Michal's Destiny, p.15Roberta Kagan
“Gerta, are you sure you want to do this? What about Sammie? He has friends here. He’s starting school.”
“I have to go home; I’m sorry, Michal. I don’t know where you’re going to go. I can give you a little money. I don’t have much. Most of everything I have belongs to Richard. But, I’ve put a little away, and I’ll give you what I can.”
“Of course. I wasn’t even thinking about Alina and me. But, I understand,” Michal said. She knew that Richard gave Gerta an allowance every week for her frivolities, her clothing, gifts, and any other trinkets she might desire. He kept control of all of the real money, and he paid all of the bills. Michal’s heart sank. She realized that she was in trouble. Where was she to go now? What was she to do? “I will need to make some arrangements for Alina and me. How soon are you going home?”
“I want to leave next week.”
Michal sighed. She would have to talk to Otto on Sunday and see if she and Alina could stay with him until she was able to find another job. She would miss Gerta and Sammie. Michal was ashamed to admit it, even to herself, but she would miss the lovely home, the good quality food, and Gerta’s endless generosity. Even if all of it was actually from Richard.
Otto arrived on time on Sunday evening. He brought two red roses tied with a black velvet ribbon and handed them to Michal. She excused herself, took them to her room, and put them in a vase with water. Then she and Otto went about their regular routine. All week, Michal had been fretting about discussing what had happened between Richard and Gerta with Otto. She was afraid that moving in with Otto would put a strain on their relationship. She had no doubt he would take them in, but she wondered if it would be out of obligation. However, right now, her only other option was to search for Taavi. She could ask him for financial help to raise his daughter. He should be helping her, but her feelings towards Taavi were so confused that she just couldn’t face him right now.
“I have something to talk to you about,” Michal said, as she sipped a cup of turnip coffee and looked out the window of the cafe at the snow dusted sidewalk.
“Of course, love, you can talk to me about anything.”
She cleared her throat. “Richard is divorcing Gerta and she is going home to Frankfurt, leaving Berlin. I am losing my job and until I can find another one, Alina and I have no place to go. Worse yet, I don’t know who is going to hire me as a live in nanny when I have to bring my daughter with me.”
He was silent.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to throw this problem into your lap. It’s not your concern at all.”
“Of course it’s my concern. I was just sorting it all out, that’s all. You and Alina will move into my flat. You’ll both share my sister’s room.”
“Don’t look so troubled. It will be fine. And … late at night when both of the girls are asleep … if you would like … you can sneak into my room and I will tell you bedtime stories.”
“Oh, Otto…” she had hoped he would say yes, and he had come through. “I will try to find employment as quickly as possible. I know that it will be crowded.…”
“Nonsense. I’m actually looking forward to having you around all the time.”
He was a tender lover, a romantic, with the gentleness of Avram and the passion of Taavi, but there was something about him that neither of the other two had possessed. He was an experienced lover. Michal had no doubt that many women had been to his bed. But he had given her a great gift, gently, carefully, with loving hands, he taught her body to feel again, and to feel more than she’d ever thought possible.
The landlord in the building where Otto lived was not generous with the heat, and that winter was exceptionally cold. Once the pipes froze and there was no running water for several days. But Otto never let anything upset him. And for Michal, the joy she felt in Otto’s arms made up for all of the comforts that she’d once had at the Fogelman house and had now given up.
Before Michal and Gerta Fogelman parted, Gerta gave Michal several of her old dresses. To Michal, they were lovely, like new. Although she never had the occasion to wear them, she cherished them.
One night, Otto bought a candle on the black market. He insisted that Michal dress up in one of Gerta’s old gowns that she kept in her closet. He too dressed in a suit and then he lit the candle and sang to her as they waltzed in the small living room. Both of the girls watched them dance. Otto was a wonderful dancer, and he looked breathtakingly handsome in his suit. His voice, a tenor, was clear and he carried a tune well. In fact, with just a candle, Otto had transformed the dim and dull apartment into a ballroom. There was some special spark that lived deep in the core of him that dreams were built upon.
Bridget and Alina were like sisters. Alina missed Sammie. She asked for him several times, and every time Michal had to explain that he went to live far away with his grandparents. Alina wanted to know where her grandparents were. Michal tried to explain that she thought they might be in Heaven. Alina wanted to know where that was. She was at that age where she was constantly asking why. Michal thanked God for Bridget, who had the patience to answer Alina for hours at a time. Food was not nearly as plentiful as it had been at the Fogelman’s, and the quality was certainly not as good. But, they enjoyed what they had and at night, every night, before bed, Otto told one of his stories. The girls sat quietly, spellbound, listening to his mesmerizing voice, watching the deep expression in his eyes, and losing themselves in the song of his words. Michal knew that beneath the surface, all of Otto’s stories held fast to his communist leanings. She understood his feelings about the rich and poor, but she didn’t care enough to be politically active. Michal was happy in the simple joy of loving and being loved, and of having a home where her child was safe and wanted. To Michal, these were the things that mattered in life.
