Donald Freed
International Playwright
and Master Teacher

The Gossamer Thread (Work in Progress)

By Jenni Silberstein 

             After my grandmother Isabella’s paralyzing stroke, which had distorted her once heart-shaped face causing her left cheek and lips to sag in a half-frown, after they had amputated her right gangrened leg to prevent further decay of her body tissue, after she had laid in that Los Angeles nursing home for almost eight months starring glassy eyed at the nondescript rows of ficus trees outside her small window, my grandmother gradually repositioned her gaze toward me, reaching up her thin fingers in an slow, determined motion, her plastic IV tubes following her movement like an obedient puppet string still attending to her retired marionette.

            Since her stroke eight months ago, there had been no recognition of visitors, little movement and no direct eye contact. Her colorless, mechanized hospital bed had become her premature coffin, as if she had already died and any automated movements such as blinking, swallowing or her beating heart were not arising from her own doing but from the IV and feeding tube that kept her alive.

            Yet her definitive glance, the upward motion in her fingers, her unswerving gesture interrupted her lengthy catatonic state. In one extraordinary flash, the coffin dissolved and I could almost hear the familiar sound of her robust laughter.

            Quickly I rise from the cold metal chair next to her bed. “Grandmother?” “Grandmother?” It’s Jessica. Jessica!” My voice sounds agitated, shaky and it feels strange to hear it erupt like this in her boxy room.  “Do you need something?” I am standing above her looking at her eyes, which are still glued to mine.  “Can I get you something?” She lingers there in this gaze as if she were an infant ogling at her mother. I search for a hint of recognition in her watery eyes, behind layers of medication, grief and loss. Like an inexperienced puppeteer, I move around the room frantic to reconnect with her ancient strings, searching for her coordinating parts, hopelessly trying to find her again.

Mein vogelfeder,” I heard her say, “Vogelfeder”

I pause, trying to take in this muddled sound, which I know is a German string of words.  “Mein vogel…feder. Is that what you said?” I am sitting next to her now on her stiff bed holding her limp hand. She still stares through me, her marbled eyes distant, anxious. I watch them frozen in their sockets, itching to roll out into her mouth to relay her critical message. Yet, there is nothing more. She lays unresponsive once again like the lifeless marionette in that cold, sterile room, while the unpleasant smell of antiseptic medicines dangles through the air. “I need to call my mother,” I sigh, as the puppet’s eyes fight not to close.

“What?” my mother can’t hear the phrase as I repeat it to her, driving away from the nursing home.  “I can’t understand it.”  I imagine her brow furrowing as she shakes her head sadly, already resigned to the fact that her mother-in-law is no longer capable of any kind of coherent thought, let alone annunciated word.

Vogelfeder. Vogelfeder.”  I hang up with my mom and pull over to the side of the road, googling the German translation of the word. My arms hurts. Carpal tunnel from too many therapy notes. “What is it? What was it?”

You see, there were two camps. The ones who believed that she saw those dismal ficus trees and the others who believed that they were irrelevant. The ones that knew that she was somehow lucid and aware and the ones that believed she was already dead.  My father and I on one side and my mother and my sister on the other. Two camps. After that single gesture and those final words, I knew that all this time she had taken in my face, my words, those silly songs I used to sing to make her smile; her lack of movement and recognition were simply her defense against her current tragic existence, her body dead yet her mind still alive, inching toward death like an inoperative steam locomotive on her way to the end of the line. I can still see her staring at those dismal ficus trees. She had seen them. She was aware of their existence even if they were mere blurs of green blended and digested into fragmented shards hidden somewhere in her unconscious beneath disjointed memories of her life before Auschwitz and her life after.  And deep in the recesses of her mind, somewhere there had been a spark, an ignition that was turned on, a memory, something crucial, a key to her forgotten past.  Mein Vogelfeder.  Yet the other camp only saw her suffering. She was no longer a self or sentient being with the ability to think, feel, speak and understand.

Later the camps would take their stand and fight about whether to continue her life support or let her go - my father and myself, unable to end her life, my mother and Tanya on the other side, adamant that we were prolonging her misery. She saw those ficus trees. She knew I came to visit every Sunday and that I held her hand and read passages to her from her favorite authors – Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.  Yet the other camp felt that my efforts were in vain, as if I were attempting to awaken the dead, rouse a soul who had long since sunk beneath the soil, which housed those dismal trees.

