by Noni Bird
Chapters 1-5 of Love Story
It was a private funeral held graveside, per her mother’s wishes.
Madelyn Roth Stern was a prominent figure in the literary world of New York City. She’d enjoyed well-deserved recognition and financial success as a publisher during her lifetime. But rather than eulogies, she requested only that the officiating rabbi from the Park Avenue Synagogue relay her wish to her family that they love one another, as she had loved them. "She was certain", the rabbi summarized her words from his notes, "that the continued health and wealth of her family would endure from this, the most important legacy she could leave you."
Isabel nodded her head as the rabbi spoke. Yes, that sounded like her mother; she’d told them often enough to love one another. But it was curious that she wanted to leave the world repeating this same counsel, when it sounded more like an admonition, like maybe her mother knew something they didn’t. After all, childhood fights were a thing of the past, they were all sensible adults now, and a close-knit family by all accounts. True, they weren’t on the same page all the time with their thoughts and opinions, maybe even their world views, but it was never a question of dislike for the other.
Isabel looked over at her brother and father sitting beside her, and assured herself that the three of them, Stephen, Felix and herself, were of the same mind: this last wish of her mother’s was an easy enough promise to make and keep.
If anything could have saved her mother from pancreatic cancer, it was too late by the time it was detected. A simple stomach pain had sent her to the doctor only a month ago, when the family was still deciding how and where to spend their winter vacation. No one expected to be spending it in mourning. Isabel expected to be spending it preparing for the year end audit, in her role as CFO for a small Parisian fashion design house.
Her mother had died on New Year’s Day and was being buried three days later, on her birthday. It was a bright but bitter-cold windy day that saw mourners wrapped in heavy coats, the men among them with red ears, holding down their small skullcaps with gloved hands. Isabel half-wished she was in Hawaii with her children and nieces, enjoying Madelyn's generous Hanukkah gift, but Stephen and her father needed her here, just as they'd been there for her when her husband unexpectedly passed away five years ago. It was a pain renewed in the wake of her mother's death.
The remaining family, close friends, and business associates numbered eighteen, and Stephen made sure there would be at least ten males to make up a minyan. At 2:00 pm, they all sat underneath a green canvas tarp, on chairs that stood a little unevenly on a worn green outdoor carpet that had been laid atop packed snow. The number of metal chairs had been split evenly between the two sides of the coffin, where Isabel sat between her father and brother in a front row. The simple coffin was suspended over the grave on the straps of a lowering mechanism rolled into place.
When the time came to lower the coffin, no one said a word until it reached its resting place and the mechanism was moved away. Then, Felix and Stephen got up. Each man took a shovel to begin the ritual of covering the coffin with the dirt that had been taken from the grave just hours earlier by backhoe.
The cold and wind discouraged the two from taking more than a few minutes. Their heads were only partially covered by yarmulkes, and they were without gloves. Two other male family members took part, as well as two wives, and once they sat down, a tall man who looked to be in his sixties, in a trimmed gray beard and mustache, came forward and took command of the proceedings. Keeping up a slow, steady rhythm, while breathing visibly in the cold air, he shoveled and poured dirt until the coffin was completely covered. Warmly dressed, all in black, in heavy winter boots and parka, a tight-fitting knit wool hat and matching scarf, and leather gloves, Isabel might have mistaken him for an employee of the Jewish funeral home. But Stephen leaned over and whispered to her, “That’s Henry.” Isabel’s eyes went wide in recognition; it had been ten years since she'd last seen Henry Stallings. She knew him last with a thick head of salt-and-peppery hair, and had never seen him at all with facial hair.
Henry had been hired as a young man by her mother over thirty-five years ago when Madelyn inherited the small publishing firm, Roth & Company. Together with Henry, Madelyn had grown the firm to become one of the most well-respected literary publishing companies in the country, with an impressive roster of award-winning authors, including Henry himself.
Isabel tried to catch a good look at Henry’s face above the grave. How was he dealing with her mother’s death? She couldn’t see his eyes for solid clues, but by the set of his jaw, she knew he was a man determined. She watched his impressive performance, wondering how he’d said his final goodbye to her mother because, no doubt, he had..
Henry hadn’t time to sit down before the rabbi passed out laminated cards with the Hebrew Kaddish prayer and everyone got on their feet. The rabbi reminded them that, although it was the traditional prayer spoken at Jewish funerals and anniversaries of the death of a relative, it was actually a hymn of praise to God. At times of loss, Jews reaffirmed their faith in the greatness of God. "That’s when it's needed the most," Isabel commented to herself.
Despite her full-length sable coat, with matching hat and muff, and fur-lined boots, Isabel shivered. It was too soon to cry, even if the cold wind would have allowed. Hardly forty-eight hours had passed since she’d received the unexpected call from her father. She’d caught the next flight from Paris, where she had been living for over three years, to JFK, where Stephen collected her that morning at the Air France arrivals bay, with her father and two uncles in the back seat of the Yukon SUV. They went straight to the Scarsdale cemetery from there, arriving a few minutes after the hearse from the funeral home.
Now the hearse, which had been parked during the service on the newly-plowed path of the cemetery, was gone. Most of the funeral attendees sat in their cars, warming up the engines and themselves, waiting for the Yukon to leave first. Isabel looked around and saw Henry exchanging a few words with Stephen, who was nodding his head. Then, to her surprise, these two strong men came together in a tight embrace that lasted several moments. Isabel took her handkerchief out of her muff, certain she might cry at the sight, but wiped her nose instead, which had begun to drip in the cold. In her mind, she heard the rabbi’s words again: Love each other, as she loved each of you. Perhaps her mother wasn’t addressing her husband and children alone.
Meanwhile, Isabel waited her turn while standing a short distance away in the direction of an empty gray Audi A6 she suspected was Henry’s.
As he approached, he had his head down, watching his step on the slippery path, but she knew he’d seen her.
He greeted her in French. “Toute mes condoleances, Isabel." His voice had grown deeper with age, his eyes were less bright blue, and his lips - as they kissed her on each cheek - were cold in the wind.
"Comme c'est bonne de te voir, Henry." It was good to see him again. She wished she could think of something else to say at that moment, but words were hard to find on a solemn occasion. She wanted to apologize for not recognizing him sooner, but couldn't think of how to do it without reminding him of how he'd aged. In truth, he looked to be in terrific shape; she just hadn't expected the white facial hair. With his head covered in the wool cap, it was impossible to tell if he was bald as well.
