Start of Main Content

A Fish out of Water

By Flora Singer

My husband Jackie and I were invited for a reunion of his former Seward Park High School friends from New York City. These were the young people with whom Jackie had grown up. They and their families had lived and some still were living in the neighborhood where Jackie was born, played, and attended both secular and religious school. I had met some of them after Jackie and I became engaged to be married. Jackie had also invited a few of them to our wedding. After that, Jackie and I moved away from his old neighborhood to settle in a suburb of New York. Since Jackie was a member of the United States Armed Forces at the time we got married, he had to return soon to his base, while I stayed at home in Flushing.

I commuted to work on a daily basis by bus and subway, from Flushing in Queens where we occupied a small street-level, basement apartment in my parent’s home to downtown New York City where I worked at M. Lowenstein & Sons, Inc. as a bilingual secretary. Whenever Jackie could, he would come home to spend the weekend with me and then return to his base. On the surface, I lived the American dream, except for one thing. I worked and interacted with my fellow employees, but our conversations were mostly work related. When I was free, my time was spent with Jackie when he was home and with members of my family, mostly my parents. My sisters, who were younger than me, attended school and had already made friends with whom they spent much of their free time.

At the reunion, which took place in the home of one of Jackie’s former schoolmates, people mingled, nibbled on snacks, and talked. Most of their talking revolved around reminiscences of their early youth, the games they played on the street in front of their apartment houses on the Lower East Side of New York City, their sleepovers at each other’s homes, their activities and outings from their Cub and Boy Scout days, and their years at Seward Park High School. They also talked about their graduation from high school, the prom, and so forth. I listened and smiled occasionally, as required by good manners. However, I had nothing to contribute to their conversation. I felt like a stranger, an intruder. Even Jackie, my husband, standing at my side, who was actively engaged in the conversation with his friends and laughing heartily when warranted, did not realize that although I stood with him, I did not feel a part of the group or their life.

As I stood listening, one of Jackie’s friends turned to me and said, “Flora, with whom did you attend the prom? Did you go with Jackie? I do not remember.” I did not know what to reply. I hesitated, then finally I said, “Uh, no...well...I did not go to the...a...prom. I did not even attend any high school....” “What do you mean, you did not...?” “Well you see....” As I began trying to explain why I had not attended any high school, the young person had already turned away from me and became actively engaged in a conversation with the others in the group, and I...I was lost...I suddenly felt more acutely than I had prior to the reunion that I did not belong here, that I was a stranger, an outsider.

It was a strange and lonely feeling. These were my husband’s friends, the people he had grown up with, and with whom he shared so many experiences and memories. I was not a part of this world. At this point I realized that not even Jackie and I, although married, had ever talked about anything which did not relate to “today,” his world, his friends, who now supposedly were also my friends. I also realized that they did not know me and neither did Jackie. I mean really know me, the me who was not the person I portrayed.

I concentrated and tried so hard to quickly become the perfect American. I concentrated on learning the English language. I did not attend regular school because I had to work. As I continued to politely listen and smile when required, I was drawn back into my own world, the world about which no one ever asked me—the World War II world of the Shoah, which I survived and which shaped me.

©2011, Flora Singer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.