And so with those final words and her last breath, which soon followed, the two camps were silenced and thrust into the cruel, soundless, evolutionary funnel of time, which gave no answers, which left all of us agape with questions bubbling furiously on our tongues.

A few days later, the air felt wet, thick. It was raining as I watched the funeral workers lower her actual coffin into the ground. Gone were the anti-septic odors of her disinfected hospital room. A new smell loomed in the air. It smelled like nothingness. The rabbi recited a blessing as a hollow question mark drooped mockingly above her grave, begging me to decipher her final words. My jaw was throbbing where it closed as if somebody had screwed the joints together too tightly. Everything felt like it was melting, blurring together. Cars whizzed by as I wistfully envied their casual oblivion. They came and went every few seconds as my father pursed his lips and wet tears pooled in his solemn eyes. I stared at him and my mom dressed in dark suits, uncustomary uniforms for them both. My sisters, Tanya and Mia stood next to them, both transfixed on the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. This was our first family funeral. We didn’t really know how to act and there was a weird formalness to the whole thing that felt awkward and staged.

There were hundreds of ficus trees surrounding the graveyard all standing completely still and unnoticed.  As I became aware of their presence, it was as if I beheld all of history, silent, undetected bodies paying homage to my grandmother. There they were, staring back at me, humble and unrecognized, just as they had stared back at my grandmother and as she had stared at them.  As we looked downward at the shiny box beneath our feet I started to think that perhaps those trees, perhaps all trees, and all of nature are the third camp, silent witnesses of human conflict, of our incessant need to be right and to lay claim to the answers behind the hidden mystery.

Google had showed that “vogelfeder” meant “feather” in English.  “Feather? Why feather?” I closed my eyes as the rabbi talked about my grandmother’s bravery during her time in Auschwitz, her plight to South Africa and finally to the United States.  I imagined her eyes, now closed back in their sockets as I noticed a morning dove perched on the ficus tree branch, his pencil-point eyes staring at me like an intuitive laser. He flew away as I suddenly remembered the dream I had last night.  It was about a familiar creature, a Winged Being that I had seen in my dreams ever since I was a little girl growing up in South Africa. This time, the flying creature had landed on some sort of ancient trunk, opening and closing her colossal wings, beckoning me to open it. As the creature departed, I heard the gentle voice of my grandmother whispering over and over again, “Open it, my dear. Open it.”

For once, my animated and lively family had nothing to say. Their eyes met the ground as their shoes crunched sorrowfully against the leaves, creating low, scratchy sounds in the otherwise silent graveyard. Their methodical footsteps felt almost as empty as Isabella’s death. I imagined her warm body methodically removed from that stiff hospital bed, her lifeless hand still outstretched, now lying beneath the indifferent soil. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone.  I took a deep breath but couldn’t get enough air. I hugged my parents and sisters and told them I needed some time alone. I could feel my mom and Tanya raising an eyebrow to this, but I didn’t care. I headed over to my car, started the ignition and pulled away from the graveyard. I had no idea where I was going. Maybe someplace where feathers fell?

As I got on Wilshire Blvd., I picked up my cell and glanced at the empty passenger seat. I reached my hand out and found myself clenching my fist and banging the seat. “You asshole!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. Surprised by my anger but not caring I went on. “Why aren’t you here?” I looked at myself in the rearview mirror. My mascara was a mess, running down half my face. “Because you didn’t invite him,” I said aloud to my reflection. “What the hell do you want, Jessica? This isn’t his fault! Make up your mind!”

A few nights before, I had had an interaction with my fiancé Nick that again caused me to question my decision to move forward with marriage. A friend of mine had invited us to an art exhibit involving a group of self-portraits by a now elderly artist, who had painted himself from age three to age eighty-three. Alongside the portraits were cards featuring the memories and psychological interpretations of each portrait by the artist. I had walked around the exhibit, carefully studying each portrait while engaging in a fascinating conversation with the incredibly hip artist, who wore a turquoise bolo tie around his neck. As he was discussing the portrait he had painted after his beautiful wife Lillian had passed away, I spotted Nick in a corner, texting on his phone and not even looking at the paintings.  Taking a deep breath I continued to listen to the artist talk about his love for his wife, how she simply understood his passion and need to create. Inspired by their seemingly idyllic connection, I excused myself from the captivating artist and walked over to Nick.

