Which is something I’ll never have much to do with. Like most hermaphrodites but by no means all, I can’t have children. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never married. It’s one of the reasons, aside from shame, why I decided to join the Foreign Service. I’ve never wanted to stay in one place. After I started living as a male, my mother and I moved away from Michigan and I’ve been moving ever since. In another year or two I’ll leave Berlin, to be posted somewhere else. I’ll be sad to go. This once-divided city reminds me of myself. My struggle for unification, forEinheit . Coming from a city still cut in half by racial hatred, I feel hopeful here in Berlin.
A word on my shame. I don’t condone it. I’m trying my best to get over it. The intersex movement aims to put an end to infant genital reconfiguration surgery. The first step in that struggle is to convince the world—and pediatric endocrinologists in particular—that hermaphroditic genitals are not diseased. One out of every two thousand babies is born with ambiguous genitalia. In the United States, with a population of two hundred and seventy-five million, that comes to one hundred and thirty-seven thousand intersexuals alive today.
But we hermaphrodites are people like everybody else. And I happen not to be a political person. I don’t like groups. Though I’m a member of the Intersex Society of North America, I have never taken part in its demonstrations. I live my own life and nurse my own wounds. It’s not the best way to live. But it’s the way I am.
The most famous hermaphrodite in history? Me? It felt good to write that, but I’ve got a long way to go. I’m closeted at work, revealing myself only to a few friends. At cocktail receptions, when I find myself standing next to the former ambassador (also a native of Detroit), we talk about the Tigers. Only a few people here in Berlin know my secret. I tell more people than I used to, but I’m not at all consistent. Some nights I tell people I’ve just met. In other cases I keep silent forever.
That goes especially for women I’m attracted to. When I meet someone I like and who seems to like me, I retreat. There are lots of nights out in Berlin when, emboldened by a good-value Rioja, I forget my physical predicament and allow myself to hope. The tailored suit comes off. The Thomas Pink shirt, too. My dates can’t fail to be impressed by my physical condition. (Under the armor of my double-breasted suits is another of gym-built muscle.) But the final protection, my roomy, my discreet boxer shorts, these I do not remove. Ever. Instead I leave, making excuses. I leave and never call them again. Just like a guy.
And soon enough I am at it again. I am trying once more, toeing the line. I saw my bicyclist again this morning. This time I found out her name: Julie. Julie Kikuchi. Raised in northern California, graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and currently in Berlin on a grant from the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. But more important, right now: my date for Friday night.
It’s just a first date. It won’t come to anything. No reason to mention my peculiarities, my wandering in the maze these many years, shut away from sight. And from love, too.
The Simultaneous Fertilization had occurred in the early morning hours of March 24, 1923, in separate, vertical bedrooms, after a night out at the theater. My grandfather, not knowing he was soon to be fired, had splurged on four tickets toThe Minotaur , playing at the Family. At first Desdemona had refused to go. She disapproved of theater in general, especially vaudeville, but in the end, unable to resist the Hellenic theme, she had put on a new pair of stockings, and a black dress and overcoat, and made her way with the others down the sidewalk and into the terrifying Packard.
When the curtain rose at the Family Theater, my relatives expected to get the whole story. How Minos, King of Crete, failed to sacrifice a white bull to Poseidon. How Poseidon, enraged, caused Minos’s wife Pasiphaë to be smitten with love for a bull. How the child of that union, Asterius, came out with a bull’s head attached to a human body. And then Daedalus, the maze, etc. As soon as the footlights came on, however, the production’s nontraditional emphasis became clear. Because now they pranced onstage: the chorus girls. Dressed in silver halters, robed in see-through shifts, they danced, reciting strophes that didn’t scan to the eerie piping of flutes. The Minotaur appeared, an actor wearing a papier-mâché bull’s head. Lacking any sense of classical psychology, the actor played his half-human character as pure movie monster. He growled; drums pounded; chorus girls screamed and fled. The Minotaur pursued, and of course he caught them, each one, and devoured her bloodily, and dragged her pale, defenseless body deeper into the maze. And the curtain came down.
In the eighteenth row my grandmother gave her critical opinion. “It’s like the paintings in the museum,” she said. “Just an excuse to show people with no clothes.”
She insisted on leaving before Act II. At home, getting ready for bed, the four theatergoers went about their nightly routines. Desdemona washed out her stockings, lit the vigil lamp in the hallway. Zizmo drank a glass of the papaya juice he touted as beneficial for the digestion. Lefty neatly hung up his suit, pinching each trouser crease, while Sourmelina removed her makeup with cold cream and went to bed. The four of them, moving in their individual orbits, pretended that the play had had no effect on them. But now Jimmy Zizmo was turning off his bedroom light. Now he was climbing into his single bed—to find it occupied! Sourmelina, dreaming of chorus girls, had sleepwalked across the throw rug. Murmuring strophes, she climbed on top of her stand-in husband. (“You see?” Zizmo said in the dark. “No more bile. It’s the castor oil.”) Upstairs, Desdemona might have heard something through the floor if she hadn’t been pretending to be asleep. Against her will, the play had aroused her, too. The Minotaur’s savage, muscular thighs. The suggestive sprawl of his victims. Ashamed of her excitement, she gave no outward sign. She switched off the lamp. She told her husband good night. She yawned (also theatrical) and turned her back. While Lefty stole up from behind.
