Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY
He was a man who loved women. His ease in finding them was as natural as the moon shining on his back yard deck in northeast Philadelphia where he and his fifteen-year-old daughter Jenny sat, heads tilted upward, watching the thousands of fireflies blinking in the night sky.
“Do you think Mommy sees them back in Kingston,” she asked.
“I believe she does, sweetheart. It was only her disease that kept you apart.”
“Do you think I’m too old to catch the fireflies?”
“Hardly,” he said, getting up from his lawn chair and going into the adjoining kitchen. She heard his slippers slosh over the floor and open a cupboard and then slam it shut. He presented her with a glass jelly jar with a metal lid.
“Promise you won’t let them die?”
“Oh, no, Daddy. When their blinking slows down, I’ll send them back outside.”
Mark Eisenberg’s used-car business had done well the year he’d traveled to Jamaica on vacation. He met a beautiful Jamaican dancer at Alfred’s Pelican Bar. Watching her dance with a variety of black-skinned men right there on the beach, he sipped his Rum and Coke, then put down the drink on the high table, and danced right up to her.
“May I?” he smiled into her eyes.
She was a few inches taller than Mark, but was impressed by the way he held the small of her back and guided her across the floor.
Nuzzling her head next to his cheek, she whispered, “You a good dancer, Mr. White Man. How long you down here?”
They continued their conversation in his motel room, where they didn’t get much sleep. In the well-stocked mini-refrigerator, Mark brought them Coors Beers, explaining to Naisha that it came from the mountain waters of Colorado.
“One of the most beautiful places on earth, Naisha, but not so beautiful as your body,” he said, filling her face and body with a million kisses.
“You take me there, my white boy?” she asked.
“Sure, I take you there, my African princess.”
When he went back to Philadelphia, he had her name – Naisha Radcliffe – and address and sent her a postcard, thanking her for the wonderful memories, and wishing her “best of luck” at Alfred’s at Pelican Bay.
One night after coming home late from his used car lot, the answering machine was blinking in his lavishly furnished Philadelphia row house. Making himself a cup of coffee, he sat on his red leather sectional, pulled off his shoes and socks, and listened to the message machine. Naisha had called him three times and left three urgent messages to call back.
She was pregnant. Yes she was sure it was his child. How did she know? It had been nearly a year since she had been intimate with a man. By the sound of her voice – tear-filled, frightened, excited – he was certain she was telling the truth. As a car salesman, he had a knack of knowing people, whether they could afford, say, an old Cadillac Fleetwood with fancy fins, or a fairly new BMW sports car going for thirty thousand dollars. This knowing of people, he would tell his mother, isn’t something you can learn. “It just is, Mom. It’s been with me since I was a kid and little Stevie Vetter tried to con me out of my baseball cards, remember?”
She did. She remembered everything about her son.
Naisha wanted to have the child. And Mark knew he would take responsibility. Living expenses were cheap on the islands, so every two weeks, he would send her a cashier’s check for $500, which was enough for obstetrical care and the upcoming birth and maternity expenses. Naisha didn’t seem to mind that Mark had no intention of coming down, nor did she seem to mind asking for more money as her pregnancy rolled on.
“Oh, honey, you know, I need some new maternity clothes. I want to go shopping where white folks go.” Then after a pause, she added, “You know, our baby going to be half white anyhow.”
Was she taking advantage of him, Mark wondered. Probably. He’d have to sell more cars to keep up with her demands. He arranged for his friend, Larry Kirschner, a well-known videographer, to film a television commercial, touting “Mark’s FairShare Auto Mart” right next door to Church’s Fried Chicken and down the road from Einstein Medical Center, right on Broad Street. A smiling black-haired Mark Eisenberg, wearing a suit jacket and no tie, walked around the lot, which flashed with tiny attention-grabbing silver flags.
“Look at this beauty!” he smiled, crinkling his blue eyes. “You come in here and make me an offer on this practically brand new Cadillac Escalade Truck and you’ll drive it home.”
The television commercial worked. Business picked up and Mark was once again moving cars. His pal, Stephen Johnson, from the neighborhood wrote up the orders in his cubicle, offering customers bottled water or coffee.