When he saw me approaching, he put his phone away. A boyish smile, slightly guilty emerged on his face.  “Hi Jess.”

 “Hi. Are you enjoying the exhibit?”

“It’s alright. Are you almost ready to go?”

 “No!”

“I’m starving. Can I take you to dinner sweetheart?”

After glancing at a few more paintings together, we left the gallery. I’m not hungry in the least.  My stomach hurts.

I had stared out the window of his Volvo. My bottom foot was arched as it shook my crossed leg up and down, over and over in a rhythmical fashion. He looked over at me like a confused chimpanzee then put his hand on my leg as if trying to stop me from being agitated. “What’s wrong?”

I didn’t know how to react. I had wanted to scream but I didn’t know exactly why. I was thinking, “You’re wrong. This is wrong. Everything’s wrong.” But I told him “I don’t know” and the silence ensued.

We had sat across from each other eating lentil soup, he whispered, “You’re beautiful” as he reached for my hand underneath the table. I pulled away from him, taking a deep breath. “ I love you,” he said, almost desperately. 

I shook my head and asked. “Do you?” He kept nodding.

“Why?”

“Because I do.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re amazing. That’s why. You’re a sweet person. And you’re sexy.”  As he said this I asked myself what my problem was, why I couldn’t accept his compliments, his love.

I tried to focus on how much he loved me, then I said, “But you don’t even know me. You don’t even want to know me. You just love me because it makes you feel better.”

“What?” his toned changed. “What are you talking about?”

“You just say these lists of things about me that you love but you don’t know anything about me, really. Like how much I loved that art exhibit or why I spend all this time figuring out what makes people who they are, what makes them tick.”

He sighed, taking another bite of his soup, which was now cold. “I just love you. I admire who you are.”

I took a deep breath. “Thank you,” I said not wanting to get into a fight with someone who means so well. But I can’t help it. This is going to be my marriage partner. “Admiration isn’t love,” I said. 

He was starting to look annoyed.  “You are tough, Jessica. Nothing is good enough for you.”

I backed down. I did love him. I didn’t want to screw this up. What was my problem? I reached over to him and took his hand as the chimpanzee smiled widely. “Can I put him back in his cage?” I think to myself.

A few days later after the funeral, I am in between patients at my office, busy trying to straighten out my uncharacteristically cluttered desk. It’s 1:48. I have 12 minutes to make a dent in the growing piles filled with patient files, insurance forms, unread mail and other miscellaneous documents. I still can’t get that dream about the Winged Being out of my mind.  And those last words. Mein Vogelfeder. The being was still perched on her trunk, her massive feathers opening and closing, her familiar eyes staring through me.  Breath in. Let it out. I can do this. First file. Casey Winters. I haven’t seen her in a couple of months. The last session we had was spent talking about her frustration of not being able to have an orgasm with her new boyfriend. I don’t want to lose control in front of him, she had said. I will never lose control in front of a man again. Where does this file go? My phone rings. God Dammit. I just want some peace. I don’t feel like talking to anyone. The caller ID - it’s my mother.  Where does this goddamned file go?  The ringing subsides and then begins again. What the hell does she want? I’m trying to work. I pick it up without saying hello, still staring at the file.

“Jess?” “Hello? Jess?”

“Hello.”

“What are you doing?”

I finally find the W’s. Winters.  Stash the file in between the other W clients. Will she ever have an orgasm again? Probably not if she quits therapy. “What, mom. I’m trying to get some work done.”
            “I’m just checking on you. We didn’t see you after the funeral. We all missed you back at the house.”

Another file. Don Montgomery. Sex addict. Writer. I only saw him for a few sessions. He was intense.

“I’m fine.” Silence - on her end.

“Are you sure?” After him, no more sex addicts. I need to lie down. Take my heels off. The red light is on. What time is it? My patients have already arrived.  They’re early. 1:53.

“I don’t know.”

Her eyebrows are rising on the other end of the line.  God dammit. My mother - the Jungian analyst. My ambiguous answer of “I don’t know” has left me open for dissection.  Those analysts. They take no prisoners.  They’ll eat you alive before they let you get away with saying “I don’t know.” Silence.

