Dr. Martin Romm had just settled in front of the TV with a bowl of unsalted peanuts when a long-distance call came through: Malibu. Before answering, he wondered if he was up to speaking with his brother, a cardiologist who lived in a glass house overlooking the Pacific coast.
“So it seems that our dearly beloved dad has been keeping a secret from us,” Lenny said.
“Why am I not surprised?”
“It’s bad news I’m afraid, china. He has Alzheimer’s. He finally told me because he plans to sell the house.”
“You still with me, china?”
“Ja,” Martin said. “I’m here.”
“He wants to know if we’ll go back to help him sort through our things.”
“Are you going to do it?”
“Probably, ja. There’s all Mom’s stuff as well.”
“Christ, Lenny. Why did he have to go and get Alzheimer’s?”
Martin nearly envied his father: soon he would forget the wretched past. Then all that would remain of him was a gravestone, stripping his life to its essentials: Hebrew name, date of birth and of death (impossible for Martin to imagine his own life stripped in the same manner one day, the world continuing on). He was a hero, the stone might also say, who loved his country far more than he loved his children.
Martin’s earliest memories of his father weren’t proper memories, they were the spaces where memories could have been, like empty picture frames. But he remembered his father’s parties. He would peer through the banister upstairs in the dark, in his pyjamas, watching the adults talk and get drunker, a black woman with her arm slung around his father’s neck dancing with him, laughing with him. When Martin and Lenny were a little older, their father took them to the townships, bought them curries in KwaMashu and Umlazi, and although Martin didn’t remember these trips they must have been thrilling: who among his friends had ever seen the way Africans actually lived? On the rare nights his father was home he would give them their bath, Martin and Lenny together. Unlike his grandmother who dried him off carefully, Martin’s father would rub his back vigorously (the way he did everything) and leave the rest of him to drip. Once when Martin was sick all over his desk at school and came home and made another mess in the toilet, his father was there, and Martin said—he was ten, and in a sarcastic mood—“Aren’t you glad you had children?” while he watched his father clean up the vomit—and his father said, “I’ve always been glad,” and looked at Martin with such brown-eyed pity, he thought his father could see right into his soul.
Martin never knew his mother. She died giving birth to Lenny when he was only two years old. Born in a Lithuanian village, most of her relatives who remained in Europe didn’t survive the war. He knew his father had adored her, proud of her childhood poverty, calling her earthy, with simple tastes—a compliment—meanwhile railing against the pretensions of Jewish businessmen like his own father, men who believed they were English, men ashamed of her roots and of their own. “You really don’t remember your mom,” Martin’s father used to ask him, “even a little?” and he’d say it again: No, I don’t. Soon his father would forget her as well. One less person in the world would know who she had been.
After work the next day, Martin went to Digby’s, the South African specialty shop, to buy spicy biltong. The last thing his cholesterol needed was more biltong but he was hoping a young divorcée named Barbara would be working the till.
“Welcome!” she trilled as the chimes above the door announced his arrival. “Oh, it’s you, Dr. Romm! I’ll be with you shortly.” Smiling, a dimple hollowing her left cheek, she turned back to her customer, a white-haired man with a guttural Johannesburg accent. “It just shows you South Africa’s going to hell in a handbasket,” he was saying, and Barbara was nodding, her brow creased adorably, and Martin knew that once again he would leave the shop without asking her to dinner.
“It’s Martin,” he said when it was his turn to pay. “Only my patients call me Dr. Romm.”
“Have you seen that poor young man again?” she asked. “You know who I mean—the one whose fiancée is so ill.”
“Shame, any news?”
“I think his mother is coming to see me this week. I’ll pop in and let you know.” Was he too eager? Did it show? Probably all Barbara’s customers were half in love with her.
“Ja, no,” she said. “Don’t go out your way.” Her fingers touched his as she gave him his change.
“I’ll be seeing you,” he said, so excited he practically danced out of the shop.
A few weeks earlier, Martin had run into Jordan Loewenstern at Digby’s. Jordan was buying fish paste for his mother, and they’d ended up chatting with Barbara about his fiancée’s battle with cancer. Martin had been testing the Loewensterns’ eyes for years, and since Jordan never seemed to have much direction in life—working, the last Martin had heard, as a bartender—he’d been surprised to hear of his engagement.
“She had to quit her job,” Jordan explained, pointing his long-lashed eyes at the ground. “She has no family. Her mother’s back in rehab.”
