Fiction: The Closer You Were, The Less You Knew

Read More: A brief interview with Annie Dawid 

“The Closer You Were, The Less You Knew.”
– NYPD Chief Joe Esposito, September 11, 2001

Sept. 10, 2001
East 88th Street, NYC
10 a.m.

When Jules drops Ina off for the procedure, he kisses her deeply, embarrassingly, in the back of the cab and says, “Last time I caress the dear old face of the dear old gal I married.” Smiling, he exits the car to open her door with a flourish and a bow, “Break a leg, baby.”

Ina laughs. “A broken leg would be easier to fix! Remember how bad I’m going to look when I see you tonight, okay? Just think the worst, and it won’t be that bad.”

Jules directs the cabby to his office at the U.N. Plaza, and Ina inhales before entering the offices of Drs. Stein, Moore and Greenblatt. Discreetly, the brass plaque reveals nothing of the sort of doctoring which goes on in these tasteful Upper East Side rooms. “Vanity, all is vanity,” she whispers, then pushes open the solid oak door.

“Mrs. Schoenfeld, how are you?” Here, the nurses wear black Donna Karan; all are flawlessly coiffed and maquillaged. Nothing yet distinguishes the surroundings from an ordinary beauty salon.

Ina smiles ruefully. “I’m entirely prepared, Mia. Better not delay, or I might change my mind. Again.” This is Ina’s third attempt at lifting her face back into youth, aiming to re-capture the beauty of Ina the mother, teacher, wife, “Ina the energetic,” her friends called her, Ina at 61 seeing this fresh promise in Leah, her eldest daughter, herself a mother of two adolescent daughters.  At 51 and 57, Ina had confronted her growing despair at the discrepancy between her lively spirit and wizened face, found herself on the verge of surgery here in this office, then about-faced.  Her body was lean and strong, the result of daily three-mile runs through Central Park for the last fifteen years. But her face, the face of her own mother, was the picture of age, a crone’s face.

“If you’re ready then, Doctor Moore will see you.”

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As the procedure begins, Ina tries to talk herself out of the panic that rises in her belly from the first drip of anesthesia onward. “Fool,” she thinks, “Oh foolish woman. You are not your face. God gave you this mirror of Mama, and you’re de-facing, effacing your own mother, who would never agree to such a barbaric act.” Of course, her mother hadn’t lived to this late age, dying of breast cancer at 30, her only child ten. If Ina had been permitted to weep, she would have. A retired high school English teacher, Ina borrows insults from poets she’s taught. “I will show you fear in a handful of … botox.” She feels strong in herself as an older woman, each year more confident in the decisions she’s made, the ones she makes daily.  Yet, here she is, joining the masses of women afraid to age naturally. Now, she is wholly committed. Her life – all lives, she believes – remains a series of trials.

As the seconds pass, the doctor’s deep, expensive voice gentles her: “Now I’m going to do thus and such; you’ll feel a little prick,” etc. This latter makes her want to laugh.  Indeed, she had felt little pricks in her time, though her sexual experience was limited to two groping freshmen at Columbia before she’d met Jules. Jules the Prodigious, Jules the babymaker, one, two, three years in a row, and there would have been four if she hadn’t insisted on the abortion. Another Dr. Stein, this one out in Newark, his door opening onto the hallowed back alley – the son she might have had. Without any basis in science, she’s convinced herself that the weeks’ old fetus was male. But she doesn’t regret it, at least, not often. Every few years, on the anniversary of that day, Jules will raise a glass: “To the unknown soldier,” he’ll say – all that needs saying. Without marking the calendar, he keeps track of the date, not Ina.

Later, when she lies resting, taupe curtains masking the sun, the walls sponged a subtle gray, she tells herself:  “It’s done. No going back. Like every hard thing in the world.” Without success, she tries to resist reciting her personal list: her mother’s death; her father’s remarriage to the dreadful blonde, whose name she knows but refuses to say; the early and awful deaths of her in-laws; Leah’s left eye meeting a traveling I-beam at an unsupervised construction site on Third Avenue, her young life commencing as a series of operations, brutal, the recoveries from successive procedures longer and longer. But of the three girls, Leah was most like Ina; she toughed out every surgery, as she later bested law school as a single mother, her philandering husband lost to his trust-funded drug habit. He’d “forgotten” to send child support for the last four years, but Leah was proud to support the girls on her own. Ina wonders how her own life would be had she divorced her philandering husband but doesn’t dwell there.  Jules had eventually calmed down, as she knew he would. The last affair – as far as she knew, and her information was usually impeccable – had been the year he turned 50. It was to be expected. Her marriage was good, her greatest achievement.

Mia comes in to check her bandages, to see if there’s anything she needs. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do for you?” The nurse’s voice quavers.

Eventually, Ina falls into half-sleep, sirens serenading her visions of Rachel and Naomi at their Sedona commune, back in the eighties, their unlined faces turning away from hers.

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July 5, 1983
Sedona, Arizona

At the phone booth beside the post office, Rachel was prompted by her older sister: “Dad, could you put Mom on?”

Commotion at the other end of the line. Naomi whispered to Rachel to say nothing until their mother was on the other phone.

“Mom and Dad: here’s what we have to say.” Rachel licked her lips; she’d practiced at least ten times, but suddenly cottonmouth was upon her. She wasn’t sure she could go through with it. Naomi rubbed her back – a reassuring gesture, tinged with menace. “We’re changing our names. From now on, Naomi is Jane Doe, and I’m Rita Roe.” Hearing what sounded like strangled laughter from her parents, Rachel winced. Her sister whispered “Go on!” and squeezed her shoulder, hard. “We’ve joined a commune here and don’t want to talk to you anymore. That’s all we have to say.” Now, according to her script, she was supposed to say goodbye and hang up, but still, she hung on, both parents talking at once. Separating Rachel’s tense fingers from the plastic, Naomi took the phone from her hands and gently returned it to its cradle. “Good for you Rita. It’s done.”

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Sept. 11, 2001
N. Plaza, NYC
8:49 a.m.

His secretary, Dahlia, bursts into the conference room, screaming, “Turn on the T.V.!  Turn on the T.V.! They’ve hit the World Trade Center!” Jules frowns. Dahlia is by nature melodramatic; she dresses in velvets and brocades, which please his eye.  Just out of Julliard, she resembles the Naomi he prefers to remember: high school artist, gorgeous rabblerouser, black hair down to her ass, a fighter.  His favorite. “What are you talking about, Dahlia? Calm down.”  The firm’s biweekly partner meeting is sacrosanct, and he wishes she’d cut the melodrama.

Larry, Iris, Ron and Ira shake their heads. They can’t stand Dahlia’s flamboyance, her fuchsia hair, the drama.

Sobbing, Dahlia switches on the TV in the corner. Her sorrow seems real, or extremely well acted.

