Jack Rosenberg blew into our lives when I was twelve; any way you looked at him (up, down or even sideways) you saw cash. On Long Island, he was one of those super-rich snobby neighbours who only nodded hello, because he didn’t want to waste a whole wave on us. When we ran into him in Florida, he wore an expensive white Italian suit with a coordinated silk handkerchief. He steered a matching white Cadillac convertible up and down Miami Beach’s fancy Collins Avenue, and stopped right in front of my mother. I knew my mother was dazzled by money, but how could I suspect that when Jack Rosenberg pulled his Caddie up curbside, my mother would slide in?
Until Jack Rosenberg, I looked forward more than anything to my family’s annual trips to Miami Beach. There, my mother basked in the tropical sun and blossomed into the mother I wanted all year long. Back home, she didn’t bother to befriend me; her only child. She spent her time food shopping or talking to friends.
But in Miami, we’d lie at the pool in our matching bikinis; two straight strips of material covered my string bean body. Her bathing suit snuggly fit her hour glass figure. I’d feel the heat of the day still trapped in my mother’s tanned arms when she hugged me tightly.
Miami was also the only time I saw my parents display affection. At noon by the hotel shuffleboard court, my parents would Cha-Cha or Rumba or pull me in to join them on a Conga line or for an Alley Cat; my father would swing hips I didn’t know he had; my mother didn’t mind laughing at his corny jokes. On cloudy days, they’d take me to Parrot Jungle or Alligator Farm. My mother and father wrapped their arms around each other while they watched a man put his whole head in a crocodile’s mouth, as if this sight were as romantic as a full moon.
We walked the beach together for hours, me in the middle holding each parent’s hand. I loved the scent of the ocean as it foamed around our toes, cooling and tickling them; the hard-packed wet sand that left our footprints. A fleeting imprint of my family walking side by side by side.
Each December, Miami worked its magic on them all over again. In this Jewish Shangri-La, my parents strolled Collins Avenue coined Millionaire’s Row. Year after year they’d lose themselves to a world of soaring white hotels with dancing lessons, shuffleboard, cabanas poolside. Snap a finger and bellhops bowed (immaculate down to their Clorox-white gloves). The sidewalks were lined with palm trees. High above our heads hung ripening coconuts; the lucky ones destined for the Pina Colas on pinochle and mahjong tables. Surrounded by such lush beauty and luxury, it was easy for my parents reclaim their love.
How bittersweet to have parents in love for a total of two weeks every year. They had blissfully honeymooned in Miami. In the beginning of their marriage, they believed they were happy. My father was generous, and my parents took road trips all over America. My mother said she’d cracked the back of her first lobster in Maine. It was a heady experience for a Jewish girl who thought demolishing lobsters was only for the likes of old-monied WASPs like Katherine Hepburn.
It was difficult to find two people more unsuited. My father was a lawyer who fell for his beautiful secretary. But he was a solitary workaholic. Every night after dinner, he’d play chess against himself. An ancient lemon-coloured chess book with a broken spine sat on the other side of the chessboard where another player should have been.
My mother was gregarious, social, witty. She must have confused respect and admiration for love. My father was Summa Cum Everything. He settled my mother in a wealthy suburb. And my father wasn’t just a gentleman; he was a gentle man.
My mother, like my father, was dependable, responsible; she was a conventional housewife: cleaned the house twice a week, working clockwise; dinner was at 6, napkins on the lap. When either my father or I was sick, we had free rein to ring the dinner bell, and my mother would come running. My parents’ Saturday nights were for bridge, or they took me with them when they went to the dollar movies.
Where we lived, it was easy for my mother to believe money was the root of her unhappiness. In the 1960s, in Jewish suburban enclaves, the truly wealthy lived together with the merely upper-middle-class. Doctors and lawyers like my father were the lowly workers in my neighbourhood. The really successful men, like Jack Rosenberg, were in business. None of us kids understood what that meant; but if you were lucky enough to have no clue how your father made a living, your family was really, really rich.
My mother would rail that my father was never going to make other men’s kind of money. Though I secretly felt sorry for my father, I would never talk back to my mother. I kept my head down and stayed out of it. I tried to be a Switzerland.
When I was twelve, my parents told me that my father had too much work to join us in Miami. I believed them. But even the year before, there were signs that my parents’ marriage was going downhill. For the first time in Florida, my father didn’t Rumba, didn’t One-Two Cha-Cha-Cha toward my mother. Instead, he lay poolside writing legal briefs, his black socks and shoes still on, his pants pushed up above his knees.
