by Lynn Levin
As it falls to many adult children these days, it was my duty—and particularly mine being an only child—to move my parents out of the home they’d lived in for the past forty years and into a retirement community. I’d taken three days off from my social work job in Binghamton to help them, and while I was feeling wistful about the big move, my parents anticipated their new adventure as if it were a ‘round-the-world cruise.
“We can hardly wait, Warren,” my mother bubbled over the phone. “They have a hundred discussion clubs and reading groups, and for Daddy a music room and residents’ orchestra.” The latter were crucial. They meant that my father, a concert violinist, would remain in the embrace of the musical life, able to play—as much as his arthritis would permit—and maybe give lessons, too.
It was early September. Dusk had settled in as I drove down the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike toward Philadelphia. Scanning the radio stations, I chanced upon a broadcast of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. The violinist was in the final movement, the Chaconne, a piece that still makes me quiver with an old and disturbing memory. At that very moment, three deer—they were the same color as the dusk—stepped out of the woods along the highway. They caught my eye, then darted back into the trees. My mother, my father, and me, I mused. Odd that our familiars should appear as if called to Bach’s Chaconne, for when I was a teenager I believed that the piece had preserved our family.
Our family’s drama began on a warm spring afternoon in May of 1979 when I was fourteen. I came home from school a little earlier than usual, completely bummed out. I was supposed to be feeling like a big shot: my father would soon be guest performing at my junior high, but I’d been a disaster at orchestra practice that day. I’d lost my place during “String of Pearls.” As usual, I squeaked, and I couldn’t blame it on the clarinet either.
I pushed open our front door, startled to hear a violinist in the house whirling through one of Brahms’s Hungarian dances. The music pouring from the kitchen pulled my mood up on magical strings. It made me think of barefoot girls in low-cut blouses, swishing their skirts of paprika red. My father seldom performed such fiery pieces, preferring the formal transcendence of the Baroque. Besides, Dad was on tour. He was almost always on tour.
Clarinet case in hand, backpack on my back, I stood just behind the opening between the dining room and the kitchen. Mom, still in her pink bow blouse from work, sat at the table. Across from her stood the violinist, a compact man slightly younger than Dad. A gypsy, I thought. I had a hunch that he was one of Mom’s Russian immigrant clients; he wore a black pullover, a red vest, and striped, bell-bottomed jeans. Something foreign accented his style. He swept the bow across the strings with more weight and physical contact than Dad or any other string player I’d heard. I watched the stranger sway and dip. The black ringlets of his hair flew as if in a storm. He kept trying to hook Mom in his gaze. The magical strings that had lifted me up went slack.
The gypsy didn’t notice me at first, but Mom did, and a blush of self-consciousness colored her face. She held her mouth in a stiff half-smile. Every so often she looked up to meet the guy’s stare, I guessed to make him feel appreciated, but most of the time she seemed to study her fingernails or wedding ring or the pearly gray Formica of the kitchen table. On the table sat two quilted jelly jars of tea and a little plate of sugar cubes. Two glezelekh tey as Grandma Sarah would have said, but the glezelekh were also strange. Our family drank tea from cups not glasses, and we used little packets of Sweet ‘n Low.
I knew the guy’s Svengali stare because some of the goofs in my class tried it out on girls who responded with scrunched noses and crossed eyes. As fourteen-year-old boys went, I was pretty naïve and inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I felt this guy was bad news and wanted him out of the house. Besides, I couldn’t figure out why he was there alone with Mom. Was she auditioning him for something? I imagined launching him from the house kung-fu style. But I dared not disturb his play. I respected musical performance more than anything.
At last, the gypsy finished the piece with a big flourish. He bowed deeply to Mom in a European way. Just as he was about to kiss her hand, I coughed. Loudly. The gypsy straightened up. I will not forget his eyes; they were greenish gray, the color of the sea on a cloudy day. Not quite as Svengali as I had assumed.
“Warren, I’d like you to meet Boris Nalibotsky, one of our refuseniks,” Mom announced in a formal tone. “Boris used to have a chair in a very distinguished chamber orchestra in Leningrad.”
