Breaking the Law
by Marilyn Levy
She marks off the days on the calendar. She knows she should call to confirm her appointment, but she’s too jittery. Unfolding her still lean body, she walks to the closet and drags out her khaki jacket which has seen better days that she can barely remember. When she reaches into the pocket where she stores her money, she finds that it’s empty. She rifles through all the other pockets; they’re empty, too. She quickly tries to calculate what she’s done with the alimony.
Unable to come up with an answer, she sits on the floor and watches the light penetrate the dirt-streaked living room windows forming a pool on the faded fake Persian carpet. Somehow the light’s persistence encourages her.
She walks back into the kitchen overrun with dirty dishes and empties the contents of three drawers onto the linoleum floor. Then she gets down on her hands and knees and picks through the assorted debris – several half-used candles, rubber bands, pieces of foil, scraps of paper, empty prescription bottles, newspaper articles, candy wrappers. Finally, she scavenges three dollars in change. Leaving the mess on the floor, she scurries out of the house.
* * *
Sitting on the El, she forgets where she’s headed and why. After a moment, she tells herself, “Get off at Congress.”
“What?” the young black woman sitting next to her asks.
“Nothing,” she answers. Then asks if she should get off at Congress if she’s heading to Grant Park.
“You going to the demonstration?”
“You look kind of familiar,” the black woman says.
Sabina looks at her but doesn’t quite see her.
“Were you in Kaplan’s Contemporary Lit class last year?”
“I think so.” As soon as she says it, Sabina knows she sounds idiotic and wishes she could take it back.
Wishes she were wearing her hooded black sweater so she could hide inside of it, erasing her identity. She feels the black girl slide closer to the window. “Pynchon,” she says.
The girl doesn’t respond.
“We read Pynchon in the class.”
* * *
When they get to their stop, Sabina slowly unfolds and rises. The girl pushes past her and empties out of the train before Sabina reaches the door. By the time she climbs the stairs to ground level, Sabina wants to turn around, head home and find a way to numb her brain. But she pushes toward the park and wanders around in a daze. Battered by the crush of thousands of anti-war demonstrators.
Time evaporates. Hours, maybe days later, maybe minutes later, she isn’t sure - she’s caught in a rush of blue undulating towards her. I’m drowning, she thinks. And she tries to swim out of the park. But she forgets how to move.
“Hey! Hey!” someone yells at her.
She turns around.
“Hey,” she hears again. “Girl from the El – from Kaplan’s class...”
Sabina tries to focus.
“Are you on something?”
Sabina stares at her.
“No,” she says. But wishes she were.
“You can’t just stand there. Jesus.”
Just then a guy explodes in front of them. Blood hurls out of his head and dances in the air. She doesn’t realize it’s just his long, wild red hair. Doesn’t know that hours later, his head will, in fact, explode.
The girl grabs Sabina’s arm and drags her along, zigzagging towards Michigan Avenue.
* * *
“What time is it?” Sabina asks, anxiously.
Sabina groans, remembering her seven o’clock appointment. “It’s now or never,” she says to herself.
“Right on,” the girl says. And Sabina sees that she’s shaking. “What were you doing – just standing there, girl?”
“Guess I was in shock. All the blood.”
“You saw blood?”
Before they hit the street, Sabina feels that the panic in the park has subsided for the moment. But she doesn’t trust her instincts anymore.
“It’s okay. We’re safe,” the girl says.
Sabina tries to slow down her breathing. But now that the adrenalin of panic has been unleashed inside of her, she has no control over her body, and she exhales in staccato bursts. “Have an appointment. Gotta go,” she says. And she compels her legs to carry her out of the park to the subway, even though she’d feel safer crawling.
* * *
When she gets home, she empties out the drawers in the bedroom. She can’t come up with enough money. She wanders back to the kitchen, looks through the mess on the floor, looks at the wall phone, then empties out a cabinet. Still no cash. Finally, she picks up the phone and dials her father’s store.
“Berman’s Shoes,” he says, with a slight Eastern European accent. It always shocks her to hear her father’s voice over the phone. In person, she doesn’t hear the accent; over the phone the contours of his face, blurred by time, morph into an amalgam of others faces. She listens to him as if he were a stranger.
