Everybody was obsessed with Golda Meir in Betsy Herzen’s house. Her father, and all his buddies, some from the synagogue, some from the university, a few fresh from Russia that Betsy’s father had adopted into his life because he was always adopting people, spent weekends hunched over the kitchen table talking about her, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, picking at the food in front of them, the plates of whitefish, and herring, the bagels, the lox, the various spreads of sometimes indeterminate meat. Bright green pickles bursting with vinegar and salt. The cherry pastries covered with half-melted squiggles of frosting.
Her mother would be slicing tomatoes and onions near the kitchen sink, a cigarette in her mouth, too. She wore her hair high and fluffy and dyed black, and there was always a new gold bracelet dangling around her wrist. She cared less than Betsy’s father did about all of this, and she almost never went to the synagogue except on High Holidays. When they moved to Skokie ten years before from Hyde Park, they left behind the synagogue Betsy’s mother had grown up with, and suddenly practicing her faith became irrelevant without a personal sense of history attached to it. But she supported her husband and his friends—they could do all the praying on her behalf. She’d make sure they got fed, though. No one would leave her house hungry. Those poor, wifeless, childless, lonely men.
The men went from the table to the synagogue and back again, some of them sprawling at night on their living room couch. Israel was about to get bombed from all sides and everyone was convinced that if Golda were running the show, and not that weak, stuttering excuse for a man, Eshkol, this would have been taken care of months ago. Betsy thought about that T.S. Eliot poem she had been studying in English class: In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. In her house, it was the men coming and going, and they were always talking about Meir.
Sometimes her parents argued about how much money they were donating to Israel.
Betsy ate everything the men ate, more than the men ate. They smoked, she ate. They drank coffee, she drank Coca Cola. At night she ate the leftovers. It didn’t matter, there was always new food coming through the door. She ate on behalf of Golda, recovering from cancer. She ate in tribute to Israel. She ate because she loved to eat. She knew she loved to eat, that her heart and soul felt full when she felt full, and also because she had heard one of her father’s older friends, Abraham, speaking about her to Naumann, twenty-five, blue-eyed, watery-skinned, a drinker.
“Big-boned, my ass. That girl just loves to eat,” is what Abraham said.
So what? That’s what she had to say about that. Even if it had hurt a little bit to hear him say it.
As a much younger man, Abraham had escaped serving in the Russian Army during the war with Japan by puncturing both of his eardrums. He had worn hearing aids since. All of her father’s friends respected him for his subversive behavior, because they all hated Russia (and sometimes America) (but loved Israel) but Betsy thought that was the act of an insane man. For the rest of your life to be deaf? She could stop eating (maybe) but he’d never get his hearing back.
Naumann had been staying on the living room couch off and on for months. It was covered in plastic, and she had no idea how he slept on it without sliding off. Abraham would pass out upright on the recliner in the basement. Betsy’s mother would cover them both with blankets that were always neatly folded in the morning when Betsy would stumble downstairs on her way to school, both men gone to whatever job Betsy’s father had secured for them.
At high school Betsy was significantly smarter than most of her classmates. She was going to graduate a year early, and then she was going to graduate in three years from Northwestern which she would attend for free because her father worked there, and she would do magnificently, and then she would go to law school there, and there she would experience her first academic setback, and Betsy would graduate merely in the middle of her class, maybe because her class was comprised of an exceptionally bright group of people, maybe because the first year of law school her mother got sick, maybe because the second year of law school her father got sick, maybe because somewhere in the middle of that she met her someday-husband and fell in love, and maybe because there is only so much a woman can handle before she simply collapses.
But right then she was at the top of her game, her skin plum-tinted, her eyes glittering and dark, her hair soft and dark and curly and long enough to tie in a loose knot at her neck, tiny sprays of hair fluttering out around her cheeks and jaw. She felt sharp and prestigious and she had an understanding that she could do anything she wanted in the world, and that no one truly had the power at that moment in time to oppress her except for herself.
Big Betsy Herzen.
“But there’s something about a big girl, it’s true. Even the really big ones,” said Abraham.
“This is what I am trying to say,” said Naumann. No one even knew his first name.
Naumann, on the couch. Abraham in the basement. Her parents upstairs in bed.
Betsy had only begun to engage in her flirtation with eating late at night. All day long it was this and that about Meir and Israel. Her father had smoked an entire pack of Pall Mall’s and had forgotten to eat. He was always so skinny. There were leftovers. There was half a loaf of rye bread, and there were so many delicious things to put between two slices of rye bread. Just sitting in the refrigerator, in the kitchen, past the living room.
She tiptoed downstairs, carpeting to tile to linoleum. The stench of cigarettes did not deter her from her goal. She would always think of cigarettes when she sat to eat. A lifetime of hating and loving a smell.
She did not even have to look around to know that it was Naumann who had lit up behind her and was now seated at the kitchen table. Betsy was a sizer-upper. She had someone’s number most times before they even opened their mouth. How could Naumann know this? He was too concerned with her size, what her ass would feel like if he squished each cheek between his hands, what her breasts would feel like if he put his face between them and pushed them up against his cheeks. What it would feel like to be with a girl he didn’t have to pay for. He was also concerned with vodka. He was barely concerned with his job.
That spring, Betsy’s mother had hired someone to cut the bushes on the front lawn in unusual shapes, and through the side window Betsy could see a dark green spiral in the moonlight. Coleslaw and roast beef between two slices of rye bread. She sat down at the table with Naumann, and began to eat. He lit another cigarette. She felt fearless. She wasn’t not attractive, and she knew it.
There was something about a big girl, after all.
“You are always so hungry,” said Naumann, red-eyed, bitter but hopeful, lost in America, sleeping on a plastic-covered couch, waking up every night, without fail, on the living room floor, grateful that at least the fall was carpeted. “You always have to have some food in your mouth.”
Don’t say it, thought Betsy.
Betsy’s father had gotten Naumann a job cleaning the bathrooms at a high school in Winnetka. That meant he was a high school janitor.
She took another bite. The coleslaw was creamy and tart.
Naumann inhaled deeply and drunkenly and then blew out the smoke from his nose.
She could tell that he had no self-control. Neither did she in a lot of ways. She was sympathetic. But still. Don’t say it.
“Maybe you need something else in your mouth,” he said.
“Like I would screw someone who cleans toilets for a living,” she said.
“You would be so lucky,” he said. “Whore.”
She finished her sandwich; she took her time, because she was hungry, and because it filled her up, and because she was in her house, in her kitchen, and she was a queen, and because women could rule the world with their iron fists. Then, when she was done with her sandwich, she let out a loud scream that surprised even her with its girlishness, and which woke her mother, and her father, and half the block, lights flinging on in bedrooms and living rooms, everyone stirred, everyone worried, everyone but Abraham, who slept through all the ruckus because he had taken his hearing aids out for the night.
Jami Attenberg is the author of Instant Love, The Kept Man, and The Melting Season, which will be out in paperback in January 2011. Find her at whatever-whenever.net.