The mildewed hallways reeked of garlic and piss as we climbed to the sixth-floor apartment that would be our home until, hopefully, a better one was found for each of us. A sign on the door, in large blue letters framed by sunflowers, read "Oyf Haskhole," Yiddish for "Camp Beginning." For Frima and me, and four other children, it was supposed to be the beginning of a new life after the Nazis had failed to end ours. They'd succeeded with our parents, making us orphans, a term I rejected. It implied helplessness, but Frima and I had taken care of ourselves on the streets for the last five years, avoiding the extermination camps that almost certainly would have killed us.
We'd walked the few blocks here after descending the stairs from a train that ran high above the ground. Miss Stone, the dumpling-shaped woman with springy gray curls in charge of us, called it "the elevated." As we rattled along the tracks, I looked into the upper-story windows of the buildings we passed and wondered if the tenants had learned to blot out the sound of the trains at night. Frima and I had done that at Kloster Indersdorf, the institute for displaced children close to Dachau, where we lived briefly before coming here. Only there, instead of trains, we shut our ears to the nightmare screams of children who had survived the camps.
There were almost as many signs labeling things here as we'd grown up with in Germany. The one at the station platform said "Fordham Road" and the street we turned onto was called "Morris Avenue." Frima and I would have to learn English quickly to get around the Bronx as readily as we'd navigated Berlin. As far as my eyes could see, there were few landmarks to help us. All the buildings looked identical to ours: dirty red brick, three to six floors tall, many with street-level storefronts. On either side of our entrance was a butcher and a fish store. Neither smelled too fresh but women in summer dresses, carrying satchels, passed through their doors.
Before Miss Stone herded us into our apartment, 6F, one of the boys asked about an unmarked door next to it. She told him that it opened onto a staircase that led up to the roof. "That's where we hang the wash." Another child worried about where we'd dry our laundry in winter. "Don't concern yourselves," said Miss Stone. "All you children will be gone by then."
We'd barely stepped inside and set down our own satchels when shouting erupted in the hallway. Our chaperone opened the door and a rotten cabbage sailed through before she closed it again. The door was made of thick metal, but it couldn't blot out the angry words our neighbors were chanting. We didn't have to speak English to understand them. "Child psychopaths," they screamed. "Let them into this country and their diseased minds and bodies will infect the families who adopt them and our entire country." "Death to vermin."
Insects, rats, or subhumans, Untermenschen, was what Nazis called Jews in Germany. We hadn't been warned that many Americans felt the same way, but it didn't surprise me. Nastiness lives everywhere, sometimes hiding behind a nice front. It was too soon to tell about Miss Stone or the people who'd paid our way here, but I knew not to let down my guard.
Miss Stone pointed to the kitchen, where we huddled under the table before she motioned us to stand. Next to the sink was a telephone; she told us she was calling the super, whose first name was Anoush. "Hello, Mr. Kasparian? This is Shirley Stone, the caseworker from National Refugee Service. There's a disturbance on the sixth floor. I'd appreciate your assistance."
I assumed the authorities here were on the side of the mob, the same as in Germany. So I was surprised when, two minutes later, I heard the super berating the people in the hall. "Amot! Shame on you. You sought refuge in America when you fled your homelands, just like I fled Armenia after the Turks butchered us. T'voghnel! Leave these poor children in peace."
We heard more shouting but after Mr. Kasparian threatened to kick everyone out, the grumbling died down and soon we heard footsteps retreating. He knocked and when Miss Stone opened the door, we saw a small but wiry man with a bristly moustache, holding a big hammer in one hand and a crowbar in the other. He put them behind his back as he bowed to Miss Stone and smiled gently at us. He told our caseworker to call him if there was any further trouble and before he left, he addressed us directly. "Be good, children. Prove them wrong."
