Dr. Rombach's Daughter

Susan Taubes
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

They lived in an old two-story frame house, Dr. Rombach and his daughter, Marianna. Dr. Rombach was a psychoanalyst of Viennese origin, a heavyset man, somewhat hunch-shouldered, with jutting eyebrows. His chin sunk on his chest, he scrutinized the world out of deep-set, melancholy eyes.

There was no psychoanalyst in Brighton before Dr. Rombach arrived and set up his practice, first in a modest midtown hotel, and after a year, in the house he bought on Wilbur Street.

Dr. Rombach received his patients at his home. Except for his visits to the State Hospital every Thursday afternoon he hardly ever left the house. Occasionally he was seen standing on the front porch inspecting the condition of the boards.

Dr. Rombach’s daughter was a gawky girl tall for her thirteen years with entranced eyes that seemed all the more oblivious to the world as she was always running. Her schoolbooks hugged to her chest, her unbuttoned coat flapping about her and her hair flying in her face, Marianna Rombach raced down Wilbur Street. Sometimes she would come to a sudden halt and remain standing, arrested, her glazed eyes fixed on some revery; or she would unexpectedly dart sideways into the street when the warning horn would freeze her in her tracks like a startled hare. Summer or winter she went bare-legged in a pair of worn ballet slippers, the hem always showing under her outgrown overcoat.

Dr. Rombach rose at a quarter to seven every morning to allow himself ample time for the orderly and meticulous performance of his washing, shaving, dressing, breakfast, and toilet ceremonies before the arrival of the first patient at nine o’clock. At eight o’clock he came into Marianna’s bedroom, raised the shades approximately three inches below the center window frame, announced to her the time and went downstairs to prepare his breakfast.

She made herself smoke first five, then ten cigarettes a day. After a while it became easy.

Although Marianna was awake listening to her father wash and dress since the alarm rang at a quarter to seven, she always remained in bed until her father’s second call at half past eight in order to keep out of his way. Dr. Rombach liked to make and eat his breakfast alone; also he reserved for himself the use of the bathroom from a quarter to seven to eight and from half past eight to a quarter to nine. After Marianna heard the lock of the bathroom click, she threw on her clothes and grabbing her schoolbooks bolted out of the house.

A dilapidated trembling negress with bloodshot eyes came daily for three hours to clean the house and prepare a warm lunch for the doctor. She came five days a week and on Fridays made a roast duck or a meatloaf for the weekend. Besides the patients, the maid, and the delivery men, nobody ever entered the house.

On her way home from school Marianna always stopped at the corner drugstore to check the time, so as to be sure that she wouldn’t be approaching the house just when a patient was coming or leaving. Her father had impressed upon her since she was a small child that she must not be seen by the patients or leave any of her personal effects—her coat, books, or hairbrush—in sight of his clients. Such negligence, the doctor warned, meant that a good part of the session was wasted on the patient commenting on the disorderliness of the analyst’s daughter. Marianna was as careful to avoid seeing a patient as to be seen by one. If she happened to be sitting by the window when the patient’s car turned in the driveway, she would duck behind the armchair rather than risk catching a glimpse of him or her coming up the porch steps. And since the patient might arrive early or late she always bowed her head as she approached the house and entered swiftly without looking right or left.

Home from school, Marianna settled down in a corner of the living room, downstairs. She sat perfectly still and waited. Thoughts did not always come. Sometimes she sat for hours with nothing in her head. When her emptiness oppressed her, she tried to pass the time paging through the dictionary or covering a sheet of paper with random words. She preferred to stay downstairs rather than go to her room, which was on the same floor as her father’s office.

Between patients Dr. Rombach came creaking down the stairs to sort the day’s mail, make telephone calls, put out a suit for the cleaner, the money for the grocer, munch some chocolate, and give a few minutes to his daughter. At five o’clock every day he went through the house from room to room winding up the clocks.

“Aren’t you daydreaming?” he asked when he found his daughter staring at the wall with a glazed look. Marianna insisted that her mind was quite blank. Dr. Rombach, however, was not satisfied.