Freeze the action. A momentous night, this, for all involved (including me). I want to record the positions (Lefty dorsal, Lina couchant) and the circumstances (night’s amnesty) and the direct cause (a play about a hybrid monster). Parents are supposed to pass down physical traits to their children, but it’s my belief that all sorts of other things get passed down, too: motifs, scenarios, even fates. Wouldn’t I also sneak up on a girl pretending to be asleep? And wouldn’t there also be a play involved, and somebody dying onstage?
Leaving these genealogical questions aside, I return to the biological facts. Like college girls sharing a dorm room, Desdemona and Lina were both synchronized in their menstrual cycles. That night was day fourteen. No thermometer verified this, but a few weeks later the symptoms of nausea and hypersensitive noses did. “Whoever named it morning sickness was a man,” Lina declared. “He was just home in the morning to notice.” The nausea kept no schedule; it owned no watch. They were sick in the afternoon, in the middle of the night. Pregnancy was a boat in a storm and they couldn’t get off. And so they lashed themselves to the masts of their beds and rode out the squall. Everything they came in contact with, the bedsheets, the pillows, the air itself, began to turn on them. Their husbands’ breath became intolerable, and when they weren’t too sick to move, they were waving their arms, gesturing to the men to keep away.
Pregnancy humbled the husbands. After an initial rush of male pride, they quickly recognized the minor role that nature had assigned them in the drama of reproduction, and quietly withdrew into a baffled reserve, catalysts to an explosion they couldn’t explain. While their wives grandly suffered in the bedrooms, Zizmo and Lefty retreated to thesala to listen to music, or drove to a coffee house in Greektown where no one would be offended by their smell. They played backgammon and talked politics, and no one spoke about women because in the coffee house everyone was a bachelor, no matter how old he was or how many children he’d given a wife who preferred their company to his. The talk was always the same, of the Turks and their brutality, of Venizelos and his mistakes, of King Constantine and his return, and of the unavenged crime of Smyrna burned.
“And does anybody care? No!”
“It’s like what Bérenger said to Clemenceau: ‘He who owns the oil owns the world.’ ”
“Those damn Turks! Murderers and rapists!”
“They desecrated the Hagia Sophia and now they destroyed Smyrna!”
But here Zizmo spoke up: “Stop bellyaching. The war was the Greeks’ fault.”
“Who invaded who?” asked Zizmo.
“The Turks invaded. In 1453.”
“The Greeks can’t even run their own country. Why do they need another?”
At this point, men stood up, chairs were knocked over. “Who the hell are you, Zizmo? Goddamned Pontian! Turk-sympathizer!”
“I sympathize with the truth,” shouted Zizmo. “There’s no evidence the Turks started that fire. The Greeks did it to blame it on the Turks.”
Lefty stepped between the men, preventing a fight. After that, Zizmo kept his political opinions to himself. He sat morosely drinking coffee, reading an odd assortment of magazines or pamphlets speculating on space travel and ancient civilizations. He chewed his lemon peels and told Lefty to do so, too. Together, they settled into the random camaraderie of men on the outskirts of a birth. Like all expectant fathers, their thoughts turned to money.
My grandfather had never told Jimmy the reason for his dismissal from Ford, but Zizmo had a good idea why it might have happened. And so, a few weeks later, he made what restitution he could.
“Just act like we’re going for a drive.”
“If we get stopped, don’t say anything.”
“This is a better job than the Rouge. Believe me. Five dollars a day is nothing. And here you can eat all the garlic you want.”
They are in the Packard, passing the amusement grounds of Electric Park. It’s foggy out, and late—just past 3A.M. To be honest, the amusement grounds should be closed at this hour, but, for my own purposes, tonight Electric Park is open all night, and the fog suddenly lifts, all so that my grandfather can look out the window and see a roller coaster streaking down the track. A moment of cheap symbolism only, and then I have to bow to the strict rules of realism, which is to say: they can’t see a thing. Spring fog foams over the ramparts of the newly opened Belle Isle Bridge. The yellow globes of streetlamps glow, aureoled in the mist.
“Lot of traffic for this late,” Lefty marvels.
“Yes,” says Zizmo. “It’s very popular at night.”
