23
Dec
  

“The Seduction of Raymond Bromberg”

By Lisa Barr

For two days straight, Dodd had witnessed the dreamy, lustful gazes by Moms at the playground, the same open-mouthed, tedious  “choose me, fuck me” expressions that have stalked him his whole life. The park faces began to follow him from slide, to swing, to sandbox – each woman pretending that she wasn’t sidling up to him. But Dodd, armed with a lifetime of training, had the body language down pat:  the not-so-subtle hair flip, the flirtatious head toss while laughing, the leaning over just so, revealing a shapely ass or nice breasts, the slinky strut, even while chasing a wandering child, as though gracing a cat-walk. And finally, the truly bold among them would engage him in any type of conversation  – which he coined “the hook.”

Dodd would smile at their attempts to snare him, widely amused as always at how women reacted to his presence. But he’d made it his policy to never leave any of them– especially the most daring – empty-handed. He’d proffer the hopeful with a flash of what he thought she needed– a walking-talking fantasy in the flesh. It was his obligation, having been blessed with incomparable beauty, to leave his admirers with something, a goody bag to take home, and then he’d turn around slowly and walk away.

Dodd knew from a young age, growing up in an affluent neighborhood in Munich, Germany, that the impact of his looks was overpowering to the beholder.  And when he examined his own chiseled features in the mirror – it was as though his rippled, smooth-skinned muscles had been sculpted by Rodin, his misty azure eyes fringed with thick lashes were the bristles of Monet’s paintbrush; his plump lips, swollen with mystery and temptation, were designed by da Vinci. From head to toe, Dodd had been created with strokes of genius. A Viking mutation borne from unattractive parents; he’d inherited every recessive gene, and together the combination added up to perfection.

He’d been told a thousand times that he should model or act or do something that would allow the world to celebrate his flawlessness. As a teenager, he celebrated himself by fucking everybody – snobby girls, shy girls, pretty girls, homely girls, teachers, friends’ mothers, his mother’s friends and babysitters. It had all been so easy for him – no chase, no challenge, a perpetual, open-mouthed, open-thighed YES. He fancied himself Don Juan, Lothario, Valentino, James Bond – and had even begun leaving a single rose next to the sleeping woman’s pillow.

Unsettled, Dodd prowled the streets … searching, finding, taking, discarding.

The night of his twentieth birthday, after having deflowered Miss Munich, the city’s beauty queen, was the first time ever that he’d paused and pondered his actions. As the young woman lay sleeping on her back (wearing her tiara), her mouth dripping at the corners with the taste of him, Dodd asked himself why he couldn’t love someone like that. He stood next to the bed, cross-armed, his gaze following the beam of moonlight seeping through the window glancing over her exquisite body. Why, he asked himself, did he feel nothing?

Dodd quickly dressed then leaned over to place a pink rose on her pink satin pillow, when the inescapable truth pricked him; a revelation so large that it sent him reeling backward toward the door:  The “one” was not out there. But it wasn’t the fault of Miss Munich or the hundreds of others – it was him. He was bored. No, he corrected himself, women bored him. The rose dropped limply from his hand, landing next to the smoky pink dust ruffle.

Whatever it was that propelled him forward – his avid quest to fill the void inside himself – was now officially over.

* * *

Against his parents’ wishes, Dodd headed for the United States as an exchange student. He’d initially moved in with a German-American family in Chicago (slept with the mother, the sister and the aunt within the first month – purely out of habit), attended a city college, but he eventually got out of that house, after having been accepted to the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana campus. Dodd’s father was a prominent lawyer, his sister a doctor and his mother a teacher – but Dodd, whom everyone thought would/should be in television or movies, chose science – specifically research, where he could hide his face behind the high-walled cheep wooden carrels and enjoy a quieter, calmer existence.  He’d chosen the blandest profession he could think of, where he’d assumed plain-but-serious women festered; women who were turned on by interpolations, experiments, the stiffness of microscopes.

Dodd, whose real name was Peter like his father (nicknamed Dodd since he was a child), immersed himself in studying the healing effects of garlic and tomatoes on the immune system, and later, expanding his work to examine the vegetables’ effect on reducing the risks of cancer. He stayed away from people, and for the first six months at the school, he lived a self-imposed, strict hermitic existence. He’d taken to sleeping with his textbooks, papers, graphs and charts, and never felt happier.

But like a butterfly concealing its splendor inside a cocoon, Dodd, was dug up and outed. There had never been a handsomer researcher at the University of Illinois’ Department of Agriculture. Never.

The hushed comments, the longing looks even among the plain and bookish, began to shadow him, taunt him, and worst of all, interrupt his hibernation. After sleeping with the librarian, Dodd felt like a recovering alcoholic, sneaking his first drink after so long. Next in line was the department’s janitress, followed by med students, econ students, poli-sci majors.

Once he’d begun, he couldn’t stop. He slept around voraciously, performing his well-rehearsed sexual stunts; a mouth to a breast, a mouth to a clitoris, a smattering of kisses once the moans kicked in, followed by a weak promise of  I’ll-Call-You.

He began his journey of disassociation, connecting to no one, feeling nothing but a consistent throbbing numbness and a need for more. There were no roses when the night turned into day, just boxes of tomatoes and garlic waiting for him in his empty apartment – his only source of salvation.

