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Beauty through Broken Glass

Millie Ehrlich


After meeting at the Brooklyn Museum in the late sixties, when the slogan "Make Love, Not War" was sweeping the country, Armand and I, who had been dating for just two weeks, decided to share an apartment together in a brownstone owned by a hip white couple in Park Slope. We settled into a domestic routine, in spite of the differences between us: I was white and middle-class, he a working-class Black Hispanic; I loved to dance, and he didn't have a sense of rhythm; I was a Jewish atheist, he a lapsed Catholic; I was 25 and he was 19; he was a painter, and I was a writer (though neither of us had created anything since we'd been together); he almost immediately wanted us to get married, and I preferred to continue with our unofficial, impermanent romance.

Now things were getting serious. Armand was taking me to meet his family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When we got off the train, it was a long walk to his mother's apartment. We passed an empty playground, where I imagined the ghosts of children swinging and playing. Then we crossed a broad street that turned into a highway. The wind blew from every direction at once, and we had to keep looking both ways till we got to the other side. We walked through an opening in the cement foundation of an overhead highway, and I noticed a few floppy branches of pointed ailanthus weeds growing by one side of the arch -- right up out of the concrete. I remembered a description from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.

Some called it The Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts…That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.

Armand and I being together, in spite of what anyone thought, I reflected. We were like that tree.

Here in Williamsburg, there were street corners with empty lots where buildings had been either torn down or never constructed, and these open spaces reminded me of lots I used to explore as a child. I once found comfort in these slightly wild and scary places in the midst of the safe, concrete streets of my Jewish-Irish-Italian neighborhood. Williamsburg had been a similarly populated neighborhood at that time, and just as my relatives had predicted, it had changed.

As we approached Armand's block, we passed though a commercial district, but the stores all looked run down with signs that had letters missing and canopies that were soiled or torn and needed replacing--projects I sensed would probably never happen.

But then my thoughts reverted to more familiar territory. Armand and I had been walking in silence, and I suddenly felt a need to bridge the gap of non-communication between us.

"Who was the best person you ever went to bed with?" I asked in an effort to sound conversational.

He smiled, either at my invitation to talk about it or at the memory itself, or possibly both.

"A Spanish girl I once knew."

"How old were you?"


"Was she older or younger than you?"


"How many times did you do it with her?"


"Did she move a lot?" I asked. I was still trying to work out what it was I was supposed to do when we made love.

"No. She didn't move at all. She was perfectly still."

That confused me because I though a good female lover should take an active role. Nevertheless, I stored the information in a corner of my mind for future reference.

"What happened to her?"

"I don't know. I think she moved."

"She moved?"

"Yeah. She moved away. I couldn't see her any more."

"Oh. You must have missed her."

"Nah. I was just a young kid."

Then he smiled to signify that now he was an experienced older man who knew the real goods, and this time I knew his smile was for me, and I hesitantly smiled back.

We turned a corner, and I saw a few Hassidic Jewish men with their beards, side curls, fur hats and black medieval looking garb, walking unceremoniously among the mostly dark-skinned Spanish residents. They were gesturing and talking loudly to one another, as if they were at home in their own shtetl. It made me happy to see them, like the spark of a familiar fire, even though I was so atypically Jewish and had so little connection with religion, let alone orthodoxy. They reminded me of something from my own world that I couldn't put my finger on -- a Chagall painting, a chapter in a history book, a dim memory of synagogue.

"There are Jewish people here," I said, showing my surprise.

"Yes," Armand answered, and then, as if he had read my mind, he added, "Sometimes there are fights"

"You mean fist fights?"

"No. Usually just words. Shouting and cursing."

How sad it was that people of different cultures had to clash, I thought. How different it was for Armand and me. We were young and free and in love, and didn't have to conform to the rules and expectations of society.

Armand's building was a brownstone set in among a lot of similar looking buildings, many of which were covered with graffiti and had overflowing garbage outside. It was not really old or in disrepair, but it couldn't help taking on the burden of dilapidation that was all around it. The front door was open to anyone off the street, and as we went up the steep stairs of the dark hallway, I could smell fried food and coffee and some spices I couldn't identify. His mother's apartment was on the second floor.