Miss Stone showed us our bedrooms. Boys shared one, girls another, while Miss Stone slept in a corner of the living room. I wondered why she chose to sacrifice like that; maybe she was atoning for past sins. The kitchen held a big table that everyone fit around, but the bathroom, though small, was the greatest luxury. We were six children all together. A boy and a girl between three and five had been too young to know their ages or their parents' names when they were hidden, so the Institute had called them Mendel and Berta. They looked like a miniature old man and woman, but were quiet and would be adopted easily, as long as prospective families didn't object to their thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. Two older boys, Salomon and Reuven, were in their mid-teens, a couple of years older than Frima and me. They had an attitude that because they'd suffered, the world owed them a living. I thought it was our job to earn it.
Miss Stone vowed to find homes for all of us. "The more children I can get adopted, the more donations NRS will receive to bring others." She said it typically took six weeks to place younger children and up to three months for older ones. Boys were harder to place than girls, but I knew Frima and I wouldn't be easy. Adoptive parents preferred children who were hidden to those who'd survived in camps or lived on the streets. They thought trauma made them bitter and tough; they were right. But we didn't care. Frima and I didn't want to be adopted. As she told me the night we left Kloster Indersdorf, "Liane, we are all the family the other needs."
We hadn't known each other when we were little. Frima's elementary school was in a wealthier neighborhood. But on the street, we grew closer than sisters. At first, we blended in with the other kids without arousing suspicion. There was so much poverty in Germany at the start of the war that their families, most of them not Jewish, had turned them out to fend for themselves. Later, as the war dragged on and Berlin was bombed, there were plenty of real orphans in the streets.
Frima and I met one night when we both sought shelter in an abandoned warehouse. When it was reclaimed as a munitions factory, we hid in the underbrush at the river's edge. If a member of the Gestapo stood on the banks to smoke, we escaped discovery by submerging ourselves in the water. Sometimes we hid in the nearby forests, but it was hard to find food. In the city, there were always stale loaves of bread behind a bakery. Potatoes, which we dug up overnight in gardens, were as valuable as diamonds. Now and then we got lucky and found a carrot or an egg in the garbage. If we split up to search, we brought back whatever we found to share with one another. We lapped up water from puddles. Winter was harsh and food was scarcer, but at least there was clean fresh snow to quench our thirst.
As we got older and our bodies filled out, Frima and I began to sell ourselves in exchange for something to eat, or clothes, baubles, or a tube of lipstick to make us more desirable to the next customer. SS officers were the best because they had more money than soldiers. We stopped hiding in the forest altogether after that because it made us too dirty to attract them. Frima and I learned how to flirt by batting an eye, licking our lips, or flicking a skirt to reveal more leg. It didn't take much to draw their attention, and then we let them use their imaginations. Some men liked us to pretend we were virgins, so we told them that they were our first. Others wanted us to say that of all the men we'd had, they were the best. We told them whatever they wanted to hear.
Our lives at Oyf Haskhole were very different. Miss Stone wanted us to feel well cared for, but not so comfortable that we'd regret leaving when the time came. We adhered to a strict routine. The day began with a thorough washing, after which the caseworker checked us for lice and signs of infection in the deep sores that refused to heal. Then we ate breakfast, beginning with Rice Krispies. Their snap, crackle, and pop was the rare thing that brought a smile to the wan faces of little Mendel and Berta. Miss Stone also fed us fried eggs, bread with butter and jam, and tall glasses of milk with Bosco Chocolate Syrup. She made us use knives and forks; the younger children had never learned how, and the older ones had forgotten. Mendel and Berta had to be constantly reassured that there was plenty to eat, and even then, Miss Jones would find that they'd taken bread from the table and hidden it under their mattresses. She worried about rats.
Next came English lessons. Miss Stone taught us words for food, clothes, soap, and other common objects. We practiced what we'd need to know when school began, like counting. Then we'd go to Zunder's grocery store one block over to try out what we'd learned. On the way, we passed the seltzer man and another selling produce from a horse-drawn cart. His celery looked as wilted as his horse. I wondered how Frima and I would have survived if the only customers available to us in Berlin were as pathetic as the men surrounding our camp in the Bronx.