“Berman’s Shoes,” he repeats.
“Daddy,” she whispers, choking on the word.
There’s a long silence. She can hear him breathing. He inhales a cigarette, then exhales. He’d been told to stop smoking years ago.
“You all right, Sabina?”
She tries to answer. But she can’t. She knows if she even attempts to open her mouth, grief will pour into the phone and electrocute her father on the other end.
“Binnie?” he asks, calling her by the nickname no one ever uses anymore.
She puts the phone back on the hook; then she returns to the living room and watches the sunlight slowly disappear.
* * *
She hears him pull up in front of her house. The blue Chevy sedan, old-fashioned even before he brought it home from the dealer, slides to the curb with an audible sigh. He gets out, coughs a few times; then slams the car door shut. She hears him run up the grey, rotting, wooden porch steps, almost tripping on the third one. She hears him stamp out his cigarette. She sits there, motionless. He walks to the dirt-streaked window, puts his hand on the glass and peers in. When he sees her, he points towards the door.
Like a zombie, she gets up and walks to the hallway, brushing against the coat rack laden with the ghosts of old sweaters whose inhabitants had long ago disappeared. She ignores the musty smell, opens the door, and lets her father into her life.
The small-boned man, bent more from sorrow than fatigue or old age, and the taller young woman, coming apart at the edges, stand looking at each other, feeling like father and child again. Like a father who’s been gone for a long time and has returned to find that his child has grown up without him. Both are sorry, but there’s nothing they can do to make up for lost time.
Finally, he moves toward her. Tentatively, he puts his arms around her and strokes her long, limp hair, as he used to when she was a little girl.
The touch of his hand on her hair conveys more tenderness than she’s felt for months. More than she can bear. She buries her face in his shoulder and begins to sob.
She tries not to think about her mother, but she can’t help herself. She remembers the last time they met. “You’re a selfish girl,” her mother said. “Always thinking about yourself and no one else. Your nose in your books all the time.”
Selfishness isn’t what plagues me, Sabina thinks and wishes she could stop crying.
When the sobbing finally tapers off, she realizes her father’s shirt is soaked.
“I’m sorry,” she says, running her hand down his white cotton shirt with its button-down collar, the kind he’s worn to work every day for the past 30 years.
“Don’t worry. Salt is good to take out the stains.”
“I’m here to listen,” he says. “But first, could we sit?”
Sabina leads him into the living room and pushes aside a pile of books so he can sit down on the old couch, draped with what once had been a colorful Indian bedspread. Faded by the sunlight, it now covers torn spots and material worn thin from years of abuse. The bedspread, still smelling of spices from the Far East, lends an exotic feel to the room filled with mismatched furniture bought at Good Will. Despite her circumstances, Sabina still has an eye for beauty. And even at her lowest point, she’d somehow been able to coax the room into an almost artistic whole. She’d finagled a chair from a second hand shop, walked home with an old globe a neighbor was trying to sell, and made a table from a huge spool for wire that someone had left in her alley. Still, she wishes at that moment that she could be like the children of her parents’ friends, if not for her sake, then, at least, for her father’s.
“I’ve made a mess of things.”
“But you always remember my birthday and Father’s Day,” he says, quickly.
It’s so ludicrous, it makes her laugh.
“If I did, I’m glad.”
“People make mistakes.”
“It’s more than mistakes.”
“I don’t have anyone else to turn to.”
“It’s right that you should call me.”
“Your hair is grey.”
“From old age – or maybe worry.”
“Or maybe worry,” she repeats.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he says, sadly. “Should I come, or shouldn’t I? If I say something, will I make it worse? Maybe it’s not as bad as I think it is, I tell myself.”
“I’m not blaming you.”
Looking away, Sabina nervously runs her finger back and forth across the fine scar separating her left eyebrow into neat halves.
“Everybody’s descent is different,” she says slowly, feeling her way into unfamiliar territory, “but I guess we all wind up the same way. We just keep on going down until we’re there – and that’s it – we’re at the bottom. And there’s no place else to go.”