Dumbfounded, Jules and the rest watch debris falling from the flaming north tower, barely registering the newsman’s voiceover. Jules looks out the window toward downtown, but there is nothing to confirm the screen’s surreal vision and so can’t quite believe.  It must be a hoax. The sky is blue and brilliant, the sun’s reflection burning in a million mirror-like windows.  Nevertheless, he forces himself to trust the broadcast and check on his eldest daughter.

“Get Leah on the phone for me. Now!”

Dahlia tears out of the room.

Larry, Iris and Ira flip out their cell phones and call friends at the Towers. Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 105th floor, employs not only the firm’s brokers but Gary Puttermesser, Jules’ neighbor on Fifth and squash partner for the last 20 years. And, of course, Leah. Ron, a stooped 75-year-old, turns off the sound to the television and stands in front of it, open-mouthed. Tears fall from his upturned face onto the plush teal carpet.

At Dahlia’s desk, Jules grabs the phone from her hands. “Leah! Leah!”

“It’s just her voice mail, “ Dahlia says, wiping her eyes. “I’m on automatic re-dial.”

Jules listens to Leah’s voice reciting the standard greeting and request for messages – her calm, perfectly normal tone. Reliable, distinctly undramatic, level-headed Leah. He listens again. And again.

Their associates from across the hall have crammed into the conference room to watch the big TV, and everyone is talking at once, except Ron, whom Jules has to pry away from the screen so that everyone can see; he turns the volume to high. At 9:02, they watch another plane hit the south tower. Dahlia passes out bottles of Evian.

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September 18, 1940
600 miles off the British Coast
aboard the City of Banares,
Destination: Halifax

“We’ve been hit! We’ve been hit!” Everyone was shouting at once, in Polish, German, Czech, English, French, Estonian, Yiddish. “Where are the lifeboats? Where are they?”

The crew, mostly British and Irish, directed the passengers toward the boats. Although the German sub remained invisible to the eye, all knew, without information, what had happened.

Leah Siegenberg, her three-month-old daughter, Ina, pressed to her chest, couldn’t find her husband. “David! David!” Despite her powerful soprano, a voice training for opera in Berlin until the evening they began their flight, David did not appear. While most of the crowd remained stoic, passing into the lifeboats as instructed, there were other women like her, shouting the names of their beloveds, and children, separated from parents, calling Mama, calling Papa. The passengers had been told to leave all baggage on board, to take only a handbag and passport.  The air smelled burnt, as if singed by the explosion belowdecks. Few resisted, and the crew tried, beseechingly, to separate the holdouts from their luggage. “Please Madam. The boat won’t sink. We’ll get it later for you; don’t worry.” Only some believed this. Like Leah and David, most of the passengers had been fleeing the Nazis since last September, hiding, scavenging, supported by family or friends or occasionally strangers in Switzerland, England, France.

A sailor pushed her onto the next available boat. “Please, you have a baby,” he said kindly. His accent recalled their time in Dublin; there she’d heard the Irish likened to Jews: their tenacity, persecution and stamina for suffering. “Let me help you, love.  Can I hold the wee one for you?”

“But I can’t find my husband!” she whispered, clutching Ina, stepping into the boat, knowing she was doing the right thing.

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May 2, 1991
Enchantment, Arizona Airport

Rita Roe waited for her parents’ plane to touch down. Jane Doe was back at the commune, angry at her sister for communicating, yet again, with Ina and Jules. She’d refused to come to the airport, had stopped talking to Rita the day before when Rita divulged her secret, which, ultimately, she couldn’t hide from her sister. She had never been able to keep anything from Naomi: a dream, a boyfriend, a desire.

Eight years had passed since Rachel had seen any blood family besides her sister, 13 months her senior. Though Rachel answered quickly and attentively to the name of Rita Roe, she had never stopped thinking of herself and her sister by the names they’d been given – Old Testament, weighty names – in accordance with the tradition of honoring deceased relatives, one of her parents’ rare odd adherences to Judaism. Naomi hated Ina and Jules; at first, she’d denounced them passionately at group meetings, but gradually, her hatred subsiding into bitterness, she pretended they didn’t exist. Which Rachel found ironic, knowing the stories of Jewish children who’d been shunned by their parents; one high school friend had been pronounced “dead” by her orthodox parents for running off with her black boyfriend.

Every spring, on Rachel’s real birthday (they’d been given new ones, dating to the hour they’d signed themselves into the commune and taken the names Haratha had determined), she telephoned her parents, just to say that she and her sister were alive. Were well, in fact. Thriving. Which was basically true. People called them Sister Roe and Doe, as they were rarely apart. Both made pottery and jewelry, which they sold, with other commune members, at various craft fairs around Arizona, under the ever watchful and sexual purview of Haratha, who hooked them all, men and women alike (though there were three women to every man), into Anonymity, the commune’s most recent appellation.

Anonymity revolved around Haratha, and existed because he did. Eyes black and burning, he bored into the commune members’ lives like augur through earth, as if erecting a new foundation. No one knew how old he was, his body all sinew and taut flesh, but Rachel guessed 50. No one dared ask; age was irrelevant at Anonymity, as were all mundane concerns, anything and everything material. History was relevant only for purposes of annihilation, he insisted; only now mattered. He summoned from them their truest selves in sessions he called “Burning Away the Dross,” or simply “burnings.”  Dross was everything outside of Anonymity, prior to it or after it, though none ever spoke of life post-Anonymity, a life without Haratha to glean its essence for them, the sun to their solar system. Often they fasted, and ate only from a list of foods prepared in specific ways, sanctioned by Haratha from his researches. He’d lived in an ashram in India, a yurt in Nepal, a monastery in Kentucky, a yeshiva in Jerusalem.  All sacred texts were accessible to his photographic memory; he reeled out long passages from the Bhagavid Gita, the Koran, the Bible and Buddha, as well as Plato, Thoreau, Freud, Nietzche. Because he had studied everything, they didn’t have to. As his students, disciples and acolytes, they were lucky to benefit from his life of rigorous preparation. Clearly he knew what was dross and how to banish it, how to disappear the crass world even as they supported their exile on its excesses. The crafts they made were designed solely for tourist consumption; they were not art. Art, Haratha told them, was just another distraction, like money. Most of Anonymity’s members were born to plenty, but he could decipher their deprivations through their elaborately constructed facades – especially that veneer polished by higher education – and pared their lives down to what Haratha considered core: the self (mind and body) and the group (their individual lives and bodies with his forming one self). He interrogated them; they interrogated each other, scything away defenses built by neurosis and ego and pretension. Life at Anonymity was hard and heady, 24 hours a day. Most couldn’t take it and fled, but Rachel and Naomi had persisted from the beginning, along with a half-dozen others. Only Rachel maintained an interest in the life she’d left and in those who’d populated it.

