Sunday

DON'T LET IT BE ZACH

It was in the days before Roe versus Wade, and so when her GYN confirmed for Stella that, as she had feared for the past several months, she was indeed pregnant, she wasn’t quite sure what to do. Was the father of the embryo growing inside her at what now felt like breakneck speed her husband Alex? Or Graham Harrison, her boss?
Her indecision in seeking an abortion was compounded by additional factors: although she now had adopted the reformed cum agnostic Judaism of her husband, she was raised in an orthodox family by an angry father who viewed abortion as the quick-fix tool of the sexually wanton; she had heard countless stories, most probably apocryphal, of young women hemorrhaging to death in filthy doctor’s offices across the Hudson in New Jersey; and, finally, although an excellent secretary who could get the president of MacDonalds or Goodyear on the phone for her boss, when it came to figuring out things for herself, like where to get a driver’s license or how to find someone to clean the apartment, she was passive and ineffective.
Stella was a large and fleshy woman, zaftig, and so for the first four months or so it simply looked like she had given in to her body’s natural tendency to put on weight. When getting ready for bed, she would bring her nightie into the bathroom, change in there, then, as she heard Alex clomp into the kitchen for his nightly three Oreo cookies dunked into a half glass of low-fat milk, she would scoot back into the bedroom and be under the covers reading by the time he returned.
Sex, which had at one time been a great pleasure for her, something that made her feel Alex loved her despite his increasingly harsh moodiness, was becoming a chore. She was afraid to turn Alex down, for he would become petulant and silent and the next day blow up at her at the slightest provocation. She would find herself walking on eggshells around him and unsuccessfully at that. But feeling him push inside her had got to the point where it literally hurt, so tense was she at the prospect of the rage he would fly into at finding out she was pregnant. And, of course, the inquisition that would follow.
Another month went by and yet another before Stella found the resolve to make a trip out to an obstetrician named Garbaccio with a small office in the town of Northvale, New Jersey. She laid back on what appeared to be more a couch than an examining table. He put his ungloved hand under her skirt, felt her belly, pushed several fingers inside her, and shook his head. “Sorry, girlie, can’t help you,” he said, “this is a kid already.”
On the bus back along the Palisades, she felt a great calming wave of relief, realizing that she wanted in the worst way to have this child, no matter whose father it was. That night, as she and Alex sat at dinner, he reading the business section of the New York Times, she pretending to read the arts section, Stella broke the silence. “I went to Dr. Diamondstein today.”
Slowly looking up from the paper, Alex grunted. “Yeah?”
Stella froze under his glance, his dark unblinking eyes, his loveless glare. She was unable to get out any words.
“Yeah? So you went to the fucking gynecologist.”
“Gonna have a baby.”
“What!”
“Yep. July 29th.”
“You’re crazy. That’s not even three months away.”
“Dr. Diamondstein says I’m just starting my third trimester.”
Alex was just staring at her, shaking his head. “Did you know?”
Stella shook her head.
“You are so fucking stupid. How could you not know?”
“I – I just thought I was putting on a little weight.”
“You weren’t getting your period?”
“I once went eight months without it.”
Alex turned his head back to the paper. “How the hell did you get pregnant? We use that fucking diaphragm every time.”
“You know how sometimes we screw for awhile before putting it in. Dr. Diamondstein says there’s leakage.”
Alex snorted. “Leakage.” He looked back up at her, fixing her with his eyes. “It’s my kid, isn’t it?”
“Alex, how dare you?”
He stared at her, shaking his head in contempt. “You’re so fucking fat, no one else would want you.” Pushing away the business section, he reached for the sports. “Bring me the cherry vanilla, will you? And you better start looking for a bigger apartment.”
Stella fussed about the kitchen. She had to squelch an impulse to whistle, so thrilled was she to be out from under his scornful glance, so relieved that his reaction had been so mild, so basically free of suspicion. Normally, Alex was jealous to the point of paranoia. Maybe he’s happy to be having a kid, she thought. Closer to the truth, and at the time it never occurred to Stella, was that Alex assumed there would now be no way his wife could fool around with other men, at least for the foreseeable future.