The bridge lifts them gently above the river and sets them back down on the other side. Belle Isle, a paramecium-shaped island in the Detroit River, lies less than half a mile from the Canadian shore. By day, the park is full of picnickers and strollers. Fisherman line its muddy banks. Church groups hold tent meetings. Come dark, however, the island takes on an offshore atmosphere of relaxed morals. Lovers park in secluded lookouts. Cars roll over the bridge on shadowy missions. Zizmo drives through the gloom, past the octagonal gazebos and the monument of the Civil War Hero, and into the woods where the Ottawa once held their summer camp. Fog wipes the windshield. Birch trees shed parchment beneath an ink-black sky.
Missing from most cars in the 1920s: rearview mirrors. “Steer,” Zizmo keeps saying, and turns around to see if they’re being followed. In this fashion, trading the wheel, they weave along Central Avenue and The Strand, circling the island three times, until Zizmo is satisfied. At the northeastern end, he pulls the car over, facing Canada.
“Why are we stopping?”
“Wait and see.”
Zizmo turns the headlights on and off three times. He gets out of the car. So does Lefty. They stand in the darkness amid river sounds, waves lapping, freighters blowing foghorns. Then there’s another sound: a distant hum. “You have an office?” my grandfather asks. “A warehouse?” “This is my office.” Zizmo waves his hands through the air. He points to the Packard. “And that’s my warehouse.” The hum is getting louder now; Lefty squints through the fog. “I used to work for the railroad.” Zizmo takes a dried apricot out of his pocket and eats it. “Out West in Utah. Broke my back. Then I got smart.” But the hum has almost reached them; Zizmo is opening the trunk. And now, in the fog, an outboard appears, a sleek craft with two men aboard. They cut the engine as the boat glides into the reeds. Zizmo hands an envelope to one man. The other whisks the tarp off the boat’s stern. In moonlight, neatly stacked, twelve wooden crates gleam.
“Now I run a railroad of my own,” says Zizmo. “Start unloading.”
The precise nature of Jimmy Zizmo’s importing business was thus revealed. He didn’t deal in dried apricots from Syria, halvah from Turkey, and honey from Lebanon. He imported Hiram Walker’s whiskey from Ontario, beer from Quebec, and rum from Barbados by way of the St. Lawrence River. A teetotaler himself, he made his living buying and selling liquor. “If theseAmerikani are all drunks, what can I do?” he justified, driving away minutes later.
“You should have told me!” Lefty shouted, enraged. “If we get caught, I won’t get my citizenship. They’ll send me back to Greece.”
“What choice do you have? You have a better job? And don’t forget. You and I, we have babies on the way.”
So began my grandfather’s life of crime. For the next eight months he worked in Zizmo’s rum-running operation, observing its odd hours, getting up in the middle of the night and having dinner at dawn. He adopted the slang of the illegal trade, increasing his English vocabulary fourfold. He learned to call liquor “hooch,” “bingo,” “squirrel dew,” and “monkey swill.” He referred to drinking establishments as “boozeries,” “doggeries,” “rumholes,” and “schooners.” He learned the locations of blind pigs all over the city, the funeral parlors that filled bodies not with embalming fluid but with gin, the churches that offered something more than sacramental wine, and the barbershops whose Barbicide jars contained “blue ruin.” Lefty grew familiar with the shoreline of the Detroit River, its screened inlets and secret landings. He could identify police outboards at a distance of a quarter mile. Rum-running was a tricky business. The major bootlegging was controlled by the Purple Gang and the Mafia. In their beneficence they allowed a certain amount of amateur smuggling to go on—the day trips to Canada, the fishing boats out for a midnight cruise. Women took the ferry to Windsor with gallon flasks under their dresses. As long as such smuggling didn’t cut into the main business, the gangs allowed it. But Zizmo was far exceeding the limit.
They went out five to six times a week. The Packard’s trunk could fit four cases of liquor, its commodious, curtained backseat eight more. Zizmo respected neither rules nor territories. “As soon as they voted in Prohibition, I went to the library and looked at a map,” he said, explaining how he’d gotten into the business. “There they were, Canada and Michigan, almost kissing. So I bought a ticket to Detroit. When I got here, I was broke. I went to see a marriage broker in Greektown. The reason I let Lina drive this car? She paid for it.” He smiled with satisfaction, but then followed his thoughts a little further and his face darkened. “I don’t approve of women driving, mind you. And now they get to vote!” He grumbled to himself. “Remember that play we saw? All women are like that. Given the chance, they’d all fornicate with a bull.”
“Those are just stories, Jimmy,” said Lefty. “You can’t take them literally.”
“Why not?” Zizmo continued. “Women aren’t like us. They have carnal natures. The best thing to do with them is to shut them up in a maze.”
“What are you talking about?”
Zizmo smiled. “Pregnancy.”
It was like a maze. Desdemona kept turning this way and that, left side, right side, trying to find a comfortable position. Without leaving her bed, she wandered the dark corridors of pregnancy, stumbling over the bones of women who had passed this way before her. For starters, her mother, Euphrosyne (whom she was suddenly beginning to resemble), her grandmothers, her great-aunts, and all the women before them stretching back into prehistory right back to Eve, on whose womb the curse had been laid. Desdemona came into a physical knowledge of these women, shared their pains and sighs, their fear and protectiveness, their outrage, their expectation. Like them she put a hand to her belly, supporting the world; she felt omnipotent and proud; and then a muscle in her back spasmed.
