"Don't you keep things just to yourself sometimes, too? Do you want us or your friends to be part of everything you do? If only because people are envious, it's best not to show them your treasures. Either it makes them sad because they don't have them, or they turn greedy and want to take them away from you."
"Is this painting a treasure?"
"You know that yourself. You just described it beautifully, the way only a beautiful treasure is described."
"I mean is it so valuable that it would make people envious?"
His father turned around and looked at the painting. "Yes, it's worth a great deal, and I don't know if I could protect it if people wanted to steal it. Wouldn't it be better if they didn't even know we have it?"
The boy nodded.
"Come, let's look at a book of paintings together. We're sure to find one you like"
When the boy turned fourteen his father resigned from the bench and took a job with an insurance company. He didn't want to do it--the boy could tell that, although his father didn't complain. But neither did his father explain why he changed jobs. The boy didn't find that out until years later. One result of the change was that they had to give up their old apartment for a new one. Instead of occupying the fashionable second floor of a four-story turn-of-the-century town house, they now lived on the edge of town in a twenty-four-unit apartment house, built with subsidies from a government program, according to its norms. The four rooms were small, the ceilings low, and the sounds and smells of neighbors ever present. But at least there were four rooms; in addition to a living room and two bedrooms, there was a study for his father. Come evening, he would retreat to it, even though he no longer brought files home from work.
"You can drink in the living room just as well," the boy heard his mother say to his father one evening, "and maybe you'd drink less if you exchanged a word with me sometimes."
His parents' way of life changed too. There were no more dinners and evenings for ladies and gentlemen, when the boy would open the door for guests and take their coats. He missed the atmosphere of the dining room, the table set with white china and adorned with silver candelabra, his parents putting out glasses, pastries, cigars, and ashtrays in the living room, awaiting the first ring of the doorbell. He missed several of his parents' friends. Some would ask how he was doing in school and what interests he had, and they'd remember his answers on their next visit and keep track. A surgeon had discussed operations on teddy bears with him, and a geologist had talked about volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and shifting sand dunes. He especially missed one woman friend of his parents. Unlike his slender, nervous, volatile mother, she was a plump woman of sunny temperament. In winter when he was still small, she would sweep him in under her fur coat, into the shimmering caress of its silk lining and the overwhelming scent of her perfume. Later she had teased him about conquests he had not made, about girlfriends he did not have--leaving him both embarrassed and proud. And even in later years, when she sometimes made a game of pulling him to her and wrapping them both in her fur coat, he had enjoyed the softness of her body.
It was a long time before new guests came. These were neighbors, colleagues of his father from the insurance company, colleagues of his mother, who was now working as a police department secretary. The boy noticed that his parents seemed uncertain; they wanted to find their way into their new world without denying the old, and acted either too cool or too intimate.
The boy had to adjust as well. His parents had him transferred from his old high school, just a few steps from their old home, to one that again was not very far from their new apartment. And so his way of life changed too. The tone in his new school was coarser, and he was less of an outsider than he had been in the old one. For another year, he still took piano lessons from the teacher who lived near his old home. Then his parents said he was making such wretched progress that they ended the lessons and sold the piano. The bike rides to see his piano teacher had been precious to him, for he would pass his old apartment and a neighboring building where a girl lived that he used to walk partway to school and play with now and then. She had thick red curly hair down to her shoulders and a face full of freckles. He rode slowly past her building, hoping she would step outside and say hello, and then he would walk his bike alongside her, and they would, of course, end up seeing each other again. They wouldn't exactly make a date, but it would be clear when he would find her where and vice versa. She was far too young for a real date.
Excerpted from Flights of Love by Bernhard Schlink Copyright 2001 by Bernhard Schlink. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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