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Authors: Ellen Feldman

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BOOK: The Unwitting
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“I told you. They already know every left-wing organization I ever joined, every angry letter to the editor I ever wrote, every May Day parade I ever marched in.”

“I thought there was only one.”

“You know what I mean. According to him, that’s the point. He says the woods are full of right-wing journals howling about the red menace. What the country needs, what the foundation wants to back, is an intelligent liberal—emphasis on
liberal
—anti-Soviet take on issues. Or to put it another way, who better to fight communists than former communists and the fellow travelers who marched along with them?”

“What if you want to run something critical of the government?”
I wasn’t trying to ruin his evening. I wasn’t even playing devil’s advocate. I just didn’t want this to come back and bite him somewhere down the road.

“I can publish excerpts from
Das Kapital
, assuming I want to cut the subscription base in my first few months on the job. The foundation money comes with no strings attached.” He leaned back against the banquette and shook his head at me. “You’re so busy worrying about my editorial integrity that you haven’t asked the big question.”

“Which is?”

“How much filthy lucre they’re going to shower on me.”

“How much?”

“Twelve thousand smackers a year.” He was grinning again.

I smiled back at him through the candlelight. “And that evening at dinner in Montauk you told me we’d never be rich.”

I CAN

T BE
sure. It could have happened the night before, or the Saturday morning after, because those were heady times, but I used to like to think that the night of the celebratory dinner at La Cave Henri IV, in the wake of Charlie’s lunch with Elliot McClellan, under a sliver of moon like the sickle on the Soviet flag swinging above our glass ceiling, we made Abby. Now the timing doesn’t strike me as so fortuitous.

Five

A
T FIRST WE
told no one, not even Charlie’s parents. We didn’t want them to be disappointed if something went wrong during the first three months. We certainly didn’t tell my mother. She’d had a hard enough time admitting to having a daughter. She’d never own up to a grandchild. Besides, our secret was too exquisitely private to share.

There was something else I didn’t tell anyone, not even Charlie. Suddenly a mother, I no longer felt motherless.

The knowledge of the baby floating inside me arched over my life like a sunlit blue sky. I continued to go to the office—I was working at
Compass
now—and see friends, to go to the theater and movies and parties and do mundane things around the apartment, but even when I wasn’t thinking about the baby, I was aware of it.

Sometimes I felt sorry for Charlie. He knew the secret, but he didn’t carry it within him. Heaven knows he tried. At night, he lay in bed with his hand on my still flat stomach. Once he placed his head there and carried on a whispered conversation with the baby. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and I didn’t ask.

I had a disgracefully easy pregnancy. No morning sickness, no backaches, no cravings for one food or sudden aversions to another. Then, suddenly, the delicious privacy of the secret was gone. The change was not merely that we told people. It was that I became public property. Worse than that, I became a public affront. No one
used the word
unseemly
, but I knew that was what people were thinking. I was an eyesore and, strangely enough, the only one in sight. Occasionally I glimpsed another pregnant woman as I passed a neighborhood playground or went to the supermarket, but hard as I looked, I could not find one out in the real world.

As I waddled to the subway in the morning in ungainly tent tops over skirts with openings to accommodate my ever-expanding stomach, as I wove through the disreputable crowds on Broadway, as I wandered through a show at the Metropolitan Museum or MoMA, men stared at me, but with distaste rather than interest. Even the ones who stood up to give me a seat on the subway seemed more eager to get away from my presence than concerned for my comfort or welfare.

Women had a different reaction. In the pharmacy around the corner from the apartment, a strange girl put her hand on my stomach as if I were a Buddha to be rubbed for good luck. In Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue, an older woman did the same thing. In the beginning, I had hoarded my secret like a miser. Now I couldn’t wait for the baby to arrive.

At eleven twenty on a steaming Thursday in August, while the air conditioner in the window of the magazine office wheezed its protest and I edited the last paragraph of a book review, I felt the first contractions. Abby came hurtling into the world a scant six and a half hours later. She was in a rush.

She had ten minuscule fingers and ten minuscule toes, all of them beautiful. I counted them as soon as they put her in my arms. Later, when they wheeled me to the room and Charlie came in, he sat on the side of the bed, and I unwrapped the bundle, and we counted again. This was what perfection looked like.

A little while later, after Charlie’s parents had staggered out into the hot night, stunned by the wonder of this child crying into the void left by so many, Elliot McClellan turned up. He was carrying a dozen roses. I was surprised, not by the flowers but by his appearance
at the hospital. He and Charlie had grown friendly since Charlie had taken over the magazine, but not that friendly. I could tell from Charlie’s excessive cordiality that the visit made him uncomfortable too.

Elliot said he could stay for only a moment, but he’d come with a purpose.

“Sonia said you’d both gone straight from the office to the hospital, so I assumed you didn’t have one of these with you.” He took a Polaroid camera from his briefcase.

I propped myself up in bed and moved Abby so her wizened red face was turned toward the camera.

“You too,” Elliot said to Charlie. “We need the proud papa in the picture.”

Charlie leaned over the bed, reached one arm around my shoulders, and put his other hand on the blanket. His long fingers palmed the baby like a basketball.

Elliot took a step back, focused, and snapped the shutter. The shiny white paper began inching out of the camera. He stood staring at his watch as the second hand swept around the dial, then tore off the paper, peeled the coating, glanced at the picture, and handed it to me.

My face had a glazed moronic expression. Charlie’s smile made him look witless. We were slaphappy with love. Only later would I regret that Elliot hadn’t brought a regular camera. In those days, no one knew how quickly Polaroid photographs would fade.