Dodd stopped short of seducing any of his colleagues, although at least three of the women had made it clear that they were “wearing nothing under their lab coats” – but he needed these women; they were indispensable to the advancement of his work. And he knew better than to alienate them or play one against the other.

By day Dodd was a successful scientist, by night he was no longer a man but a machine. He pushed himself past the boredom, past the fatigue, past the point of any enjoyment. He drank and drank and drank himself into a blind stupor in the darkness, until the one day that he was saved.

* * *

His messiah came in the gangly, unappetizing form of Professor Miles P. Modine, a homely, thin-lipped, thick mustached man with the largest knuckles Dodd had ever seen. But as head of the university’s famous “Salad Department” – the nation’s Top Gun of food research, Modine, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was legendary. He was immersed in studying the healing effects of veggies on the immune system. His department was rolling in grant money, and the equipment and lab were considered state-of-the-art. The elite department accepted only one new student annually. Dodd and his tomatoes and garlic were a natural match for the department, and Modine not only plucked Dodd from the obscurity of the Department of Agriculture lab but also immediately made the young man his protégé. Modine, like Dodd, believed tomatoes and garlic to be the way of the future. After graduation, Dodd stayed on with Modine to continue his independent research and write his thesis.

One late, hot, fan-less night, Dodd thought he was alone in the lab, when he saw an enormous shadow cast against the wall. He turned around.

“Professor?”

“Don’t let me disturb you, Dodd.” He paused. “I seemed to have forgotten something in the lab.”

He pulled up a chair next to Dodd and watched him. Dodd felt uncomfortable, especially when the professor’s leg began to graze his own.

“I’d like you to write a paper with me,” Modine whispered, his breath smelling like whiskey. “I’m very impressed with the results of your work with garlic and DNA.” His skinny lips grazed Dodd’s earlobe. “And I agree with your findings that garlic contains more sulfur compounds than any of the white-greens – onions, chives, scallions, shallots, leeks. Garlic,” he paused, his tongue flicking the ear now,  “is the strongest among them to protect DNA. The Darwin among veggies.”

Modine’s breath was so close and strong and overpowering that Dodd felt faint. When Modine dragged his long finger along the skin of Dodd’s perspiring neck, Dodd stopped moving.

“Um,” was all Dodd could say. And when Modine’s wet finger began to open his shirt, for the first time in twenty-one years, Peter “Dodd” Werner, was anything but bored. Modine was as ugly as Dodd was handsome, but under the grainy green lab light it didn’t seem to matter. Dodd’s whole body ignited, his eyes closed and opened rapidly, his controlled body loosened and trembled. And as Modine led his prized student into his small, stuffy office that smelled of mothballs, and onto the worn green nubby couch that turned into what the professor called his “bed of lettuce” — Dodd suddenly understood what the problem had been all along.

 * * * 

The secret affair lasted two years. Dodd had wrapped up his thesis, was offered a teaching position at the university, and became Modine’s first assistant in the Salad Department. Life was good. Until the call came that would change everything. The government-elect had summoned Modine to Washington DC, for a top position at the Food and Drug Administration. Dodd had thought that naturally, Modine would arrange for him to join him in Washington. Instead, Modine had stripped the sheets off the bed of lettuce, saying it had been a beautiful time, but the affair had run its course. He bequeathed a shocked Dodd with the green couch, and the keys to the lab.

Crushed and rejected, Dodd was treading on unfamiliar territory. No one had ever left him. He spent long hours lying on the quad, trying to understand why it happened. He kept to himself, staring up at the sky, making shapes out of the clouds as he tried to make sense of his life. He allowed himself one month of mourning and watching endless games of Ultimate Frisbee during the day, and at night, he waited by the phone for Modine to call (he never did), before Dodd decided it was time to take back his life.

Within weeks of renewal, he met Rachel, a beautiful graduate student of English literature, at a party. She was funny and smart and kept his attention the entire evening. He asked her out for drinks afterward, and she was still interesting. He was still laughing when he opened the door to his apartment and ushered her inside. But as they lay naked on the bed, he saw Modine’s face and he couldn’t perform.  Misery set in like rot ruining his tomatoes.  He told himself to finish, and leave the woman properly. But as he reached for her, something totally strange happened to him. Rachel gently pushed away his hand and said sweetly, “I can’t do this.”

No woman had ever said that to him, and on the heels of his breakup with Modine, Dodd felt mortally wounded. He began to cry. Rachel held him in her lap, stroking his matted hair while smoking a French cigarette. She pitied him, and that made Dodd cry even more. He needed to talk to someone and it all just came out – the women who’d swarmed him since he was a child, to his torrid affair with Modine. Rachel crushed her cigarette inside a coffee mug and wiped away his tears. He smelled the smoke on her fingers as she whispered, “I know exactly how you feel.”

She lay back against his pillow and went on to tell him about the endless list of boys and men, and finally the boredom as big as a hot air balloon that loomed over her – until she’d met Susannah Powell – her English lit professor senior year. The professor, a beautiful, silky-voiced woman from Trinidad, had seduced her with her poetry. For the first time in her life, Rachel felt alive, charged. The boredom that plagued her past relationships seemed to evaporate. Her affair with Susannah had been the most intensely satisfying, important relationship Rachel had ever experienced. She was in love and thought the feeling was mutual, until three months ago, when Susannah had announced she was going back to her ex-girlfriend, an Economics adjunct professor, and they were planning on having a baby. Rachel, too, began to cry.

