An Imperfect Lens

Free An Imperfect Lens by Anne Richardson Roiphe

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Authors: Anne Richardson Roiphe
Tags: Historical
be anything between them. It wasn’t just Este’s imminent engagement that stood between them, nor was it his own poverty. It was the matter of religion that barred his way. To Dr. Malina, to Dr. Malina’s wife, to the assembled relatives of the Malinas, the Jewish faith was more than a faith, more than a question of traveling to the Jewish quarter and entering the old synagogue at the right times of the year, more than a sentimental affection for the lost city of Jerusalem, where the Malina son was trying to make his way at the moment, more than a matter of solidarity against the viciousness of others. There was a cord that bound them, that nourished them, that kept them with their fellow Jews when they suffered and when they prospered. It was a matter so central to the heart that it could hardly be explained, but was
Like the noon heat it entered every organ, every orifice, colored what the eyes saw, pounded in the ears, was taken for granted and yet never taken for granted. Dr. Malina, whose patients came from all quarters of the city, who was a man with few prejudices, was not open on this subject.


    ERIC FORTMAN NEEDED a berth on a steamer sailing for England. He needed funds to book his space, for food and drink and lodging, and he needed to send a telegram to the owners of the bottles full of whiskey he had been bringing to Alexandria, hoping to guide them through the customs office before the Muslim customs officers could confiscate them. He needed to send his company a telegram reporting the loss of their shipment. It was a mournful prospect. He would not be hailed as a hero in Liverpool, although the ship’s misfortune was none of his doing. What could he do? He could do accounts. He was a good salesman. He was a sturdy traveler. He enjoyed making a profit for his company. He could slip money into the right hands at the right time. It might be months before the company would wire him funds for a return passage, and in fact they might simply ignore him. He had heard that a man of even higher rank in the office had been taken by pirates and the ransom was never paid and the man’s left ear was sent to the office in a small wooden box, where it was immediately discarded with the rubbish.
    Walking through the market near Babel Gedid Station, Eric caught sight of himself in a shop window. He needed a shave, and his mustache was ragged, but his height was impressive. He could count on his face to win him friends, at least among women, and his teeth were still perfect and his body strong. His eyes were black. He smiled at his reflection in the window and it smiled back. He had a dimple in his chin. Women always exclaimed over his dimple. He was, in fact, very acceptable, although what good that would do him in this city at the end of the earth was hard to see. He was young, not so young as to be spindly or awkward, but young enough to expect large things from his single life. Now he was lost in thought, desperate thoughts that could make a man impervious to those in front of him, which was how he collided with Este Malina’s mother, Lydia, who, with her servant trailing behind, was selecting the ripest fruits, the softest dates, the fish most recently caught, for her dinner table. Her servant picked up a large bass caught that morning in Lake Mariout. “No,” said Lydia. “I’d rather have two smaller ones.” The large fish was thrown back on the pile. Alien microbes clung to drops of water under its left gill. Eric Fortman apologized and apologized again to the woman he had nearly knocked off her feet. He explained his absentmindedness, his rumpled appearance, his entire predicament to the most sympathetic lady he had ever seen, whose dark eyes were both maternal and alluring and seemed to him like a pair of lighthouses, directing the ship to its proper berth.
    “What a tragedy, what a catastrophe,” said Mrs. Malina, allowing her slight smile to show that she believed that all could be put right.

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