Chapter 2

Posted: January 2, 2012 in Letters to my Mother by Rebecca Heath

Blaine Hall, Room B102
University of Washington, Seattle
Sept. 12, 1956

Dear Mother and Daddy,

I got the job typing for Dr. Rosenau! Before going to the interview, I checked with the dorm kitchen downstairs and they pay 95 cents an hour, while Dr. R. offered me 50 cents a page. I figured I’d be able to knock out four pages an hour easily, but that was before I had a chance to look at the work. It’s total gibberish and, to top it off, written in longhand. If Dr. Rosenau’s handwriting were as legible as he is good-looking, I wouldn’t have a problem. I spend so much time proofreading and retyping that I’m probably making 10 cents an hour max. Honestly, factory slaves in China who are shackled to their machines are earning more than I am! I shall persevere, however. When I give him the first batch on Friday, it will be impeccable.

On the positive side, Dr. R. is very pleasant – rather intense – but pleasant. He introduced me to his research assistant, Frank, who’s a real character.

Norma and I went to the American Friends Service Committee this afternoon …
I spent the next two days typing and retyping the manuscripts, checking spelling with the scientific dictionary, centering headings and drawing tables until satisfied the work was perfect.

Friday afternoon, after much deliberation, I put on a maroon skirt, a silk paisley blouse, and a multi-stranded necklace of small beads and left for the Health Sciences Building, pleased that my appearance was a vast improvement over the previous Monday’s. Not sophisticated perhaps, but at least pretty.

Promptly at three I knocked on Dr. Rosenau’s door; again the radio was playing, but more softly than before. Dr. Rosenau opened the door himself, greeted me, and turned off the music.

“Oh, please don’t turn the radio off on my account.”

“I’m not. I’m just about to leave and I was waiting for you.”

I wondered if my face mirrored my disappointment. I wasn’t going to have a chance to talk to him. I wasn’t even going to sit down or take off my coat. The skirt, blouse and necklace were in vain, and I might as well have worn the dowdiest outfit in my wardrobe. As I handed Dr. Rosenau the typing, I saw a misspelled word on the first page, a mistake which numerous proof-readings had failed to disclose. My initial reaction was to say nothing and hope he wouldn’t notice; but he would notice, of course. Thinking this wasn’t an auspicious beginning to my typing career, I confessed the error.

“Do you have any correction fluid?”

He shook his head. “No. Why don’t you ask the secretary? Do you know where the office is?”

“Frank showed me on Monday.” Mindful of the fact that Dr. Rosenau was going out, I rushed to the departmental office, where Iris was hunched over her typewriter. She squinted up at me, and with her middle finger poked her horn-rimmed glasses farther up the bridge of her nose. “Yes?”

“Do you have some correction fluid Dr. Rosenau can borrow?”

“Here, take this.” Iris handed me the bottle on her desk. “He doesn’t need to give it back; I’ve got plenty more.”

I couldn’t help staring at Iris’ teeth; they were abnormally small, like tiny pearls, giving her an odd, ghoulish appearance. Was it possible her permanent teeth had never erupted? I made a mental note to ask Frank.

I thanked Iris and hurried back to Dr. Rosenau’s office. An upright typewriter covered with a plastic sheet was sitting on a metal table beside the mahogany cabinet. After whiting out the offending word, I put the paper through the roller and made the correction, praying there were no more typos in the manuscript. As I stood up, several strands of my necklace caught in the keyboard, the strings broke, and hundreds of tiny glass beads cascaded down my blouse and on to the floor, scattering in all directions.

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed, putting my hand to my mouth.

Dr. Rosenau glanced up from his reading. “Your necklace … oh, I am sorry. Well, don’t worry, we’ll get them picked up in no time,” and with this he bent over the rug and started collecting the beads.

I flushed red with embarrassment. “Please don’t bother,” I stammered. “You said you’re going out and my typing mistake has already made you late. If you’ll give me the key to your office I can pick them up and then I’ll lock the door and leave the key with the secretary.”

“It’s quite all right; I’m not in a hurry.” He took two envelopes from his desk and handed me one. “Here’s something to put them in.”

We crawled over the floor collecting the beads; after several minutes on his knees, Dr. Rosenau stood up. “I think we found them all, don’t you?” He offered me his hand, helped me up beside him and reached over to the remains of my necklace. I was acutely conscious of his presence and hoped he couldn’t hear my heart pounding. When he lifted the broken strands, I kept my eyes fixed on the rug.