I said hello and shook hands with the gypsy. I noticed that his hands seemed small. Boris fixed me with his oceanic eyes. I complimented him on his performance and the great position he’d held. Of course, I was impressed. A chamber orchestra in Russia was a big deal, but I still couldn’t figure out why he was in our kitchen serenading Mom and drinking glasses of tea. Besides, after my crappy band practice, I wasn’t in the mood to entertain a stranger, let alone a musician. I was in the mood for meatloaf and home fries and some good TV, like Happy Days or M*A*S*H.
Not that Russians in the house weren’t a regular occurrence. Mom was a social worker at Hatikvah House, a refugee resettlement agency for Soviet Jews in Northeast Philadelphia. Since Brezhnev had liberalized Jewish emigration, business was booming at Hatikvah House, and Mom, being generous and also lonely with Dad on tour all the time, often invited her clients to our home. As much as I yearned for freedom for the Soviet Jews, I loathed my mother’s acts of hospitality. I always ended up getting sucked into awkward phrasebook conversations with the refugees. Why couldn’t home be just us? I was looking forward to Sunday when Dad would return and we could be just us, a family—at least until his next tour.
“Warren Rappaport,” said Boris in a deep baritone. “I khear so mahch about you.” Peering at him through my aviator-style glasses, I wondered how it was that I’d been a topic of their conversation. We chatted briefly about me and the clarinet, which was the last thing I wanted to talk about. Aside from his heavy accent, Boris spoke excellent English.
“I’m just a recreational player,” I said, secretly fearing I might not even amount to that. “Nothing like my father. He’s a virtuoso violinist. In the Rydal String Quartet.” Mom aimed a crossbow stare at me.
Boris nodded in solemn acknowledgment and seemed to shrink for a split second. Then he brought himself back with a bright look. “Such a good boy this is, Leeendah.” He tousled my longish hair. I recoiled at his touch. “One day we play duet, no?” That’s right, I thought, no. But I mumbled some sort of feeble consent.
As Boris nestled his violin carefully in its old-fashioned figure-shaped case, I noticed with sorrow its scuffs and scratches. A poor immigrant, he had to make do with a beat-up, second-hand violin. The instrument seemed forlorn, not at all like Alma, Dad’s gleaming Sergio Peresson. I wondered if the gypsy would find work as a musician in America or if he’d need to train for a new job like so many of the refugees did. I didn’t like him invading our nest, but I didn’t want his talent and training to go to waste either.
“It’s not like he’s an engineer,” said Mom after Boris had left. She sipped her hot tea old-new style from a jelly jar. I noticed she was wearing red lipstick. “Boris is an artist. He has a deep soul.” She sounded dreamy when she said that. I didn’t get it. She was already married to an artist. A better one, in fact. And a better looking one whose group made recordings that got played on the radio. “Well, not that engineers don’t have souls,” Mom backtracked, “but you know what I mean. It’s different for artists.”
“Boris is a weird gypsy,” I said. “He reminds me of those strolling minstrels in a restaurant that pour on the schmaltz, then eye you until you give them a tip. It’s bad enough that you bring the couples home, but him?” I couldn’t wait for Dad to come home. “Don’t you think you’re overdoing it with the cause?”
Now, I was no slouch when it came to activism. I’d written letters to refuseniks (like they ever got them), collected signatures on petitions, babysat for immigrant parents while they went to English classes, and, of course, I did a twinned bar mitzvah with a Soviet Jewish kid. Dad played his part, too. Once he brought tears to people’s eyes when he performed Bloch’s “Nigun” at a Free Soviet Jewry rally. Our family’s fellow feeling for the Soviet Jews ran deep: we would have been Soviet Jews—well we would have been lucky to have been Soviet Jews—if my great great grandparents hadn’t escaped from Tsarist Russia. But neither Dad nor I consecrated our lives to the cause. Mom, on the other hand, pledged her nights and days to it. Looking back, I think that in her soul she was a refusenik.
Mom gave me a hot-eyed look and ladled out Boris’s story like boiling chicken soup. Naturally the chamber orchestra fired him the second he’d requested his exit visa. It was official procedure. And then the same government that had him fired accused him of being a social parasite because he didn’t have work! Typical twisted Soviet logic. And they’d confiscated his violin. That was standard procedure, too. Why allow a rebel musician to keep his cherished violin? The poor man scraped together a living giving music lessons. Practically a fiddler on the roof. You don’t know what I went through to find him that violin, she said yanking the key of the can opener.
