The Tenth Song

Naomi Ragen

St. Martin's Press

Chapter 1
It happened, like all horrible things happen, at the most inconvenient time.
Abigail Samuels awoke as the sun streamed through the leaded glass of her beautiful French patio doors. Her eyes opened slowly, taking in the delicate lace of her curtains and the polished wood of her antique canopy bed. Her husband’s gentle kiss lingered on her lips, a faint, sweet memory. It was Tuesday, her day off, and he had tried not to wake her before leaving for work.
I’m so lucky, she thought, humming her most recent download from iTunes—a catchy paean of love and longing written and performed by a sixteen-year-old. She might be getting old, but her taste in music hadn’t changed; she still loved anything that made her want to dance. That, too, made her happy.
The water was hot enough to burn you, she thought with pleasure, adjusting the temperature controls on the frighteningly expensive mixer faucet. She remembered their leaner years, the first apartment with the broken-down shower that only gave you lukewarm water until noon, and then only enough for one.
She reached for a thick, fluffy bath sheet, catching a glimpse of her nude body in the mirror. Staring at her overlarge breasts, her rounded stomach and thighs, she wondered where her own body had gone. She looked like a Renoir painting, Baigneuse, or Bather Arranging Her Hair, unfashionably heavy, but not unattractive. To her surprise, instead of being depressed, she felt the word “sexuality” echo in her head. She wondered what that meant at her age, with a husband who had been her boyfriend, and who loved her—with this body and the original—and whom she had loved back now for forty-odd years?
Wrapping the towel around her, she looked into the mirror, combing her wet hair. It had retained its thickness and its sheen, although the days when it flowed down her back like a dark river were long gone, along with her natural mahogany color. It was short and honey brown now, a color that came from bottles and tubes, and was applied with plastic gloves. And while her face had retained its lean shape and had surprisingly few wrinkles—testifying to a calm, pampered, and, for the most part, happy life—her eyelids had begun to droop and her forehead crease. Only in her eyes—large, dark brown ovals that still flashed with amusement and curiosity—did she sometimes glimpse the person she remembered as herself.
Impulsively, she threw open the patio doors, stepping out onto the veranda. “What a lark! What a plunge . . . ! Like the flap of a wave . . . the kiss of a wave,” she thought, remembering the words from Mrs. Dalloway she had just taught her eleventh-graders. The pungent scent of damp fall leaves rose up to meet her, the crisp Boston air like chilled cider, intoxicating.
She loved the fall, all the sun-faded colors of summer repainted by vivid reds and golds still clinging fragilely to branches that would soon be covered with snow.
What a wonder! My lovely home. My marvelous garden as big as a park, tended by meticulous gardeners. My daughter’s engagement. Planning her party. The blue Boston sky. She pirouetted around the room. It would not rain today, no matter what the weather report predicted. Today would be perfect, she thought, slipping on clothes that were unseasonably light.
Walking down the hallway, she could already hear the buzz of the vacuum cleaner as the household began its day without her. No matter how many years she had employed cleaning help, she still hadn’t gotten used to it. Perhaps the housekeepers could feel her discomfort. They never stayed very long.
Esmeralda had been with them for six months now. She was in the dining room, working on the carpets. When she saw Abigail, she turned off the machine, her round face, creaseless as a fall apple, looking up warily.
“No, don’t stop! I just wanted to say good morning and to tell you I’m going out for a while, to make some arrangements for the party.”
“The engagement party. For your daughter. Miss Kayla.” The woman nodded and smiled politely, pretending to care. Abigail smiled back graciously, pretending to believe she cared.
Lovely to be walking down the street in the early part of the day instead of stuck in a classroom! She exulted like Clarissa Dalloway, loving “. . . the wing, tramp, and trudge; . . . the bellow and uproar; . . . the motor cars, omnibuses, vans . . . the triumph and jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead;” life, Boston, this moment of September.
She smiled at her shadow as though it were a companion, delighted at the kindly angle of the sun that had airbrushed all the sordid details of aging. But then she noticed the little tufts of hair that stood up waving in the wind—another expensive hairdresser’s experiment gone wrong. Ah, well; she smiled to herself, patting them down. What was such a whisper of annoyance next to the ode to joy resonating loudly throughout every fiber of her being?
She raised her face to the sky, beaming at God.
So perfect!