“You are repressing!” he contested. “At your stage of development it is normal for a girl to have sexual fantasies.”

Marianna acknowledged her father’s remark in silence.

“Your coldness and indifference toward me,” Dr. Rombach observed, smiling, as Marianna stiffened when he twisted her face around toward him to kiss her cheek, “is simply a compensatory mechanism in overcoming your strong oedipal attachment to me.”

The doorbell rang, announcing the arrival of the 5:10 patient.

“He is five minutes early, as usual,” Dr. Rombach observed, pursing his mouth significantly.

“It is interesting,” he continued, “that you still repress certain feelings even after I have explained to you their mechanism.” And before proceeding upstairs, he recalled to her instances of her possessiveness toward him between the ages of three and eight.

Marianna took everything her father said to heart. But she could not actually remember wanting to kiss him on the mouth or asking, when her mother died, whether she could have her bedroom. What she remembered was her father telling her these things before. She had difficulty remembering herself as a child. In the last years her thighs had thickened and her breasts had began to swell; her body no longer felt like her own but some cumbersome burden she had to drag around. She made herself run as she used to as a child in a last effort to defy the weight of her body and flee into motion. But the sensation of her breasts jostling and sagging against her side filled her with despair.

Marianna was sitting in the living room with a notebook in her lap, holding a pencil poised midair when Dr. Rombach pushed the sliding doors apart and passed through on his way to the telephone table to cross out the grocery order he just saw delivered at the foot of the stairs.

“What were you thinking right now?” He turned on her suddenly.

Marianna looked up. She saw her father cross out the grocery list, crumple the slip of paper and drop it in the wastepaper basket.

“It must be something very important,” her father said slyly, “if you can’t say it.”

Marianna was trying to think of something to say. “I was just thinking that you’re coming into the room as you came into the room.” “Were you irritated?” Dr. Rombach asked. “Admit that you were a little irritated. It’s perfectly understandable—an old man getting a bit sloppy! You’re tired of seeing me come in, hour after hour. You’d like to see a young man walk in, who is interested in you as a sexual partner—make up to you a little. And you are perfectly right to feel that way,” he added and sat on the arm of the chair, fondling her. “What is a father’s love after all?” Then, in a serious tone: “You must not repress these natural drives out of irrational guilt feelings arising from your Oedipal attachment to me. Of course, you’re a growing girl, your glands are beginning to work, your breasts are developing—” he studied her breasts, “they could be a little, well, shapelier. Don’t you wear a brassiere?”

Marianna shook her head.

“Stand up and let me look at you,” he ordered.

“No,” Marianna muttered.

“Bashfulness,” her father proclaimed, “is only a hidden form of exhibitionism. Acknowledge that you are in reality eager to display your femininity before your father, and you won’t blush.”

Just then the six o’clock patient rang. Dr. Rombach went to answer the door.

Marianna tried to remember what she was thinking before her father came in and interrupted. The page of the notebook before her was blank. She was trying to think of something to write in it. A beautiful phrase. She looked around the room but she did not see anything that wanted to be put into words. Then she listened. There was the whirr of a lawnmower and the noise of cars passing along the street. Blank was the only thing she could think of. The color of blankness? It had no color. Blank was a bad word, it belonged to the mind and to the page. The heart could never be blank, though it might be empty, or void. There were better words than blank. Vacant conjured rooms, deserted houses. Blank was a flat word, flat as a page. Void had depth; it was dark, or a foggy white. Empty pertained most to the heart. Marianna was not sure that she had a heart.

Every evening at a quarter past seven Marianna prepared for her father a pair of wieners with baked beans, which he ate in the kitchen reading the afternoon paper while Marianna went back to the dining room to do her homework. Sometimes he called out across the pantry and read aloud to her a news item from the crime and accident column, which illustrated his conviction that all mankind was insane or served to point out how careful one must be.

