“California” by Yasmine Lucas

20 February 2015 on Fiction   Tags:

My mother circled her hands over the candles, my father took a sip of wine, and touching a challah still warm from the oven, we recited the Ha-motzi. We scooped up curry-laced mashed potatoes; we cut lamb with onions broiled to translucency. Adults drank wine, grape juice for us kids. Claire and Dominic over for dinner, Claire seated in front of me. As she reached for another slice of bread, her face warped with pain, and she twisted back one shoulder, shrugging off an invisible hand. Dominic escorted her to the couch; she stretched out, laid her palms on her stomach, and stared up at the ceiling, pallid and withdrawn. Like excited parrots, my mother and sisters swooped in, offering a pillow and tea. I watched through their busying bodies, fancying her a Snow White encased in glass—shroud of hair, satiny eyelids shining with the light.

“Come, come, let’s finish our meal.” This was Dominic, echoing Claire’s assurances that she was all right; she only needed a moment to breathe. A congregant at my father’s synagogue—as Claire was also—Dominic reminded me of a grasshopper with that lean frame of his, round rickety glasses accentuating his sunken cheeks. Back at the table, he plucked up his cutlery and reeled us into a conversation about Montreal’s Hasidic community, followed by an anecdote about an infant urinating against its mohel’s lips—distracting us, stirring up merriment, until Claire’s thin voice reached us from the couch, telling him she needed to leave. They kissed us goodbye the French way, one cheek and the next. Then, they tottered down our icy steps and through the clogged suburban sidewalk, where snowed-in cars sloped like prostrate figures, frozen on their knees.


Claire was a literature professor at Dawson before her health problems began. Twentieth-century female writers were her focus: Ayn Rand, Jane Bowles, especially Virginia Woolf. I’d discovered this last novelist that year, and upon mentioning this one Shabbat, my mother jumped with enthusiasm, suggesting that Claire and I meet for a discussion.

Claire turned to me with pursed lips. “Would you like that, Mira?”

I did not dare accept the offer in front of my family, as Woolf belonged to my private world. But minutes later as Claire pulled on her woolen coat, faintly wincing, I told her I wanted to learn more about Woolf, if she was willing to teach me.

Claire lived on Coloniale, a forty-five minute metro ride from my house and soon visiting her after school became a soothing ritual. Through snow and sometimes flurries, I trudged up from Sherbrooke Station, avoiding crowded Saint-Denis with its storefronts and cafés, French signs largely illegible to me. The quieter streets suffused me with a sense of calm, spiraling staircases and chipped facades which—according to one of Claire’s stories—harked back to the 1960’s, when the city matched landowners’ renovation costs in an effort to beautify the neighborhood. Now, I came to know Claire’s apartment by its peachy hue. Porch ornate, wrought iron, treads scraped clean. On hustling me into the entrance, she kissed me on each of my frozen cheeks, and then slipped into the kitchen only to reemerge with a bowl of mint chocolates and a pot of ginger tea. As we consumed these on the couch, Claire enthralled me with Woolf’s biography.

“She placed writing above all other pursuits,” said Claire, Mrs. Dalloway resting open on her lap. “Writing meant living to her. That’s why she killed herself, you know. She heard these voices, birds singing in Greek. Toward the beginning of the Second World War, she became convinced they’d harry her forever. So she drowned herself—you must know the story of Woolf’s dropping stones in her pockets and wading into the River Ouse.”

As Claire spoke, she could as easily have been thinking of the mint chocolate’s wintery flavor as of Woolf’s suicide, her eyes two ponds in a plane of ice.

The novels in Claire’s collection sprouted with Post-Its. These marked passages she read aloud: once, a portrayal of Septimus’ hallucinations; another time, a description of the ‘blows’ inspiring Woolf’s writing. My favorite passage of all, though—and one I would keep returning to in years to come—was the part in To the Lighthouse where Mrs. Ramsay lounges in the living room with her husband after dining with friends and family. In this scene, Mr. Ramsay sits with a book in hand, casting sidelong glances at Mrs. Ramsay. She reads desire in those glances: he wants her to tell him she loves him, but this Mrs. Ramsay cannot manage. She gets up, lingers by the window. She does not look at him, but senses his plea for intimacy. Finally, Mrs. Ramsay resolves the situation by turning to him with a meaningful look, and a smile. Her ‘triumph,’ Woolf tells us, is making Mr. Ramsay ‘know’ she loves him without saying anything of the kind.

