Excerpt I Excerpt
Sorry I haven’t called lately, but I’ve been
recovering from the parental visit. It’s cute how
Mom asks if she can drink the water from the sink; no, we
don’t use those purification pills in the concrete
jungle. However, the way she triple wrapped all her stuff
in plastic bags is not endearing, particularly when she
methodically wrapped, unwrapped and rewrapped them at seven
every morning. I’ll admit that I’ve opened up
a travel bag or two only to find shampoo or hand cream oozed
all over and I don’t have a single plastic bag in
which to wrap the leaking bottle, but she takes it to the
extreme. I think she travels with a toothbrush, one change
of clothes and five hundred plastic bags.
We did go to Ellis Island which was fun, but getting there
is practically like immigrating. Everyone is pushing and
shoving in line to get on the boat, we’re all crammed
in and everybody has to stand because there’s not
enough room. It’s freezing, babies are crying, people
are complaining...it was all very real. Except for the refreshment
stand with pretzels and hot cocoa, I’d say it was
an identical experience.
In the evening I took her to a poetry reading which didn’t
go over too well. How was I supposed to know it was an African-American
lesbian event? I knew we were in trouble when they started
out with the cock poem. Mom didn’t even take her coat
off the whole time. It’s not my fault there was nothing
else happening on a Monday night; I had ruled out the sitar
recital and the reading at Barnes and Noble on “The
Afterwards, I took her to a seafood restaurant so she could
get a “nice piece of fish.” Unfortunately there
were some not-so-nice non-kosher lobsters greeting us when
we walked in. All night she was eyeing the waiters like
they were carting around human heads. “Back and forth
with the lobster, how can I enjoy my food here? Feh, it’s
disgusting what people eat.”
Last night she called Dad to make sure he had not wasted
away from malnourishment in 24 hours. This was the conversation
I overheard from my bedroom: “Did you defrost the
salmon patties I left you? No, they are not tuna. I gave
the tuna to my mother. Yes I’m sure. I marked the
salmon with an “S” and the tuna with a “T”
so they couldn’t have gotten mixed up. Remember I
showed you the defrost button on the microwave? It’s
on the upper left…it says ‘Defrost’…well,
check to make sure you plugged it in…” Faye,
please don’t ever let me marry a man-child.
So anyway, I tried to remove everything remotely sexual
from my apartment before Mom arrived. I said a tearful goodbye
to Mr. November and threw out my one copy of Playgirl. Regardless
of my efforts, I’m positive that Mom will still walk
out of the apartment with a condom wrapper stuck to the
bottom of her shoe.
I find it hard to believe that she’s quite so innocent
though given that sex book she kept in her night table.
I found it once when I was rifling through the drawer looking
for kleenex; I assumed she had put it there for me to read
about the carnal activities that at twelve I could only
dream about, so I’d quickly stuff it under my shirt
and sneak down the hall to my room. The book was brand new
when I first found it, and I didn’t want to break
the binding, so I’d crack it open just half an inch,
reading only the words along the outer edge of the page.
By the next week I was folding the paperback in half, eating
greasy chips and powdery doughnuts while mulling over oral
sex techniques and pawing at the pages with my sticky hands.
Reading that book became a regular after school activity.
Now, it was all of a five second walk from their bedroom
down the hallway, past the bathroom, your room and Gordon’s
to get to mine, but it felt like the length of a football
field. And it never failed that halfway down the corridor,
Mom would holler my name, demanding my presence downstairs
that very moment to wash a bowl or pick up a pair or errant
socks—clearly impossible as the book would surely
fly out of my shirt, the pages spontaneously fluttering
around her feet. I had only a split second to decide if
I should run and replace it back in her room or make a mad
dash into mine as the hallway suddenly transformed into
Indiana Jones’ rope bridge, fraught with danger on
each end. And since we had two staircases, I frantically
tried to analyze the location of the bellow to see which
set of steps she was closest to, though knowing Mom, she
would magically appear at both.
Of course, there was also the fear of returning the book
when I was done. This first required a trip to Mom’s
room to make sure she wasn’t in her bedroom or bathroom,
or hiding in the closet or under the bed. Then I had to
go back and stuff the book under my shirt and traverse the
rope bridge which gave her plenty of time to whisk quietly
up the carpeted stairs and catch me. Plus I was faced with
the daunting task of putting it back exactly as I had found
it. Was it horizontal or vertical? Was the front cover or
back showing? A fraction of an inch in the wrong direction
and I’d be discovered. And even after replacing the
book, there was the pervasive paranoia that I had, in fact,
not actually returned it and in some crazed and frenzied
moment of my fervent sexual awakening, left it lying open
on top of the dinner table next to the pot roast. It’s
truly amazing that except for the fact that I can only enjoy
sex on a rope bridge, I don’t have any real sexual
I figured Dad couldn’t possibly have anything incriminating
as I rummaged through his closet one day for a tennis racket.
That’s when I stumbled on the box of four-legged underwear…good
for an additional ten years of therapy. Most kids only find
the random Playboy and try to come to terms with the fact
that their parents actually have sex; I have to deal with
the image of ours prancing around their bedroom in perverse
lingerie. Perhaps the underwear had some spiritual significance.
Maybe on the first night of Passover, they don their unigarment
and Dad chases Mom around the room as if she is escaping
from Egypt; he calls her his love slave while playfully
smacking her rear with a stiff piece of matzoh and she begs
him to “let my panties go.” I try to soothe
myself with that thought.
I took Mom to meet Tony and told her that I've been spending
a lot of time with him—leaving out the fact that it’s
in bed, though I’m not sure the fleeting break from
loneliness is worth the ensuing emptiness with him. Sometimes
when we lay there welded together, I am lured into believing
that this feels right. But then he looks at me longingly
and asks what I’m thinking and I realize I’m
debating if I should buy a sander tomorrow or just go ahead
and varnish my desk. I want to want to spend a night with
a guy, to wake up together in the morning and hear him fart
with abandon as I burn us some breakfast.
Mom will never understand or approve of any of my relationships
with men. If I'm deeply involved she’s worried I’m
too serious and not seeing other people; if I'm not dating,
she thinks I'm a man-hating feminist out to take over the
universe. I am a feminist out to conquer the world…who
happens to like a nice piece of ass once in a while.
Mom is so focused on the externals, the appearances of my
life that she can relate to her friends as evidence of her
success as a mother. She always feels compelled to tell
me what my grammar school colleagues are up to, and really,
I’m thrilled that Cheryl Levy is doing group theater
in Akron. And Moshe Shmial, the kid who used to pull his
arms in close to his chest and flap his hands like a baby
bird whenever he got overexcited, he’s now a world-famous
brain surgeon and cordon bleu chef on the side with his
third little genius on the way, oy he gives his mother such
Since I don’t boast the large office, big paycheck
or fancy title, I think Mom’s given up on me and is
now fixated on making sure I marry someone who does. I wonder
if I would have her approval to date a Jewish woman. For
that matter, I suspect if I was having an intimate relationship
with a farm animal she wouldn’t mind as long as it
The whole time Mom was here I wanted to call my therapist’s
answering machine. Just to hear the voice of this woman
who cuts a clearing in the woods. Not a path, just an opening.
She lets in some light. But what is wrong with me on top
of what is wrong with me? I should be sleeping or screwing
rather than swooning at the sound of the tone. When I add
up the actual time we’ve spent together, it’s
mere hours, yet I feel like Carol has known me all my life.
I can’t understand how therapists truly empathize
with people and then just pack up and store them away in
a briefcase at the end of the hour. On the other hand, how
could they ever enjoy a concert or a good meal if they took
people’s troubles along? I asked Carol about this,
and what she told me took my breath away. She said I was
inside her. That I was in her bones. Made me wonder if I’ve
settled there, like marrow. When we speak, I can sense each
thought enter her; it’s like my words seep into the
cellar of her soul. There’s the closeness that happens
unclothed in the dark, but I think the real kind works its
magic without music or moonlight, on Tuesdays at five o’clock
with only two chairs and a dead plant to set the mood.
She took my hand the other day. Sat next to me and grasped
my hand in hers. She didn’t say a word, but I could
hear her tenderness hanging in the air and I felt something
flutter open in my chest. She looks at me like I matter,
not just to her, but to the world…to God. Somehow
she tells me that my presence, my mere existence, is important.
I’ll never know how she gets all that into one cosmic
glance. I’ve never seen it before and fear I won’t
again. Some things change you forever, but I thought they
were big things—an illness, the death of a child.
But her hands changed me. They murmured and whispered, and
said she knew. And not just for those fifty minutes, but
all the time
When I look back on our childhood I don’t think we
expressed much affection in our family. There were a lot
of locker room type pats that served to convey everything
from “good job setting the table” to “gee,
sorry you lost your leg in that thresher.” We didn’t
exchange many hugs, and those that we did share retained
that same kind of patting action, like we were simultaneously
burping each other.
Carol reminds me of Jane, my seventh grade teacher whom
I adored. I used to sit next to her after school while she
graded papers, pretending to be engrossed in my homework
when I was completely absorbed in her. One day she suddenly
reached out and stroked my hand, and I grabbed on to it
for dear life. That brief moment was an awakening, like
a first kiss. In fact, I think I recall it more vividly.
I tried to memorize the details of everything around me,
memorialize each crack in the wall as part of that moment
so that I could cherish it forever, even though it was already
slipping away. Looking back on it now, I think of the two
people who jumped from the World Trade Center holding hands.
In my twelve-year-old mind, every bad haircut and new pimple
was cataclysmic, and when she reached out for me, it was
like this beacon of light and hope in the midst of my despair.
A reminder that even in the worst moments two people can
come together, joining hands and hearts, to face the abyss.
You found my hand and love rushed in, Anne Sexton wrote.
Perhaps, for an instant, it happened to me.