When the 8:30 patient arrived, Marianna went to the kitchen and while washing the dishes nibbled on some bread and leftover beans. Food was something she did not like to think about. Her father had made her see everything she ate, wore, or used in terms of his labor. The groceries represented so many hours of his work, listening to people with sick minds. But this wasn’t all. Food tasted queer in her mouth. The smell of cooking food revolted her. She used to care for fruit, but lately even apples had a strong, fleshy taste.

Her father gave her $2.50 a week to buy herself lunch at the school cafeteria. But Marianna welcomed the opportunity to go without food and save the money. Eating only made her feel more heavy, and she enjoyed the slight faintness produced by an empty stomach. She bought cigarettes with the lunch money. Smoking had always fascinated her. Already as a child she dreamed of living off smoke. Children who smoked stopped growing, she had heard people say. For some years now, she had, every so often, smoked a few cigarettes she stole from her father, but it failed to arrest her growth. On her twelfth birthday she resolved to make it into a serious discipline. She made herself smoke first five, then ten cigarettes a day. After a while it became easy. She could hardly wait for the morning classes to be over so that she might satisfy her craving.

Every day she spent the lunch recess in a deserted back alley, smoking under the fire escapes. Sometimes she missed the afternoon session and went down to the creek where in the winter she could wander across the fields and smoke freely without fear of meeting anyone. She was happiest when she was completely absorbed in the physical sensation of the smoke filling her body. She sucked it in deeply and held it till she felt a faint tremor start in the pit of her stomach and a sweet numbness spread through her limbs.

After she had been smoking for a year Marianna felt like a different person. Dreams and cravings for things she had as a child left her. Now she only wanted a feeling of increasing lightness. She longed to be light and diffuse like smoke.

When she finished drying the dishes Marianna went out on the back porch, smoked three cigarettes with avid haste, and, hearing the rumble of footsteps upstairs, returned to the dining room to do her arithmetic.

After the last patient left, Dr. Rombach puttered around upstairs for a while, aired his consulting room, attended to his correspondence and accounts, wrote out the memo for the following day, took his evening bath, and, before retiring, came downstairs to enjoy a small snack followed by a whiskey and soda. Usually he settled down with his drink at the dining room table where his daughter was studying and told her about his most interesting cases while Marianna sat frozen to the chair, staring fixedly at her book. She had a trick of tensing the muscles behind her ears and producing a kind of whirring sound which partially drowned out his voice.

Sensing his daughter’s inattention, Dr. Rombach would look through the pile of books on the table and, seizing on any volume which was not pure science, read a sentence from a page opened at random, and exclaim with irritation, “What do these people really know about human life? What clinical data do they have?”

Midway through his whiskey Dr. Rombach would turn to investigating his daughter’s mind. His interest, he assured her, in order to impress upon her the importance of giving an honest reply, was strictly scientific.

The world was like a wall. Its objects were turned away from her until she named them. Then the sky allowed her to enter.

Was she afraid of mice? Insects? Did she ever dream that she walked out on the street naked? That she lost all her teeth? That she was a man? What were her feelings toward him? Did she have suicidal fantasies? Look forward to motherhood? Would she be able to resign herself to spinsterhood? What was her principal aim in life? Could she fall in love with a negro? A cripple? Was she happy?

Marianna had difficulty answering most of her father’s questions. She was not sure how she felt about anything. Was she capable of real feeling? But Dr. Rombach never pressed his daughter. When her answer wasn’t forthcoming he would provide it himself and proceed to the next question.

“Are you happy?” he asked with more than scientific concern. “I have a feeling that you can’t really be happy.”

“I am happy,” Marianna insisted with quiet defiance.

“Can you explain your happiness to me,” he demanded, more irritated than pleased by her reply.

Marianna knew that she must not speak to her father about her love for certain things. He interrupted her silence with his own view of happiness. Dr. Rombach was happy when everything was in order.

“Pleasure,” he set forth, “is simply the removal of tension. Every stimulus is basically a source of pain.” But Marianna wasn’t listening.

When he began to feel the effect of the whiskey, Dr. Rombach would yawn, declare mankind a mistake, and shuffle off to bed.

