That summer we kept jars in our apartment, jars full of charged magic water. Old mayonnaise jars. Jars from jams and preserves. A couple of milk bottles. We had them on the windowsills and bookshelves and on the wobbly coffee table in the living room. We kept jars the way others—philistines, Mom called them—kept crystal vases or marble figurines.
The TV program started at eight. My job was to collect the jars, rinse and refill them with fresh water, and place them in a row in front of the TV. Once properly charged, the water would heal us. Mom wanted to be healed.
She wouldn’t have settled for just any healer. There was another one on TV around that time, a hapless bushy-haired flash-in-a-pan type that appealed to the older population. A real quack. Mom’s healer looked younger, in his forties. He had a blunt haircut and hard, unblinking eyes. His nose was slightly crooked, like it might’ve been broken in a fight. He never smiled, and unlike the other healer, he performed his televised sessions before a live audience. He said, Sleep! and the audience swayed in a trance. He said, You feel no pain, and they didn’t.
Dad didn’t approve of this pastime, thought it misguided, irresponsible, maybe even harmful. He called the healer a charlatan and said he’d been put on TV to hoodwink the people, distract them from the real problems, like the dismal state of our medicine and lack of lifesaving drugs. He bemoaned the situation in our country: everywhere else in the word, there was progress. The Berlin Wall fell in Germany. Nelson Mandela was released in South Africa. We, on the other hand, kept going backwards, to poverty and strife and god knows what else. He said all of this to me, not to Mom. Ever since the two of them got back together, Dad seemed uncertain of his footing, hesitant to do something that might upset their precarious peace.
He was right, of course: our country was a mess. Life felt hard and bleak that year, and it would only get harder in the future. A life of muck and cold, overcrowded trains, dug-up roads, muddy trenches outside one’s home, and inside no heat or hot water for the second time in a month. The most basic items disappeared from the stores—laundry detergent, cooking oil. There were food rations but no food. People looked livid on their way to work, worse on their return. Desperate, embittered people. They’d wrest the last carton of milk from your hands, shove you aside for the last seat on the bus. Mom had no love for them, but Dad had always been a softer person, more generous with second chances. A dreamer, Mom called him, not kindly but meaning a sucker, a milksop. People don’t want your democracy, she told him. They want denatured alcohol so they can drink themselves into oblivion.
Dad had been obsessed with our budding democracy, first with last year’s election campaign and later, in the summer, with the congress of the People’s Deputies, broadcasted live on TV. His favorite deputy—his hero—was the physicist, a famous dissident just back from a lengthy exile. In their youth, Mom and Dad had been dissidents too, or at least did something dissident-related. Typed manuscripts in triplicates, had assignations in small parks, maybe stood with a banner once or twice, protesting against some injustice. It used to be dangerous in those years—you could get expelled from college, fired from your job, even committed to a mental hospital. I think Mom liked the danger. It made her feel singular, deviant.
Nowadays, she said, everyone and his grandmother was an activist. There was no risk involved; it cost you nothing. You could march and wave banners and holler until you were blue in the face, and no one came to arrest you. You could make political jokes, and no one bothered to denounce you to the secret police. You could just sit at home in your underpants and watch the People’s Deputies on your TV, and later claim you were an activist yourself.
The healer was boring, but Mom must have found him reassuring. Every day he made the same gestures, issued the same orders, and the audience obliged him with their swaying and moans. She needed reassurance. She wanted a baby. She’d wanted it for years—a second child, a normal healthy one, with no obvious defects—but instead she kept having miscarriages, and then, when I was in eighth grade, she had an affair. Now, two years later, she was nearing forty, but she said plenty of women had babies at her age. It used to bother me, this idea of a sibling, especially once I figured out what it meant: a do-over for my parents. But lately I noticed it bothered me less. I was starting to feel more removed from them, if not yet independent, and I knew that with each passing year the distance between us would increase. If Mom wanted a new toy, let her have it.