And Dodd, for the first time, was moved by a woman, and not at all bored. He even held her. He’d never really held a woman and she felt so warm against him. Her perfume was fruity and the scent mixed with the smoke and wine on her breath was more than appealing. Thirty-six hours later, they got out of bed, tears wiped away, mirror images of perfection. Smoking French cigarettes, they drank yet another bottle of wine, while exposing their identical pasts and sharing a similar desire for a family. They would marry.

It was the ideal arrangement; the only possible arrangement, Used to having it all, they could live both a gay and hetero life simultaneously. They would support each other’s careers, have one child and an open, no secrets marriage – and only same sex affairs.

* * *

The Salad Department was running as smoothly as the rest of Dodd’s life. His and Rachel’s son Peter, though hyperactive, was an amazing four  year old. Rachel’s independent children’s bookstore in the heart of Evanston was successful. They each had had short affairs, but their marriage was rock solid and satisfying. Dodd’s tomatoes and garlic had become as legendary as Modine’s – his papers were reprinted in all the right journals, his lectures were always well attended. He had moved the famed lab from Champaign to the Chicago campus. Life was good. And the day that Raymond Bromberg had entered his lab, Dodd learned he was on the shortlist for a half million dollar government grant.

Life was very good indeed.

The door opened slowly, hesitantly. All six scientists looked up as Raymond Bromberg walked into the room timidly, an-afraid-of-his-shadow kind of guy. Dodd stood still at the front of the room as Bromberg moved toward him. Dodd thought that he looked like a charcoal etching of a turn-of-the-century artist’s self-portrait – suffering dark eyes, protruding, starved cheekbones, dark hair falling thickly, unkempt over his eyes in ebony waves, exaggerated hands and feet poking out of a gawky physique. And then Dodd froze mid-thought. This Bromberg looked like a younger version of Modine. He glanced down. Even the knuckles.

“Dr. Werner,” Bromberg extended his hand. And when they shook, Dodd wasn’t sure whose hand was quivering.

Dodd cleared his throat, but the phlegm seemed to stick. One of the newer researchers brought him a glass of water. He swigged it then mustered,  “Truly a pleasure to have you with us, Dr. Bromberg.”

“Please, call me Raymond.”

“Well then call me Dodd.” Gesturing toward another researcher, he said,  “Allow me to introduce my assistant Dolores Avilez. She specializes in celery and antioxidents.”  He walked Bromberg toward the pocked-faced, dark-skinned woman with red-streaked black hair, which lately, she seemed to experiment with more than her assigned stalks. He then introduced the rest of the scientists, thinking as he always did what he called them in his head: Cucumber, Broccoli, Squash, Carrots, Zuccini. And Bromberg would, of course, be renamed, Raddish.

Dodd stuck with the formalities, giving Bromberg a tour of the lab and the high-tech equipment while stripping the man with his eyes. A white, sleeveless old man-style undershirt could be seen through the thin fabric of his starched  blue cotton shirt. Navy blue workpants, clean, though faded. The dog-eared caramel leather belt matched the worn leather shoes exactly, down to the creases. Bromberg’s unstylish silver-plated watch, was predictably Timex. Dodd didn’t even have to look down to know that Raymond was wearing thick, white gym socks. But the hair on Dodd’s arms surprisingly rose slightly when it dawned on him that Bromberg wasn’t wearing the standard wire-rimmed researcher glasses (in fact, he had no glasses at all), and his dark eyes glistened like oily olives.

* * * 

Sophie Bromberg was waiting for her son Raymond in the kitchen when he returned home that night, an hour later than usual. He should have called. The front door opened and she heard his familiar heavy pounding down the new hardwood floored corridor. A week before her husband Sol had died, the floors, which for twenty years had been beige linoleum, had been changed to wood. Thinking of the floor made her sad, and Sophie re-stirred the well-stirred soup. Raymond was smiling as he entered the kitchen, and still smiling as he sat down in his chair.

“So tell me, Raymond,” she said, deciding not to bring up the fact that he didn’t call her and she had to reheat the dinner, as she filled his plate with potatoes, brisket and baby carrots.

“I liked it. The lab wasn’t as big as ours – but much more updated. They’re doing a lot of advanced work with vegetables and the immune system. Even the effect of specific vegetable coloring on the daily diet – very new stuff. They needed my radishes to complete their experiments. And the head of the lab is quite impressive.” Raymond shifted in his seat uncomfortably, thinking he’d never seen a researcher who looked like Peter – Dodd – he corrected himself, Werner. Never.

“What was his name again?” Sophie, dipping her meat into her homemade horseradish, had been asking the same question all week.

“Peter Werner. I told you, Mom. WERE – NER,” he emphasized, knowing exactly what would come next. She’d been making him crazy over that name for weeks.

“German?” She stabbed at the slab of brisket with her fork, and sliced off another piece for Raymond.

Raymond shrugged, knowing better than to respond. “And smart. His work is first rate.”