Marianna sat motionless for a long time after her father went upstairs, listening to the thud of his slippers, the creak of the bed, the five-minute radio news broadcast, and finally, the click of the light being turned off. She sat still and waited. After a while she became aware of the breathing of the house, the throbbing of the Frigidaire, the concerted ticking of the clocks, and every so often a strange noise as of something cracking inside the walls.

Sometime between three and four in the morning, Dr. Rombach left his bed to go to the bathroom. When he saw light in the hall he went downstairs for inspection. Perceiving her father in the doorway, Marianna sitting under the hundred-watt light bulb had the scared look of a doe surprised in the thicket. She quickly turned the page she had been writing on, face down.

“You’re still up!” Dr. Rombach lisped, his mouth kneading without his dentures.

“I’m working,” Marianna blurted without thinking.

“What are you working on?” Dr. Rombach demanded. “I always see you work late into the night. You’re not still working on your homework?”

“No,” Marianna confessed.

“What are you working on then?”

Marianna continued staring. She did not know herself what she was doing. She simply liked to stay up late at night. She could spend hours just paging through the dictionary. Sometimes she copied down words and arranged them in groups. Marianna loved words. Words were her only means of getting hold of things. The things remained outside and apart from her. The blue she saw, the sadness and shame she felt, the quivering moth on the lampshade, they eluded her. But the words, blue, sadness, shame, moth, belonged to her. The word blue was more than the blue of the sky or a piece of blue velvet. Everything blue was captured in the word blue. The world was like a wall. Its objects were turned away from her until she named them. Then the sky allowed her to enter. She called things by their names and they came to her like animals. Sometimes she fed them. Sometimes they offered themselves to her as food. Sometimes they sat on her heart and devoured her.

Dr. Rombach was annoyed at his daughter keeping such late hours.

“Well,” he demanded, “are you writing something?”

“I’ll show it to you when it’s finished,” she said weakly.

“But what is it?” he pursued irritably. “I am afraid you’re wasting your time. Are you sure you have talent? Most people who think they are artists are merely neurotics. Take your mother for example—”

“I am not writing anything,” Marianna cut in sharply, “I am just writing.”

Dr. Rombach made a face and squashed out his cigarette.

“Don’t forget to put out all the lights when you go to bed,” he reminded her.

After her father left the room, Marianna promptly resumed her meditation. She turned over the page on which she had written, “Leaf, leaves. Scarf, scarves. Grief, grieve,” and saw forms progressing from repose to number and movement.

When the paling night deepened into blue, Marianna tiptoed off to bed, a quiet joy, light as the foreboding of day on her lips.

One Monday afternoon after the six o’clock patient left, Dr. Rombach came into Marianna’s room, pulled down the shades, screwed back the top on the ink bottle, peered over his daughter’s shoulder to see what she was reading, went to the door, then stopped and turned to her, saying, “Can I have your attention for a moment?”

She raised her eyes reluctantly from the book.

Dr. Rombach cleared his throat. “Tomorrow between two and five in the afternoon I would like to have privacy in the house,” he announced. “Is that possible?”

“I’ll go to the public library,” Marianna said promptly.

“I think you are old enough to understand,” her father went on, “that I am still a virile man and sometimes I need sexual gratification. I will not ask this often of you, and if at any time the hours are inconvenient you will let me know. I think once every two weeks or ten days, once a week at most—no,” he corrected himself, “ten days at most I will need to have privacy in the house.”

“That’s all right,” Marianna said.

“Where did you say you’ll go tomorrow?”

“To the public library. I wanted to get some books anyway.”

“You can take a taxi. I’ll give you the money.”

“I don’t need a taxi. I’ll go straight from school. There is a bus that goes to the library.”

“It might rain.” Dr. Rombach said and put a dollar bill under the ink bottle. “From two to five. Will you remember?”

She wondered if the woman was his patient. For how else would he have met her?

“Yes,” Marianna promised.

“I’ll remind you again tomorrow morning,” Dr. Rombach said on his way out.

