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I am so convinced of my inferiority that I never introduce myself by name. She mastered the Mendelssohn violin concerto when she was five. But tonight I have special knowledge. She is fifteen, busty, with sensual lips, wavy hair. She is the jokester in our family. When we were younger, she showed me how to drop grapes out of our bedroom window into the coffee cups of the patrons sitting on the patio below. Inspired by her, I will soon invent my own games; but by then, the stakes will have changed.
My girlfriend and I will sashay up to boys at school or on the street. They will come, they will always come, sometimes giddy, sometimes shy, sometimes swaggering with expectation. From the safety of my bedroom, my friend and I will stand at the window and watch the boys arrive. She is younger than Magda, but she jumps in to protect me.
Review: The Choice
I feel embarrassed that I have never asked my mother—or anyone—who was in that picture. I am used to being the silent sister, the invisible one. Magda and I have to work at getting something we are certain there will never be enough of; Klara has to worry that at any moment she might make a fatal mistake and lose it all. Klara has been playing violin all my life, since she was three.
I never saw her play with dolls. Instead she stood in front of an open window to practice violin, not able to enjoy her creative genius unless she could summon an audience of passersby to witness it. The distance between our parents, the sad things they have each confessed to me, remind me that I have never seen them dressed up to go out together. Though she denies my concern, I think I see a recognition in her eyes.
We will never discuss it again, though I will try. It will take me years to learn what my sisters must already know, that what we call love is often something more conditional—the reward for a performance, what you settle for.
As we put on our nightgowns and get into bed, I erase my worry for my parents and think instead of my ballet master and his wife, of the feeling I get when I take the steps up to the studio two or three at a time and kick off my school clothes, pull on my leotard and tights. Just today we practiced the splits. Our ballet master reminded us that strength and flexibility are inseparable—for one muscle to flex, another must open; to achieve length and limberness, we have to hold our cores strong.
I hold his instructions in my mind like a prayer. Down I go, spine straight, abdominal muscles tight, legs stretching apart. I know to breathe, especially when I feel stuck. And I am down. I am here. In the full splits. I feel like pure light. For now all I know is that I can breathe and spin and kick and bend. As my muscles stretch and strengthen, every movement, every pose seems to call out: I am, I am, I am. I am me. I am somebody. I am seven years old, and my parents are hosting a dinner party. They send me out of the room to refill a pitcher of water. They had a daughter who played piano and a daughter who played violin.
I am unnecessary, I am not good enough, there is no room for me, I think.
Interdistrict Public School Choice
One day when I am eight, I decide to run away. I will test the theory that I am dispensable, invisible. I will see if my parents even know that I am gone. They are safety to me, and yet they sanction the forbidden. They hold hands, something my own parents never do. They are comfort—the smell of brisket and baked beans, of sweet bread, of cholent, a rich stew that my grandmother brings to the bakery to cook on Sabbath, when Orthodox practice does not permit her to use her own oven.
My grandparents are happy to see me. It is a wonderful morning.
I sit in the kitchen, eating nut rolls. But then the doorbell rings. My grandfather goes to answer it.
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A moment later he rushes into the kitchen. He is hard of hearing, and he speaks his warning too loudly. As though I am not who she wants or expects me to be. Klein, in Budapest, will fix my crossed eye. Klein is a celebrity, my mother says, the first to perform eye surgery without anesthetic. I am too caught up in the romance of the journey, the privilege of having my mother all to myself, to realize she is warning me. It has never occurred to me that the surgery will hurt. Not until the pain consumes me. My mother and her relatives, who have connected us to the celebrated Dr.
Klein, hold my thrashing body against the table. Worse than the pain, which is huge and limitless, is the feeling of the people who love me restraining me so that I cannot move. I am happiest when I am alone, when I can retreat into my inner world. Then invention takes hold, and I am off and away in a new dance of my own, one in which I imagine my parents meeting.
The Choice: Embrace the Possible
I dance both of their parts. My father does a slapstick double take when he sees my mother walk into the room. My mother spins faster, leaps higher. I make my whole body arc into a joyful laugh. I have never seen my mother rejoice, never heard her laugh from the belly, but in my body I feel the untapped well of her happiness.
When I get to school, the tuition money my father gave me to cover an entire quarter of school is gone. Somehow, in the flurry of dancing, I have lost it. I check every pocket and crease of my clothing, but it is gone. All day the dread of telling my father burns like ice in my gut. This is the first time he has ever hit me, or any of us. In bed that night I wish to die so that my father will suffer for what he did to me. And then I wish my father dead. Do these memories give me an image of my strength? Or of my damage? It took me many decades to discover that I could come at my life with a different question.