He was still charming. Sticking with his second language, he told her,"Tu me coupes le souffle, comme ta mère.”
Isabel blushed. “Oh, Henry…enough already.” Hearing him tell her she took his breath away, like her mother had, was a little amusing, coming from a man bundled up in cold weather attire more commonly seen on a workingman, than the usually urbane and handsome man Henry Stallings was. It was the first little laugh Isabel had had since leaving Paris.
She tried for another one. Looking around at the field of endless gravestones, she quipped, "We could have found a better place to meet.” It was something her mother might have said while feigning disapproval.
Henry smiled, but his demeanor suddenly took on a wistfulness. “Yes, if only we could have..."
Then what? His response left Isabel confused. In fact, the whole business of losing a loved one is confusing. Isabel felt totally untethered, with her thoughts and feelings going unchecked at a time when she wanted to harness them for the grieving process. If Henry was somehow confusing her with her mother, that was excusable, even understandable.
She changed the subject. “You’re joining us back at the house, aren’t you? My father has arranged a small condolence meal. Nothing you have to dress up for.” She kept a straight face, and he didn’t flinch.
“Yes, of course.”
She exhaled. "Wonderful. Follow us in the Yukon over there. The house isn’t far, but stay close…it’s not easy to find.”
He laid his hand on her shoulder. “I know where to go, Isabel.”
She watched as he got into his car, and waved. He called out to her before he closed the door, “See you at the apartment!”
Of course he would know. There was no more childhood home in Scarsdale…what was she thinking? The meal would be held at 100 Central Park South. He’d been there many times, of course, with her mother. Isabel had promised her father she would stay at the apartment while in town, but she hadn’t even “checked in” yet.
In the elegant living room of the large city apartment, with its tall ceiling and windows that afforded magnificent views of the snow-covered park and surrounding tall buildings, Isabel sat across from Henry on a tufted occasional chair. They’d left their coats and other winter paraphernalia on a large foyer hall tree. Henry had been dressed all the while in a pair of black wool slacks and gray v-neck cashmere sweater, underneath which he wore an Oxford dress shirt in a much lighter shade of gray. His hair had turned white prematurely, but he still had a full head of it, which he wore slicked back. Against the dark clothes, he made a striking figure. Isabel wondered how he’d managed to stay single all these years, when he was around women so often – employees, authors, would-be authors, agents, and any number of others who would have found him an attractive suitor.
Isabel had changed into a flattering soft knit plum-colored dress and matching scarf. Now she sat and gazed at the tall wainscoted walls exquisitely adorned with pieces of fine art, while Henry made himself comfortable on a couch facing her, closer to the stone-faced fireplace, where a toasty fire was burning, and above which hung a familiar portrait of her mother at her own age, fifty.
The waitstaff came over with a serving cart, and she and Henry watched as two cups of coffee were poured for them.
“So tell me, Henry,” Isabel began, as she stirred her coffee with sweetener. “What was it like working with my mother? Not easy, I imagine."
Henry stroked his cheek several times, while Isabel noted how remarkably free of wrinkles his face had remained. His facial hair was a becoming addition for a man of sixty-five now, too.
While he took a moment to ruminate, Isabel threw out some prompts. “My mother loved her work, and books - so many books - she couldn't get enough of them! She was totally devoted to her work as an editor and publisher, but not to the exclusion of her children, of course. She was always there for me growing up, and Stephen as well, though he was much closer to my father." Isabel paused to consider her mother's personality traits. "I’m not sure I’d call her a perfectionist, but everything she did seemed to turn out perfectly, didn’t it? She set very high standards, that's indisputable. Did her goals even keep pace with her record of achievements, I wonder. It seemed she always had to set new ones."
Henry had been watching her as she offered her analysis, and now he spoke. "You're quite right. She could have rested on her laurels long ago, but there was too much life to live yet, and she loved all the work. It was richly rewarded, certainly. We both expected she would live to be ninety. Even then, it wasn't enough time for everything she wanted to do."
"Like what, for instance?" Isabel brushed her hair aside and took another sip of coffee.
"Well, for one thing, she wanted to go to Israel and meet the writers over there she loved so much: Amos Oz, A.B.Yehoshua and several others. She would often fall in love with a particular book and sit right down to write a beautiful letter to the author, not always the most famous authors you would expect, either. And sometimes she'd find out from the publishers that they had passed away, and she'd missed them only by a matter of weeks, or perhaps in the time it took her to finish the book. It was uncanny. She wanted to meet her favorite living authors before they died, never thinking she might die before they did."
"It's touching, the way you talk about her, you know." Isabel gave him a wistful smile. She could see how her mother might fall in love with a man like Henry.
"I wish she were here to tell them herself. I'm sorry she's not, Isabel."
"I'm sorry for your loss, too, Henry. You went through a lot together. It must be like losing a sister." Now I'm fishing.
Henry took time to deliberate. “She was a perfect mentor to me, Isabel.”
“Did you ever disagree on anything?” How could they not have?
“Of course, we did.” Henry chuckled. “Your mother wouldn’t have needed me otherwise. She was a risk-taker; that’s the nature of our business, to take calculated risks. But I had to talk her out of making some poor decisions.”
Isabel smiled. “You did an enviable job, too; she didn’t make many mistakes.”
Henry laughed. “No catastrophic ones, anyway. But I wouldn’t say everything turned out to be perfect. Perfection wasn't her goal; we'd never have gotten anywhere if it was. In fact, she'd have found perfection boring."
“I'm sure you didn't find each other boring!" Isabel laughed. "My mother being Jewish, you being Catholic...or is it Protestant?"
"Catholic, if anything at all. I admired your mother's Jewish observance. It was very important to her, no matter how secular our business had to be. She never worked on the Sabbath."
Isabel thought back. "She stayed home and read. But don't kid yourself, she was working," she told Henry. "She kept a traditional Jewish home for her family, the same way she was raised." After a few moments of reflection, Isabel remembered. "You came to a Passover Seder at our home in Scarsdale, I remember now. Gosh, I'd forgotten that until just now."
"I haven't forgotten. It was a wonderful evening with you and your family. You were taking voice lessons for your bat mitzvah at the time."