Coming up the stairs late that night Marianna glanced at the note on the bannister her father wrote for himself to remind him of his chores the following day. “Put out brown pants and money for the cleaner; order groceries. Call plumber for leak in toilet. Call M.P. to confirm appointment for two. Tell Mrs. Green to finish cleaning by one.”

Marianna felt sad for both of them. For M.P. as well as for her father.

That Tuesday evening, while warming up the remains of the roast duck, Dr. Rombach questioned his daughter.

“Did you experience any jealousy toward this person?” he began. “Do you wonder what we do together? You don’t have to answer that. You can’t help it, of course. Does it upset you? Do you resent it? Did you think about it while you were in the library?”

Marianna felt progressively cornered by his questions. She thought for a moment. Sitting on the bus, she had wondered if the woman was his patient. For how else would he have met her? The idea of woman patients who came to lie on her father’s couch being potential sexual objects disturbed her.

“Is she a patient?” Marianna asked.

“No. I met her socially. No, it was at a faculty tea,” he corrected himself.

In the weeks that followed Marianna spent many afternoons at the public library.

After a time Dr. Rombach made a slight alteration in his schedule. “I will need privacy Sunday afternoon for about two hours,” he informed his daughter, “but you don’t have to leave the house. I only need the upstairs and we may come down for a few minutes to the kitchen, so you can stay in the living room but keep the doors closed. And if you have to go to the bathroom use the toilet in the basement; only be sure to put out the light afterwards.”

Marianna’s sense of propriety, however, nevertheless bade her to leave the house while her father was having his sexual gratification. Since the library was closed Sundays, she went roaming about the streets.

“I would introduce you to this person,” Dr. Rombach remarked one Sunday to his daughter as she stood in her coat about to leave twenty minutes before two. “She is a very attractive and cultivated woman, but she has legitimate reasons to prefer to keep our relations secret for the time being.”

Late one evening as he was finishing his whiskey, Dr. Rombach asked his daughter: “How would you feel about it if I would marry again?”

Marianna thought it odd that her father should ask her approval.

“Well,” he continued, “I have thought it over. Since a growing girl needs a mother and since I am still a virile man, and furthermore, since I don’t want to be left alone when I’m old—after all, one day you’ll leave me,” he peered at her over the rim of his spectacles, “won’t you? I have thought about remarrying. But only with your agreement. I will arrange for you to meet this person in a week or so.

“You will think it over carefully, because I don’t want any difficulties afterwards.

“I want to emphasize,” he concluded, “it is only a possibility I am considering.”

Next Sunday noon, while Marianna was warming up the meatloaf, Dr. Rombach briefed his daughter on the procedure for the afternoon: “I expect Mrs. Picnic at two. We will go upstairs for a while. I want you to stay in the living room. Around three we will come down together, and I will introduce you to her. Her name is May Picnic. Miss May—I mean Mrs. May Picnic,” he corrected himself. “Is everything clear?”

Marianna nodded, and having served her father went to the dining room, leaving him with the Sunday papers. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on certain words but the crackling of the newspaper disturbed her. She thought of going upstairs to her room, but she did not want to be there when her father’s girlfriend arrived or risk meeting them on the stairs. She stood around idly listening to her father flap the pages, thrust the paper in the wastebasket and move about the kitchen and the pantry. After a while he came in.

“She is three minutes late,” he announced, looking sharply at the clock on the mantel. They waited in silence.

At exactly seven minutes after two the doorbell rang.

“We will be down at three o’clock,” Dr. Rombach said on his way to the front door.

Marianna hastily withdrew to the kitchen with a book. She read, forming the words silently with her lips and tried to keep her mind from straying. Not a sound came from upstairs till she heard them coming down the stairs. She waited till her father called for her and went slowly into the living room.

“Marianna, I would like you to meet Miss May Picnic,” he said overcoming a sudden hoarseness. “Mrs. May Picnic,” he corrected himself, and taking Marianna’s arm showed her a large white box on the telephone table.

