Ruth Adler had been my expert consultant and moral support when I wrote the book that elevated me to full professor, Newark Unbound: Place and Identity in the Fiction of Philip Roth.
“The only place Philip Roth has ever found his identity is between a woman’s legs,” Helen would say. Ruth helped me laugh it off.
But, threatening divorce, Helen had left. (Her departure had nothing to do with the book, by the way. That had been a gentle bump in the road for a marriage that ultimately developed potholes the size of craters.) Ruth’s husband, Joel, had died, and her only child had died in her teens a decade earlier. It was time to shed grief and assume new identities, or at least try. And I’d been in love with Ruth’s mind forever. It was easy to forgive her for being smarter than me because she was so much smarter than me. The truth is that she was out of my league.
“Ruth—” I said at the door, but she plugged my mouth with a kiss.
Her front room swelled with music.
“Like Brahms, George? Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major.”
“Me too. Making up for not being beautiful, like Helen.”
“I’m fine? Faint praise. But close your eyes and I’m Helen: Jewgreek is greekjew.”
Was I teaching in the morning?
“Hmm,” she ruminated. “We’ll need time to enjoy my sauce bordelaise.”
“The sauce that failed to satisfy the Duc de Guermantes?”
“No, and it’s not a morsel of Oreo that was soaked in tea.”
“Are we eating in here?” I said, noticing the flask of olive oil on the coffee table.
“Ironically, ‘extra virgins’ don’t need it,” she shrugged. “But I do.”
She reached for my zipper.
She reached for my zipper.
We had arranged dinner the day before, after bumping into one another when we’d gone to listen to a visiting poet. After Joel’s death, Ruth had all but dropped out of sight for months, reappearing strictly for the purpose of teaching her classes. This had suggested to me that the appropriate tone at the reading would still be one of sympathy for a grieving widow, but I was wrong. Her insouciance, I thought, was aimed at suppressing the occasional nervous giggle or gesture or glance that pierced her calm surface. My hopeful reading of her mood had been confirmed by the kiss at the door. Yet now, with her intentions on the point of fulfilment, I doubted my own intentions: perhaps I’d missed Helen’s body less than her cooking. Ruth’s repertoire, not as up-to-date as Helen’s, who would become instantly infatuated with any kind of fusion, had in my memory been just as consummately executed.
I reached too late for her reaching hand.
“You say that to a Jew?” Ruth laughed. “Who’ll demand the sign of the everlasting covenant in your flesh?”
She verified my circumcision.
“Bingo,” she said.
She looked up at my face.
“Bingo indeed,” she said. “We’ll be reduced to that soon. And shuffleboard.”
“Joking about our age in order to convince me I can’t manage?”
She looked down again.
“Yes, it does need inspiration. Literally. Salva me spiritus sancti. Or saliva me spiritus sancti.”
“Saliva might do the trick,” I said. “But you don’t want to eat first?”
She ignored that, but after a minute paused for breath. I was becoming increasingly worried that I would fail. I needed a way to slow her down.
“Do you think—” I said as I studied the willow in the front yard that obscured my view of the sidewalk and street.
“That somebody could come onto the lawn and duck under that? At our ages we’d have to pay somebody to watch.”
“At least your hair’s not white, like mine.”
After salt appeared in Ruth’s hair before she’d turned thirty, it had remained mostly pepper for another thirty-odd years.
“Want to?” she said.
“Pay somebody to watch.”
She brought her lips up to mine and I put my hands under her blouse, bypassing the buttons.
It was a joke, but I responded to it against the better angels of my nature. She brought her lips up to mine and I put my hands under her blouse, bypassing the buttons. She reached into the slight opening above one button and deftly undid the fastener positioned between her cups. Her breasts smacked into my palms just above her navel.
“You wouldn’t feel like Helen even with my eyes closed. The size. . .”
I noticed a picture on the wall: her late daughter. Hannah had resembled her father more than she had Ruth and was therefore much prettier.
“I promise she can’t look back at you,” she sighed.
To appease me she placed it face-down on the coffee table. I wondered what it would have been like to have a child and what it would have been like to lose one. But that was long odds and no excuse not to. The excuses that Helen and I had found seemed vague in retrospect. I wondered if a child, even an adult child, would have been a force to hold us together or a wedge to drive us apart. But we’d found other wedges, anyway.
Ruth paused when she came back. Then she turned her buttocks toward me.
“Is Moses only shown God’s backside because it’s nicer than the face?” she said. “Which way do you prefer?”
She stroked her hips.
“Joel would joke that these were a punishment for eating bacon and calling it God’s breakfast.”
“Your offence was supposed to be eating it, or saying that?”
“Bacon’s prohibited for us,” she laughed. “Not God. The infinite, unbridgeable distance between Creator and creatures.”
She unscrewed the cap on the olive oil.
“Time to anoint me,” she said. “But lightly. I’m not a salad.”
She was wistful afterward.
“Like dinner. All the preparation and over in five minutes.”
She checked her watch.
“More like two.”
“Sorry,” I said. “But after holding out for months. . .”