That was how we spent that summer: Dad in the kitchen watching the People’s Deputies on the tiny black-and-white TV, Mom in the living room watching the healer, and me bouncing between them, not willing to commit to either cause. For years we’d been close—by necessity rather than choice—but now I wanted nothing more than to have a life separate from theirs.
The summer ended, and it became clear to us all that the healer wasn’t delivering on his promises. Mom, still not pregnant, went back to work at her fancy humanities lyceum. Every morning she carefully put herself together (a flash of plum lipstick, a touch of perfume), but at night she came home crestfallen, defeated. And then one day I realized that all the jars were gone. Did she smash them in anger? Or calmly collected them to be swapped for a handful of coins? Dad didn’t notice at all, too absorbed with his rallies, too frustrated with the right-wingers who stonewalled every liberal reform. He’d also had to go back to work, to the special school-sanatorium, where he and Mom used to teach together and where I had been a patient.
And me? I was almost normal now, attending our district high school, where I had friends who knew nothing of my parents or my past. I’d learned to dress in such a way as to mask my crooked scoliotic body, to wear my hair long and loose down my back. I tried to spend as little time as possible at home, stopping by after school only long enough to change out of my uniform and grab a leftover hotdog. Luckily, neither Mom nor Dad was there at that time.
But one Tuesday afternoon in September, I ran into Mom at home. She was never back from work this early, unless she had a migraine. She wasn’t sick, though. Not that day. I heard her in the kitchen—baking sweet pastries and humming a dumb pop song. When she saw me, she immediately told me to hustle. “Put on something nice and for god’s sake, brush your hair. Someone’s coming over,” she said.
“A sort of doctor.”
I asked what it meant, a sort of doctor. Did he have a diploma? Had he been to the medical school?
Not a regular doctor, she admitted. A spiritual kind. “I really think he can help us.”
“Us?” I said. “Really?” I didn’t need help. She needed help. Plus, I had plans with my friend Lana. We had college prep on Tuesdays at a school across town.
Mom asked me to please, please, please cancel my plans. Asked sweetly, desperately even, like she would a friend. She could do this if she wanted, turn all helpless.
At last, she admitted that she’d found us another healer. A real one this time, she said. “You wouldn’t believe the sort of people he’s been helping. I can’t name names, obviously, but let’s just say the very top. It’s a miracle he had a spot for us.”
“For you,” I corrected her.
“For me,” she agreed, sensing I was giving in.
I told her I’d stay, as long as it was understood that I wanted nothing to do with the miracle worker.
I always thought of myself as a rational person. I studied physics and biology and believed in science. But also, confusingly, I’d grown up fearing bad omens. Shattered mirrors, errant birds, black cats that crossed your path. Fortune tellers intrigued and terrified me. To admit to even an ounce of good fortune was to jinx yourself. The best way to ward off bad luck was to accept it as certainty. What I’m trying to say is, my rational mind was no match for the assortment of superstitions I’d absorbed growing up.
The new healer’s name was Victor, and when he finally arrived later that afternoon, I found him wanting. He was nothing like the healer on TV: no bullishness in him, no sense of superior will. He was mild, slender, immaterial. A faint pencil squiggle of a person. Stooped, narrow shoulders. Pant legs splattered with dirt. This was a man who went on foot a lot, spent hours at bus stops, never had money for a cab.
“Meet Victor,” Mom said, and he nodded at me shyly and said, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I said.
“My presence upsets you,” he said, but just as he said it, I felt my unease starting to lift.
“Don’t mind her,” Mom said. “She’s a teenager. Do you have children, Victor?”
He didn’t answer, just turned his head vaguely—a gesture that could be either yes or no.
Later I asked him how he knew I’d been upset. Mom was out of the earshot, getting the tea ready in the kitchen.
“I saw it,” he said, “the pain inside you, pulsing.”
“What did it look like?” I asked. I wondered if my pain had a color, whether it was a solid object or cloudy substance. Was it really pain, or did he merely see my frustration?