“What do you mean?”

The red light is still on. It’s 1:55. “I’ve been having those dreams again about the Winged Being.”  A dream. She’s salivating. I’ve opened the door. I’ve opened my door. Why? Why did I do that? She’s in my office. I’m on the couch. Her legs are crossed and she’s staring at me, ruthless and concentrated. The small Roman numeral clock ticks on my side table. I only have three minutes before I have to get up and welcome the couple in the waiting room on the verge of divorce. It’s 1:57.

“What’s your take on the dream?”  Casual. Watch out.

“I’m not sure. I am being called, being asked to do something.”  She arches her back. Claws sharpen. Here it goes. Her inevitable interpretation. The red light glares at me. It’s 2:01. I am never late for my patients.

“Even as a child you were incredibly sensitive and intuitive. You recognized the racial tension in South Africa and knew we needed to leave. I’ve told you this before that it’s possible that the Winged Being arose from your unconscious as a sort of archetype you invented to escape the growing conflict.”

My heels are back on. I’m up. I need to get off the phone. It’s 2:03.

 “And now,” she hesitates, then full steam,“ I wonder if this image is coming up again because you want to fly away from your upcoming marriage with Nick.” 

It’s 2:05. I disguise my anger and anxiety.

 “What? This has nothing to do with Nick. It’s about a trunk that Grandmother told me to open. “Open it. Open it” she had said in the dream. It’s something I need to figure out.”  Again silence. Then a text. “Dr. Goffstein. It’s Sherry Chaiken. We’re in the waiting room. Just letting you know.” Shit. “Mom?”

“I’m going to hand the phone to your father,” she says. I respond to the text. “Thank you Sherry. I will be right with you.”   It’s 2:08.

“Hi Jess.”

“Hi Dad. What’s mom telling you?

“ You had a dream about Isabella and a trunk?”

“Yes.”

“Well. There….actually is a trunk. But a few years ago, she had told us not to open it. She was very private about certain things.”

“What? What the hell? Are you kidding?” 2:09. “I have to go. They are going to leave.”

“Who?”

“My clients. I’m late. I’m never late for my sessions.” Another text. “Dr. Goffstein. Do I have our appointment time down correctly? It’s 2:09.”

“You have clients right now?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are you talking to your mother and why did she hand the phone to me? She, if anyone would understand if you had clients.”

“Dad. Where is it? Where’s the trunk?”

 “It’s been sitting in our airplane hanger ever since we helped her clear out her apartment. Strange that you would dream about a trunk.” Pause. Then - my mom again. “Jess. We’ll talk about it later. You should go and see your clients.”  I hang up.  Like I don’t fucking know that.

Deep breath. Shake it off. Compose yourself.  Stare through the peephole into the waiting room. I am never late. Sherry Chaiken is always early. Her eyes, beady and black stare through the door.  She is pissed. He’s on his iPhone. Could give a damn.   One last breath. Open door. Trivial conversation. Apologies for being 10 minutes late.  Last client had an emergency.  Couldn’t be helped.

Opposite ends of the couch. They hate each other almost as much as I hate sitting here right now.  I want to go to that airplane hanger. There is a trunk. There is an actual trunk!

Composed. “Who would like to begin?”

She stares at me, not sure if she should bite my head off or his.  She’s a rattlesnake. He’s a drunk rat.  “I always go first.” She stares at him with disgust. “Harold, can you put that phone away. Jesus! We are paying for this.”

He stares up at me, pleading for me to cut off her rattle. Slay the snake. End his misery. His left eye is slightly crossed. “I don’t know what to say, really.”

 

My dad. I remember when he first purchased that airplane hanger to store his AT-6 warbird.  The story about his miraculous discovery of the same airplane he had flown during his days of service in the war was printed in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Dr. Mike Goffstein, a South African doctor discovered his long-lost airplane after paging through an aviation trade publication, which arrived in his mailbox. “I almost threw the magazine away without a look,” he had told reporters, ‘almost missed the picture of the airplane with the South African insignias and the number 7721 on the fuselage. When I took a second look, I just couldn’t believe it.’”

She glares at me. “He never has anything to say. He just sits there with a blank expression on his face. Why don’t you tell her what happened?”