“Most readers see Mrs. Ramsay’s ‘triumph’ as an almost heartwarming moment,” said Claire. “To me, though, there’s something disturbing about this passage. Mrs. Ramsay suppresses her emotions to fit the role of homemaker. Her ‘triumph’ isn’t that of expressing her love, but rather of stifling her ambivalence toward it.”

I gaped at Claire, her eyes opaque and distant.

And at night, I lay in bed, playing over all she’d shared with me. Pearl flipped through a magazine on the bottom bunk; Devorah tossed and turned on the adjacent twin. I closed my eyes, losing myself in the memory of Woolf’s small, book cover portrait—in profile she seemed the carbon copy of Claire, lifting a pinstriped teacup to her lips.


According to my mother, childbearing was the highlight of existence.

“The greatest gift in the world,” she called it. “Wouldn’t give you girls up for anything.”

When it came to Claire, my mother's remarks took on the guise of a cautionary tale, to warn against pickiness and vanity.

“You know Claire wanted children? I’m not kidding.”

I retorted that Claire had something better than mothering: her own writing.

“Better? You call that better? She could have had two children, three by now, if she’d married Dominic. So okay, he’s no Paul Newman. But who is?”

Claire creating a home with Dominic, Claire as his wife, dutiful and pleasing. Though I knew Claire and Dominic had been lovers in some distant past, the prospect of their getting back together made me laugh with skepticism. To make sense of it, though—and to better discredit what I saw as my mother’s delusions—I pictured for myself the history of their relationship. How, yes, they had dated. How Claire had rejected him eight years back, admitting her lack of love for him. Whether they had become friends right after their romance, or whether the illness had brought them together, was left to me unknown. No doubt, the accident changed their relationship. Something about a highway collision followed by an eye operation that should have been postponed. Ever since, Claire suffered chronic pain, a steel-scaled serpent winding its way through her nervous system. Leaving her job was her first slip down the rabbit hole, followed by an inability to work altogether. Claire dedicated her days to visiting doctors, all of whom shrugged their shoulders, claiming there was nothing they could do. Claire did her research, poring over books and articles. She wrote to doctors in Canada and abroad. Such simple tasks—along with the even simpler ones of grocery shopping, cooking, brushing her teeth—became tests of resilience for Claire, strenuous and agonizing.

If she accepted Dominic’s assistance, it was because she might not have managed without it; she’d have had to hire help, which would have weighed heavy on her, considering her modest savings. I pictured Dominic leaping through her window, landing on all fours, asking with an immense smile how he might give her succor—in the hopes of being granted a kiss. In this fantasy, Claire scrutinized him with sharp, sinister eyes. She flipped her blue shawl over her shoulder and walked away from him—thus establishing the covenant between them: Dominic could settle into her life, have her as his convalescent, without, however, expecting her to grant him that kiss. Crouching on all fours with wind blowing through the window, Dominic slumped enough to show disappointment. But moments later, perking up, he bounded after her, jabbering about all the measures he might take to restore her to health. And indeed, over the mishmash of courses that marked our family dinners, it became obvious that Dominic dedicated most, if not all of his free time to Claire, postponing his own work whenever she solicited his aid.

“Cold as a fish, that woman,” my mother shook her head after they’d left, as my sisters and I scooped leftover quiche and hummus into Tupperware. “Drives me meshugah, crazy. Doesn’t know what she’s got.”

My mother wasn’t the only one to opine on their relationship. Encouraged by my mother’s talk, my sisters commented.

“Charmed by the viper,” Devorah once said, after closing the door behind them.

Arranging a new butterfly clip behind her ear, Pearl gave her take on the matter: “She’s hurt, I think.”

Of my family, my father was the only person to withhold his judgment on the case; keeping to himself, he wore the pensive, patient expression that had won over so many congregants.

Once, in a rush of frustration, I asked him whether he thought it necessary that a woman marry.

“Necessary?” he asked, running a knife along a wedge of pita; we were dining at synagogue after going through with an ufruf. “No, not necessary,” said my father.

Then why, I persisted, did the whole world act as though it was?

Setting down his piece of bread, my father turned his affectionate eyes on me. “Have you ever considered that marriage might be desirable to most women?”

I plopped a grape into my mouth and was grateful when a congregant whose son had recently been diagnosed with something serious drew my father’s concern. I migrated to the hallway, where the Gilker twins provided a good distraction. At five years old with densely freckled cheeks, they pretended tile grooves were serpents; if trodden on, the grooves would poison them, precipitating fits.


