They decided to start with Jonas’s parents. They decided Geoffrey and Annabelle Moore — Jonas had changed his last name professionally so as not to embarrass the family, and chosen Cain as a sly biblical reference, the sign of God’s protection — were less likely to grow hysterical at their engagement news. It would be good practice for facing Rose’s mother, who she feared would.
Rose and Jonas spent a delightful evening at his parents’ Hamilton Heights townhouse. The Moores took her on a tour, highlighting the individual rooms done in baroque, romantic, and neoclassical styles; wingback chairs, chesterfield sofas, carved bookshelves, ornate drapes, Westwood lamps, artwork by Romaere Bearden and Horace Pippin on the walls. Over dinner, Jonas’s father talked about authors he’d edited. His mother spoke about working as a translator at the United Nations — French to English. They asked Rose about her days at Find Your Light and seemed genuinely curious about her ideas for modernizing Othello, even making a small pun about their last name and the title character.
At the end of the night, Geoffrey and Annabelle walked Jonas and Rose to the door. His father shook her hand. His mother kissed her on the cheek.
“You are absolutely delightful,” his father said.
“So intelligent,” his mother said.
“No,” his father said.
“Absolutely not,” his mother reiterated.
Rose’s mother did not grow hysterical when she met Jonas. There was no lovely townhouse to give him a tour of, but Mama made up for it with the dinner she served. Chicken soup, potato kugel, beef brisket, and rugelach for dessert. She explained to Jonas, in detail, how each dish was made, how her grandmother made it in the old country, including the substitutions they were forced to go with here since food just didn’t taste the same, she didn’t know why. Jonas complemented Mama on every course and agreed it was a mystery about the different tastes in America. He told stories about traveling to Chicago, to Atlanta, to San Francisco and to Houston and, wouldn’t you know it, foods with the same ingredients did have different flavors! Baffling!
At the end of the night, Mama walked Jonas and Rose to the door. She gave him a hug.
“Such a gentleman,” Mama said. “So well-read, so well-raised.” She turned to Rose and told her, “Absolutely not.”
“That went very well,” Jonas strove for the joke when Rose, for the first time since he’d met her, seemed unable to summon up the energy to bolt towards any next plan of attack.
“Absolutely not,” Rose said. And burst into tears.
Wearing an engagement ring should have made Rose feel safer. She and Jonas were a legitimate couple now. And interracial marriage was legitimately legal in New York state. Instead, it made her feel like more of a target. Whenever they stepped out together, Rose wriggled with an itch between her shoulder blades which suggested she was being watched. Jonas assured it was her imagination. This was New York City. Nobody cared about anybody else’s business. They were all too busy concentrating on their own lives to hone in on whether Rose wore an engagement ring or wonder if the colored man next to her was the lucky groom-to-be. Yet Rose still felt as if a spotlight targeted her hand wherever she went. Sure, some people smiled at her. Most, like Jonas said, ignored her. But how did Rose know what they were really thinking?
Rose couldn’t claim that her paranoia started with Emmet Till, the 14-year-old Negro boy lynched in Mississippi for flirting or smiling or whistling or saying hello — no one was sure, but did it really matter? — to a white woman. He was from Chicago, another Northern city like New York, where nobody cared about anyone else’s business, so Emmet didn’t expect Mississippi to be different. The men acquitted of his murder beat Emmet, then shot him, then dropped his body off a bridge into the river, where he was eventually found. They used cotton seeds to soak up the blood left behind. He was 14. A child. A child like Jonas had once been. A child like she and Jonas might one day have.
The murder of Emmet Till didn’t kick off Rose’s paranoia. But it inflamed it. Rose didn’t want Jonas to reassure her that no one cared. She wanted him to reassure her that things were getting better. What about Brown v. The Board of Education, integrating public schools? What about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus boycott? What about the Reverend Martin Luther King and the meeting in Atlanta to coordinate non-violent protests across the Southern states?
But all Jonas would say was, “Forty acres and a mule. We’ve heard promises before.”
His cynicism infuriated her. But not as much as her own helplessness. The world was burning, children were dying, and Rose was…writing a play? Once upon a time, she’d marched off to war in order to right the world’s wrongs. She’d failed. But at least she’d tried.
Now she was sitting at home, writing, worrying about looks she might engender in the streets, telling herself that words, if she could just find the right ones, might make a difference. It wasn’t enough. Merely trying wouldn’t be enough this time, either. This time, Rose would need to succeed. There was no other option. Not if she and Jonas were to remain together. They would succeed. Or they would die trying.
To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.
Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, out now! Only $.99 cents in January 2023!