On two occasions, Otto brought Michal along with him to the Communist Party meetings that he attended, but they made her nervous. The members were passionate, their voices were loud, and the whole meeting felt like a bomb ready to explode. She didn’t want to think about all of the political unrest in Germany. And since Otto could see that the meetings distressed Michal, he stopped asking her to accompany him.
But Otto had friends everywhere, actors, painters, musicians, writers, and playwrights. He was well known and well liked in all of the artistic circles. They attended theatrical openings, art exhibits, and concerts. Otto took Michal to groundbreaking releases at the cinema. She loved the enormous screen and the beautiful movie stars. Michal had never experienced anything like this before and through Otto, she learned that she loved the arts.
The weather was breaking. The bitter cold of the winter months was finally loosening her grip on Germany. Otto had begun asking Michal to seek out a meeting with Taavi and ask him for a divorce. He wanted to marry her, he said. Otto explained that he’d never wanted a family before, but he wanted one now. She avoided the subject as much as possible. There was no telling how Taavi would react. It had been such a long time since she’d last seen him. Taavi might be angry; he would definitely ask a million questions, and worst of all, she would have to look into his eyes and know that she’d sinned with another man while she was still Taavi’s wife. The idea of a meeting made her anxious; she was still not sure what she felt for Taavi. He had hurt her, but he had also rescued her. If she saw him, she wasn’t sure what she would say or how she would feel. So every time Otto brought it up, she avoided discussing the subject.
Otto was a passionate man, filled with grand ideas. He loved to talk, to tell Michal how the world would be once the communists took over. She smiled and listened. One afternoon, Bridget had taken Alina to the park. Otto was sitting in his room writing a story when there was a knock at the door. Michal answered to find Ivan, one of Otto’s friends, and a wild Russian painter waiting on the other side.
“Is Otto at home?”
“He’s here, but he’s working.”
“Sit, please, sit,” Otto said to his friend.
“I came to tell you that there is to be a demonstration tonight. I trust you will be there?”
“When and where?”
“We will meet at the club and then we plan to walk down Alexanderplatz. I expect there will be some trouble with the National Socialists. But at least we will make some noise.”
“I’d rather you didn’t go…” Michal said. “You might get hurt and there’s no reason that you need to be there.”
“I need to support what I believe in.”
“You’re such an idealist. Be happy we can live here in Berlin in peace. I know what it is to be hunted by a government. It was that way in Russia. We never knew if tomorrow would bring a pogrom on our entire village that would leave people dead and houses burnt to the ground.”
“But, don’t you see? How can you not see? The rich have everything. If we don’t bring them down, they will starve us all to death.”
“It’s true we don’t have the kind of luxuries I had when I worked for the Fogelman’s, but we have plenty. We don’t go to bed hungry and we have a roof over our heads. Most of all, we are safe. You are safe to write what you please, to say what you want. Believe me, Otto, it is good here in Berlin.”
“Do we have plenty, Michal? Food is becoming scarcer every day. We are struggling to survive. Yesterday you stood in line for four hours just to buy a pair of shoes that are too big for either of the girls. And, you were lucky to be able to buy any shoes at all. Our money is worth less and less every day. Don’t you see? Something has to be done, and soon. I must do what I believe is right.”
“The girls will grow into the shoes.”
“Is that your only answer? Look at them, look at the girls … their clothes are ragged, their shoes have holes, our food is not healthy food. My friends are rummaging through the garbage trying to find bits and pieces that they can eat to survive another day. I refuse to do that. I’d rather starve.”
“You are a fool. Is it better to be dead? Is it better for the police or some other political group to shoot you dead on the street? Is that better, Otto?” She glared at him, then she turned her deadly gaze on Ivan. “And you too are a fool.” Michal got up and walked out of the living room and into the children’s room. She locked the door behind her.
That night, Otto went to the demonstration. He returned several hours later, a little beaten up, but exhilarated. Michal was asleep in bed with the girls. Otto tiptoed into the room and gently nudged her shoulder. She awoke and saw him. In the dark, she could not see the dried blood around his nostrils.
Michal got out of bed and went into the kitchen. She put a pot of water on the stove to boil for tea. Still she had not looked at Otto or spoken to him.
“Michal, please don’t be angry. Try to understand me…”
When she turned to tell him how angry she was, she saw the blood on his face and the beginning of bruising around one of his eyes. Her shoulders slumped and her anger faded to concern. “Oh, Otto, don’t you understand? I care about you. I don’t want to see you hurt or, God forbid, killed.”
“Just hearing you say that made it worth my while to get hurt.” He smiled.
“Stop playing. To you, all of life is a game. It’s not a game, Otto. What you are doing is dangerous. Very dangerous. I saw someone I cared about killed right in front of me. I don’t want to go through that again.”
“I know. I’m sorry that I caused you so much distress. Forgive me?” His eyes were so soft and he spoke so tenderly that she could not help but forgive him.
Michal shook her head and turned on the water. At least it was getting warm, but that was because the winter was over. She dipped a rag in the warm water and began to clean the blood from his handsome face. He touched her hand with his slender almost delicate fingers, and she felt a pain in her heart. How unlike Taavi he was. Taavi was a mountain of a man, a man other men would be afraid to challenge. If Otto were forced to defend himself physically, he would easily be killed. His strength came from the beauty of his soul and the brilliance of his mind. Otto was a poet, a writer, a dreamer, but not a fighter. She feared for him.