"Your memory is remarkable, Henry. I'm impressed. Yes, Mother insisted upon it. She was showing me off at the table, I bet. Wasn't she?"
"She was always very proud of you, Isabel."
"I needed that, too. I don't pretend it was easy to please her, though."
"That was only in your imagination. She loved you unconditionally."
He's going to bring me to tears at this rate.
"I never knew another Jewish woman who observed the dietary laws. That must be exceptional."
"Indeed, and so was my mother." She hesitated before asking, "You know other Jewish women?"
Henry's head tilted with amusement. "In New York City? Of course I do. In my late twenties, I was almost engaged to a Jewish woman.”
Isabel sat up with a jerk that caused the chair to groan a little. "What?” She'd never thought of Henry as anything other than a confirmed bachelor. Her mother never disabused her of this idea, and seemed to share it.
“Yes. I fell in love with her name first,” he chuckled. “Elisheva Silver.”
"Elisheva Silver?" This was an even greater shock. In her wildest dreams, Isabel never imagined Henry engaged, let alone to someone with whom she was familiar. Elisheva Silver was an acclaimed author of several children's books.
“Yes, that one. She wasn’t famous back then."
“My mother would have loved to publish her!” Isabel cried. She shook her head at what a missed opportunity it was.
But Henry corrected her. “No, Isabel. Your mother turned her down. That was one of the mistakes I couldn’t convince her not to make.”
“I don’t understand…” Isabel was unable to keep the apprehension out of her voice.
“She thought my judgment was compromised by my personal feelings,” Henry said with resignation in his voice.
Isabel was speechless. When she recovered herself, she told him, “What a senseless tragedy." She began to wring her hands as well. "So what if you happened to love her..." She stopped, and watched his face for any sign of regret.
Instead, he told her, “I loved your mother more."
So there it was. She hadn’t expected to hear him say it so matter-of-factly. Not today…not ever.
Isabel became conscious then of the other people in the apartment, and the conversations going on around her. Had anyone been listening to her and Henry? His love was a secret, surely. But all she could hear were people talking about commonplace things: there were compliments being made to Felix for what a wise real estate investment he’d made buying 100 Central Park West, while a couple of other voices were praising his taste in art, and asking for names of artists and their galleries. Uncle Harry, her mother’s brother, was decrying recent anti-Israel resolutions by the United Nations. Stephen was standing with a drink in his hand denouncing liberal Jews, and describing the evils of Socialism. A woman’s voice was exclaiming over the Steinway grand piano and asking who in the family played. Felix was going on with someone about a recent IPO and the new records being set by the Dow. Isabel imagined she heard her mother’s voice, but it was her Aunt Esther, Madelyn’s sister, raving about the luncheon fare as she walked by with a full plate in her hand, headed toward the library. Out of the mélange of sounds, Isabel heard Henry's bass voice call over to her.
“I’m sorry, Henry. I was lost for a moment there. I thought I heard Mother’s voice. I can’t believe she’s gone. No one seems to be talking about her. Isn't that queer?" It disappointed Isabel.
He ignored her question. “I’m afraid I shocked you just now,” he apologized.
“Pas de tout,” Isabel lied. But she hurried to ask while on the subject. “You told her so, didn't you? I’ll be heartbroken if she didn’t know you loved her.”
He nodded. “She knew.”
“You told her so?”
“Many times, Isabel.” His wistful demeanor was back, reminding Isabel that Henry was in mourning too.
Isabel exhaled. “Thank you, Henry. I’m sure it meant everything to her."
Her statement provoked a moment of respectful silence between them. Then Isabel broke it. “I don’t suppose I should be asking whether you two were lovers…” She kept her eyes on the portrait in front of her.
Henry shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
Isabel lowered her voice. “Do you mean she refused?"
“I mean you shouldn’t ask,” Henry gently scolded her.
She winced. “I'm sorry, Henry, that was terribly impertinent of me." I don't really want to know. If Henry had been intimate with her mother, that information might be shared with her later, when the period of mourning was passed, or even be uncovered in the course of settling her mother's estate. Honoring her deceased mother by recalling the teachings and loving memories she'd left behind for her children was the proper and righteous thing to do instead.
Henry brought her attention back to the present. “So…will you be leaving Paris soon?”
It was after midnight in Paris now, and the jet lag was hitting her. “I don’t know why I should leave Paris. I love my job there, the children don’t need me here. I’ll stay another couple of years until the next management upheaval, I suppose. I went there for a change of scene when Dave died." Hoping to find a lover. "Maybe I've had enough now." Enough of would-be lovers, too.
Henry warned her, “It’s too dangerous for you to be there anymore, Isabel. Your mother was sick with worry for you. She distrusted the French."
Isabel was surprised. "Why would she send me to school in Paris? I don't understand. What did she tell you? Wait...” The level of noise made it hard to hear him from where she was sitting. She went over and sat down beside him on the couch, rearranging some needlepoint pillows.
Henry shifted his own body in response, then started to explain. “Your mother refused to go back to Paris during the years I knew her. She never forgot the persecution of Jews by the French during the War. Don't be lulled into thinking it can't happen again, Isabel. You understand, don't you? I promised your mother..."
Isabel was silently taking this in. She'd been so focused in her own little world, she hadn't given much thought to what was going on in Western Europe, and even in her own Paris neighborhood.
Henry paused, seeming to decide whether to go on. “You know, don’t you? Your grandmother Roth was in the hospital in Paris giving birth to your mother when the French police came and took the housekeeper and your mother’s three-year-old brother – he would have been your uncle - from their Paris apartment. They turned them over to the Nazis…on a train to Auschwitz. Your grandfather Roth got your mother and grandmother out of Paris and brought them to New York, but only his wealth and connections made it possible. He never forgave himself for not getting his family out sooner. After the war, he would never go back to France.”
Henry paused, while Isabel absorbed the magnitude of the tragedy.
“My God,” she whispered, as she felt her blood drain. She clasped herself to keep her hands from trembling, and lowered her head.
“I’m sorry. I thought your mother must have told you long ago.” Henry placed his hand lightly on her shoulder. “Your mother loved America, Isabel. She never wanted to live anywhere else.” His tone changed to become more adamant. “But I can tell you she was not happy with what is taking place in this country today. Your mother wasn’t one to be frightened by much, Isabel, but the potential loss of free speech petrified her. I knew it wasn’t the publishing business she was afraid of losing as much as her lifeblood.”
