Now wasn’t the time for a follow-up question. Not about Jonas calling her beautiful. Instead, Rose asked, “How do you manage to stay composed?”
“It’s how I was brought up.” Jonas accepted the drink he was handed, then finally put in his order for the main course — after indicating that Rose should go first. “My parents live their lives by Booker T. Washington’s maxim: The thing to do when one feels sure that he has said or done the right thing and is condemned, is to stand still and keep quiet. If he is right, time will show it.”
“Oh,” Rose admitted. “I’m afraid I lack the patience for such civility.”
“It is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him. It is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done. Also, a quote from Mr. Washington. Growing up, I swore the man had a pithy lesson for any and all occasions. Especially where I was concerned. It’s all right,” Jonas prompted her. “You may laugh again. I am being terribly amusing. If you don’t, I may feel compelled to stop.”
So she did. Though still not without an aftertaste of guilt. Was she laughing at him? At all, he’d been forced to suffer simply due to the color of his skin — and those who took issue with it?
Jonas went on, “My father is in the publishing business. Not the Negro press, mind you. We’re said to be living in the golden age of The New Negro, or so one publication dubbed. Alain Locke, W.E.B DuBois, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, they’re publishing essays, poetry, fiction. My father does not wish to be a member of the Harlem Negrorati. Every day, he goes to an office in midtown. He toils for a white publisher. They only let him edit the colored writers for now. But, one day — one day, he thinks he’ll be allowed to do more. And, until that day comes, he will stand still and keep quiet. Because he knows he is right. And he expects time will show it.”
“That sounds awful,” Rose didn’t think about what she’d said until after she’d said it. A common occurrence she really should work on.
“Negroes,” Jonas recited. “Sweet and docile. Meek, humble, and kind: Beware the day — They change their mind. That,” he told Rose, “Is not Booker T. Washington.”
“This isn’t who I am.” Rose had been desperately searching for an opportunity to say it. She’d waited through dinner, as Jonas neatly cut his steak while regaling Rose with tales of his days traversing the country as part of an assortment of theater companies, often shuffled off to cities so minuscule they couldn’t even be found on a map. She’d waited through Jonas asking to see the dessert menu. And then the dessert tray. And then requesting a refill of his coffee. He left the waiter a generous tip. “He did his job.”
Rose allowed Jonas to help her on with her coat, to hold the door for her as she stepped outside, to escort her through Central Park to Rose’s home on the Upper West Side. She might have questioned what exactly it was they were doing, if she hadn’t been so eager to establish, “This isn’t who I am. I’m not the sort of person who puts up with,” she waved her hand in the direction of the restaurant, “that kind of behavior. Like when that other soldier called you — “ Rose didn’t dare repeat it. “When he suggested you were lying about your war record. Irna’s programs are progressive. Maybe not on the surface, but deep down. She’s quite subversive. In her way. She gives women a voice. She speaks up for unwed mothers, girls who’ve made mistakes they can’t live down. I hate that we have to keep your face hidden. To sell soap. I’m not a tool of the capitalist machine. I hate it. I’m a member of Workmen’s Circle; since I was in school. I’m on the side of the oppressed. I’m not like…them.” This time, her hand wave was all-encompassing.
“What are you like then?” Was he doubting her? Teasing her? Enticing her?
Because, if the latter, then he was doing an excellent job. As they exited the park at 72nd Street, past the waist-high brick walls meant to differentiate the eden of grass and trees from the concrete jungle, the honking cars, the sudden buildings, Rose couldn’t fight the feeling that she could tell Jonas anything. That she should tell him everything. That he, unlike Mama, unlike Irna, unlike the world at large, would understand and not judge. That he would understand what she’d intended rather than what she’d ended up doing.
But, no, it was still too dangerous. Not just for her, for him, too. Once Jonas knew, he could never claim not to have known.
So Rose told him the truth. Just not the one that mattered. “I’m an almost 30-year-old woman who loves her job. And hates it. But mostly loves it. A job that takes up all my time. Which is good. Because it keeps me from thinking too long or too hard about all the things I could be doing with all that time, which I am not doing.”
“What sort of things?” Was he a concerned doctor now? A crusading detective? A hard-boiled reporter? Rose would happily cast Jonas in any of those roles. He was that convincing. Especially when you were dying to be convinced.
He’d maneuvered it so Rose stood against the granite wall, Jonas facing her, his back to the avenue, between street lamps. Nobody passing by would catch a glimpse of his face, or his hands, which he’d nonchalantly slipped into his pockets. A staging similar to how Hazel posed him to be photographed, all oblique angles, so that only the shadow knows.
It was Rose who made the first move. Rose who leaned forward, Rose who elevated on her toes, something she’d rarely had to do with other men. It was Rose who slid a single finger beneath Jonas’s chin and Rose who drew him closer. “Things like this.”
She could feel his breath on her face. It smelled of the crème brulée they’d shared after Jonas took his time perusing the dessert menu. Their eyes were level. Nobody was looking down at anybody. His lips parted just the tiniest bit, tongue-tapping teeth. It was a relatively mild April evening, yet Jonas’ skin charred Rose’s fingertip, sending flames down her arm. Flames that somehow transformed into molten weight which plummeted into her stomach, sending not at all unpleasant reverberations throughout the rest of her.
It was Rose who made the first move. And it was Rose who made the last.
It was Rose who lost her courage. Rose who, at the last possible moment, pulled back, withdrawing her hand and placing it against her chest as if saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Or protecting her heart.
It was Rose who said, “I’m your boss.”
“Yes,” Jonas agreed, seemingly understanding what she was trying to convey, yet refusing to budge. Their eyes were still level. His lips still slightly parted. Stand still and keep quiet. If he is right, time will show it.
“It would be wrong,” she said.
“Would it?” Especially when you were dying to be convinced.
“It would be difficult,” she conceded.
“It would.” Were they still talking about work?
“It would be…unethical.” That was the last arrow Rose had in her quiver.
It was also the one that seemed to get the job done. Jonas blinked. Both metaphorically and literally. He rocked back on his heels. He furrowed his brow. He tightened his lips. Thank goodness. Seeing that she’d struck her target, Rose pressed on, “If anyone thought there was something improper going on…you know how actors gossip…you know how jealous they get. It could come off like an abuse of my power. I could lose my job. You could lose yours. You see how it would be…risky…for both of us.”
He didn’t say yes. He didn’t say no. He didn’t say anything.
“Please tell me that you understand.”
Jonas studied Rose even more closely than he had during the brief moment they’d been connected by a sizzling thread. Whatever he was looking for, he found. Whether or not he was pleased by the discovery remained unclear.
“Only for you, Miss Janowitz.”
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!