“These are only cotton; they were bound to break sooner or later. You should have them restrung with nylon.”

My eyes met his. “Yes, that’s … something I can do myself.” He looked at me for a moment, then turned away abruptly and walked over to his desk where the typing lay.

“This is excellent work,” he said leafing through a couple of the pages. I know your first name’s Catherine, but Frank tells me you’d rather be called Kate. May I call you that?”

“Yes … certainly.”

“I can tell you’ve taken great care with this, Kate. Do you do much typing in Spanish?”

“Some. I’m taking one Spanish literature course, on the Generation of ’98. The last thing I typed was a paper about Ramon del Valle Inclán. Your work is radically different, to say the least.”

“Have you read Valle Inclán’s Sonatas?” He gave me another one of his piercing stares.

“All four of them; he’s one of my favorite Spanish authors.”

“Mine, too. His Sonata de Otoño is a gem; it’s a pity Valle Inclán’s not better known outside Spain.”

He took a sheaf of papers from the corner of his desk and handed them to me. “Here’s the next installment, far less interesting than the exploits of the Marqués de Bradomín, I’m afraid. I’d like you to observe,” he added, “I’ve made a concerted effort to write more legibly.” Unlike the first batch, each page was neatly and laboriously printed.

Dr. Rosenau removed his lab coat and hung it on a peg. Instead of the suit I expected under his professional exterior, I was surprised to see he was wearing a sport shirt and a blue v-necked sweater.

“Are you going back to the residence hall now?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I have some business in Bagley Hall. I’ll only be a minute. Will you join me for a cup of coffee afterwards?”

I hoped my reply sounded as pleased as I felt. Dr. Rosenau put on an overcoat, picked up his umbrella from a stand, and we walked to Bagley, where I waited for him outside. A few minutes later he rejoined me and we continued in near silence toward the Husky Union Building or “HUB.” I was too awed by Dr. Rosenau to say much of anything, but if my monosyllabic conversation made him uneasy, he didn’t show it. I glanced at him once and found him staring at me, but instead of turning away, as I expected, he gave me a long, slow smile, the kind of smile which passes between two people who share a happy secret, and it was I who turned away, blushing.

We were reaching the HUB when Dr. Rosenau broke the silence. “You know, I never eat young ladies on Fridays. Only on Tuesdays.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “Do I look that apprehensive?”

“Yes, rather.” He opened the door for me. “But I have just the cure for you. It’s David Rosenau’s patented shyness remedy, strawberry shortcake garnished with whipped cream, to be taken at least once weekly in charming company. Doctor’s orders.”

Dr. Rosenau brought the cakes and coffee to our table on a tray and sat down, facing me. His lighthearted air gave me the courage to meet his eyes and to smile back at him.

“Thank you,” I said, “for this and for your … kindness.”

Perhaps it was his shyness remedy, or more likely it was Dr. Rosenau himself, but whatever the reason, my usual reserve melted away and I found myself talking to him as if we’d known each other for years. He asked me to tell him about living in Turkey, an ideal choice of subjects, for there was no time in my life so happy as that. I told him about walking through the tall grass on the banks of the Kizilirmak River, scanning the treetops for nesting storks; of sneaking away to “old city,” built in a fortress overlooking Ankara, where I used to eat wild onions and chat with Ahmed, the caretaker of some derelict Roman ruins; I told him about Fikret, a hunchbacked egg seller who saved his best eggs for me, and how he would reach deep into the folds of his clothing to extract, seemingly from under his armpit, one exquisite egg, a specimen, he assured me, of consummate freshness; I told him about taking the bus to the zoo and eating simits, pretzel-like pastries, piping hot and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Dr. Rosenau listened attentively and responded with stories from his own childhood in Argentina.

“I just realized,” I said, when the conversation returned again to Turkey, “you’re the first person I’ve ever told these things to.”

“Why is that?”

“When people ask about your travels they want to know which movie stars you saw on the Via Veneto or how much you paid for gloves in Florence. How can I tell them those things don’t matter to me, that what moved me was the flight of a stork, or how I felt listening to an old man playing the lute? These are things that … that touch the heart. I can’t put these experiences into words. Talking about them is like picking wildflowers in the woods; once you take them to the sunlight they shrivel.”