Isabel nodded. "I've worried about that too, Henry."
Then Henry got to the point of his question. “Your mother wanted you to join the firm, Isabel. Now she’s gone, it’s time you came home and took your rightful place at Roth & Company. There’s no capital in worrying over there in France; here you can do something to fight growing censorship". He stopped. “She left you her sixty percent share in the firm, she told me.”
It was something Isabel had long ago dreamed of. But so much time had passed, and she had her misgivings. “I wouldn’t want you or anyone else there comparing me to my mother. I could never measure up to her.”
Henry shook his head, and smiled with affection. “My dear Isabel, you aren’t expected to be your mother. You will continue Madelyn’s legacy just by being yourself.”
“Will you still be Managing Partner?”
He chuckled. Isabel the businesswoman would want to establish this right off. He assured her, “If it suits you, of course.”
“Of course it does. I hardly know enough to run the show.” Isabel claimed, as she tucked her shiny dark hair back behind her shoulders and pulled the scarf closer to her neck, knowing as she did so that she was being disingenuous and only wanted to hear Henry tell her it wasn't true.
He apparently read her mind. “That’s not at all true. You’re an extremely smart businesswoman and creative talent. Who better than you?” His eyes were shining now as he asked again, “Qui mieux que toi?”
Isabel thought back to the times she’d been to her mother’s office thirty-five years ago, when her mother had sat her down with a manuscript or two to read aloud. If a story written for children didn’t catch her mother’s attention when read aloud, it wouldn’t make it. Isabel would beg her mother to let her take a shot and edit it, rather than see an author’s labor of love tossed into the wastebasket, or sealed up in the return envelope with a letter of rejection. How many of those rejection letters had Isabel typed up herself for her mother? Had she sent one to Elisheva Silver? She couldn’t remember now.
Her mother had empathized with her anguish, and claimed it was the sad part about the business. There were many worthy books, but the firm couldn’t publish them all. Now Henry was telling her how wonderful it would be to work in the business.
“I want you to have an intern, too, Isabel. I’ll make some inquiries at colleges in the area. It’s not too late for the spring semester, I’m told.”
Isabel thought about it. An intern? So soon? She wouldn’t have the time to give an intern, would she? Did she even have the patience? She didn’t want to be a slave to the company like her mother. If she was going to leave her job in Paris, she wanted a similar one that would afford her time to write.
“Maybe she’ll turn out to be like you! Wouldn’t that be something?”
Isabel swallowed. “She?”
“The intern, Isabel. Or would you prefer a young man?” He glanced over to her and winked.
Isabel agreed on a young woman. “I don’t think I could mentor a young man; I’m not like my mother in that way.”
"All right, a young woman it is,” he decided for her. She relented with a sigh.
The waitstaff came over with warm appetizers on trays. Isabel hadn’t eaten since the flight over the Atlantic and now that her mother was laid to rest, her appetite was raging. As she and Henry filled their china luncheon plates with food, Henry commented, “Try to find one without a boyfriend.”
Isabel finished swallowing a warm spinach and artichoke palmiere before responding, “You’re not afraid of a little competition, are you, Henry? Tsk tsk.”
He laughed at her joke. “Listen here, young lady, we don’t need another intern crying like you did back then. Don’t think your mother and I didn’t know were in love. You had everything in the world a girl could want, and your mother wanted you to have him, too - whoever the boy was.” Henry picked up a tomato and caper crostini off his plate, and ate it while Isabel tried not to frown anymore. He was obviously pleased with himself for remembering this about her.
“Would you believe it, your mother wanted me to go find the boy and bring him back to you!"
Surely he's kidding.. She waved it aside with a flick of her wrist and a huff. "That's preposterous, Henry. Really."
He overruled her objection. "Imagine, here in New York City of all places! But I daresay I would have obeyed if there had been any reasonable chance of success. Instead, I told her you'd get over the kid a lot sooner if she didn’t add humiliation to the heartbreak. It was a crazy idea, she knew. But as a mother, she hated to see you suffer.” That said, Henry picked up another appetizer from his plate.
Now his words touched Isabel as much as if her mother had said them herself. Her loss was now hitting her with a thud. Without her mother, who did she have in the world to care as much about her emotionally? No one could take the place of a mother, but without a man to love her, either, Isabel started to see a lonely future ahead. It was an unwelcome thought.
“That’s an intriguing story, Henry, but your memory is flawed. I think you've mixed me up with one of your heroines. How is that new novel coming along, by the way?"
Henry ignored her. "If only I could remember the young man's name..." He looked at Isabel with eyes that sparkled again.
Isabel shook her head at him. "Forget it." I know his name, and no one is bringing him back to me.
It was a rainy evening when Isabel arrived back in the 16th arrondissement of Paris a week later.
“Je suis revenu, Charles,” she informed the doorman with a heavy heart as he held the cab door open for her and helped her out. She entered the apartment building lobby with its high ceiling and ornate tiled floor and headed for the gilded elevator, with Charles behind her carrying her suitcase and garment bag. This classic French edifice, with its balconied windows overlooking the street, used to feel so welcoming to her - a warm, refined, secure enclave seen in many a picture book of Paris, with a storybook life to go along with it. Until now she thought she was insulated. Just like Grandfather Roth had?
Isabel couldn't ignore the evidence that Jews were leaving Paris, even if it wasn't reported in Le Monde. In her own building, two apartments had been vacated recently. The tenants she knew only casually; they were Jewish Americans like herself, and financiers like her father. They apparently took their French wives - or mistresses - with them when they left.
In the elevator, she asked Charles if anything had happened in her brief absence. She wasn't expecting to be told, "La charcuterie juive a été bombardée hier." The Jewish deli in a nearby neighborhood had been been firebombed yesterday.
"Le même?" Was it the same one? Three years ago it had been looted and two employees had been stabbed to death by Islamic terrorists.
"Oui, Madame. C'est terrible. Trois personnes assassinées." The same deli, and this time three people were murdered.
