The Men on the Dais

An excerpt from Daphne Merkin’s novel, Enchantment.

01.02.09 7:35 AM ET

In a taxi, sitting next to my father, I cross my legs. I am accompanying him to one of his hundreds of dinners, a fund raiser for a politician who furthers Jewish causes. There is a run in my pantyhose that stretches upward from my left ankle; I noticed it when I put the pair on but decided to wear them anyway. I am not good at cutting my losses; I am webbed in all around by dangling threads.

“Very pretty,” my father says when he sees me, overlooking my run.

But there is so much else to overlook; I am marred by tiny imperfections.

“Shit,” I say, hating my eyes for being myopic, my lenses for being uncomfortable, myself for being a woman rather than a man or neutered creature. The trouble with being a woman is that you are supposed to enhance men—to add gaiety to their evening, like balloons, even if you feel heavy as stone. In profile, my father’s eyes look small and sparsely lashed, his skin porous. No one thinks to transform him into an Adonis, to require him to mascara his lashes or tint his cheekbones a delicate pink. Getting ready to go out in the evening always puts me on edge, makes me feel glaringly deficient-like walking into shul on Yom Kippur in a black dress. All the aids and tricks I have learned from magazines, the painstakingly penciled definition around my eyes, the smoky shadow on my lids-all this undoing of my genetic limitations doesn’t fool anyone. Why can’t I be incontestably beautiful, Grace Kelly lolling on a man’s arm, a blonde in a camel coat adding luster to the evening just by the composition of her facial bones and the sheen on her skin, an undeniable visual asset?

“The Waldorf-Astoria,” my father says loudly to the taxi driver. “The Waldorf. Straight across and down Park to Forty-ninth. The Waldorf.”

My father repeats everything; he trusts no one. He leans back against the seat and turns to me. “New coat?”

“No,” I say. “You’ve seen it many times.” My father is convinced that everything I wear is newly bought, another marker in my ongoing pattern of degeneracy.

“He doesn’t seem to know English.” My father says, gesturing forward with his head. “Do you think he knows how to get to the hotel?”

“Yes,” I say. “You told him.”

A light turns read ahead of us, and the taxi jolts to a halt the driver muttering to himself, my father falling against me. …

“I’m tired, Hannah,” he says. “ Sehr mude. I work too hard.” If my father ever thought to solicit my opinion, I would suggest to him that he is tired because it is very tiring to trust no one—neither daughters nor cabdrivers.

“Your mother isn’t feeling so well,” he says.

“I know,” I say. “That’s why I’m going with you to this dinner.” …

At the dinner I will be introduced to resplendent couples the way I am always introduced at such occasions: as my father’s daughter. Once again no one will know that I am not a chip off the old block, that I harbor black thoughts, double and malice. (But is anyone ever really a chip off the old block? Doesn’t everything crumble, even monuments, when you look too closely?) at this dinner I will find myself wondering, as I always do, about the workings of power. Power: this is what I should have learned from my father, imbibed at the knee of his noncommunications. But in order to understand power, you have to understand its precedents, like money. I don’t understand money, either; I have been brought up not to. My father’s father, Opa, who took on Shabbos afternoons to study the Talmud in his sefer-lined study first with Benjamin and then with Eric—an aerie of Jewish learning on the Upper East Side—passed on his distrust to my father: money and women, a bad combination.

But Opa had little use for girls generally. If only I could have posed the question so it would have intrigued him, a question for those endlessly bickering Talmudic sages to mull question for those endlessly bickering Talmudic sages to mull over: “What is the earning power of a girl? By what scales shall she be weighed?” for there was something, undeniably, about the picturesque rendered legalities and ethical parables of the Talmud that pulled on my imagination, the imagination of a girl: tales of carob trees that bore fruit in seventy years’ time, from which could be deduced man’s need for companionship; Lilliputian debates about the number of black hairs that would disqualify a red cow from being use for the purpose of purification of the dead. In other words, how red was red? An impenetrable logic and yet enviably insular. ...

How red is red? How rich is rich? Is there any connection between brains and money? Most dais of the people my parents know have money. Wealth is a family, too; it is a secret, barring its gates to nonmembers. In one of the ballrooms at the Waldorf-Astoria, crowded with round tables, my father sits at a dais, flanked by other corpulent and stuff-shirted men. Over a squeaking microphone someone is introducing his dear friend who is as generous as he is modest and a g-r-r-eat ballplayer. There is a scattering of laughter, and then a very bronzed man gets up, hands tucked in his pockets, and speaks lovingly into the microphone. Right here, then, is the Truth of Commerce revealed: a tan in coldest December and friends who joke about your minor prowess for hitting a softball instead of boasting about your major prowess for making millions of dollars. I have been misled all along; the truth has nothing to do with anything the literary men say—Keats with his “Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth.” What do girls know except what they read in books? My fate is sealed: I am doomed to hover, like a butterfly, on the rim of power.

“The squab is a bit tough, don’t you think?” says the woman sitting next to me. She is taut with prettiness, and when she smiles, I am sure I can hear her jaw click, protesting the disruption. “I don’t know why the kosher caterers are so much less good.”

“I know,” I say. “It’s amazing when you think of how many of them there are.”

I hear myself responding in blithe agreement, as though this woman and I have everything in common, as though it were crucial that she recognize me as a dinner companion with the same discriminating taste when it comes to poultry. How can she know that I am really Rosa Luxemburg, that I am a firebrand beneath my black silk dress and artful makeup: Down with all charity diners! Give philanthropy to the people! Let them eat squab! I am not my father’s daughter!