“Have you ever read anything by Saint Exupéry?”

I’d never heard of Saint Exupéry, but I certainly wasn’t going to admit my ignorance to Dr. Rosenau. I shook my head. “I don’t think so; why?”

“Because what you just said reminded me of him. Saint Exupéry wrote it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“How beautiful! What is it from?”

“Le Petit Prince.”

“I have seen the book, then. My mother has a copy of The Little Prince in English. I read a part of it once when I was a little girl, something about a boa constrictor who swallows an elephant and the adults mistake a drawing of the snake for a hat.”

“Yes, that’s at the beginning. You know, you’re very much like one of the characters in his book.”

“Which one?”

“A fox.”

I looked at him inquiringly.

“When the little prince leaves his asteroid and comes to earth, one of the first creatures he meets is a fox. Since the prince is lonely, he asks the fox to play with him, but the fox refuses because he hasn’t been tamed. He wants to befriend the little prince, of course, but he’s shy and it has to be done in a certain way. So he teaches the little prince how to tame him, by sitting patiently on the grass and getting a bit closer every day.”

“Why does the fox want to make friends with the prince?”

“To create bonds; the fox tells him he’s just one of a hundred thousand boys to him and he’s nothing but one fox out of a hundred thousand foxes to the prince, but if the little prince tames him, then they’ll need each other, and each one will be unique in the world.” He paused. “Do you read French?”

“I can read French, but I can’t speak it.”

“If you’d like, I’ll lend you my copy; I think you’d enjoy reading the story.”

“Yes, I’m sure I would. Thank you very much.”

“Good, I’ll bring the book next Friday. More coffee?”

I smiled to myself thinking of his allegory. Dr. Rosenau was right; I was like the fox, wanting to be tamed, but holding back at the same time.

Dr. Rosenau returned to the table with the coffee. “Speaking of Turkey,” he said, “I have roots in the Near East myself, although I’ve never been there. My mother’s family emigrated from Turkey to Argentina in the late 1800s.”

“You’re half Turkish! I thought you were completely German.”

“Actually, I’m half German and half Spanish Jew. Do you know who the Sephardim are?”

“Aren’t they the Jews that Spain expelled in 1492?”

“That’s right. Most people think Spain forced only the Moslems to leave, but they deported thousands of Jews as well. Even though the Sephardim dispersed throughout Europe and the Near East, they managed to retain their language and culture. My mother’s ancestors settled in Istanbul.”

“Where did your parents meet?”

“In Argentina. Despite the difference in their religions, my father’s closest friend in Germany was a boy named Josef Kirch, who was ordained as a Catholic priest and sent to Peru to do missionary work shortly before Papa graduated from medical school. Do you remember the other day I mentioned spending a summer in Peru with the Shipibo Indians? Father Josef is the man who invited me. When Papa received his degree, he went to South America on vacation to visit his friend, and he never returned to Europe, not even once. He fell in love with Argentina and, instead of going back to Berlin, he decided to open a medical office in a rural town northwest of Buenos Aires, where there was a small German colony. Papa had a huge practice and he was enormously popular with his patients, but he wasn’t too interested in making money; he spent more time lying on his stomach observing ants than he did working in his surgery, much to the dismay of Mama’s family.”

“Was your mother from the same town?”

“No, she grew up in Buenos Aires. When my Uncle Abraham, her oldest brother, was injured in a riding accident out in the country, my father set his leg. They became friends, and Uncle Abraham invited Papa to stay with him the next time my father visited the capital. My mother was about twenty then, and if the old photographs in the family album can be trusted, she was a real beauty. Anyway, Papa came to Buenos Aires on horseback and on the way he spotted a small frog, a species he’d never seen before, so he wrapped it up in damp moss, tied the package with a vine, and put it in his pocket. He was just sitting down on the sofa in the parlor, with all the relatives assembled, when suddenly the frog wriggled free and leaped from Papa’s pocket into my grandmother’s lap. What could he do but make a grab for the little beast, and off it hopped, so Papa went chasing it through the potted palms, the rubber plants, and all the Victorian bric-a-brac, and by the time he’d caught it the room was a shambles. My grandparents were appalled, but Mama was convulsed with laughter. They got married six months later. The frog, incidentally, turned out to be a new species and since Papa had the right to assign its scientific name, he named it for my grandfather, but even that didn’t mollify the old man.”