On her annual phone calls, Rachel was the listener.  In her family, “before,” (the all-inclusive period prior to July 1983), Naomi had been the speechmaker and diva of the Schoenfelds. They were in awe of her, all of them, even in her absence. On the telephone, Rachel had learned she was an aunt and then an aunt again. She learned of her mother’s retirement and her taking up of yoga; of her eldest sister’s coked out husband; her father’s continued financial successes; of how Leah’s two daughters apparently resembled her and Naomi down to their smiles: the younger’s small and begrudging, the elder’s 1000 watts and crackling with glee. On Haratha’s orders, Rita Roe was to say nothing about Anonymity, nor to mention anyone’s names – especially his – nor to speak of how they made their money or their sexual arrangements or the parenting of the commune’s children – nothing at all. And if she was somehow found to have leaked a fact, a detail or an address, there would be punishment. Haratha declined to name said punishment, but all knew it would be severe – probably expulsion – and nobody leaked anything, ever.

“Darling! Sweetheart!” Her mother was first off the plane; obviously, they’d flown first class, the filthy pigs, Rachel thought, then realized it was Haratha inside her head saying those words, or was it Naomi?

“Ina! Jules!”  She stepped out from the crowd toward them.

Then both parents were swarming into her, like too many bees in a tiny hive, and everyone was crying, even her father, who had cried, as far as she could remember, only once, at the funeral of his parents, their taxi flattened by a drunk garbage truck driver on Second Avenue, when Rachel was still in grade school.

“Rachel, sweetheart, look how tan you are! How beautiful!”  Pushing Rachel’s long hair out of her eyes, a lifelong habit, Ina beamed.

At 29, Rachel still wore her hair very long, and allowed – no, willed – it to creep over her eyes. Her hair was her shield, and though fine and wispy, unlike Naomi’s thick, sensual cape, it served Rachel well as screen, filtering out what she preferred not to see. Her parents looked ancient, Ina especially, her creeping crow’s feet more like hawk tracks, the pale skin of her face a roiling scrim.

“You look great, honey,” said Jules, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, pretending he hadn’t cried. “How’s your sister?”

Of course, Rachel thought, his second sentence had to be about Naomi. Rachel was never enough for him, nor Leah; only Naomi existed. So Rachel had spent a lifetime imitating her charismatic sister, a way of being which had gotten her everything she’d needed, except her father’s attention. Poor Ina was forever trying to compensate and failing.

“Jane’s fine. But she’s not coming. And you can’t stay in Sedona, either. We’re not allowed to have guests.” Rachel heard her voice fall into cold monotone, the way her sister had drilled her to communicate with her parents long before. Again, she was reciting a script, written by Naomi and vetted by Haratha, who was currently sleeping with both of them, though separately.

Frowning, Jules and Ina exchanged a look.

“Darling, we know we’re not visiting you at the commune.” Ina had plastered her “all-is-well” smile firmly upon her lips. “We’ve reserved a room at the Paradise Inn. I want to spend some time at their spa and read Eliot just for pleasure. Your father wants to see those famous vortices.  So don’t feel any pressure to entertain us.”

“You can’t stay here,” she repeated, woodenly.

“Jesus Christ!” Jules looked at Ina, not Rachel. He rolled his huge dark eyes as if listening to a salesman whose product he had already decided not to buy. “The commune doesn’t own Sedona. We’ll come and go as we please.”

“Jules!” Ina shook her head, lips pursed tightly, a response Rachel knew well, imploring her father to silence himself, to please stop saying exactly what he thought. Her mother was the diplomat, articulate at all times, the family peacemaker.

“Well, I suppose you’ll do what you want.” Rachel stopped, surprised to feel some pleasure at her father’s refusal to kowtow to Haratha, and fearful of what Naomi would say later.  “But you’re not allowed to follow me, or try to find where we live. I’ll come to you at your hotel.”

“Christ, she’s threatening us.” Again, Jules directed his remarks to Ina. By this time, they’d reached the baggage carousel, where an infant’s carseat continually circled, unclaimed. Snorting, he rubbed his eyes and said to his youngest child, “Rachel, when are you going to grow up?”

Rachel froze. This was why Naomi hated them. Everything they stood for:  thickness, stasis, the status quo of Manhattan’s smug Jews. Her mother was murmuring, “Honey, honey,” wrapping her arms around her, but Rachel had ossified. They couldn’t touch her now.

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Sept 11, 2001
9:59 a.m.
U.N. Plaza

Still, Leah won’t answer her work phone. He tries Gary with the same results. Jules dials Leah’s cell: again, the recording. “Fucking voice mail,” he cries, looking out the window. Now there is smoke in the distance, but the sun continues to shine reverently on his beloved city. He wants to call Ina, but she is resting, still in pain from the procedure.

Yelling erupts from the conference room, and he switches to his cell phone, setting it on re-dial for Leah’s cell, and joins the crowd. They have the biggest screen on the floor, and now the faces cramming into the meeting room look like an advertisement for diversity in the workplace. Armenian, Indian, Greek, Jewish, Filipino, Haitian, Irish, Puerto Rican – workers for the building, secretaries, other lawyers, accountants, receptionists, delivery people. He closes his eyes, briefly, willing his confidence to lead, and makes his way to the TV.

The south tower collapses. A plume of smoke ascends like a soothsayer’s signal into the cerulean sky. The second plane crashes again and again into the tower. Someone comments how the image looks like Pixar, one of their clients. Jules believes and does not believe what he sees on the screen. Cell phones remain connected to ears. Ron breaks his silence to whisper to Jules that he’d had a breakfast appointment at Windows on the World at 9 o’clock that had been canceled at 8. He is the first to leave. “I’m going down there,” he says. “Surely they need help.” Jules wonders what a skinny old guy with a pacemaker and numbers tattooed on his arm can do to help when the world is apparently exploding, but says nothing. Vaguely, he admires Ron, his cheap suits, the way he gives away most of his money to Save-the-Children. Jules isn’t like that – son of garment industry immigrants, he hoards his love and cash, dispensing them selectively, generous to the chosen few. The plane crashes again; again the tower collapses. Shock succumbs to stupor, then panic.  People leave: Sammy the coffee boy, Esperança the cleaner, Athena their accountant, Mohammed the bike messenger.

His cell phone buzzes: “Jules?”

“Leah, where are you? Are you safe?” He nearly pees in his pants, so relieved to hear her voice.

“Dad, it’s Rita Roe. I have to talk to you.”

He could strangle her. “Rachel, do you have any idea what’s just happened in New York?” Too late, he realizes he’s yelling.

“No. What?” Her voice shrinks.

“Well, somebody just flew two planes into the World Trade Center,” he says, somehow locating his level lawyer’s tone. “We don’t know what’s happening. But I’ve gotta keep this line open. I’m waiting for Leah to get back to me. You know she works there, don’t you? The south tower collapsed, but she’s in the north, so she’s probably okay.”