She would have to call the landlord tomorrow. Or should she? She could sublet the place furnished. She hated to give it up and not find another if she wanted to come back. But it was ridiculous to worry about such things. After all, she was a wealthy woman who could have what she wanted if it came to that. More important to Isabel now was her grandfather’s story, and her mother’s own substantiated fears. To live in fear for one's safety was an intolerable situation.
She would give notice at work tomorrow. Two years ago she'd hired a Frenchman younger than herself to succeed her as CFO. Felix found him for her, well before she anticipated needing anybody to groom. Felix' prescience was truly remarkable, for he had also foreseen her departure would be a precipitate one.
Now Felix was insisting she once again heed his advice and move into her mother's former quarters at 100 Central Park South, downstairs from where he lived by himself now. She would not be lacking anything there; the furniture she’d bought in Paris could stay in Paris, he claimed. There wasn’t anything so sentimental about it that she couldn't part with it, she agreed. A smaller, less conspicuous and more independent place to call home would have suited her better, she felt, but as savvy and mature as she was at age fifty, she couldn’t manage to come away a winner in an argument with her father. He said he wasn't coming back to France any time soon; he was retired now. He didn't add, but she knew, that his mistress Justine was safe and sound with him back in Manhattan.
In less than a month Isabel could be living in Manhattan in her mother’s former apartment, shopping with her own daughter in school at NYU, and working alongside Henry Stallings at Roth & Co. In other words, a condensed version of her mother. But even this thought was less scary to Isabel than living in Paris now.
A stack of CVs had been placed on the desk waiting for Isabel's arrival. Henry wasn't wasting any time! Isabel was now sitting at her mother's imposing desk, in the office that had served as her second home, no doubt. From all appearances, Henry hadn't disturbed anything in it, rather made sure everything stayed neatly in place, and the room got cleaned every week, regardless of Madelyn's attendance. The room was somewhat familiar to Isabel, but it would take time to feel like her own.
She’d told Henry to call department chairs from small liberal arts colleges in the area to find English majors. This was a prejudice she might as well indulge so long as she was now able to pick and choose. Long ago, she saw herself as an English major at a small women’s college in New England, but Felix had made her attend NYU, and the Stern School of Business instead, to appease his vanity. Her life would have turned out differently thus far, she thought, if she’d been able to stand up to her powerful father. But it was not too late to have a second career at age fifty.
The CVs were one-pagers mostly, ten of them, and included some writing samples. The women didn’t have much to recommend them otherwise, but Isabel paid attention to their GPA scores, and looked for a compelling cover letter. No doubt Henry had sifted through all the respondents, and these were the top ten. On the very top, was the resume of a student named Joanna Ruben.
Ruben? It was a common Jewish surname.
From force of habit, Isabel took the stack and put it into alphabetical order.
Barely an hour later, while she was writing notes to herself and only up to the letter "N", she realized Henry was standing in the doorway with someone. When she looked up at him, he ushered a young woman into the room. Isabel put down her pen and went over, not taking her eyes off the girl. She was striking in a perfectly tailored gray wool skirt suit and white shirt that Isabel recognized as one from the iconic White Shirt collection by Anne Fontaine. The shirt alone would have cost $350. This was a young woman not only with style and taste, but with some money behind her. Isabel was intrigued.
“Isabel, this is Joanna Ruben,” Henry introduced her. Turning to Joanna, he did likewise. “Joanna, this is Isabel Gold.” Pretending to whisper in her ear, he said to Joanna, "The woman I told you about." Then he winked. Henry loved to do these little things that could disarm people, and Joanna looked a little embarrassed as Isabel took her hand.
As for Isabel, she was nonplussed. She'd only laid eyes on Joanna's resume an hour ago, and now the young lady was standing before her. Isabel was sure it was no accident. But she collected herself quickly.
“Ah! Please come in - both of you.” She glared at Henry, and he winked in return.
“I’ll leave you two together to get to know one another," he suggested instead. Then he touched Joanna on the shoulder and turned to leave. Joanna's eyes followed him for a moment until Isabel went over and closed the door.
“Let’s take our seats here,” Isabel suggested, while pointing to a round table where four upholstered chairs were set. Joanna arranged herself carefully in one, resting her purse on the floor beside her, and her padfolio in front of her, while Isabel grabbed a pad of paper and pen from her desk and fished out Joanna's CV from the stack she'd left on her desk.
“I must apologize, Joanna…” she began. “I haven’t formulated a description of the internship yet. This happens to be my first day on the job, in fact. So we’ll just improvise and flesh it out. Were you waiting very long?” Isabel looked at her watch. It was just 9:45 a.m.
Joanna looked confused. “Waiting…?”
“For me. That is, when did you arrive?” Isabel hadn’t quite grasped the situation. Henry was tied up with an agent first thing this morning, wasn't he? How had he come upon Joanna?
“Mr. Stallings and I just finished our 8:30 interview,” Joanna explained, with hands clasped together in her lap. She was a slender girl, shorter than Isabel by several inches, but like Isabel, possessed very fine features, including a smooth complexion and dark, shiny straight hair she wore in a layered bob very similar to Isabel’s own style. Unlike Isabel’s brown eyes, Joanna’s were a striking green color.
Isabel was careful not to give any indication of the consternation she felt. Had she misunderstood Henry? Was he planning to screen the candidates first? All of them?
She addressed Joanna calmly. “I see. Well then, you know we haven’t got a firm handle just yet on what you would be doing…I’m working on it now.”
Joanna pulled out a piece on which were typed a couple of paragraphs. “I do have this…”
Isabel took it from her and scanned it quickly, saying only, “Hmm.” Then she stood up. “Excuse me, Joanna. I’ll just make a copy of it and be right back.”
She walked around the corner to Henry’s office and closed the door. His eyes gave away the grin he was trying to hide behind his palm.
“I know what you’re going to say, Isabel, but she’s here…roll with it.”
"Of course I will." She went over to where he was seated at his desk and held the piece of paper in front of him. “But where did this come from?” she demanded. He didn’t make a move to take it, or even look at it.
“Okay, I came up with the idea to publish a biography of your mother. I wanted to float it by Joanna...and see if it was something she'd be interested in. You're free to toss it out and come up with an alternative, but I don't want her doing office work, Isabel...not this girl."
She wanted to be upset with him, but couldn't. The idea was a rather brilliant one. "I'll think about it, Henry," she said. When she got to the door, she stopped. "Should I be expecting other candidates to walk in?"