One day coming home from Zunder's, we walked by some boys playing stickball in the schoolyard. Salomon and Reuven climbed the fence to watch and asked Miss Stone if they could join them. "We'll whip their backsides," they said, although they used a cruder word. She told them they weren't ready to play with American children yet, though she'd get them ready by fall. Salomon jumped down inches from Miss Stone, which startled her, while Reuven wiped his nose and sneered, but neither said anything. I wondered if they'd try to get away from this camp the same way they'd escaped Arbeitsdorf, but none of us knew how to survive on our own here.
Lunch was cottage cheese and fruit, and more milk to strengthen our bones. After the meal, Miss Stone gave us each a dime to buy ice cream from the Good Humor or Bungalow Bar truck, or sent us in pairs (older and younger, or boy and girl, but never the two older boys together) to Sis's candy store where we would get eight-cent egg creams and two-cent salted pretzel rods. Our treats were followed by a quiet "digestion period" in our bedrooms. Supposedly these were necessary because our stomachs were still delicate after years of starvation, but Frima and I suspected Miss Stone didn't want us to hear her making telephone calls in the kitchen, trying to find us homes. On days when Berta napped, we crept down the hallway to eavesdrop.
The third week of camp, we heard her say, " ...a thirteen-year-old girl, already quite proficient in English." "If so, it's not obvious." "Mature in some way, immature in others." "Oh yes, very healthy and putting on weight with the good food she's fed here." "Would you like to meet her?" "I understand. Take your time to look over the papers and then we'll set up a time."
Not knowing which of us Miss Stone was talking about, we tiptoed back to our room and sat under the open window. Frima clutched my hand and whispered, "We should have said we were sisters so they'd be forced to take us together." I said it wouldn't help. We'd met children at the institute who'd been separated from their siblings and had no idea what happened to them. Besides, we looked nothing alike. No one would take us for sisters, let alone twins.
"Suppose the people on the phone want to meet you... or me?" I asked.
"I swear I'll act so horribly that no one will want to adopt me," Frima said. I promised to do the same. Then we each bit the calloused pad on our index fingers until we drew blood and pressed our fingers together. We got back on our own beds quickly because we never knew when Miss Stone would come around to rouse us. A short rest period could mean she'd had a bad day and didn't want to listen to more rejections, or a good day and knocked off early after a success. A long one could mean she refused to give up, or was on a roll. That day was a short one.
Digestion and hand-and-face washing over, we'd troop off to Bryan or Devoe Park to try out our English with American children. Despite coaxing, Berta and Mendel were too shy and hid inside the wooden playhouse where they built tiny beds with twigs and spoke German to each other. The older boys walked up the slide, aggravating parents, or climbed up the monkey bars and rained down pebbles they stashed in their pockets. Miss Stone spent a lot of time apologizing for their behavior, but I never saw a mother's hostile expression melt into understanding.
Frima and I sat on the swings practicing English with each other, out of our teacher's earshot. We took turns pretending to be glamorous women and smitten men. A conversation might go like this: "Hey doll, how'd you like to see a movie?" "What does it cost, big boy?" "Just the price of your hand on my arm, beautiful." "Sold. One ticket and away we go." When we tired of our game, we'd watch the people sitting on benches, eating paper cones of salted French fries slathered in ketchup. No matter how much food Miss Stone fed us, we were always hungry.
Late afternoon, we'd trudge back to the apartment for more lessons and dinner. Everyone helped with the dishes and then it was story time. We didn't listen to Miss Stone tell us stories. Rather, she listened to us ours. She said it was important for us to "get it all out" in order to heal our minds along with our bodies. We sat in a tight circle, "to feel protected," she said, and she never interrupted us when we spoke. Berta couldn't remember the names of the Catholic family that took her in, but she talked about being hidden inside a trunk of smelly blankets when the SS knocked on their door. Mendel slept in a barn, behind straw bales, and the farmer who hid him threatened that if Mendel didn't muck out the stables clean enough, he'd turn him in. Salomon and Reuven recounted the hard labor, meager rations, and random shootings at the work camp where the Nazis sent them. After two years, they escaped inside a coal car. They blackened their bodies and waited until nightfall so they would blend in with the darkness.