The words had become almost a mantra over the last month, beginning the moment Kayla—her hand clasped tightly in Seth’s—announced: “We’re engaged!”
She closed her eyes for a moment, savoring the memory: her youngest child’s shining face, her big, hazel eyes full of glint and sparkle, like well-cut jewels, revealing their many facets. She recalled clearly the pride and triumph, but somehow the happiness and love were more elusive, like water in sand, absorbed and swallowed. But those things were a given, were they not?
For what was there not to be happy about? Even Kayla, used to golden fleeces falling into her lap without any long quests, must appreciate the answer to every Jewish mother’s prayer who would soon, God willing, be her husband. Congratulating them was like making the blessing over a perfect fruit that you hadn’t tasted for a long time, Abigail thought: two Harvard Law School students, both Jewish, both from well-to-do families, members of the same synagogue in an exclusive Boston suburb.
But even as she exhaled gratitude like a prayer, she acknowledged it wasn’t all luck. I had something to do with it, she told herself, almost giddy with triumph. What hadn’t she done to nurture Kayla? The bedtime stories, the elaborate birthday parties, the shopping trips, the decorator bedroom, the private tutors, the long talks, the faithful attendance at every class assembly, play, and athletic event . . . And Kayla had repaid her beyond her wildest dreams. Straight A’s, valedictorian, youth ambassador to Norway . . . And now, soon to be a Harvard Law School graduate.
Like an athlete standing on a podium about to hear the national anthem played before the world because they had jumped the highest, run the fastest, thrown the farthest, Abigail exulted in her motherly triumph. Her nerves rock steady, her hands and feet swift and unswerving, she had run all the hurdles of modern motherhood with this child, if not with her older brother and sister, perfecting her mothering skills. Too bad they didn’t give out medals. With Kayla, she had certainly earned the gold.
She heard a car honking and turned around. It was Judith, the rabbi’s wife. She had a huge smile on her face as she mouthed the words Mazal tov! behind her windshield.
There had been no official announcement yet. Still, everyone had heard through the grapevine.
Thank you! Abigail mouthed back. At just that moment, she saw Mrs. Schwartz walking across the street in the opposite direction.
“Abigail! Just heard about Kayla! How wonderful!” She cupped her mouth, shouting.
Abigail waved, delighted. “Thank you! Thank you!” She shouted back. “Are you coming to the party?”
“I wouldn’t miss it!”
She felt almost like a celebrity, as if she owned the town.
A motorcycle roared past, shearing the air and cutting off her thoughts. She looked up at the swaying old trees, suddenly feeling afraid. Her grandmother would have said “kenina hora” meaning, more or less, “may the Evil Eye keep shut.” In the Middle Ages, all good fortune would have routinely filled the recipients with dread, she comforted herself. One would have had to bang pots or compose and wear amulets to ward off the furies set loose by such joy as hers.
She took a deep breath, exhaling all bad thoughts, focusing. The caterer, then the florist. Check the hotel reservations at the Marriott for the out-of-town uncles and Adam’s sister and brother-in-law. Check Printers Inc. for place cards and probably Grace After Meal booklets with a photo of the young couple, although Adam might be right in thinking that would be overkill, since they’d have to be reordered for the wedding. But she wasn’t feeling frugal.
They’d moved up far in the world. From the salary of a lowly junior accountant to the earnings of their own accounting firm, whose clients headlined articles in Fortune magazine. It had taken a long time. Their eldest, Joshua, had just gotten into high school when they’d finally bought their dream house, a historic colonial on a block of sought-after homes a short commute from downtown and Harvard. The renovation had taken years.
She turned the corner into Harvard Square. The students who rented out the smallest apartments had already taken up residence. They crowded the streets, their trim figures still in shorts and sleeveless tops, as if their defiance was enough to keep winter at bay.
She had been teaching high-school English for close to thirty-five years now. She liked young people. She liked looking at them: their bright, smooth, open faces, their supple, shapely bodies, their smiles. She liked their intelligent rebellion against forced compromises with conventional wisdom, often thinking that she learned as much as she taught. That, perhaps, had been her greatest fear about her profession: the bloody-mindedness as D. H. Lawrence—that rebel against hypocrisy—had called it; the repetitiveness of it all. The need to “cover material,” dulling the senses of the fresh enthusiastic human beings who, for the first time, were about to encounter a world of infinite wonders.