“Um, no. I didn’t know.”

Christ, Jules says to himself. Rachel has inherited none of his brains, her mother’s strength, neither of their street smarts. “Honey, turn on a TV; you’ll see what I’m talking about.” Immediately he remembers they have no television at the commune. “Listen, call back tonight. Hopefully I’ll have good news of your sister. I’ve gotta keep the line free.”

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January 2, 1984
Phoenix, Arizona

In the air-conditioned offices of Messner & Son, Jules and Ina paced, waiting for Al Messner, Junior.  After phone calls with detectives and de-programmers all over the country, they’d decided on the Messner team, in part because of their proximity to the girls, in part because the Messners were the only Jews they’d been able to find, and, for reasons they couldn’t quite articulate, Ina and Jules agreed that the man to rescue their girls had to be a Jew. Not that they’d practiced their religion; to the contrary, they didn’t even attend High Holiday services or belong to a synagogue, just like Jules’ parents, who sneered at religion. Ina and Jules rarely spoke of god, and if they did, it was in the disparaging tones shared by their circle of cynical, educated, children-of-immigrants friends.

Finally, Mr. Messner, a silver-haired man in a sage green polo shirt and khaki slacks, mirror-shades glued to his head, motioned them into his room, which was furnished in standard Southwestern art and colors. It resembled their hotel room, the airport, and the restaurant in which they’d eaten lunch.

“Jules, Ina. Do you mind if I call you by your first names? Makes things easier.”

They nodded, accepting the seats he gestured toward. Al Messner remained standing, however, and directed his gaze to their eyes, from one set to the other, without mercy. “Cold bastard,” Jules thought.

“I’ve read the notes in your daughters’ file. I bet you feel like shit, huh.”

He didn’t wait for their answer. “I’ve seen you before, not you exactly, of course, but dozens of parents just like you. And I’ve helped every one of them. If I didn’t get their kids out of the fucking cult, at least I got them enough information to make them feel better. A little better, anyway.” From a turquoise-and-silver box on his desk, he plucked a cigar and let it hang from his lips while he spoke, with no apparent intention of lighting it. “Yup, I’d have to check my files to count exactly how many Judy Friedmans, Sally Silvers and Joe Epsteins I’ve gone after.  And I know we get more Jewish clients than the other guys, but even so, you’d be amazed. Rich Wasps and Jews, that’s who joins cults.  Rarely Catholics, though I couldn’t say why.”

Despite the air conditioning, sweat ran down Jules’s temples and pooled in the wells of his collarbone. He’d gained weight, drank, felt like hell since Naomi had disappeared. Naomi and her shadow. “So do you know anything about this place in Sedona?” he asked. “Where they name themselves things like Rita Roe and Jane Doe.”

Al shook his head. “And John Doe and Richard Roe. Yup, been there before, just last year.”

“Did you get the child out?” asked Ina, still struck by his use of the word “cult.” Their daughters were in a cult. She pictured shaved heads and drugged out zombies – Charlie Manson’s girls with Xs carved in their foreheads. Hitler Youth. Her girls. Impossible. Until today, she’d used the word commune, which sounded much friendlier, even benign.

“The child, did you say, Ina?” Al frowned. “These aren’t children. They’re grownups, who don’t want to be grownups. Nothing like our generation. They’re trying to return to some idealized childhood. A childhood none of us had. Free from anxiety. Where somebody takes care of every little thing.”

“Did you get this person out?” Ina persisted.

Al pointed to the Sandia Mountains with his thumb, as if hitchhiking. “Do you know how many communes we’ve got in Arizona alone? New Mexico, California, Colorado – hundreds. Maybe thousands. No one knows exactly. Most of them died out in the seventies, but the ones that didn’t – they’re the toughest to crack. And the ones that started in the eighties, like this one – they’re the worst.” He chewed on his cigar, then pitched it into a tray in the shape of Israel. “No,” he said, looking out the window, “that one we didn’t. He’s still there. Maybe he’ll help us.”

“Why would he?” Ina asked.

“The ones who don’t leave, despite the deprogrammers, interventions, bribes, quasi-kidnappings, sometimes – at great risk to themselves – they conspire with us. Like what they couldn’t do for themselves, they’ll do for some younger kid.”

“What’s that boy’s story?”  In a bizarre way, Jules felt comforted by the fact that they were no different from anyone else who’d sat here, lost, their perfectly normal, bright kids suddenly strangers with wacko names, brainwashed by lunatics, by their own desire to be someone they weren’t.

“Of course, our files are confidential. But I can sketch some broad outlines.  I do this all the time.” He sat on the edge of his desk, boring into them with his carefully chosen words. “Not unlike your girls. Smart, secular, all the advantages. This kid was from the West Coast, though. Otherwise, the details are pretty similar: good secondary education, maybe a month at a Kibbutz the summer before college, brand-name universities – now, your younger one didn’t finish, and the older one did, right?”

Jules and Ina nodded, feeling somehow guilty.

“Yeah, so this guy gets his B.A. in something, some liberal art or other, and he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, what he’s supposed to do or wants to do. He thinks he’s a philosopher, or a musician, or someone who can save the world, though he hasn’t a fucking clue how to go about it. Nice kid, sweet to his little sister, always sends Grandma a card on her birthday. Did a beautiful job at his Bar Mitzvah – parents, grandparents endlessly kvelling. And when he gets into Stanford, or Harvard, or Chicago, or whatever it is, the parents think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Little Joey makes good, fulfills all their dreams.”

At that moment, Ina and Jules thought the same thoughts: They aren’t like that. They don’t live through their children. And their girls didn’t even get Bat Mitzvahed. Their girls weren’t naïve, or foolish, or simple-minded. They were Manhattanites, sophisticated and tough.

“And you’re thinking that your kids are different,” said Al, chewing on another cigar. “Every parent thinks that, without exception. I did too.”

Both Jules and Ina inhale, sharply.

“Yup. But I didn’t get into this business that way. My dad, who’s 81 and still at it, has been going after missing people his whole life. He likes solving mysteries. I just followed in the old man’s shoes, except first I got a degree in forestry, thinking I’d do my own thing. But you know the story – got married, had kids, needed more money. Anyway, that’s not what you want to hear about. But my kid, she was 30, died with Jim Jones in Guyana. A social worker. Do-gooder.”

“Did you try to get her out?”

Al’s sun-browned hand masked the lined skin of his face. “We tried for four years.” He shook his head, removed his hand and smiled. “But we have gotten a hell of a lot of kids out.  Didn’t I send you a list of parents you could contact?”

Nodding, Jules considered that so far, Al had told them only two stories, both failures. “Yes. I did speak to some of them, too. They all said great things about you.” He paused.  “They all got their kids back.”

“You’re not gonna blame me for false advertising, are you? You’re a businessman.”