But he was focused now, silent. His hands moved as if he were sketching my insides, cataloguing my internal organs. Here’s your liver. Let’s set it aside. Here’s your spleen. I was his patient now, his subject, seated on a hardbacked chair in the middle of the room. How did I get here? I didn’t know.
Mom came back with tea and cookies on a tray, stopped in the doorway.
“You often get stomach cramps?”
“Sometimes. When I’m nervous.”
“Once in a while.”
“Are you nervous a lot?”
I said I didn’t think so. Mom said, “Oh god, non-stop. Especially when she was little. Everything scared her. I mean literally, every…single…thing—”
Victor raised his index finger as if asking for silence.
He was working, his hands hovering, opening sets of curtains inside me, unveiling something. Here’s your pelvis and here’s your sternum. Your thorax. Your lumbar rib. He circled around me, stopped behind my back. Here’s your spinal cavity.
“We didn’t know,” Mom blurted out. “She was seven and the doctors said… said we’d neglected her condition, said it was hereditary, but no one in our family has ever been… like this.”
“An injury,” he said. “A very early one. Probably at birth.”
Mom gasped, “I knew it!” At last, she was vindicated.
“Your blood vessels are thin, but I can fix that.”
“What else?” I asked, weirdly curious now.
“You’re delicate, not like your mother. She lets everything out; you keep everything inside. She rebounds, but you retain the damage.” He turned to Mom. “There’s an imbalance in her. It might seem minor now, but if left unattended it will later manifest itself—”
“Gastritis, infertility, even cancer.”
“We must fix it right away,” Mom said. “How do we fix it? I’m sure I also have the same imbalance.”
“Of course.” The healer smiled, indulgently. “I can feel it, and I haven’t even scanned you yet.”
Before he left that night, Mom had us both booked for weekly adjustments. Victor didn’t like to call them treatments. We were lucky he could fit us in, Mom said.
The peaceful feeling I’d felt in Victor’s presence lasted maybe half an hour. Then I came to myself. Why did I allow him to scan me? Wasn’t there something undignified about all this hand- waving, not to mention the horribly intrusive questions? I was mad at Mom but even more at myself.
I resolved to skip the next appointment, and I told Mom as much. She and I fought the whole week, whenever it was just the two of us at home. I threatened to tell Dad. She said that I’d ruined her life, that I was always in cahoots with my father, that I was heartless, that I had driven them apart. After a while we stopped talking altogether.
Next Tuesday came, and I changed into my mini-skirt, put on some lipstick and mascara, stuffed my college-prep notebooks into my bag, and left to meet Lana. But in the entryway of our apartment building, I ran into Victor. “Oh good,” he said, squinting at me. “It’s so dark in here. I thought maybe I got the wrong place.”
I told him it was always like this: burnt-out lights, bad smells, forever broken elevator. Speaking of which, he’d have to take the stairs.
“Seventh floor?” he said.
I walked up after him. He made slow progress, stopping frequently to catch his breath. For a healer, he didn’t seem especially healthy. He was a smoker—I could smell it on his breath. When we finally made it, I unlocked the door, ushered him in, and stayed.
Mom believed in Victor. He knew things he couldn’t have known. He knew, for example, that her own mother died when Mom was twelve and that she once fell off a swing and broke her wrist. Without ever meeting Dad, he knew that he was nearsighted and had his tonsils taken out at sixteen. Mom said you couldn’t fake this kind of knowledge. She was feeling hopeful again, because Victor had scanned her and found nothing that would prevent a healthy pregnancy. He said he couldn’t make promises, not without examining Dad, but in the meantime, they could start addressing her imbalances and working on strengthening her remaining fallopian tube.
She finally told Dad about Victor, and he took it in stride, like he took everything Mom had ever come up with. He wasn’t one to make a scene. He did ask where she’d found the money, and she reminded him she made more at her job than he did at his. Dad shrugged and let it be, but he refused to meet the healer, let alone allow himself to be scanned. Mom tried everything. She even threatened to divorce him, but on this issue, he stood firm. He simply said, “It’s not for me.”