Frima and I spoke about hiding in root cellars and bombed out buildings, scavenging in garbage dumps, and stealing cigarettes from sleeping drunks to trade for food. Miss Stone loved to hear about our constant hunger, knowing she alone could fill our bellies now. We told her whatever she wanted to hear, but neither of us spoke about the men who also filled us up.
When story time was over, Miss Stone did paperwork while we listened to the radio and read books from the traveling library. Then it was lights out. We older kids didn't mind going to bed the same time as the younger ones. Sleeping in a safe place was another luxury we'd never tire of. Frima and I lay on our pillows, clutching the one thing we'd each rescued from childhood. Hers was a doll, Sugar, with a nearly-bald head and a faded dress torn off below its belly. Mine was a matted stuffed bear, minus one button eye, who I'd named Ittel Rosa as a toddler. I think it was after a friend, but I no longer remembered her or her family. I barely remembered my own.
Here's what I do remember: Loud knocking up and down the hallway, my mother hiding me in a crawl space under the floor. Before she put a rug over the loose boards, she handed me Ittel Rosa and said if I got scared and wanted to cry, to hug my bear. I buried my mouth in her fuzzy belly, and when, after two days, I crept out, I held her in front of me for protection. On our third night of camp, Miss Stone told Frima and me that we'd have to give up sleeping with our toys before we could be adopted. New families didn't want reminders of our old families, the caseworker explained. "Let go of your past and look to future." When I clung to Ittel Rosa and Frima did the same with Sugar, Miss Stone reassured us. "When you're ready," she said.
Our routine was unvarying except for the days Miss Stone took us on field trips to the public library, Bronx Zoo, or other places she deemed educational or representative of our new country. Everyone was excited when we went to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. We rode the elevated in the opposite direction we'd traveled our first day here. This time, I wondered if the people in the apartments we passed looked through their windows at us. Mendel and Berta ran up and down the center aisle of the car, ignoring Miss Stone's pleas to sit still. They found it exhilarating to ride a train where they weren't crammed together with dead bodies held upright by live ones, and were heading to a good place from which they would safely return.
It was close to sundown when we got home, stuffed with hot dogs and Cracker Jacks and eager to collapse on our soft beds. Nevertheless, Reuven paused outside the apartment door and traced the letters on the sign. "Miss Stone," he asked, "why do you call this place a camp?"
"Because here you breathe fresh air and eat good food every day. The intention is to give the word camp the happy connotation it deserves."
Reuven snorted. "It's the other way around. Memories of the concentration camp blot out whatever you try to substitute." As we filed inside, he muttered to Salomon, "Sometimes I want to break free of this place too." So did I.
In mid-summer, Anoush knocked on the door and told Miss Stone that he had a surprise for the older kids. We followed him to the basement where he led us to an abandoned ping pong table. After showing us how to play and giving us a box filled with paddles and white plastic balls, he left us to slam them over the net at each other. Miss Stone came down briefly to see what we were doing, and pronounced it an "acceptable" way to release our anger. By the time we were done, half the ping pong balls were cracked and the net was ripped in three places.
The game was diverting; we didn't have to think or talk about where we'd been or might be going. But after a week I was bored and looking for more exciting action. Frima had begun to let the boys win almost every game, so I knew she'd had enough too. One afternoon we got off the swings in the park and approached two Jewish-looking girls about our age, making sure Miss Stone saw us. Later, when we told her we'd made friends with them, that they were sisters, and had invited us over to their house the next day, it sounded plausible. Miss Stone was ecstatic and picked out the nicest clothes she could find for us to wear. We assured her the girls had given us thorough directions and we could find our way there without her.
The older boys trailed us downstairs. "Where are you really going?" Salomon asked. We told him it was none of his business and that if he breathed a word to Miss Stone, we'd tell her about the old coins he and Reuven had filched from someone's storage bin. It was one thing to play ping pong with them in the privacy of the basement, but Frima and I had no intention of being seen with them in public. We didn't associate with Jewish boys hiding out on the streets of Berlin either. If they ever got picked up, being circumcised would have marked them as Jews and we'd be tagged along with them. On our own, Frima and I could pass for Catholics or Lutherans.