Barbara wanted to know how she could help, and he aimed his crooked smile directly at her, telling them about a fundraiser.
“I’d love to go,” Barbara said, “only I’ll have the kids that weekend. Shame. Is she Jewish?”
“She’s Israeli,” Jordan said, playing his trump card. Barbara beamed. “We were hoping to go there for our honeymoon.”
“Why don’t I make a donation right now!” Barbara wadded some bills from the till into his hand. “You give this to her, and tell her that where we come from, Jews help other Jews out too.”
Her blindness had rankled Martin. Oh, sure, if his father had owned a factory and cozied up to the government to seek his share of apartheid’s spoils, the Jewish establishment would have tripped over itself to befriend him. But his father was a communist. He printed pamphlets for the liberation movement. All those years in jail, he received a package on Passover and a package on Rosh Hashanah, while the hypocrites did nothing for Martin and Lenny, who were stuck with the agony of his absence.
Except Abramowitz. His father’s oldest friend, the gloriously bearded rabbi was one of very few in the country to stand up for the liberation movement (a position that cost him several congregations). When Martin’s father was detained, Abramowitz arrived to whisk the boys off to their grandparents in Houghton, a fancy suburb north of Johannesburg, which is where they lived after that. The rest of the family was busy pretending they didn’t exist, even his mother’s parents in Durban. His father’s name was mud and also, he owed most of them money.
Even at the height of his privileges, Martin’s father could send only three letters a month, so he wrote jointly to Martin and Lenny. After the first four years of his sentence, Martin stopped replying to his father’s letters, stopped visiting. Until his father’s release from prison two years later, he cut him out of his life. Being fifteen in Houghton was like drowning, both his parents gone, and no one else who could lift him back onto solid ground.
Lenny survived their father’s detention and subsequent conviction under the Terrorism Act through his dominance on the tennis court and rugby pitch, transforming into a running, tackling, backhanding force out to crush his enemies—which meant everyone. You only had to watch him serve a ball at 100 mph directly at an opponent’s face to see how he felt about their father.
Martin didn’t know how he survived.
Una Loewenstern sat in Martin’s office with her thin knees pinched together.
“How’s the family, Una?” Martin asked, reviewing her chart under his desk lamp. “I ran into Jordan recently. Shame, he told me about his fiancée.”
“He told you—oh, my word. Did you give them any money?”
Martin looked up from her chart.
“She was lying. Dr. Romm, I can’t even begin to tell you. She had us all completely fooled—even Jordan. Shaved her head. Lost weight. Everything. There isn’t the slightest thing wrong with her but a broken arm, which happened because she crashed a stolen car—can you believe it?—through a barrier on the 401. Honestly, Dr. Romm, Nurit was the sweetest girl you could imagine. We never suspected a thing. And Elliot was a judge on the Supreme Court of Natal—you think he’s easy to fool?”
“Of course not.”
“Jordan is just beside himself. You know that out of all of us, only Stephanie said she had a funny feeling.”
“I’m shocked,” he said. “How awful. I’m stunned.”
“So are we, Dr. Romm. So are we.”
That seemed to be the end of it, so he put his face close to hers. He could see himself reflected in her eye’s moist surface. “Follow my light all the way to the right, please, Una. Now to the left. A little more. Good. Look up, please. Good. Now look at me, please. Keep looking at me.”
Two patients later, another day was finished. Martin thought over Una’s story on the drive home. If Jordan was engaged to a girl the odds were good that they had lived together. To sleep beside a person every night and never suspect such deceit was unfathomable. Martin remembered Jordan’s behaviour at the shop, how quickly he had Barbara stuffing cash into his hands. Could it be that he was in on the scheme?
Yet even if the boy (a young man now, really, though still boyish in appearance, boyish in charm) were brought to trial and convicted of fraud, even if he confessed, it occurred to Martin that Una would deny it till her dying breath. They say that mothers are capable of superhuman acts of strength to save babies trapped beneath cars, for example. One never hears about their feats of blindness.
Martin had his own blind spots, he could concede that much. Christine, who ruined their marriage with her impulsive affairs, had occupied one for a long time. He supposed his father occupied another. Despite the man’s failings, he had done his best, after all.