I envied him his certainty. In Victor’s presence I became open and malleable, but soon after he left, small tendrils of resentment would take hold of me. In the days between his visits, the thought of him filled me with queasiness. But which feeling was true? Which was the real me?
One day in October Victor arrived with two big plastic bags and placed them gently in the hallway. “This is for you,” he said.
“A present? You shouldn’t have,” said Mom. “Honestly, Victor—”
From the first bag, he retrieved a small plant with long spindly leaves. “Think of it as part of the work we’re doing.”
“Oh no,” Mom said. “Plants don’t survive in here.” It was true, we had no luck with plants. There were none in our apartment, and whenever we got one in the past, no matter how hardy, it never lasted longer than a month.
“This one is yours,” Victor said, handing the plant to Mom. “It blooms once a year, in late winter. Beautiful orange flowers with some yellow in the center. You will care for it and it will bloom, and when it does, so will you.”
Mom blushed and took the plant.
Victor reached into the second bag and took out a cactus. Prickly, like me, so I figured it fit.
“Do these things bloom as well?” I asked.
“They do, but I don’t know when or how often. You’ll have to be patient and wait.”
He left us that night with instructions on how to care for each plant. Mom’s needed cool temperature and dry air. Mine—warmth and very little water.
“We should get him something too,” Mom said.
But what could we get Victor? We knew nothing of him or his needs. He seemed modest and poor and didn’t charge us very much for our sessions. His important clients must’ve paid him well, but if so, we saw no sign of that wealth.
“He’s like one of those ascetics,” Mom said, “the holy men that travel barefoot across the countryside.”
Dad asked if Victor was religious. There was a massive resurgence of religion in our country, now that it was permitted, but Dad didn’t trust religious people. They were usually nationalists or monarchists or both. Nothing godly in them, he used to say. All they were good for was spreading blame and stoking ethnic conflicts. Every month brought a new case of violence, a pogrom, or even a minor civil war—mostly in distant parts of our country, but sooner or later they would reach the capital.
Mom said he didn’t need to lecture her: she knew all about the dangers of organized religion.
At the start of our sessions, Mom frequently complained about Dad—how he didn’t understand the complexity of her condition, the demands of her job and everyday life. “I honestly don’t think he even cares.”
“He’s stupid with love for you,” I pointed out.
She waved me off. “You’re still a child. You see love everywhere you look.”
“Take my commute, for example,” she kept telling Victor. “All he has to do is take one bus, but for me it’s two busses and the subway. And you know what our subway’s like—the jostling, dirt, rudeness—and everywhere you look, those horrible old women selling cigarette butts on trays. How low do you have to fall to smoke someone’s cigarette butts?”
Victor reddened, and it suddenly dawned on us that he was a smoker and poor and that he might have bought from those women.
Mom slapped her forehead. “What was I thinking!” She rushed into the hallway and returned moments later digging into her handbag. “Here, these are sugar rations, but this month you can use them for cigarettes. It’s true, it was on the news. Five packs for a ration, and none of us smokes.”
“Are you sure?” Victor said. He was blushing even harder now. “It’s so generous. I’ll have to pay you back, or maybe not charge you for some of our sessions—”
“Nonsense,” Mom cut him off—because she, too, could be a champion of the impoverished.
I wondered how he was so poor: Did he have any other profession? Had he been to college? How does one come to be a healer anyway?
“Is this like your main job?” I asked, on another occasion. Mom glared at me for being tactless, but I couldn’t think of a more delicate way to ask.
“It’s not a job,” Victor explained. “It’s a gift, something a higher power had granted me. I’m merely an instrument, you see?”
“Did it give you instructions, this higher power?”
“I know that you and your family are of a different persuasion,” he said, “and believe me, I have the utmost respect for your faith—”
I said, “We’re Jewish but not religious.”
