Double Helix

From the pages of NDQ 86.1/2, Ronna Wineberg’s story, “Double Helix” offers an engaging glimpse of a woman overcoming her past. The story is perfect for a reflective early summer afternoon.

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Ronna Wineberg
Double Helix

Today I leave work early and will finish a project at home. It’s a breezy, mild June day. I work for an arts organization in Brooklyn, do graphic design there, and help with fundraising. The sun is shining, and I feel al- most as if I am on vacation. In the lobby of the building where I live, the doorman hands me a padded envelope.

“For you,” he says.

“Thank you. I wasn’t expecting anything.”

“Then it’s a surprise,” he says, smiling. “I hope it’s a good one.”

“Oh, I hope so, too,” I laugh.

I make my way to the elevator. I know immediately who sent the package. My name is written on the front. I’m careful with how I form letters and numbers when I write, but my ex-husband has always been careless about penmanship. I know the way he shapes the letters of my name: Helen. The large “H,” the hurried vowels, and the flourish after the “n.” For a moment, I wonder if Thomas is sending something I inadvertently left in the apartment we once shared, and if he has enclosed an angry letter like those he sent to me during the divorce.

In my apartment, I sit at the dining room table and open the padded envelope. He has included a note on a beige card: Helen, I want you to have this. We were married for 28 years, after all. T

I pull out the book, his book, and laugh at the title. The Heart and the Gut. This is his first book, and I notice it’s published by a reputable press. I knew he was writing a book; our daughter, who is in graduate school in Vermont, had told me.

Thomas isn’t a writer. He’s a scientist. An accomplished one, but not famous. His experiments are published in professional journals, but he hasn’t catapulted to being a scientific superstar. He studies diseases of the stomach and heart.

Some days it’s hard to remember he’s my ex. We have two children, and we once loved each other. There were lies, and he had an affair—a few af- fairs, I later learned. I was involved in one affair and felt guilty about this, but also grateful.

I stop myself from reliving the difficulties of our divorce two years ago,

because what good will it do? He did what he did, and I said what I said. Thomas has a temper and freely wielded words when we were divorcing. “You weren’t a partner to me,” he shouted, as if raising the decibels would add weight to his words.

People are always falling in love with the wrong person. After we sep- arated, I hung up when he called and didn’t respond to his emails. I sent them to my lawyer instead. Even the one in which he wrote: Your lawyer is stupid. She’s wasting our money. If I were you, I wouldn’t listen to her. That caught me off-guard. I read the message and stared at the computer screen. “You’re not me,” I shouted in answer, “and I’m not you.” I typed this, but then remembered the lawyer had said not to reply to his messages.

I forwarded Thomas’s email to her with an apology. She replied: No apologies are necessary. This is a legal case. It isn’t about ego. He doesn’t like the advice I give you because it doesn’t favor him.

oOo

A divorce is like a funeral, a prolonged funeral. This book is a message from the dead. It’s too early for a glass of wine, so I make coffee, rummage in the kitchen cabinet, and eat a few chocolate chip cookies. I set the bag of cookies on the table and study the book’s cover, black, with designs in blue and orange, a double helix, a picture of a human heart, and shapes that are probably bacteria, but look like art.

Thomas led a double life, but as I skim the book, I realize a reader would never know this. The book is about science, I remind myself; a reader doesn’t need to know about his double life. Still, I am shocked as I turn the pages. The book purports to be about his life as a scientist, but it’s really about his life as a man. Thomas has included autobiographical details, but he’s rewritten his life without me in it.

He wrote about our children and people who worked in his lab, about Jon J. Smith, a PhD student from England, who lived with us in our apart- ment for a year. Jon was a lovely young man, but he left his clothing and damp towels on the floor in the bathroom. We had dinners together, and he joined us on a family vacation, driving through New England to see the fall colors. Thomas wrote about his own scientific experiments with bac- teria and diseases of the heart, about the illnesses of his parents, his new wife, his brother, and in great detail about our son’s childhood asthma, the trips to the pediatrician and ENT doctor, to the emergency room.

I didn’t expect acknowledgment in the book, but I expected the truth. I drove our son to the doctors and the hospital. I told Thomas and the doctors that I was wary of too much medicine. He and I discussed this at length. We made decisions about our children together. I am nowhere in the pages of the book.

I can’t bear to look at the Acknowledgments. He probably thanked the new wife. They’ve been married a year and a half.