I give you now the entire pregnancy in time lapse. Desdemona, at eight weeks, lies on her back, bedcovers drawn up to her armpits. The light at the window flickers with the change of day and night. Her body jerks; she’s on her side, her belly; the covers change shape. A wool blanket appears and disappears. Food trays fly to the bedside table, then jump away before returning. But throughout the mad dance of inanimate objects the continuity of Desdemona’s shifting body remains at center. Her breasts inflate. Her nipples darken. At fourteen weeks her face begins to grow plump, so that for the first time I can recognize theyia yia of my childhood. At twenty weeks a mysterious line starts drawing itself down from her navel. Her belly rises like Jiffy Pop. At thirty weeks her skin thins, and her hair gets thicker. Her complexion, pale with nausea at first, grows less so until there it is: a glow. The bigger she gets, the more stationary. She stops lying on her stomach. Motionless, she swells toward the camera. The window’s strobe effect continues. At thirty-six weeks she cocoons herself in bedsheets. The sheets go up and down, revealing her face, exhausted, euphoric, resigned, impatient. Her eyes open. She cries out.
Lina wrapped her legs in putties to prevent varicose veins. Worried that her breath was bad, she kept a tin of mints beside her bed. She weighed herself each morning, biting her lower lip. She enjoyed her new buxom figure but fretted about the consequences. “My breasts will never be the same. I know it. After this, just flaps. Like in theNational Geographic. ” Pregnancy made her feel too much like an animal. It was embarrassing to be so publicly colonized. Her face felt on fire during hormone surges. She perspired; her makeup ran. The entire process was a holdover from more primitive stages of development. It linked her with the lower forms of life. She thought of queen bees spewing eggs. She thought of the collie next door, digging its hole in the backyard last spring.
The only escape was radio. She wore her earphones in bed, on the couch, in the bathtub. During the summer she carried her Aeriola Jr. outside and sat under the cherry tree. Filling her head with music, she escaped her body.
On a third-trimester October morning, a cab pulled up outside 3467 Hurlbut Street and a tall, slender figure climbed out. He checked the address against a piece of paper, collected his things—umbrella and suitcase—and paid the driver. He took off his hat and stared into it as though reading instructions along the lining. Then he put the hat back on and walked up onto the porch.
Desdemona and Lina both heard the knocking. They met at the front door.
When they opened it, the man looked from belly to belly.
“I’m just in time,” he said.
It was Dr. Philobosian. Clear-eyed, clean-shaven, recovered from his grief. “I saved your address.” They invited him in and he told his story. He had indeed contracted the eye disease favus on theGiulia . But his medical license had saved him from being sent back to Greece; America needed physicians. Dr. Philobosian had stayed a month in the hospital at Ellis Island, after which, with sponsorship from the Armenian Relief Agency, he had been admitted into the country. For the last eleven months he’d been living in New York, on the Lower East Side. “Grinding lenses for an optometrist.” Recently he’d managed to retrieve some assets from Turkey and had come to the Midwest. “I’m going to open a practice here. New York has too many doctors already.”
He stayed for dinner. The women’s delicate conditions didn’t excuse them from domestic duties. On swollen legs they carried out dishes of lamb and rice, okra in tomato sauce, Greek salad, rice pudding. Afterward, Desdemona brewed Greek coffee, serving it in demitasse cups with the brown foam, thelakia , on top. Dr. Philobosian remarked to the seated husbands, “Hundred-to-one odds. Are you sure it happened on the same night?”
“Yes,” Sourmelina replied, smoking at the table. “There must have been a full moon.”
“It usually takes a woman five or six months to get pregnant,” the doctor went on. “To have you two do it on the same night—a-hundred-to-one odds!”
“Hundred-to-one?” Zizmo looked across the table at Sourmelina, who looked away.
“Hundred-to-one at least,” assured the doctor.
“It’s all the Minotaur’s fault,” Lefty joked.
“Don’t talk about that play,” Desdemona scolded.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Lina.
“I can’t look at you?” asked her husband.
Sourmelina let out an exasperated sigh and wiped her mouth with her napkin. There was a strained silence. Dr. Philobosian, pouring himself another glass of wine, rushed in.
“Birth is a fascinating subject. Take deformities, for instance. People used to think they were caused by maternal imagination. During the conjugal act, whatever the mother happened to look at or think about would affect the child. There’s a story in Damascene about a woman who had a picture of John the Baptist over her bed. Wearing the traditional hair shirt. In the throes of passion, the poor woman happened to glance up at this portrait. Nine months later, her baby was born—furry as a bear!” The doctor laughed, enjoying himself, sipping more wine.
