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Lost Love

Tennessee Williams tells a story of someone who forgot—the story of Jacob Brodzky, a shy Russian Jew whose father owned a bookstore. The older Brodzky wanted his son to go to college. The boy, on the other hand, desired nothing but to marry Lila, his childhood sweetheart—a French girl as effusive, vital, and ambitious as he was contemplative and retiring. A couple of months after young Brodzky went to college, his father fell ill and died. The son returned home, buried his father, and married his love. Then the couple moved into the apartment above the bookstore, and Brodzky took over its management.

The life of books fit him perfectly, but it cramped her. She wanted more adventure—and she found it, she thought, when she met an agent who praised her beautiful singing voice and enticed her to tour Europe with a vaudeville company.

Brodzky was devastated. At their parting, he reached into his pocket and handed her the key to the front door of the bookstore.

“You had better keep this,” he told her, “because you will want it some day. Your love is not so much less than mine that you can get away from it. You will come back sometime, and I will be waiting.”

She kissed him and left. To escape the pain he felt, Brodzky withdrew deep into his bookstore and took to reading as someone else might have taken to drink. He spoke little, did little, and could most times be found at the large desk near the rear of the shop, immersed in his books while he waited for his love to return.

Nearly 15 years after they parted, at Christmastime, she did return. But when Brodzky rose from the reading desk that had been his place of escape for all that time, he did not take the love of his life for more than an ordinary customer. “Do you want a book?” he asked.

That he didn’t recognize her startled her. But she gained possession of herself and replied, “I want a book, but I’ve forgotten the name of it.”

Then she told him a story of childhood sweethearts. A story of a newly married couple who lived in an apartment above a bookstore. A story of a young, ambitious wife who left to seek a career, who enjoyed great success but could never relinquish the key her husband gave her when they parted. She told him the story she thought would bring him to himself.

But his face showed no recognition. Gradually she realized that he had lost touch with his heart’s desire, that he no longer knew the purpose of his waiting and grieving, that now all he remembered was the waiting and grieving itself. You remember it; you must remember it—the story of Lila and Jacob?”

After a long, bewildered pause, he said, “There is something familiar about the story, I think I have read it somewhere. It comes to me that it is something by Tolstoi.”

Dropping the key, she fled the shop. And Brodzky returned to his desk, to his reading, unaware that the love he waited for had come and gone.

Tennessee Williams’s 1931 story “Something by Tolstoi” reminds me how easy it is to miss love when it comes. Either something so distracts us or we have so completely lost who we are and what we care about that we cannot recognize our heart’s desire.

Signs of the Times, June, 1993, p. 11