“I bet he’s smart.” Sophie grumbled, refilling his soup bowl. “They’re all smart. They’re all big experimenters too. Don’t let this Werner fool you. He’ll poison your radishes when you’re not looking. I know these things. Don’t look at me like that, Raymond.” Sophie stood, turning away, finding temporary solace at her stove. But once the water for tea began to boil, she could practically feel the sweltering bubbles beneath her skin and turned again toward her son. “I don’t like this at all, Raymond.”

Raymond, his smile having shrunk to a thin, straight line, immediately lost his appetite, and he pushed his plate forward. Besides, he thought angrily, his mother knew he couldn’t stand carrots. His mother had a way of spoiling things for him. Ruining things. Like she’d ruined his father’s life and probably ruined the life of her dead son whom she never talked about.

Angry words formed under Raymond’s lips but he knew better than to bring them to the surface. His mother, watching the unnatural movement of her son’s mouth, thrust her wooden spoon toward him like a scepter, gesturing toward his empty chair – Sit! – Eat!– the Holy Spoon commanded. But Raymond, mustering a pinch of courage, would not bow down. He held his shaky ground. And for the first time – inspired by Werner’s compliments earlier that day about how glad they were to finally have radishes in the department – Raymond stormed out of the apartment, his loud footsteps pounding against the back stairs as he headed toward the park to clear his head, without his mother’s consent.

 * * *

Two weeks after Bromberg had entered the Salad Department, Dodd could feel the unmistakable new energy around the lab; a revitalization. It was as if this Bromberg was some kind of good luck charm. All the vegetables seem to be thriving, and PBS even sent a crew out to do a week in the life of the Salad Department. And put a few radishes in front of Bromberg, and he was surprisingly funny.

Through the glass window of his office, Dodd could hear the other researchers laughing at something Bromberg had said. Bromberg, clearly elated by the response and attention, would move those massive hands through the unruly hair, his olive eyes shining, and tell more jokes. Dodd noticed how Bromberg’s jaundiced skin would warm to a soft glow, how his soft, timid voice would strengthen, and his rounded shoulders seemed to square off. His assistant Dolores Avilez even kept her hair the same color this week, after Raymond had told her that he liked it (it was the exact color of radishes).

“Good morning, Dodd,” the researchers would say when Dodd would enter the lab at ten a.m, after having dropped off Peter at his pre-school.

“Coffee?” the new researcher would always pick him up a latte on his way to the lab.

“Paper?” Another would have the morning paper ready as well as new trade magazines highlighted for his perusal.

He would methodically hand out his appreciation – sterile, routine – everyone knew what to expect from him.  Every morning the same routine, until one morning when Dodd came into the lab early at eight-thirty, and Bromberg arrived ten minutes later.

“Hey Raymond. How are you?” Dolores smiled broadly, revealing every inch of her overbite.

As Bromberg said hello to all the researchers. Eyes would light up as if a rock star had entered. Even sour-faced Maura Delaney (Broccoli) was laughing as she handed Bromberg a lemon poppyseed muffin that she went out of her way to pick up  from the kosher bakery (her first time there, she giggled) because she knew they were Raymond’s favorite.

By the fourth week of Bromberg, it dawned on Dodd that “Raddish” had replaced him as the star of the department. And he was, for the first time, jealous of another man.

Dodd would watch Bromberg’s bowed head working away diligently. The way he fondled each radish as though it were a newborn. Periodically, Bromberg would look up and catch Dodd’s intense gaze. He would wave or wink even! Dodd would stare at the rejected garlic cloves in front of him, feeling an unfamiliar flutter in his heart, which had been long gone. His thoughts were childish, and envious. They like him more than me. He’s funnier than me. He fits in. I don’t. They bring him muffins. They never brought me muffins, unless I asked. Dodd watched Bromberg’s every movement, and it didn’t occur to him that he was falling in love.

* * *

The wine was a rich, aged French Burgundy. Rachel knew it was his favorite. Dodd examined the ruby color through the glass goblet. He watched the golden flames reflecting in the glass and immediately thought to himself – the color of radishes.

“And so I told Hannah, that she simply could not order all those books without consulting me,” Rachel said, interrupting his thoughts. “She told me that our customers had been begging her for more and that she knew what they wanted. She knew! It’s my store. Dodd, are you even listening?” Rachel walked in front of him, knocking the pure red out of the glass with her blue dress. “What’s going on? You’ve been a zombie for days.”

Dodd smiled wanly at his wife. He’d been avoiding her for days. “Rachel,” he whispered.

“Rachel,” she said mockingly. Leaning over, her voice a warning, “Cut the crap.”

“Okay, I’ve been out of it. A lot of pressure at work. I’ve been blowing my experiments. And- ”

Lowering her voice and checking behind her as if sleeping Peter would hear. “Who else are you blowing?”

Dodd’s eyes widened. Of course she knew. She’d always been able to read him.

He’d been blowing Raymond Bromberg for weeks in his mind. But for the first time in their nine-year marriage, he couldn’t share this with her.

They’d agreed that their marriage could be open, lovers unlimited – but to actually fall in love with someone else was simply out of the question. “Nobody,” Dodd thought, thinking about Bromberg’s stupid blue work pants – he seemed to have an unlimited supply.