I lay on the chaise longue next to him; it was so rare at home to spend the whole day in his company. As my father worked, I watched him closely and was fascinated by his knees. They looked so sweet, mammalian.
The year after my father didn’t come down, but he sent my grandma to keep us company. My mother and her mother were close. I adored my grandmother. We’d huddle together in the backseat of the car, my parents up front oblivious to our carrying on. We’d giggle, we’d muse over her favourite soap opera, Days of Our Lives. ‘That dope!’ she’d say of her beloved Addie, the show’s hot widow. ‘Who asked her to marry that good-for-nothing Aaron?’
I knew my grandmother was savvier and sadder than she seemed. She was the first to notice when my mother acted pretentious; she’d whisper in her broken English: ‘Your mother is putting on air.’ It was to me alone she reminisced about my grandfather; her childhood sweetheart who died at fifty-one. ‘I’ll never love anyone else,’ she said. ‘With him, they changed the mold.’ She was my biggest fan. At twelve, all I thought I consisted of was frizzy hair, breasts that seemed frozen flat, futile longings for boys and slipping grades. But nothing could shake my grandmother’s belief that I looked like Sophia Loren and was as brilliant as Golda Meir.
My grandma, my mother and I stayed at a new place, the Mimosa. My mother picked it for its proximity. ‘We’re only about twenty feet from the Fontainebleau,’ my mother bragged to friends. She didn’t mention that the Mimosa was a skinny down-in-the-heels hotel on the verge of being demolished to expand the fancy Fontainebleau.
‘We’re on the American Plan,’ my mother told my grandmother our first day there. It turned out the American Plan meant breakfast and dinner were included in the dining room, and for lunch grandma took everything from the breakfast table that would fit into her purse.
I watched as packets of Melba toast and rolls disappeared onto my grandma’s lap. Then she inspected the lox and frowned: ‘I don’t trust fish to travel.’
‘For God’s sake, Mom, it’s just going by elevator to the fifth floor. And Cara will be eating it soon. If it makes you feel better, we’ll lay the lox across the air conditioning ducts, full blast, while we’re at the pool.’
I swam in the ocean all morning; my grandmother and mother watched as I rode the waves. My bikini bottom filled with sand, water and bits of seashells. Then it was time for us to break and eat our stolen lunch.
The room smelled of lox and lavender air freshener. Grandma tore off an end of fish and tested its temperature on the inside of her wrist, the way you test baby’s milk. She nodded. My mother rolled her eyes.
We spread out our stolen napkins, silverware and food on the bedspread, which was a polyester poppy field of blue. The light from the window was wonderful. It slowly seeped in, until the whole room seemed swollen with sunshine. The three of us lay on the bed and ate purloined melba toast and lox; I felt as if my mother, grandmother and I were having a fantabulous picnic. I was happy.
But my mother sat up and dangled her legs, restless. She looked around the room.
‘Who am I kidding? A fabulous Fontainebleau room so close I can almost touch it, and a million miles away,’ she said.
‘Aren’t we supposed to call daddy?’ I asked. Suddenly I missed him badly.
‘Do you know how much a long-distance call costs from here to New York? We could call the moon.’ Two minutes on the phone with my father would have been enough for me. But it was hopeless to ask. I hadn’t realised when we left my father at home, my mother would keep him so far away from me.
The second day of vacation my mother was buoyant. She announced excitedly she wanted to tour the Fontainebleau lobby. My mother tried on several outfits. She knew our wealthy neighbours counted the Fontainebleau as the best game in town. I’m sure she never planned on seeing the real Rosenbergs there. But she must have envisioned the entire Fontainebleau packed with guests who were variations on the theme of the rich Rosenbergs.
Even if we couldn’t afford the Fontainebleau, I believed my mother belonged there. She looked beautiful wearing a white silk shift, her gold sandals covered with so many seashells, as if the ocean had washed over her feet and left behind pale pink shells clinging to the tops of her toes.
The lobby seemed even sunnier than the sunny day, with its dozens of glittering chandeliers. My mother let her fingers trickle through water in the fountains. There were so many, it sounded as if it were raining in the lobby.
But I held my breath. We were imposters walking into a world where we didn’t belong. Maybe my mother could pass for Fontainebleau material, but I couldn’t: a skinny girl with ugly hair and a baggy bright orange shirt, which my mother insisted I wear in honour of Florida oranges. I loved Grandma’s English, littered with little idiosyncrasies. But when she saw the gold filigree of the elevator and said, ‘This door is mind bottling,’ I cringed.