“I haven’t called anyone else,” Henry promised her.
Isabel looked at him, frowning. “I’m not sure why you called anyone at all.”
He brushed off his involvement with a playful shrug of his shoulders.
Under her breath, Isabel murmured, "Unbelievable..." But she couldn't stifle a chuckle.
She dismissed herself from his office with a wave behind her back and he called out, "Keep smiling, Isabel!"
When she rejoined Joanna, she closed the door behind her.
“Here’s the original back, Joanna. We’ll get something more detailed to be approved by the college next week." Isabel took a deep breath. Should I just hire her right now? She asked her, "Would you be able to start the following week?"
Joanna's green eyes lit up with obvious delight at where the interview was headed. "I think so...yes."
"Excellent," Isabel reacted. Then she placed Joanna's CV in front of her, and noticed that Joanna had done likewise.
“So! Let's see. You’re an English and Philosophy major. That’s an excellent combination for a writer. Is that your career goal?”
“Yes, ” Joanna affirmed. Then she followed up with, I want to learn all I can here about what goes into publishing books.”
“And what it takes to get a book published?” Isabel added, smiling.
“Yes.” Joanna's voice held a note of modesty.
Isabel looked back down at Joanna’s CV. “Is this your home address, Radnor, Pennsylvania?"
“Yes, it's a suburb of Philadelphia."
Isabel looked away while trying to picture the area, recalling, "There are many fine schools there. Why did you choose Columbia?”
“I wanted to be in New York City. This is where the literary agents and publishing houses are.”
Isabel nodded. "Yes, and several famous writers went to Columbia. One of my favorites, in fact - Herman Wouk."
The name didn't appear to resonate with Joanna, so Isabel moved on. “A good editor or agent will tell you that a novel needs a strong sense of place. New York City is one of the best settings for fiction stories, for writers and readers alike. Does New York City interest you in that sense?"
As Isabel expected, Joanna nodded. “Yes. I'd like to get to know the city very well. I’ve only been on field trips before, and the usual sight-seeing with my parents. My father knows the city much better than I do."
Isabel pictured Joanna's father in a suit and tie, sitting on the Amtrak Acela train, or being driven by a company driver into Manhattan, with face half hidden behind the Wall Street Journal, headed to see investment bankers about leveraged financing for an acquisition. "Does your father come to the city on business?" she asked Joanna.
Joanna nodded. “Yes. More so now than when I was growing up. My parents are divorced now, and my father's constantly working, so I can't spend that much time with him when he's here. He's currently in Paris, but he promised we'd get together when he's back in town soon." She smiled sweetly. "I hope so."
Isabel had winced at the words "constantly working". She knew what that was like, but she'd cured herself of workaholism while in Paris. Maybe Joanna's father was looking for a cure there too? She couldn't help smiling to herself at the connection.
Then she asked the question that had been on her mind since she saw Joanna's name on her CV. "Your father's name wouldn't be Paul Ruben, would it? I knew a man named Paul Ruben once, at NYU. What does your father do?" She held her breath. The image of a CEO for a Fortune 100 company came back to her mind.
Joanna responded with unmistakable admiration. “Yes, Paul Ruben! He's Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the Hospital at University of Pennsylvania.”
Isabel’s jaw dropped. “Oh!” she cried, not expecting that answer. The wrong Paul Ruben. She recovered quickly, though. “I guess it’s not easy to achieve a work-life balance in that field."
Joanna look disappointed. “That's what he told us. He has to work very hard to stay on top of the science and technology." A slow breath escaped her lips.
"His bio will make for very interesting reading someday. I'd keep it in mind for the future."
Joanna thanked her for the idea.
Isabel then turned her head away, and with one hand clasped the back of her neck where she felt the pressure of a headache. She saw no reason to go any further with this line of questioning.
For the next hour, she spoke with Joanna about the research role at Roth & Company that was likely to be granted to her, if Henry had anything to say about it. And he did.
When afternoon arrived, Isabel stood in her office pulling out file folders from tall cabinets and setting them on the table, preparing to place them next in labeled storage boxes. She felt Henry’s eyes on her back but didn't pause.
Without making a move to enter the office, he called over to her, “I can have someone else do that, Isabel.”
Isabel kept on. “No need, Henry. I want to see what she left here. Is it necessary to keep anything, do you think?”
Henry’s hand pressed against the door sill. “Let’s the two of us go grab some lunch. We’ll talk about it there.”
Isabel glanced at her watch; it was already past one. She’d lost track of the time. She had hoped to stay in and eat downstairs. “I thought the company provided lunch on Mondays and Fridays downstairs; didn’t I read that somewhere? Don’t tell me we can’t afford it now!” She feigned shock.
“The food service ended at one, Isabel; that’s stated in the manual too.” He moved toward her, until his elbow brushed hers, impelling her to stop what she was doing. “Let’s go out. My treat.” His smile looked forced. Henry could be a formidable foe if he chose to be, her mother once told her. Madelyn must have enjoyed the challenge, but Isabel didn’t have the temperament for such sport. She knew her new relationship with Henry was going to test the boundaries between professional and personal, and she was determined not to let the lines overlap. It was strictly business.
“OK,” Isabel sighed, as she closed the drawer. Let’s go.” She grabbed her coat and purse and let Henry escort her out the building, as she fumbled for the gloves in her pocket.
He hailed a yellow cab at the street corner.
“I hope we aren’t going far. I have work to do to prepare for other interviews," Isabel warned him.
He didn’t respond. When the cab stopped, he held the door for her, then got in the other side.
Did he hear me? “I have other interviews to prepare for," she repeated.
“Uh huh.” He took out his cellphone and began answering a message.
Isabel opened her purse and took out a lipstick. The taxi weaved through traffic and stopped suddenly to avoid a wayward pedestrian, then jerked forward. Horns were blasting on all sides of the cab. What a cacophony! At least windows were up this time of year so there was no foul language to be heard, nor obscene hand gestures to be seen. It was no use trying to apply lipstick in a taxi, however. She dropped the tube back into her purse and pulled out a compact instead; she looked pale without lipstick. Oh well.
The cab left them off at a restaurant set below street-level with a red awning. Inside, a table for two was reserved.
Isabel was surprised. "It seems you were expected. Your intended date didn't turn you down, did she?” They took off their coats and draped them over their chairs.
