The Woman Who Wasn’t There

I called him “My Old Man.” Every Sunday, for three years, I would make him a pot of soup and visit his tiny apartment cluttered with paintings and cockroaches. We’d sit, look at photos of trees, and he’d tell me the same stories. When he was hospitalized, I began coming daily.

He told me no-one would visit his grave. He would be forgotten. I said, No.

When the social worker called to tell me he’d died, I told her I wanted to go to his funeral. She said a relative would call me.

I knew who the relative had to be. He only had one. The cousin I’d never met. The woman who had been the subject of all of his stories.

All I knew about him was limited to stories of regret and bitterness. He regretted being in Latin America during the Holocaust, losing his family in Eastern Europe. Regretted surviving. He regretted that instead of moving to Israel, he had moved to America. And he was bitter, so bitter, about his cousin.

When he saw me admire his paintings, he asked me to take them. He said he had no-one. That when he died, everything would be thrown away. He wanted to know at least one of his paintings was with someone who loved it. So I took one. And over the years, another.

I wondered if his cousin would call. I wondered if she’d love his paintings. I wondered who she was. I’d only ever seen her through his eyes, and I’d always tried to hunt the real woman through the cracks.

The only hint of her was in a photograph he’d shown me. It wasn’t a photo of her. It was a photo she’d taken of him. He’s on the deck of a ship, relaxing, smoking. It’s taken from behind. Timeless and dated, all at once. Life snapped up, life gone.

He had never married. I wondered about him. About her. The woman woven through all his stories.

He would tell me how in his youth, he’d had money. He’d lavished it on her, helped her immigrate, helped her settle. But then she found a man of means, married, and cut him from her life.

Then life changed his cards. He found himself broke and desperate. He reached out. She avoided him, avoided him, then finally she met him, heard his request, and told him she couldn’t help. He never forgave her.

I heard this story every week, or just about. And I wondered who she was. Had she found him clingy? Had she not had the money? How did she feel? What had happened between them? Was he as much to her as she was to him?

I was in a cab on the way to the airport when she called. The city was a blur across the water, and she was on the line.

What did she say, this woman with her own voice now?

I learned from her how inconvenient he was in dying right then, as she was a busy woman. I learned how selfish he was in naming her the executor of his will, as now she had to get trash collectors to pick up his junk.

I heard his words in my heart. I asked her if she was throwing away his art.

Obviously.

I still don’t know who she was, what went wrong or what was never right.

But I know the thought didn’t occur to her that I might care about her cousin. In that. In that she showed herself.

She was a fixture of his every story, and he was an inconvenience when he entered her life again, so briefly, by dying.

A painting by Leon Chaim Stobnick

A painting by Chaim

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About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusion consulting for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps--right in time to experience my first Russian invasion. I followed that up spending time volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work with college students, produce short films, and write.
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