That had not happened, at least not too often. When she assigned Willa Cather’s My Antonia, or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, or The Diary of Anne Frank, she felt like a bystander to a thrilling event about to unfold before her very eyes. Sometimes, she admitted to herself sheepishly, she even felt a little like she’d coauthored the book, deserving part of the credit for its wondrous qualities.
The kids were always such fresh challenges—not unlike the books themselves. At the beginning of each new school year she felt as if she were peeling back the covers from their stiff bindings, each one a unique and fascinating story. She’d begin her relationship with each one hopefully, hanging in there, looking for the good things until forced to admit otherwise. That did not happen often. If you looked hard enough and refused to give up hope long enough, you could always find something.
How lovely to be young and unwrinkled, with so many unspent days and months and years ahead! How lovely to have strong bones and white, glistening teeth straightened to perfection by expensive orthodontia. Her tongue navigated her own less-than-perfect smile. Some women her age got them straightened—there were invisible braces nowadays, and porcelain veneers . . . But it seemed so vain and extravagant, not to mention bothersome. Besides, she had a man who had been telling her for the last forty years she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
She smiled to herself, waiting on the corner for the light to change.
The Body Shop window had cranberry-scented candles in little straw holders. But might it be too obvious to use a fall decorating scheme for the party? Pumpkins and squash, cranberries and apples? Adam would love it. Orange was his favorite color—any shade. The kids often poked gentle fun at him for wardrobe disasters that could be chalked up to this enthusiasm. Since he never shopped unless forced to by dire necessity—like running out of socks—his purchases were often spontaneous impulses that overtook him when passing outlet stores with signs that read EVERYTHING REDUCED 70%. Inevitably, those drastic reductions included some article of men’s apparel dyed a shocking—and consequently unsalable—shade of unbelievable orange: jackets, shirts, vests, ties, raincoats, even boots.
She shook her head. Goodwill always had a supply of excellent high-quality items in those shades courtesy of Adam Samuels. They hardly ever sold. Even poor people had some standards.
She walked into the shop, fingering the waxy shapes, breathing in the spicy smells. There was still time to make these decisions. So far Kayla had been very breezy “whatever” about the engagement party, except for defining the absolute parameters: Evening. Black tie. Top-notch catering. And one-twenty to one-fifty guests, max.
“Abigail?”
She turned her head. It was Sandra something, a woman she knew vaguely from synagogue functions; someone who wore strange, baggy designer clothes and had her hair cut brutally short. She and her husband were the kind of people who always wanted something: free tax advice, investment tips, donations for obscure causes, or to enlist you in time-consuming volunteer schemes that would make themselves look good. She smiled.
The woman put her arms around her, kissing her cheek: “Mazal tov! I just heard. Wonderful about your daughter’s engagement!”
“Oh, how did you . . . ?”
“Your friend Doris told me. So exciting!”
Doris? “Yes, thanks so much,” Abigail said with an inward sigh, mentally adding her name and the vaguely remembered Doris’s to a guest list already bloated with people she had to invite or risk insulting. Suddenly, when a party was in the offing, people seemed to sniff it out, ratcheting up their friendliness quotient to be included.
“Well, see you in shul!” Abigail waved, hurriedly leaving the store.
As she walked toward the caterer, Abigail felt herself tense. She hoped there wouldn’t be a fight with Kayla, but there was no way she was going to insult Arthur Cohen (who was, after all, a fellow synagogue member and an old friend) by going elsewhere.
She remembered Adam’s fiftieth birthday bash. Even though Abigail had done all the work, Kayla felt she had a right to decide the guest list. “You don’t want them. They are so boring,” she’d said, putting a line through Henrietta and Stephen.
They were old, old friends, people she and Adam had known from the first week they’d moved to Boston. They had been to all each other’s milestone celebrations, shared Sabbath evening dinners, planned joint vacations. They were like family.
“But we were invited to Stephen’s fiftieth!” Abigail protested.
“Oh, he’s such a bag of wind. And she’s even worse . . .” Kayla scrunched up her pretty nose in distaste. “I thought we would just have—you know—the family,” she continued, crossing off another two of their oldest friends.
Abigail said nothing but invited whom she pleased.