‘How nice.’ The greeting came from Sylvia Rosenberg in the flesh! ‘We never expected to run into you here.’ The Rosenbergs were lounging on a sofa in the Fontainebleau lobby as if they were in their own living room.
‘Cara, you know Mr and Mrs Rosenberg. And this is Pearl, my mother.’ My mother sounded shy introducing us, as if she wasn’t sure the Rosenbergs remembered her, even though a second ago they’d said hello.
Mrs Rosenberg wore a bathing suit coverup and a diamond necklace with a huge sapphire pendant lodged deeply into her cleavage. She had a dark tan and wrinkles and looked older than her husband.
Mr Rosenberg had a full white mane of hair and wore a completely white outfit, down to his white patent leather loafers. I figured that he’d picked out all his clothes to match his fabulous hair.
Sylvia smiled, and her teeth shone so white against her dark skin that they looked like an accessory to her husband’s outfit. Jack Rosenberg shook my hand, which I loved, because I never shook hands with grownups. Suddenly, he pulled me towards him in a large bear hug.
When he released me, he said, ‘What do we have here?’ He produced a Kennedy half-dollar from behind my ear. He pressed it into my palm: ‘Your ears are a silly place to keep pocket change. Put this somewhere safe.’
‘Mine?’ I was thrilled when he nodded. Back then, I was still like my grandma. Both of us grateful and amazed when any small gift unexpectedly came our way.
‘You’re a real magician!’ my mother said. Jack leaned in and kissed my mother’s cheek.
‘Tomorrow, you’re ours,’ he said. ‘We’ve got ourselves a big brand-new Cadillac, and it’s begging for company. What room are you in?’ I figured they were being so nice to us because in Florida, people liked each other more.
‘Number 9,’ my mother said. ‘I mean,’ she dropped her voice, ‘next door.’
Mrs Rosenberg nodded. ‘Of course, the Mimosa.’ My mother looked crestfallen. The jig was up.
The next day, my mother put on a new sundress. Canary yellow. I watched her snip off its tags. ‘You won’t tell Dad I bought this, will you?’ my mother asked. I nodded. My mother smiled. ‘I always said I could trust you.’ This was terrific news. Were there other good things my mother thought about me behind my back?
My grandmother looked my mother over. ‘Don’t you think that’s overdressed for sitting in a car in the middle of the day. What, Sylvia will show up in her mink?’
‘Sylvia can wear a bathrobe, Mom. It’s her Caddie.’
Jack Rosenberg drove up alone, dressed again in white, in that matching white Cadillac with red leather interior. The top was down.
‘Sylvia sends apologies. They only had one appointment left at the hotel’s beauty parlour. She had to grab it,’ he said.
‘Of course.’ My mother nodded. She looked crestfallen all over again; she must have believed that once Sylvia realised we couldn’t afford the Fontainebleau, she preferred to sit in curlers rather than in the Caddie with my mother.
Jack opened the front passenger door for her. I was sure she’d refuse to get in. My mother called convertibles death machines and let me know if I rode in one, I’d end up upside down with the highway on my head.
She paused. ‘Shouldn’t we wait just a few minutes? What if Sylvia is done early, and she misses this?’ My mother didn’t know it at that moment, but this would be the last time she’d mention Sylvia’s name.
‘Sylvia doesn’t miss anything anymore.’ Jack tossed off this remark.
‘I can’t believe we’re driving in this!’ my mother exclaimed. She was flustered. ‘This leather is so soft, it feels like it might melt.’’
Grandma and I were in the back. The seats smelled like the new leather of the briefcase my father had just bought because his finally fell apart. There was so much space between my grandmother and me, I could have stretched right out and not even reached her with my toes pointing. My mother caught me playing with the automatic windows. I thought she’d be mad, but she winked. I felt just like my mother at that moment, deserving of luxury. Life was better right there; I wasn’t that kid anymore on a lowly social rung at school. Sumptuous. Lavish. Luxurious. I challenged myself to come up with complicated vocabulary words.
‘We’re heading down Collins Avenue to show her off,’ Jack said and peeled away from the curb. He lit a cigar. Between puffs, he used it as a pointer to call out the names of the best hotels. Clearly, he had insider information: ‘My Eden Roc, a beauty. The Essex House; salt-of-the-earth head waiter. The Carlton, Delano, the Marseilles. Of course, the Fontainebleau has the premier lobby.’