Martin was seventeen when his father was released: their small family clapped when he walked through the high gate of Pretoria Maximum Security. He was carrying a box under one arm containing his possessions, confiscated six years earlier. He wore Martin’s clothes since he didn’t have any of his own: Martin’s jeans, Martin’s green Lacrosse shirt, even his running shoes, which were so big he couldn’t walk without tripping. Passing a little shop on the way home, he asked to go in. “I’ll come with you,” Martin’s grandmother offered, but his father refused. Martin knew it was because he was terrified and didn’t want anyone to see. Scared of betraying himself in the everyday world after those six years inside. It was as if Martin’s eyes were boring into him. Someone asked Martin what was wrong, and he remembers complaining he felt carsick.
If Una Loewenstern could believe the best about her son, who had manipulated people’s charitable impulses for personal gain, did Martin owe his father something as well?
“Dad,” Martin said when he picked up the phone. “Lenny told me. I’m so sorry.”
“Ja, well,” he said. “Are you going to come down with him?”
“I think so.”
“I don’t want you two arguing about anything. There’s a lot of rubbish to go through.”
“Don’t say that. Mom had beautiful stuff.”
“Ja, well. Don’t you think her things should go to Lenny?”
“How do you mean?”
“She was his mother.”
“Dad, how advanced is your illness?”
“I bloody well remember telling you about your mother, Martin.”
“Are you saying I was adopted?”
“It was years ago. I remember.”
“I think I would remember being told I’m adopted!”
“That’s no way to talk to a dying man.”
“Dad,” Martin said, “are you out of your bloody mind?”
A dial tone blared in his ear. His father had hung up.
He reached Lenny on his cell phone. “Did Dad ever tell you that I was adopted?” he blurted.
“Martin,” Lenny said kindly, so kindly Martin feared that whatever Lenny had to say he would never be ready to hear it. “You did know he was having an affair?”
“Mom was cheating too. They had an arrangement.”
“I can’t,” Lenny said, and Martin was surprised to hear the emotion in his voice. He wasn’t joking. “I shouldn’t be the one to tell you. Not over the phone like this. Martin, I swear to God, I thought you knew. You were another woman’s baby. Dad’s mistress. I just assumed that if he was telling me about it you must have already known.”
All of a sudden, Martin was very far away from himself, in a quiet room, in his father’s abandoned backyard kia, all those years ago. He was writing a letter to his bosses with invisible ink; the words vanished without a trace on the smooth paper. Then Martin was back in his suburban condo with his jaw descending and ascending slightly and descending again, and some odd whimpering sounds emerging from him.
In the bathroom he cupped his hands under the tap until they burned, then threw scalding water on his face. The nerves along his hairline prickled and told his brain he was cold. He was locked in his father’s kia and it was flooding, only instead of water there were voices, and the voices said there must be a reason his father told Lenny and not him.
He could hear his brother’s voice as he crossed back into the living room: “Are you still there, Martin? Hello?”
He picked up the receiver. “Do you know her name?”
“He couldn’t tell me. We talked about it when he was still inside. It was after you stopped going. But you remember what it was like, a ruddy warder on either side of you, no way to talk properly. I got the feeling—well, I got the feeling she may have been a black or a coloured or something, and that’s why he couldn’t tell us when we were small, in case one of us spilled the beans.” Martin’s wide nose and his hair, so tightly curled it gripped the pencils the bullies at school stuck in it.
“Do you know why she gave me away?”
“She was a comrade,” Lenny said, “and she died. That’s all I know.”
“Was she murdered? Detention? The police?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry, china.”
Though Martin thanked his brother for telling him, finally, he would have preferred to carry on the way he had before, believing in his father. Half-believing and half-blind.
Martin remembered the first time his life was severed in two. He was six. A world away, flower children were descending on Woodstock, New York to revel in their freedom while at home, in their backyard kia, under a bare single bulb his father painted clear nail varnish on the pads of his fingers and copied forbidden words, a new coat reapplied every half an hour to mask his fingerprints. Martin never saw his father at his work, but he can picture him, the shadows cast by his furrowed eyebrows obliterating his eyes, a muscle twitching in his strong jaw from the tension.
In 1969 Martin was six and it was his first swim meet, in the backyard pool of his swim teacher, a lovely person named Di, who taught breaststroke by asking her pupils to imagine themselves as little frog princes. They mustn’t submerge the tops of their heads, lest they lose their crowns. Martin’s father had summoned the whole family to watch—his parents, visiting from Johannesburg, Martin’s mother’s parents, assorted aunts and uncles. No one knew yet that he led a secret life. “On your marks,” Di shouted to the five little boys crouched with their toes curled around the edge of her pool. “Get set.”