“That can’t happen, can it?” Desdemona, suddenly alarmed, wanted to know.
But Dr. Philobosian was on a roll. “There’s another story about a woman who touched a toad while making love. Her baby came out with pop eyes and covered with warts.”
“This is in a book you read?” Desdemona’s voice was tight.
“Paré’sOn Monsters and Marvels has most of this. The Church got into it, too. In hisEmbryological Sacra, Cangiamilla recommended intrauterine baptisms. Suppose you were worried that you might be carrying a monstrous baby. Well, there was a cure for that. You simply filled a syringe with holy water and baptized the infant before it was born.”
“Don’t worry, Desdemona,” Lefty said, seeing how anxious she looked. “Doctors don’t think that anymore.”
“Of course not,” said Dr. Philobosian. “All this nonsense comes from the Dark Ages. We know now that most birth deformities result from the consanguinity of the parents.”
“From the what?” asked Desdemona.
“From families intermarrying.”
Desdemona went white.
“Causes all kinds of problems. Imbecility. Hemophilia. Look at the Romanovs. Look at any royal family. Mutants, all of them.”
“I don’t remember what I was thinking that night,” Desdemona said later while washing the dishes.
“I do,” said Lina. “Third one from the right. With the red hair.”
“I had my eyes closed.”
“Then don’t worry.”
Desdemona turned on the water to cover their voices. “And what about the other thing? The con . . . the con . . .”
“Yes. How do you know if the baby has that?”
“You don’t know until it’s born.”
“Why do you think the Church doesn’t let brothers and sisters get married? Even first cousins have to get permission from a bishop.”
“I thought it was because . . .” and she trailed off, having no answer.
“Don’t worry,” Lina said. “These doctors exaggerate. If families marrying each other was so bad, we’d all have six arms and no legs.”
But Desdemona did worry. She thought back to Bithynios, trying to remember how many children had been born with something wrong with them. Melia Salakas had a daughter with a piece missing from the middle of her face. Her brother, Yiorgos, had been eight years old his whole life. Were there any babies with hair shirts? Any frog babies? Desdemona recalled her mother telling stories about strange infants born in the village. They came every few generations, babies who were sick in some way, Desdemona couldn’t remember how exactly—her mother had been vague. Every so often these babies appeared, and they always met with tragic ends: they killed themselves, they ran off and became circus performers, they were seen years later in Bursa, begging or prostituting themselves. Lying alone in bed at night, with Lefty out working, Desdemona tried to recall the details of these stories, but it was too long ago and now Euphrosyne Stephanides was dead and there was no one to ask. She thought back to the night she’d gotten pregnant and tried to reconstruct events. She turned on her side. She made a pillow stand in for Lefty, pressing it against her back. She looked around the room. There were no pictures on the walls. She hadn’t been touching any toads. “What did I see?” she asked herself. “Only the wall.”
But she wasn’t the only one tormented by anxieties. Recklessly now, and with an official disclaimer as to the veracity of what I’m about to tell you—because, of all the actors in my midwestern Epidaurus, the one wearing the biggest mask is Jimmy Zizmo—I’ll try to give you a glimpse into his emotions that last trimester. Was he excited about becoming a father? Did he bring home nutritive roots and brew homeopathic teas? No, he wasn’t, he didn’t. After Dr. Philobosian came to dinner that night, Jimmy Zizmo began to change. Maybe it was what the doctor had said regarding the synchronous pregnancies. A-hundred-to-one odds. Maybe it was this stray bit of information that was responsible for Zizmo’s increasing moodiness, his suspicious glances at his pregnant wife. Maybe he was doubting the likelihood that a single act of intercourse in a five-month dry spell would result in a successful pregnancy. Was Zizmo examining his young wife and feeling old? Tricked?
In the late autumn of 1923, minotaurs haunted my family. To Desdemona they came in the form of children who couldn’t stop bleeding, or who were covered with fur. Zizmo’s monster was the well-known one with green eyes. It stared out of the river’s darkness while he waited onshore for a shipment of liquor. It leapt up from the roadside to confront him through the Packard’s windshield. It rolled over in bed when he got home before sunrise: a green-eyed monster lying next to his young, inscrutable wife, but then Zizmo would blink and the monster would disappear.
When the women were eight months pregnant, the first snow fell. Lefty and Zizmo wore gloves and mufflers as they waited on the shore of Belle Isle. Nevertheless, despite his insulation, my grandfather was shivering. Twice in the last month they’d had close calls with the police. Sick with jealous suspicions, Zizmo had been erratic, forgetting to schedule rendezvous, choosing drop-off points with insufficient preparation. Worse, the Purple Gang was consolidating its hold on the city’s rum-running. It was only a matter of time before they ran afoul of it.
Meanwhile, back on Hurlbut, a spoon was swinging. Sourmelina, legs bandaged, lay back in her boudoir as Desdemona performed the first of the many prognostications that would end with me.