Germans, at least those who believed the party line, were convinced that all Jews had large noses, dark eyes, and kinky hair. Frima, a wavy redhead with green eyes and a straight nose got by without a second look. My straight brown hair and hazel eyes were unremarkable too; only the slight bump in my nose sometimes got noticed. One day an SS officer asked whether there were Jews in my family. He claimed to be an anthropologist and said my ears and profile struck him as Semitic. I looked offended and walked away, outwardly calm but quaking inside. I went straight to a store that sold religious articles and stole two big crosses for Frima and me to wear.
After ditching Salomon and Reuven, we headed east on Fordham Road. All we could see were more apartments and neighborhood stores, but the wide road was a potential thoroughfare to something more interesting. We would have liked to take the streetcar, except the fare was a nickel and we didn't have any money—yet. We were wilting under the summer sun and on the verge of turning back when the apartments grew sparser and the stores taller, with large overhead signs. We walked toward one that said "Uptown—it's Alexander's" and found ourselves at an intersection of the Grand Concourse. Grand it was, broader than any boulevard in Berlin and lined with crowded stores, restaurants, and movie theaters. Frima and I knew we'd struck gold.
Some of the movie houses were grimy, like the seedy places men used to take us back home, but Loew's Paradise loomed like a palace. When the big clock over the entrance struck 2:00, a mechanical knight rode forth to slay a fire-breathing dragon. Frima and I pretended to study the movie posters out front, while giving the eye to the prospects who walked by. It wasn't long before two men in uniform invited us to "see the show." Frima and I winked at each other, pleased that we hadn't lost our knack for picking up suitors, what we called "freier" in German.
Inside, we were awed by the lobby's marble pillars and goldfish pond. The men led us up the carpeted stairs, lined with tapestries, and ushered us to the last row of the balcony. Overhead, the ceiling glittered with jeweled constellations, which gave us something pretty to look at while they did their business. No one pretended to watch the movie. We all left in the middle of a reel. "Money or food?" my freier asked when we were back on the sidewalk. "Both," I answered.
We headed further east on Fordham Road, stopping at Accessories Galore, where Frima and I each chose a scarf. I was drawn to a gold bracelet with purple stones, but that would have been hard to explain to Miss Stone. She'd believe our new friends had given us their old scarves, especially if we wrinkled them on the way home. Our next destination was Jahn's Ice Cream Parlor, decorated like the Gay Nineties with stained glass Coca-Cola light fixtures and booths with red leather cushions. The men treated us to sundaes. You could hardly see the ice cream under the whipped cream, hot fudge sauce, nuts, and sprinkles. Frima's soldier challenged mine to eat a Kitchen Sink, twenty scoops in a basin-size bowl. If you ate the whole thing by yourself, Jahn's gave you another one for free. My "date" didn't want to try, but Salomon or Reuven could have done it.
When we left Jahn's, the men asked if Frima and I wanted them to escort us home and sighed with relief when we declined. They gave us each a dollar and fifty cents, and took off down the hill. We turned uphill, running, skipping, and panting until we were back at Morris Avenue. Miss Stone admired our scarves and offered to iron them. She asked if we were hungry but we said our friends had treated us to ice cream. Our caseworker was pleased that we'd made a success of our visit and we delighted her further by saying we'd been invited to come back.
She also claimed credit for her own efforts. "My lessons are paying off. I'll find you new homes before you know it." She hesitated. "Do you suppose your friends'...?"
I was terrified lest she asked us to get their telephone number and inquired whether their parents were interested in adoption. Scarier was the dreamy look on Frima's face. "I expect their family has its fill of girls," I said. Miss Stone slipped a meat loaf into the oven and said not to worry, there were plenty of childless couples, or parents with sons who'd appreciate a daughter.
After that, Frima and I visited our friends twice a week. We would have gone more but it didn't seem realistic that their family would invite us so often. Thankfully, those two girls never returned to the park. On our second excursion, we lingered in the theater lobby to stare at the marble fountain with a sculpture of a child on a dolphin. We imagined ourselves leading magical lives, riding sea creatures across an endless ocean. The third time, when the men were done, we persuaded them to pay and leave us at Loew's to watch the movie. This arrangement satisfied everyone and we used it from then on.