During one of Claire and Dominic’s more memorable visits, a conversation came up at the dinner table about childhood aspirations. Who knows who broached the topic—perhaps Devorah, excited about philanthropy after raising money for Auberge Shalom, or Pearl, harboring dreams of Broadway performance. My mother mentioned her long-gone desire to write domestic life columns; she passed the torch to my father, who’d known he’d follow family tradition by becoming a rabbi.

“I always wanted to be a novelist,” Claire commanded our attentions. “But between working three jobs and caring for my sick mother, I didn’t have time to write.”

I knew something of Claire’s poverty, but her referring to it now mired me in sympathy. A shuffling to my right brought my gaze to my mother’s.

“Well that doesn’t have to be a lost dream, Claire,” she said. “You could write a novel now. You’re not lacking in experience—that’s for certain.”

Claire paled, as if experiencing a wave of sickness. “My migraines prevent me from focusing for any extended period,” she asserted.

“When you’re better, you’ll write.” My mother raised her brow significantly.

Claire looked as though she was about to bare her claws. She might have, had Dominic not piped in.

“She’s going to write about the doctors one day.” He waved his fork speared with a beet. “All those incompétents. Claire, have you told them of Dr. Duplessis’s fake medication?”

She transferred her menacing glare to him.

I turned to my mother, who wore an expression of grave solemnity, combined with something akin to pity. My father was the one to steer the conversation in another direction; he spoke of weak nations falling in opposition to moral ones. I read into Claire’s countenance; feigning interest, she swallowed her fury.


I never again heard of Claire’s childhood dreams of writing, which I assumed were too painful to speak of. Hankering for more, I infused what she’d said of her youth with my imagination. Claire hurrying home after babysitting or packing bread for importuning Jews at a bakery; Claire swabbing a wet cloth along her mother’s feverish brow before retreating to her room to jot down lines of poetry. She had gone to university—and here my imagination failed me. I kept wanting to find some loophole, some blank slide on which to etch a room, a notebook, and a desk for Claire to sit at. In the end, though, she—the person who’d glowered at my mother—forced me to accept that no such conditions had existed, and now she dealt, on a daily basis, with the injustice that was disease.

The one exception to her sequestered silence was her speaking, with compressed lips, about the book she intended to write.

“It’s going to be a personal narrative,” she said during one of our private meetings. “All those doctors who have been stumped by my illness—viral intelligence can be a higher order of intellect.”

My father too was skeptical of the medical profession, so casting Claire in the role of victim was no great leap. All those white-cloaked professionals who believed mere metallic implements and drugs could save broken souls—I conflated Claire and my father’s theories.

When Claire started speaking of the doctor in California, I clung even more vehemently to my faith in her. A surgeon with a background in psychiatry, he’d written a book about chronic illness, and because the cases he’d dealt with resembled Claire’s more than any others, she radiated hope.

“He’ll be honored to have a case like mine. It’ll be a challenge—it may be somewhat protracted—but he’ll undertake it.”

Considering her eagerness, it was strange that when the doctor finally did accept to meet with her, Claire appeared to assume an air of ambivalence.

“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” she said.

It was our last meeting before her trip; to make this a vacation rather than another dreary visit, she and Dominic would be driving to California, taking advantage of his university break.

“He might not be the one,” said Claire, perfunctorily pressing a chocolate between her teeth.


We did not hear from them during the two months of their trip, and soon Claire changed from being a sanctuary in my life to a refuge in my mind. The days waded forth as I became weary and ponderous. Summertime, one more year of high school ahead of me. I took up my job from the year before, minding toddlers at a nursery that smelled of juice boxes and saltines; during naptime, I watched children wriggle up to each other on the wall-to-wall carpet and whisper indiscreetly—was it not true that the age gap between us was slimmer than that separating Claire from me? Weekends I cooped up in my room to catch up on reading or joined my sisters at the movies, where Pearl sobbed into one of our smuggled-in sandwiches; had Claire been sitting next to me, we’d have exchanged dismissive looks at her sentimentality. Friday night dinners with congregants—the consolation of believing Claire would never find herself in my mother’s role, doling out stews, feeling sorry for widows. Idling about the house on Saturdays, or wandering through Côte-Sainte-Luc; the swimming pools we coveted, glinting through driveways, ladder-tops flashing as wind rustled the leaves. And here came a vision, proffered rather than willed: Claire, poised on the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge, cables pressing her lower back, eyes set on the reflection of a long blushing walkway, rippling through the strait.