I was feeling pretty rotten about Boris’s plight and my lack of compassion and regretting laying it on thick to him about the great Mark Rappaport. Then when I thought things couldn’t get any worse for the poor guy, they did.
“And on top of all this,” said Mom, “Boris Nalibotsky’s wife Yelena died of cancer before he came over. Can you imagine the heartbreak? All those dreams…” Mom’s voice turned wistful and trailed off. She brushed her bangs off her forehead. I thought I saw a wisp of gray in her hair.
“I hope he finds a nice single lady,” I said. “Maybe you could fix him up with someone.” Mom shrugged.
“You don’t need to mention this to Dad,” said Mom offhandedly as she opened another can. “He thinks I get too involved with my clients, and he’s got enough on his plate as it is.” I looked down at my Manwich on bun and Green Giant green beans.
“Speaking of plates, Mom,” I began but stopped it there. She brought out some potato chips to make it a balanced meal.
They were a pair my folks, each carrying on a separate romance: Mom with her mission to save the Jews, Dad with the elegant structures of his music and Alma, the Sergio Peresson violin he preferred even over the Guarneri a patron had offered to lend him.
Mom had done such a good job of guilting me about Boris that the next day, a Saturday blanketed with rain clouds, I roused myself from bed at the ridiculous hour of 8 a.m. to help her pick up donations for the immigrants. My mother collected clothing, dishes, linens, appliances, and toys from folks who were only too happy to declutter for a good cause. Our car loaded with boxes and bags, we made it to Hatikvah House by noon. And not a moment too soon: a bolt of lightning and a thunderclap announced us.
“I have a surprise for you,” said Mom. A talent show, Mom called it a salon, was in progress in the social room. In spiraling tones, a man was declaiming a poem. People sipped tea, from Styrofoam cups not glezelekh, and noshed on sweets. Mom’s clients waved me their greetings, and she bustled off somewhere. Relieved not to see Boris Nalibotsky, I wandered over to the spread of Russian goodies: a box of assorted chocolates and a vanilla torte. The snacks helped, but a grumpy mood was on me like smog. I had to practice my clarinet, a math quiz was breathing down my neck, and Odysseus demanded that I read about his exploits for Monday’s mythology test. Held hostage at Hatikvah House, I silently steamed at Mom for costing me a Saturday.
I settled back in one of the folding chairs. After the poetry recitation, another man entered the performance circle and strummed some songs on a guitar. Then the gypsy, I guess he’d been tuning his violin in a backroom, emerged with my mother. A few of the Russians flicked a quick glance their way. I felt embarrassed and tricked. Mom hadn’t mentioned that Boris would be at the party. Something about the way they entered the room made them seem like a couple. A sick vision of the gypsy as my stepfather and me living with Dad, alone most of the time while he toured, shrouded my future like a black veil.
Boris, in his red vest, strode to the center of the circle and sliced into a folk tune, again with his heavy style of bowing. And again, as in our kitchen, he turned half musician, half magician. The humor and joy of his music drew the black veil off. Launched by the folk melody, two men jumped into a vigorous kazatsky, circling each other as they kicked. Rhythmic clapping broke out. Mom joined in, clapping like a regular Russian. In the moment, I found it hard to hate Boris. Then he began another folk dance, one less wild than the first, a type of circle dance that brought a group of men and women to the floor. A moment of sadness, a far-away look passed over a few faces.
After Boris’s set, a woman entered the performance circle and began to sing. I watched Mom and the gypsy disappear together down a hall. Once more, embarrassment warmed my cheeks. I felt unmanned somehow, part of my parentage stripped away. When Mom reappeared about ten minutes later, sans Boris, her hair a little mussed, her face dimmed with self-consciousness and maybe shame, I couldn’t meet her eyes. Mom no longer seemed like Mom. Was she going to run off with him? When I thought of my mother in the arms of that gypsy, my chest tightened with a kind of anxiety I hadn't known before. I guess it was the way kids felt when they heard their parents were going to divorce. By a sheer act of will, I forced myself to stop thinking about Mom and Boris. We rode home together in silence, each of us staring straight out the windshield. I didn’t know what I should do or say, or if I had the power to do anything at all.
When Dad came home Sunday evening from the Rydal’s West Coast tour, I was curled on the couch reading about the return of Odysseus to Ithaca and Penelope’s greedy suitors. I thought of patient pining Penelope. Well, it wasn’t like my mom had to wait twenty years for her man to come home. I jumped up to help Dad with his suitcase while Mom stayed in her chair, afloat in a daydream, a Boris-inspired glass of tea in her hand.
“Hey, Mom, Dad’s back!” I tried to nudge her from her trance with a peppy tone.
“Don’t trouble yourself,” said Dad. He ran his hand through his hair as if to massage away his annoyance. “I’ve only been away for the last six days playing my heart out and trying to earn a living.” A tension line ran up my forehead. Dad had an even temperament, but I couldn’t blame him for feeling miffed, rejected even, by Mom’s non-greeting.
Because of Dad’s many absences, I sympathized with Mom in a dozen ways, but now she was acting plenty weird, almost as if it didn’t matter whether Dad stood there or not. I knew that Dad’s travels wore her down. She didn’t like playing second fiddle to Dad’s fiddle or being abandoned in Northeast Philly while the Rydal String Quartet pursued perfection coast to coast. Some folks joked that Mom lived like an army wife and poked me on the shoulder saying, Warren, you’re the man around the house. You look out for your Mom.
In retrospect, I think my father found it easier and more gratifying to live for Alma than for a real woman. How ennobling it must have been to interpret the very greatest music for the most cultured audiences, to perceive their delight, to cast a spell over their hearts. Art was a high calling, but to make art so much life had to be pushed aside.
“Hi, welcome home,” Mom said, breaking through her torpor. She lifted her face to Dad. He walked a few paces to her and plunked a kiss, a disappointing kiss, I thought, on her forehead.
“What is that? Canadian Club?” he observed with an odd look at the jelly jar.
“It’s tea,” said Mom. “Russian style.”
“Isn’t that a dumb way to drink a hot liquid?” asked Dad. “Doesn’t it burn your fingers?” Mom put down the tea and went to the laundry room to wash the clothes Dad had unpacked.
“What’s gotten into your mother?” Dad asked me once we were alone in the living room. Dad glanced at a photo that hung above the piano. It was a black and white picture snapped after a recital. Dad, holding Alma in one hand, wore a tuxedo. Mom, glowing and beautiful in a long formal dress, stood at his other side.
“Heck if I know,” I answered hoping not to sound false, wishing I could come up with a way to bring Mom to her senses.
“Anyhow, Warren,” said Dad, “that music assembly of yours is the week after next, and I’m thinking of playing Bach’s Chaconne.” He saw my eyebrows levitate. “I’ll be performing the Partita Number 2 in D Minor for a solo concert at Penn, and since I’m rehearsing it, well…” A little smile sparked the corner of Dad’s mouth. He drew out the well to relish the excited look on my face. “You know the Chaconne, don’t you? The piece Bach composed in memory of his first wife?” Of course, I knew the Chaconne! It was the Everest of the solo violin repertoire, a competition piece. Its chord progression and elaborate variations called on every aspect of violin playing. Through its gorgeous depths, Bach explored the most profound territories of love and grief. My father would play this masterwork for the kids at Neil A. Armstrong Junior High. I felt like the son of the hero. And Mr. Casey, the music teacher, would flip.
“Mom will be at the assembly, won’t she?” Dad asked.
“She’ll be there. Unless she’s not too busy being a cosmonaut.” We shared a sardonic chuckle.
That night I couldn’t sleep. Anticipation and pride about the music assembly kept clashing with dread about the state of my parents’ marriage. To make the most of my insomnia, I decided to study for the next day’s test on the Odyssey and soon came upon the portion in which Penelope, thinking her husband would never return home, devises an archery contest to defeat her many suitors. I read of Telemachus setting up the twelve axes through whose handle sockets only Odysseus could drive an arrow.
Then I saw it. A contest of strings and bow. Violin strings and horsehair bow.
My father was Odysseus. Boris one of the suitors. My mother, though apparently not as faithful, was Penelope. I, as Telemachus, would set up the contest: I would make the music assembly a contest of strings and bow between my father and Boris, a competition that my father would surely win. Mom would swoon over the Chaconne, Dad would defeat the gypsy, and Boris would be run out of our lives. I hoped it would not be too difficult to convince Mr. Casey to add Boris to the assembly program.
I felt like a genius and thanked old Homer. For a few seconds, I kept my hand on the Odyssey drawing power from it.
Monday couldn’t dawn soon enough for me. Eager to launch my plot, I shook off my insomnia hangover. I aced the mythology test and could hardly wait for after-school orchestra practice.
I knew that Mr. Casey was a fervent anti-Communist, and I aimed to make that work in my favor. I arrived at the music room several minutes before the kids started drifting in. Even today, I can see the flocks of black music stands and gray folding chairs, the posters of musical terms and acoustic tiles on the walls, Mr. Casey’s piano, and the busts of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven (who always seemed to be scowling). The scents of rosin and valve oil come back to me, the metallic tang of the brass instruments, the mossy feathery smell of the instrument cases. And the tuning up, that cacophonous collage of student sounds. But at the moment, only Mr. Casey and I stood in the room.
“Could I talk to you about something?” I began to perspire. The teacher looked at me as if I were about to spill something personal. I told him of Boris Nalibotsky, the extraordinary refugee violinist, the former concertmaster of the distinguished Leningrad Chamber Orchestra. Boris, I declared, was a protégé of my father’s, and I asked, I begged Mr. Casey to add Boris to the music assembly. He would play something exciting, a piece of five minutes or less, and it was all perfectly okay with my dad. “When you think of all that talent locked behind the Iron Curtain, Mr. Casey,” I said gazing at his American flag lapel pin, “and how so many Soviet artists must defect to be free…” Seeing that Casey was mulling things over, I stopped chattering for a moment. I’d made up the stuff about the protégé (well, the gypsy was Mom’s protégé), Dad’s approval, the concertmaster thing, and even the name of the orchestra. But Odysseus had lied a lot, too, so I figured it was okay to do for a good cause. The teacher shuffled some sheet music on his conductor’s stand. I told him how the Soviet government had fired Boris from the chamber orchestra for being a dissident, took his violin away, charged him with social parasitism. “He’s really been a victim of the Communist state, Mr. Casey.” I said.
“How does your family know this violinist?” Mr. Casey sought my gaze. He had reddish brown eyebrows that reminded me of paintbrushes. I explained about Mom’s social work with new immigrants.
The kids in the orchestra were taking their seats and opening up their instrument cases. “Okay, we can add Mr. Nal… Mr. Nab… Boris to the program,” consented Mr. Casey. “As long as you can set it up, Warren. It’s a go from this end.” Electrified with joy, I thanked Mr. Casey at least five times. If only I could have honored him by playing better at practice. At last my lack of sleep caught up with me and turned my mouth to rubber. I squeaked so much that the French horn player joked about a mouse in the house. And one girl climbed on her chair pretending to be afraid of the mouse. But it was really pretty funny, and anyhow, inside I felt like a dynamo.
Then the challenge of inviting Boris to the contest of strings and bow clunked me on the head. If Mom found out before the assembly, she would surely try to talk Boris out of performing or she’d boycott the assembly altogether. All this, not to mention the challenge of getting in touch with Boris.
When I arrived home, I found a note on the kitchen table and the scent of Mom’s perfume in the air.
Out to dinner with Daddy. Back around 8:00. Order
yourself a pizza from Salvatore’s.
The note turned me into a grinning doofus. My parents were in love with each other. I had nothing to worry about after all. I ordered a mushroom pizza with extra cheese and considered telling Mr. Casey that Boris had backed out. Then even through my fatigue-addled brain, I realized that such a cancellation would be an insult to Mr. Casey. It would make the Rappaports look like schmucks and Boris like an ingrate. Boris may have been a lot of things, but he’d never back out of an opportunity to play. I would have to hunt down the guy’s phone number and invite him.
I could not find any Nalibotskys in the White Pages and 411 had no listing for any either. Then I noticed, behind an easy chair near the piano, my mother’s canvas attaché, the bag she took to work. Perhaps the gypsy’s phone number was in there. Rummaging through the side pocket, I came up with pens, a lipstick, a comb, a collapsible umbrella, a receipt for shampoo from Thrift Drug, an accordion of assorted business cards, the Rydal String Quartet’s concert schedule, keys, Kleenexes, an old raffle ticket, and some hard candies. In a big zippered compartment, I found a yellow legal pad. Mom’s field notes. Maybe Boris’s number was there.
The notes fascinated me. Ioffe the dentist from Odessa was applying for work as a dental hygienist, and Sarah Dolinsky, the math teacher, found a job stocking shelves in a grocery store. M. L. Feldman, an engineer, was painting houses. I lost track of the time as I read their stories. Still, I found nothing of Boris. On the wall by the easy chair hung a photo of the four Rydal guys. They watched my every move.
The doorbell rang. In panic, I went klutzy. The yellow legal pad flew out of my hands like a canary. Trembling, I shoved it back into the bag, bending a few of the pages. I melted with relief to find the pizza guy at the door.
I scarfed a slice of pizza, washed the grease off my hands, and returned to my investigations. I pulled out Mom’s calendar book and paged through the entries. On one of the pages for early March, I found the first mention of Boris Nalibotsky and his phone number. Bingo. I wrote the number on my hand with one of Mom’s pens. Then I noticed a pink marble composition book and opened it. Pages and pages were covered in my mother’s script. It was her diary. I hadn’t known she’d kept one. Talk about the mother lode.
The diary began in January of 1979. Mom mused about Jimmy Carter and cheered the Rydal String Quartet’s newest recording. She wrote, nearly obsessively, of Avital Shcharansky, the wife of the famous refusenik Anatoly Shcharansky, and of how the dark-eyed young bride traveled the globe pleading for her husband’s release.
Then Mom jotted a funny story about a woman who was trying to coax her into hosting a Tupperware party and recounted a quarrel she and Dad had about his time away. Following that, more about Avital. Always Avital. It was as if Mom envied her suffering, the romance of her separation from Anatoly. Not that Mom wasn’t in awe of Mark Rappaport. She carefully listed the Rydal’s engagements in cities large and small, jotted Dad’s comments about audience reception, noted the critics’ reviews. She wrote of her own lonely nights and worried about how she’d cope if I went away to college instead of going to Drexel or Temple. I had some qualms about the snooping, but my curiosity about Mom’s inner life compelled me to read on.
I took a break, ate another slice of pizza, again carefully washed my hands, and returned to the pink composition book. In early March as in the calendar book, the gypsy’s name began to ink the pages of the diary.
Boris Nalibotsky came to us this week, a widower and a violinist with no violin.
From then on it was as if my mother could write of almost nothing else. Even Avital made fewer appearances in her journal. She recounted whole conversations with Boris. They spoke about Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Ysaÿe, of Soviet propaganda, the dissidents Bonner and Sakharov and Slepak. How odd, she noted, that she was more political than Boris. Then Three Mile Island happened, and Mom wrote of her terror of a nuclear meltdown. But soon it was back to Boris: his late Yelena, the Nalibotskys who fought in the war and those who perished in the Holocaust. Avital, though less of a presence, never entirely disappeared from Mom’s thoughts. Boris couldn’t understand Mom’s romantic fascination with Avital. “She’s like some kind of fairy tale princess for you,” he said. “But I’m here. You have your own Anatoly. That’s me.”
A sour entry followed: Mom found Boris’s comment presumptuous, a mockery of the cause. I agreed.
Mom noted several calendar days in April and May, but nothing about their significance. Gaps appeared in the diary. And scratch-outs.
“I want to say yes, but I want to say no a hundred times more,” she wrote. “And I super hate it when he speaks of Mark!”
I glanced at the clock. It was almost seven-thirty. Suspicion gathered like a lump in my throat. I didn’t want to keep reading, but to stop would have been cowardly, like turning off the TV when bad news came on.
In America, the land of his dreams, Boris fretted about his future in music. So much competition, so many talented violinists. He worried that he’d chosen freedom over art and sometimes doubted his choice. Mom tried to buck him up. This was America, the goldene medina, the new promised land, the place of opportunity.
Then she recounted a coworker reminding her not to get involved with clients.
“That would be a hoot,” Mom wrote. “Losing my job while trying to get one for him.”
I don't know why losing her husband hadn’t occurred to her in the same moment.
Today, I know of several marriages murdered not so much by affairs but by the diaries, text messages, and emails that revealed them. And to this day, I do not know why my mother, my smart, pretty, serious mother, risked so much by committing her relationship with Boris to that stupid pink marble composition book. Yet in another way, I understand her desire to preserve on the page, as if in amber, those moments of vividness and intensity.
