That freezing Thursday in Evanston, IL started out like every other Thursday morning in the early winter of 1984. Pierre Levy shuffled down the hallway in his slippers and only his underpants, gold chain hidden under a thick mat of chest hair. Fumbling in the shower for the removable shower arm, he remembered that American bathrooms don’t have those, before settling in under the forceful stream of hot water. What they lacked in fixtures they made up for in water pressure, he thought.
Toweled dry and with a good dousing of after shave, he dressed for a day of leisure. He finally had a day off from the hospital to spend time with his daughter, the sole reason he was in this cold Midwestern town thousands of miles from his family. The work in the hospital was not going well. The only place that would hire a foreign doctor on such short notice was in what he heard called the “inner city”. The primarily black patients could not understand his thick French accent, and he in turn could glean little to nothing from their way of speaking. Jive, another doctor tried to explain to him. Pierre knew that his days at the hospital were numbered, and the despair was slowly sinking in.
Three months had passed since his wife Rebecca had announced she wanted a divorce. Really, nothing had been the same since the pregnancy. Pierre, both in his own family and in his patients, observed that in general, pregnant women felt it to be a joyful time, a moment to rest and be pampered, even a profound clarity found in proximity to life’s higher purpose. What Rebecca expressed was none of that. She seemed terrified, both of the baby growing inside her who caused her so much discomfort and of her future as a mother.
In January she came to him to say that she wanted to move back to the States. She was homesick but the main reason she gave was much more interesting and compelling. There had been nightmares, dreams about her childhood with her foreign mother, her darkly beautiful and heavily accented mother who stood out terribly at a time when all she wanted was to fit in. She could not be that woman. There would be no embarrassment for a grammatical error spoken in front of her enfant’s friends. No cultural taboos broken unwittingly. She had to share both language and lifestyle with her child. Living in France was no longer an option.
He could see now that there was a second part of the story. She knew how close he was with his family, and how hard he had worked to build his medical practice in Paris. There was a chance that all along she silently rooted for the possibility that moving would be too much for him, leaving everything to follow her to the unknown where he would now be the foreigner. What she didn’t count on was how genuinely overjoyed he was to be a father. It was a desire he had carried around since boyhood, and now that he had met his little girl, who he named Justine, he wasn’t going to let her go.
In the entryway of the small duplex Pierre put a thick coat on over his bulky wool sweater and wrapped a scarf around his face, covering his nose and mouth so that icicles wouldn’t form in his bushy beard. On the drive to Rebecca’s mother’s house, where she and Justine were staying, he whistled and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to whatever song was playing on the radio. He wasn’t picky, as long as it was upbeat and something he could move to. From the day he was born he felt compelled to move. This set him apart from his three siblings and endeared him to young children. All the whistling, foot tapping and finger snapping were nothing compared with the movement of his mouth. He talked and talked, passionately, forcefully (in the habit of many North African Jews) and relentlessly about whatever topic was on hand. It was a marvel. And it had been for Rebecca until one day it wasn’t.
He pulled in to the driveway at 1162 Hohlfelder Rd. slowly, registering that something was out of place. Snapping off the radio he knew what it was – Rebecca’s car was missing. He knocked loudly on the paint chipped, prairie style door and waited. The house had been a modern marvel when it was built in 1951, he had been told, but all he could see was the decay of 30 years of little to no maintenance.
The minutes clicked by and it seemed unbearable to wait any longer, as if every additional second put him that much closer to some terrible abyss. Then he noticed he had been holding his breath and the drowning feeling was not all in his head. Pierre gulped open his mouth and the frigid air caught in his throat, unleashing a violent cough that sent him staggering backwards. When he straightened up again he saw that the door was open and Lisa, Rebecca’s mother, was staring at him. She had clearly stopped in to freshen up her makeup and fix her hair pins on the way to the front door, vanity winning out over any trace of motherly instinct to offer protection from the sub-zero temperatures outside. In her lilting, sing song voice that clung always to the upper decibels she said, “Bonjour Pierre, what are youuuu doing here today?”
He had a great respect for Lisa, as he did for all elegant women of a certain age, but even more so because he knew some of what she went through during the Holocaust. There were stories, most which she claimed to no longer remember, of escape from a work camp in Poland, of losing her entire family save for one sister and her mother, of total and complete loss of home and community. All of this did nothing to make her easier to get along with.
“What am I doing here?” his accent thicker as the heat rose in his face. “It is my day with Justine! Where are they?” The scent of Pierre’s aftershave began to waft out from under the many layers of clothing, warmed by his anger.
“Oh?” Lisa feigning complete ignorance did not come as a surprise to him. In spite of how tense and fraught their mother-daughter relationship was, Lisa was a survivor and would cling to her children as tightly as was necessary. At the end of the day, she saw him as someone who posed more of a risk than a benefit, someone who could take her daughter and granddaughter to live far away in France where they would never come to visit her. Maybe they were better off without him around. She could find Becky a nice Jewish doctor right here in Cook County.
“She has been talking about Canada recently,” Lisa relented. “Maybe she took Justine on a trip there?”
“Did she take everything? All of Justine’s toys?”
The look on his face was beginning to wear her down. He was the same age she had been when she first came to this country, 33. Too old to every really belong, to find a way to hide enough of your foreignness away. She saw how alone he was, a feeling as familiar to her as the crook in her left arm. The hint of sympathy that rose in her was so unfamiliar as to be alarming, and she squashed it before it could do her any harm.
“Pierre,” she said bluntly, “They aren’t coming back. She took everything. Justine is safe with her mother, they have everything they need. It’s time for you to return to your family.”
Where Lisa had been standing he saw only a ghost, a hollow shape with no eyes and no soul. He slipped through years and miles to a hot corner in Tunis, his hometown, where the kids in the neighborhood gathered to play his favorite game – Beat the Phantom. As a knock-kneed 8 year old he couldn’t wait until it was his turn to stuff pillows under his shirt and run howling through the streets, a trail of boys with sticks following behind.
A bitterly cold wind brought him back to that upper middle-class neighborhood where neighbors stared through their curtains at one another. To this woman standing before him who was so much more alone in her own home than he was in a foreign country. He left her, glowering there at the open door and crawled back to his car, amazed that his body had enough sense to function - bend the knee, move the foot, place the hands on the steering wheel, direct the eyes to the rearview mirror. He had one friend in town, a Brazilian nurse from the hospital, so that is where the car went. It left the suburbs and crossed into Chicago city limits.
Did he notice the headlights pointed directly at him, hear the honking, feel the tires slide out from beneath? Inside her empty house, Lisa Segal wondered if the news was talking about some other French doctor who drove the wrong way on the exit to Lakeshore Drive. She told herself it was a big city with plenty of international doctors and the chances of it being Pierre were very slim. She wondered if Rebecca would come back. She doubted it.