‘I have to stop myself from turning to the people on the sidewalk and waving,’ my mother said. ‘This car by itself is a whole parade!’
Jack laughed. ‘Next time we throw confetti!’
We veered off Collins Avenue and drove awhile until we reached an empty road that seemed nowhere. ‘Ready for this,’ Jack said to my mother, ‘A new feature called Cruise Control. It’s set for 55 miles an hour. I don’t even have to put my foot on the gas. I can dance.’ Jack stomped his feet so hard against the car’s floor the back seat vibrated.
Jack continued to stomp. ‘Lila dance with me,’ he said.
My mother sort of swayed. ‘You can do better than that,’ Jack said. He swiveled his legs towards her. She hesitated, then crossed her legs at her ankles, and slowly swiveled them back and forth.
For a brief moment their knees touched, just the way two people’s glasses do when they toast each other.
As an only child, I spent enough time around adults to recognise something was amiss. I had only seen my mother dance with other men at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, with my father a few feet away eating an appetiser or dessert. Though I was still too innocent to name it, I wished they’d stop.
My grandmother clutched her handbag on her lap and stared straight ahead. She coughed whenever a breeze blew cigar smoke directly in our faces.
A sidewalk with a gigantic palm tree came rushing towards us. Jack lurched away just in time. I felt the lox from lunch leap into my throat. Please, please, please, I thought, don’t let me vomit in this beautiful new car. Nothing I’d ever do in my mother’s eyes would be as horrible.
By the time Jack headed for our hotel, I was doubled up, holding my stomach. My grandmother hadn’t spoken a word.
‘Thank you for that lovely dance,’ Jack said. My mother waited as he came around and opened the car door for her. She never had patience when my father tried to do the same.
‘Lila, I’m going to ask Sylvia to make it up to you. I’m sure she’d love you to be our guest at the Fontainebleau for dinner. Of course, Pearl and Cara you can come too; though we do eat dinner very late.’
My mother croaked out a ‘Fabulous!’
I looked at my grandmother. She shook her head. I’d figured it out. Jack Rosenberg had really told us that the two of us weren’t invited.
A Cadillac convertible with buttery leather interior; a Fontainebleau dinner; rich Jack Rosenberg ready to entertain; these were now accessible and irresistible to my mother. But she had always prided herself on doing the right thing. There was, of course, Sylvia and my father. There was my grandmother and me. My mother must have clung to the crazy notion that she could have everything she wanted and still do right by us. She could still come out clean.
Two nights later, my mother shimmied into her shocking pink silk dress.
‘Zip me.’ She stood in front of me. I cautiously zipped her up carefully like my father did. He looked so serious but pleased with this task. I felt uncomfortable taking over.
My mother smiled and kissed me on the cheek. ‘We can’t forget the finishing touches.’ She slipped on her pink rhinestone sandals. When she stood up, she wobbled.
‘Why are you wearing such dangerous high heels?’ my grandma asked.
‘You know this dress calls for these shoes,’ my mother said.
My grandmother didn’t contradict her. I was frustrated. I had no idea why my mother’s dress called for her rhinestone sandals. This was the kind of secret wisdom I would need to become a beautiful grownup woman, and I feared I might never uncover it.
My mother dotted her wrists with perfume. ‘And now, the crowning touch. I’m going to add lipstick.’ She seemed to address our whole hotel room, and my grandmother and I counted only as audience members. I understood my mother’s excitement; dinner at the Fontainebleau was one of the biggest deals in the world. But I was worried my mother would now draw a line between people who ate at the Fontainebleau and people like my grandmother and me, who’d never set foot in any place so special.
I followed my mother into the bathroom. She put dozens of lipsticks on the counter. ‘Bungle Jungle Red. What do you think?’ She didn’t expect me to answer. She had already spread her lips wide open and was slowly drawing shiny colour across her top lip, which curved in the middle like a tiny waist. ‘Did I tell you a saleswoman at the Elizabeth Arden counter at Saks said I had perfect lips?’ I shook my head. She had told me, but I liked being reminded. I secretly suspected my own lips looked a lot like hers, and one day soon they also might be a lush puffy palette for brilliant oranges and reds. I was too shy to ever ask my mother if she agreed. She kissed a tissue over and over again, until it looked as if it were covered with glistening cherry frosting.
