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Domestic Bliss

The spirit of competition


End of summer, 1972. I have graduated high school and moved into my first apartment -- a quaint stone carriage house behind a grand turn-of-the-century house on Peabody Avenue in Memphis. My roommates are twins; their mother and father own the big house. I pay rent; the twins do not. I am elated to be out of my own parents' home, to have a job, rent to pay, groceries to buy and freedom to do whatever I want.

I work every day at an office supply company owned by a grumpy old man who treats the woman who runs the office, Ethel, like his own personal slave. She is a black woman balanced on the outer edge of middle age, a woman who sings while she works. She cares for the men in the back, who work in the warehouse and on the loading dock, asking after their pregnant wives, cooing over pictures of their young children. We all eat in the back together at noon, our cold sandwiches brought from home, augmented by whatever delicious dessert Ethel has brought to make us all feel at home.

My job is to add columns of numbers entered in a ledger, to subtract other numbers and to balance the amounts at the end of columns. I am a bookkeeper. One wrong figure, one number entered incorrectly into the calculator and the job is ruined. I have to begin again. Sometimes I fudge a number to make the final sum come out correctly. I staple long strips of printed receipts to the balance sheets, drop them in a file folder and hope for the best.

At home, we party at night with our friends who envy our charming apartment. Our little house is buried beneath massive old trees, deep in the shadows beyond the glow of street lamps. We snack on the remnants of catering trays left on the front step by the twins' mother, a caterer. Slivers of rare roast beef, beaten biscuits, smoked salmon, every now and then a dab of caviar. We feast on the leftovers of the very rich. Excess, we think, is lovely. We smoke so many cigarettes our throats are perpetually raw.

At the end of summer, our pattern changes. I rush home from the office supply company each day to join the twins in front of the television. We watch the 1972 Olympic games as if our lives depend upon it.

Like the rest of the world, we are enamored of little Olga Korbut, the star of the Soviet women's gymnastics team. We scream when she receives a perfect score of 10. We cry as she takes the podium once, twice, three times, receiving gold medals for her triumphant performance on the balance beam, for her floor exercise, for her team's remarkable effort. We love her swayed back, her little monkey face.

We swoon over Mark Spitz, the American with the gleaming white teeth who races to victory seven times in the Olympic pool, sleek as a seal. He is nothing less than a glimpse at perfection. (The following year I will have a brilliant English teacher whose classroom walls are decorated with two posters: one of Shakespeare, and one of Mark Spitz in a Speedo, his neck draped with seven gold medals hanging on red and blue ribbons.)

One long day we watch, unbelieving, as frantic commentators explain to us that terrorists have stormed the dormitory of the Israeli weightlifters and wrestlers, have shot two men dead and have taken nine more hostage. We watch armed soldiers perched atop the roofs of the Olympic village, then cry when we hear that all nine hostages have been killed at an airport shootout.

The president of the International Olympic Committee announces that the games will continue. The show will go on.

The next day, I go to work and find Ethel dressed in black, her eyes swollen and rimmed with red. She clutches a white cotton handkerchief and shakes her head from side to side as she works, as if to say no. Emphatically no.

At lunch we are mostly silent, remembering what we saw on television yesterday. I don't understand what the term "Palestinian guerillas" means. Ethel dabs at her eyes and explains that the Israelis are her boss, Mr. Goldstein's people, and that's why he's not at work today. It's the same old story, she says: They want to kill the Jews.

At home, summer and the Olympics are ending. We watch the closing ceremonies and cry some more -- for Olga Korbut and Mark Spitz, for the Israeli wrestlers and weightlifters, for the end of something we love, and for something else we're not sure of, something out of balance in the world, something that just doesn't add up.


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