“Mrs. Picnic brought this cake—”

“Do you think you could find us a plate?” she chimed in, joining them. “I hope you like danish pastry.”

“I told you I don’t eat any kind of pastry,” Dr. Rombach said.

“But I asked your daughter, Herman,” Marianna heard on her way to the kitchen.

Marianna was surprised by May Picnic. She expected her to be dark and buxom, with ponderous breasts and a bright voluptuous mouth. She imagined she would look somewhat like a former psychoanalyst friend of her father, a certain Dr. Lora Hirsch, with whom they often had their meals when they lived in a hotel in New York. She remembered being overwhelmed by Lora’s fragrance, the glitter of her smile and pearl button earrings. She always wore tight, dressy suits with a strong sheen which showed off her well-developed breasts. Her look, under heavily mascaraed eyes, was provocative.

May Picnic had little in common with her father’s former girlfriend. May was small, blond, and fragile, almost drab except for the twinkle in her blue eyes. Her light hair was drawn back in a bun. She wore a tailored suit with a striped blouse and underneath her chest looked rather flat.

May came into the kitchen to assist Marianna, but she had already filled the plate and they returned to the living room, May praising her artistic arrangement. In her high heels she barely reached Marianna’s height.

She had decided that she really liked May, and she wasn’t jealous. But to think of her upstairs with her father made her want to cry.

May chattered on like a little girl, and although Marianna’s father was continually urging her to sit, she kept flitting about the room to look at a painting or piece of woodwork, to pass the plate of pastry which was still full around once more or lift the window shades—why did he keep them down on a perfectly gorgeous day! She teased her father about his choice of furniture, but she found it suited him perfectly. Dr. Rombach pointed out her habit of drawing close to people and touching their arm when she spoke to them, explaining the motivation behind her strategy. May responded with a peal of laughter and winked at Marianna, who blushed in turn pleased and embarrassed.

“We must have a talk,” she said to Marianna, as she was about to leave. She took Marianna’s hand in hers and looked intently into her face. “Will you come and see me at my place? Come tomorrow. I’ll be expecting you after school.”

Marianna promised she would come.

“Ah, it’s good to be alone!” Dr. Rombach exclaimed after May Picnic left. “She talks too much, don’t you think? Well, how about my baked beans?”

“She is a poor girl,” her father went on, forking his beans while Marianna watched the toast. “Her husband left her a few years ago. She earns a living of a sort teaching art history. She is only an instructor. Women have it hard. Going on forty. She’ll be attractive to men for another five years maybe, and then. . . .” Her father made the sound of air escaping from a balloon. “Women have it tough, you see.”

Marianna was late to school next morning. She took so long making up her mind what to wear since she was going to see May Picnic. Everything she tried on looked wrong. Finally she decided on a black dress that was a little too large and, at least, didn’t make her look fat. She had been up most of the night looking through her notebooks and trying to put some of her most beautiful words together in a poem to show to May Picnic.

May Picnic lived in a small furnished apartment in a residential downtown hotel. She received Marianna warmly, ushering her in, her arm hooked in hers.

“This is only temporary,” she laughed, apologizing for the furnishings which were not to her taste.

May Picnic loved beautiful things, she told Marianna while they were having tea. She talked about different styles of furniture, about paintings and clothes. Marianna sat rigidly and listened, without quite knowing what to make of May Picnic’s fluttery gestures and swift, breathless chatter. May said she had a lovely face, it reminded her of a painting and started playing around with her hair, pulling it back with combs. Marianna wondered if she should show May her poems. When she looked in the mirror she didn’t like herself with her hair pulled back, but she did not say anything.

“We must go shopping next time,” May said as Marianna was leaving. “I’ll speak to your father about buying you a new winter coat and some becoming dresses.”

Marianna didn’t understand why May showed so much interest in her. She felt she ought to tell May that she didn’t really care about dresses, but she wanted May to like her. When she was at the door she pulled out a folded paper from her pocket and offered it to May.

“It’s just something I wrote,” she mumbled.