We heard a loud knock at the door. My mother rushed towards it, but my grandmother got there first. I was glad.
‘Hello all you beautiful ladies.’ It was the first time Jack Rosenberg wasn’t wearing all white. He had on a dinner jacket that perfectly matched his eyes and echoed Miami Beach, because it was the chlorine blue of swimming pools and the beach umbrellas at the Fontainebleau. In his breast pocket was a white handkerchief as crisp as a lady’s starched linen shirt. His glance swept right over my grandmother and me, as if he were barreling down the road, and we were traffic lights that had just changed from red to green.
He stared at my mother. ‘Apologies from Sylvia. She isn’t feeling well, but she insisted we go without her. We’ll have to make do with a reservation for two tonight.’
My mother looked truly surprised; then her expression turned to delight (she’d always had the worst poker face). I pictured Jack Rosenberg dining alone with my mother; sitting opposite her, separated only by a small table with a fancy tablecloth. I became uneasy. At twelve, I was beginning to know what passed for a bona fide date.
My grandmother said: ‘Lila, I need to show you something.’ My mother shook her head. My grandmother shook hers back and pursed her lips. Those pursed lips meant business. My mother followed my grandmother, and they both disappeared behind the closed bathroom door. Jack Rosenberg was still standing in the hallway.
‘How you doing sport?’ he asked. I bristled. Sport was the nickname of a boy or a dog. I shrugged. Jack didn’t notice. He was eyeing the bathroom. He appeared so much larger than before, looming in the doorway. I didn’t want him to come any closer. He stank of cigar smoke, with a hint of what I knew was bourbon. He grabbed the sides of the doorframe with both hands and rocked back and forth on the balls and heels of his shoes. Every time he leaned forward, his potbelly crossed the threshold into our room. I didn’t know if he was waiting for me to invite him in. I didn’t budge.
Jack Rosenberg looked at his watch. Then he looked at the bathroom door again. He tapped his foot. ‘We have a dinner reservation. We can’t be late.’
‘Mom is getting ready,’ I said, though I hoped my grandmother was talking her out of going.
‘Look sport, do you think you could hurry her up?’
‘I’m not allowed to interrupt,’ I said, lying.
Jack sighed. I knew that sigh. It was the bored, frustrated sound a grownup made when left to wait around with a kid they didn’t want to talk to. Any second he’d ask the required question: How’s school going?
‘Any good five fingered discounts lately?’ he asked.
‘You don’t have to pretend. Girls your age. Shoplifting’s your favourite hobby.’
‘It’s against the law.’ I blushed.
‘You’re a good girl, sport,’ Jack said politely. ‘Your mother must be a good teacher.’
My mother came out of the bathroom and grabbed her fox stole on the bed. She wrapped it around her naked shoulders. I always hated that stole with heads and tails. Now the fox’s beady little eyes stared at me.
My grandmother was behind her, holding a balled-up tissue. She never raised her voice when she was angry or upset, but she’d tightly ball up tissues as if she were making little fists.
‘So you’re going. Go already,’ my grandmother said to my mother. ‘That way you can be home to say goodnight to Cara.’
My mother rolled her eyes. ‘Do you want me to rush through dinner? Let me eat my dessert in peace, then you’ll see me.’
Jack laughed. I fully hated him by then and could imagine my grandmother saying: ‘What kind of person thinks dessert is funny?’
My mother bent over me, ‘I’ll say good night right now sugar puss.’ Even if my eyes were closed, I’d recognise her: the florid scent of Arpege. Her warm lips pressed my cheek. My stomach dropped as she walked over to Jack. They left.
When Grandma and I went into the Mimosa dining room for dinner that night, the maître’ d said: ‘Your usual three, I presume.’
‘Two. My mother’s out,’ I said, ‘She’s—’
‘Sick,’ my grandmother added quickly. ‘She’s out sick with God knows what.’
By the time Grandma and I began to eat, I’d pushed aside how frightened I’d been when my mother disappeared into that small black hole of an elevator with Jack Rosenberg by her side. Of course she had gone with him. She was Fontainebleau material. She deserved dinner in their dining room. She was fulfilling her destiny.
Usually I loved to spend the evening with my grandmother. Just her and me. But that night, she barely talked and only picked at her food.
‘I bet the Fontainebleau has vegetables that taste like chocolate.’ I tried to get my grandmother’s attention.