Sitting at home after work and looking at television, Mark mused about his child’s birth. Should he go down? Nah, unnecessary. Naisha didn’t need him. She had more relatives than there were beaches in Jamaica. Why, then, was he looking on the Internet for plane tickets from Philadelphia to Miami to Kingston?
The hospital where Naisha gave birth, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, was nearly as modern as an American one. The men’s room was not as clean and the air-conditioning left much to be desired but his woman was in safe hands. Nurses walked around in crisp white uniforms and peaked caps. Soul music was piped into the waiting room, where Mark sat among a sea of black faces, men and women and children, all awaiting the birth of a new family member. A water cooler gurgled when a child poured himself a drink.
“Mr. Eisenberg?” called a nurse.
He jumped up and walked toward her.
She smiled, touched him on the shoulder, and asked him to follow her.
Naisha lay in bed, her face shiny with perspiration, and in her arms, was the tiniest baby he had ever seen.
“Meet your new daughter,” said the nurse.
The baby was quiet. A white cap rested on her head, as Mark first kissed Naisha on the lips and then turned his attention to their daughter.
The baby’s blue eyes stared silently ahead as if reviewing her long journey from conception to life in the dark but noisy womb, filled with all sorts of music and voices and laughter and that one particular voice that was always there, whether she was eating her crunchy fish and chips for breakfast or dancing to the Righteous Brothers in her tiny living room.
Selling a Porsche was nothing in comparison to meeting your own flesh and blood, through the graciousness of a woman he hardly knew, a perfect stranger, who had incubated this miracle and now brought her forth as if she were the long-awaited heiress to a throne.
He held the newborn in his arms, surprised at how natural it felt. He told no one about his feelings, but his heart was singing a triumphant melody, as his eyes filled with tears.
“You done good,” he said to Naisha. “You done us proud, Mama.”
“I don’t want her. I feel like killing her. You take her away so I don’t kill this baby of mine. You hear me, man?”
Naisha never saw Jenny again. She had no interest in writing or in getting letters from her daughter. Mark promised his daughter that some day they would make the trip. In Jenny’s bedroom, she had a map of Jamaica on the wall, next to posters of Bob Marley and The Red Hot Chili Peppers – the famous one where their penises were encased in socks - and on her bureau, a framed black and white photo of her mother.
From the deck, Mark watched his slender daughter balance carefully over the railing while she scooped up fireflies into the jelly jar and then quickly screwed on the lid. Then she descended into the back yard. The grass looked black in the night but Jenny fairly glowed holding the flashing glass jar as she skipped across the back yard, which still held her old swing and sliding board.
“So like Naisha,” he thought, not for the first time, as he watched her partially blond dreadlocks sway down her back.
Mark was a man who could not keep away from women. He conducted all of his affairs away from home. He preferred wealthy women, who he dreamed would lift him up from what he told his mother, known as Bubby Eisenberg, was his “penniless pauper” status.
“Oh, Markie,” she remonstrated. “Always so hard on yourself. You know, if you need a loan, Bubby will be there to provide.”
Not on your life would he take money from his mother. She was a stingy bitch and used her wealth to lord over him.
He and his lovers would meet at their homes or in motels. Making love was a fine affair. But none would make a suitable live-in companion that he cared to introduce to Jenny. One day his daughter surprised him.
“Daddy,” she said. “I don’t mind if you come home smelling like perfume and the inside of a woman, but I certainly wouldn’t mind if you brought these ladies home to meet me.”
Mark turned red.
“Sorry, Daddy,” she said, “I didn’t mean to….”
“I’ll tell you something, kid. Now that you’re fifteen, what would you think if Daddy brought home a stepmother? Of course, I have yet to meet her.”
Jenny said she’d like that.
His friends, the Truby family who lived across the street in the rowhouse whose every outside stair featured a huge planter of brightly colored flowers, had tried to fix him up with a Chinese woman. Mark had balked. Yet another ethnicity to deal with. His Jamaican woman had wanted to kill their baby. His Jewish mother used her wealth to control him. Chinese women had a reputation of being cold, unaffectionate. It was once frowned upon for Chinese women to hold hands in public or engage in intercourse before marriage. Reluctantly, one night after work, he knocked on their door.