“Marianna, I didn’t know you wrote poetry,” May said softly as she opened the page. “May I really read it? Wait,” she said, “let me give you something.” She went in the other room and in a minute returned with a blue and yellow silk scarf and draped it around Marianna’s neck.

That evening Marianna sat with her father while he was having his supper. She felt like talking about May Picnic.

Dr. Rombach did not seem to be impressed.

“I want you to know,” he said after a while, raising his eyes from the newspaper, “that I have no intentions of marrying her.”

“I hope you understand,” Dr. Rombach said Saturday evening when Marianna came in showing off a new winter coat, “why she takes an interest in you?”

Marianna shrugged her shoulder. She liked the coat; it was gray flannel with silver buttons and she was happy with May’s scarf around her neck.

“Look,” Dr. Rombach went on, “she would very much like me to marry her, and well, it’s understandable that she should try to win your affection. I don’t mean to say that her behavior toward you is merely hypocritical; there might be an element of genuine fondness. But I want you to see what is behind it and not be deceived. Also, you should know that I am not taken in by these strategies.”

Dr. Rombach asked to have privacy the coming Sunday afternoon.

“You can stay in the living room with the doors closed,” he instructed Marianna.

“We’ll come down around five and have dinner together.”

Marianna wandered through the streets Sunday afternoon and returning somewhat early sat on the back porch steps and smoked. She didn’t understand why it pained her to think that upstairs her father was alone with May Picnic. She had decided that she really liked May, and she wasn’t jealous. But to think of her upstairs with her father made her want to cry. After a while she heard her father bring May to the front door. She left without seeing Marianna.

“Oh, here you are,” her father said, entering the kitchen. “May had to go home. She asked me to tell you how sorry she was that she didn’t have a chance to see you. She’ll call you tomorrow evening or Tuesday.”

May Picnic called Tuesday afternoon. She asked Marianna to come over to see her Wednesday after school.

In the evening Marianna reported to her father her telephone conversation with May at his request. Dr. Rombach acknowledged her account while cutting his wieners, then proceeded to read aloud from the local newspaper how a mother accidentally electrocuted her child when the toaster fell into the kitchen sink, where she was bathing the baby.

“By the way,” he added as he rose wiping his mouth, “I think perhaps you ought to know that I have stopped seeing May privately. I am afraid I raised expectations I couldn’t fulfill. Anyway, I think it is better so. I have told her this. She took it very courageously. Don’t be surprised, however, if her interest in you will not be as intense as before. She might simply drop you. You must be prepared for that. We are still friends, but she was beginning to fall in love with me, and I found this a burden. I explained this to her and she understood. In any case, I think she is going back to the West Coast.”

It was raining when Marianna came out of school Wednesday afternoon. May received her warmly but somewhat of a rush. She was getting ready to go out for dinner, “. . . with a brain surgeon, isn’t it exciting!” She was lining her eyes.

“Do take off your coat,” May insisted. “I have a minute. I am so sorry I have to go out.” She excused herself while she went to the bathroom to put on her stockings. “Oh, and your poems! May I keep them? I wanted to talk to you about them. When can we? I am leaving at the end of this week, you know.”

Marianna still stood in her dripping coat. She felt May wanted her to leave before the man came to pick her up.

“How is your father?” May called gayly from the bathroom.

“I have to go,” Marianna said.

May rushed out of the bathroom and squeezed her arm.

“Will you call me tomorrow? We must see each other again.”

Marianna understood that she meant goodbye.

When she reached the house the last patient had just left. Dr. Rombach was airing his office. Marianna remained standing before the front porch steps. After a while Dr. Rombach came out on the porch to pin a letter for the mailman on the mailbox.

“Oh,” he said. “It’s you. Why don’t you come in?”

From Lament for Julia by Susan Taubes, out from New York Review Books on June 6, 2023.

Susan Taubes (1928–1969) wrote two novels, Divorcing and Lament for Julia, and published a dozen short stories. Her suicide came shortly after the publication of Divorcing, in November 1969.
Originally published:
April 24, 2023


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