Rachel had always been smarter than him, more intuitive, less involved with her appearance, accepting it as she had almost everything else. Dodd lowered his eyes, knowing he was more than transparent, he was pathetic. “Dodd,” she whispered firmly.

“Rachel,” he whispered back weakly.

“Talk to me.” Arms folded over her full breasts, resting there. “Who is he?”

Dodd was about to say Radish. Instead he sat up, leaned over and threw up all over the Oriental rug.

“Jesus Christ,” Rachel ran to the kitchen for a rag and paper towels, and began mopping up the wine mixed with teriyaki chicken beneath his frozen feet. He could see Rachel’s shocked, hurt expression and hear her angry, slow-motion whisper, “Who – The – Fuck – Is – He?”

 * * *

Raymond Bromberg had never known such happiness. The feeling of waking up early and nearly jumping out of bed to get to work – to begin the first day of his life – each waking moment unexpectedly bright. In two months, he’d become Jacky Mason – the Catskill’s crowd awaiting his arrival at the lab. He was Jack  — his beanstalk of experiments flourishing beyond his wildest dreams. And lately, he’d even taken to singing in the shower. And at shul he was Frank Sinatra – singing so loud and clear and melodiously that the women on the either side of the mechitza began to talk.

It usually took his mother a good half hour to get him out of bed, usually resorting to stripping the covers off of him and beating him lightly on the behind with her stirring spoon. None of this new behavior was lost on Sophie Bromberg, who seemed to be watching her son’s every move suspiciously. And for the first time in his sheltered life, Raymond could care less.

No more snooze button smashing, he was Jack-in-the Box, popping up even before the alarm went off. He heard his mother’s light tap on his door, her “Breakfast is ready, Raymond!” as he zipped up his blue pants and caught his reflection in the mirror.  Smiling, Raymond Bromberg realized that for the first time in thirty-four years, he liked Raymond Bromberg.

 * * *

The Raymond Bromberg Phenomenon was not lost on Dodd, who for the past two weeks had begun to lose interest in his pressed khakis, even going out to a thrift shop and buying a handful of cheap blue workpants. And at home, when Rachel was out, he’d muss his hair so that his bangs hung loosely over his eyes, and he’d imitate Bromberg’s gestures. He even bought a sleeveless undershirt and tried to stoop his muscular shoulders in the mirror.

None of this was lost on Dolores Avilez, who knew she was smarter than anyone else in the lab – but never got the credit she deserved. She reveled in the humbling of Dodd Werner, who, for five straight years had never so much as noticed her, just her celery, no matter what she’d worn or done to her hair to get his attention.

Though she liked Raymond Bromberg from the get-go, Dolores really liked what his presence was doing to her boss. And she played it up for all it was worth.

“Good morning, Dodd,” she said as he entered the lab one particular morning. And timing the moment to coincide with him opening his Divine Chamber door (as she and the other researchers secretly called the glassed-in office) – she said loudly, “Raymond, I told your rabbi and priest joke to my entire family and they loved it. Couldn’t stop laughing.” She stretched out ‘loved’ as Dodd turned his doorknob. “In fact they suggested you come for dinner.”

“Good Morning, Raymond,” Maura called out merrily as she entered the lab – in Yiddish yet – displaying the collage of kosher lemon poppyseed cranberry walnut and banana muffins she had just purchased.

Dolores smiled slyly as Dodd’s door slammed shut.

“Morning Raymond. Morning Raymond,” Dodd mimicked to himself, ignoring the fresh latte, the newpapers, the pink-highlighted trade magazines and the ripe tomatoes placed before him on his desk. He glared unabashedly at Bromberg through the glass. Look at him – a stand-up comedian – he’s got the whole pathetic lab of losers laughing. And if Maura says another goddamn word in Yiddish …  Dodd squeezed a plum tomato until  pulp dripped over his fingers. He stared at his juicy fingers, wishing, oh, if only Raymond Bromberg would lick them off.

 * * *

One morning, Dodd was preparing for a lecture that was scheduled in Peoria over the weekend. He was walking down the hall rehearsing in his head, when he collided into Bromberg, who was on his way to the men’s room.

Startled and away from the security of his radishes and adoring audience, Bromberg, stooped and awkward, seemed to shrink before him. It was the most empowering moment Dodd had felt in weeks.

“Raymond,” he said.

“Dodd, I apologize. I was on my way to the bathroom, And –”

Dodd’s bumped shoulder began to tingle in the way it once had when Modine had touched him. “Raymond, I was thinking, why not join me in Peoria this weekend. Would you like that?” So close to Bromberg, Dodd could smell the Old Spice cologne.

“Would I like that?” Raymond repeated, shuffling his feet against the corridor floor.

“Yes,” Dodd repeated. “Would you like to join me?”

“Yes, but I have to ask my –“

His wife? As far as he knew Bromberg wasn’t married. His girlfriend? Dodd’s heart sank. His boyfriend?

Straightening his shoulders defensively, Dodd said, “Well, let me know by tomorrow morning so I can make a lunch reservation for you.” And a hotel reservation, which Dodd didn’t say. If, whoever Bromberg had to ask to come to the convention, said No – then why bother.

