The man stood on the deck of the ship, staring at the dock. The wooden deck was no more than 20 feet away, and yet it was an infinite length. His eyes were old, filled with knowledge and hardship and loss. The man stayed on the boat, as he always did. As he had done for the past 10 years. The water was safe. The land was filled with sorrows, watered by his tears. No, he decided. He would not go ashore. Not today.
* * *
The sounds of shots fired welcomed the boy into the world. They were not shots of joy, they were shots of fear and hatred. The Americans feared the Japanese and the Germans hated the Jews and the parents feared that their children would be feared and hated. This was the life the boy was born into. He was came into the world at a moment of timid optimism, when his parents were being saved from the Germans and brought to the New World. The optimism was soon lost under the trampling feet of all of the immigrants, back-breaking yet never prosperous refugees. When the war was over for the world it had just begun for the boy.
He fought many battles, to go to school, to stay in school, to graduate school, to go to more school all so that he could make his parents proud and not end up like them. And things went down, as they do, by way of a girl. Not just any girl, but of course, they never are. He met her when he was in University, and was startled by her ambition. She was writing her dissertation, and she would not be distracted. But he chased her; he asked her out again and again and when he finally wore her down she agreed to have dinner with him.
The boy loved his parents and wrote to them at least once a week. He knew that they loved his possibility for a better life, the life that they had come to get but never would. He wrote and he called and he visited and whenever he talked to them he told them about the house he was going to buy once he was a doctor. It would be white, simple, with shutters. They would live on a road lined with trees, flowering ones, preferably, but any would do. The house would have four bedrooms, one for his parents, one for he and his wife, and two for his children. They would live in a neighborhood with a good public school and they would grow up to be doctors or lawyers and they would then buy a house for him. And, he had decided, they would go to temple. They would go to temple for all of their relatives who couldn’t go to temple because they never made it out of the camps, much less Germany. They would go to temple for his parents who had lost their patience with God because they had no time for Him while working three jobs. They would go to temple for himself because he needed something to believe in.
It was for those reasons that he should have left dinner exactly seven minutes and thirty-four seconds after he sat down. For, it was the only thing that could have saved him from never getting that house for his parents and rediscovering his God. Exactly six minutes into the dinner he felt that he had made a profound connection with this girl. She was smart and funny and a bit boastful but in a smart and funny way. He loved that she understood the struggle of fighting for an education. It made him feel as though he were not alone. And so, when she told him exactly what she thought about Jewish immigrants one minute and thirty-four seconds later, he simply changed the subject. It was not that he didn’t care that she hated that he was brought into America, it was simply that he believed if this girl was The One, then he might be able to change her opinion. After all, true love changed how you saw things.
He never stopped to think that maybe she would change him. It was gradual, of course. At first he didn’t notice that he would forget to write and call and visit his parents because he was so madly, head-over-heals in love with her. He did not notice that whenever she began to rant about the violent, job-thieving, barbaric Jews, he would slowly start to nod his head. Give her a grunt of approval. Sometimes he would even say a word in agreement. There came a time when he barely spoke to his parents at all. Even if at first he didn’t believe himself, his nods turned into sentences about the no good Jews coming into this country when they had no right, and now they’re taking our jobs, how dare they!
This betrayal stemmed deep inside of him, until he couldn’t bear to see his parents anymore because of his stinging words. He would rather have his mom and dad live in a run down apartment in a bad neighborhood than have them know what he had done. So, when he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant, he did the gentlemanly thing and proposed. When she said yes, and the invitations were sent out, there wasn’t one sent to his parents. They simply ran out of stamps.
When he graduated medical school with two new letters tacked onto his name he felt he had a golden ticket. The D and the R saved him from becoming another ever-climbing, never stopping German. He had a pretty wife whom he admired and two children whom he loved fiercely. He had the house with the trees on the sidewalk. He walked past the guest room. He pretended that he didn’t have a place for his parents. He filled the empty room with hobbies and artwork and avoided its emptiness, and it worked. Never once did it occur to him to wander back down to the low-ranking Jews on the bad side of town, so he could see the parents whose optimism had been smashed, rebuilt, and then smashed again. It never occurred to him because he didn’t want it to. He was embarrassed of his parents, and embarrassed that he was embarrassed of them, and so he hid away hoping that the guilt would fade. He learned, 13 years later that they were dead but the guilt was flourishing.
He hid his shame well, telling friends that he had never known his parents, that he had been sent over to America alone. He built up a facade to the public eye, one that hid his past so well that he was almost able to fool himself. But lies upon lies upon lies create a shaky tower, one that is bound to come crashing down at some point. He was known in his city for being the most thorough, most accurate, and most pensive doctor. His accurate diagnoses protected him from being cold-shouldered because of his cold personality. He slept the two feet that his bed would allow between himself and his wife, as if he could pretend as though she would not learn of his cowardice if he distanced himself as much as possible. He stopped kissing his daughter goodnight until she closed the door to her room, losing hope that he would ever enter again. He did not wave to his son at the living room window until his son began to do his homework in the kitchen.
The man did not try to save himself because he already believed that he was roasting in hell. He thought that he was being punished for being such a bad son that he had let his parents die after 10 years of never even thinking of them. When his children went from getting As to Bs to Cs to Ds, he thought it was what he deserved. When his wife stopped leaving dinner for him in the kitchen, he believed it was his karma. When his son joined the army instead of going to medical school, the man expected nothing less. And when he received the notice telling him that his son had been killed in action, the man was not surprised.
He was distraught. He withdrew. He hid from his family, from his work, from his history. For the first time, he begged. He pleaded and argued and bargained with God. He wished and wanted and willed and tried to convince himself that he had paid the price. He had given up a son. He had sacrificed for his mistakes. He hoped with all his heart that it would get better. He hoped and prayed so hard that he missed the self-inflicted scars on his daughters wrists. He wished in vain so much that he was oblivious to the hidden bottle of whiskey under her bed. He begged with so much of himself that he didn’t see her bloodshot eyes. He paid no attention to it because he couldn’t bear anymore pain. He paid no attention when she said she was going out. He paid no attention when she instead drove up the highest bridge. He paid no attention when she jumped. He did pay attention to the phone call.
At first, he didn’t believe it. He cried and screamed and he panicked. He crawled under her bed and he asked why with such ferocity that he was surprised he was not answered. He got up and he banged his head against the wall. He saw her everywhere and nowhere and he ran. He ran for hours. He ran until he could not stand, and then he fell. He fell and he wailed and screamed himself to sleep. When he woke up he felt calm. He sat up and then he stood up and then he walked. He walked to the docks and before he knew what he was doing he asked for a job, any job on a boat. And he left.
* * *
Suddenly, the man felt awake. He felt as though he had been asleep for years and years and finally the veil had been lifted. He felt such clarity and then he felt need. He needed to see his house. He needed it. He could not explain why to himself, but he simply did. So he got off the boat. He stood and then he walked and then he ran. He saw the blooming trees and the white house and he tried the doorknob. When it did not budge he knocked. When they did not answer fast enough he banged the door. When the door did not open he sat and he waited. When the car pulled into the driveway he ignored the questioners, the unknown faces. He pushed his way past them and he tore up the stairs. He checked every room and he saved his parents’ room for last. He gulped for air as he pushed the door open. The room was full. It was full of life and love and a little bit of pain. The house was full. He smiled.