"It appears not," he answered, offering her a chair. She sat down and he pushed her in closer to the table.
When he sat down, he asked, “Would you like a glass of wine? White or red?”
Isabel was surprised. “Isn't that breaking company policy? This isn’t Paris, after all. You don’t need to impress me. Besides, I need all my wits when I’m around you. Don’t try to pull anything else on me.”
Henry’s brows went up.
“You know what I mean. Joanna Ruben?”
“Oh, I see.”
“Of course you do. You’ve been giving this some thought for some time, haven’t you?”
“I'm sorry I didn't mention it sooner. I wouldn't have passed her on at all if I didn't think she was a winner." He leaned back and his eyes went all over her. "You passed the test, though. Well done!"
Isabel shook her head in wonderment. "You don't have to do my work for me, Henry. But I suppose I should thank you, so thanks a lot. Now that I handled that well, can I have the whole story, please?"
A slow smile spread across Henry's face, and he leaned forward again. His deep voice turned liquid. "Her resume was sent to me personally with a very strong recommendation from the Dean of Studies at Barnard. She's connected somehow. Maybe her father is a big donor to the school, or her mother is an alumna, maybe someone in the family is on the board; I didn't want to know, to be honest. But the Dean wrote that I should call her right away, as the family was leaving on a vacation for ten days. So I did, and she came in on the seven a.m. train from Philly this morning. She's back there now, packing to leave, probably.
Isabel looked askance at him. Something smelled. "That's interesting, because her parents are divorced, and her father is a workaholic brain surgeon unlikely to take ten hours, let alone ten days, off."
I've got him now. Henry's brows went up in surprise. "All I know is what I read, Isabel. In any case, you liked her, didn't you?"
“Yes, I liked her very much. What I don't like is surprises like this."
“Don’t be sore, Isabel. This is a great opportunity.” Henry drank from his glass of water, then added, “Your mother wanted it.”
Isabel reminded Henry, “My mother didn’t want even a eulogy. Now you’re telling me she wanted her life story published? She had a very impressive obituary in the Times. That should have been enough. I don’t know…it seems like an invasion of her privacy. I'll need to get Felix and Stephen to go along.” We're to love one another, Mother said.
Henry’s hand went to his chin and over his beard several times before he proceeded with further debate. “She must have known we would read her journals. Why else would she keep them for posterity? She could have destroyed them before she died. I would have done it if she’d asked.”
That can't be true. Isabel asked him how far back the journals went.
"Around forty years." Henry’s expression told Isabel he recognized the real reason for her discomfiture. “Nobody is going to invade your own privacy, Isabel. I give you my word.”
“Where did she keep these journals of hers?” Isabel asked. She had never laid eyes on one, even though it was no surprise to her that her mother had kept a journal for forty years.
Henry answered her, “In the apartment. She left them to you, she told me. And there is information in the office too. I don't want those files put away yet. Are you reading anything in them?"
“Not really. It looks like company correspondence and newspaper clippings."
“It could be something we want. We’ll have Joanna sort through it all."
“If that’s what she wants to do...”
"What else could she possibly want? This is a paid internship, Isabel, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Think of the recognition she’ll receive from her professors and friends. She’ll be mentioned in the credits to the book.”
“So you’ve gone and hired her?"
“No, of course not. It’s up to you."
It sure doesn't seem that way. “In that case, I have two other candidates." She was testing him.
“We’ll pass them along to Marketing.”
I knew it!
The waiter came over to take their orders.
Back at the office, Isabel sat at her mother’s desk next to a large window on the tenth floor of the building Roth now occupied. This was Manhattan, where everything happened and anything could happen, where great ideas would often come to Isabel just by looking out the window. It had once given her an exhilarating satisfaction.
So had many other things in her much younger life. She could recall vividly the smells and sounds and feelings during the wondrous events in her past that meant the whole world to her: the large custom-made doll house with electricity that Felix had bought at auction at Sotheby's, her first pair of satin-tipped toe shoes, her first flute, her first time to Lincoln Center with her mother to hear the New York Philharmonic and meet Leonard Bernstein, a great man her mother called a friend. There was her first trip abroad, when she could pretend she was Heidi, living up in the Alps, where her mother rented a chalet during the summer Felix had to work in Paris on a deal for Levett Robillard. There was the trip that same year with her mother and brother to the Louvre and Eiffel Tower, and the next year that she’d spent by herself at International School in Paris to learn French, her Roth grandparents’ first language. But there was nothing more important to Isabel than her aspiration to become a writer. Madelyn would introduce Isabel to her many acquaintances, wherever they might meet, and announce, “Isabel is a writer!” They had no reason to doubt Madelyn Roth Stern.
All of this magic, and so much more, took its place in Isabel’s life before her thirteenth birthday. It was all a series of “first times”. There is a first time for everything…and only one. They were all connected to her mother.
Her gaze turned across 23rd Street where the flagship Bonwit Teller store once stood. It had long ago been demolished and replaced with the first Trump Tower. In her early years, she’d go to Bonwit's with her mother, who would have a personal shopper there. Madelyn was an elegant woman who never lost her size six figure, and the ladies there loved to dress her. Her patronage was very important, so when Madelyn showed up with her daughter, they fell all over Isabel too. Madelyn would make sure Isabel had a new dress to wear to birthday parties and other special affairs, including the many bar- and bat-mitzvah events of her friends and family. She once heard Felix refer to the sons in these wealthy families as “potential suitors for Isabel”. But Isabel only found them boring and immature. Not a single one could carry a tune, and none knew how to dance with a girl. One boy played the violin – or so he claimed, when Isabel told him she played the flute. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, they were all smart in school. Isabel laughed aloud. They’re probably brain surgeons and rocket scientists now.
A couple of years then passed, and out of nowhere came a teenage crush on a man twice Isabel’s age. The man started to appear at family events. It didn’t take long for Isabel to observe that he had become indispensable to her mother, who had taken the reins of Roth & Company the year before.
His name was Henry Stallings. He was a thirty-year-old bachelor, the most handsome man Isabel had ever set eyes on. She was fifteen.