The rat shows his sharpened teeth. “You tell her. You’re never at a shortage for words.”

            My father had flown 400 hours as a member of the South African Air Force in a plane that resembled the one pictured, an AT-6 Texan. The number on the aircraft, 7721, was confirmed it was indeed the same plane.

            His last flight in the AT-6 had been in the early 1970’s and he’d never expected to see it again. The ad provided some sketchy information, some of it whimsical: “Batteries not included. Some assembly required.”

            When he called the plane’s owner, Olly Smith, in Denver, the two were able to confirm that it indeed had been my dad’s airplane. Mr. Smith said he had decided to keep the plane, but when he heard my dad’s story, he got caught up in the excitement.

            “Okay. Okay.” Voice elevated. “I’ll tell her, since you can’t ever find it in yourself to be truthful. It’s always somebody else’s fault. Somebody did this. Somebody did that. Well guess what. It’s not somebody. It’s your body. Somebody didn’t put his penis in Vilda’s vagina. Your body did that. Harold’s body. Harold’s penis. Not somebody’s penis for Christ sake. Somebody. Somebody. Always somebody else to blame.” Sudden look toward me. “Remember, Vilda?” Nodding. The rat grins ever so slightly.  Turning back to him. “You think this is funny?” Grin departs.

            “No.”

            “No? No?

            Olly explained that the plane had been disassembled, crated and shipped to Denver from Chile after appearing in a South African Air Force aerobatic show.

            My dad flew to Denver and on first sight it brought his emotions full circle.  As a young boy, he had always wanted to fly, and took his first flying lesson at age sixteen.  At age eighteen he joined the South African Air Force where he began to fly T-6 Warbirds. His T-6, with its growling prop tips gave him the feeling that for just an hour or two, he was free.

            Try to stay focused. Present. Engaged.  “Vilda is his colleague?”

            “That’s right.

            “The one he travels with?”

            “That’s right.” Turn to the rat. Silence. Nothing to say. Caught. Trapped.

            “I found a picture of them together on his iPhone. With a bunch of emojis on the bottom. And then I got him to admit all of it. That they had been sleeping together the whole time he was traveling.”

            “That’s not true. It was only toward the end.

            “Whatever.” Looking only at me. “I’m done with this Dr. Goffstein. It’s all  bullshit. That’s what it is. Fifteen years of respect – turned into a pile of shit. How can he do this to me? What is wrong with a person who does this? You’re the expert. Is he a pathological liar? ” Tears spew from the fuming snake. Images of Vilda and her vagina drift through the room.

            My dad. Reconnecting with freedom, knowing that he had to buy back the AT-6.  I wish for a moment that I could fly, escape this drudgery. After talking to his bank, he flew to Denver and returned in his newly painted airplane, bringing with him memories of himself as a young man and a renewed sense of excitement and hope.

            Attention. The rat has been caught. Captured red handed on his lifeline, the iPhone. Remnants of any form of respect shattered. No chance for reconciliation. But I have to try. They stare at me stupefied. What can I say?

            The airplane hanger. A container for lost fragments of my mom and dad’s life, which no longer fit in their condo, now housed at the random Van Nuys airport.  They had moved to the valley from St. Louis to be closer to their three girls. The large empty space housing the AT-6 had become a catchall storage unit, housing their unused belongings, including my grandmother’s after she went into the nursing home. It was fascinating how much time my parents spent at that hanger, meticulously going through every document, piece of furniture, book and file-cabinet, organizing and re-categorizing every detail of their past. “It’s so you three girls won’t have to do it later,” my mom had told me in her practical tone, confirming that she was saving me from the emotional agony of sifting through all of their possessions after they were gone. 

            “ Well…this has been quite a session.” What to say?  “I think we should meet again this week.”

            “I will never sit next to him again.”

            “Then I should meet with you both separately. Please consider this. It’s better to keep open some line of communication. If not for you, then for your children.”

            Deflated. Collapsed. She agrees. He concurs. They leave my office. Their lives forever punctured. All I can think about is that trunk sitting in my dad’s airplane hanger. I close my eyes.  I breath deeply. Hidden trunks. Concealed iPhone pictures. Pandora’s boxes, closed containers the Gods warned us never to open. Yet we are incessantly curious. And this inquisitiveness cannot be helped. I call my dad back.