Frima adored the film Margie, a romance about a mother who tells her teenage daughter about having to choose between three suitors for the homecoming dance. She dreamed herself into the role of the daughter. I preferred Two Sisters from Boston, in which a pair of rich socialites thumb their noses at society to sing in low-class dives. When the more prudish sister joins the gutsier one, it reminded me of how I'd had to persuade Frima to sell her body on streets. We used to joke that as a redhead, she should have been the more fiery one, but mousy me turned out to be the rebel. Even though I liked that movie more than Frima did, we both applauded when the two sisters stood together against everyone else's disapproval.
After leaving Loew's, Frima and I raced giddily from store to store. Alexander's sold nice clothes at discounted prices, with bins for slightly defective garments. We bought these, telling Miss Stone they were hand-me-downs from our friends and soon invented friends for our friends. Miss Stone was happy that more people had accepted us and wanted to help. Even American Jews had been reluctant at first, afraid our bad reputation would tarnish theirs. A month into our subterfuge, our caseworker announced that to reciprocate their kindness, she'd make brownies and chocolate chip cookies for us to bring next time. The whole apartment turned as hot as the oven where she baked them. Frima and I slipped the goodies to Salomon and Reuven to continue buying their silence. They ate half and sold the rest on the playground. We were all enterprising.
Our favorite store was Woolworth's, also called the "five and ten." All the merchandise was displayed on the counter so we could steal things with ease—jewelry, makeup, candy. After some of our customers offered us cigarettes, Frima and I began to buy or shoplift these ourselves. We thought that smoking made us look more alluring, like the stars in the movies we devoured.
One day when we got home, we ran into Anoush downstairs. He smelled the smoke on our breath. His expression was more disappointment than disapproval. He pleaded. "Don't prove the neighbors right. Show them you're good girls, worthy of good homes. You are still young. I was already too old for school when I came here, but you can get an education. Do better than me, not be stuck in a basement." The super swiped at his eyes with a big, dirty handkerchief.
I didn't care what impression I made, but Frima grabbed my hand and dragged me to Sis's, where we stole a pack of Peppermint Life Savers and crunched them in our mouths on the way back. Miss Stone told us to tell our friends to please not fill up our stomachs with candy.
A week later, our caseworker was jubilant when Frima and I entered the apartment. She'd found a home for Berta with an older childless couple, and another family, who had a girl and wanted a boy, were interested in Mendel. "Now I can turn my full attention to finding families for you older children," Miss Stone said. Then a frown crossed her face, as she explained that she was under pressure. The refugee program was expanding to thirty children and had acquired an abandoned YMCA building in another part of the Bronx. Thirty new children would arrive by the end of summer, in time to enroll for the start of school. "I intend to find homes for you before then," Miss Stone promised. "I'll regard it as my failure if any of you move with me to the Y."
Frima crossed her fingers behind her back. I don't know if she was hiding them from the caseworker, or me. Salomon and Reuven shrugged. It made no difference to them. Wherever they lived, they were ready to fight to claim their turf. I was upset, however. I'd learned to navigate this neighborhood, and could find my way to a more enticing one. I had no idea where the Y was or whether Frima and I could get to another area as promising as the one we'd discovered.
Miss Stone, seeing the worry on my face, mistook it for discouragement. She followed Frima and me to our room, and sat next to us on my bed, promising again that she'd find us each a home. Then she leaned over to embrace us. "Ugh!" She pulled back. The scent of the twenty-five cent bottles of perfume we'd swiped from Woolworth's an hour ago had hit her nostrils.
Frima and I rubbed her necks, but we couldn't disguise this smell as easily as the cigarette smoke. I giggled like the teenage daughter in the movie Frima liked and told Miss Stone our friends' mother had let us try on her dresses and high heels and use her cosmetics.
Miss Stone didn't buy my story. I'd never seen her get angry, but she hissed. "I don't know where or how you got this cheap stuff, but I'm sure your friends' mother buys a more expensive brand." She snatched Frima's Sugar and my Ittel Rosa. "If you two are ready to wear perfume, you're ready to get rid of these." Then she, and our childhood toys, were out the door.
For the first time since losing my parents, I let myself cry, pressing my fists into my cheeks and my forehead into my pillow. Frima sat beside me, dry-eyed, hands open in her lap.
Early next morning, before anyone else was awake, I crept downstairs to retrieve Sugar and Ittel Rosa from the trash bin. As I scurried to the stairwell, Anoush came out of his basement apartment to carry the garbage to the curb. Hugging our toys to my chest, I lied. "Last night, Frima and I decided we were too old for these. But we couldn't sleep so I'm taking them back."
He nodded. "I kept a toy fire engine for years before giving it to a little boy whose family came to America with less than I did. It had a ladder that slid up and down. I still miss it." He patted my bear. "Someday, you'll give this to your own child. A bright ending to a dark past."
I smiled and hurried upstairs, then crawled into Frima's bed. We used to startle at the slightest noise, but now Frima slept soundly. I had to jostle her awake. She stretched lazily and raised her eyebrows when I put my finger to my lips. Then I held up my bear and withdrew her doll from under the covers. "They were on top of yesterday's newspapers and potato peels, so they didn't get any new stains." I held up Sugar and made her dance a sort of shimmy.
Frima thrust the doll away. "Throw it back in the trash. I don't want it anymore."
I was stunned. I tried to cajole her. "But Ittel Rosa will be lonely without Sugar."
"We'll be lonely if all we have is each other and a stupid old doll and stuffed bear." Frima took Ittel Rosa from my arms and wrapped me in hers. "We can keep getting food and clothes on the street, but it's risky. And temporary. Suppose Miss Stone makes good on her promise to find us homes. Then we'll get all we need to eat and wear permanently. From a family."
"Two families," I reminded her. "One for you and one for me."
Frima hugged me tighter. "We'll refuse to be separated. Miss Stone will find us a place together. Or two homes very close to each other."
The laugh that came out of my mouth tasted bitter. "Do you really trust our caseworker, or some strangers you've never met, to take better care of us than we do ourselves?"
Frima reminded me of what Mr. Kasparian had said the day he smelled cigarettes on our breath. "We can do better."
"Don't believe him. The super's a dirty old man who thinks we'll give him sex in return for helping us get adopted." I grabbed Ittel Rosa and snuggled with her in my own bed until Miss Stone called us to breakfast.
It was three days before Frima and I could reasonably claim another visit with our friends. Miss Stone told us to ask their mother to call her at lunch time, just to check in, but I knew she was checking up on us. I said the mother usually went shopping while we ate, but Miss Stone said, "No call, no more visits." I reassured Frima when we got downstairs that we had all day to think of an excuse for the missed call. We'd had years of practice making up excuses.
"I'm not worried about that," said Frima, but she walked fast, something she does when she's upset. Maybe she was still bothered by what I'd said about Anoush.
We wandered around Woolworth's, pocketing lipstick to put on when we crossed the street to Loew's Paradise for the one o'clock matinee. At noon, a mother with two small girls approached the lunch counter. Despite the heat, she wore black. A war widow. The woman lifted her daughters onto the stools and ordered two orange sodas, counting coins from a worn change purse. The older girl sipped slowly. The younger gulped, spilling half the drink down her dress.
"Mama," she cried. "Want more soda."
"I'm sorry sweetheart. I can only afford one apiece." The little girl continued to sob until her sister gave her what was left of hers. The child drank it but remained distraught as the mother led her daughters out of the store, leaving her change purse on the counter.
I scooped up the purse, which held fifteen dollars in bills and change, and slipped it into my pocket, shivering with excitement. Frima and I regularly took things from stores but we'd never stolen money from a person. It was an unspoken rule that I no longer saw a reason to obey.
Frima looked aghast. "That poor mother needs every penny to take care of her children."
"We need that money to take care of ourselves."