I could tell that Mom wanted to back out of the relationship. It was more than she bargained for. And she was beginning to suspect, maybe rightly, maybe not, that Boris, though certainly a talented musician, might also be an opportunist who saw in this idealistic daughter of the free world a lucky stepping stone. And on top of all that, perhaps he loved her. And how terribly lonely he must have been.
I shut the notebook. I can still hear its soft cardboard clap. I went to the kitchen to call Boris. From there, I’d be able to hear my parents come in the front door and hang up in a flash. I’d leave no trace. There was no caller ID or *69 back then. I looked at my hand. With a growl, I saw that I’d washed off Boris’s number. Burning precious moments, I ran back to Mom’s attaché and flipped through the calendar book, rewrote the number on my hand then, with a racing heart, dialed up the gypsy.
Boris’s phone rang. After six rings, an answer machine came on with Boris’s outgoing message in Russian. I hung up and tried every few minutes. At 7:50, knowing my folks could walk in at any second, I called for the twelfth time. Boris picked up. We exchanged halting hellos.
“I thought you deedn’t lahk me,” said Boris.
“I’m just a moody teenager,” I replied, hoping my voice didn't sound shaky. “Listen, Boris, our junior high is having a music assembly next week, and Mr. Casey, the teacher, asked me to invite you. It’s great that you play for the people at Hatikvah House, but you really deserve more exposure.”
“Warren, this eez big honor,” said Boris. “Tank you. This eez dyn-o-mite.”
“Dyn-o-mite,” I echoed and gave him Mr. Casey’s phone number and the rest of the particulars.
“There’s just one thing. You can’t say a word about this to Mom. I want it to be a big surprise for her.” Boris seemed confused but consented. At least he didn’t ask me how I found his phone number.
Having Dad back in the house for those ten days was like taking a bubble bath in ordinary life. My father spent his time rehearsing and giving lessons. He even did a little yard work. His solo concert at Penn, the one at which he performed Bach’s Partita Number 2 in D Minor, received a rave review in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and I knew he’d wallop Boris with the Chaconne at next Wednesday’s music assembly. Although Mom continued her habit of sipping hot tea from jelly jars, she at least kept normal hours. It amused me to think that she, Dad, and Boris went about their business, unaware of my machinations. It never occurred to me that anyone would be angry at me afterward.
The day of the contest of strings and bow, we three Rappaports arrived at Neil A. Armstrong Junior High slightly late, delayed by unexpected traffic. My dad dressed in his typical concert attire, a black open collar shirt with a charcoal gray jacket. Mom wore a flowered skirt that Dad always liked.
Boris, clad in his red vest and some kind of big-collared shirt, was already seated when we entered the auditorium. He looked more like a gypsy than ever. When Mom saw him, her face went as holey as a Greek mask. Perplexed by her reaction, Boris attempted a hesitant smile, but Mom’s face stayed masklike, and a wounded l look drifted over Boris’s sea-gray eyes. Dad, who was busy greeting Mr. Casey and tuning up Alma, saw nothing of the exchange. The room was loud with student chatter. The whole junior high was gathered in the auditorium. I could tell that the kids were very impressed to see me seated with my mom and famous dad.
Mr. Casey called for quiet and introduced the two violinists. When Mr. Casey announced that Mark Rappaport had taken the accomplished refugee under his wing, Dad tipped his head as if he hadn't heard right. Then Casey mentioned my helpful role, and Dad and Mom swiveled their regards upon me like two tanks aiming their guns.
Boris, being the warm-up act, took the stage first. He announced that he would play Fritz Kreisler’s “La Gitana,” the Gypsy Woman, and that Mr. Casey would accompany him on the piano.
Boris threw himself into his performance, whetting his bow across the strings in his dense Eastern Bloc style of playing. “La Gitana” was a short piece of three minutes or so, and it flowed from sweetness and tenderness to moments of gaiety and prancing. As Boris played, I could see a gypsy woman dancing by a campfire. Then the music grew into passionate, rose-in-the-teeth stuff, and Boris played it hot and heavy, fully present, knives flashing, flinging the paper chains of his curly hair this way and that. Once or twice he winked at me as he played. I smiled and nodded, urging him on. He tried to catch my mother’s eye, and though he failed at that, he had the audience firmly in his grip. He ended the piece with a flourish, thrusting his bow in the air like a victor would his sword. The kids applauded wildly. The teachers even louder. A few even shouted bravo!