Armand pushed open the door and called "Ma, it's me!" and his mother came out to meet us. She had heavy eyelids and slightly oriental looking eyes like her son but a brown face with rouged cheeks, as round and soft looking as a peach, and an equally round body. She was wearing a housecoat with a tropical floral print. She talked to me in Spanish, gesturing for me to sit down, and served me oreo cookies on a small black plastic tray and a glass of Pepsi Cola.

Then she brought out a large gold framed picture of Armand at his public school graduation--he had never graduated high school-- and plopped an album full of Armand's baby pictures on my lap. She seemed to be admiring my hair, making a stroking motion over my head, or maybe it was a blessing. I smiled questioningly at her, and she smiled back mysteriously, her hands still in the air; then she finally put them down.

There were a couch and two chairs in the living room with plastic covers on them. We had never had plastic covers on the furniture in our house when I was growing up, but some of my friends and relatives did, so this also rang a familiar frugal chord. On a little lamp table stood a painted statue of the Virgin Mary made out of plaster of Paris. On one wall hung a picture of Jesus with a big red heart showing on his naked chest, and on another, a photograph of John F. Kennedy. Otherwise, it looked just like a white Jewish middle class apartment. Porcelain lamps with beige lampshades decked the lamp tables. Lace doilies lay on the table tops, like the doilies we had at home or at my grandmother's house. White ruffled curtains decorated the windows, similar to curtains my mother would have hung, only my mother would have chosen a pastel shade. There were even curtains on the unexpected window in the wall between the kitchen and Armand's bedroom. One of the things that surprised me was the bathtub in the kitchen. How quaint, I thought. The apartment was a railroad apartment and one room led into another all the way to the back.

"Ma, está en casa mi abuela?" Armand asked his mother.

"Si. Si, está," she said.

"I want you to meet my grandmother," Armand said to me.

"Does she speak English?"

"Oh, yes, she speaks excellent English. And she's very proud of it."

I followed Armand downstairs and stood behind him, while he knocked on a door at the foot of the staircase.

"Come in!" said a creaky voice.

An old woman with wrinkled brown skin and long white hair was sitting in a wicker chair on an oriental rug in the middle of the room. She was wearing a long-sleeved white cotton dress and had an old-fashioned, almost regal air.

"Come over here," she said to us. "I don't feel like getting up."

"Grandma, this is Millie."

"Hello," she said.

While I stood back, Armand approached her, and she took both his hands in hers and held onto them. She started to talk in a low droning voice for his ears alone, and she went on and on, paying no attention to me. She smiled and wet her lips with a lick of her tongue, enjoying her monologue. I couldn't tell if she was speaking in Spanish or English.

What could she have been telling him?

Armand just stood there with his hands in hers, smiling at her with a look of love I'd never seen in him. He listened patiently, not seeming to mind her long-windedness at all.

I knew he hadn't forgotten about me. He wanted me to see this side of him--to know about this relationship, even if I couldn't participate in it. But this wasn't a show he was staging. I sensed it was the most real he could be.

Suddenly his grandmother raised her voice and spoke distinctly in English.

"Armando, I want the electrician to come and check the wiring on the third floor."

"Did you call him?"

"Yes, but I can't reach him. There's never anybody there."

"Maybe you should call a different electrician," Armand said.

"This is the one I always use. Armando, the plumber is coming to fix your mother's sink."

"Did you call him, too?"

"Yes, I called him many times. He's supposed to come tomorrow."

"That's good."

"Is the toilet flushing ok upstairs?"

"As far as I know. I haven't used it today."

"Well, go use it and let me know. I think your mother said there was a problem. But you know how confused she gets, so I don't know if there's really something wrong."

"You want me to do it now?"

"Yes, now. That's good. Nice meeting you," she said to me, as we walked out the door.

"My grandmother is the landlord," Armand explained to me, as we walked upstairs.

After Armand had flushed the toilet and reported to his grandmother, he came back up to the second floor and took me out into the hall and knocked on the door next to his mother's apartment. A tall thin woman with long black braids who looked like an American Indian stood inside the doorway next to man a head shorter than herself who looked white.

"Millie, this is my cousin Xiomara, and this is her husband Jimmy."

"Xiomara. How do you spell that?"


How exotic! A name that began with an X. I was learning things around here.