Years later, in analysis, reliving the miserable early years of their marriage, Stella came to realize that her husband’s hostile, battering persona was his attempt, probably unconscious, to terrify her to the point that she wouldn’t even look at another man. It had, of course, the opposite effect.
Zachary Thomas Posnick came two days late, August 1, weighing in at 8 pounds 14 ounces. Alex was there for the birth and surprisingly solicitous and kind as Stella did her La Maze breathing. He put cool washcloths on her forehead and kept feeding her cherry Lifesavers. The baby was born with a great deal of labor pain but no complications.
The attending nurse handed Zach to Alex first, and despite her exhaustion and wooziness, Stella studied her husband’s face with extreme concentration. It was guileless, tender, welcoming.
“Holy cow,” said Dr. Diamondstein, “Baby Posnick is 24 and 1/2 inches long.”
“Is that big?” asked Alex excitedly.
“He’s going to wind up at least 6’ 3”.” Diamondstein checked out the 5’6” Posnick. “Who’s got the height in this family?”
“My Uncle Irv was 6’4” Stella piped up from the delivery table.
“Wow, you hear that, Zachy. 6’ 3”. Kid’s gonna be a killer.” He cradled the baby in his arms, gently peppering its forehead with kisses. And when he handed Zach to Stella, he looked at her with as close to genuine warmth as she had ever seen from him. “Good job,” he whispered. “You really came through for me.”
Even as she pulled the infant to her, Stella was scanning the tiny, scrunched face. She could tell nothing – too red, too wrinkled. But during the next three days it because increasingly clear to her that Zachary was Graham Harrison’s child. And within six months, she was certain of it. Zach was lean and stringy, with outsized hands and feet. His hair was increasingly platinum and his eyes a penetrating blue – all these traits the opposite of the stocky, small-footed, dark-eyed Alex.
But none of it seemed to make any difference, for Posnick’s love for this first-born son, whose ever it was, grew as if in spite of, or rather, enflamed by the differences. On weekends, he took the child with him everywhere, to visit his widowed mother on the other side of the park, to FAO Schwarz in midtown, up to their golf club in Westchester. By the time Zach was three, Posnick had him taking golf lessons.
To Stella, Zach felt more like Alex’s son than her own. It was true that with the little boy’s arrival, Alex was increasingly civil to her. But she felt shut out. And so she began nudging Alex to have another child. Before the arrival of Zach, this would have been a terrifying and perilous venture, during which she would have had to endure a storm of rages and insults. Now he simply resisted for a few months, then early one Sunday morning stopped her from reaching for her diaphragm. “Come on,” he said, “Zachy needs a little brother.”
Andrew was born nine months later, and, unlike his older sibling, looked like Alex’s clone. With this child, Stella made the kind of intense, heedless connection that her husband had for her first-born. Andrew’s hair, his aroma, his short, powerful little body – every aspect of him appealed to her with a delicious, visceral pleasure. The sight of him tottering across the living room as he first learned to walk made her laugh, glow, weep. She was constantly swooping him into her arms to cuddle and nuzzle him, to the point where he would start to gallop away from her.
The two brothers became best friends. Their relationship was not without rivalry, but at school, in the playground, around the neighborhood, they presented a fierce and united front. Zach was the better athlete but milder in temperament. Andrew was pugnacious, like his father quick to anger, never afraid to fight.
On weekends, Alex almost always brought Zach up to the golf club with him. The boy was twelve years old now, slightly over six feet, with the long slender body of many of today’s best golfers. He was good enough to hold his own in the better men’s games, and the son and father were soon known as one of the most competitive teams at the club.
Sometimes Stella would urge Alex to bring Andrew along with them. “Come on,” he’d reply, “he’d just be like a third wheel. What would he do all morning when Zach and I are in a tough match?”
“He could follow you around. I’m sure he’d find it very exciting.”
“Stella, it’d wreck my concentration.”
At that, Stella would leave off, for as much as her heart broke for the younger brother who so clearly wanted to be included, she loved hanging out with him, just the two of them alone. She would bring him to visit her parents, who still lived in Brooklyn. Or she would take him to Bergdorfs or Bendels, where she would station him in a chair near the dressing rooms and try on different outfits.
In the summer following his freshman year at Dalton, Zach won the Westchester Junior Open by four strokes. Posnick caddied for his son during all three rounds. The experience was the single most pleasurable time of his life. The purity of Zach’s shots, the adoration of the crowd for his handsome, long, willowy son, the crumpling of the boy’s opponents – it was far better than if Alex were at the center of it himself. He would stand off at a distance and watch as Zach came off the green and headed toward the next tee, slapping hands with the corridor of spectators wanting to high-five him, nodding at the teenage girls calling out his name, grinning sheepishly at the local newspaper photographers beseeching him to stop for a moment for a snapshot. And he would think, this is my flesh and blood, this six foot three inch natural athlete has sprung from my loins. He would imagine how it would be a decade later, with Zach on the PGA tour, he, Alex, still caddying for his son, the papers writing about this inseparable team, the slender young Jewish pro and his millionaire garmento father slash caddy.
School got out for the summer, and the two boys were shipped up to the Berkshires to an all-boys sports camp with a concentration on golf. Alex and Stella, who had somehow thought they might enjoy the quietude and intimacy of being without their children for the first time in more than a decade, soon felt abandoned, wandering from room to room in the 4,500 square foot apartment and finding themselves completely alone, with no Andrew to tell to get back upstairs and finish his French homework, no Zach to take you stroke by stroke through his last 74, figuring out where the mistakes were, looking for patterns of weakness to form a strategy to correct them.
Stella felt them backsliding into the relationship they had in the earliest days of their marriage, Alex silent, angry, critical, and poised just at the edge of some great fury should she make the slightest judgment of error in discussing the news, the world order, New York City politics. I am a battered woman, she thought, just not the kind they whisk away into shelters. She wanted to fight back, to scream at him that he was a pedantic fussbudget, a patronizing schoolmarm, but she hadn’t the courage or conviction to mount the kind of withering attack she could only fantasize about.
So Stella sat and suffered silently and when they’d finished breakfast and Alex had left for his early morning game up in Westchester, she would take the subway up to Van Cortland Park and take a golf lesson with the little old black pro there – Sammy Phillips. He was as kind and patient as Alex was harsh and dismissive, and Stella blossomed under his teaching. She was a big woman, and Sammy taught her how to rotate her large shoulders to create greater swing speed. She was a quick student and it didn’t take long before she was booming drives well over 200 yards down Van Cortland’s baked and divot-scarred fairways.
The days in upper Manhattan in the middle of August were hot and dusty, but Stella loved the heat and the grime. It made her feel like she was in a Faulkner story amidst all the languorous strands of race and sex, class and alcoholism, time slowed down to a lazy stroll, and nothing all that critical.
Sammy stood behind her, his arms reaching around to hold her wrists, sweeping them back and cocking them for extra power, breathing the scent of rum onto the side of her face, then, suddenly, sweeping her arms down and forward into a shockingly fast and powerful swing. She began driving the ball over 225 yards, and soon after that 240. She couldn’t wait to fly the ball past her diminutive husband.
Thus, the summer drifted on. Alex, when he wasn’t at the office, played golf up in Westchester, and Stella spending her days at Van Cortland, taking lessons from Sammy, picking up games with Latino and black kids and Jewish public school teachers, then having a couple of beers with Sammy in the poor man’s mixed grill, the two of them flirting and talking dirty a bit with Stella wondering if there were any way to sleep with the man without somehow winding up pregnant. Let’s see Alex make a connection to their new half-black child.
On Tuesday morning, August 17th, just as she was getting ready to head up for her lesson at Van Cortland Park, Stella got a call at home from the boys’ camp up in the Berkshires. There had been a terrible accident. The camp van, on its way back from a golf match with Camp Sunapee, had been broadsided by a drunk running a light in a pick up truck. Andrew was in stable condition at Great Barrington Hospital with a compound fracture of his left arm. Zachary died in the ambulance on his way to the hospital.
Alex was on the green of the fifth hole at Metropolis Country Club with his usual Tuesday morning foursome when the starter’s cart appeared in the distance. The golfers could tell it was Mickey’s cart because it was a six-seater with an extra row of seats on the back. No one liked to see his cart approach, even though it usually meant nothing. Most of the time he would zoom on by with a wave, but occasionally he would stop with a message. “Bernie, call your wife at the turn,” or “Alan, pick up a chicken at the deli on your way home.” But sometimes it was important. “Hank, hop in, you’ve got to call home.”
Mickey pulled the cart almost to the edge of the green and waited for Dr. Pressman to stroke his putt. “Alex,” he called out, “Hop in, Stella’s on the phone.”
Alex looked around at his playing partners. “Sorry, guys,” he said bravely.
“Relax,” said Pressman, “It’s probably nothing.”
“What’d you do this time, Posnick?” said Halpern.
“Hurry up, we’ll wait for you on the next tee,” said Schreiner.
Posnick glanced at Mickey’s profile on the ride back to the clubhouse. “What does she want?” he asked, knowing Mickey would reveal nothing.
Mickey simply shook his head. “Don’t know, Alex. Didn’t say.”
As Mickey slowed the cart, Alex jumped off and sprinted the last fifty yards to the starter’s office. He ran inside. The receiver lay on the desk, black and ominous. He took a deep breath, then picked it up and placed it slowly against his ear. “Hello, Stella.”
“Alex,” she screamed through sobs, “the boys were in a terrible accent.”
“Oh, God, please,” he whimpered, “Please don’t let it be Zach. Please.”
“Zach’s dead. Zach was killed. Andrew has a broken leg, and Zach’s dead, Alex.”
He dropped the receiver on the desk and sagged to the floor and curled into fetal position. His body began to heave with sobs.
Stella felt oddly in control and competent during the next several weeks, for Alex was like a zombie. The doctor kept him on a huge dosage of Thorazine. When he wasn’t heavily medicated he was violent, kicking and smashing furniture and paintings, crying hysterically, cursing, howling in the most extraordinary pain. On the Thorazine he simply walked about silently, ghastly dark circles under his eyes, his face ashen. He did not speak and barely grunted when spoken to.
Stella had their friends the Hanrattys drive up to Great Barrington and drive Andrew back home. She arranged with Riverside Chapel to pick up Zach’s body and prepare it for the closed-coffin funeral. She hired the rabbi and spoke to him about Zach and his accomplishments.
The funeral was attended by nearly a thousand people, Dalton classmates, people from the golfing world, at least half the members of Metropolis Country Club. Everyone knew of Zach’s prowess as a golfer, and people wanted to experience the delicious sense of loss that only the funeral of a handsome, sweet, talented teenager with so much promise could provide.
Alex stayed on the Thorazine throughout the funeral and the mourning period that followed and Stella enjoyed taking care of him. He was like an appendage. She imagined him attached to her as a pair of gloves snapped onto a child’s snowsuit.
Her own grief, of course, was substantial. But Andrew was going to be fine. She had always lived in terror that Alex would wake up one day, take a close look at Zach, and realize the boy was not his biological son. Now the evidence was….Stella shuddered at her own callousness.
About two months after the funeral, with Alex slowly beginning to wean himself from the Thorazine, Andrew gently asked his father if he couldn’t come up to the golf course with him.
“No, uh uh,” said Alex, and without further explanation headed out of the apartment.
“Hold on,” said Stella to the boy. She chased after Alex and caught up with him as he was about to step onto the elevator. “Why don’t you take Andrew with you? It’ll do you both some good.”
He closed his eyes, let his head slump forward, and shook it back and forth. “I can’t, I can’t.”
“Why not? His heart’s breaking for you.”
“Don’t make me tell you my real feelings, Stella. It won’t be pretty.”
His voice was forlorn and at the same time chilling, and so Stella let it drop. For she knew that if it had been Andrew who had been killed, she would have had the same murderous feelings toward Zach that Alex was clearly having toward Andrew.

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