 * * *

Dodd picked up Bromberg at the elevated train station – the “L” – which, was close to his own house in Evanston. Bromberg surprised him by wearing pleated beige pants and a green checkered shirt. It was new, Dodd could still see the creases as if it had just been removed from the plastic. He carried a small square Samsonite suitcase and a brown leather briefcase, which Dodd noticed from the first day matched his belt and his shoes. Bromberg, even more surprisingly, looked less nervous than he felt.

“Morning,” Dodd opened his door with the automatic switch. Bromberg threw his suitcase in the backseat and slid into the front seat.

“Morning, Dodd. Ready for the big speech?”

“I hate doing speeches.”

“I thought you enjoyed that part of it.”

“No.”

“I mean, I’d imagined you’d be a good public speaker.”

Dodd was silent, thinking, What else do you imagine?

“The hotel was packed,” Dodd lied. “Do you have a problem sharing a room? I mean if you do, I can arrange – “

“Sharing a room? No, I mean –“

At the stoplight, Dodd, who bought Old Spice at the drugstore, leaned over. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the room sounds, er, fine.”

 * * *

Bromberg’s face turned the color of beets when Dodd walked out of the shower naked. He turned away, but Dodd moved toward him.

“Raymond,” he began as he wrapped the towel around his waist. Bromberg looked away and began to scratch himself uncomfortably.

“Uh, Dodd.”

“Who did you need to ask to come on this trip?” Dodd demanded. He had to know.

“Ask?’

“Yes, ask.” Dodd realized that talking to Bromberg was like speaking to his son Peter.

“My mother.”

Dodd roared with laughter. “No, really.”

“Her name is Sophie Bromberg.” Bromberg coughed out. “I live with her.”

“You live with your mother?” Christ, Dodd thought, what am I getting into?  “When do you plan to move out?”

“When she dies, I guess.” The hand began to make its way through the hair.

Dodd let out a deep breath, his confident veneer falling with his towel. He was naked.

“Raymond,” he breathed deeply.

Bromberg stood frozen on the tiger-striped shag carpeting.

“Raymond, I’m in love with you.”

Bromberg stared but said nothing. Not a goddamn thing.

“Raymond, did you hear me?”

“I know.”

Dodd suddenly felt naked. He grabbed his robe off the bed. This misfit, this social outcast, knew he was in love with him, and did nothing about it? The thought was incredulous, impossible. He managed, “For how long?”

“I knew the day Maura brought lemon poppyseed muffins.”

Dodd shook his head, his wet hair slightly sprinkling Bromberg. “And?”

“And what, Dodd?”

You social moron, what do you feel? Do you even feel? Why aren’t you falling at my feet, begging for me?

“How do you feel?” Dodd whispered.

“I don’t know.”

Dodd was enraged. It didn’t make sense. How could he love this man who didn’t know? But he did. Passionately.

He walked toward Bromberg, standing inches from him. If the man stood up straight, they’d be practically the same height. Dodd stooped his shoulders, the way he’d been practicing in the mirror. “Raymond, can I kiss you?”

Bromberg took a step backward, blushing, and said simply,  “I would like that, Dodd. I really would, but I can’t.”

Dodd could see the form of Sophie Bromberg in the glassy reflection of Bromberg’s black pupils. His mother, Dodd thought. This idiot had to ask his mother.

“Forget your mother. We’re here alone. Just you …” Dodd touched Bromberg’s slouched shoulder and held onto — clung — to the cheap fabric of his shirt. “And me.”

“You’re German.”

“I’m what? German? So. I grew up there. But I’m an American citizen now. What does it matter?”

Bromberg walked toward the bed and sat down on the edge. “It matters. She was there you know, in the camps. She lost a husband, a son and her parents. Believe me, it matters.”

Dodd thought he was losing his mind.  “I’m IN LOVE WITH YOU!” he shouted hoping to get through to Bromberg.

But Bromberg just sat there on the polyester bedspread shaking his head. Dodd sat next to him and held his hand, stroking those knuckles, the dark wisps of hair on his fingers, feeling guilty for a past that had nothing to do with him or his family. As he stroked the man’s wrists, and the soft, hairless skin under his arms, Bromberg remained unmoved, frozen; a family man first.

Somehow Dodd knew that in order to get to Bromberg he had to make his mother understand that he wasn’t the German of his grandfather’s generation. He had to make her understand that he was his own man, who loved her son deeply. If only she could see him and know this, Dodd knew then he could have Bromberg. After all, he was a scientist. There was a beauty in getting from Point A to Point B. He understood workable equations, not knowing that Sophie Bromberg was simply not workable.

* * *

By now, Sophie Bromberg was more than a little worried. She’d seen her son Raymond getting out of that fancy white car more times than she could count. Moving away from the window, she sat on her husband’s brown chair covered with plastic – Sol’s thinking chair, he used to call it  – and she tried to think. Smoothing her hand over the thick plastic, Sophie wished she could speak to Sol about their son’s recent behavior. He would have known what to do. She closed her eyes, inhaling the spirit of her husband; his presence nowhere as strong as it was but in this chair. She pointed her sharp chin upward at the ceiling, hoping to get some sort of  signal. She waited for what would be considered a long period of time for an impatient woman, and still nothing.

Raymond had always been a good boy, a good student, a good eater. He went to shul with her every Shabbes, and she could hear his voice, loud and clear, from the other side of the mechitza – it was a good one. He knew better, Sophie thought. He knew better than to drive around with a man who was too handsome with a nose that flipped up like a ski slope. He knew better than to touch that man’s hand – too long of a touch – for someone who was just a friend, before he got out of the vehicle.