Henry would never have pursued a girl of that age, and certainly not under the nose of her mother, but nonetheless, he became the object of Isabel's first interest in the opposite sex. She began to read romance novels and fantasize about Henry as the hero. No doubt he surmised her infatuation, but to his credit, he did nothing to fuel it by being overly affectionate or solicitous. He had only to be alive, and say hello to her, and Isabel was content. She could create the rest in a romantic story of her own.
Even so, there came the day when Madelyn sat Isabel down and explained that Henry was not only too old for her, but he “wasn’t interested” in her. It was an unfortunate choice of words, and Isabel was devastated. What she heard her mother saying was, “Henry has no interest in your existence”, when what Madelyn no doubt meant to say was “Henry is unattainable”, and therefore Isabel should not entertain hopes to the contrary. Looking back as an adult, Isabel knew Henry must have been delighted to know he was admired, even by a woman that young. Hadn’t he also taken great pleasure in the feelings he inspired in Madelyn? Without a doubt. Henry knew the effect he had on women, and he didn’t do anything to discourage or temper it. He was elegant, confident, magnetic and charming at will. Isabel was sure he had won – and then broken – the hearts of many women.
Was Elisheva Silver one of those broken hearts? Was Henry in love with Elisheva back then? Was this what made him uninterested in Isabel, and unattainable? It would not have felt like a rejection if her mother had told her simply that he was in love with another woman, almost engaged, in fact.
Before leaving the office for the day, Isabel promised Henry she would look for the journals in the apartment.
Her mother's apartment on 6th Avenue, in 100 Central Park South, had been meticulously maintained and updated through the years, and was much larger and more luxurious than what Isabel needed, living by herself. She could find herself quite content with two or three of the six rooms. No doubt her mother had done just that, as the other rooms looked untouched. Madelyn hadn't always lived in separate quarters in the same building with Felix; that came about much later. Their marriage had been an arranged one fifty-five years ago by the Stern and Roth patriarchs. Twenty-odd years later, husband and wife found an arrangement of their own that accommodated Felix's penchant for a mistress, and afforded Madelyn her privacy with Henry. Or so Isabel constructed it in her mind.
She opened the large paneled door to the library. It was this room she would no doubt spend most of her time in now, as it was cozy and inviting, and a throw-back to the traditional style of the Scarsdale house. The room was differentiated from the airy contemporary design that defined the rest of the apartment. Hundreds of books, old and new, lined the walls on either end of the room. On the wall facing the door were two long windows, both covered in heavy damask draperies with ornate tie-backs. A leather couch and armchair held pillows made of the same fabric and fringe, as did a second armchair that had been upholstered in a complimentary solid fabric. In the middle of the room facing the door stood a large wooden desk that also served as a table. The wood matched the finish of the bookcases sunken in the walls. Despite having been decorated, the room had an overall eclectic look and feel to it, due to the presence of so many old books and collectibles. Lighting was provided by several floor lamps and decorative wall sconces.
Doors with traditional hardware covered the lowest two shelves of the built-in bookcases, and below the handles on these doors, Isabel spied keyholes. She automatically went into the desk to find a key, perhaps one that had been sealed in an envelope by her mother, for her to find.
But there was no key in the desk drawers. Isabel went back over to the shelves and scanned for books that looked like journals. Perhaps her mother kept them in full view after all. Would her mother have done something clever, like hide them inside thick, hollowed-out old books, or had she done that with the key, in fact?
Before heeding such fanciful notions, however, Isabel pulled on one of the doors. It wasn't even locked! She tried them all, and none were locked. On the shelves behind two of the doors were boxes of unopened packages of office supplies, and reams of copier and printer paper. Behind another door, her mother had stacked assorted literary and other magazines she wanted to keep. Behind the third door, sat numerous board games and jigsaw puzzles. Isabel kept going until the last door. She knew immediately when she opened it that what sat on the shelves were her mother's journals. The discovery startled her, and a rare sense of dread coursed through her body, akin to the fear of punishment for profaning holy artifacts. I'm being ridiculous now. Her mother's writings were hardly on tablets from the Ark of the Covenant! So Isabel pulled the books out three and four at a time and stacked them up on the table in four piles. There were not as many of them as she expected, just twenty-one. She saw on the back of each that they were hand made of Italian calf leather by Aspinal of London, and bore the monogram of her mother's married name, MRS, Madelyn Roth Stern. A varied assortment of journals from her early years bore the monogram MSR, for Madelyn Sophia Roth.
Isabel fanned the pages of one journal to free some pages that had stuck. The welcome scent of old books escaped into the air that Isabel captured in several deep breaths. Her mind went back to the books her father gave her many years ago, the ones the owners of a furnished beach house had left behind in the attic before they sold the place to him as an investment property. The inexpensive books, with loosened and frayed cloth bindings, were all from the mystery series of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Bobbsey Twins. Isabel had read them one after the other, before the smell of the ocean could wear off.
It would take her longer to read the journals of her mother's, and these too could hold mystery and suspense.
She would get a good night's sleep before opening the first journal in the morning.
‘Good Morning, Isabel!” Henry sounded very pleased, without asking Isabel why she was calling.
“I’ve found the journals here in the apartment, Henry. There are twenty-one, a much more manageable number than I expected." Isabel sighed into the phone.
“Just where I'd said they'd be." Henry added with obvious satisfaction.
"You could have been more specific, though. They were behind closed doors in a bookcase in the library. Luckily they weren't locked up, because there doesn't appear to be a key anywhere to fit the locks. Unless you know where that is too..." Isabel didn't try to hide the sarcasm.
"No, I don't believe I do. I'm sorry." That sounded genuine enough.
"I'll stay home today to start going through them, Henry." There was a pause on the other end, and she anticipated a negative response.
“No, I’ll send someone over this morning to pick them up, Isabel. Don’t bother packing the books yourself, he’ll do it.”
Isabel sighed. “Who shall I expect? I don’t know anyone there yet.”
“I'll send Jeff Green, from the warehouse. Tall, twenty pounds overweight, red hair, full beard...bad teeth...but trustworthy.”
Henry humor, first thing in the morning.
“Well, that narrows it down a bit," she replied, willing to play along. "Thanks.” She stared at her reflection in a large gilt mirror as she held the phone, and with her other hand, played with the belt of a silk Kimono robe - her mother's final gift to her.
“Oh, and Isabel?”
“Yessss..?” She held her breath.
“Make sure you come back with him.”
Damn. “Yes, Henry,” she groaned.