When my father stood to play the Chaconne, I felt some trepidation. After all, the Chaconne was a longer piece, and it did not aim to wow like the Kreisler. But as my father dipped his bow into the golden well of Bach’s chord progression and explored its complex variations, as he let the music plunge into the deepest pools of grief, I saw my mother’s face transformed. My father drew from Alma a light and illuminated sound, very different from the gypsy’s. Through the music, I could hear Bach cry out: oh beloved wife, why have you been taken from me? The music sped up. It slowed down. It waterfalled over double stops and triple stops. It glided through realms of the ineffable. Although my father stood there and played, it was as though he were not there. Nor was my mother. Each seemed changed, their individual selves burned off by the music as if by refiner’s fire. When my father drew the Chaconne down to its gossamer close, the students and teachers paused in silence. Only when my father took his second bow, did applause, reverent applause, break out.
My mother’s face streamed with tears. Awestruck and vanquished, Boris appeared a shrunken soul. As Odysseus, my father had triumphed. He had regained his Penelope. Mom, however, would not look me, her cunning Telemachus. My parents left together, and I stayed behind to finish the day at school. It took several days before my mother would meet my eyes.
As the students exited the auditorium, I saw Mr. Casey enfold Boris with a fraternal arm. In July, I learned that Boris Nalibotsky no longer lived in Philadelphia. Mr. Casey had arranged an audition for him with the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra had hired him, and Boris Nalibotsky moved to Amish country. I believe that this was my first act as a social worker.
Upon my return from school, I had intended to tear out the incriminating pages in my mother’s diary, but search as I might I could not find the guilty notebook. The next day, taking out the trash, I saw its pink marble cover through the white kitchen garbage bag. Rarely since have I known such peace.
Over time, I concluded that my mother never slept with Boris Nalibotsky. To be sure, there was necking and maybe a little more, but I always had the notion that those hundred noes she’d talked about meant a specific kind of no.
My parents were standing out in their front yard as I pulled up to the house. Mom, now very gray but still trim and attractive—you would call her a handsome woman—wore a pink T-shirt and a pair of pink and green plaid shorts. Dad, who looked merry but somewhat crouched, also wore a pink T-shirt. They looked like they were on the same team in their twin get-ups, though thankfully Dad wasn’t wearing pink and green plaid shorts.
My mother and father have come to fit better into each other’s lives. Sometimes they even seem like sweethearts, gifting each other with little compliments, deftly avoiding quarrels, relishing the little pleasures of togetherness. Hand in hand, they face the deaths of friends, the encroaching shadows, but also the vita nuova of the retirement community with all the reading groups, clubs, the residents’ orchestra, and the music room. Someone said that marriage is better after the first thirty years, and maybe that is so. Never having married, I will have to wait a long time before I find that out for myself.
The kitchen was packed up, and I wondered if Mom and Dad had donated their excess goods to Hatikvah House, which now served immigrants of many nations. I wondered where Boris Nalibotsky was, and if I should Google him to find out.
Oh, my fourteenth year. The year of Boris and Mom. The strangest year of my life, the one that stands a statue’s head taller than all the rest. It was the first year I made a difference, the year I saved, or thought I saved, the family.
On my way to Pho Palace to pick up Vietnamese takeout, I passed many billboards and shop signs for Russian restaurants, appliance stores, and dress shops. Perhaps I generalize, but these days the Russians I see in the neighborhood look fashionable and buff. In the goldene medina, the post-Soviets have taken to upward mobility in a big way.
Over a dinner of spring rolls, pho tai nam soup, and grilled chicken with rice, my parents spoke excitedly about their new apartment. “A two-bedroom model, Warren, with a guest room for you.” That night I slept in my childhood room, in my old twin bed for the last time. It was like sleeping in the arms of a younger brother, or maybe the arms of my old self. Not that I hadn’t stayed over countless times before, but this last night was different, a little sweet, a little sad. I dreamed about the three deer I’d seen on the turnpike when the Chaconne came on the radio. In my dream, the deer materialized in our living room. They caught my eye and sniffed the air, and I worried that they might run around the house and hurt themselves. But no harm came. They dissolved into a foggy part of my dream. And then I woke up.