We entered and sat down on a pair of aluminum folding chairs. It was an apartment similar to that of Armand's mother, but there were no pictures on the wall, no curtains or doilies, and less furniture. I had never been in a home that felt so bare.

I liked Xiomara's face. It was long and kind and sad like a horse's face and reminded me, in some corner of my mind, of myself. And Jimmy had a playful expression and a twinkle in his eye.

"Millie is a secretary at the Brooklyn Museum," Armand said. "That's where I met her."

They both smiled angelically at me and just stared and didn't say anything.

"So what do you do?" I said to break the silence.

"You mean for money?" Xiomara asked.

"Yeah, ok," I said.

"We're on welfare," she said.

"Oh. Do you have any hobbies?"

"Armand's the artist in the family," Xiomara said. "I don't do much of nothin'"

"Do you like to read?" I suggested hopefully.

"I look at magazines. I like to watch soap operas on T.V.," she said.

Jimmy hadn't said anything up till now, but finally, he made an effort.

"I just like to hang around outside," he said shyly.

"Oh. Walking around," I said, trying to flesh it out. "Observing things."

"I shoot crap," he said.

"I can't have any of my friends over the house," Armand said when we were outside. "My mother doesn't like Black people. I know you think she's Black herself, but she doesn't like American Black people."

He then went on to tell me about forms of prejudice I'd never known existed-- between Hispanic and American, between darker and lighter-skinned people. I felt secretly privileged to be getting this inside information.

The next time we visited Armand's mother, she was standing before a vanity table mirror, trying to run a comb through her hair and said to me "Que pelo!" (What hair!) Armand and I packed some of his clothes into paper bags and unearthed his oil painting set and some of his wooden sculptures and cleaned them off. When we were about to leave and were standing at the door, his mother came over with a small black box in her hands and presented it to me. I opened it and saw a beautiful pair of gold earrings with pink jewels. "Oh, gracias," I said to her. "Muchas gracias."

If I felt undeserving of such a gift, especially from a woman so much poorer than myself, I just assumed that it was a part of her cultural identity to offer it and she was just instinctively expressing herself. Of course, I realized she thought of me as somebody close to Armand, possibly his fiancée or wife. It felt natural somehow that I should receive a warmer welcome in Armand's world than he did in mine. And it didn't occur to me to buy her flowers or offer her anything in return.


I felt as if I were someplace in a dream. A sleeping green giant of a lawn spread out before me, unseeing and entirely peaceful as I stepped across its hairy chest, except for its wildly reaching arms--bursting branches of bright yellow forsythia. I was standing with Armand beside a white wooden trellis in the Botanical Gardens. There were other people nearby, and they were white. I felt a shadow come over me like a negative blush and tried to fight against it, but it wasn't just a thought. It was a feeling, a rush of shame that came out of my innermost being. I didn't want to be prejudiced. In my mind, I knew that wasn't right or good. But something unconscious was at work that I couldn't control. I was ashamed of being seen together with him. I thought I was looking at myself through the eyes of those other people, though, in reality, they probably had not even noticed us. The feeling was rooted in myself.

So there I was. In love with a man I sometimes felt ashamed of, but who I felt I couldn't live without. When he slept beside me, I watched his face on the pillow, noting the way his mouth hung slightly open, as though he were a precious baby, and ran my eyes over his smooth boy's body. He had lied to me. He was really only seventeen.

On our next visit to Armand's mother, she called Armand over and they huddled together, whispering. Armand came over to me to explain.

'It's bad news."

"What happened?" I asked, not overly alarmed, since I didn't imagine his mother's bad news could have any impact on my life.

'Jimmy left Xiomara."

"Oh," I said. And I truly felt pained for her. She was a kindred spirit. She had so little in her life, and now even that had been taken away from her. It could happen to anybody. How fickle men are, I thought.

"Do you think we should go in and talk to her?" I asked.

"No," Armand said. "She's probably feeling too ashamed. Better leave her alone."

I figured Armand knew his cousin and her needs better than I did, so we just went home.

How was I to know that my own fate was tied to Xiomara's in a way I'd not yet dreamed of–that, as women at the mercy of men, we would share a sorrow that transcended class and race?

In the next issue, Armand and Millie have their first argument. Just a lover's spat or something more…?