When the school year started—meaning Claire’s returning for Dominic’s semester at Université de Montréal—a whirlwind of anticipation eddied around my household. Eager to call Claire, my mother ended up yielding to my father’s advice to let her rest. Even my sisters, who usually took only a lateral interest in Claire, now wanted to know the operation’s outcome. Would we be greeted by a new Claire? Would she be spry and revitalized, as if imbued by the fountain of youth? As we’d never known Claire in her health—before the accident, we’d lived in Ottawa—to imagine her healthy meant conjuring a different person. Illness seemed part and parcel of her identity.

Finally, my mother rejected my father’s counsels, snatching up the kitchen phone with ruffled determination; lurking in the hallway, I eavesdropped on the conversation—from my mother’s exclamation of greeting, to the silences during which Claire must have been talking. “And if you tried again?” my mother said. “Another treatment might help?” Playing with my shirt’s seam, I retired to my room, only to be disappointed by my younger sister’s smirking in her bed from a magazine.

An hour later, leftovers were served. At the table, my mother broke the news dolefully: the operation had not gone better than the others. A real calamity, as Claire and Dominic had invested so much in the idea of this new doctor.

“I think she might just enjoy being sick.”

This was Devorah, shaking us out of our grief. It was strange to join forces with my mother in berating her for her cruelty; as the commotion abated—Devorah bellowing that she hadn’t meant anything by the comment—my mother turned her eyes on me.

“Give her a call when you have a moment,” she said, gesturing toward me with her glass so that the ice cubes clinked. “You should start up that book club again.”

I waited a couple days before calling by my own initiative. And when I did, it was in secrecy: I hid inside the coat closet and punched Claire’s number into the orange-glow phone. Claire greeted me the following evening, smiling drowsily in her blue shawl, hair glinting over its silver-weaved stripes. If California had made her hopeless, she did not let it show. I noted a bulging suitcase in the living room as I followed her down the hall.

“Haven’t prepared tea yet, but it’ll only take a minute,” she said.

As she made her way behind the kitchen island, I could tell something had changed, though I did not know whether to attribute my feeling to the doctor, or something else. Claire reached into the cupboard above the stove.

“Why don’t you pick a book from the shelf?” she said, drawing out teacups.

Her living room looked the same as it had when I’d last seen it. I kneeled before the bookshelf and ran my eyes over the bindings: Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, A Sketch of the Past. I experienced a surge of exhilaration on remembering this gift Claire had bestowed on me. Would I select The Waves, which we hadn’t discussed yet? Or To the Lighthouse, which I would never tire of reading? The jangle of Claire’s entering; quickly, I pulled out Three Guineas, only to be startled, on turning around, to see Dominic looming behind me. Bearing the tray of tea things, he squinted and grinned.

“Claire’s just scouring out some sweets,” he said, lowering the tray onto the coffee table. He looked at me with curbed amusement, as if concealing a surprise. “How was your summer, Mira?”

Before I could answer, Claire emerged from the kitchen.

“This was all I could find,” she apologized, setting a bowl of beige-dusted butter cookies on the table.

As she raised her head, her eyes fixed on mine. Impassive, they did not speak defeat. I turned to Dominic. He smirked at her, smugly, almost sanctimoniously. I realized in that moment that she had never intended to spurn him—only to tell herself she had and then blame her weakness on disease.

“Well,” chuckled Dominic. “I will leave you to your petite conversation.”

“We won’t be too long,” she smiled at him.


Autumn sidled through trees, and in the yard, smells of worms the damp soil had inhumed surfaced from the ground. Through the windows and screened back door, light flooded into the kitchen, touched by reds and golds.

“An exciting time, a very exciting time,” my mother said, grating a brick of cheddar with quick, industrious jerks.

I clutched an avocado, scooping out its flesh. For the first time, I noticed that my mother averted her eyes when speaking of Claire and Dominic.

“I knew something would happen on that trip.” She fisted up the cheese and tossed it over raw lasagna. “We’ll have to invite them over to celebrate, don’t you think? Though of course we won’t hang up streamers! G-d forbid we make them uncomfortable.”

Her brow rose; she widened her eyes—yanking the oven open, she thrust the dish in.

Yasmine Lucas lives in her hometown Montreal where, in addition to writing, she teaches English to adult immigrants. Her fiction has appeared in Metatron, Bard Papers, and The Claremont Review, and received an honorable mention in the 2007 RRofihe Trophy short story competition. She holds a BA in Written Arts from Bard College.

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