Tempo Blue by Judy Hall
“Rakel, come to the dance with me! Please!”
Rakel rolled her eyes at her roommate. “I’m not here to go to dances and socialize. I’m here to get these stupid people in the Socialist Party to realize they live in the best place to have a workers’ revolution!” She turned over on her narrow bed in the bedroom they shared, trying to focus on her reading. She was trying to read in English, which was more difficult than reading Yiddish or Russian, but forced herself to. It seemed like anything written in English lacked force and conviction. It was a soft language and the grammar made no earthly sense. For every rule there were a hundred different exceptions. She knew she should really be practicing her spoken English more. She read and understood English fairly well by now, but knew her thick accent made people take her less seriously.
“Rakel, how can you convince anyone of anything if you don’t go to the social events? This is a chance for you to talk to the other Socialist Party members into seeing the Marxist-Leninist light. And maybe to meet some boys.”
Rakel watched her roommate twirl around the room in the dress she’d made for wearing to dances. The girl didn’t seem as interested in politics as she was in boys. Rakel didn’t have a dancing dress, but she did have some nice dresses. She was a seamstress now and fabric in America was fairly cheap. Back home she had only had a few articles of clothes. Here she had as much as she felt like making – after sewing for twelve hours a day, though, she didn’t often feel like sewing more.
She thought grudgingly that it might be nice to have sex, if nothing else. When she left Russia she thought she would never want to have sex again. But she met a boy on the ship from London to New York who made her see differently. He was a Gentile, but a good person. He was Irish, leaving to make his fortune in New York. He laughed at her politics, which infuriated her, but, if anything, their love making was more so for their differences. No, she thought, it wasn’t love making – it was just fucking – but it was wild and passionate. She knew nothing would come of it. She was too focused on the imminent revolution and he was too interested in becoming part of what she hoped to tear down. He told her his grand dreams of being a millionaire in New York and she told him about how the world would look when the workers owned the means of production and neither of them really heard the other because they were both only interested in their passion. But she did learn much of her English from him on that voyage.
Reluctantly, she dressed. She picked a blue dress – hardly festive, her roommate complained, but it was Rakel’s favorite dress and favorite color – and prepared to follow her roommate to the dance. It was for the youth sector of the Socialist Party. Most of the Left Wing she knew weren’t going to attend, but then maybe this would be a good chance to talk to some of the more moderate members and convince them to join. Her roommate even convinced her to put some color on her lips and kohl around her eyes. She rarely paid attention to her looks, but she knew men found her attractive. But she was surprised at the transformation of the color to her lips and eyes. The kohl brought out her eyes, which were very dark blue and often mistaken for brown unless one looked closely. Now the blue was clear and the darkness under her eyes seemed less pronounced. She had never been partial to the look of her lips – the smaller top lip and fuller bottom lip – but this color gave her a pouty expression she rather liked.
While she was admiring herself in the mirror she thought for the first time for a long time about Pieter. She had acted like nothing happened after he raped her back home in Belarus. She couldn’t upset him for their plan to work – he was using her as his little Jewish whore but she was using him to escape. He didn’t view it as rape but as a consummation of their exciting relationship. She had tried to say it was wonderful but could never quite bring herself to say it. She imagined what he must have thought when he got to Piccadilly Square, ready to take his little inamorata, only to not find her. She had, in fact, already been gone for two weeks, aboard the ship, shtupping a boy with a beautiful body. The plan had been that she’d go to a boarding house he named and stay for three weeks until he came. He had given her enough money for that. As it turned out, that was also a sufficient amount for a third class ticket to America. He couldn’t imagine her leaving, she was sure. He’d probably thought she got the day wrong and then came back, day after day, perhaps going, finally, despite the impropriety of it, to the boarding house only to find she’d never arrived. She wondered if he was only angry or also a bit sad. She always suspected that he did really care for her, a thought she tried not to dwell on as it made her feel a bit guilty. This thought put color in her cheeks, adding to the artificial color she already wore. She rather liked it. After her roommate was done laughing at her vanity, she took her by the hand and pirouetted her down to the hall where the dance was being held.
There was a band already playing in the meeting hall. She recognized some of the musicians as comrades, including one from the Left Wing, playing the saxophone. She smiled at him, but he was transfixed by his own playing, which she thought was rather good. She didn’t usually give much thought to music – especially jazz, which seemed so random and confused, but she could see that it could be fun to move one’s body to the mixed up tempo. At least for other people. She had no idea how these dances were done.