“Lawyer,” said Jules, “Trademarks.”

“I’m an English teacher. Private high school on the Upper East Side,” added Ina, peeved she’d been relegated to the role of less important spouse.

“Well, both of you can understand that I don’t put people on the list whose kids are still in. If you want to talk to any of them, like the parents of that boy in the Do Re Mi cult – that’s my name for them – I can ask if they’ll speak with you. I got nothing to hide.”

“Would you do that?” The dread in Ina’s belly hardened. (She remembered Hopkins’ poem: “I am gall, I am heartburn.”) Al’s daughter, college graduate with a profession, murdered by toxic Kool-Aid in South America.  Ina and Jules were sure their girls would be out in a few months, or by the end of the year, at the very latest.

“Sure, Ina. You can talk to my wife, too, if you’d like. Anyway, I’ve got another client. I’m going to give you this tape recorder and ask you to go back to your hotel and record, the two of you, the whole history of your girls. I want it straight, no lying. All the details. It’ll take plenty of tapes. Ask my secretary to give you a dozen. Tomorrow, drop them off in the morning, and I’ll see you the next evening, late.”

Leaving the office, Ina and Jules wondered if Messner could rescue Naomi and Rachel. “I mean, he couldn’t save that boy in the girls’ cult,” Ina whispered as the secretary went to a storage closet. “Or even his own daughter,” she added, hating the fact that her daughters now had a cult, that she’d used the possessive, that they’d forced her to. Do Re Mi. She would call it “The Sound of Music” cult. She imagined a hippie version of Julie Andrews singing from atop these harsh desert mountains. Her daughters – dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned versions of the British singer – runaways from their own private war.  With whom?  Society in general?  Or just them, just Ina and Jules?

On the street, they stumbled into a wall of heat. “That’s true,” said Jules, “but I bet it’s harder to save your own kid than somebody else’s.”

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Sept. 11, 2001
12:01 p.m.
U.N. Plaza

Still no word from Leah, but Gary has called him, given him a blow by blow of the action at the Towers; he’s at a bar in the Village, pausing on his trek north to 1001 Fifth Avenue, where he lives two floors above Jules and Ina. “Jules, I’m thanking God I’m alive, and you know I normally don’t give God the time of day.”

Jules hears Gary swallow his drink and order another.

“I saw Leah earlier, just not on the stairwell. I couldn’t see very well, but I’m sure she got out with Jan and Ivan; she’s usually with them.” He pauses.  “I didn’t see them either, but you know how they’re always on top of everything.”

“I hope so.” Jules wills himself to believe his friend, but his will won’t entirely obey him. Gary is alive; why shouldn’t Leah be? Gary is old, like him; Gary has no children. Leah is young and strong and a mother. She should be the one calling, not him. Jules doesn’t think life is fair; fairness doesn’t exist. He wants justice. Justice according to Jules: he will trade Gary for Leah.

“Maybe Leah’s contacted Ina. I mean, you’re a hard man to get a hold of. Have you talked to her?”

“Yes.” He lies. “No word from Leah there.”

“It’s early, yet. I’m sure she’s fine.”

Jules can hear the smothered elation in Gary’s voice; he’s jacked up on adrenaline. Down all those stairs, out of the burning towers, he’d walked away from the horror, unscathed.  But he’s too good a friend to show it outright, not while Leah’s incommunicado. “Gary, I better get off, keep the line open.”

In his office, watching the East River, where a red tug puffs smoke over the blue blue water, Jules needs to see Ina. He should go home. He calls but gets the voicemail and hangs up. With the door shut, his office is strangely quiet; no one is yelling, or even talking loudly, unlike an ordinary day at the office. He can’t hear the TV from here, and his radio broke last week; he’d asked Dahlia to get it fixed yesterday, and she said she’d do it today. But does he want more information? He isn’t sure. If he stays dumb and deaf, if he doesn’t hear any more stories, or see, again, the technicolor planes crashing fakely into identical skyscrapers, the Towers collapsing into themselves, perhaps nothing worse will happen. Leah will be okay. For a second, he persuades himself that no news must mean good news. But now, knowing what he knows, he doesn’t believe it. For Leah to be alive would require a miracle, and Jules doesn’t believe in miracles. “Jesus, the grandkids!” He rubs his temples, hard, gets out his address book and calls Shoshanna, the older girl, on her cell. Voicemail. He leaves a message to call him on his cell, then decides to walk to the Academy, ten blocks away.

Out on the street, the friction of the crowds chafes his shoulders, scrapes his consciousness. People talk about terrorists, conspiracies, accidents. A couple walking beside him argues about who did it: the woman insists it’s the P.L.O. The man says it’s an accident. “Who would want to do such a horrible thing? Of course it was an accident.”

The woman snorts and shakes her head. “Don’t be naïve, Harold. God, where do you think you’re living?”

Jules knows what she means: New York City, where everything happens.  But Jules, unlike Harold with his pink apple cheeks, believes that someone would, indeed, want to bomb the World Trade Center. For the name alone:  perfect trademark of globalism.  And the Pentagon, ugly symbol of America’s military-industrial complex. It was flawlessly done; he doesn’t think the P.L.O. could have pulled it off. Who then? It was brilliant in its simplicity: Pilot a plane into a building, the tallest one in New York, and have the world watch it topple on TV. He’s heard about the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, details still unclear. How could that man think it was an accident? Christ! Harold has an accent: Minnesota or something like. Not a New Yorker.

At the girls’ school, he finds a policeman at the gate. The kids are in lockdown, the man tells him, and directs him toward a school official, who is on the steps, trying to speak above a crowd of parents and nannies, brown-skinned housekeepers in white, and a flock of well-heeled grandparents like himself.

“Please don’t panic, everyone. The children are perfectly safe,” she’s shouting. “If you can form a line, we’ll get you to them as quickly as we can.” Grumbling, the crowd knots up, three or four abreast. “Please have your photo identification out. The older girls are helping us get the younger ones.”

It takes thirty minutes, but finally Jules is at the head of the line, and the first person he sees, beside the official, is Shoshanna. “Poppa!” She hugs him hard. He can’t bear to let her go. At 15, Shoshanna resembles his Naomi at the same age, but for her lips, which are thin and nervous. “Shoshanna’s been so helpful,” the official, whose namecard reads “Leora Gross-McCarthy,” tells him. “Go get your sister,” she says, and kisses Shoshanna on the head.

Shoshanna and 10-year-old Ivy beside him, he doesn’t know what to say about their mother, or how to say it. Apparently, they know some facts but not others: the planes striking the buildings but not the collapse. “Is Mommy okay?” asks Ivy, clutching his hand. Ivy has long thin hair like Rachel. Briefly, he remembers his youngest daughter’s unusual call – she’s never called him at work – then forgets. Where should he take them? Their place? His place? But Ina will be there, looking like a bashed up welterweight. “Want some ice cream?” he asks, then feels stupid; it’s not a holiday. The sun warms them, and he steers the girls toward the Park.