Grandma put down her fork. ‘In my whole life I loved only one man. I’ll tell you something, pussycat, no one else knows. I’m never going to marry again. Your aunts are always pressuring me to find someone to keep company. They think a woman can replace a man like he’s a toaster.’
My grandmother caught herself and changed the subject: ‘Look at me! Forgetting we’re on vacation! After dinner, let’s go someplace special.’
‘Where?’ I was suddenly impatient. I didn’t want there to be an ‘after dinner.’ I wanted to go back to our hotel room, where my mother would already be in her pajamas, with all traces of Jack Rosenberg gone. It didn’t occur to me that my grandmother was deliberately stalling because she was certain that our hotel room was empty.
‘Poopsie. How about bingo in the card room.’
I nodded, excited. The card room was one of those inner sanctums reserved only for adults. We sat next to a woman that Grandma had befriended at the pool. Hilly Fishman was a Holocaust survivor, barely five feet; she wore what my grandmother called a cashmere wig: expensive, platinum and gigantic.
She pointed to the translucent red chips on my card. ‘These are the fancy chips. At the Y you can’t see through the chips, so you have to keep moving them to check your numbers.’
Grandma nodded. ‘High class bingo. They even have the numbers in a cage, not a sack.’ My grandmother lived alone in her tiny apartment, while we had such a big house. And now I was sorry to hear her bingo games were second-class.
‘It’s Bingo!’ Hilly shouted. ‘Number 14. Your card.’ She had pointed to me!
I’d never won anything before. There was applause because I was the only kid in the room. I won a shiny patent leather pocketbook; the type grown women called a clutch. I clutched it. I couldn’t wait to show it to my mother. This would be the first grownup pocketbook my mother and I would share.
‘Make sure to enjoy this, sweetheart,’ Hilly said. ‘Because one minute life’s lovely. The next, it’s terrible.’
It was almost 10pm when grandma and I went back to our room. I rushed in. It was empty. The scent of my mother’s Arpege still faintly lingered.
‘Where’s Mommy? She can’t still be eating.’
‘Such fancy restaurants, people chew slowly,’ my grandmother said. Though she was frowning. ‘Get ready for bed, and I’m sure Mom will be home by the time you washed your teeth.’
‘Mommy lets me stay up on vacation,’ I protested. It was hard to believe dinner wasn’t over. Panic hit: maybe my mother and Jack Rosenberg had gone for drinks. Dinner was one thing. Drinks after dinner had a connotation that, at twelve, I almost fully grasped.
‘A few more minutes, ‘ I said. My grandmother changed into her nightgown. Without her bra, her breasts hung down like long thin animals without bones. She dropped her dentures in a glass of water. In the moonlight they took on the eeriness of an ancient sea creature.
Grandma sneaked a quick glance at the bedside clock. It was after 10.30. I lay on the bedspread with my shoes and socks still on. I wanted to make it very clear I wasn’t going to bed until my mother came home.
‘Mom’s late. She said right after dessert, right?’ My mother was never late. She prided herself on arriving places early. Once, when my parents were fighting, my father accused my mother of having a clock for a heart. She said she’d take that as a compliment. ‘What if something happened to her?’
‘Nothing happened. She’s on Fontainebleau time,’ my grandma said. ‘Even walking through that lobby takes twenty minutes. Let’s see what’s on television.’ Grandma glanced again at the clock and crumpled a tissue.
‘No! Who wants to watch in black-and-white.’
‘Don’t be that way Poopsie. We’ll find something even if we don’t have a coloured set.’
‘You can’t say coloured grandma. It’s colour.’
‘Why not? Isn’t the picture coloured?’
I felt worldlier than my grandmother, wiser. I didn’t want to feel that way. I started to put my head in her lap, but she seemed so fragile; a tiny wrinkled woman engulfed in a field of polyester blue poppies.
The phone rang. My grandma scooped it up. ‘What? We’re back at least an hour. I can’t hear a word. Call me from a place quieter. Are you at a bar?’
Grandma hung up. ‘Mom’s calling right back. She said she’s been trying to get a hole of us.’
Grandma and I sat on the edge of the bed and waited over fifteen minutes. We said nothing. Grandma didn’t take her eyes off the phone, as if she worried that if she stopped staring, it wouldn’t ring.
I stepped onto the balcony. Below me, the ocean swirled and frothed, dark and dangerous. What if Jack Rosenberg convinced my mother to walk along the water’s edge and she was drowning? No one would hear her scream because the Fontainebleau lobby was too noisy. What if Jack Rosenberg and my mother were in his Caddie with the top down; and they crashed because a seagull landed on Jack Rosenberg’s face.