The hall was in a non-descript structure from the outside, but inside it seemed to sparkle. She had been here before to hear speeches, but now an enormous dance floor had been set and the wood had been smoothed to a starry shine. The lights on the dance floor gave off a sophisticated golden hue. The lights surrounding this stage were softened and shaded sapphire, a perpetual sunset in the wings. Circular tables had been set up off the stage with two or four seats at each. These seemed to be the same chairs used in the meetings, but here they seemed, somehow, to insinuate something more suggestive.
The gallery was perfect for music because it had been constructed to conduct sound – the sound of speeches – and the chaotic music seemed to fill up every space. The shape of it reminded her of a theater she had been to with some comrades to see The Cossack Whip the month before. She had been astonished to see her people treated so kindly in an American film. It gave her hope for Americans. It was one of the few times she could remember crying, seeing that film. Her comrades had been surprised. Now she stood in the back of the hall, not sitting at one of the tables which were clearly meant for couples or groups of friends, feeling entirely out of her element. A good debate she could have. A dance was something else.
“You don’t like to dance?” A young man asked her in English worse than her own. She recognized the accent at once.
“I don’t know how to,” she replied in Yiddish. He smiled widely. He was very short, but quite handsome. He was still an inch or so taller than she, but she was barely over five feet herself. But he had big kind eyes and wore round glasses which reminded her of her father’s.
“I would offer to teach you, but I fear it would be a case of the blind man leading another blind man – or woman in this case. I am Isadore Sarfmann. Are you also from Russia?”
“Belarus. A small shtetl near Vitbesk. And you?”
“Moscow. Well, until I was conscripted. Then all over.”
“Really? How old were you?”
“Eight. I suppose you could say that my mother sold me. I was middle child of nine sisters. No one wanted the girls for anything my parents would consider, but me they could sell. I won’t say they did it lightly. I believe they though it was a sort of apprenticeship and that they were ensuring a career for me. My mother could not read and did not speak Russian very well. My father could read, but not well. They were not educated people. I don’t remember them very clearly. After the revolution, I’ll go back and find them. I will try, anyway. I honestly don’t remember my father’s name.” He looked embarrassed. She was surprised by his frank honesty about his family, but it made her like the little man more.
“Well, you know your last name.” Her cheeks grew warm with indignation. How dare the Czar do this with impunity? She didn’t want him to feel embarrassed. “And do you remember your mother’s name?”
“It was Rebecca. I believe. I was so young. They were Mama and Papa. They called each other Mama and Papa. My sisters all called them Mama and Papa. If a neighbor came to call, he or she would say, where is your Mama or Papa?” He laughed, such an easy, open laugh, which made her think that he laughed often. “I just remember a few times, my mother had some friends who would come and call her Rebecca. They came to help her with the babies. The last two pregnancies were both twins, one right after another. There were four baby girls and four older girls and then me to look after. It isn’t surprising there wasn’t enough to go around.” By now they had moved back into a corner to sit at one of the small tables. “Oh, forgive my rudeness! I have told you half my life story and not asked your name or if you’d care for something to drink!”
“It’s Rakel Zicherman. And yes, I’d love some wine.”
He hurried off and she watched him retreat. He wasn’t conventionally handsome. She liked taller men, although this Isadore was well built – slender but she could see the sinewy muscle in his forearms and could imagine the rest. And she liked how easily he spoke about his life – she could never be as open, as clear, as quick to intimacy and laughter. And his eyes were mesmerizing. They were so large, almost preposterously large, and bright blue, even in this dim light. His hair was thick and dark, with the slightest hint of a wave. She fingered her own curls which she often dreamt of cutting off. They would get tangled and in the heat her hair would frizz out so that she looked as if she could be African. If it were not for her blue eyes and thick accent, one of her fellow seamstresses said, she thought Rakel could be a high yellow Negro woman. She laughed at the thought. Which would be worse in America in 1916? To be a Jew or a Negro?
Isadore returned with two cups of white wine and a huge smile. “How long have you been in the Socialist Party?” she asked after drinking some of the awful wine.