“Yet you tried to put me off. Holding out for Helen instead? I reject that. The story I’ll tell myself is that, faced with the prospect of satisfying your most cherished dream, you had questioned whether God could have been so good to you. You’d suspected a ruse.”
“That’s right,” I said encouragingly.
She got up from the sofa when the sonata ended.
“I’ve read that science can now save us the time we waste on food preparation,” she said. “And even consumption. Get your necessary daily nutrients blended together in a single glass, consumed in seconds.”
“What would we do with the extra time?”
“Spend more of it in bed,” she said. “If we were younger. Or if I were Helen.”
I handed her the underwear that had slipped between the cushions.
“Just as God clothes the naked, so must you clothe the naked,” she said.
She adjusted her clothes.
“We have all night,” she said, “even though it’s a short one. Any chance of a Resurrection?”
I avoided her eyes.
“You’d have heard,” I said, “that rising from the dead takes three days.”
Taking my chin in her hand, she tilted my face up toward hers.
“I can wait three days,” she said. “But I don’t think you’re offering a rain check.”
She had understood that I wasn’t ready to believe Helen would never return.
“You’ve deduced that how, Sherlock Holmes?” I said.
“It’s Shylock Holmes, and I’m guessing.”
“No rain check,” I said quietly.
“The sauce bordelaise awaits. And for my discerning guest, Oreos for dessert.”
She rehung the picture. I wondered if she still blamed herself for barring Hannah, then fifteen, from seeing her first boyfriend.
“What happens to girls when they hit that age?” she’d said at the time. “I should be grateful that it came later for Hannah than for a lot of girls? Okay. But six months ago her life was soccer and piano practice. Now it’s this. . . goy.”
She intuited my shock.
“Quoting Hannah,” she explained. “It’s what she says he is to Joel and me, which is absurd. The qualities we don’t like in him would be even more objectionable in a Jew. They’d seem more. . . shameful.”
She looked at me.
“Does that sound bad? But you understand. And she’s only fifteen and he’s graduated from high school. Or out of high school, anyway. The graduated part I’m taking on faith.”
“Dramatising. I know he graduated and he was a good student. But still. Bit of a poet, it seems. An irresistible tool of seduction in the right hands.”
After that she’d kept her venting to a minimum with me, but I thought I should ask.
“Well, Joel is saying he might kill this young ‘goy.’ Where does she get that from? It’s a word that neither of us had ever used before.”
I didn’t speak because I could see that she had more to say.
“And her cynicism in claiming the Jewish higher ground against us! Joel and I are shtetl Jews suspicious of all outsiders, while she stands for Judaism’s noblest ethical ideals. She actually played the Hebrews 13:2 card: ‘I’m surprised you don’t show more hospitality to him as a stranger,’ she had the nerve to say. ‘How do you know he’s not an angel?’ That horny little deflowering prick—I’d bet my tenure on it—an angel!”
I think I reacted more visibly than I had the first time I heard her say “goy.”
“Okay, not fair,” she said. “He’s a child in every way except genitally, and therefore deserving of a little mercy.”
She struck a declamatory pose.
“Hath not a horny little deflowering prick an organ ill-matched to his underdeveloped brain? If you prick a horny little deflowering prick, does he not bleed?”
She laughed, but it sounded hollow to me.
“Thrashing around in the ethical void of primordial chaos before. . . Sorry: like I’m trying to conceal my harshness behind a biblical cover. Not your cup of tea.”
A strange remark, since Ruth had to know I’d always enjoyed hearing that kind of stuff from her.
“How do young men thrash their way out of that? I mean when they do, since a lot of them don’t. How did you thrash your way out? Did you used to be like that little fucker?”
The next time I asked about Hannah, my questions were in hushed tones. But they were few because Ruth wanted to do all the talking. Hannah had taken advantage of her father’s week-long absence in order to attend back-to-back conferences on the other side of the country. She had spent even more time with her boyfriend, especially late at night. Ruth had spoken to Joel on the phone and he asked her to wait until he came back. They would handle it together.
But Ruth didn’t wait to prohibit Hannah from seeing the boy. Hannah sneaked out after midnight in Joel’s car, which he and Ruth hadn’t known their daughter could drive.
“The accident’s not your fault,” I’d said at the time, intending to list other necessary conditions. “Hannah chose—”
“No,” she snapped. “Don’t you dare equate an infatuated child’s impulsiveness with my capacity, as her mother, for sober deliberation. Don’t you dare.”
She later apologized: I had “meant well.”
Soon, grateful for the distraction of work, she was churning out journal articles and helping me with my Philip Roth book.
One day, she remarked that “Roth is the rebellious son who puts Judaism’s capacity for love to the test.”
“Its capacity to become Christian, but remain apart,” I said.
“Oh, God: Christ’s love versus the Jewish law’s dead letter. You have no dog in this fight, but. . . Consider that the Torah prescribes stoning for a rebellious son. Yet the Talmudic commentary makes it clear there’ll never be a rebellious son.”
How could someone so smart say something so foolish?
“Ruth, the rabbis can’t know the future.”
“Sure, but authentic parental love. . .”
She stopped. I remained silent until she was able to push ahead.
“Authentic parental love is incapable of judging a child to be rebellious.”