“But up. You can go up from there.”
She wishes she could hold onto the hope in his voice and keep it inside of her for just a moment, so she can remember what it feels like.
“You need my help, you got my help,” he says, without really looking at her.
“I want you to know...”
“I don’t have to know. You ask me for help, and I give it to you because I’m your father.”
“I want to tell you.”
“Do you need money? If you need money, I have it for you. Take it,” he says, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his wallet.
He hands her three one hundred dollar bills.
“How did you know?”
“A growing girl always needs money. Take it. Take it.”
“I need money so I can...”
“Buy yourself a lipstick, some clothes, whatever. You’re a smart girl, Binnie, the smartest in your class. You’re thirty-three years old. You’re still young. You can still make something out of your life. It’s not too late.”
“I have to see a doctor later.”
“Good. It’s good you’re finally taking care of yourself. You look too thin. Next time I come, I’ll bring chocolates.”
“His office is in Skokie.”
Her father reaches into his pocket again. “I’ll leave you the keys. I’ll get the car tomorrow. Brian will drive me over.”
“Everybody’s afraid to go to the doctor,” her father says, quickly. “These days you could have a million different things and not know it.” He puts the car keys in her hand.
“Remember the pink Caddy?” she asks, suddenly.
“Yeah,” he sighs. “That was a car.”
“Where’d you get the money you just gave me?”
“Robbed a bank.”
“Gambling? That’s how you got the Caddy, isn’t it?”
“How I lost it, too.”
“I thought mom made you sell it.”
“Nah. Don’t blame her for everything. She does what she can.”
He pauses for a long moment in mid-decision. “The money’s from her,” he says, finally.
Sabina refuses the information. She hands the keys back to her father. “My friend said she’d drive me.”
“Okay, then. Okay,” he says, with obvious relief. He clearly loves the girl, but he’s already overburdened by the vicissitudes of his own life.
Sabina fingers the money and feels angry – angry because she has to take it from him. Angry because he’s bought her off so easily. Angry because he’s dammed up her insides to prevent the real catharsis, the flood which he knew was coming but which had frightened him so much that he’d stuck his finger in the dike to stop the flood. And angry at herself because she knows that if she had had a choice, she would have chosen the money over the confession, anyway.
* * *
* * *
“Cash in advance,” Naomi says, as they walk towards her brand new 1968 Oldsmobile. “That’s what they all want. At least, you found a real doctor.” She gathers up her red and yellow ankle-length cotton skirt and slides into the driver’s seat.
Sabina, now dressed in a similar skirt with ties at the waist and a loose v-neck top, doesn’t respond.
“I went with my sister – to some dump on the south side. I don’t know who was more scared, her or me. You feel like you’re committing some crime, or something.”
“It is a crime.”
“Okay. So maybe it is. But it shouldn’t be. Don’t worry; you’ll be fine,” Naomi says, as she reaches over and turns on the car radio.
“Fuckin’ A,” she shouts as soon as the news comes on to round out the hour. “It was bad down there today.”
“Where?” Sabina asks, as she bends down to buckle her sandals.
“Jesus, Sabina, the demonstration at Grant Park.”
In the recesses of her mind, Sabina remembers wandering through the park just a few hours ago.
Remembers the explosion of blood. She gags, afraid to think about her appointment. More blood. She thinks about the black girl from the lit class. “I was there,” she says.
“Okay. I know this isn’t easy for you.”
“Pynchon,” she says suddenly.
“Thomas Pynchon. Never finished the book.” She chalks that up to another thing she’d planned to do that never got done. She vaguely wonders why time, now that she has so much of it on her hands, has closed in on her and has kept her static, rather than allowing her to expand. When Jesse and Marty lived with her, she’d been able to do three or four things at once. She amends that to: when Jesse and Marty lived with me before I began ingesting those little magic pills.