“Tell me it’s a girl.”
“You don’t want a girl. Girls are too much trouble. You have to worry about them going with the boys. You have to get a dowry and find a husband—“
“They don’t have dowries in America, Desdemona.”
The spoon began to move.
“If it’s a boy, I’ll kill you.”
“A daughter you’ll fight with.”
“A daughter I can talk to.”
“A son you will love.”
The spoon’s arc increased.
“It’s . . . it’s . . .”
“Start saving money.”
“Lock the windows.”
“Is it? Is it really?”
“Get ready to fight.”
“You mean it’s a . . .”
“Yes. A girl. Definitely.”
“Oh, thank God.”
. . . And a walk-in closet being cleaned out. And the walls being painted white to serve as a nursery. Two identical cribs arrive from Hudson’s. My grandmother sets them up in the nursery, then hangs a blanket between them in case her child is a boy. Out in the hall, she stops before the vigil light to pray to the All-Holy: “Please don’t let my baby be this thing a hemophiliac. Lefty and I didn’t know what we were doing. Please, I swear I will never have another baby. Just this one.”
Thirty-three weeks. Thirty-four. In uterine swimming pools, babies perform half-gainers, flipping over headfirst. But Sourmelina and Desdemona, so synchronized in their pregnancies, diverged at the end. On December 17, while listening to a radio play, Sourmelina removed her earphones and announced that she was having pains. Three hours later, Dr. Philobosian delivered a girl, as Desdemona predicted. The baby weighed only four pounds three ounces and had to be kept in an incubator for a week. “See?” Lina said to Desdemona, gazing at the baby through the glass. “Dr. Phil was wrong. Look. Her hair’s black. Not red.”
Jimmy Zizmo approached the incubator next. He removed his hat and bent very close to squint. And did he wince? Did the baby’s pale complexion confirm his doubts? Or provide answers? As to why a wife might complain of aches and pains? Or why she might be conveniently cured, in order to prove his paternity? (Whatever his doubts, the child was his. Sourmelina’s complexion had merely stolen the show. Genetics, a crapshoot, entirely.)
All I know is this: shortly after Zizmo saw his daughter, he came up with his final scheme. A week later, he told Lefty, “Get ready. We have business tonight.”
And now the mansions along the lake are lit with Christmas lights. The great snow-covered lawn of Rose Terrace, the Dodge mansion, boasts a forty-foot Christmas tree trucked in from the Upper Peninsula. Elves race around the pine in miniature Dodge sedans. Santa is chauffeured by a reindeer in a cap. (Rudolph hasn’t been created yet, so the reindeer’s nose is black.) Outside the mansion’s gates, a black-and-tan Packard passes by. The driver looks straight ahead. The passenger gazes out at the enormous house.
Jimmy Zizmo is driving slowly because of the chains on the tires. They’ve come out along E. Jefferson, past Electric Park and the Belle Isle Bridge. They’ve continued through Detroit’s East Side, following Jefferson Avenue. (And now we’re here, my neck of the woods: Grosse Pointe. Here’s the Starks’ house, where Clementine Stark and I will “practice” kissing the summer before third grade. And there’s the Baker & Inglis School for Girls, high on its hill over the lake.) My grandfather is well aware that Zizmo hasn’t come to Grosse Pointe to admire the big houses. Anxiously, he waits to see what Zizmo has in mind. Not far from Rose Terrace, the lakefront opens up, black, empty, and frozen solid. Near the bank the ice piles up in chunks. Zizmo follows the shoreline until he comes to a gap in the road where boats launch in summer. He turns in to it and stops.
“We’re going over the ice?” my grandfather says.
“Easiest way to Canada at the moment.”
“Are you sure it will hold?”
In response to my grandfather’s question, Zizmo only opens his door: to facilitate escape. Lefty follows suit. The Packard’s front wheels drop onto ice. It feels as if the entire frozen lake shifts. A high-pitched noise follows, as when teeth bear down on ice cubes. After a few seconds, this stops. The rear wheels drop. The ice settles.
My grandfather, who hasn’t prayed since he was in Bursa, has the impulse to give it another go. Lake St. Clair is controlled by the Purple Gang. It provides no trees to hide behind, no side roads to sneak down. He bites his thumb where the nail is missing.
Without a moon, they see only what the insectile headlamps illuminate: fifteen feet of granular, ice-blue surface, crisscrossed by tire tracks. Vortices of snow whirl up in front of them. Zizmo wipes the fogged windshield with his shirt sleeve. “Keep a lookout for dark ice.”
“That means it’s thin.”
It’s not long before the first patch appears. Where shoals rise, lapping water weakens the ice. Zizmo steers around it. Soon, however, another patch appears and he has to go in the other direction. Right. Left. Right. The Packard snakes along, following the tire tracks of other rumrunners. Occasionally an ice house blocks their path and they have to back up, return the way they came. Now to the right, now the left, now backward, now forward, moving into the darkness over ice as smooth as marble. Zizmo leans over the wheel, squinting toward where the beams die out. My grandfather holds his door open, listening for the sound of the ice groaning . . .
