checkers sets, some Life magazines. I placed a stool near Daddy's wheelchair. I reached over and took his hand. It did not move when I gently caressed it.
In a quiet voice I told him that lately I was feeling like something awful was about to happen. And it wasn't the upcoming birth of my kicking baby, and it wasn't all the rumblings of war in Europe. It was something else. But I didn't know what.
"I just feel so anxious all the time," I said. "Maybe it's because I'm realizing that I've made some terrible mistakes the past year and a half. Getting pregnant the first time. And then getting pregnant again. Staying with Mike..."
Daddy's eyes did not move. I looked for some sign of recognition, some awareness. There was none, but I continued.
"I guess you think I'm pretty dumb, huh? And I suppose I've been such a disappointment to you."
I told him about my trying not to think about Roberta dying, and Mike’s mother telling everyone it was my fault because I was a lousy mother. "I’m trying to put it aside, but just about everything I see or hear reminds me in some way of my baby, and the way she looked in the hospital when she died."
If only Daddy would respond to what I was telling him. I kept looking for some sign that would show he understood. But his hand rested so still in my hands.
The little girl on the bus reminded me of Roberta, especially the color of her skin. The paleness, the luminous whiteness. And the little girl's doll. Roberta's face took on the appearance of a China doll...or a porcelain mask, with just the hint of blueness on her lips...my precious baby lying there in the hospital bed, so still, so white.
"I don't know how I can stop thinking about her," I said. "And I know that I never want to go through seeing a child of mine dead. Never. I couldn't bear it. I'd rather die myself."
The sun streaming in through the window made the skin of my face tingle, and I closed my eyes. I sat quietly for a while, listening to Daddy's breath, and my own. The radiator clanked. I suppose I dozed for a few minutes.
I stretched, and yawned.
"Oh, I almost forgot," I said. "Two college guys were on the bus talking about Germany, Hitler, and all that stuff. Then one of them sang the German anthem, like a joke. And then the other guy cut in with this. It was great. Listen.
I sang those lines from the Ode to Joy.
Daddy suddenly straightened up in his wheelchair, and his rich voice joined mine, perfectly, only an octave lower, of course, but he was clearly singing the words of Schiller's poem...
When I stopped, he stopped, and slumped back, tilted to his right, as he had been before he began singing. I stared at him. His mouth was slightly open.
"Oh, Daddy!" I said, rising out of my chair.
I pushed open the doors of the solarium and hurried down the hallway to the nurses' station. "Come quick," I said. "My father! He can sing!"
The two starched-white-uniformed nurses followed me into the brightly sunlit room. They stood near me, and watched him, expectantly.
"Show them, Daddy," I said. "Sing."
But he remained motionless. The nurses looked at each other, then at me. One shook her head.
"No, wait," I said. I sang:
“Deine Zauber binden wieder, Was die Mode streng geteilt...”
Daddy straightened, raised his head, and his voice rang out clearly, joining mine. "Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum..."
I turned to the nurses. "See?"