Yeah, she thinks. The two of us were inseparable – me and the lady in white. She called her the heavenly nurse because she came to administer the healing as soon as Sabina pushed the right button. She did everything for Sabina, and in return Sabina was totally dedicated to her. And sometimes long into the night, she felt that she was on the verge of a real breakthrough, a real understanding of something profound. She felt as if she were getting closer and closer to “it.” But then she’d forget exactly what the “it” was that she was pursuing. So she’d pick up one of the books strewn around her room and begin reading, starting sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the end. She’d finish in erratic spurts. And if the book gave her some clue, she’d start at the beginning. If not, she’d toss it aside.
She’d thought she was on a roll then, though occasionally she realized that something was wrong and that on some level, she knew she’d essentially checked out of her children’s lives.
Sabina cringes as she glances at Naomi, who’s concentrating on the road and on the news still blaring out of the radio.
“Did you hear that?”
“The cops are still busting heads!”
“The police are chasing demonstrators through Grant Park and across the street to the Hilton Hotel,” a disembodied male voice on the radio breathlessly announces.
For the second time that day Sabina starts to cry. I should have stayed, she thinks. She cares about the demonstration in Grant Park. She cares about what is happening to her country. The war has eaten its way into her very being and is irrevocably tied to her personal battles. Though she tries to concentrate on the radio, her mind keeps slipping back to that inevitable day. She has trouble remembering future appointments and past indiscretions, but that particular scenario never changes no matter how many times she replays it.
She’d been sitting on the floor of the living room, wondering if she could do what the Berrigan brothers had done. She thinks about Daniel, who’d been arrested after the March on Washington, which she has a vague memory of attending. She flashes on Philip pouring blood over draft records in the Baltimore Customs House.
Sabina longs to be a Berrigan. She wants to be brave, like the Berrigans. When the Berrigans broke the law, they made a heroic choice, she thinks.
Sabina had also begun meditating on other choices on that day she’d been thinking about the Berrigans. And she’d suddenly wondered who’d made the right one, Dedalaus or Icarus. When she resurfaced from her meditation, to her great shock, she saw Marty rummaging through her purse.
“What are you doing!”
“I’m hungry. There’s nothing to eat.”
Some rational part of her remembered that she hadn’t cashed the child support check, hadn’t bought groceries, hadn’t done any of the things mothers do. But the memory seemed stuck on the other side of a tunnel she couldn’t quite back into, so she heard herself telling him that “Man does not live by bread alone.” She’d been so sure that this was not only brilliant, but correct, because she couldn’t remember when she’d eaten last. And she’d never felt more fulfilled in her life than she had at that moment.
She’d smiled at Marty. Even now, sitting in Naomi’s car, she feels her whole mouth stretching out across her face. She’d felt ecstatic then, so she was surprised when tears began rolling down his cheeks.
“Let’s go for a run. Come on. You’ll feel better.”
She sped through the house, out the front door, leaving it open so Marty could follow her. When she turned around to say something a few blocks later, she noticed that he wasn’t there, but she couldn’t stop. Running made her feel like Icarus. If she just stayed on course and didn’t fly too close to the sun, she’d make it.
She was barely winded when she got home and almost happy to see Frank’s car in front of the house. But as soon as she walked through the doorway, he began spewing the kind of venom she thought was reserved for rapists and murders. For a moment, she had no idea why he was so angry. Then her head cleared, and with complete clarity, she saw herself as Frank saw her.
“When you want help, give me a call.”
She didn’t want help. But as long as he stood there glaring at her, she couldn’t shake the fear running up and down her spine. She believed that if she remained perfectly still and willed it, her body would disappear from the room and leave only electricity. Then she could return as her real self, her old self. And he wouldn’t look at her that way.
“I’m taking the kids with me. Do you hear me?”
She didn’t answer because she didn’t want to break the spell.
* * *
Naomi settles into a chair in the waiting room and gobbles up “Time Magazine” as Sabina grows agitated, picking at her cuticles. The room is modern, spare, with bland art. It’s after hours, so Sabina is the only patient; even the receptionist has left.
The nurse, whose brisk manner immediately makes Sabina even more nervous, finally ushers her into an examining room, which is ice cold. Peeling off her clothes, as she’d been instructed to do, Sabina shivers.
She lies down on the narrow table and covers herself with a sheet. A pale blue sheet, the same color as the medical equipment and the walls.
