Everyone who walked into our apartment was smiling, giddy, on the verge of laughter. To my seven-year-old self, they were bursting with something that felt like joy. The men had close shaves and emanated cologne; some, like my father, had ascots. Their wives wore dangling earrings, high-heeled shoes, and designer everything. Their hair was set by Roberto at Kenneth’s and their nail polish glistened; their perfumes competed. I got a kiss and a hug from all of them as I sat perched on an armchair by the front door, my cheek squeezed, my hair tousled, and my head smushed into a bosom. Litsia and Susie called me Kookla. Vital pinched the part under my chin. Elke said her son, Marcucho, wanted to be my boyfriend. I shrugged. Sam told me to think about it carefully because his son, Ari, was also available. After greeting me, they fell on my parents with more hugs and kisses, and oh how beautiful you look, and I love your dress, and where did you get those shoes? The men did a lot of backslapping and shoulder holding, their eyes brimming with happiness to see one another again.
They came to our apartment in Kew Gardens for what they called The Official. This was a special poker game held once a month, and everyone took turns hosting the dinner and the game. Tonight was my parents’ turn.
My mom and her friends had learned to play cards the way women in America learned to cook and sew. At The Official, they played for real money. Sometimes they played all night.
My mom arranged the cold cuts and salads in the kitchen, buffet style, next to a tall percolating coffeemaker, assorted cookies that came from a box tied with a string, and long warm baguettes with insides that felt cushiony when I pressed my fingers in to steal a piece of the white dough.
After the initial hellos, I went to my parents’ room to stick my head under the bed. I needed different air. The perfumes stuck in my throat and I could taste them. After a few dust-filled gulps, I returned to the living room.
The friends spoke accented English. Most of the group were from Greece, but some were from Egypt, Germany, and Bulgaria. Warren, Susie’s husband, was the only one who sounded American.
Ashtrays dotted every surface of our living room. Lit cigarettes rested on some of them, forgotten by someone who was elsewhere smoking another. On the card table, sometimes the cigarettes would roll off an ashtray onto the green felt center and burn a hole. Nothing remained but the filters. At the women’s card table, the filters were stained with red lipstick.
When the ashtrays were overflowing, I went around collecting them. I needed two hands to lift some of them: the teal one made of stone, the glass one with wavy lines in it. I had to tip them carefully into a decorative pan that had a cover. When this pan was full of ashes, it was ready for a trip to the kitchen garbage can.
Sam took a break and pulled me onto his lap. I rubbed my fingers over his tattoo. I asked him why he had a number on his arm. He said not to tell his wife, Madeleine, but it was his girlfriend’s phone number, and then he tickled me and I laughed, relieved. On some level I already knew what had happened to them. My biggest fear was that it had happened to my parents, too, but my mother assured me that even though it almost had, it hadn’t. The other thing I knew was that each person in my living room represented an entire family that had been put into extinction in the camps.
Warren didn’t speak a foreign language like the others. The only words he knew he had learned from my mother, who used to tell me over and over, Va au lit! Go to bed!
Eventually, I did go to bed. I pressed my beloved blanket, which was an old nightgown with a singular smell and feel, to my face to block out the smoke. The jovial murmurs of conversation and occasional bursts of laughter lulled me to sleep.
When I woke in the morning, they were still there, still at their tables. Only a few people playing, the rest watching silently. Ashtrays overflowed. My mom got up from her seat, helped me brush my hair for school, and told me to get some cereal. Before I left, I kissed each person goodbye.
Bye, Kookla, Susie, and Litsia cooed.
One more kiss for good luck, Vital said.
Sam whispered, Don’t tell Madeleine.
Marco scooped me up and asked if I would marry his son, Marcucho. I giggled at the thought.
I closed the door of my smoke-filled apartment and took the stairs one flight to the blue lobby of the Park Chateau. I walked into the fresh air and across the street to P.S. 99.
Leslie Lisbona has been part of a writing workshop for ten years. She recently had three pieces published in Synchronized Chaos, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and The Bluebird Word. She is the child of Jewish immigrants from Beirut, Lebanon, and grew up in Queens, NY. Most of her writing has to do with her upbringing.