“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“It doesn’t happen all at once…You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby…..”
— Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
I stopped editing Michael when he came closest to his underlying truth. Without it, he would not have lasted, or been able to give me what I needed. I gradually wrote his story over many years, refining and editing while in bed, on public buses, during station wagon rides to family vacations, in classrooms – until he was all that I needed him to be. The shadows of earlier versions are barely visible only to me, like the texture of under-layers of paint on a finished canvas.
In 1965 or so, a young diplomat from Eastern Europe came to America. He was of vague royal ancestry and tall, with a hint of Asia around the eyes and cheekbones. Though most embassy staff was required to share an apartment, his parents had ensured that he would have his own. During his lunch hours, he liked to escape the embassy compound to wander downtown, through museums and public gardens, wherever conversations were not expected. On the second floor of a sculpture gallery one day, he almost tripped over an American. She was sitting on the floor with her legs inconsiderately extended, and well camouflaged against the walls in Bohemian white pants and blouse. She was sketching the wire sculpture he had been focused on, and looked up when he interrupted her line of sight. She was tanned and glowing, dark hair off her forehead and flowing nearly to her waist. Her eyes were hazel and unnervingly still and wide. She smiled and apologized. He stopped to talk.
She met him to take car trips for the day out into the countryside. At night, he played clarinet for her on the fire escape of his apartment, and gently twisted her hair while she talked to dinner guests. Six months later, they were married. That he claimed no religion of his own made the Jewish ceremony easier to negotiate. Her parents having died, she was given away by her best friend from college. After the wedding they moved into a larger apartment, near a conservatory and paths down to the park.
The baby was born a year later.
When Michael was two years old, they moved back to his father’s baroque capital in Europe. They lived in a four story townhouse in the city center, not far from the grandparents. While Michael’s mother learned her new language, she spoke to him in English. At his eye level, she stuck small squares of paper on objects around the house, some with their English names, some with their Hebrew names. They made a treasure hunt of it once a week. During days, she strolled with him around the cobblestone streets and rode old trolley cars that crisscrossed town. They stopped at the market for produce and bread, plus a stale loaf to crumble and toss to geese on the river.
But nights were his favorite. Then his father came home. After dinner, they would answer the doorbell and leave the lock open as visitors came. There was a physicist and sociology professors from the university, an older man who told long stories, and artists who hovered around his mother. But he particularly adored the musicians. They coaxed his father to bring out the clarinet, and someone sat down at the piano with Michael in his lap and played that way with his arms spreading and bouncing up and down the keys on either side of Michael’s waist. On the weekends, grandparents and an uncle came for supper, a more formal affair, and the adults stayed up late to talk wile Michael fell asleep on the third floor.
When Michael was nine, his parents dropped him off on a Saturday morning for piano lessons at his teacher’s house, and then went off arm in arm for a stroll. When they had not returned by one o’clock in the afternoon, his piano teacher called the house. The housekeeper came to bring him home. As night fell, she called the grandparents and together they alerted the police. The officers came within the hour, and took careful notes but made no promises. The housekeeper helped him into bed.
On the second day, the housekeeper was instructed to walk Michael to school. When he came home, the police had returned and so had his grandparents. They had found his parents’ bodies floating downstream in the river, not far from one another, with no evidence of trauma. The bun of his mother’s hair was still intact. On the fifth day, Michael counted hats in the church at the memorial service, and walked with his grandmother at the head of the funeral procession. On the seventh day, he arrived on the front stoop of his uncle’s townhouse. He had with him two valises, a box of school books, and his father’s clarinet case. Inside the case, wrapped in the scrap of leather his father used to clean the instrument, still supple and fragrant from linseed oil, was his mother’s wedding ring.