Sitting on their plastic-covered blue couch with his legs crossed, he listened as they pleaded the case of their dear friend, Yinlin.
He nodded his head. “Can we call her right now and set up a date?”
“You will love this woman,” said Albert Truby. “There’s absolutely nothing not to like about her. Dear, can you get the phone?”
Mary Truby went into the kitchen and brought it out.
“Put it on speaker, dear,” she said.
After dialing, the answering machine came on.
“Ms. Yinlin will call you back at her earliest convenience,” said a voice who was decidedly not Ms. Yinlin.
“That’s her secretary or should I say,” and he laughed, “her administrative assistant.”
“Jesus,” Mark mumbled under his breath.
A week later Mark drove a late model red Porsche to the new Lafayette Arms Hotel in downtown Philadelphia and handed over the car keys to the valet. Smoothing down his black hair, he walked into the hotel and made a right into Hunan Gardens and scanned the room for a lone Chinese woman. When he didn’t see her, he told the female maitre’d to seat him.
He ordered a red wine and sipped it while watching the door. He looked at his huge Timex watch, no one could tell it was a cheap watch, and saw that it was ten past seven. She was ten minutes late. He drummed his fingers on the table and read everything in sight: the wine menu, the dessert menu, propped in a trifold on the table, and the specials on a blackboard. He couldn’t concentrate on what to order, he was so worried she would stand him up.
“Oh, you’ll love her,” he heard the Trubys’ voices echo in his ears.
And there she was, checking in with the maitre’d and in fact, taking his hand in her own.
“So sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Eisenberg,” she said, as the maitre’d pulled out Yinlin’s chair.
Mark smiled a weak smile.
“Not at all,” he stammered, as he stared at this woman it was impossible not to love.
Her face was certainly kind looking. And her black eyes shone. But the woman was, well, just plain ugly. Homely. With her long face that didn’t fit with her trim body, she looked like a standard poodle. Mark found himself speechless. “Calm down,” he told himself. “I’ll eat and run.”
“Might I order for you?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said.
“Well, that wine of yours is all wrong. I’m Chinese, you know, plus this is my restaurant, so we’ll start from scratch.”
She summoned Zhang from across the room. When he arrived she spoke quickly to him in Chinese – they sounded like two songbirds - then pressed his hand, and said laughingly in English, “We want to impress my new friend, Mr. Eisenberg.”
“Oui, Madame, we certainly will,” said Zhang, looking over at Mark.
Over spring rolls, she quizzed her new friend like a detective. Yes, he did amazingly well at his used car lot on North Broad Street, making more money than he knew what to do with; he was raising his fifteen-year-old daughter Jenny; and his hobbies were many, although he couldn’t think of a single one he was so nervous.
“And you,” he said, after the new bottle of wine had been deposited on the table. “You, Yinlin, I may call you that, perhaps?”
“You were born here or in China?”
She explained that her parents had sent their little Yinlin over all by herself during Mao’s “brutal cultural revolution” and she stayed with family in Philadelphia. She attended business school at Wharton College and went into the hospitality business.
“We opened Lafayette Arms four years ago,” she said in her high-pitched musical voice, “and of course I have rental properties all over Center City.” She laughed. “Such a funny name for the downtown district. Never could get used to it.”
“Does your business consume you?” he asked.
“Oh, certainly not. There’s nothing I love more than going to the movies, especially with a man on my arm,” she winked. “You know, snuggling at the theater while we share a box of buttered popcorn.”
Mark tried and failed to imagine himself and Yinlin at the Ritz Theater, fingers intertwined.
“Of course,” she winked at him, “no one wants to go out with me because of my looks.”
The room went quiet. They heard the rhythmic chatter of others in the dining room and background piano music.
“Your … looks!” Mark whispered in her defense.
“Oh, Mr. Eisenberg, don’t think me naïve. My condition is called ‘acromegaly’” and she spelled it for him. “My anterior pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone and all that. Happened at puberty. Beauty changing into the beast,” she laughed.