The telephone rings, and it’s our daughter who’s in graduate school. We talk for a while, and then I say, “Your father sent me a copy of his book.”

“He did? Why would you want one?”

“God knows. I read the chapter about the time you broke your arm. I was the one who took you to the doctor.” I stop myself, embarrassed that I’ve mentioned this.

“Mom, I know. Everyone knows that.”

“I’m sorry, honey. I guess looking at the book brings everything back.” I’m usually careful not to put the kids in the middle.

“Then don’t look at it. Really, it’s not that interesting.”

I quickly change the subject and ask her about school.

After we finish talking, I study the book’s cover, the double helix.

Thomas once described this to me. He talked about science like a man in love. DNA, he said, is a molecule that encodes an organism’s genetic blueprint. DNA, he went on with excitement, contains all the information required to build and maintain an organism.

oOo

Later, I call my friend Beth. I tell her about the book. “I’m humiliated,” I say. “Angry.”

“He’s the one who should be ashamed.” She pauses. “It is a slap in the face, I can understand that. I would be angry. The book is so him. It’s all about him. I read a review of it, and the critic said you’ll like this book only if you believe the author’s theories. She said he doesn’t men- tion anyone else’s. I would never buy the book. Besides, who reads books anymore?”

“A slap in the face,” I repeat. “He can write whatever he wants, but why should I see it? Why would he give it to me? The book is undoubtedly on Kindle. Maybe there’s an audiobook. He’s probably making a fortune.”

“I don’t think so,” Beth says. “It’s not a bestseller. I shouldn’t be so blunt.” She sighs. “He had some good qualities, but he was all about ego. That’s who he is.”

A walk would help me. I hurry out of the apartment, out of the build- ing, and make my way toward the Starbucks on Broadway near West 93rd Street. I decide to walk along the river, where it’s quieter.

The trees are cloaked in green near the Hudson, and the air smells of grass and flowers, fresh, not the odors of diesel and urine that float on Broadway. People stroll on the path, and after a while, a woman who looks familiar walks past. She is walking with a man, talking. They aren’t looking in my direction, but I realize the woman is Allyce Wasserman, my divorce attorney. I recognize her short black hair and silver wire-rimmed glasses, the red lipstick and gold bangle bracelets. I haven’t seen her since my divorce and debate whether to say hello, then hurry up to her. She is older than I, in her sixties, and divorced herself. I imagine she has met a man, and the two of them are taking time away from work. I’m excited that she’s in a relationship. I wonder if they’ve moved in together.

“Allyce,” I say.

“That’s right.” She turns around, stops, and smiles. “Helen. How lovely to see you.”

“Yes.” I look from her to the man.

“It’s been a long time. How are you? Oh, this is my brother, Seymour. We’re coming from a funeral, and we took a detour to walk here.”

He is wearing a dark suit, and nods.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “About the funeral.”

“It was a cousin. She was very sick. What can you do? Everyone passes.

That’s what waits for all of us.” Allyce looks at her brother. “Helen was a client. She did very well in her divorce. She has two children, and she’s a graphic designer and a painter.” Her voice is warm. I’m flattered she re- members me so clearly. When she turns back to me, she asks, “So, how are you? How do you like your apartment?”

I tell her about the apartment and my work. I think about Thomas’s book, but don’t mention it. I’m not going to talk to Allyce about business now.

“See,” she says. “I told you there’s life after divorce.” She turns to her brother. “I told Helen that you can be perfectly happy. Divorce is not the end of the world.”

As she’s talking, I look at her with a perspective I’ve never had before. I suddenly feel odd, as if I’m large and clumsy, and I’m startled to realize Allyce is much shorter than I am, maybe five or six inches. She’s a small, compact, wiry woman, but I never noticed this. Her brother is the same height. At her office, I sat opposite her, on the other side of her desk. She seemed tall then, sturdy, so certain and knowledgeable. For a second, I’m confused. We’re almost strangers, I realize, but she knows intimate details of my life, my finances, my divorce.

“It’s funny,” I say awkwardly. “Really, I’m so much taller than you. You always seemed taller than me.” I’m appalled by what I’ve said. “I mean, you knew so much,” I stammer, trying to explain.

She laughs. “You and I were usually sitting down.” She eyes her brother. “We’re small people. I’m five-foot-two. Our mother is five feet. But height doesn’t matter when you’re representing a client in a divorce.” She glances at her watch. “We’ve got to go to the shiva.”

For an instant, I think we’ll hug, like Beth and I do, as if Allyce Wasserman is a dear, old friend.

She thrusts out her hand to shake mine. “I’m so glad you’re doing well.”

oOo

I’d never told Allyce the history of the marriage. She wouldn’t have been interested, and she would have billed me. She billed in ten minute incre- ments. She was interested in the residuals, the demise of the marriage, and getting results.

Thomas and I had been fixed up by friends. We were both living in Denver. He was from New York, a PhD student at the university, and he wore T-shirts and jeans, and rode around the city on his bicycle. I had grown up in Michigan, moved to Denver after college. On our first date, we took a long walk to a store that sold special cakes with layers of mo- cha and chocolate. I ate as much chocolate and drank as much wine as I could then. I lived with a kind of abandon, as if I had endless time, and, in a way, I did. We talked about our lives, his disdain for bourgeois, mate- rialistic values, and his desire to live a deeper life, the very same feelings I had. We were young, idealistic, and serious. He was smart and funny, tall and good looking, with a high forehead and long nose, solid hands, and cocoa-colored eyes. I could marry this man, I thought.

The pastry shop was closed. We should have known. This was Denver, after all, and though the summer nights were mild, the stores closed early. We saw a shower of stars in the sky as we walked. When we returned to the house I shared with a roommate, we stood on the porch, and Thomas said, “Do you believe in arranged marriages?”

I smiled and thought for a minute. “Maybe so,” I said, and explained about my grandparents. Their marriage had been arranged in Poland and they had grown to love each other, had been married for over sixty years. “Maybe that’s a better way than dealing with the disappointment of mod- ern romance.”

Thomas held my gaze steadily, as if he wanted to bore into me. I had to look away.

“Do you?” I asked.

“Maybe. Yes.” He laughed. “What do you do with your money?” he asked suddenly.

“I save it,” I said, though I thought this was an odd question to ask.

oOo

When I think about our first conversation, I realize it is emblematic of our communication. I lied from the beginning. I wanted to save as much money as I could, but money slipped through my fingers. I told him who I wanted to be, who I thought he wanted me to be. And he lied to me. Maybe he didn’t believe in monogamy or marriage, arranged or not. But he knew, even then, that this was not the answer I wanted to hear.

oOo

At home, the book sits on my dining room table like an Evil Eye. I tell myself: This is foolish. The book is nothing more than a book. A divorce is nothing more than a divorce. I have to finish a project for work, but I’m unable to concentrate.

I check to see if there are online messages from potential matches. Pe- ruse the dating site and see if there are photos of men who seem appeal- ing and seem to be telling the truth. I am better off without Thomas, I know, but it’s hard to convince my heart sometimes. To convince my ego. I met a man through the site who seems promising. “Live Love Laugh” is his screen name. His profile stated he was a nonsmoker. Six feet. Has a master’s in education. Physically active. We spoke on the phone and met once. He looked just like his online photo, and he didn’t seem to be lying about his age or anything else. I liked his deep clear voice and angular face. His positive attitude. He’s a widower. I liked his way of saying, “We all have baggage.”

I’m unable to concentrate on the website either. If the book is bother- ing you, I tell myself, throw it out. But I’m drawn to the shiny cover, the design of the double helix. Thomas once recounted the history of this.

Thumbing through the pages, I find a section with words similar to those he once spoke to me.

oOo

DNA was discovered in 1868 by Friedrich Miescher. In 1953, two scientists described the molecular shape of DNA as a “double helix.” Double strand- ed DNA is composed of two linear strands that run opposite to each other. The strands twist together and form a double helix. The DNA helix is often overwound and increases the stress on the molecule.

oOo

I discovered Thomas’s last affair. He begged me to take him back. I said I’d consider it. I still loved him, though I didn’t know how I’d be able trust him again, or if I could forgive him. Then I discovered he was still seeing Sandra. His promises had been hollow. He and I had a life together. We had children. I didn’t want to lose him. But I already had.

oOo

I stare at the book again, at the title, at the overwound double helix. DNA is just DNA, I tell myself. Am I too narcissistic? No. The book is about my ex-husband’s life, and he portrays the events as if he handled them alone.

Finally, I open the book and read his inscription: For Helen, Thank you! You were present at the creation. Best, T

That’s it?
At the computer, I compose an email to Allyce Wasserman.

Dear Allyce,
What a nice coincidence to see you. My ex-husband has published a book and

What can I say? He left me out of the book? He was difficult in the marriage, in the divorce, and in his book? He owes me royalties? Owes me love?

There is no way she can help. I am divorced. I got in the settlement what I got. There was unfairness, but no one is really happy in a divorce. Whatever was unfair remains that way. A settlement is not love. This book falls onto a trail of injustice that may never end. I’d better get tough. I’d better get used to it.

I go to the phone to call Beth, but think better of it. This is my prob- lem. I need to handle it alone. It is time to move on. But to what? I am able to flirt online and in person, but I still haven’t gotten over my ex- husband. That is the dismal truth.

I pace in the living room. My heart hammers in my chest. I would rather not face the truth, but the truth is staring me in the face. The truth is in that book and my reaction. Thomas has divested himself of me. He has a revisionist view of history. The coldness in his tone on the few occasions we’ve talked spills into the coldness of his words in the book. He’s a stranger to me, like Allyce Wasserman is. I have embraced divorce as if this will set me free.

But I’m not free. I have a list of wants: to fall in love again or move away, finish the large paintings I started before the divorce for a group show. The canvases sit propped against a wall in my apartment. My mind wanders when I paint now; I mull over the past and murky future. I want to take our kids on a trip. I want to visit the desert and the ocean. To put this marriage behind me.

I pace faster and think about the impersonal inscription. I am upset with myself for dodging the truth. For sugarcoating it. For not saying to Allyce Wasserman, her brother, and myself: Yes, there is life after divorce, but that’s not the whole picture. The whole picture is: There is life, and there are scars. To deny the scars is to live in a simplistic fantasy. There’s the past, and then the attempt to overwrite it, but the past always remains as an underpainting, lying just beneath the surface of the present.

The book with its shiny cover seems to nod in agreement. Life after divorce! Maybe that is how Allyce and other divorce lawyers rationalize their trade.

oOo

• Thomas was happy as long as I did everything the way he wanted.
• He was sure his opinion was the right one.
• He was impatient.
• He said he wanted a partner, but that was not true. A friend of mine, who married late, said he finally realized he hadn’t been looking for a partner, but was really looking for a clone of himself. Someone with interests and DNA footprints identical to his. “Do I want a clone,” he said to me, “or do I want to be married?” Thomas wanted a clone.
• He was frugal.
• He was loving at the beginning, but later became judgmental and sharp.

oOo

What Thomas said about me:

• I was happy as long as he did everything the way I wanted. • I was sure my opinion was the right one.
• I was indecisive and dreamy.
• I did not truly understand his scientific work.
• I let money slip through my fingers.
• I was loving at the beginning, but later became judgmental and sharp.

oOo

There is a sliver of comfort as I remind myself of this. We didn’t understand these things when we met. At the beginning, all we wanted was to be with each other and have sex, to grow old together. Nothing else seemed to matter. In a way, as the years passed, both of us were right. We each wanted something from the other. Our genetic blueprints were the opposite.

oOo

At the computer, I leave Allyce Wasserman’s email unfinished. There is a message from Thomas: Did you get the book?

I read his words twice and realize that by the very act of giving me the book and following up, he’s shown he really hasn’t moved on either. He may have tried to erase me from the past, but he still wants a reaction from me. I don’t reply.

There’s one from “Live Love Laugh,” the widower. I reply: Would love to meet for dinner this week!!

Would love to see if we can have a friendship, I think, become emotionally entangled, become lovers, but I don’t include this.

I don’t send the message, save it, grab the book, and march to the hallway, to the trash room. I pull open the can’s metal lid and stop. How can I throw out the book? A book is a sacred object, at least in my world. So I set the book on my kitchen counter. Then I rip out the page with the inscription. It’s painful to hear the sound of paper ripping. I am not happy to deface a book, even one from Thomas. In my filing cabinet, I search for the thick folders that overflow with papers and notes from the divorce.

I slide the page with the inscription into a folder, place all the file folders and papers in my shopping cart, set the book on top, and take the elevator to the basement. In the storage area, I unlock my bin, and drop the bulging folders in there. Then I make my way to the laundry room. In the back is a small library, shelves lined with books, and a sheet of paper tacked to the wall:

LIBRARY RULES

1. Donations are accepted. ONLY FICTION.
2. Please make sure the book is in good to perfect condition.
3. Check out a book for no longer than two weeks, and return it to its place.
4. Biographies, poetry, memoirs, self-help, & other nonfiction books will be disposed of.
5. These will be donated to a prison reading program.
6. Problems? Contact: the doorman or Cy Henricks, 5B, librarian.
7. NOTE: We follow the HONOR system. Borrow but RETURN the books.

