“First Edition” features original works by Northern California Jewish writers. In the first issue of each month, j. publishes a poem and an excerpt from a piece of new fiction.
Works may be submitted to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fiction excerpts may run to 2,500 words, but only 800 words will appear in the print edition, with the rest appearing online.
by thaisa frank
Whenever I think of my first kiss, I think of the lie I told my mother; and whenever I think of the lie I always think that I didn’t grow up in this country at all, but in some barren, eastern-European country after the war. I see dingy curtains, dim lights. Lace curtains in the kitchen and a hunk of black bread on a wooden table. I also see the meager gestures of children who have no toys, inventing games in the snow. My mother is in a chair, part of her in our house, the other part in a house she never lived in but someone that a relative knew — perhaps someone her father knew — lived in.
The country first appeared when I was six and I kissed, without warning, a boy named Jerry in the hall of our apartment building. The night before I had seen a naked, half-paralyzed man being bathed by his elderly mother in a wide-open window while hiding in the bushes with my friend. And the next day, I found Jerry in the hall and kissed him.
Jerry was nine years old. His breath smelled of mint gum and he had slanted, lizard eyes. He wore a leather jacket and claimed he came from Baghdad, which I knew to exist from the Arabian Nights. When I kissed him I thought I could feel a rim of extra teeth inside his mouth, although I never looked too closely: The extra teeth suggested a second person, hidden deep inside him.
“What’s your phone number?” he asked as soon as I’d kissed him.
“I don’t know.”
“Go upstairs and ask your mom.”
“Why do you want to know?” my mother asked when I went upstairs. She was leafing through a copy of the Ladies Home Journal, and looking mildly depressed.
“I need it for a library card.”
She told me our phone number, and I ran downstairs, panted the number to Jerry. He said he’d call me and never did.
As soon as I came upstairs the other country appeared, altering our house, particularly our kitchen. Lace curtains at the window. Oilcloth on the table. Children playing in the snow. I sat in the living room looking at the picture of Breughel that stayed the same; but when I looked at the rest of the house, this country was there. For a year it came and went like something in a flipbook. Anything could bring it on. The faintest glimmer of a lie. A tone of voice with an edge — hers or mine.
In second grade there I knew an underling named Karen, a child who was very small, had dark plaited hair and a hesitant way of speaking. She could easily have been shipped off to Auschwitz. But she lived in America, like us. One day, while two of my friends hit Karen with her own umbrella, I watched, not trying to stop them. She ran off, in her green jacket, crying in the snow.
I was sure she was running off to that other country; but it was in this country that her mother wrote a note to the teacher, naming everyone who had been involved in the incident, including me. My friends, who were more cunning, lied, and said I had hit Karen with the umbrella. The teacher believed them, I was powerless to say no, and I came home and told my mother what was true. She wrote the teacher a note that I delivered, too frightened to read. I never knew if the note released me from my friend’s lie or bound me to it.
After this the other country receded. Perhaps I had been redeemed, one lie exchanged for another. Or perhaps I had entered a third country where lies were as commonplace as Kansas. In any case, our kitchen became our kitchen again: an ordinary midwestern kitchen, with white pre-sliced bread (no longer banned after the war), linoleum on the floor, venetian blinds at the windows. Our windows looked out on a flat midwestern street. No war orphans played in the snow. Sometimes I looked at the wedding picture by Breughel, thinking that if I looked back at our house the country might appear. But I wasn’t to see it again until high school, when more lies came between my mother and me. Then I began to re-enter that unnamed country, walking with more certainty, sure of where I was — and I still can go there. In that country my mother sits by a window looking at a landscape she’s never seen. She sews for me, cooks for me, gives credence to my lies. Her bread is bitter and always dark.
“The Kiss” is excerpted from Thaisa Frank’s third collection of short stories, “Enchantment,” which was published in July. Her novel “Heidegger’s Glasses” (2010), about a nearly mythical haven in World War II, sold to 10 foreign countries before publication.
Thaisa Frank, a resident of Oakland, is the granddaughter of a Presbyterian theologian and a Rumanian Hassid who consulted each other about Aramaic texts. Her website is www.thaisafrank.com.