. . . But now, over the engine noise, another noise starts up. Across town on this very same night, my grandmother is having a nightmare. She’s in a lifeboat aboard theGiulia . Captain Kontoulis kneels between her legs, removing her wedding corset. He unlaces it, pulls it open, while puffing on a clove cigarette. Desdemona, filled with embarrassment at her sudden nakedness, looks down at the object of the captain’s fascination: a heavy ship’s rope disappears inside her. “Heave ho!” Captain Kontoulis shouts, and Lefty appears, looking concerned. He takes the end of the rope and begins pulling. And then:
Pain. Dream pain, real but not real, just the neurons firing. Deep inside Desdemona, a water balloon explodes. Warmth gushes against her thighs as blood fills the lifeboat. Lefty gives a tug on the rope, then another. Blood spatters the captain’s face, but he lowers his brim and weathers it. Desdemona cries out, the lifeboat rocks, and then there’s a popping sound and she feels a sick sensation, as if she’s being torn in two, and there, on the end of the rope, is her child, a little knot of muscle, bruise-colored, and she looks to find the arms and cannot, and she looks to find the legs and cannot, and then the tiny head lifts and she looks into her baby’s face, a single crescent of teeth opening and closing, no eyes, no mouth, only teeth, flapping open and shut . . .
Desdemona bolts awake. It’s a moment before she realizes that her actual, real-life bed is soaked through. Her water has broken . . .
. . . while out on the ice the Packard’s headlamps brighten with each acceleration, as more juice flows from the battery. They’re in the shipping lane now, equidistant from both shores. The sky a great black bowl above them, pierced with celestial fires. They can’t remember the way they came now, how many turns they took, where the bad ice is. The frozen terrain is scrawled with tire tracks leading in every possible direction. They pass the carcasses of old jalopies, front ends fallen through the ice, doors riddled with bullet holes. There are axles lying about, and hubcaps, and a few spare tires. In the darkness and whirling snow, my grandfather’s eyes play tricks on him. Twice he thinks he sees a phalanx of cars approaching. The cars toy with them, appearing now in front, now to the side, now behind, coming and going so quickly he can’t be sure if he saw them at all. And there is another smell in the Packard now, above leather and whiskey, a stringent, metallic smell overpowering my grandfather’s deodorant: fear. It’s right then that Zizmo, in a calm voice, says, “Something I always wondered about. Why don’t you ever tell anyone that Lina is your cousin?”
The question, coming out of the blue, takes my grandfather off guard. “We don’t keep it a secret.”
“No?” says Zizmo. “I’ve never heard you mention it.”
“Where we come from, everybody is a cousin,” Lefty tries to joke. Then: “How much farther do we have to go?”
“Other side of the shipping lane. We’re still on the American side.”
“How are you going to find them out here?”
“We’ll find them. You want me to speed up?” Without waiting for a reply, Zizmo steps on the accelerator.
“That’s okay. Go slow.”
“Something else I always wanted to know,” Zizmo says, accelerating.
“Jimmy, be safe.”
“Why did Lina have to leave the village to get married?”
“You’re going too fast. I don’t have time to check the ice.”
“Why did she leave? There was no one to marry. She wanted to come to America.”
“Is that what she wanted?” He accelerates again.
“Jimmy. Slow down!”
But Zizmo pushes the pedal to the floor. And shouts, “Is it you!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Is it you!” Zizmo roars again, and now the engine is whining, the ice is whizzing by underneath the car. “Who is it!” he demands to know. “Tell me! Who is it?” . . .
. . . But before my grandfather can come up with an answer, another memory comes careening across the ice. It is a Sunday night during my childhood and my father is taking me to the movies at the Detroit Yacht Club. We ascend the red-carpeted stairs, passing silver sailing trophies and the oil portrait of the hydroplane racer Gar Wood. On the second floor, we enter the auditorium. Wooden folding chairs are set up before a movie screen. And now the lights have been switched off and the clanking projector shoots out a beam of light, showing a million dust motes in the air.
The only way my father could think of to instill in me a sense of my heritage was to take me to dubbed Italian versions of the ancient Greek myths. And so, every week, we saw Hercules slaying the Nemean lion, or stealing the girdle of the Amazons (“That’s some girdle, eh, Callie?”), or being thrown gratuitously into snake pits without textual support. But our favorite was the Minotaur . . .
. . . On the screen an actor in a bad wig appears. “That’s Theseus,” Milton explains. “He’s got this ball of string his girlfriend gave him, see. And he’s using it to find his way back out of the maze.”
Now Theseus enters the Labyrinth. His torch lights up stone walls made of cardboard. Bones and skulls litter his path. Bloodstains darken the fake rock. Without taking my eyes from the screen, I hold out my hand. My father reaches into the pocket of his blazer to find a butterscotch candy. As he gives it to me, he whispers, “Here comes the Minotaur!” And I shiver with fear and delight.