I shake my head. This is a library in a laundry room in an apartment building and there are more rules for how to borrow a book than rules given to a person for how to master marriage. There is a manual for al- most everything, except marriage. Is everyone a beginner? Will my son and daughter need a manual? Marriage should follow the honor system, too.

oOo

Thomas married Sandra, the young research assistant, a woman with large breasts and a toothy grin. It’s a cliché: married middle-aged man fucks younger woman and marries her after divorcing. Beth and I used to shake our heads at this. Is there a manual for middle-aged men? What does the wife do to deserve the betrayal? Or is the betrayal independent of what one deserves? Is anyone to blame? How can a woman have fallen in love with such a man? I know it’s sociobiology, too: Men have a genetic imperative to spread their genes as widely as possible, and they turn to younger women of childbearing age after their own mates can no longer bear children. Men need to fight against this. But it doesn’t matter what I think of this cliché or how I analyze it. I am living it.

I slide Thomas’s book on the shelf in its alphabetical place in the laundry room library. My feelings aren’t about pride or money or sex. This is about disappointment. Disappointment and hurt. Anger fueled by hurt. Anger at being wronged. It is my private sorrow. All sorrows, in the end, are private.

What can I do? I walk briskly to the elevator with the shopping cart, and, on my floor, I throw his envelope into the can in the trash room, relieved my apartment is freed of his book, his presence.

I pour a glass of wine, drink it, and then have second thoughts. An Evil Eye is an Evil Eye. A reminder of a sorrow is a reminder, whether it sits in my apartment or on a shelf in the laundry room. I race to the basement. A few other tenants are filling washing machines with dirty clothing, and we nod hello to each other. Then I pull the book off the shelf, go to the storage locker, and retrieve the inscription page, too.

oOo

I heard a rabbi speak once about a passage in the Torah in which Moses goes up to Mount Sinai. I don’t go to synagogue often, but this time the rabbi’s words caught my attention. There is a sentence in the Torah indi- cating Moses wanted to see God’s face. God says: “Do not see my face and live.” The rabbi explained that this phrase is about the unknowability of God. There are limits to what a person can know about God. There are limits to any relationship, the rabbi said. Limits to what you can know about another person. Limits to intimacy.

Maybe there are limits to memory, I think, limits to the past.

oOo

In my apartment, I drink another glass of wine and then find the paper- weight Thomas gave me once, a beautiful, heavy piece of blue glass shaped like a heart. It sits on top of yesterday’s mail. I’ve kept it on my desk at home because it reminds me of happier days. We were married for twenty- eight years, after all.

I slide the book and inscription page into a plastic Food Emporium bag, and put in the paperweight, too. Clutching the bag, I walk to the path where I saw Allyce Wasserman and her brother. The path along the Hudson River. They are long gone. Other people stroll there. The air has cooled, and the sun glistens behind the clouds.

At the river, I stand by the railing and think of Tashlich, the religious ritual Jews perform on Rosh Hashanah, when they look ahead to start a fresh year. People come to the river and throw in pieces of bread. I’m not sure if they cast away their sins, or forgive the sins of others, or ask forgiveness for their own. Do they try to get rid of toxicity in their lives? I wonder about the widower and Allyce Wasserman’s brother, even Beth. Do they wish they’d read a manual about how to navigate the differences between people?

I pull the book from the plastic bag, take a last look at the graceful design of the double helix, the intertwining strands, then slide the book back into the bag. I pull out the inscription page, rip it into tiny pieces, like confetti, and stuff these into the bag, too.

Then I fling the bag over the guardrail. Thomas’s sins are not mine, but I’m casting away my sins, too: fury, envy, disappointment, regret, blame, need, sorrow. The bag lands with a splash, sinks into the muddy gray water, and disappears, like a sack of rubbish. That’s what waits for all of us, Allyce Wasserman said. And though I am not religious, I mouth a silent prayer: Help me. Help me be tough. Help me help myself. Something flutters inside me, almost like tenderness, almost like hope.

THE END

~

Ronna Wineberg is the author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, a story collection; On Bittersweet Place, a novel; and a debut collection, Second Language, winner of New Rivers Press MVP Literary Competition. She’s been awarded a scholarship to Bread Loaf and a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is senior fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review. www.ronnawineberg.com.

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