“Tell us what’s happened, Poppa,” says Shoshanna. Like Naomi, she is smart and doesn’t appreciate bullshit. “There’s rumors the Towers fell down. Is that even possible? I don’t know what to believe. Have you heard from Mom? Now I can’t remember if she said she had an appointment at Columbia this morning, or was that tomorrow?”

Shoshanna’s words cast a brief spell of bliss; Leah wasn’t there. Leah is somewhere here, uptown. But if she were uptown, surely she would have come for the children. It doesn’t make sense. In front of the Guggenheim, as if planned, all sit simultaneously. No crowds queue at the museum. The non-Manhattanites are flooding the bridges and trains, fleeing the city. Jules does not want to flee; if roots could grow from his feet, they’d crack the pavement and spread up and down Manhattan island, from his parents’ beginnings on Delancey Street to his own prime real estate across the street from the Met. To this sidewalk here, his two granddaughters walking home from school as if it were a normal day.

“Girls, look. I’ll tell you what I know, which isn’t much.” He wonders if  Ivy can handle the truth, then says the hell with it. “Two planes flew into the Towers this morning. There’s total mayhem downtown. Both buildings fell. I haven’t heard from your mother, but that isn’t necessarily bad. She could be anywhere. Phone lines all over the city are jammed. Maybe her cell isn’t working. Maybe the batteries went.”

Saying nothing, Shoshanna rises; he knows she doesn’t believe him. But Ivy is clutching his hand, tight. Crying. Patting her on the head, he wants to reach out to Shoshanna, but she is too far away to touch.

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Passover Week, 1952
East New York

At 12, Ina’s chief job was babysitting her stepmother’s three children, plus the baby Miss Vicky had made with Ina’s father just last year. At school, her teachers encouraged Ina to join the glee club, the speech team, the school government, but she turned down all offers in order to be home to watch the witch’s kids, for both Miss Vicky and her father worked all day at the delicatessen.

The baby was easy. Ina rocked the little boy, his profusion of blond curls spilling out of his blanket, and sang her mother’s favorite arias, which once serenaded Ina to sleep. The baby’s name was Christopher, her stepsiblings DeWayne, Earline and Dwight. From their apartment, all traces of Judaism had been banished by her stepmother: on the shelf where the menorah had stood, now two pewter candlesticks, dating to the Civil War, took their place. At all her friends’ homes, it was Pesach, but here they were looking forward to Easter.  Passover dishes had become the “good” dishes, and meat and milk mixed freely at their dinner table. To Christopher, Ina whispered, “I should hate you; you stole my Poppa. No, your mother stole him.” But she kissed his head instead. “It’s not your fault,” she conceded, though she felt otherwise toward DeWayne, Earline and Dwight. When her stepsiblings played outside, Ina didn’t watch them properly. Looking out the window, spotting their bodies among the crowd playing stickball, she said to their images through the glass, “I hate you.” And she did. To her, they were spoiled, stupid, ugly children. No one had consulted her about this earthquake in her life. Six months after her mother’s death, her father had married Vicky, a widowed Southerner who wore loud red lipstick and was forever fondling David, right in front of the children.  The opposite of her mother, whose death had seemed to come out of nowhere. In November, Leah was told she had cancer; by Hanukkah, she was dead.  The following May, Ina had a brand new family, and eight months later, a baby brother.

Christopher slept, drooling on his half-sister’s shoulder as she circled the dining table, maneuvering the book she was reading on a lazy susan, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, so she could read as she walked around and around. If she stopped moving, the baby cried. That morning, her teacher had loaned her a beautiful edition of the play, its intricate etchings limning a magical place. Not a world she believed existed – fairies were for babies – but a world she liked to imagine: Titania her mother, the ass her father, Bottom, in whose body was hidden the good David, the man Ina could sometimes conjure up from before he’d been bewitched by his blonde Southern sweetheart, ironically named Victoria. As if he’d forgotten her mother, and her, as if nothing about their old life mattered, he’d let Miss Vicky conquer their universe of three in every single way, blot it out with three more children, and now he was in love with little Chris, whom he called his angel, light of his life.

The house often smelled of grits, oil, pig – fried everything. What her mother would call tref, though both parents generally avoided the use of Yiddish, preferring to instill in Ina their love for the beauty of the English language. Ina ate little of her stepmother’s cuisine, nostalgic for the stuffed cabbage, kasha, and chopped liver, whose recipes her mother had inherited from her great-grandmother.

Loud slipcovers draped the sofa and armchairs. Miss Vicky had covered her mother’s taste with her own, substituting yellows and pinks for Leah’s subtle browns and greys.  Sometimes Ina removed all the fabrics, retrieved the Menorah from its place beneath the kitchen sink, and re-made the house in her mother’s image. But it never worked. Her mother had evaporated, her only visible reminder the framed, formal portrait in the bedroom Ina shared with Earline, of Leah as Dido, the star of Berlin’s Jewish opera.  In the black-and-white photograph, her mother’s eyes blazed, her black curls Medusa-like, her expression formidable. Later, the picture would leave with Ina when she decamped, at 17, for Barnard, and grace her desk in the women’s dorm. By then, the burgeoning family she departed would contain another brother and her stepmother pregnant yet again. Never would she forgive her father his elision of her mother; even at 12, Ina was preparing his punishment. As he erased her, so she would him.

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Sept. 11, 2001
12:30 pm
1001 Fifth Avenue

The first she hears of it is from the concierge, when she descends to the lobby to get her mail, wearing a large hat, sunglasses, and a chiffon scarf which partially obscures her face. She’d slept through the morning, earplugs in, and woke woozy from pain medication. Everything hurts. Patrick tells her the Trade Towers have fallen, but she doesn’t believe him. With his heavy brogue, comparatively fresh off the boat, Patrick must have said something else. When their eyes meet as he hands her a package, he shakes his head.  Surveying her, he asks with concern, “Missus Schoenfeld, are you alright?”

Does it matter if the concierge and doorman see her this way? She can’t decide. Already she is furious with herself for the way the surgery, only a day old, has metastasized her already formidable pride. “Hell hath no fury like a woman seen post-facelift,” she thinks, and, as the elevator opens before her, she assumes the perturbed look on Max, the old doorman, is one of restrained pity; surely he’s seen similarly ravaged faces on other female tenants over the years.

Upstairs, she pours herself a glass of mineral water and studiously avoids mirrors. In the Jewish tradition of sitting shivah, which she’s never done – her father had prohibited it, and at the time of her in-laws’ deaths, Jules had refused to practice a custom his parents vehemently opposed – she considers covering the mirrors with cloth. But whom would she be mourning?