Michal had found a part-time job working at the hospital as an aide. It was not an easy job, cleaning bedpans and changing sheets that had been splattered with blood, urine, or feces. Many times she gagged uncontrollably, but still she continued to work. Alina was only five years old, and she must be fed and cared for. Michal had no real skills. When she’d gone to the hospital to apply for work, she’d told the woman she’d met with in personnel of her experience with Bepa. The woman had listened, but it was obvious that she didn’t acknowledge Michal’s past work as a midwife as qualifying her for any real medical position. But the woman had felt sorry for Michal; she had looked at her well-worn clothes and knew how badly Michal was in need of work.
“I’m afraid I can’t offer you a job as a midwife or a nurse,” she said, tapping her pencil. “I wish I was able to help you, but, quite frankly, you aren’t qualified.”
Michal felt the tears well up in her eyes, but she looked away and nodded her head. “Thank you anyway; thank you for interviewing me,” she said and got up to leave.
“Wait. I know it’s not much of a job. But if you want to work, I can offer you a position as a part-time aide. It’s not easy work. You will be under the command of all of the nurses on the floor. You will be there to help them with whatever they need. However, if you want the job, it’s yours.”
Michal didn’t hesitate. “Yes, yes, I want it. Thank you so much.”
The nurses were demanding and demeaning towards Michal and many times when they were exceptionally humiliating, she ran to the bathroom and locked herself in a stall where she leaned against the wall and cried until she had no tears left. Then she washed her face, took a deep breath, and went back to the nurses’ station. Instead of showing the nurses that she was hurt, Michal picked up right where she’d left off.
Michal didn’t earn much money, but combined with Otto’s book sales, they were surviving, but just barely. The couple had already gone through all of the money that Bepa had given Michal, and there was nothing left to fall back on. But Otto didn’t seem to notice. He’d spent fifty marks on a tube of crimson lipstick for Michal, just because he said it would look lovely on her. She had wanted to scream when he gave her the gift. In fact, she wanted to tell him to get his head out of the clouds, but she couldn’t. He’d meant so well. He’d wanted to make her happy, even if it took food out of their mouths. What Michal had originally found deliciously attractive in Otto was turning sour. Life was hard and it seemed to her that she was the one carrying the burden. One afternoon when Bridget and Alina were at school, Michal took the dresses Gerta had given her to a resale shop. If Otto knew she was selling her dresses, he would have been distraught. More than once he’d made it clear that, to him, luxuries came before necessities. Even with the little that they had, he’d brought her roses once. It was a sweet gesture, but the money would have been better spent on food. Michal had a hard time understanding him because he was such a contradiction. On one hand, he was passionately spouting the rhetoric of communism. Otto made speeches to the family about how the world was going to become equal. There would be no rich or poor; everyone would have to relinquish their material goods and share the world’s wealth. He was fervent about his hatred for the rich, and yet in everything he did, he fashioned his life like a man who had more than enough money and loved the things that money could buy.
When Otto was getting ready to go to one of his communist meetings, he spent hours getting ready. His hair was carefully disheveled, as was his clothing. He made the perfect picture of the handsome, charming, Revolutionary. And it made Michal sick to her stomach to watch the hypocrisy. But when he made love to her, she forgot al
The resale store had a strong odor of perfume that covered a stench of old unclean clothes. A shrewd looking woman, thin with bony fingers and silver white hair pulled into a tight bun, sat at a counter.
“I’d like to sell these dresses,” Michal said.
“Not good quality,” the woman said, trying to hide the true worth of the garments, but her face betrayed her.
Michal knew better. She was well aware of the high quality of the material and the beading on the gowns “You’re wrong. They are excellent quality.”
“Hmmm,” the woman said, running her hands over the fabric. “I will give you one-hundred marks for all of them. That’s a good price. More than I usually pay for anything.”
“A hundred marks for all of them? They are worth ten times that, if not more.”
“Too bad for you. A hundred marks, take it or leave it. I don’t care. I can’t sell them for very much in this economy … and if I can’t make money, then what do I need them for? Eh?”
Michal sighed. A hundred marks. Not much. But, the rent was due, and they needed food. Otto hadn’t earned much this month. She had no other choice. Michal nodded.
“All right. One hundred marks.”
Michal tucked the money into her handbag and noticed that the stitching was unraveling. Then she began walking back home. It was a beautiful day. Little buds had begun forming on the trees and the beautiful birds that Berlin was known for were singing in glorious harmony. A butterfly soared in front of her. It was a magnificent monarch. Michal marveled at its exquisiteness. She longed to buy a cup of tea and sit in the park for a while, but she dared not spend the money, and she didn’t have time. She had to hurry home to get ready for work.
When she got back to the apartment, she went upstairs and paid the landlord the rent that was due. Then she went into her apartment. It was very quiet, so she assumed that Otto was working on a new book. She put up a pot of water to boil for coffee and quietly knocked on his door to see if he wanted a cup. He didn’t answer, but she heard voices on the other side of the door.
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes