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Next: THE MAGIC CHALK Up: No Title Previous: PITUH-PLAYS


When I was in high school I got to know a strange, smart girl named Leah Moses. She had coarse black hair, an oily complexion, and wore thick glasses. Though she had independently styled her appearance like the girls in our group--long hair, no makeup--she was never accepted as a member of our circle. No one else could stand her because she was such a pretentious intellectual snob. Bart and Nicole and I were the only ones who ever spent any time with Leah at all. Partly, the three of us felt sorry for her. Leah was truly an outcast, not one by choice, like Vicky. Nor were her frumpy clothes an affectation, as Ann's were; Leah's family was poor, she could not afford to dress any other way. But we didn't associate with her only out of pity; we were entertained by the outrageous things she said.

Leah claimed she had a serious and physically intimate relationship with a wealthy and titled English athlete-scholar named Neville Asquith-Smythe. She was always telling us how handsome and well-built Neville was. He was a brilliant college philosophy major. Leah often attended classes with him at the university, and went on at length about his explanations of Hegel and Kant. It was odd that she was never able to produce Neville, and our friends in college knew of no English Philosophy major, nor had they ever seen Leah at any philosophy lectures.

Leah bragged a lot about her older sister Ze'eva, (she never neglected to pronounce the apostrophe), who had been three years ahead of us in high school, was recognized by all as the most brilliant and beautiful student in her class, and now lived on a kibbutz in Israel and fought on the front lines in the Israeli army. Beginning to be suspicious, I asked Vera Lermontov about Leah's sister when Vera was home from college. Vera was three years ahead of us and had known everyone in high school. She said nobody named Ze'eva Moses had been in her class, or in any classes for several years before or after hers, and proved it by showing me her yearbooks.

On the few occasions when Bart and Nicole and I invited Leah to do something with us on a Friday evening, she always refused. Leah said she was a member of an advanced folk dancing group that practiced on Fridays and often performed in public. She couldn't miss a single rehearsal. The director of the group, she told us, was an exceptionally attractive man in his 20's named Russell Davidson, who was independently wealthy because his family owned the Davidson Brothers shoe company. ``Russ,'' as Leah called him, was married, but he was always making passes at her anyway when he picked her up in his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. Of course, he never picked her up in his Rolls Royce at school, or anyplace else where we might actually lay eyes on it.

Leah said she was a concert calibre soprano. Bart and Nicole and I asked her why she didn't sing in the chorus. Leah was insulted by the question, explaining loftily, as though it should have been obvious to us, that the little amateur high school group was beneath her. She had recently sung the demanding role of the Witch of Endor in a professional production of a difficult Hindemith opera at the university theater. She described her elaborate costume in detail. I mentioned this to a friend of my parents who had been the music critic for the newspaper for the last twenty years. He said that opera had never been produced here.

Bart and Nicole and I didn't confront Leah with these proofs of her pathological lying. To do so would have been cruel and--even worse--embarrassing. It might have been different if Leah's stories were destructive to others; in fact, the only person they hurt was Leah herself.

But once, after we'd been hearing about folk dancing and Russ and his Rolls Royce for several months, Bart couldn't resist saying, ``Gee, this Friday folk dancing thing sounds like fun. You think we could ever come too?''

``I doubt it,'' Leah said with predictable haste. ``It is a very exclusive and professional group. They're extremely selective about who they allow to participate; they have to be.''

Privately, the three of us wondered what Leah really did on Friday evenings. If she didn't stay at home alone, we figured she was probably forced by her elderly parents to attend religious services or visit even more elderly relatives.

But two weeks after Bart had asked Leah if we could go to folk dancing, Leah phoned me on Friday afternoon to say that Russ had generously granted her permission to invite three of her more mature and sophisticated friends that night--just this once, of course--and she felt Bart and Nicole and I were the only ones who would prove acceptable.

I was very surprised that Leah had invited us; she had never suggested introducing us to her non-existent boy-friend, or showed us photographs of her imaginary sister, or invited us to her mythical operatic performances. Why would Leah volunteer to expose her lies and humiliate herself in this case? I told her I'd think about it, hung up and called Nicole and Bart, who were both at Nicole's house. Nicole's interpretation was that Leah probably knew we were going to a party that night to which she had not been invited. Asking us to her imaginary folk dancing group was safe, since she certainly did not expect us to skip the party to go with her. Leah's phone call was nothing but a feeble attempt to improve her credibility.

``What do you think she'd do if we did agree to go?'' I wondered.

``It might be interesting to see what kind of excuse she'd come up with,'' Bart said. ``Why don't you tell her we accept?''

I was reluctant to put Leah on the spot, but I was also curious. And it wouldn't be so embarrassing to do this to her over the phone. I called Leah back, and nodded knowingly to myself when she said that unfortunately Russ was not picking her up in his Rolls that night after all. It was so irritatingly predictable that I couldn't keep from saying, ``So you weren't really inviting us?''

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone, as I expected. But I was not prepared when Leah asked if one of us could get a car tonight. She didn't have access to a car, but she knew the way. I said sure, and slowly hung up, wishing I hadn't accepted. We would miss the party. And probably all that would happen was that Leah would pretend to get lost, and we'd just drive around aimlessly, listening to more of her stories. Nicole and Bart felt the same way. But it was too late to back out now.

We didn't get lost; Leah gave Bart excellent directions. We could hardly believe it when she pointed out an old warehouse downtown and told him to park at the next space he could find. As we walked back toward the building there was no need for her to draw our attention to the gigantic and gleaming Rolls Royce Silver Cloud reposing majestically in front of the shabby, unlit doorway. No one could not have noticed that car. We exchanged glances of amazement. None of us had ever seen a vehicle like that in our lives.

Lively ethnic music in a minor key grew louder as we climbed the four dingy flights of metal stairs. Leah pushed open a door on a landing lit by an unadorned lightbulb and stepped inside. We shyly followed her into a large room with bare walls and a scuffed wooden floor. Unfamiliar instruments tooted and trilled rhythmically from a phonograph in one corner equipped with two large, expensive looking speakers.

A group of about a dozen people, college age and older, danced in a line holding hands. The women had long hair and no makeup, and wore bright peasanty skirts and blouses. Many of the men had beards and all wore jeans and T-shirts--except one, who stood out from the rest in black trousers and turtleneck. He was tall and very lean, with short hair and no beard or mustache, and danced at the head of the line, leading the others along.

Their feet moved in complicated patterns, hopping occasionally, jumping back and then forward again, as the line snaked around the room. Sometimes the leader would lower his head and glide underneath two other dancers' joined hands, pulling the line around and through itself. Everyone was sweating and smiling. The leader never missed a beat, one arm held above his head, his face lifted almost ecstatically as his feet breezed through the intricate steps. Some of the others, I was relieved to see, stumbled at times, losing count, looking down at their feet, their mouths moving silently as though repeating instructions. They were too involved to pay any attention to our arrival. Leah ran out onto the floor, grabbed the hand of the person at the end of the line, and plunged skillfully into the dance--though being short and chunky, she wasn't particularly graceful.

When the music ended they all dropped hands and began talking and laughing, wiping their brows and catching their breath. The leader rushed to take the needle off the record. Then Leah introduced us to Russ, and his wife Maria.

Russ wasn't nearly as handsome as Leah had described him, but he was good-looking enough, with a narrow face and a long jaw. He didn't say much; he was clearly eager to get on with the next dance, and hurried back to the phonograph. Maria, who had thin brown hair and a round face and wore a knitted shawl, was very gracious. She said in a gentle voice that she was glad to meet Leah's friends, was happy we had come, and told us it was really easier than it looked and she hoped we'd have a good time. ``Do Mayim next, Russ,'' she called over to him. ``That's the best one to get people started on. It's an Israeli dance, about water,'' she said quietly again to us. ``You'll catch on right away. Come on.''

Though we were awkward and self-conscious at first, Mayim did turn out to be pretty easy. You did a few simple steps around in a circle, then ran into the center and back with your arms raised during the chorus, chanting ``Mayim'' along with the singers on the record. We felt breathless and invigorated when it was over, and even more invigorated at the end of the evening, after stumbling through, and eventually learning, more complex dances. ``Please come back,'' Maria said as though she meant it, and even Russ nodded encouragingly in his inarticulate way. ``Feel free to bring other friends too--the more people, the more fun it is,'' Maria urged us.

It occured to me to ask Leah why she had told us this group was so exclusive and that the leaders were reluctant for her to bring anybody, when in fact they were clearly eager for more participants. But I was in such high spirits that I didn't feel like pinning Leah down--especially because Leah did not seem to share our ebullience, but was strangely silent on the way home.

Vicky was intrigued when I told her how much fun folk dancing had been, and described to her the seemingly far-out, counter-cultural people who had been there--not to mention the incredible Rolls Royce. Vicky was also somewhat incredulous that dumpy Leah, who pathetically invented all those stories about herself, would actually be involved in anything so interesting. But she was free the next Friday and decided to give it a try. She asked Ann and Emily to come too, as insurance, in case it did turn out to be boring. I invited Dave, and Nicole asked Matilda to come.

It didn't occur to me to mention any of this to Leah, though I was thoughtful enough to ask her, at school on Friday, if she needed a ride that night.

``A ride?'' she said, as though she didn't know what I meant.

``Yeah. To folk dancing.''

``You're coming back?'' she said, a funny expression on her face. ``All three of you?''

``Sure. You saw what a good time we had. And Vicky and Ann and Emily and Dave and Matilda are coming too.''

``But . . .'' Leah's eyes swam around behind her thick glasses. She didn't know what to say.

``It's okay, isn't it?'' I asked her. ``Maria told us to bring more people. She said the more the better.''

Leah lifted her chin. ``Thanks, but I don't need a ride,'' she said. ``Russ is picking me up in the Rolls.'' It wasn't his Rolls now; it was ''the Rolls.''

``I know this is going to be boring,'' Ann kept saying grumpily, all the way downtown. She stopped complaining when she saw the Rolls Royce, parked grandly in the same spot it had occupied the week before. Since Leah wasn't with us now, we took our time examining it, peering through the smoked windows at the lush leather and teakwood interior, stroking its flanks, murmuring words of awe. It was awhile before we tore ourselves away and clomped up the stairs.

Again we arrived in the middle of a dance. But this time some of the dancers--though not Leah--turned and looked when so many new and unfamiliar faces appeared at the door. Russ Davidson, I noticed, rapt though he was, glanced several times at Emily, without missing a step. And when the dance was over he zipped right over and actually articulated an entire sentence to us, his eyes on Emily.

With more of our friends there we had an even better time than we had the week before. Russ was very patient about teaching us steps to dances that the old hands already knew, focusing his attention on Emily, who learned quickly and was quite graceful, with her slender body and long pale hair. Leah made it clear, by looking the other way and tapping her plump foot, that she already knew these dances perfectly. She also spent more time talking to the other people there than to us. It briefly occured to me that she must have enjoyed her unique position as the youngest member of the group--a group that had clearly accepted her, as no group of her contemporaries at school did. But I never got around to mentioning this thought to Nicole; I was too preoccupied with other people to think much about Leah.

Leah was pleasant enough to us afterwards, smiling and waving when she got into the Rolls with Russ and Maria. As Russ pulled away, he looked back several times at Emily.

We brought more people the next week; now our friends outnumbered the original dancers. We also began to get to know some of these people; holding hands and dancing with them broke the ice quickly. Afterwards, Maria suggested going to a coffee house in a hip nightclub area in the city. Emily, Ann and Vicky rode in the Rolls, though Leah made sure to claim the front seat. Maria was happy to ride with us.

We had fun at the coffee house, where there was a folk singer. Emily's older brother Chuck, who was taking a semester off from Harvard, borrowed the entertainer's guitar and played a few songs himself; the rest of us--except for Leah--sang along with him. Leah seemed bored by the singing, preferring to fill me in on Neville's latest theories about Wittgenstein. But Maria Davidson was very impressed with Chuck's skill. Russ Davidson sat next to Emily, speaking little himself, but listening closely to everything she had to say. It was flattering that these wealthy, youthful and bohemian adults seemed to enjoy spending time with us. It became a pattern to go to the coffee house with the Davidsons after folk dancing. Now we couldn't wait for Friday nights.