Ina doesn’t know if her father is alive or dead, though her intuition tells her he’ll live to be a hundred at least, unmolested by conscience, his life with her and her mother easily supplanted by a glut of Southern Baptist babies. And by surgically removing the last vestiges of her mother, has Ina unwittingly killed her? Wittingly? In the bathroom, after peeing, automatically she looks in the mirror while washing her hands and is fascinated by the horrors of her face. Never before have life’s inflictions been manifested this bluntly. As the doctors told her she would, she resembles a battered woman – poor Hedda Nussbaum. Without the sunglasses, her eyes beam steadily back at her, accusatory, the dark brown irises cold and hard. Who did this to you?

Sipping her French water, Ina settles into the couch and reaches for the phone to call Jules at work.

“Schoenfeld, Zimring and Lerman, Julius Schoenfeld’s office,” says Dahlia.

“Hi Dahlia, how are you? It’s Ina.”

“As horrid as I can be while still upright, I suppose. You?”

“Well, I’m fine. It’s a beautiful day. Is Jules in?”

A short silence ensues.

“Ina, haven’t you heard the news?”

“No. I’ve been…incommunicado till now.”

“Shit.”

It’s unlike Dahlia to curse in ordinary English; she’ll say “Mierda!” or “Zounds!” or “Mon dieu!”

“Ina, I really hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it seems to be my donnée today.”

“What’s happened?” Ina reconsiders Patrick’s harsh look.

Dahlia sighs. “Well, in short, it goes like this: two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Towers this morning, and soon they were on fire, and first the South Tower collapsed, even though it got hit second, and at 10:30 the North Tower fell down too.”

To Ina, Dahlia’s words have the quality of lines from a Broadway farce.

“Jules went to pick up the girls at school,” Dahlia adds.

Without thinking, Ina hangs up the phone, picks up the remote and turns on Channel 2. There, on network television, Dahlia’s and Patrick’s words are validated by videotape, police, newsmen, and government officials.

Leah. Where is Leah? First she hits the phone’s memory button for Leah’s office, then remembers there is no office. She has to search for her daughter’s cell number, and prays that Leah will answer her ever-ringing, annoying portable phone and say, “Mom? What’s going on? I’m pretty busy here,” which is what she usually says, peeved to be bothered at work. But a computerized voice announces that the number isn’t working. Again, she reads the number, out loud, dialing slowly. Again, the same message. She tries Jules’ cell phone, which he picks up at first ring.

“Leah?” he asks breathlessly.

“No, it’s Ina.”

“Jesus, Ina. I keep hoping it’s Leah. Everybody else in the world is calling. I’ve got the girls with me; we’re at Tavern on the Green, and I’m drinking scotch, and nobody’s eating. How are you?”

“I think I’m in shock,” she says slowly.

“Hang on.  I’ll bring the girls over.”

“But Jules – I don’t want them to see me this way.”

“Honey, where else can I take them?”

“Take them home. They’ll feel better in their own apartment.”

“Are you sure? They’re in the bathroom right now. Shoshanna’s toughing it out like the good little Spartan, but Ivy’s a mess. I keep saying their mother will call soon, any minute. I just don’t know what else to say.”

“That’s fine to say.” She hears the vibrato of doubt fracture her pretend-strong voice. “Of course she’ll call soon.”

“Look, I want to keep this line open. I’ll call you from Leah’s.” He hangs up.

With the volume turned off, the television keeps offering its visual testimony, like something out of a bad disaster movie. She remembers how she and the girls laughed at The Towering Inferno when it came out; she can picture them in the movie theater, sipping their Cokes and whispering how fake it all looked. With her finger on the channel changer, she watches the shifting images. On every network and cable station, she can’t escape from the airplanes crashing, the smoke, the fire. On one channel, she sees the name of her daughter’s firm flashing across the screen, and depresses the mute button.

“Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 105th and several lower floors, has one thousand employees. So far, only a dozen have been accounted for.” Pressing the mute back on, she closes her eyes.

When the phone rings half an hour later, Ina hasn’t moved. While certain she is on the verge of some massive outbreak of feeling, so far she can detect only an amorphous blackness inside her, an old pain she dates to the death of her mother. “Leah?” she says weakly.

“Ina, it’s Gary. Upstairs. Have you heard from Leah yet?”

Here, alive, in her building, is Gary, who also works at Cantor Fitzgerald. “Not yet.” She tries to convince herself that her neighbor’s survival portends well for Leah.

“Do you want me to come down? I can tell you what I know.”

“Not right now, Gary. Maybe later. But thanks.”

“Is Jules there?”

“No. He’s with the girls at Leah’s.”

“Well, if you need me, call. Gloria’s on her way too. She was at the South Street Seaport, and she’s had a hell of a time getting home. But she’s alright.”

Ina doesn’t know what to say. “Good.” So Gloria and Gary are fine. Her anger fluoresces white-hot in the blackness.

“Are you alright, Ina? Can I get you anything?”

“Really, I’ll be okay. I want to keep the line open.”

“Sure, of course. Call if you need me, okay?”

She hangs up.

Leah is dead. She knows it in her bones as she’s known other certainties in the past: various deaths; Rachel and Naomi’s failure to return home; the hatred she bears her father; Jules’s affairs; Leah’s enduring stamina. Just as she formerly understood that Leah would conquer every obstacle she encountered, from the I-beam to her druggy loser husband, Ina can testify before God that Leah is already gone.

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September 11, 2001
Peachtree Retirement Community
Athens, Georgia
1:07 p.m.

“Granddad, you want to lose at ping-pong again?” Little Vicky Schoenfeld, oldest daughter of his son Christopher, cajoles him toward the recreation room. “Your friend Johnetta might be there.”

David Schoenfeld allows his granddaughter to hold his elbow. Though frail, he is in excellent health, or so his doctors tell him. At 85, he does the crossword puzzle, in pen, every morning before breakfast. After living through two wives’ passing, he now has his eye on Johnetta Coleman, Peachtree Community’s youngest resident. Though in a wheelchair and suffering from diabetes, she is only 62, and good to look at. He plans to invite her to dinner.

“Vicky my love, tell me the latest about your sisters and brothers and their progeny.” He strokes her long blonde hair, which she wears loose to her waist. “You’re the only one who hasn’t yet multiplied; what are you waiting for, my dear?”

“Oh, maybe for the right guy to come along.” She elbows him in the side as they stand in the elevator. “Though that never stopped Aunt Earline from having babies.”

“Don’t be so old fashioned.” David elbows her in return as they exit toward the rec room. “I’m a modern thinker! I don’t care if you kids marry or not. I like the idea of all these Schoenfelds out in the world, propagating like toadstools. Who could’ve known, way back in Berlin, that the Schoenfeld name would come to populate the Southern United States! Too bad my father didn’t live to see it; he would be so proud!”