“Three weeks. Just since I got here. I’ve barely attended a meeting. They seem… a bit disorganized. I was a bit disappointed. I thought I’d find some serious Marxists here…”
“But there are!” She grabbed his hand. “You must come to the Left Wing meetings. We are a faction – small, but growing. Soon, I think, we will convince them all. With so many people angry about the war, our numbers get bigger every day.” They both became aware of her hand on his at the same moment. She blushed and pulled away. He took her hand again.
“I liked where it was,” he said softly, but loudly enough to be heard over the music. He took her hand in his, rubbing his thick thumb over her hand. He was small, but his hands were large and calloused and surprisingly gentle.
“Okay, Isadore Sarfmann,” she said to get over her embarrassment over holding hands with a man she’d just met, “tell me the rest of your life story. How did you come to America?”
She laughed. “Yes, I didn’t think you swam. But what brought you here? Why not stay in Russia and fight the good fight with our comrades there?”
“Ah, well… I’m not exactly welcome there any longer. You see, I never planned on staying as a guest of the Czar for very long. As a gift to myself on my twenty first birthday, I escaped from the base. The problem was that I am much stronger than I look.”
She smiled again. “How is that?” She took her hand back to pick up her glass, wishing her own hand was more dainty and feminine.
“Well, another soldier was on guard duty. Half to keep people out, half to keep the other soldiers in. It was a man I didn’t like very much – Volkov was his name. He was a Gentile and an ass. Not all the Gentiles were so bad, but this one, he hated the Jews. Of course, we were supposed to forget we were Jewish, but I never did. I was a little rabbi in my group in the barracks when we were still children – we celebrated all the high holy days. Not necessarily when they were supposed to be, but we tried. So if we celebrated on Yom Kippur and fasted on Rosh Hashanah – what did we know? But he was always looking for signs that we were practicing our religion so he could run off and tell the commanding officer. By the time I was fifteen or so, I had ceased being the little rabbi and begun being the little communist, but we hid our pamphlets in the Torah and took punishment for being Jews rather than rebels. If they knew the true extent of our rebelliousness, they would have had us hanged. So, on my birthday, he happened to be on guard duty, so I thought knocking him out so I could make my escape might be a bit of fun. Unfortunately, although he seemed so thick skulled, he was not. He died.”
Rakel’s eyes glowed. “Really? What was it like? To kill one of them?” That was a recurrent fantasy of hers.
“Actually, it was terrible. I didn’t mean to kill him and I knew he was married and had a child. But there he was, dead, and I knew that would make my escape harder. I stowed away aboard a ship and I did not know where it was headed. I stole food and hid for weeks – it seemed like months – and when we finally docked we were in Italy. Can you imagine! So I got off the ship as if I belonged there, spoke Russian to everyone and hid who I was. Sarfmann can be a Jewish name but it does not have to be. I said my name was Josef. Who could contradict me? I got aboard a ship headed to America as a galley worker. As soon as we got to Ellis Island, I took my pay in dollars and here I am. I have gotten some work as an apprentice for a shoemaker. He is a refugee from Russia too, from a pogrom. They killed half his family, including his son. He says I remind him of his son so I work there and live there in a room above the shop. It seems like as good a trade as any – certainly better than being a soldier for an evil Czar!”
By now they had finished their drinks and Isadore got up to refresh their cups. The small bit wine had made her lightheaded. She rarely had had alcohol. Usually it wasn’t around party functions, although she’d never been to a dance. Many people in the Socialist Party were opposed to the use of alcohol and said it kept the working man down, so drunk he would never know he was being used. She knew he’d want to know her story when he returned. She didn’t want to tell it. She wasn’t ready yet.
“I got the red this time. Maybe it isn’t quite as disgusting.” He smiled again, his twitching lips betraying his anxiety.
“Do you want to leave? I have a small flat and my roommate – I don’t think she’ll be back for a while. It will be quiet. Easier to talk. It’s just a few blocks from here.”
So they left, holding hands, and she had no intention of talking just yet.
Judy Hall is a teacher in New Jersey and MFA candidate at William Paterson University. Her work has been published in Rose Red Review, Linguistic Erosion and other nationally published literary magazines. She is currently writing a novel about a mother’s struggle to deal with her ten year old son’s bipolar disorder. It is based on her own experience. For more about her work, visit JudyHall.x10host.com.
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