Sophie heard what her neighbors were saying among themselves: Raymond Bromberg at thirty-four still lived with his mother.

She also knew what they were whispering behind her back, the persistent drone of their hushed tones at shul, at the grocer, in the park, causing her sleepless nights – Raymond Bromberg at thirty-four never had a woman.

Gazing at the armrests, Sophie could see the indentations where her husband’s elbows had once called home. That car was not a Jewish car. It was too white, too fancy, and too much of a reminder of what never should have been. She got up and turned on Klesmer music, squeezing her eyes shut painfully, warding away the memory of similar cars, the deafening roar of Mercedes after Mercedes – a convoy of Hitler’s pet vehicles. Wiping her active hands along her housedress, Sophie knew that she couldn’t hold back any longer. She turned off the Klesmer, and stood.

It was time to read Raymond’s diary.

Her son was a grown man, and she’d stopped herself (more times than she could count) from reading Raymond’s diaries. But he’s living in my house she told herself, as she lifted up his mattress (as if she wouldn’t see the journals there every time she changed his sheets!). She opened the book, staring at Raymond’s neat, precise script and put on her bifocals.

… His hair felt silky against my shoulder. The way he touched my face (Touched his face! Touched his face!). His mouth grazed my cheek and said he loved me. I knew he did from that first day (From that first day! That’s why Raymond ran out of the apartment that night without finishing his dinner. My Raymond knew that a man – a Nazi yet – was in love with him). He bent over slightly to kiss me. Everything inside me burned to touch this beautiful man, but I stopped myself (Sophie let out a deep, staccatoed breath. Raymond wasn’t a homosexual – Solly would never forgive her.  It was the other man. Of course. I’m going to put a stop to his). I’m –

She stopped reading. She couldn’t go on with the rest of her son’s entry. It was enough for her. A Nazi seducing her son – an Aryan imposter telling him lies – stealing Raymond from her like that soldier stole My Rudi. Sophie lay on her son’s bed, covering her ears with Raymond’s pillows, quashing the ever-haunting sound of her five-year-old son screaming as the Nazi soldier pulled him out of her arms forever. The Klesmer faded like mist into the background, the joyous music to a faint echo,  as Sophie began sinking helplessly into the black hole from her past.

 * * *

Dodd poured his wife a glass of wine, his son Peter more chocolate milk. He even volunteered to make dinner on Rachel’s turn. Still. But she wouldn’t even look at him.

“Wine, Rach?”

She smiled like Cruella Deville, and mocked him, “Wine, Rach?”

For the past month she’d stopped talking to him, just repeating his words as if to show him just how meaningless they were.

“More milk, Peter?” he asked.

His son grinned. “More milk, Peter?”

This was too much.

“Peter, that’s enough.”

“Peter, that’s enough.”

Rachel could barely stifle a giggle, giving their son the go-ahead.

“One more time and you’ll have a time-out,” Dodd said firmly.

“One more time –“

“In your room now!” Dodd grabbed his son off his chair and put him into his room. As he closed his son’s door, he heard Peter say, “And you’ll have a time-out.”

Rachel’s back was turned to him, she was smoking a cigarette. When did she start smoking again?

“Very nice, Rachel.”

“Very nice –

“Oh, shut up!” Dodd spun around, heading toward the door but Rachel ran after him.

“Don’t you ever speak to me like that!”

“Ah, an original sentence.”

“You’re the one ruining things, Dodd. We had an agreement, remember? We had a goddamn agreement. Live separate lives as a team – no falling in love.”

“I know, I know. But maybe that was stupid – impossible. One of us was bound to fall in love.”

“I thought we loved each other.”

He grabbed his wife in his arms. She was beautiful. He did love her. He’d never felt more comfortable with another woman. But it was not the same way he loved Raymond Bromberg. That fire, the intense burning inside, the desperate need to consummate it all cost. He stared into Rachel’s hurt eyes: the cost of loving Bromberg would be immeasurable. He thought of his scolded son, who was still repeating “and you’ll have a timeout” behind his closed door. He imagined Peter sitting on his bed, the giant blue mustang racer  that he and Rachel bought when he was ready for a big boy bed, and Dodd leaned over and kissed his wife.

“You are my wife, Rachel. You and Peter are my life. I’ve always had control over any relationship. I’ve never lied to you. It was always the other guy who fell for me, and then I got out,” Dodd said softly.

“What is so special about this man?”

“Nothing,” Dodd said honestly. “Not a damn thing. But whatever it is, I can’t stop it.”

Rachel lowered her face, then looked up at him. She shrugged and he yearned to grab her and say it would be all right, that he’d forget this Bromberg, that they’d take a weekend with Peter and go away. But she reached over for the doorknob and opened it, her voice scant, minuscule – not even a voice, not even a whisper, rather a breath. “Then go.”

 * * *

Dodd knew the only way to seduce Raymond Bromberg – even to kiss him – was to get past his mother. He waited at Bromberg’s apartment for two hours until Sophie came out. She got into her car and he followed her on her errands along Devon Avenue. He watched her enter a tiny butcher shop, and waited.