After this had been going on for a month or so, Maria telephoned and invited Vicky and me to come to their house for dinner on Saturday--she had invited Chuck and Emily too. ``But, uh, maybe you better not say anything about this to Leah,'' Maria cautioned us. We assured her we wouldn't. We were thrilled by the invitation, and couldn't wait to see what their house was like.

It was not the mansion we had anticipated, but a spacious modern split-level in a subdivision. Maria was savvy enough to figure we had expected something showier from people with Russ's kind of money. ``Russ's family has an estate,'' she explained, ``but that kind of place isn't for us. It's stuffy, with all those servants hovering around.'' She managed to say this without sounding the least bit pretentious, perhaps because of the gentle way she spoke.

We sat in the living room before dinner; Russ played folk dancing records. Batik prints and other folk art hung on the walls; bright woven rugs were scattered over the oak floors. The furniture was Danish Modern, and a lot of it matched. Unlike our parents, who furnished their houses with second-hand stuff, the Davidsons had obviously just gone to expensive stores and bought whatever they wanted.

They were very informal and relaxed. Maria didn't go to a lot of trouble over the food. We had overdone steaks and baked potatoes with margarine and frozen vegetables. Russ, as usual, didn't say much, but Maria was a lively conversationalist. We talked about folk music, and movies and novels, and Maria asked us about our families and friends.

It was Maria who brought up the subject of Leah. ``What did Leah tell you about us?'' she asked casually, adjusting her shawl.

Vicky, Chuck and Emily turned to me. I was the only one who knew Leah very well. I wasn't sure what to say. I wanted the Davidsons to like me and find me witty, and it would be easy to put Leah down in an amusing way. But they were apparently friends with her; if I were critical of Leah it might offend them. ``She told us how much fun folk dancing was. And she did mention Russ's family business--and the Rolls Royce.''

Maria leaned forward with what seemed to be a conspiratorial smile. ``Did you believe her?'' she asked me in her soft, breathy voice.

It would have been an odd question--about anybody other than Leah. I remembered that Maria had specifically asked us not to tell Leah they had invited us here. Maybe I didn't have to be too careful after all. ``I didn't believe a word,'' I said.

Maria laughed. I seemed to have said the right thing. ``You'd already heard all about Ze'eva then?'' she said, cleverly imitating Leah's pronunciation of the apostrophe.

I nodded. ``Then I asked a friend who was in what Leah said was Ze'eva's high school class. She'd never heard of her--and there was no Ze'eva in any of her yearbooks.''

Maria glanced at Russ, then back to me. ``It's interesting that you found actual proof. We just assumed that Ze'eva inhabited the same world as Neville Asquith-Smythe.''

``And the Witch of Endor,'' I eagerly put in. ``I also have proof that opera has never been performed here. God, I was so surprised when it turned out that you two, and folk dancing and the Rolls Royce, actually existed.''

This time Russ laughed too. Maria shook her hair back. ``Well, we couldn't believe it when you guys started showing up either. We were beginning to suspect that Leah had no friends at all outside that imaginary universe of hers.''

``How did you get to know Leah?'' Emily asked.

``She just showed up at folk dancing, almost a year ago, I guess. She found out about the group somehow. She seemed interesting--the things she told us about herself were a little more subtle at first. Then, after we were better friends with her, the stuff she told us got wilder and we began to put two and two together. You have to admit, she can be entertaining.''

There was a certain edge to Maria's voice now; I wondered if there might be any truth to Leah's remark about Russ making passes at her. But later, Maria did not seem the least bit concerned at how close Russ was sitting to Emily, his arm along the back of the couch almost touching Emily's shoulder. On the way home Chuck mentioned that he was sure Maria had been flirting with him. If Maria had some gripe against Leah, it didn't seem to have anything to do with jealousy over her husband.

We didn't tell Leah that, more and more often, certain of us had dinner at the Davidson's, or that the Davidsons began showing up at parties of ours that Leah was not invited to. She didn't need to have it spelled out for her. It was obvious, simply from our chumminess at folk dancing, that the Davidsons had become part of a group that had never included Leah.