When the phone suddenly rang again, I ran inside. ‘What? What?’ my grandmother said. This time I put my ear next to hers. Live music and laughter came roaring at us over the line.
Buddy Hackett. Late show were all the words I could make out, then Intermission. My mother’s voice, bubbly and happy: ‘Lucky to get tickets.’
‘What time it finishes?’ my grandmother shouted to be heard. ‘That’s not possible! Buddy Hackett doesn’t tell jokes after midnight!’
I heard my mother say: ‘After the show, we’re…’ My grandmother pulled the phone away so only she heard the rest.
Grandma crumbled another tissue: ‘Are you Meshuge?’ she said. I heard my mother hang up.
My grandmother threw her raincoat over her nightgown, which stuck out of it, and popped in her dentures. ‘Honey I’ll be back in a few minutes. I hope it’s a few minutes. It better be.’
I must have looked scared, not just at the thought of being left, but because I knew something very serious was up; my family wasn’t the type to leave little girls alone at night in hotel rooms. ‘Grandma?’
My grandma sighed and said: ‘Get your sweater. We’re going to make sure Mom gets home safe after Buddy Hackett.’ Before she pulled me from the room, I grabbed the clutch.
My grandmother held my hand roughly and rushed us outside. She’d forgotten to change out of her slippers. They slapped against her heels. Once or twice she stumbled. Halfway to the Fontainebleau, she dropped my hand as if she’d forgotten I was there.
The Fontainebleau was as bright as daytime. Women were in long evening gowns and minks, the men in dinner jackets. I stared at the floor trying not to look at their expressions as we walked by. Even with her raincoat on, you could tell my grandmother had her nightgown underneath. The show was all the way across the lobby. My grandmother charged ahead, while I stood far enough away so we didn’t look like we were together.
‘There!’ my grandmother said angrily, and pointed to a placard with the picture of Buddy Hackett. ‘Let’s sit on this sofa, out of sight.’ It was a blue velvet sofa, round and big as a
playground merry-go-round except it had a high, high back. It was the perfect place to hide. We’d see anyone walking out of the show without them seeing us. But I didn’t want to really see my mother with Jack Rosenberg.
Grandma and I were silent. I opened and closed the clutch’s clasp. Of course my mother had to love it; real patent leather, with the same leather smell as Jack Rosenberg’s car.
Grandma saw them before I did. She jumped up and uttered: ‘No!’ My mother was walking barefoot out the door, her feet naked on the floor. Jack Rosenberg held her sandals in one hand; his other hand on my mother’s shoulder.
My grandmother was face-to-face with my mother before I realised it; I ran to them.
My mother stopped hard. She looked at my grandmother, then me. At first, she didn’t even seem to recognise us. Then she said, ‘What the hell?’ She sounded confused.
Jack Rosenberg walked briskly away. Just before he was out of sight, I saw him pull a flask from his jacket.
‘Cara and I want you home now.’ My grandmother’s voice meant business.
‘You really chased me to Buddy Hackett! Leave now!’ my mother said to my grandmother. She was so angry. Then she saw me. She looked down at her feet and tried to cover one with the other. ‘Mom listen, I’m just having an evening out. Harmless. Okay?’
My grandmother didn’t answer. She didn’t budge either.
‘What the hell, Mom, you brought Cara here!’
My mother noticed me staring. She said softly, ‘Pumpkin, what are you doing up? It’s way past your bedtime.’
My mother had never before called me pumpkin. It frightened me. She’d never stood barefoot on a marble floor, a fat man’s hands so near.
‘I won this clutch for you!’ I held it up. It was perfect. It gleamed as shiny as anything in the Fontainebleau.
‘You won what? Huh?’ My mother glanced at the clutch like it was something she saw every day.
‘We can share it.’ I started to give her the clutch, but right at that moment Jack Rosenberg walked over again and handed my mother back her sandals. He leaned in close to her and whispered in her ear.
My mother held up a finger and said to him: ‘Just a sec. I promise.’
My grandmother touched my mother’s arm. ‘You know you can’t do this.’
‘What can’t Mom do?’ I asked my grandmother, but I looked at my mother too.
‘Why did you drag my daughter into this!’ my mother yelled right in the middle of the Fontainebleau lobby.
I didn’t notice my grandmother raise her hand. But I saw her slap my mother. I heard the loud crack too. My mother’s head jerked to the side. She touched her cheek. She never uttered a sound. Her eyes went wild.