WHEN I LOOK
back at that time, I don’t recognize myself, or rather I do, and I am embarrassed by the woman I became. I was either besotted or unhinged, in thrall to my daughter or terrified of my inadequacy as a mother. I lived at polar ends, but of a severely circumscribed world.

The plan was that I would continue to contribute to the magazine from home. We had left our greenhouse in the sky for a sturdier
nest on the twelfth floor of a fifteen-floor apartment building, with a real bedroom rather than a glassed-in aviary for us, another for Abby, and a small maid’s room I could use as a study. I would work while Abby napped. But there was always so much to do while she slept, and I couldn’t concentrate because I was listening for the whimper that indicated she was awake, and, I am ashamed to admit, I simply did not care as much as I used to about injustice and malfeasance and the rest of the world’s evils.

My universe had shrunk to infant size and swelled each day with my daughter’s burgeoning awareness. Her giddy perceptions of light and color, sound and touch made everything new and wondrous. When she pulled herself to a standing position in her crib, I saw prehistoric man begin to walk upright on the plains of Africa. When she crawled across the living room floor, I thought of Columbus, Magellan, and Lewis and Clark. I said I was unhinged. Her giggle lit up the room. She had an infectious giggle, my daughter. I know all mothers say that, but Abby’s really was.

She also had a cry that was a fingernail down the blackboard of my soul. One night Charlie came home and found her screaming in her crib and me sobbing at the kitchen table. He picked her up, cradled her to him, and walked her around the apartment, patting and bouncing and crooning into her ear. She stopped howling, the little quisling. Charlie preened. I bristled with shame, and love.

Only two people understood. Nancy, who lived on the same floor, and Linda, who was four floors below. At first I had been wary of the two women. This was New York City, after all, not the suburbs. In the city, people did not make friends on the basis of proximity. But I kept bumping into them—literally, since the elevator did not accommodate two or three carriages easily—and I would have had to have been made of sterner stuff to resist their smiles and sympathies and shared dilemmas.

We sat in one another’s apartments with mugs of coffee or tea, keeping an eye on the crawling babies while we confessed, and comforted,
and secretly and guiltily compared. Sometimes when I remember how absent I was from the world in those days, I think I can’t blame Charlie entirely for what happened. Then I remember the timing and know I can’t let him off the hook so easily.

I managed to go through the motions of being my old self. I kept up with the news. I continued to see people, when I could find a babysitter I trusted. I even gave dinner parties. I remember a particular one on a night in late January when sleet pelted the windows, cars skidded and spun below us on Central Park West, and the snow shushed the noises of the city to a murmur. Despite the weather, everyone turned up. The people we knew missed deadlines but never a party.

We had rounded up the usual suspects, two editors, a writer, their wives and girlfriends, Frank Tucker, and Sonia Bingham. Sonia had mastered proper usage of the uppercase and gone on to sell several book and art reviews to
Compass
and a few other little magazines, although
sell
is perhaps too extravagant a word for the fees they paid. Fortunately Sonia had a small trust fund.

I was still a little wary of her. It wasn’t only the pinup appearance; it was her eagerness to get her hands on my life. She was always offering to babysit, though the one time I tried to take her up on the offer, she was busy. I’m not faulting her. I called at the last minute. But like a lot of childless women, she was more in thrall to the idea of a child than to the reality. Sometimes in the late afternoon, after work or her appointment with her psychiatrist, she would telephone to ask if she could stop by. She liked to sit with a martini or highball at the kitchen table while I fed Abby, or on the closed toilet in the bathroom while I bathed her, recounting tales of her complicated love life and asking my advice, which, to my knowledge, she never took. I didn’t blame her for that either. You could fit what I knew about balancing numerous love affairs on the head of a pin and still have plenty of room for angels. Mostly, I remained silent and hid my discomfort when I felt her studying me as if I were a
blueprint and looking at Charlie as if he were breakfast. On second thought, maybe my wariness of her boiled down to nothing more than that. Charlie.

Halfway through the marinated London broil that January night at the dinner party, the conversation turned to two Harvard professors whom Senator McCarthy had hauled before an investigative committee a few days earlier. I was surprised that the group had taken so long to get around to the subject. One of the editors suggested the two professors should have taken the Fifth rather than answer the noxious and by now familiar question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

“They obviously didn’t want to end up blacklisted,” the other editor’s wife pointed out.

“But now that they’ve answered one question, they either have to answer the rest by naming names or face contempt of Congress charges,” the writer said.

“Anyone who names names is a traitor and a stoolie.” That was Frank Tucker. “It must be wonderful,” I’d said to him once, “to see the world so clearly in black and white.”

“You ought to know, babe,” he’d answered.

“You never know what you’ll do until you’re sitting in the hot glare of the press lights or, even worse, in the shadows of some obscure government office,” Charlie reasoned.

“I know what I’d do,” Tucker insisted.

I sat listening to the familiar arguments, noticing the wine stains I’d have to put in the sink to soak before I went to bed, trying to ignore Frank Tucker blowing his nose in my linen dinner napkin. Mouths moved, food went in, opinions came out. Sonia put a hand on Charlie’s arm to make a point, then left it there for a moment or two. The conversation grew more heated. It was a miracle I even heard Abby’s whimpers through all the noise.

I didn’t bother to excuse myself. No one would notice I was gone. I made my way quietly down the hall to Abby’s room, closed the
door behind me, and lifted her out of the crib. Her arms closed around my neck in a baby-powder-and-spit-up-scented choke hold.

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