“Forgive me, I shouldn’t have presumed—”
“I wish we were,” Mom said suddenly. “It gets too much sometimes, this life. Like a noose around your throat—tightening, tightening—and there’s never anyone to turn to.”
“Sounds like you need a break,” said Victor. “Could you leave the city for a spell? That’s something I do when I’m feeling depleted. I take the train someplace I’ve never been, and I just walk and don’t speak to anyone for days.”
Mom looked dubious, though. Her spirit needed something different—not the bleak and drizzly scenery or country roads. I didn’t know it then, but she’d already had her heart set on a place—a warm breeze from the sea, lemon trees, sunbaked stone. A fertile land she could belong to. Maybe it would make her fertile, too.
As for me, I wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else. I’d stay right here, in this hellhole of a country. I didn’t mind its brokenness—I was broken too, or at least my body was. In the chaos and mess of it all, I was determined to carve out my own corner.
In the meantime, I took care of our plants. Mom had long since lost interest in hers, so I moved it to my room. I placed it on the windowsill, where it would be cooler, while my own plant—the cactus—I set up by my bedside, to keep it safe from drafts. Both plants needed little watering. Never for a moment did I believe in Victor’s prophesy. Such a stupid fairytale it was, this promise of rebirth and blossoming. I merely felt sorry for the plants. It wasn’t their fault they’d been brought to our loveless home. The least I could do was help them stay alive. I actually liked it—having this small responsibility in life. These poor doomed things, they made me less lonely.
I suppose it was inevitable that one day, Dad and Victor would meet. It finally happened in December. Dad came home just as Mom was sitting down to be scanned. He must’ve forgotten it was today. I heard him stop abruptly in the hallway at the sight of Victor’s coat on the hanger. We only had two rooms in our apartment—if you didn’t count the kitchen and bathroom. Still, Dad could get himself something to eat in the kitchen and maybe watch the old TV. He did neither, though. I heard him stomp restlessly in his heavy winter boots. At last, he stepped into the living room.
“Can you move this production somewhere else?” he asked Mom. “There’s something on TV I’d like to watch.”
“Hello to you, too,” Mom answered. She turned to Victor. “Allow me to introduce—my husband, though the way he’s behaving you’re probably wondering why anyone would marry such a brute.”
“My regards,” Dad said to Victor, curtly. To Mom he said, “Can we please cut the theatrics?”
For the last few days, Dad had been following the Second Congress of the People’s Deputies, and I’d gathered it hadn’t been going well.
“Don’t you pay attention, people?” he said now. “Don’t you care what’s going on?”
“I don’t want to talk politics,” said Mom. “Not at this moment. I’m trying to concentrate, to get better—in case you didn’t notice. I’ve been begging you to join me, but no, you’re too good—”
“I’ll be in the kitchen,” Dad said, and left the room.
I followed him. The old black-and-white TV we kept there had been acting wonky lately. It took twenty minutes for it to warm up enough to produce sound and then another ten for the picture to show itself. He turned it on and started waiting.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Is it the physicist?”
I’d glimpsed enough of the Congress to know that Dad’s favorite People’s Deputy had been looking frail. He had it rough with the conservative majority.
“The way they’re treating him,” Dad said, “I just can’t… He’s speaking at the podium—the only one there making sense—and they’re laughing at him. And our peasant of a president dares to talk down to him. I mean, here’s this person, this Nobel Prize-winning genius, and he’s scolding him like a schoolboy. Or cutting off his mic… Anyway, you don’t care.”
“I do,” I said. “Of course, I do. It just seems so hopeless.”
“He doesn’t think so,” Dad said. “He loses one battle, and he picks himself up the next day and starts again. Has been doing it all his life. If it weren’t for people like him, nothing would ever change around here.”
I wanted Dad to believe that I was still on his side, and I wanted to tell Victor about Dad, to explain that he was a good person and not a brute like Mom said. He’d just been upset. And worried about the physicist. I wanted to talk to him before Mom completely poisoned him against Dad, but by the time I got back the session was over.
As Victor was leaving that night, Dad briefly stepped into the hallway. Victor said something along the lines of nice to meet you and held out his hand. But Dad made no move to shake it.
“You’re working for them, aren’t you?” he said.
“You know who I mean. The government. Do you spy for them also? Or just absolve their sins?”
“It’s not in my power to absolve, but I help anyone who needs me. Anyone who asks. We’re all the same in God’s eye, all human and flawed—”
“A convenient theory,” Dad said. “Except some are more human than others. That’s on your conscience, anyway.” He shrugged and went back to the kitchen, leaving Mom to apologize some more.
The next morning, we learned that the physicist had died in his sleep, his poor old heart unable to bear the struggle. His last words to his wife that night had been, Tomorrow, we start again.
I worried for Dad, worried also that Mom would say something mean and mocking and hurt him even more. But they both cried that morning, Mom and Dad, as if brought together by the immensity of this one loss. And then they left for work together, like they used to for so many years.
Victor didn’t return the following Tuesday. Or the Tuesday after. No warning, no phone call. Mom blamed Dad at first. She tried to call Victor, but this was easier said than done. Victor didn’t have a phone in his apartment. You had to leave a message with his landlady, but for a while the calls weren’t getting through and when the landlady finally picked up, she said she hadn’t seen Victor and that he owed her money. Mom called whoever had connected her with Victor in the first place, and that person called someone else, but no one had any information. Victor disappeared. Maybe a drunken bout? someone suggested. An accident or sickness of some sort? For a while, I thought that maybe he just needed a break from us all. I imagined that he’d taken a train to some unknown place and was roaming country roads, communing with his God. Mom had a starker theory: he must have displeased one of his powerful clients. There was so much misery around us in those days, so much poverty and violence. Who would miss an unremarkable middle-aged man with no family or money or place of employment? Victor was gone, and as weeks went by, it seemed unlikely he’d ever return.
Soon enough we stopped talking about him. Life went on as always, except now our Tuesdays were free. And then one day in March, Mom’s plant broke into blossoms. Three beautiful orange flowers with a bit of yellow in the center, just like Victor had promised. The winter was on its way out, so it all made sense.
I was the one who spotted it, of course, since the plant lived in my room. I’d come to feel tenderly toward it, even though it wasn’t officially mine, and I felt proud of it now, proud of my efforts that had kept it alive.
I brought it out to the kitchen, where Dad was reading his newspaper and Mom was making supper. “Look!”
When Mom saw it, she blanched, and after a moment I understood why. Caught in my pride, I had forgotten what the plant meant to signify. It was blossoming, yes, but Mom still wasn’t.
She tore it from my hands and before I could stop her, she marched into the stairwell and dumped it down the garbage shoot.
Back in the apartment, she slumped on the kitchen floor. The potatoes were burning on the stove, but what did she care anymore? Dad had no idea what was going on. He didn’t know about the plants. He kneeled beside her. “He was a fraud,” Mom cried. “Victor. Just like you said.”
Dad seemed at a loss for words.
“Take me away,” she asked, abruptly. I’d heard by then of the warm sun and lemon trees, but I didn’t think Dad would agree to leave the country—not with all his talk of staying true to one’s convictions and never giving up. Other families, Jewish like us, were leaving, but I thought I had nothing to worry about. Now, though, I saw how tired Dad looked, how spent. He had no fight left in him either. With the physicist gone, he’d somehow lost all hope.
“I’ve been awful to you, I’m sorry,” Mom was saying. “But please, if you still love me…”
I can picture it even now: Dad kneeling on the kitchen floor, Mom telling him they can start over, if only he agreed to leave. I wanted them to think of me. I was there with them in that kitchen, and I waited for them to remember me, to reach out and draw me into their embrace and maybe ask me what I thought of this crazy idea. I waited and waited, but neither looked back.
“Promise me,” Mom said. “Promise you’ll take me from this place,” and Dad, who never broke a promise, said he would.