The nurse plunges an IV into Sabina’s arm and begins a morphine drip. “It’ll only take a few minutes. Then it’ll be all over. It’ll just feel like a bad cramp.”
“It’ll hurt,” Sabina says as the nurse leaves the room. She tells herself not to be scared and wonders if she’s said it out loud.
Maybe I shouldn’t do it, she thinks suddenly. I can change my mind. It’s not too late. She laughs, suddenly feeling light-headed. I’d be a better mother this time. She’s afraid this is her last chance. She’s afraid if she lets this baby go, her whole life will fall apart. There will be nothing to anchor her. She’s afraid she’ll simply float away – but she doesn’t know how she will support the child.
“God will provide,” she hears a far off voice say.
“Oh right,” she answers. “Like she has so far. Provided me with enough LSD to help me cross the border into infinity and come back empty.”
No, she thinks. When I had the chance, I blew it. Will my kids hate me like I hate my mother? She thinks of her mother’s little life of discomfort, waiting and hoping for her children to provide the satisfaction she could never provide for herself. It’s a life of mismatched appetizers without a main course. Sabina is filled with regret. My mother’s saving money for their plots, hers and my father’s, and she has no idea they’re already dead. If only he’d kept the pink Caddy.
Suddenly, she hears a smattering of conversation outside of the room.
I’m not ready yet. She sits up in a panic as the doctor enters.
I’m an unnatural mother. Worse than Medea.
“Okay, slide down a little,” the doctor says, without any formalities. He’s dressed in blue to match the office.
My mother used to say, “Everyone’s out of step but Johnny.” I always wanted to meet Johnny. I figured we must be soul mates. Only my mother would never tell me where I could find him, so I went looking for him in all the wrong places.
Whatever I choose to do, it will be the wrong decision.
“Lie still; don’t squirm.”
The voice was becoming more and more insistent. She tried to listen to it. She just needed a little more time to decide whether she could trust that voice. She wanted to. But after all, it was the same voice that had whispered to her before, wrapping itself around her, enticing her to follow the Pied Piper to an unexpurgated happiness.
“All done,” the doctor says, as he gathers up his tools.
She lies there, feeling empty and deprived. Then she looks out of the window and sees a sliver of moon tipping in her direction.
I’ve made my own heroic choice, she thinks. I’ve broken the law. I’ll strap on a pair of sturdier wings. Then I’ll find the Berrigans.
* * *
Marilyn Levy says: I grew up in the midwest, went to Northwestern, and taught at Roosevelt University. I began writing YA novels in the early 1980s and have been lucky enough to have had 18 published (Ballantine, Houghton Mifflin, and JPS). Several of my novels have been selected as Best Books by the ALA and have won other accolades, as well. My last YA, Checkpoints, received a silver medal from the National Jewish Book Award. I wrote the screenplay for Bride of the Wind, also historical fiction, based on the life of Alma Mahler, married to Gustav Mahler, Franz Werfel, Walter Gropius, and mistress of other great and famous men of her time. The movie, directed by Bruce Beresford, was filmed in Vienna.
I've had several careers. Besides teaching and writing, I have an M.A. in Psychology, see clients, and work with seniors in high school on their essays for their college applications.
I live in Santa Monica, California.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Sometimes I read an article or a book that provokes me and won't let go until I sit down to write about it. At times, people tell me their stories, and I feel that everyone should be able to "hear" those stories.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
It's not as much inspiration as it is need. It's like a itch. It's not always there, but when it is, I have to scratch.
What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
An historical fiction story, I feel, must be true to the time while also giving an individual spin on it.
What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
History comes alive in this genre. Personally, I could never keep the "facts" straight when I took history classes in school, but once I began reading about people who were part of history, the history became real, and I began to understand and retain what I read. I'm also attracted to a perspective that might not have occurred to me. In writing Checkpoints, I studied both the Israeli and the Palestinian points of view on the current situation in the Middle East; I wanted readers to see that history is not only malleable, but that there is often more at stake than who's right and who's wrong.
What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
Do enough research to feel as if you're living in that time; feel comfortable with the language, the clothes, everything about the period; then write.