Frima held out her hand. I reluctantly gave her the purse. She raced out of store just as the light on Grand Concourse changed to green, and returned it to the mother. I saw the momentary panic in the woman's eyes as she considered what might have happened, followed by relief at what actually did. I couldn't hear, but saw her deliver effusive thanks. She offered a bill to Frima who waved it away and dashed back into Woolworth's. I wished she'd accepted it. A dollar would have bought us ten round trips on the streetcar, enough to get us through the summer.
We didn't say anything as we made our way to Loew's and stood outside the theater. No men approached us, perhaps sensing the tension. By late afternoon, with heat radiating from the pavement, we were both ready to go home. I dreaded the walk, which would seem longer than usual given our silence. "Let's sneak onto the streetcar through the rear door," I suggested, "and bypass the fare." Frima looked skeptical. I cajoled. "Consider it practice for when we hop trains and buses to go to far-off destinations. We'll travel across America, just the two of us."
An approaching streetcar was a block away. "What if we get caught?" Frima asked.
"So what? We know how to evade the police. Besides, the penalty in this country isn't death. At worst, they'll send us to a juvenile home from which we can escape."
Frima shook her head and continued to walk west. I passed up a ride on the streetcar and caught up, matching her rapid pace. At the next corner, she slowed and took my hand, a gesture of forgiveness. At heart, Frima was the better person. She deserved a better life.
When we got to Oyf Haskhole, Miss Stone was fluttering around the living room, straightening slip covers. She spoke breathlessly. "A couple. Interested in adopting a teenage girl. They'll be here after dinner." Apparently, in her excitement, she'd forgotten about the telephone call. I was relieved. I'd been so distracted after my tiff with Frima that I'd forgotten to think up an excuse.
Miss Stone filled a crystal bowl with rainbow-colored sucking candies. "First impressions carry the day. Or, in this case, the evening. "I picked out a nice cotton skirt and blouse for you to wear, and bought a pair of ruffled anklets." Her eyes were on the candy bowl so I couldn't see who "you" referred to. She handed me a dustcloth and pointed at the coffee table and lamp stand.
"But, Miss Stone...," I began.
"Frima, dear." The caseworker caressed her shoulders. "Wash your hair before dinner so it dries in those lovely natural waves you were blessed with. Liane, would you polish her shoes?" She gave Frima a quick hug. "Remember to cross your ankles when you sit down."
I dusted the furniture. Frima filled the bathtub. While she washed, I helped cook dinner—boiled chicken and string beans. A box of bakery cookies, tied with string, sat on the counter. I wondered if they were for Frima and our guests alone, or if the rest of us would get to share them. At meal time, I wasn't hungry, and Frima stared at her plate. I kicked her under the table as a signal to eat. I needed time to figure out what to do and I didn't want to arouse any suspicion.
After dinner, the boys did the dishes. As Frima headed to the bedroom, Miss Stone pulled me aside. "Isn't this exciting?" she whispered, before telling me to help "spruce up" my friend.
Frima was already dressed when I entered our room and closed the door. "I'm not leaving you," she said, but her eyes gleamed as she looked in the mirror to brush her hair with long, firm strokes. She tossed her head and golden red waves framed her face and grazed her shoulders.
I sat on the floor and buffed her Mary Janes until they were bright enough to reflect the gleam in her eyes. "Go," I said, buttoning my mouth before I begged her to stay.
Frima knelt beside me and repeated what she'd often said. "You're all the family I need."
I buckled the shoes onto her feet and we stood up. "Well, I don't need you anymore. It was different in Berlin, when we helped each other survive, but here you'll only hold me back. I'm tired of carrying you along. I want to be free, to go places you're afraid of." I sneered. "You don't even have the guts to sneak onto a streetcar."
Miss Stone called from the living room. "Frima, dear, come meet our guests."
"You look nice." I stood behind Frima while she took a last look in the mirror. Her eyes shone with pleasure; her mouth was pinched with pain. I nudged her out the door.
With Berta gone, the bedroom was all mine. I crawled under the covers with Ittel Rosa and blotted out the sounds in the next room, the trick I'd perfected at Kloster Indersdorf. The old lessons were still valuable. Here I was learning new ones; their worth remained to be seen.
Title image "T'voghnel" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.