Jack Rosenberg patted my mother’s shoulder, then he rushed off to the wishing well and turned his back like he was going to drop in a penny.
My grandmother burst out crying. I burst out crying too. That wasn’t my grandma; my grandma didn’t hit.
My mother crouched down and hugged me. She waited patiently until I’d stopped crying and caught my breath. My grandmother looked at me, silent, worried.
‘Better, pussycat?’ my mother asked. I nodded. ‘It’s grownups… Grandma and I will be best friends by tomorrow morning, right Mom?’ My mother kept her eyes on me. She didn’t even bother to look in my grandmother’s direction.
I nodded again, a good little girl who always wanted to please. ‘Let me just finish up with Jack. I don’t want to be rude,’ my mother said.
‘Things are set,’ my mother called out. Jack Rosenberg walked over, light on his feet. He stood right next to my mother as if that had always been his rightful place. My mother blew me a kiss.
I watched her and Jack Rosenberg as they left the lobby. My mother held the side of her face where she’d been hit. She didn’t even break stride to put her shoes on. She walked away still barefoot. I would never see my mother this way again: brazen, sparkling, reckless. When my mother rushed off into that Miami night, she was a respectable Jewish woman throwing a Hail Mary pass at happiness.
Right after my mother left with Jack Rosenberg, Grandma and I hurried back to our room. We were almost there when I cried out: ‘I left the clutch. We have to go back!’ I’d never win anything as wonderful again. My grandmother ignored me. I asked again and again to go back to the Fontainebleau. My grandmother finally yelled: ‘No!’ Then she stopped speaking altogether. My mother, and now my grandmother, the two women I loved and counted on most, had vanished before my eyes like a coin trick.
My grandmother sat in our room’s big armchair facing the door. She never bothered to take off her coat, still buttoned over her nightgown. She took out her dentures; on the table by her side, they floated like dead fish, belly up in a Yahrzeit glass. She fell asleep almost immediately.
I put on my pajamas, but I didn’t want to go into the bedroom. I stayed awake all night in an armchair across the room, waiting for morning to call my father. I had no intention of tattling; I just wanted to hear him say: ‘Hello pussycat.’
Dawn was different in Miami Beach. It came scented with mimosa. My mother tiptoed back into our room just as it was breaking.
She came in wearing not just her shoes, but also her glasses, which she only put on when she was totally exhausted. (Growing up, she’d been taunted too many times by kids who called her four eyes.) My grandmother awoke immediately. She said nothing.
My mother was missing her fox stole. She sat down on the couch shivering and rubbed her arms. ‘You don’t have to worry,’ she said in a soft sorry voice to my grandmother. ‘I’m all finished.’
My grandmother unbuttoned her coat and tucked it all around my mother. She sat down on the couch and held my mother’s hand: ‘It never happened.’
I watched them. My mother didn’t seem to notice me. Then she patted the couch. ‘Cara, come here.’ I sat right next to her.
‘Your eyes look so pretty this morning,’ she said. My mother rarely apologised to me; her way of doing so was to give me an unexpected compliment. It made me feel good. Her own eyes were beautiful: large, soft and hazel. Mine, bright blue, belonged to my father.
No one spoke. I understood what was expected of me, a child who now knew how unhappy her mother was. Nothing happened. Three generations: my mother, my grandmother, me, all willing to make the sacrifices to remain a family.
I realised then there would be no more Miami Beach; no glitzy hotels to look forward to, no reprieve from our lonely house. What Miami Beach had once given us was lost forever – my parents in love.
What had likely happened to my mother’s fox stole? Did Jack Rosenberg park his Caddie beside a desolate stretch of beach and reach for my mother? When she fled, the stole slipped off her shoulders and was left behind. My mother, for all her wit and savvy, was very naïve, loyal to my father, and lost enough to briefly believe that Jack Rosenberg had found her more than just something cheap and sexy.
Or was I kidding myself; did my mother drop that stole only after Jack Rosenberg had gotten everything he’d wanted?
I recall that night: my mother’s naked shoulders; how close that fat and fawning Jack Rosenberg stood; my mother walking away across the Fontainebleau’s marble floors in bare feet. Would she have stayed with him if he asked? Why him over me? I was her kid. Shouldn’t that have mattered more?
My grandmother, my mother and I sat a long time still holding hands. Miami’s dazzling morning sun slipped through our windows to ignite our room.
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