As she exited, she paused and their eyes met. She knew that he was the man in the fancy white car. And he knew that she knew. She kept walking toward her car, and then stopped and abruptly turned around. She put down her bag filled with four lean skirt steaks, one extra long kishke, and pointed a finger. “You are following me. And I’ve seen you driving my son home plenty.”

“Yes on both counts. I’m Dr. Peter Werner – friends call me Dodd.”

“I’ll call you Peter.”

He smiled. “That’s my son’s name.”

Sophie tsked. “Your son? Does your son know that you are touching my son’s hand?”

Dodd sighed. He knew this was not going to be easy. “No, but my wife does.”

“Your wife,” Sophie repeated, crossing her arms. “What do you want with my son anyway? Look at you. Look at him. You wanted to degrade him. I know your type. I lived with the likes of you in Auschwitz … you with your pleated pants, just picked up from the cleaners. I bet your wife has never seen an iron.”

Dodd was silenced by this woman.

“Why my son?” She moved in on him, uncomfortably close. “He had a good job and good future at University of Chicago.”

This woman was a foot shorter than him and admittedly terrifying. “We need to complete the salad – you wouldn’t understand.”

Sophie’s voice rose with anger. “I wouldn’t understand about completing the salad? Did you know that in Warsaw, my father owned a restaurant. Not just any restaurant but an expensive one. I was a hostess. I watched over the kitchen. I know a salad. But your salad means nothing to me. My son’s happiness is what matters.”

“I love him,” Dodd said quietly, meeting her unblinking gaze.

“No, I love him.”

“Yes, I know, Mrs Bromberg.”

“You think I love him too much.” She began to circle Dodd like a lion trainer. “What do you. son of a German, grandson of a Nazi, know about love?”

Dodd was startled. How do you know that.

“I can see it in your face — the guilt.”

Dodd looked away, and then turned back to her. Suddenly, he had to make her really see him. “I lived my life like a hypocrite. Everything always came easily to me. I thought I could have it all. A beautiful wife, a son, and random men. Until I met your son. He made me choose. Do you know what I mean about choosing?”

Sophie held her chest. She was sure she was dying right there in front of this grandson of a Nazi. Did she know about choosing? When her best friend Rose Goldstein had told her the truth about the fate of her family —  how her son, her husband and her parents had died in Auschwitz, and she then showed Sophie a knife. “We could do it, Sophie,” Rose had said. “We don’t have to live among the blood of our relatives. After what we’ve been through this could be our choice. Live or die. Whatever we do, we do it together.”

But Sophie chose life — for both of them. Rose had lost everyone too. Now, they each had new children. New husbands. New lives. New families. They still lived across the street from each other. They each heard crashing sounds at night in their respective bedrooms — nightmares from the past that would never go away. No one else knew. Just she and Rose. She stared at this Dr. Peter Werner. Did she know about choosing?

“What do you want from me?” she whispered.

“Your permission.”

“My permission?”

“Yes. It’s for Raymond. It’s what he would want. He loves you, Sophie. He’s afraid of hurting you for loving me. He said you’ve had so much hurt. Too much. He can’t bear to bring on more pain.”

Sophie wiped away a tear, but it escaped anyway. “Raymond said that?”

Dodd nodded.

“What are you going to do with Raymond?” she demanded.  “You’ve been touching his hand in the car for weeks. I watch you through my window.”

I want to kiss him, Dodd thought. I want to touch his stooped, awkward shoulders and hold him in my arms and take care of him.

Sophie moved forward boldly, as though reading his mind. “Then I must sample the merchandise.”

Dodd stepped backward, leaned away. “What?”

“Well, you want My Raymond? You want my permission?  I would like to see what he’s going to get.”

“This is insane.”

“Don’t tell me what’s insane. My son deserves the best.” She crossed her arms, daring him to defy her now.

“That’s like tasting food before serving the plate to the king.”

“In my house, my son is king.”

If Bromberg knew.

“Raymond won’t know, ” she said, reading his mind again. “You want my permission or not?”

He wanted her permission.

Dodd closed his eyes and pretended it was Bromberg in front of him … trying to ignore the mothballs and strong floral lilac perfume. He leaned over and met Sophie’s lips. They were loose and fleshy, reminding him of salmon, yet her touch was suprisingly young.

He kissed Sophie Bromberg a long time. Longer than either of them had intended. Neither admitted that it was more enjoyable than the anticipated punishment. They both pulled away at the same time.

“You hurt him,” she said quietly, smoothing down her housedress, her voice lingering. “And I will circumcise you myself.”

 * * *

Sophie watched Dodd through the window getting into Hitler’s sports car. His sleek hair blew in sync with the wind. Her son Raymond was already sitting in the passenger seat wearing his good blue shirt, smiling up at her, thanking her with those glossy eyes. Sol’s eyes. She could see the plump silhouettes of her neighbors in their apartment windows across the street, standing not too discretely behind their laced curtains. There would be talk. Talk she could live with. Just Rose’s window was empty, giving her respect, her privacy. Gold to the end, my Rose.

Sophie sunk into the familiar plastic of Sol’s chair, lining her elbows up with the indentations. Staring up at the ceiling, she heaved a conciliatory sigh. He’s happy, SolOur Raymond is happy.

###

 

 

 

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