It was a surprise party. She’d expected all the kids to arrange something special for Adam. Joshua, of course, did, preparing a heartfelt video in which he interviewed all their friends and relatives, putting together a lovely tribute. And Shoshana, even though she was eight months pregnant and had a toddler of two to look after, made all the flower arrangements, handwrote all the place cards, and baked hundreds of those sugar cookies she was famous for. Kayla, in contrast, breezed in the night of the party, an hour later than Abigail had asked her to come, wanting to know how she could help.
“Nothing, darling. It’s all been arranged. I’m just so happy you’re here.” Abigail smiled at her sweetly, swallowing hard. “Daddy will be here soon. Would you be an angel and answer the door?”
It was Stephen and Henrietta, followed by Arthur and Helen, and a few more of Kayla’s cross-offs. Kayla gave them a bare smile, then sulked the entire evening, until finally she left early without saying good-bye.
“Her Majesty is not happy with her subjects,” Adam murmured dryly, when Abigail filled him in on the details.
The next day, of course, Kayla was contrite and apologetic. “I just had something really private and special planned for Daddy. I had this whole speech. . . .”
Abigail felt a pang of guilt. Perhaps she had ruined some lovely, special moment between father and daughter? Perhaps there had been an excellent reason for her bratty behavior? Perhaps Kayla was on a higher level—a place Abigail couldn’t see even in her imagination?
Or perhaps not.
As always, they both apologized, hugged, and let it pass. What was the name of that organization founded by a billionaire to help Bill Clinton out of the Monica Lewinsky morass? Getoverit.org? Or something like that. Exactly.
For a moment, she thought about discussing this openly with her daughter. She rummaged through her purse for her cell phone, then suddenly remembered it was on her desk recharging.
Just as well. She just wouldn’t bring the subject up. Kayla wouldn’t remember anyhow, she thought, recalling her sweet sixteen party. For months, every time the subject had come up, she’d feigned disinterest, saying it was silly and childish, like kids’ “theme” parties. And so Abigail had ordered a cake and invited the family and a handful of Kayla’s friends. But then after attending a friend’s sweet sixteen in a theme park, with a party held afterward in the Hilton ballroom in Back Bay, with a live performance by a popular local band, Kayla had changed her mind.
Of course, things were arranged: the band, the hall, the works, all at the very last minute. Kayla had been adorably grateful and happy. She had enjoyed every minute. And Abigail, exhausted, had spent the next week in bed. Now, except for the caterer and the guest list, Abigail was perfectly happy to do anything her daughter wanted—if only Kayla would say what that was. On time.
Oh my goodness, she scolded herself. The bride is too pretty. Was this stuff worth worrying about? You have a beautiful daughter. A Harvard Law School student. A girl who is engaged to a Jewish mother’s dream. A nachas bonanza. Give it a rest!
Maybe she’d just buy a few cranberry candles and show them to Kayla.
But first—she wanted to settle with the caterer.
“Hi, Gayle,” she said, walking into the catering and takeout shop. “Is your dad in?”
“Oh, Mrs. Samuels!” The girl looked up from her computer, hastily slamming it shut. Her face turned the color of the tomato salsa featured in the refrigerator case, Abigail thought, wondering if it had been that color when she walked in, and she just hadn’t noticed. She stood staring in wonder, watching the color deepen to scarlet. “Oh, I’ll . . . just get Dad,” the girl said, fleeing.
A tiny stab of unease suddenly pierced Abigail Samuels. A prescient moment, absolutely baseless, began to send a wave of nausea and nervous tension through her body. She was the kind of person who always unconsciously identified with the person she was with—a remnant of her childhood inferiority complex, which insisted she be a chameleon to court favor. Everyone had to love her. And if you were just like the person you were with at the moment, it helped.
“Oh, Albert.”
His face was pleasant but not welcoming, with a strange crease of discomfort between the brows. “Abigail.”
There was an awkward silence as she tried to figure out where she was and what had happened. Did she owe him money? Adam always paid the bills and paid them promptly. Perhaps Kayla had slipped and told one of her friends about the outside catering, and word had gotten back to him? But she was here now, ready to order . . .
“I’m—so sorry,” he finally said.
Like a character in a bad play, she looked behind her to see who he could be talking to. There was no one there.
“What’s wrong, Al?”
His face took on a sense of shock. “It was on the Internet. Gayle showed it to me . . .” He paused, horrified as the realization struck that he would be the one breaking this kind of news to a person he knew and liked, the kind of news that should be heard among your own people, in your own home, surrounded by people you loved.