When she blew her red whistle four little boys dove into the cool, sharply chlorinated water while Martin stared at their bubbling wakes. He didn’t know why; over forty years later, he could no more explain his immobility than he could, at six years old, overcome the sense of his own powerlessness. For the rest of his childhood, whenever something went wrong, from a bad mark on an important test to his father’s detention, he used to wish that he could travel back in time to the swim meet, the original screw-up that had begotten all the ones that followed.
It was possible that he was wrong about Jordan. It was possible Jordan believed in his fiancée’s cancer, that he struggled with the terror and uncertainty of her illness, in which case he would have been devastated to discover that he was engaged to a con artist. Either Jordan betrayed the people closest to him or he was the one betrayed.
Martin knew that his father was tortured with electric shocks to his nipples and genitals when he was first detained. But he didn’t break. He said that he never betrayed his comrades. If only steel like that were hereditary, Martin thought, he might have made more of his life.
He went to the files in his office, searching until he found a photograph of the woman he’d believed was his mother, a picture he’d studied as a child. She was petite, with his grandfather’s reddish hair and long, tapered fingers which, along with an ear that was slightly pointed, gave her an elfin look. Her face was as smooth and pale as a baby’s; she was only thirty-one when she died. He ripped the photo in half and in half again, ripping until he had no history, none of the security history provides, nor the burdens. The past was gone. And he knew one thing: he no longer wanted to be the little boy too frightened to dive when the whistle blows.
Fortunately, Barbara was working the next time he went into Digby’s.
“What can I get for you, Dr. Romm?” she asked, brushing her pale eyes over him.
“It’s Martin,” he said. “I came in to speak to you. About Jordan Loewenstern, remember?”
“Oh, you didn’t have to go out of your way!”
“Not at all. Anyway, I wanted to ask you—”
The chimes on the door sounded, and Barbara turned.
It was a woman she knew, a friend. Martin hovered nearby, waiting awkwardly, until the woman wandered away to do her shopping.
“Sorry about that,” Barbara said. “You wanted to ask me something?”
“I wanted to ask if you’ll have dinner with me.”
Trying to evoke nonchalance, he had said it too loudly, and the friend turned to stare. Barbara blushed. Martin did as well. Then she smiled, and he knew he’d had nothing to fear this whole time.
Martin kept one of the first letters his father wrote in his files. He’d memorized the last paragraph. “Right now, I have a reminder of Durban—when I look out of my window just over the wall, I can make out a row of jacaranda. They don’t look as deeply blue as in Durban (the others say I’m talking nonsense when I say that)—but it’s nice to see.” Martin never told him that he, too, missed Durban: he missed the beach and his friends, his school and his house; he missed his dad. His father’s work was clearly so important, and his suffering so enormous, there wasn’t any room left for Martin.
Though Lenny practically begged him to change his mind, Martin refused to meet him in South Africa. He said that he never wanted to see their father again.
“What about your mom?” Lenny asked. “Don’t you want to know who she was?”
“She’s dead,” Martin said. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Martin decided to return to his watercolours. He painted a row of jacarandas, like the one his father saw from his prison cell. At first he thought he would give the result to Barbara, who encouraged his artistic side. But, in the end, he kept it for himself, to serve as a reminder: seeing clearly is what helps us keep our heads above water. It’s what helps us hold onto our crowns.
Note: Many of the details about life in the South African underground and in prison in this story are from Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison: Notes and Letters of Struggle. The quotation about the jacarandas is lifted from a letter Suttner wrote to a friend. Other invaluable resources were Cutting through the Mountain: Interviews with South African Jewish Activists, edited by Immanuel Suttner, and Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country by Gillian Slovo.
Kathy Friedman was born in South Africa and moved to Canada at the age of five. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and a BFA in Creative Writing from UBC, and her writing has appeared in The New Quarterly, PRISM international, Grain, Geist, Room, Canadian Notes & Queries, and This Magazine. She has been a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, runner-up for the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award and PRISM international’s short fiction contest, and was nominated by PRISM for the Journey Prize. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Guelph and is the artistic director of InkWell Workshops, which runs free creative writing workshops for people with mental health and addictions issues in Toronto.