Shaking her head, Vicky picks up a red paddle to play her grandfather, a game she will, without being obvious, allow him to win. “Okay Granddad. This time I’m gonna get you.”

He wags his forefinger at her. “Don’t be so sure, young lady.” Even now, his German accent lingers. It is all that binds him to his European history, which he has spent a lifetime forgetting. The life he led before he met Victoria seems a mirage, their boat from Europe being torpedoed with only one third surviving a scene from some black-and-white war movie. After Ina’s departure for university, he had agreed to move their growing family to his wife’s hometown, and here he had enjoyed a life rich with relatives and American history. Though their various restaurants had failed to one degree or another, he’d been happy. His light hair and coloring helped him to blend in with his stepchildren and neighbors, and rarely did he refer to his past, the Jewish opera in Berlin, elegant Leah in New York, and the child who’d gone away. David prides himself on living in the present.

At matchpoint, Johnetta wheels herself into the room

“Johnetta, sweetheart,” he calls to her. “Watch me triumph!” And with his special trick serve, he wins the game.

“What are you fools doing?” she asks, speeding toward the television. “Turn on that TV! New York is falling down!”

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Sept. 11, 2001
5:15 p.m.
Sedona

“So what’d they say?” asks Naomi, waking from a full day of sleep.

“I wasn’t able to get through,” Rachel lies. “Something happened in New York, and the phone lines in Manhattan are jammed.” She submerges a washcloth in cool water and places it on her sister’s temples. “How are you feeling now?”

“Strange. Like I’ve left my body someplace. Where’s Haratha?” Naomi tries to lift herself onto her elbows and fails. “Could you bathe me? That might help.”

“Of course. He’s in town with the kids getting dinner.”

Rachel heads for the yard to pick lavender and mint, scattering them in the bathwater. For the last several years, she’s studied homeopathy and now manufactures her own tinctures and teas. From the doorway, she observes how Naomi’s once burnished terracotta tan has taken on the pale hues of wasting sage. Her dark eyes burn, giving her the aspect of a gothic heroine, perhaps Cathy from Wuthering Heights, a book Rachel remembers her mother reading snatches from aloud, long ago, when Rachel was home from school with pneumonia. Through Naomi’s cotton gown, her sister’s jutting hipbones form cruel peaks.

“Listen Jane, it might not be too late for surgery,” Rachel pleads. “I know I talked against it in the beginning, but how could it hurt now?”

“No surgery, Rita.  If fasting and herbs and your homeopathy can’t save me, then I’m not intended to be saved.”

“And don’t forget Haratha’s prayers,” says Rachel, trying to hide her bitterness. “I was wrong, Jane. You can’t treat cancer homeopathically.” She shakes her head. “Maybe in some cases it works, but yours is just too potent.” Rachel envisions her sister’s disease as a black scythe slashing through the golden wheatfields of Naomi’s body. It cuts as she’s seen Jane Doe machete weeds outside the compound: virulently, with cruel precision.  She wants to say more but hesitates, as is her custom. Crossing Naomi is always dangerous; she can cast you out of her light if she wants to. Rachel has seen it happen to friends, lovers, Leah, their parents. If Naomi didn’t like you anymore, she would cut you; thereafter, you did not exist. When they were teenagers, after they’d tripped together a few times, Rachel didn’t want to do it anymore. “You go ahead,” she told her sister, “I don’t like it.” Naomi had turned from her then, focusing all her energies on her companion of the moment, who, like her, found great pleasure in rocketing from the planet in a swirl of hallucinations, reality’s debris contrailing behind her. For weeks, she refused to acknowledge Rachel. Luck had intervened when the friend turned from Naomi to a new boy. As fast and as absolute as her dismissal of Rachel had been, the retrieval of her younger sister was equally all-encompassing. Back in the safety of her sister’s embrace, Rachel knew she couldn’t live without it. Never again had they separated.

Only Haratha could equal Naomi in charisma; like her, he glowed. His skin was always hot, his touch melting anyone in his way, and most of those who felt his heat simmered, believing themselves blessed to dwell in his proximity. With men, he was alpha wolf. With women, sex was communication. Only Naomi, of all his partners at Anonymity, could hold herself upright beside him. Women fell under her spell the way they did Haratha’s, their sexuality irrelevant. Sometimes Haratha and Jane Doe took a lover into their private domain – Rachel had traveled in and out of that territory over the years – and, like an insect beneath a sunlit magnifying glass, the third party found herself burning under the glare. The pain was exquisite, the air suffocating, but she’d never wanted out. Inevitably, they tired of her, found someone else, or Jane and Haratha had a temporary falling out. But what was happening now would not be temporary.

Eyes closed, Naomi gestures for her sister to carry her to the bath. “Listen to me, Rita. I want to be cremated by the arroyo, like I told you. Beside the saguaro. Nothing to mark the spot. Burn my body on a sage pyre, just you and Haratha. No children. Don’t let Ina and Jules know anything, or they’ll try to get my body back to New York.”

Naomi’s dry body feels like balsa wood in Rachel’s arms, airy – barely there. Gently, she dips Naomi’s feet into the water. “How’s that?”

Naomi smiles. “Delicious.”

Rachel slides the rest of her in. “Then why did you want me to call them today?”

“I don’t know. It was a lapse. While I was fasting, I had a vision about making peace. But I’m glad you didn’t get through. Really, you should forget about them after all these years. I realized I don’t need to make peace; I am peace. I have no regrets. We’ve done so well by ourselves out here. I mean, with Haratha and Anonymity, and without them too.” Exhausted, she rests her head on the bathtub rim, shutting her eyes.

Rachel bites her lip and sponges her sister’s bony body, humming an old melody she can’t identify, something her mother used to sing them to sleep in another language, perhaps something Ina’s mother had sung. Her grandmother had died of breast cancer at 30. Naomi was 40. Rachel checks herself for lumps, a practice she’s followed religiously since Naomi got sick. She wonders if Leah is healthy, then remembers Ina saying in the last phone call how Leah gets a mammogram every year and how the girls should too.  That morning, her father had said Leah was in danger. As usual, concerning his daughters, Rachel thinks he’s looking in the wrong direction.

Rachel’s fingertips circle the hard spot below her left breast that she’s been keeping track of for the last week, the first secret she’s kept from Jane Doe. To her half-sleeping sister she whispers, “This time I won’t follow you.” […]


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Annie won second place in the 2018 London Independent Story Prize. In 2016, she won the International Rubery Award in fiction for her first book and the Music Prize from Knuthouse Press in Fiction. Other awards include the Dana Award in the Essay, the Orlando Flash Fiction Award, The New Rocky Mountain Voices Award (drama) and the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction.

“The Closer You Were, The Less You Knew” originally appeared in Glimmer Train and won the 2019 Editor’s Reprint Award (fiction/nonfiction).

Read More: A brief interview with Annie Dawid