“I don’t accept that at all,” said Mark. “The first thing I noticed about you was the kindness of your face, and if you don’t mind my saying, the sensuality of your body.”
“Mr. Eisenberg, I’ve never gotten this close to a man for him to actually think of my whole being, instead of this blasted face of mine.”
Mark picked up her hand and kissed it. And before he knew what he was saying, he blurted out, “I want you to come over and meet my daughter.”
They both looked shocked, as they picked at their chicken and cashews and crunchy Peking duck in pineapple sauce.
“Mr. Eisenberg,” she said after dinner. “You may think I’m being forward – and I am – but would you like to see where I live before you go home to your daughter in your Northeast Philadelphia rowhouse?”
How, he wondered, did she know he lived in a humble rowhouse? And that pack of lies he told about his used car lot. She’d checked up on him, of course. He blushed as he realized she knew his so-called “net worth.” These business magnates – and she was certainly one of them – commanded power and were to be obeyed. He admired her and knew that to be with her he would have to tame her.
With Mark’s arm looped around her shoulders, they walked to the elevator and she pressed the button for the penthouse suite on the twentieth floor. She removed her red high heels and left them in the carpeted hallway. He did the same. Jingling the keys, she unlocked the door. Music greeted them.
“Smetana’s Moldau,” said Mark. “You like classical?”
“Love it,” she said. “Let me get you a drink.”
“No, no. I’ve got to drive home.”
They toured the six-room suite. Piano in the living room, original artworks on the walls – she was a patron of Fred Danziger, she said, and bought his paintings at the Rodger Lapelle Gallery here in Center City – then told him, “let me show you the breeches of William Penn.”
Taking Mark’s hand she steered him into a high-ceilinged study where the drapes opened up to a spectacular view of William Penn atop Philadelphia City Hall. Mark stood at the window looking out at the night sky at the world-famous steel-gray statue of the man who had given Pennsylvania its name. A Quaker, he befriended everyone including the trusting native Americans, who, after his death, were painfully evicted from their lands.
“You are really something Yinlin. Really something.” He moved toward her and took her face in his hands. “I’d like to get to know you better.”
“We haven’t finished our tour,” she said and led him into a room in the rear with an eggshell-colored carpet and walls. A sense of peace fell over the two of them.
She was a tigress in bed. She told him she had had many men in her youth and two abortions.
“But, never, Mr. Eisenberg, have I found the one man to love.”
“Perhaps you have now,” he whispered.
“Perhaps I have,” she responded.
Jenny and Mark decided to prepare barbeque when Yinlin visited. They met her out front when the driver of her Lincoln dropped her off.
She kissed Jenny on the cheek and said she was even more beautiful than she had imagined.
“And, you, Mr. Eisenberg, look adorable in those shorts,” and kissed him on the lips.
They ate on the backyard deck. The ribs were messy and delicious with Mark’s home-made sauce. The salmon had been cooked on a charcoal-broiled plank and was done to perfection. Corn on the cob had been roasted inside aluminum foil and was served piping hot with butter.
“Food,” he whispered to Yinlin. “Next best thing to having sex.”
Her tinkle of laughter seemed to float across the darkening yard.
“Jenny,” he said, “you’ll excuse us if we make a toast in front of you, sweetheart.”
“Sure, Daddy,” she said.
Mark went into the kitchen and got some pinot noir and ginger ale from the refrigerator, as well as three long-stemmed glasses.
Putting them on the glass table with a clink, he carefully poured the wine into the adult’s glasses and the ginger ale for Jenny.
“I propose a toast,” he said. “To the two most enchanting women of my life. My darling daughter Jenny, and my new friend Yinlin Li.”
They clinked glasses and sipped slowly, meeting one another’s eyes.
Mark washed his hands off on the moist towelette on the table and walked over to Yinlin, who wore a low-cut gray sundress that showed the rise of her breasts.
He got down on one knee.
“My darling, wilt thou marry me?” he asked.
“Of course I will, Mr. Eisenberg, of course I will. If it’s okay with Jenny.”
“I’ve never been so happy in my life,” said Jenny, standing up to hug Yinlin.
“Please, may I call you mother?”