The Davidsons got to know our parents. Mom thought Maria was interesting and intelligent enough. She was baffled by Russ, who hardly ever said anything, and when he did, it was always about folk dancing. ``All that money,'' Mom said, wistfully shaking her head, ``and all he can think of to do with it is buy that car, and run a folk dance group.''

There were now so many of our cronies at folk dancing that the downtown loft room was no longer big enough. It was also inconveniently located for the majority of the participants. Russ made arrangements with a Jewish community center in our suburb, which was more attractive and had a lot more space. After the move, even more kids began to show up. The pituh-people had always gone to something called ``Wigwam'' on Friday nights, where they danced to rock music; now we oddballs had our own equivalent. It was in my Junior year that folk dancing became an official high school club, with a very crowded picture in the yearbook. Leah did not come to be photographed.

It was Emily these days, not Leah, who was driven to folk dancing in ``the Rolls'' (as we referred to it now). Russ was fair, and gave everyone a chance to experience it at one time or another; Emily was the constant. He even began picking us up at school; it was intensely satisfying that all the pituh-people hanging out in front of the building, like Steve Kamen, often saw us getting into that car. Leah never seemed to be around when this happened.

It was the smoothest and most silent car any of us had ever ridden in. The seats were wonderfully plush. We loved opening the teakwood bar in the back seat and pretending we were actually drinking as we floated along--though Russ, who had no interest in alcohol, never bothered to keep it stocked. He had no interest in his executive position at the shoe company either, though he dutifully appeared there and made the motions five days a week. Folk dancing was his single passion.

Leah still came to folk dancing, though she was now only a minor participant, no longer included when we went out afterwards. We didn't discuss folk dancing with Leah, and she never brought it up. When Bart and Nicole and I had time to talk to her, she regaled us with increasingly elaborate stories. We heard about her cousin, the wealthy and critically acclaimed novelist (whose books were only published in Hebrew, of course, and not available in this country). We heard how Neville had proposed to her, wanting to make her Lady Asquith-Smythe, despite his parents' objections that she was an American and a commoner. But Leah was keeping him dangling; she wasn't sure she wanted to live in England, because of the climate. Anyway, she told us, she had taken advanced placement tests and had already been admitted, with large scholarships, to Radcliffe and Smith and Stanford, though she was only a Junior. Once Leah disappeared for a week, telling us afterward that she had been in Israel at Ze'eva's wedding to a famous Israeli film star and director. Leah then mentioned that a long poem she had written had been accepted by a prestigious literary magazine, and would be published at some undisclosed point in the future.

Now I was able to report these stories to Maria. Her laughter was always unusually brittle when we spoke of Leah. I did comment on this reaction to Nicole. ``I think the Davidsons must have gone out of their way to be friendly to Leah at first,'' she said somewhat pensively. ``Like maybe they trusted her in some way, and now Maria feels insulted that Leah kept feeding her these lies. You can sort of understand it, in a way. Poor Leah.''

``Leah doesn't feed them to her now,'' I said. ``I get the feeling the Davidsons hardly ever talk to her at all any more.''

``Poor Leah,'' Nicole said again. She took a long time adjusting her glasses.

Naturally no one believed Leah when she said she had decided to accept Stanford's offer and would be going to college a year early. But when the rest of us began our senior year, Leah wasn't around--though it took awhile for anybody to notice. I checked with the guidance counselor, who confirmed that Leah had in fact placed out of her senior year in high school and was now at Stanford. We were all amazed--not because Leah wasn't smart enough, but because she had been telling the truth.

``It seems kind of silly to me,'' Mom said. ``Why rush things like that? Your high school years are important. You might as well take the time to enjoy them while you can.''

There are more stories about the Davidsons and some wild parties we had, stories about Russ and Emily, and Maria and Chuck. But they seem less important to me now than Leah's stories.

I wrote to Nicole, who was then a foreign student in Italy, about Leah's sudden departure for college. ``I think she'll be happier there,'' Nicole wrote back. ``No wonder she wanted to get away. She had only one good thing in high school--and she lost it.''

next up previous
Next: THE MAGIC CHALK Up: No Title Previous: PITUH-PLAYS

Daniel Sleator
Wed Jan 14 17:24:59 EST 1998