I laughed at his story. “Were your grandparents ever reconciled to their marriage?”

“Oh, yes. My grandparents never did understand my father, but they changed their minds when they realized how happy my mother was with him, and they positively doted on my younger brother and me. My grandfather arranged for us to attend a boarding school in Buenos Aires – he was afraid we’d turn into a couple of savages out in the country – and he paid for my college education in the United States. Because Papa had his heart set on our studying in Germany, he raised both Daniel and me bilingually, but Germany wasn’t a congenial place for a Jew in those days, so I came here, instead.”

“To Washington?”

“No, to the University of California, in Berkeley.”

“Did your brother also come to the United States?”

“Daniel decided to stay in Argentina and study law…”

“Excuse me, sir, but we’ve got to clean up now.” A young man in a white apron was standing beside our table with a broom in his hand. Dr. Rosenau looked at his watch. “Good heavens, do you realize we’ve been sitting here for more than two hours?” He glanced outside. “It’s pouring and you don’t have an umbrella; I brought mine, so I’ll walk you back to the dorm.”
I wondered if Dr. Rosenau knew how far it was to Blaine Hall; I felt uncomfortable at the thought of his walking all the way there and then returning to the Health Sciences Building in the rain.

“Please don’t go out of your way for me. I’ll be fine.”

Dr. Rosenau helped me on with my coat. “I assure you my motives are completely selfish. I can’t have my typist catching pneumonia; I’m accompanying you to the dormitory despite your objections.” He gave me a sly smile. “I’m trying to tame you; can’t you tell?”

As we were leaving, he pretended to pick up something from the floor and break it over his knee.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m disposing of your ten-foot pole. You won’t need it anymore, will you?”

I smiled. “Not with you, at least.”

We walked in silence toward the residence hall; only the patter of raindrops on Dr. Rosenau’s umbrella and the crunch of gravel intruded on our thoughts. We were passing by the library when Dr. Rosenau stopped, as if he’d suddenly been struck by an idea. “Have you ever been sailing?”

“Once, when we were living in Hawaii. I was nine or ten at the time. Some friends of my parents had a sailboat – I don’t remember how large, but it didn’t have a cabin – and we went out with them one afternoon on Kaneohe Bay.”

“You’d never know by looking at the sky now, but the rain’s supposed to stop and, weather permitting, Frank and I are going sailing tomorrow morning. Would you like to come with us?”

I was speechless with delight. “Why … I’d love to, I really would! Is that your boat, the one in …”

“… the photograph on my desk? Sturmvogel. Yes, she’s mine. Is 9:30 too early? I’ll tell you what. Frank lives about a mile from you; I’ll ask him to pick you up on the way.”

“Can I take something, like food or anything else?”

“No, I’ll bring sandwiches, cookies, and soft drinks. Do you have a pair of tennis shoes?”

I nodded.

“Wear those with heavy socks and dress warmly; it gets chilly on the water in the late afternoon.”

When we reached Blaine Hall and said goodbye, I flew up the steps to my room in a whirl of excitement. I made a mental list of everything I had to do before bedtime – eat dinner, take a shower, wash my hair, iron my clothes, clean my shoes and, if I had time, rush down to a drugstore on University Avenue to buy a boating magazine.

Three hours later, with my chores out of the way, my head wrapped in a towel and a copy of Yachting in my hand, I settled at my desk to read about sailing. I passed quickly over the racing articles with their jargon of “upwind marks,” “lifts,” and “headers,” to concentrate instead on the cruising stories.

Yachting was filled with aggressively attractive people pursuing the good life in Tahiti and other exotic destinations. “Leave your footprints where no one has walked before,” urged one ad for travel in the Caribbean. It took little imagination to picture the two of us strolling barefoot, hand-in-hand on the shore of some tropical island. I was smashing in a white bathing suit that complemented my glowing tan. I’d gone from a brassiere cup A (padded) to a voluptuous C, and Dr. Rosenau was just bending down to kiss me when the phone rang. It was Frank, calling to say he’d pick me up at 9:00 sharp.

I wondered whose idea it was to invite me; had Dr. Rosenau asked me as an afterthought, or had Frank suggested inviting me so he and I could get better acquainted? Was it possible, I hardly dared hope, that Dr. Rosenau himself wanted my company? Finding no answers to my questions, I fell asleep, dreaming of white sands and blue sky.
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