Academic to me then, the sad fate of the creature. Asterius, through no fault of his own, born a monster. The poisoned fruit of betrayal, a thing of shame hidden away; I don’t understand any of that at eight. I’m just rooting for Theseus . . .
. . . as my grandmother, in 1923, prepares to meet the creature hidden in her womb. Holding her belly, she sits in the backseat of the taxi, while Lina, up front, tells the driver to hurry. Desdemona breathes in and out, like a runner pacing herself, and Lina says, “I’m not even mad at you for waking me up. I was going to the hospital in the morning anyway. They’re letting me take the baby home.” But Desdemona isn’t listening. She opens her prepacked suitcase, feeling among nightgown and slippers for her worry beads. Amber like congealed honey, cracked by heat, they’ve gotten her through massacres, a refugee march, and a burning city, and she clicks them as the taxi rattles over the dark streets, trying to outrace her contractions . . .
. . . as Zizmo races the Packard over the ice. The speedometer needle rises. The engine thunders. Tire chains rooster-tail snow. The Packard hurtles into the darkness, skidding on patches, fishtailing. “Did you two have it all planned?” he shouts. “Have Lina marry an American citizen so she could sponsor you?”
“What are you talking about?” my grandfather tries to reason. “When you and Lina got married, I didn’t even know I was coming to America. Please slow down.”
“Was that the plan? Find a husband and then move into his house!”
The never-failing conceit of Minotaur movies. The monster always approaches from the direction you least expect. Likewise, out on Lake St. Clair, my grandfather has been looking out for the Purple Gang, when in reality the monster is right next to him, at the wheel of the car. In the wind from the open door, Zizmo’s frizzy hair streams back like a mane. His head is lowered, his nostrils flared. His eyes shine with fury.
“Who is it!”
“Jimmy! Turn around! The ice! You’re not looking at the ice.”
“I won’t stop unless you tell me.”
“There’s nothing to tell. Lina’s a good girl. A good wife to you. I swear!”
But the Packard hurtles on. My grandfather flattens himself against his seat.
“What about the baby, Jimmy? Think about your daughter.”
“Who says it’s mine?”
“Of course it’s yours.”
“I never should have married that girl.”
Lefty doesn’t have time to argue the point. Without answering any more questions, he rolls out the open door, free of the car. The wind hits him like a solid force, knocking him back against the rear fender. He watches as his muffler, in slow motion, winds itself around the Packard’s back wheel. He feels it tighten like a noose, but then the scarf comes loose from his neck, and time speeds up again as Lefty is thrown clear of the auto. He covers his face as he hits the ice, skidding a great distance. When he looks up again, he sees the Packard, still going. It’s impossible to tell if Zizmo is trying to turn, to brake. Lefty stands up, nothing broken, and watches as Zizmo hurtles crazily on into the darkness . . . sixty yards . . . eighty . . . a hundred . . . until suddenly another sound is heard. Above the engine roar comes a loud crack, followed by a scintillation spreading underfoot, as the Packard hits a dark patch on the frozen lake.
Just like ice, lives crack, too. Personalities. Identities. Jimmy Zizmo, crouching over the Packard’s wheel, has already changed past understanding. Right here is where the trail goes cold. I can take you this far and no further. Maybe it was a jealous rage. Or maybe he was just figuring his options. Weighing a dowry against the expense of raising a family. Guessing that it couldn’t go on forever, this boom time of Prohibition.
And there’s one further possibility: he might have been faking the whole thing.
But there’s no time for these ruminations. Because the ice is screaming. Zizmo’s front wheels crash through the surface. The Packard, as gracefully as an elephant standing on its front legs, flips up onto its grille. There’s a moment where the headlamps illuminate the ice and water below, like a swimming pool, but then the hood crashes through and, with a shower of sparks, everything goes dark.
At Women’s Hospital, Desdemona was in labor for six hours. Dr. Philobosian delivered the baby, whose sex was revealed in the usual manner: by spreading the legs apart and looking. “Congratulations. A son.”
Desdemona, with great relief, cried out, “The only hair is on his head.”
Lefty arrived at the hospital soon thereafter. He had walked back to shore and hitched a ride on a milk truck home. Now he stood at the window of the nursery, his armpits still rank with fear, his right cheek roughened by his fall on the ice and his lower lip swollen. Just that morning, fortuitously, Lina’s baby had gained enough weight to leave the incubator. The nurses held up both children. The boy was named Miltiades after the great Athenian general, but would be known as Milton, after the great English poet. The girl, who would grow up without a father, was named Theodora, after the scandalous empress of Byzantium whom Sourmelina admired. She would later get an American nickname, too.
But there was something else I wanted to mention about those babies. Something impossible to see with the naked eye. Look closer. There. That’s right: