I have a stalker. Last night he proposed.
My stalker has proposed marriage many times before this. But, each time, he announces it as his new idea, and he expects me to embrace it with gratitude and with all the enthusiasm due novelty. “No one ever wanted to marry you before this, did they? Well, I want to marry you!”
As usual, he proposed on a voice mail. I love my smart phone. It’s wise enough to send Stalker’s calls directly to voice mail. I used to make do with his unique ringtone (Bold as Love, do you know it?), back when I still would decide to answer his calls if he sounded reasonably sober. Now, all calls go directly to voice mail, and I have voice mail notifications set to silent. This is a big plus because his favorite time to call me is 3 a.m.
Stalker insisted he was proposing sober so I should take him seriously. “I only had half a pint of vodka. For me to get drunk, I need many, many pints at this stage of my career.”
I knew he couldn’t be too drunk. After a fifth, he tends to threaten my blood relatives with bodily harm to punish me for . . . well, that’s the back story. We’ll get to that.
Hear Stalker’s song— Bold as Love
* * *
You have a stalker? Get rid of him! Block him! Change your phone number!
Gee. Wish I had thought of that.
The last time I blocked him on my cell phone, he called me at my office! And no, we cannot block numbers there. And all he would have to do, if he were pissed off enough, is hit that “zero” for receptionist, tear through the company and embarrass me in front of all those co-workers!
Yes, I know he would. He knows I know. But, one day I will retire from the day job. Then I will block my cell phone. Then I will be free.
Don’t you worry about him showing up, following you?
No. He lives 3,000 miles away from, in New York City. Over the decades, he has become the quintessential New Yorker, not venturing much beyond Westchester to the north, New Jersey to the west. Have you seen the widely distributed cover of a 1976 New Yorker magazine issue, depicting the world view of a New Yorker? Not much exists for them west of New Jersey. It is true. There the dragons lay. These days, since he transformed from the strong, brave, alpha man to the agoraphobe holed up in the Bronx, I don’t believe in much chance of him showing up at my door in Portland, Oregon.
See the cover, The World From Ninth Avenue
A restraining order? For someone making threatening phone calls 3,000 miles away? No, his precinct says to call my precinct. My precinct says to call his precinct. Not much of imminent threat of harm.
His weapon of choice is the damn phone. And he is so so good with it. He seduces with it, he controls with it, he becomes the bigger-than-life Wizard of Oz projected on a giant screen with it. I only got to see the exposed, broken man from behind the curtain after months of a long-distance relationship, marathon sessions on the phone, on Facebook, on YouTube. Hours of laughing and giddiness and storytelling on the phone. Then, the phone was our friend.
Did I mention he was a disc jockey? He was Howard Stern before Howard Stern. I hate Howard Stern. But I love guts. I love a man who talks and talks and talks. Who will sing to me, with me, tell me marathon stories through the night. It’s trite but true. I love a man who makes me laugh.
So, I don’t change my phone number. Reduces the risk of him calling my co-workers, calling my friends, calling my relatives. Scaring them and making them pity me. I don’t block his any longer than it takes for him to prove, yes, I block him, he find another phone number.
But, perhaps, at least, if I won’t block — I could stop listening to the voice mails?
What would be the harm in that? Why haven’t I done that already? What am I waiting for? For Mr. Hyde to disappear behind the curtain of a 12-step program, leaving Dr. Jekyll behind? For a cure to be found? He will tell you, he has nothing that needs a cure. He does not have a problem that my cooperation will not fix. And only my cooperation. It’s your fault, you know.
I do not listen to all the voice mails anymore. But, I do sample them. Because, I want my Dr. Jekyll back. I sample the temperature of the messages — is the man I knew and loved back? He used to resurface once in a while. It could happen again. Maybe.
I haven’t been able to give up hope. I have tried, tried, and tried. Now I must get off the holding pattern. I am going to find the cure. I’m going to get the Incredible Hulk back into the bottle and I’m going to get my man back. And I’ll start with the very next call.
* * *
You know you’re in trouble when your friends (usually so respectful of your personal choices and wise decisions; friends who look to you for counsel in their own moments of confusion and dilemma ), when your friends are “concerned.”
“Concerned.” Euphemism for you are frightening me. You are in danger, girl. You make no sense, you are taking unnecessary risks, you are not protecting yourself, you are being stupid and you are frightening me, so stop it already.
I reassure them. It’s not that bad. I know what I’m doing. I have it under control. He wouldn’t really do anything.
Hell, even I don’t believe it anymore. But, sometimes safety is not the highest priority. So, I don’t tell them as much as I used to.
An abuser will isolate you. If nothing else, your embarrassment will isolate you all on its own.
But they weren’t there! In our summer of love. They weren’t there!
He wasn’t always named Stalker. In high school, our crowd called him, “The Barbarian.” His second girlfriend called him a monster.
His first love – his only love — his lover ended their relationship, and his tenuous hold on sanity, with a single gunshot to her chest.
“She was a physician. She knew how to do it.”
She did what??
Summer, 2009. Stalker spent weeks gearing up to tell me the story. One night, after feeding me intimations and innuendos for weeks, he finally he drew a deep breath. It was 5:00 am in New York, on his end of the phone. And he had enough vodka to be morose but not enough to be belligerent.
“I’ll tell you. But I’ve never told anyone the whole story.” Tell me.
“It was 35 years ago. March 21. 35 years ago.”
He had been 22, a college student. She was a friend of his brother’s. She was a 30-year-old doctor, finishing up her residency at the university hospital. She was a doctor. She knew how to do it with one bullet. The gun only had one bullet. “She knew what I would have done if there was a second one.”
“One day I will save her. She is waiting for me, in the seventh circle of hell. I killed her, and I will save her.”
You killed her?
“I will start at the beginning so you will understand. I will tell you everything, and then you will understand.”
* * *
“I killed two, maybe three, souls. The state of Virginia will not convict me. But there will be no place in heaven for me. If you will love me, you must know the truth.”
Stalker had never told anyone the whole story. For 35 years, he carried the pain of the guilt. His voice carried a note of fresh pain, as though it had happened yesterday. Perhaps if I listened carefully and with an open heart, he could start a journey.
I feared what I might hear. Would I still love him when I heard the full story? I pulled the covers over me. It was 2:00 AM, and we had been on the phone seven hours. Stalker in his Bronx apartment. A humid, August New York night, that was just turning to morning. Me, in the close, cool darkness of the still-dark night in my Portland, Oregon home. I turned out the light by my bedside, held the cell phone closer. Realized I had been holding my breath. The birds were starting to call to each other on his end of the phone.
“Tell me, Stalker. Tell me now.” Confess to me, I thought.
“There is a waterfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” he began. A waterfall nestled in the lush green mountains where Deborah and I visited one hot summer day in Virginia, 1971. As we started down the hilly path, a heavy rain began. Other hikers, tourists, passed us as they ran up the path to their cars for shelter. We didn’t care. The rain drenched us; Deborah’s tee-shirt was soaked. No one else seemed to notice. When we reached the pool at the bottom, the sky cleared and we swam naked by the waterfall. We played and grabbed and laughed. The best ten minutes of my lifetime. If only I could go back to the waterfall. Promise me, Baby. Promise me when I die, you will take my ashes to the waterfall.
She was beautiful. Deborah Richard Dubois. So slender. Her hair was soft, silky brown to her shoulders. She stood a couple of inches shorter than an average woman, and she looked almost like a tall child, she was so slight. Her family lived in Virginia for many generations. Her father owned a large farm; she grew up hunting and rugged and knowing the things I thought only men knew. She was brilliant, she was gorgeous. She didn’t need to work, but she wanted to heal people. She was a doctor. She was the most eligible bachelorette in Virginia. And somehow she wanted me.
When I first saw you, Deborah said to Stalker, it was the sun coming out.
I was 19 when we met, Deborah was 27. My brother brought her to the Bronx one break from the Medical College of Virginia, in Richmond. They studied together. I looked at her across from my family’s kitchen table. She looked out of place in our small apartment near Kingsbridge Road. She might have been the only Baptist girl my Irish Catholic mother Mary ever allowed in her kitchen. But she wasn’t a girl. A woman. And just a friend — they were just friends. And Deborah needed a place to go for the break, to get away. Far away.
She looked old and tired across the table. But her eyes said she needed me. We laughed and tickled each other and cuddled the rest of the night. In the morning she said, “Don’t let them see my shoes by your bed. What would they say?”
I went into action. I had to be with her. The next day I made some announcements.
* * *
“Deborah returned to Richmond,” said Stalker. “And I went into action.”
First, I announced to my mother Mary and my sisters that I was moving my bed from the living room of our apartment. I was taking one of the bedrooms for myself. They would have to double-up more. They obeyed. After all, I helped Mary with the rent.
And the phone company was coming out to put a phone into my bedroom, with its own number. I would pay for it myself.
Remember, these were the days when the phone was permanently attached to the wall. Yes, it was a long time ago! And you paid for each minute of a long distance call. You paid a lot. But remember, I was working at the post office while taking classes at City College, going to school for free — with money left over — on a state Regents scholarship.
“Yes, Baby. Once upon a time Stalker had extra cash in his pocket. And now I knew what to do with it.”
On Friday, every two weeks, I went directly from work to the airport to spend two days with Deborah in Richmond. Otherwise, we spent each evening on the phone for hours. All hours. What did we talk about? It didn’t matter. We were together, that was all. When you are in love, that is how it is. And I was in love for the first time.
I was in love for the only time. Until now, with you, Baby. It took 40 years to find love again.
“Deborah,” I said, “I can’t afford the phone bills anymore! I am coming to you.”
I moved to Richmond. Off the Bronx streets where I had taken those beatings as a boy. Every day after class, the bullies were waiting for me, I was the smallest of the class — until one day I grew strong enough and pushed them back. Moved away from the men, was as boys watched the nuns beat me. “The sister hates us all, but has a special spot of hatred in her heart just for you,” my buddy said. I moved to the South. I switched my major from acting to pre-med.
I moved to Richmond. Anything to be with Sugar. A year of heaven.
Then I did something stupid.
* * *
In the early 1970’s birth control pills had much higher doses of hormones in them. More strokes, more problems. Deborah was a physician. She knew the risks. She stopped using them. One night, I persuaded her not to worry. “It will be fine. Just once.” I insisted. She relented.
Deborah was not a 1960’s peace, love in, free-sex encounter for me. — yes I had had those. I did what all of us communist, draft-dodging, long-haired hippies did. No, Deborah was a woman, a partner. My first. We didn’t have any girls in the parish school. Starting in ninth grade, in high school, yes then I went to school with many girls, beautiful girls. Catholic girls, Jewish girls, girls of all shapes and persuasions. “Stay away from the Jewish girls,” my mother Mary warned. “And the Protestants, and the . . . ” Only Catholic girls allowed! “Those others girls don’t have any morals.” she said.
In those high school days, this disc jockey with the golden voice, never at a loss for words, had no idea what to say to a girl. I stammered, I blushed. I was scared. I would start ” . . .er, uh, so, ummm” and close with “ah, ummm, okay.” With nothing in between. I would practice all night what I would say to a girl the next day. It would all come out a red-faced garble.
I went blank. I thought of the years ahead that had stretched in delicious mystery, where anything was possible. Evaporated in an instant.
“Er, uh, so, uh, should, uh, er we get married?”
“That’s the way you ask me?!” She turned her back to me and slinked away.
I should have said, “we can do this.” Don’t worry about a residency. You will be so far along in the program, they will give you a leave of absence. Don’t worry about money. I will work two jobs, two full-time jobs. I will make it work. I was 20. She was 28. I would make it work for us, I should have said.
I said nothing.
I am the one who drove her. A long, silent drive. She came out after the procedure looking white, looking small. She stood on her own.
When I saw her, my knees buckled. I fainted.
I should have said, “I will take care of this.”
My son. My first murder. My son.
* * *
Stalker said that after the abortion, things were never the same with Deborah and him. After he told me about it, things were not quite the same between Stalker and me.
My heart beat in rhythm with his pain. This self-proclaimed alpha male, the “Savage,” the don’t-mess-with-me — I still know my karate and there is nothing you can do to me to hurt me. I will beat my own head against the wall and be out for three days and still rise up. My skull is so thick you can’t hurt me.” This tough Irish-Catholic drinking man, the-rules-don’t-apply-to me, this Woodstock free-love hippie, this monster who would do anything, so don’t dare him to do it! Deep inside, his heart was bleeding 35 years. “I should have done something,” he said. He killed his son. His first son. He sobbed into the phone.
Insidious Catholic-inspired guilt, I thought. If you drilled long enough through the layers, that’s what you found in his bedrock. Unmovable, unshakeable, unforgivable guilt. I knew about Jewish guilt, knew about that well first hand. But this was a different strain. Jewish and Catholic guilt are siblings, yes, with the same parents. But the siblings went their separate ways. One guilt could be lifted each Yom Kippur with proper repentance. For Stalker, his guilt would be eternal. He would not take the sacrament because of it. And no confession could absolve him, he said. No, no priest could fix this.
You were young. She was eight years older than you. She was a doctor. She knew the risks. Maybe she even was trying to get you to marry her. Maybe it wasn’t conscious. Maybe maybe maybe.
“It doesn’t matter. I am the man. I should have taken care of her. Roe vs. Wade. Murderers. That’s what they are. Murderers.”
Perhaps if he tells me, that will lift some of the pain for him. So he can stop punishing himself so harshly. Perhaps I can help just by listening. It won’t hurt me much to do that, I innocently believed.
Your first killing, you say? What was the next? How many?
* * *
You can’t make this stuff up. Stalker’s voice is at risk. The tool he used to seduce me cross country, then to harass me, is being prodded and scoped. He is barely 60 years old, but he has been mixing alcohol with cigarettes for forty years. “I didn’t smoke as a teenager, like the rest of you. I didn’t start until I was 20, in Virginia. Do you know how cheap cigarettes were in Virginia? I can still sing now, of course, but, not like when I was lead in the band, in our day.”
Eight months ago, he first complained to me about the soreness in his throat. Symptom. Hoarseness or soreness in the throat that does not go away. Hasn’t his deep but clear baritone grown gravely over the last two years? The recent voice messages — yes, quite hoarse. I must play some of our early taped phone conversations and compare. Then again, better to keep them in the box. Pandora’s box.
I haven’t responded in so long, he had given up asking for return calls. But yesterday, his early morning, sober and matter-of-fact voice mail said he had information to share and asked for a return call. As I drove to work, I considered it. Perhaps the time is right and Mr. Hyde will be away, and I can rescue Dr. Jekyll from him? The second voice mail divulged his difficulty swallowing and upcoming throat biopsy. My heart sank and my stomach clenched. Waves of sadness. It’s too soon, too soon. He needs more time. Yes, I will relent in my boycott and call back at lunch time. But by then, 12 more messages. The voice mail box was full; each message loaded with another vodka dose. Time to put the wax in my ears to block the sirens of Mr. Hyde. My return call will have to wait for a better day.
The stages of Stalker intoxication —
- Calm, respectful, sonorous
- Cooing baby talk
- Singing off pitch
- Proposes marriage
- Tearful reminiscing
- Self blame and flagellation
- Calls Baby a fat whore, Jew bitch
- Blames Jews for killing Christ
- Wishes the Mid-east explodes in nuclear disaster and turns the region into glass, saving the rest of the world from its problems
- Calls Baby’s relatives bigots
- Threatens to kill Baby’s ex-boyfriends
- Threatens to kill Baby’s family
- Threatens to dig up the bones of Baby’s parents and piss on their graves
- Leaves threatening messages on Baby’s friends’ phones
- Threatens to commit suicide
- Passes out
I have grown so numb to this. Hit 7 to delete. By Stage 9, I’m hitting delete, delete without listening to the rest of the message. How do you exorcise Mr. Hyde? How do I get Dr. Jekyll back? Will it take a cancer scare? Or is it too late, and cancer will take Dr. Jekyll from me, in revenge?
I await the test results, but I do not answer the phone. Once I answer, once I call back, he will know for sure I have been listening all along; the little protection that doubt provides will be gone. If he stops drinking, perhaps then I will call back . . . but will he stop, and will there be time? His voice brings heartbreak a thousand ways. The sirens still can get me.
* * *
2009. The summer of love for Stalker and me.
In May, Stalker had attended his 40th high school reunion, at the Bronx HS of Science. No, I wasn’t there. I had graduated a year after he did. But I saw the reunion postings on Facebook and high school egroups, and I wanted to know what had happened to another old friend from high school, Simon, whose last letter I had never answered. I ached to write him, to say I was sorry for never answering that letter 30 years ago. I posted on Facebook, everywhere, looking for information. Someone passed the inquiry on to Stalker, Simon’s best friend in high school.
Stalker emailed me. I emailed back with my phone number; if Simon were dead, I would rather hear it by phone than an email. Stalker phoned. Simon was alive. “But you don’t want to look for him anymore,” said Stalker. “He is in a place we do not want to go to.”
Stalker sang. He told jokes. He read me stories he wrote about high school. I laughed and thought him brilliant. “Do you like my voice?” Oh yes, a great voice. After two days, he called again. He announced his goals in life. “Stalker wants to get married and have children.” Daily emails, daily phone calls. On the fourth day, he said he loved me. I said I loved him, too. I love my friends. On the fifth day, he emailed he wanted to be married. I wrote back, “If I married you, my Orthodox Jewish relatives would disown me.”
Not that that would necessarily stop me, I thought to myself.
Stalker asked, “What if I converted?”
You know I can’t have children at my age, I reminded him.
“Surrogate,” Stalker said. “You have $50,000?” Stalker so funny!
I don’t want children.
“I want nine. I always wanted my own baseball team. Will you come to New York, or will I come to Portland? We are too old to wait long.” said Stalker. “What do I do to convert?”
I almost thought he was serious.
“Now,” said Stalker. I have some questions. I will send them to you and you will write me essays. I want to know everything about you.”
An email had the first essay assignments. No one had ever asked me such questions.
* * *
Our summer of love, 2009. Stalker wanted to know everything about me. I could share those stories that I had hoped, in my most self-indulgent daydreams, to find an audience for. “From your first skinned knee to your first pet, from your first kiss to the last tear that fell upon on your cheek. I want to know and you will tell me.”
Stalker’s assignments arrived in my daily morning email. Right after work each evening, I tackled the assignment. I worked hard, so my essays would be waiting for Stalker when he got home from his late night gig. The cross-country time difference worked to our advantage. As he made himself dinner at NY midnight, I would put my cell phone on speaker, and set it down a few feet from my pillow. Closing my eyes, cuddled in the covers, I listened to his sonorous baritone penetrating the dark stillness. It seemed like another person was in the room with me, and my loneliness began to evaporate. Stalker told me his life stories and sang me to sleep.
Nothing had ever felt so sweet and intimate.
The essay assignments from Stalker started out pretty easy for me.
1. What was the first doll or stuffed animal that you had? What did it look like? What name did you give it? 2. What other dolls or stuffed animals did you have over the years? Tell me about them.
When my sister caught the chicken pox, my mother purposely exposed me, so we could both “get it over with.” What a nightmare. The runny, messy, pink Calamine lotion; quite useless. I itched all over my little body. Ugh. I was about three years old; my sister, six or seven.
As a consolation prize for our being so sick, my father bought us gifts. Sister got a beautiful doll in a gorgeous case. I got a . . . a flimsy, miniature aluminum tea set?! What did I want with that?? I wanted a doll! Give me that doll!
Later, Sister and I got Ginny Dolls. Mine came dressed as a nurse, with an elegant navy velveteen cape, a cap sporting a red cross, and the classic white uniform. (I kept that cape to use as an apron for other dolls, long after Nurse met her tragic fate.) Sister and I had so few toys, we were careful with the ones we did have. We treasured them and they always looked brand new.
Only once did we leave our toys at risk. My father’s voice teacher visited our Grant Avenue apartment in the Bronx, to give my father a singing lesson. (What an extravagance, I realize now. But, at the time, I didn’t see other possibilities for us two little girls with our hand-me-down wardrobes and the paltry toy collection.)
The teacher brought his children with him. To escape the booming operatic voices in the small apartment, my mother took us girls out during the lesson. Later, we were shocked to find our dolls, board games, cards, potato heads, Spaldings and pick-up sticks out of the toy box and strewn all over the apartment. Where was Daddy, while the teacher’s feral children dismantled our cherished Ginny dolls? Didn’t he care about us at all? The Ginny dolls were as good as dead. I grieved; Nurse was my best friend.
With a heavy, guilty heart, Daddy took us and our injured dolls straight to the toy store. But alas, the deed could not be undone. “We don’t carry those anymore.”
Sister and I settled for new baby dolls instead. Pink plastic, maybe ten inches long. Not even. But, a bonus! They peed after you fed them with a water bottle. Loved that doll! Mine came in a pink, flowered flannel one-piece sleeper. Sister’s came in a blue one. (She always had blue things; I would get red or pink.) I think I named the doll . . . Doris? (After Doris Day) Later I called her Beth. After I read Little Women, I used the name Beth a lot — after the shy, sickly sister.
A few years later, Sister and I each got a Barbie doll. I got a Ken, too. At first I longed for the gorgeous ready-made outfits that were not in our budget. But, turned out I enjoyed commandeering other items as makeshift clothing for the dolls. Creating something out of nothing was fun and challenging. I contrived living quarters for the dolls, on top of the tall chest of drawers in our bedroom. I stood on a chair to reach, and entertained myself for hours making sleeping and sitting rooms for Barbie and Ken. I used shoebox tops for beds, covering them with my handmade quilts and pillows. I bent cardboard into furniture, lay scraps of leftover material for rugs. Right after finishing a layout, I would tear it up and start over. Making it was more fun than having it.
My maple, four-drawer nightstand became another favorite toy. I took out the socks and handkerchiefs from the top two drawers; empty, they became perfect square log cabin rooms for me to decorate. I made curtains from scrap material (I had a stash; my mother sewed our clothes!), tables and chairs from stiff cardboard. The possibilities were endless. I liked to study house floor plans in my mother’s magazines – Redbook, Ladies Home Journal — and try out my own cardboard floor plans on the desk I shared with Sister. (I was given my own desk about age 12 – but, what was the problem with sharing one?? I felt kicked out! And I lost my Barbie’s home, when that second desk replaced the chest of drawers. No one asked me first. If only they had asked.) I particularly remember a cardboard split-level house I created on the desk I shared with Sister – before I even knew the term “split-level.” Yes, I fancied myself a future architect. Even to this day, I conjure up houses, complicated floor plans, and exquisite furniture in my night dreams. But, doesn’t everyone?
Stalker, you asked about stuffed animals. Let me take a breath before I tell you about my one stuffed animal. Yes, the one. And before I answer the next questions:
What other toys and games did you like at various ages? Did you like to draw or paint or use coloring books or clay? Did you have a paint set? What did you like to wear at various stages of childhood and early teen years? Frilly dresses? Dungarees? Short pants? What colors? Did you like to try on makeup as a little kid?
Did you and your sister get along well in the early years? Since she was older, did she take you places? If so, where? Did your parents take you out to parks, and to stroll and play? If so, where?
What outdoor games did you like to play as you got older? Did you skip rope? Were you good at it? Did you own a bicycle? Where did you ride? Did you own a pair of outdoor roller skates, or go to the indoor rink at Jerome and Fordham? Did you ever ice skate? If so, where? Did you go sledding in the winter? Where? Did you own a sled of your own?
What were the names of your best friends in various neighborhoods and at various schools? Why did you like them?
Did you like to sing or dance? Did you ever take lessons? Did you ever take other kinds of lessons? Did you ever go horseback riding? Maybe at Pelham Stables?
What music did you like? What type of record player did you or your family have? What music did your sister and parents like? What were the first few records that you owned?
Did you watch much television? What were your favorite shows? Were there any shows that your family watched together? Did you and your sister ever fight over what to watch? What kind of television did you have?
What movie theaters did you go to? I believe there was one on 170th and another on Mt Eden, both just east of Jerome. Did you go there? Who did you go with? Later did you go to the Valentine, the RKO Fordham, and the Paradise? Who did you go with? What movies did you see there? (Maybe Ben Hur at the Paradise. You would’ve been about seven.) Did your dad ever take you to big Manhattan theaters like the Criterion? What were your favorite movies from theaters or tv as a child?
Ah, yes, I had finally met my conversational match. I was in the hands of a master, who could direct the conversation, take command of the situation, and never let the well go dry. I felt relief and became willing to follow his lead — curious about where it would take me, where it would take us. Yes, I’m a sucker for novelty.
I was driven to write my personal history, as long as someone wanted to hear it; eager to record the details of a young life I had assumed forgotten. Yes, his assignments monopolized my time and energy, but I don’t think that was his intention. I could have limited myself to short answers, instead of writing up long anecdotes. But, I wanted to tell the stories.
His own memories were stirred up as well. His Davy Crockett raccoon cap, his toy guitar. His father’s squeezing circus tickets out of the family budget, only to find Stalker with rheumatic fever, too ill to go. “But the next year, he took me to the circus at Madison Square Garden. My father might have been a no-good drunk, but he was fun. You always had a good time with my father. I will never forgive my mother for throwing him out for a year. I was only ten. I needed him. She kept us apart and I never forgave her.”
Yes, it hurt to admit to Stalker all that missed as a child. No ice skating or horseback riding. No bicycle riding, no swimming. No vacations. No, no, no. Maybe he could see why, later, I wanted to say yes to anything that came my way.
Stalker’s questions became tougher to answer, but I wanted to give myself over to the dialogue, to stop holding back. Finally I could be wholly known to someone!
Then Stalker’s next essay assignment arrived. “I have asked about what fun you had as a child. Now write me about sad and stressful things in your childhood.”
Hmmm. But, did I really want to be known, after all? How vulnerable could we be? I had to make some choices. Stalker held nothing back. I could try to match his courage, his openness, his strength. He knew no embarrassment or secrecy. Yes, I resolved. I will challenge myself to open up and share myself.
I knew he wouldn’t settle for anything less. And that made it easier.
* * *
A flurry of phone calls last week from Stalker. I have not answered in months, nor acknowledged the candy and stuffed animals. But still, I might listen to voice mails.
“Coming up! The Bronx HS of Science annual musical performance! You made me miss it last year. It would have been a glorious night. But instead, you humiliated me. Had the police take me out of my home, shoeless and in handcuffs. In front of all my neighbors. Did you really think I was going to kill myself? Over you? You locked me up in the loony bin. You did it, with my two sisters. The three witches. You turned your backs on me and walked out together. I wanted to scream, “Stop! Don’t leave me here!” But I knew if I did that, that would keep me even longer.
“Show up on the steps of our high school on Thursday night, 6:00 pm, and all will be forgiven. I know you have frequent flier miles. Get yourself on a plane and be there. If you don’t feel safe enough to stay with me, fine. You can stay with one of my sisters. They like you better than they like me. They will be happy to have you.”
“I told them five years ago to do West Side Story. No, no. Too hard for high school students. We don’t have that kind of talent here. Well, they have listened to me after all. They will do our songs. Remember? Tonight, tonight. Be there, and walk arm-and-arm with me.”
Friday morning, 3:00 am Portland, Oregon time.
“You bitch. You never loved me, did you? You have five minutes to call me back. Or I will slip a knife into your brother-in-law’s side. He will squeal like a pig. Or, maybe something else. Maybe I should kill you, instead.”
Friday morning, 4:00 am, Portland, Oregon time.
“The time to call me back was six months ago, when you chose your Jew family over me. When you let yourself get snowed in with them, instead of with me. You have five minutes to call me back, or this is definitely over. Over. Except for the settlement. Yes, I will extract a settlement. Call it a divorce settlement. Wait and see. I don’t have anything to lose now, do I?”
* * *
Summer of Love, 2009.
Assignment 3 from Stalker. Now that you told me the good parts, tell me the others. Tell me about sad and stressful things in your childhood.
Do I dare? How far do I go? Isn’t falling in love about risks and sharing? I always held back before. Is that why I have been so lonely? Finally someone asks. He tells you anything you ask about. At least try, try to tell him who you are.
Assignment 3. When I was about seven, my sister and I went to Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum with Daddy. One of the most horrible experiences of my life. Row after row of torture devices. Coffins to punish live people — with huge nails in the covers, complete with mannequins showing pierced, blood-stained corpses. The stuffed five-legged lamb was a particular horror. Daddy didn’t see my upset; he thought we were all having fun. I didn’t know how to say how I felt. I had nightmares for weeks. I should never had been let in there.
Then, to continue the horror, he would read from the book he picked up at the “museum,” “Believe It or Not” stories. For laughs. His laughs. I pleaded with him to stop, but he kept laughing. One anecdote had a man biting off his tongue to throw at someone. Still makes me ill. Always have worried about my tongue, ever since. I hated Daddy for putting me through it. What an insensitive thing to do to such a little girl.
The Twilight Zone was more than I could handle sometimes. I was sent to bed before it aired, but I was so lonely. I longed to be part of the family. Secretly, I would watch from a sheltered corner — they acted as though they didn’t know. They probably really didn’t notice; they would forget about me for long stretches. I regretted watching some nights, I was so scared. The episode of the little girl who fell under her bed, disappearing into a black hole. Her father came after her, but couldn’t find her. The opening between worlds was closing, closing. I couldn’t bear their being lost. Another episode of lost, confused people — who turned out to be dolls tossed into a bin. Or, the episodes where people discovered they were dead. So scary. I could not ask for comfort, because I would be punished for being a sneak and watching. It was my own fault that I was upset. “I hate nothing more than a sneak!,” said my mother repeatedly. I still must avoid horror stories, especially before bedtime, or bad dreams will visit me.
I have always been sensitive — to people yelling (yes, my parents screaming at each other bloody murder). To bright flashing lights. To those scratchy wool snow-suit pants I protested wearing, or that harsh wool blanket I woke up to one morning. Rough wool directly on my skin, it had my body on edge. I was age five or so. Yes, I was hypersensitive physically, psychologically, emotionally. It’s not an easy life, but being overly sensitive also helped me pick up on subtleties that didn’t register for others– and detecting those vibes could keep me safe, if I could sense the danger soon enough.
What was I MOST scared of? My mother’s rages. Her coming after me, after anything I loved, to destroy and wreak havoc. Slapping me, chasing me around the room to spank me. Not a calm, measured punishment. No, out of control. Smashing the doll carriage she had bought me just days before. (Knew that grand of a present was too good to be true!) Throwing out the cake I had baked the night before; gone before I could eat a bite. A special present. “After you get your tonsils out, we will get you a new toy; a toy bake-set.” Excited, I went to the refrigerator, to get my little cake — it was a pound cake, a miniature loaf. My heart sank. Not there! “Where is my cake, Mommy?”
“I threw it out.” Matter of fact. Eyeball to eyeball. My mind reeled. Why? What had happened? Had I done something wrong? I couldn’t remember anything. My heart ached for that adorable cake. The fun was out of the bake-set now. She is trying to hurt me and I don’t know why. I won’t let her she hurt me. Silent, expressionless, I turned my back and walked out of the room. She won’t see me cry, not if I can help it.
Or, her locking me out of the apartment as a seven-year old – humiliated, feeling half-naked in my pajamas. I banged and pleaded on that apartment door to be let back in. (Stupid me, I should have just kept going.) I felt a great deal of satisfaction when neighbors came by to see if all was okay, and I saw she was embarrassed. I hoped it humiliated her as she had humiliated me.
Her taking away my diary when I was in second grade. (My father intervened on that one; the diary was his gift to me. I got a red one, my sister a blue.)
Her ripping the film out of my Brownie after my afternoon documenting the Sedgwick projects and my friends, in preparation for our moving from the neighborhood. That was sixth grade. “You could have had a great memory of the day, but now you won’t!” Rip! Drama! Action! Film dangled, exposed, irretrievable. She was so frustrated I wouldn’t leave the apartment to go shopping for her. How could I tell her I was too afraid to leave? Too frightened to go to the store and be overwhelmed by the mob, pushed and shoved, waiting forever to be heard by the man behind the counter? She didn’t ask why I wouldn’t go, and I didn’t know how to tell her. She thought I simply wouldn’t help her; it was all about her, she was sure. But I didn’t know yet how to speak up in a store, or how to be seen in a crowd of towering adults, and I couldn’t tolerate the pain of it. Having failed at being a part of things, I had become too good at being separate. (Oh, how I wish I had those photos!)
Later I found myself in this book – The Highly Sensitive Child. Unfortunately, it was published years after my childhood; my parents never knew of it. Not that they read that kind of thing. They didn’t have a clue who I was, or their effect on me. I was a mystery to them, and them to me. End of Assignment 3.
Turns out, Stalker had Twilight Zone tales to share, too! “Did you see the one with Jack Klugman and the trumpet? Do you know that one?”
* * *
Scene 13, Kiss Me Kate
Our summer of love, 2009.
“I am almost 60 years old,” said Stalker. “This is not high school, with our whole lives ahead of us. Take the plunge with me; we will jump off the cliff holding hands. What are you waiting for? Kiss Me Kate. We will be married o’Sunday. Come to me. Surrender to me. I will look after you. You will die in my arms. I will be there for you; when you are 85 years old, I will cradle you in my arms as you say good-bye to this world.
“Now here are your lines, Kate. You must study them and say them to me on our wedding day. You will wear a Ginger Rogers white dress, feathers flying.
“Now, Baby, say after me. ‘I am ashamed that women are so simple.”
You are ashamed that women are so . . .
“No, no, Baby. Say, ‘I am ashamed . . .”
You are ashamed . . .
Stalker so funny!
“You’re not one of those women libbers, are you? Tell me you’re not one of those feminists, please! What have I signed up for? Thirty more years of this! Oh, heaven help me! My father said, Stalker, one thing. Just remember one thing. Never get married! I should have listened to him, but no, Stalker has to fall in love with the biggest bitch of Pelham Parkway!
“Did I tell you my father was as good as Fred Astaire? If he hadn’t been a drunk he could have been someone. He could have been a real contender. Now give Daddy a big kiss into the phone and say good-night. It’s a school night and you must get your rest, Baby. Tomorrow you must write me the next essay. Tell me about each boyfriend you had, starting with kindergarten. All the details, you must not hold back. And now I must eat some spinach to be ready for the next round with you! This week your training begins! Kiss me goodnight, Kate! Mwaaah!”
I never knew who Stalker was one minute to the next. Which voice was real? Which story line was play? Which threats and promises were theater; which could be counted on? Were we in a play within a play, within a play? Or not? Oh, what fun. Novelty! Entertainment! Mysteries! I was never bored for a moment. We were in heaven, Stalker and Baby — dancing cheek to cheek.
“All I want, Daddy, is someone to watch over me.” My little girl voice. Yes, I do voices, too.
“Ah, I love that sweet voice. I’ll watch over you, little lamb.”
Good night, Daddy.
“Good night, Baby.”
* * *
When he talked about Deborah, that was the true voice; the original person speaking –underneath the personas and the false selves. That much I knew. His natural voice was East Bronx, tinged with lyrical, working-class Irish cradling the diphthongs and punctuating the stops; no more theatrical accents, no more voice acting.
The next night, he told me more about the murder. “I am a bad man,” Stalker began.
* * *
Scene 14, Hair the Musical
The Fall of Our Love. Stalker and Baby attend Hair the Musical, our first date to a Broadway show. September 2009.
The irony could not have been keener for me. What had been my first date to a Broadway show, ever? September 1969. Hair. I went with Dave, my high school boyfriend; his family gave him tickets as a birthday present. Dave was friends with a cat who became –Stalker. You can’t make this stuff up.
September 1969. Actors naked on stage, long hair, rock ‘n roll. Freaks not on a protest march, not attending a concert in Central Park, the Fillmore East or Woodstock, but on a Broadway stage — infiltrating straight society. Outrageous in 1969, nostalgic in 2009. Now, Stalker and I were in seats overlooking the stage, surrounded by theater goers young enough to be our children. “Yes,” we bragged. “We attended the original decades ago.”
“Wow,” said the theater goers in awe of us. “Wow. My mother went to that.”
Now Stalker’s 1969 luxurious black, curly pony-tail was gone; a cap hid whatever hair was left on his scalp. My own 1969 hair had been shoulder-length, thick, dark chocolate-brown and too curly for the fashion. I wore it parted severely down the middle. Now it flowed more gently, falling far down my back; now mostly white, but disguised with auburn red color. Today he still could wear his high school narrow jeans and white shirt sizes; I had long outgrown shopping in the Alexander’s boys department for flannel shirts — outgrown both in style and size. Today I wore a red jersey wrap-around dress with heels. I had aged enough to have lost an ill-afforded inch from my meager 5’3″ stature; my neck had to stretch extra when I reached up to meet his kiss. But we were at Hair; we were still alive and dancing and rockin’.
This time, unlike 1969, after the last curtain call I was out of the audience and onto the stage. I had arrived at my life’s goal — to get out of the passive sidelines and into the central action of my life. Stalker and I ran down the rickety, windy stairs, and jumped to the center of the stage that was rapidly filling with audience members. A be-in, a love-in of sorts, a final group dance by The People. I was in heaven. How I loved that Stalker loved the stage and knew no fear, no embarrassment, no hesitation to live. With Stalker, I wouldn’t have to be Baby in the corner anymore; I could be onstage with “Johnny,” dirty dancing in the Catskills.
Stalker twirled me around him, as we switched from couples-based Swing moves to free-form dancing-alone-but-together in Hippie style, and back again. We might have been at a Grateful Dead concert — dancing with abandon, unself-consciously, as though we were 17 years old again. We held the promise of Hair, the symbol of our youthful rebellion — being long-haired in a short-haired world; resisting our naivety becoming an embarrassment. What did Yoko Ono later say about her and John Lennon’s bed-in, peace campaign? A little naive to think the war could be over if we just wish it enough? Yes, just a little.
“You are my Yoko, I am your John,” said Stalker as we rode back to the Bronx on the Broadway Local subway. “Always think, before you act, is that what Yoko would do?”
“Another assignment,” said Stalker. “You know what’s coming. Dave. Dave Rich. I need to know every detail. How you met– was it at high school, at Bronx Science? What did he tell you about me, in high school? What did you do together? When did you break up? How did you break up? You must write me another essay, as soon as you return to Portland. Do you understand what I need to know, Baby?”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Good. That’s a good girl.”
But where do I start? With Hair. That is a good place. With what Dave’s mother told me the last time I saw her. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 2001.
“When we bought the Hair tickets, the birthday present tickets for Dave and you,” she said. “Dave said it could not be a Saturday matinée. That’s when we understood what your situation was. We told him he couldn’t marry you. You can understand, can’t you? It would not have been good for him. You understand, don’t you?”
Well, now I do, I thought to myself. Now. Thirty years later.
* * *
Scene 15, Dave and Baby Part 1
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 11
Dave and I met at the Bronx HS of Science. I was 15, a junior; he was 17. We were madly in love and would spend our lives together, we were sure. I wore his heavy senior ring, featuring a black stone on its front, temporarily sized with band-aid wraps for my own finger. I was so petite back then, just over 100 lbs. Under my jeans I sported a white-gold ankle bracelet with black pearls; our names engraved on the wings and 2-2-1969 inscribed on the back of the hearts. “I love you. Will you go steady with me?” he said on 2-2-1969, as our Lexington Avenue train pulled out of 59th Street. (The ring was legal, but whenever we went to his house, I carefully removed the ankle bracelet so his parents would not ask how he had afforded it.) He was six-foot tall, classic dark, stereotypical New York Jewish looks and a big, friendly smile. He was growing his head hair longer, pushing against his parents’ length limit. His chest hair already curled over the neckline of his crewneck t-shirts, and his face showed a shadow by the afternoon.
He was too good for me, I knew. He seemed so cool, so good-looking, so smart. Me? I was searching the library shelves for the answer to myself. Freud, Adler, Jung. Dave seemed to have few such self-doubts. He played lead guitar in his band, and loved the attention. He had so many friends, knew his way around the city, moved through the world with confidence. My parents allowed me to go anywhere if I were with him, no questions asked. Now I had male protection out in the dangerous world, they thought. With him, I discovered Manhattan, holding his hand for dear life. My landscape now included new parks, subway lines and theaters, and was inhabited by B. B. King, Clapton, Joplin, Hendrix and the Dead — with a new wardrobe of jeans, workshirts, peasant blouses, black turtlenecks, pea-coats and drug-paraphernalia inspired accessories. He taught me how to cut school and do what the cool ones did, while maintaining an enviable grade point average and proper appearances at home. I fell into it easily; I was used to living double and triple lives.
That summer, on another subway trip to Manhattan, he said, “I love you. Will you marry me? We can live in my parents’ basement until I get a job and support us.” My future stretched before me in love and security.
His family lived in a beautiful private house in a still pastoral section of the north Bronx, replete with a flower garden in back. Everyone had his own room (Dave’s with one black wall, his parents’ compromise with his demand for four black ones), and all of them were uncluttered and clean. I was grateful that Dave was tolerant of my circumstances: my struggling stressed-out family, overcrowded in a dingy public housing project apartment; schedule restrictions placed by my obsessive-compulsive, Shabbos-obeserving father; the expectations placed on Dave by my admiring but desperate and depressed mother; my own allegiance to my virginity, a safeguard against an eternity in hell (for surely I otherwise deserved that). 1969 was the best summer ever. At its end, Dave took me to see Hair on Broadway; he got the tickets for his 18th birthday.
But the disparities between my two lives were growing, as well as the stakes. I was breaking under the strain. My anxiety and panic attacks were multiplying, but I could not see why.
I believed in G-d, so I still wanted to observe the Jewish Sabbath, eat only kosher food and be a virgin when I married. I loved Dave and being cool, the excitement of all-night rock concerts, mini-acid-festivals at his friend’s house, be-ins at Central Park, and hanging with people on the edge. Of belonging. As time went on my resolve to lead both lives weakened; living the life of my peers became worth breaking the Sabbath for, at least in secret away from my parents’ awareness. Maybe getting on a bus or subway on Saturday, or wearing pants on a Jewish holiday, or doing homework on the Sabbath . . . maybe I could do all that without increasing my chances of a sentencing to hell?
Surely this would all work out?
September, he started college. He still lived at home in the Bronx, so each morning we traveled together on the Number 12 bus as far as Fordham and the Concourse. Then I went up the Concourse to Science, while he caught the D train down to CCNY in Manhattan. The distance between us gradually grew in all ways. He became tired of living his own two lives. He wanted to give up school, then go on the road and become a rock star, certain that would cure his depression. In his eyes, I was an obstacle; I became something that was tying him down to a life he didn’t want to lead.
As I graduated high school, June 6, 1970, the phone call came.
“Give me my ring back. Give it to one of my friends — Simon, Chris or Savage, any of them. You won’t see me again.”
I saw Chris at school the next day; he looked sad, but he wasn’t surprised when I handed him the ring. I didn’t have my own senior ring, because I had been wearing Dave’s. Now I had none, nothing.
I couldn’t eat. When I dropped to 88 lbs., I was scared. I needed a plan to put myself back together. I would get away. Yes, I would find a way that my parents would accept, and get away.
I was not prepared for the Summer of 1970. I made a big mistake.
* * *
Scene 16, Time Travel
Summer of Love, 2009.
As we fell in love, each conversation was a revelation. We both grew up in crowded Bronx households, in families that instilled religion (and guilt) within us. We had gone to the same high school, had friends in common. We loved so much of the same music. We both watched movies as much as possible, and dreamed of dancing like Astaire and Rogers. We both loved to talk, to write, to sing and to get in front of a microphone. We both sought novelty and excitement, to entertain and be entertained.
And we both were fascinated with time travel.
My keen interest started with A Wrinkle in Time in fifth grade. I closed the book after the last page, sad it was over. I closed my eyes; I was in awe, felt transported. That is the best book I have ever read, I thought. And by then I had read most of the wall of children’s fiction at the Sedgwick Library. The Sue Barton series, the Mary Poppins series, the Pam and Penny books. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series (yes, Little Women had sequels, as did Mary Poppins). Helen Keller’s biography. Helen Keller’s autobiography. I had read them all.
But Wrinkle in Time, that was my favorite. A couple of years later, I lived for tv broadcasts of the The Time Tunnel. Later, Back to the Future movies and television’s Quantum Leap. Time travel! Time confusion? Foreseeing the future? Determining the future? Do overs? I loved it all!
And so did Stalker. Quantum Leap was his favorite. And the Twilight Zone.
He wanted to reach back into time. Desperately.
“I saw the gun and I yelled, NO! I leaped up, I reached to grab it, but I didn’t have time. Where did that thing come from? Deborah pulled the trigger on the Magnum and it flew into the air. In slow motion, I saw the gun fly; I was in mid-air, my hand was still stretched out, reaching for it. NO! But she had pulled the trigger. WHAM! It was done.
“If I can just go back. I just need a few more seconds to get that gun out of her hand. WHAM! It was flying.
“The chamber had only the single bullet. She knew what she was doing.”
Only one bullet?
“She knew I would turn it on myself if the chamber had another.
“I need to go back. I just need another minute, to grab that gun. I would give anything to grab that gun.
“I didn’t save her then. But I will have another chance. I made a vow.”
My heart ached for him. Could my love save him now?
* * *
Scene 17, Summer of 1970, Part 1
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12
Dave had said we would get married in 1971, as soon as I turned 18. In June 1970, I graduated Bronx Science. And Dave broke up with me. Life = cancelled. I couldn’t see my way without him. I went into shock. Stopped eating. Stopped feeling.
As we got dressed one morning in our bedroom a couple of weeks later, my sister said, “I haven’t seen Dave in a while. Where is he?” I couldn’t speak. My streaming tears were her answer. I couldn’t tell my parents; I was too ashamed of my failing. No one brought it up again. A suffocating, humid, empty Bronx summer stretched in front of me.
Then I kicked into survival overdrive. Realization! No longer did I have to append myself to Dave. I could do what I wanted, now that I did not have to fit into his plans. I could try something new, have a new experience, go somewhere! Ah, excitement and relief helped to assuage my broken heart. Freedom is always a good choice for me.
But how to pull it off? I had no money, no connections. Then there were Daddy’s published rules and Mommy’s unspoken ones. These included: do not go out after dark without a male protector; do not travel to unfamiliar places (unfamiliar to them!) without a male protector; do not travel on the Jewish Sabbath at all; eat only kosher food; come home every night by the time we tell you; blah blah blah. If I broke the rules, Daddy was known to write up stricter ones as punishment. The year before, I came home from school one afternoon to a new “constitution” taped to my telephone. “The New Rules. You will come home directly from school and stay in your room except to eat meals in the kitchen and go to the bathroom. You will not visit friends after school. You will not use the phone. You will stay in your room until further notice.” I was not just in prison, I was in solitary confinement! My sobbing lasted so many hours, they called the family doctor. “I always thought she had emotional problems. Give her one of her father’s tranquilizers and send her to therapy.” Yeah, let him try to live with them and stay sane. And Daddy is on tranquilizers? What?
To get out of the Bronx, I needed a loophole.
I found one. Daddy abided by The Jewish Press; he trusted the weekly Orthodox paper and everything in it. In its back pages, I found the classifieds. “Wanted. Mother’s Helper for summer at upstate bungalow colony.” I phoned. I put aside my jeans and donned a skirt. (I had lost enough weight that my skirts hung on me. Now they reached my knees, satisfying the Orthodox dress code!). Thank you, Dave, for teaching me the subway system, so I could get myself to Brooklyn for the interview.
Two sisters, each with two boys, were going to Greenwald’s, near Woodridge. They needed help. As was the custom, wives and children would enjoy being in the country in a community of rented cottages with a communal swimming pool, while their husbands stayed behind in the city, working Monday through Friday. The men arrived in the country for the weekends. The mother’s helper shared the vacation at no expense to herself. In fact, she earned twenty dollars a week, plus room and board!
I visited the first sister, Chana — who was 28 years old, trim and modern looking except for her sheitel — in her private house in Borough Park. The furniture was protected with plastic. Her husband, Rabbi Yitzchok Weiss, an Israeli, worked in the diamond district in Manhattan. Their son Avrumie was four, Schmuel just two. Chana was so excited with her find (me!), she put me in a taxi to go over to her older sister Essie. Essie’s living room was furnished simply, just with a playpen for the 18-month old. Yussie, two-and-half, was playing quietly by himself nearby. Essie, more casual than Chana, wore a tichel on her head. She loved me, too.
My parents were delighted! I’d be going off with two families who were even more religious than they were! I would be safe for the summer, and out of their hair, out of their worry zone. I packed my suitcase with my Orthodox Jewish Bungalow Colony costume, just long-sleeved blouses and skirts. I left behind my bell bottoms, workshirts and drug inspired-paraphernalia accessories, along with cigarettes, Acid Rock and Central Park be-ins.
I was happy and relieved. Yes, I craved breathing new air, without the stress of Dave and the loss of Dave and my parents’ rules and my wondering what do I do with myself? A safe haven. Playing straight was the price, and I was willing to pay.
How naive we were.
* * *
Scene 18, Summer of 1970, Part 2
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12, continued
Baby as a mother’s helper in the Greenwald Bungalow Colony near Woodridge, New York in the Catskills.
Back then, we felt in another world when only a few-hours car drive away. No computers, no email, no web cams; phones were permanently connected to the wall. A hundred miles was a tangible barrier, hard to overcome. Each Sunday evening I used the lone colony telephone, in the manager’s head bungalow, to talk to my parents for a few minutes, collect. Long distance calls were dear, made with care and fanfare in those days. “Yes, I’m fine. All is well.” I gave them the reassurance they wanted, no matter what. Telling them what they needed to hear had become a habit too hard to break.
And because of that, I had no guidance when I needed it most.
But all seemed well. The mountain air was breathing freshness into my spirit. Being away from the sticky, summer streets of the Bronx — away from the hope of running into Dave, of waiting for him to make my phone ring — I felt transported and started to heal from the breakup.
The colony had reliable mail service, of course. My parents and I wrote each other a couple of times a week, too, and they asked to visit. “Yes, Daddy and Mommy, you can visit here this summer; I’m sure I will be able to get away from my charges to spend an afternoon with you.” Later, after admonishment from my father, I wrote, “Thank you for visiting, Mommy and Daddy.” I had to follow the rules precisely; Mommy would be so hurt if I didn’t put her name first.
My movements were reviewed and corrected, with my father serving as master puppeteer. Ah, I appreciated this distance and chance to minimize his scrutiny, cut the strings, act on my own. I was 17, a high school graduate and away for the first time. Let me be! Enough already! I thought. At the end of the summer, I would be back home, living with my parents while I went to City College in Manhattan. Let me have this time, please.
Early mornings the mountain air was especially sweet, and I would take the boys for a walk around the colony — the littlest in the stroller, Schmuel and Yussie flanking it, Avrumie following close by. The Weisses followed the custom of delaying a boy’s first haircut, so Schmuel’s blond curls were pulled back into a ponytail for convenience; he was so beautiful, people mistook him for a girl. He didn’t care, he didn’t care about anything. He was fearless and happy and simply the most delightful child. Yussie was serious and dark. Avrumie met the world with trepidation and skepticism, but tried not to let it show. The little one was a blank to us; Essie usually left him in a playpen and we followed her lead. But, I should have given him more attention, even so. I wonder what happened to him. Most of all, I wonder what happened to Schmuel. Did the summer leave a telltale sign on him?
We called him Schloymala, because he was such a cute tatteleh.
Bungalows were rustic and rough cabins with no heat, no air conditioning; I think they emptied into a cess pool. They were used only for escapes from the summer in the City. Chana and Essie had adjoining bungalows at the end of the row, brushing up to the edge of the forest that I sometimes snuck into for a quick change of scenery and scent. Each bungalow had two simple rooms, and a bathroom with a shower stall instead of a tub.
The back room was a bedroom with two twin beds (the colony was well appointed for Orthodox Jewish family purity practices), a cot for one child and a crib for a younger one. The front rooms had a kitchen sink, stove, refrigerator and cabinets along one wall, and a table and chairs for dining. At the other end of the room, under a row of low windows, was a cot. That is where I slept — in Chana’s bungalow the first part of the summer, in Essie’s at the tail end. They didn’t explain the switch, but I suspected why. I tried not to think about that.
Chana and Essie told me to eat anything I wanted. I hadn’t brought any cigarettes with me because it was a good opportunity to quit — and Orthodox women usually did not smoke or drink, though not forbidden to do so. Further sparked by the country air and my emotional healing, I developed a robust appetite. I satisfied it with the bounty of apples and peaches the sisters kept on hand, instead of with smoking.
After the morning walks, Chana and I would take the boys to the colony’s walled-off swimming pool. It was women-only time, but of course the young boys had to stay with us. In the afternoon, when Chana and Essie would take the car somewhere, my lovely children and I would visit the two other mother’s helpers and their charges. Once a week, the mother’s helpers had a day off. We hiked miles to Woodbourne, Woodbridge, South Fallsburg; once we made it as far as Liberty. I got to walk all the way back to the colony, too, because the other girls refused to hitchhike. My legs grew stronger, my body more tan.
I didn’t feel the tedium set in for at least a couple of weeks. Once Chana asked, “Are you happy here?” She looked concerned. Of course, yes, of course, I said, never wanting to disappoint.
Friday afternoons brought a welcome change to the routine. The men came up from the dirty city, infiltrating our female world with their deep voices, cigarettes and wine; they formed their minyans. As they took their seats at the head of our kitchen tables, the rest of us deferred to their authority. The colony’s families observed Shabbos together. Friday evenings we carried tables to the common lawn, and covered them with fleishig tablecloths. Families shared their special Sabbath cholents and tzimmes in a pot luck feast. Chana’s husband Yitzchok’s cholent was my favorite, an Israeli version swollen with beef chunks, potatoes, carrots and aromatic spices novel to my tongue. Yitzchok, in his early 30s, was the tallest and the leanest of the men. Like most of the others, he had a thick beard, dark looks. But his cholent alone had a strong Israeli accent and mysterious, foreign Sephardic roots, just as he did.
I relaxed into the relief that all my food was kosher, that no one would look at me wide-eyed when I abided by Shabbos restrictions, and I had no explaining to do to my classmates. “I can’t do that, it’s Shabbos,” I would say. It’s what? “Don’t call me Friday night or Saturday before sundown, it’s Shabbos.” Whaaat? “I won’t be at school, it’s a Jewish holiday.” Again? “I can’t eat that.” You can never eat at my home?
Perhaps this life was a better one for me. I should give up my evil ways and do what I was supposed to do; make G-d and my parents happy.
But during the summer, I realized my parents were not completely observant themselves. At home I had not learned all the customs and prayers practiced at the colony, nor had I been to a yeshiva to learn them. Prayers recited in Hebrew before eating? Didn’t know them. Prayers after eating? Didn’t know them. I did the best I could to fit in, but once again in my life, I had to make a forced effort to blend in. Once, I asked my mother why I hadn’t been sent to yeshiva instead of public school. “We weren’t that religious,” my mother said. “And children who go to yeshiva criticize their parents for not being observant enough.” She wore sleeveless blouses, slacks, and did not cover her head. She wasn’t going to have any child of hers expect her to do otherwise.
Someday my life will make sense. I will know who I am. I will resolve all these conflicts. I will stop playing parts and I will be where I belong. I will be accepted. I was prone to making such declarations and promises to myself; their looming, seemingly inevitable fulfillment kept me going.
One mid-summer night a thunderstorm lit the sky and Chana and I ran across the open lawn dodging the lightning. “Isn’t this dangerous?” she asked. We did it anyway. The fear made me feel alive.
Dave receded into a different time and place as I was awakening to my future. Rich and ripe cholents and peaches and country road hikes hastened my own blossoming. My tan kept deepening, my skin was glowing. My senses heightened. I began to eye Yitzchok’s cigarettes, the soft, fragrant, familiar smoke was too inviting; its old hold on me reawakened, too, catching me by surprise. He noticed my watching as he smoked. “Would you like one?” He extended out the pack. Under the watchful gaze of Chana and Essie’s widening eyes, I accepted a cigarette. Now on Fridays he brought an extra pack of Marlboros with him from the City, and left them with me for the week.
Then Yitzchok started to do other surprising things.
* * *
Scene 19, Deborah
The summer of our love, 2009.
“Let me grab another pack of cigarettes, Baby, and my bottle of vodka,” Stalker says. “I will tell you the whole story and then we will never have to speak of it again.” His voice was bowing under heavy resignation.
But once he tells the story, he can never stop telling it, again and again: the repetition of grief.
The night air passes my pink bedroom curtains and washes over me, as I lie in bed under a cotton sheet in my home in Portland, Oregon. With closed eyes I focus on Stalker’s voice traveling from the Bronx, filling my room through my phone’s speaker. I brace myself for his story and hope I can accept it fully without judgment. I hope I can contain it for him, and give him some relief.
“When I came back to the Bronx from Richmond in ’74, I couldn’t tell my friends what had happened,” Stalker said. “I started to tell Simon, but before I got very far, he said, That’s really fucked up, man. He looked like he couldn’t handle it, so I stopped. My brother was gone by then, himself. My mother and sisters knew the major points, but I couldn’t talk it out. I told myself to get on with things. I took up with another woman, right away; took her in with her little girl. Instant family, as though everything was okay. Maybe I loved her, but probably I didn’t. That lasted six years, and since then I’ve mostly been on my own.
“My sister tells me to talk to a priest, to take communion, but I could never do that. I could never wash the blood of the murders off my hands. I have not been in a state of grace for forty years and nothing can change that. No priest can change that.”
Confess to me.
“Someday I will go back to Richmond; you will come with me, Baby. I will show you the theater where I played King Lear. Show you the house I lived in, and the other house, where Deborah lived after we murdered my unborn son. No, I shouldn’t blame her at all. It was my responsibility. I will show you the waterfall where she and I swam, naked, early on, when we still had our innocence.
On my birthday, she asked how old I was. Twenty? she repeated, incredulously. We had already been together for months. What did she think?
“Even though I was eight years younger than her, she knew I was in charge. She was a brilliant doctor, me, an undergrad. But I am an alpha male and she respected it. She could have had anyone. She had been with prominent physicians, wealthy business people. Her father knew everyone to know in Virginia. But Deborah and I were meant to be together.
“. . . I had been having a bad feeling, a really bad feeling. So early one morning I drove my black Corvette to her place. Another car was parked outside. I stormed into the house; I blasted into the bedroom like Conan the Barbarian rescuing Valeria, and found a 50-year-old disgusting man — a head of a department at the hospital — in bed with her. How could she let him touch her? I was studying karate since high school, breaking my toes on boards, and my muscles bulged all over. And I had a huge voice, and I let him hear it. That beer-belly coward jumped out of bed and out of the house, running for his life, leaving behind his clothes. I chased him down the street, shouting that I would kill him if I ever saw him again!” Stalker is laughing now. I’m remembering the movie Sideways. But I stay quiet, thinking of what this all means.
“You still there, Baby?”
I take it in, take it all in. Hold it.
“Meanwhile, all this time, Deborah said nothing, showed nothing. She calmly got out of bed, got dressed and left for work at the hospital as though nothing had happened.
“She said his wife called that evening and asked for his keys and wallet.”
You forgave her?
“She was free, white and 21. She could do what she wanted.
“By the way, that moron Patch Adams didn’t know a thing. And Robin Williams should burn in hell. Adams said Deborah was frigid. She wasn’t; but she took a very, very long time. One night I didn’t have the patience. I rushed things, really rushed things. Afterwards, she bolted up and said, What did you just do to me? What did you do?
“In a split second she was across the room, but I was quicker. I had to pull her off the open window, wrestle her to the floor, pin her down. She fought against me, so strong in her anger. I could barely keep her down, she was going for the window. She screamed and cried; my housemates knocked on the door to see what was going on. Let me die, let me die! She finally promised to calm down, and I let up on her.
“It got worse. I should have understood the signs, I should have known the signs.”
You were so young.
“But it was my responsibility. And it kept getting worse.”
* * *
Scene 20, Summer of 1970, Part 3, Baby as mother’s helper in Greenwald’s Bungalow Colony, the Catskills.
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12, continued
Some of my duties confused me. For example, I was responsible for keeping the four boys away from their mothers during the week. A challenge, to babysit two-, three-, four-year olds with mothers in plain sight. I tried to distract the boys when the Chana and Essie walked by, but often I failed. Another mystery — why didn’t they want to be with the children more?
I gave the boys my full attention to try to make up for this. I was relieved one time, when Chana turned and welcomed Schloymala as he ran after her breathless, his tiny legs peddling as fast as he could make them go, arms reaching out. “It’s okay. He can come along.”
Schloymala at two was active and athletic: climbing and hanging and running and smiling. But he didn’t talk yet, not a word, though we knew he was clever. He was everyone’s favorite darling, and even Chana confided in me that while her eldest Avrumie was a dear child, Schloymala with his blonde curls and charming smile was special. I hoped Avrumie didn’t notice, for as long as possible.
My heart filled; I loved Schloymala.
So when Rabbi Yitzchok pulled Schloymala atop his tall shoulders and said, “Let’s take him for a walk,” I went along. Far from the colony, we sat in a sunlit clearing scented with summer grass and pine. He picked a wildflower sporting a white bloom and threaded it through the third buttonhole on the front of my blouse. Schloymala climbed on top of his father. I inhaled the sweetness of the day.
I was confused. Surely this broke so many rules. But what is an employee to do? I sat still and did nothing. For now.
* * *
Scene 21, Summer of 1970, Part 4, Baby as a mother’s helper in the Greenwald Bungalow Colony near Woodridge, New York in the Catskills.
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12, continued
The borders of my retreat were growing porous and my old life was seeping through. In plain sight, I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a week. I indulged in other activities from my secular life, as well.
I read a novel.
When Essie’s husband’s returned to the City one Sunday night, he left behind a book. I took reading-for-pleasure so for granted, I hadn’t expected the dearth of books in the country. I grabbed up this one, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. Of course, it had a Jewish theme. That was fine; it was interesting and well written. I stayed up late reading, even though I paid for my indulgence by being tired the next day. After the second night of reading, I slept so much later than usual that Chana sent Avrumie to wake me. He tugged at me gently. I guess I was needed, after all.
Another morning, a different set of hands woke me. Yitzchok was sitting on the edge of my cot, his hands caressing my belly. Chana’s voice came from the next room and, startled, he jumped right up and was gone.
What? What just happened? I was startled too, but, somehow it seemed so natural. And
whatever it was, it was certainly my fault. I said nothing, hoping I would not be punished for wearing a summer cotton nightgown, for sleeping in an exposed cot — for being a 17-year-old virgin with a 33-year-old man sleeping in the next room.
Looking back I wonder, what were these people thinking, having me there like that?
When in doubt, I froze, like a startled animal that could not fight or flee. Instinctively, I played dead. Maybe it will go away on its own. Passive, I said nothing. Submissive, I simply wondered what would happen to me next.
I listened to music.
The colony was without music except for singing on Shabbos, seldom had newspapers, and did not have a single television. The place was a stripped down, rustic summer-
camplike retreat. The residents were mostly disinterested in the outside world, even when at home during the rest of the year. I did spot one radio one evening, though, when I visited another mother’s helper in the manager’s head bungalow. She and I were alone except for her charges asleep in the back room. Rifka was from Chicago, just 14 years old, petite, with short brown hair, brown eyes and eyeglasses. She went to Yeshiva. I liked her; she was my best friend that summer. She’d never met anyone like me, I’m sure.
“Let’s listen to the radio,” I said.
“It’s the Three Weeks.” Music was prohibited during this time, she reminded me. I knew, but didn’t care. Some things are just more important than the Three Weeks, I thought. Her voice sounded more hesitant than frightened, or angry. “It’ll be okay. Just a little,” I said.
What good luck! Uncle John’s Band was playing. Joy! The Dead squeezed into the colony now, a treat like a ripe peach after a day-long fast, and I was revived. How I missed my other life; this one would never do all by itself — once a person is exposed to the outside world, how could you give it all up? I understood better some of the restrictions my father tried to force on me, and the isolation of the Orthodox communities — because once you go out there, well, there’s no going back.
Now Rifka did look unnerved, as she saw me sway to the music and brighten. After the song, I turned the radio off. I had what I needed, let her have her peace.
I still carry that song with me, that moment of light in the darkness of the Three Weeks of Jewish mourning — those weeks that come every mid-summer. I carry that moment I took a another step towards choice.
The Jews are not a happy people, but I wanted to be one.
My other life slipped into the colony one afternoon. I watched my father’s car come down the road, past the colony’s fence; my parents were coming up the final gravel driveway to Chana and Essie’s connected bungalows I didn’t know what to do with them, but Chana was a cheerful, gracious hostess, putting my parents at ease with coffee and rugelah. All new smiles, my parents drove me to Woodbridge for a lunch of deli sandwiches and knishes. Yes, I’m having a wonderful time. All is well.
“You look so good, so tan. We’re glad you got away to the country; it’s so hot and humid in the city, especially this year.
We’re glad you’re not with us, is what I heard.
“And you’re with such nice people.”
Because they follow the rules, is what I heard. Because they seem so religious.
If I freeze, I am trapped and without hope. Fight? Usually, I do not know how to fight. Run, baby, run, that’s what I must do. But for now, I was frozen. I would need help to flee, which meant I would have to let on that I had made a mistake; I had made a bad choice, or I had done bad things: that I deserved to be punished. How can I hide this mess — that is how I thought about it.
A silent voice inside me called out to them. Don’t leave me here. Take me back with you!
But I wasn’t going to ask for help; that was the last thing I would do.
With my parents’ half day visit, and Chana and Essie’s irregular schedule, my days off became compromised. For a second week, I lost out on having a full day to myself. Chana regretted that she had needed me to change my schedule. “We’ll make it up to you,” she said, cheerful as she extended her conciliatory offer, with her husband at her side. “Yitzchok will take you out somewhere, to make it up to you.” What? He convinced her that he should take me out on a date? What would I do, out with him alone? But how could I turn down Chana’s gift without evoking her suspicions. Better to stay quiet than rock the boat.
I went along, lifeless and silent. Yitzchok was jovial, as he and I had kosher pizza at some hotel’s restaurant. Then he drove us by a shimmering, black lake. Which hotel? Which lake? I had no idea. I didn’t drive; I didn’t know roads, nor directions. I put myself in others’ hands and trusted, my attention elsewhere. In the moonlight he parked the car, and we looked over the romantic setting. Sitting on the far right of the car’s front bench seat, I felt self-conscious, vulnerable. He said, “Look at the beautiful lake, the stars in the sky.” This was my treat.
Take me back, please, I don’t know what I’m doing here.
I remembered when it was my father offering me a treat, when I was about three or four years old. “I’ll take a bath with Baby,” he told my mother, announcing a fun activity for us. “I’ll wear a bathing suit.”
She prepared a warm bath and, naked, I slipped in around his feet. I huddled at the end by the tub faucet. He was stretched out, reclining; he gazed at me. He was so long, he took up the whole bathtub, not like my short sister. She and I would have an ocean between us when we played in cool bath water during the summer afternoons that baked our five-story, brick apartment building. I didn’t want to be there, but I did not want to refuse a treat from him and hurt his feelings. He was being so nice to me; what was wrong with me? I sat with my back towards him, trying to make myself as small as possible so he couldn’t see me, real small so maybe I wouldn’t be touching him. I was relieved when it was over, and never suggested again.
Yitzchok brought some leftover kosher pizza home for Chana. The next day, she served it as lunch for Essie and me. “Where did the pizza come from?” asked Essie. Chana stammered around for an answer, gave up and went silent. Essie looked at her quizzingly, and left it at that.
The sisters approached me as I reclined on a lounge chair under the pin oak tree by the playpen, eating Chana’s apples, the children playing at my side. “Stay by Essie’s the rest of the summer,” Chana said. “You can move over to her bungalow today.” Ok. Makes sense to split my time between them. I’m sure it’s only to make things fair, for me to share my time better between the two households. I’m sure it’s only that. I moved my clothes over and now I belonged to Essie, sleeping on her cot and eating her apples.
Chana’s once warm and carefree manner was growing cold and tight. My heart went out to her, but I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t doing anything!
The Three Weeks were coming to an end. For the last meal before the fast of Tish B’av, Chana planned to cook us eggs. “But our mother’s helper doesn’t like eggs,” said Essie.
“I’ll put food coloring in,” said Chana.
It was a long fast ahead, so I ate the red-dyed eggs without protest. But I didn’t like them.
Then Schloymala started talking, and that made things a little worse.
* * *
Scene 22, Summer of 1970, Part 5
Stalker’s Essay Assignment 12, continued
Baby as a mother’s helper in the Greenwald Bungalow Colony near Woodridge, New York in the Catskills.
Schloymala didn’t speak, but was so expressive, he still got you on his wavelength. Or he tried to! Chana and I were at our wits end with him; he refused to stay in his crib. We would put him down to sleep at night, and minutes later he was running around the bungalow. She lowered the crib mattress all the way down, to make the climb tougher — but he was out again the next night. How did he do it? We spied on him from behind the door, and caught him in the act! He climbed out of that crib like a circus acrobat. He was so little, but strong, and fearless! He would pull himself up the bars, hoist himself over the rail, slide down to the floor. We would have thought it was impossible, if we didn’t see it ourselves.
We had to do something to keep him from climbing out, and into danger, while the rest of us slept during the night. Chana devised a solution. She picked up some lengths of rope, and tied him into the crib.
It was heartbreaking. We stood at the far end of the room, in the doorway, and watched the dismal scene in silence. He was standing up in the crib, gripping the bars, swaying back and forth, wailing. His tears flowed and he cried — not an angry scream, not a frightened cry or a pained one — but, rather, a cry of utter despair. He tugged at the ropes halfheartedly, having already given up hope. The knots were too tight. I thought he would die of despondency. The sight was pitiful.
“What shall we do?” Chana said.
We had no choice.
Chana untied the ropes and Schloymala was transformed in a split second. The smile was back, his mischievous, impish energy pumping through his toddler limps. Like a little Houdini, he had himself out of that crib even before the last rope had fallen away.
Chana sighed. I smiled.
I put Schloymala down in his crib one night, hoping he would fall asleep and stay put. “Please stay in the crib. Please.” I tried to will him to stay. I hated to think Chana might tie him in again. As I lingered over him, we smiled at each other, the warmth flowing
between us. Then he cooed. He cooed his first word.
He said my name.
He repeated it; he was practicing. But he had it right. The first time I heard it, he had it right. He watched me closely, mirroring my amazement and joy. He knew what he was doing, he knew exactly what he was doing — that darling, adorable tateleh!
“I love you, Schloymala,” I mirrored back.
No one else heard him speak, until the day Chana was walking back to our bungalow from an afternoon outing, with Schloymala at her side. When he saw me under the oak tree with his brother and cousins, the little Houdini pulled his hand out of his mother’s
grasp. Running as fast as his miniature legs could take him, he headed straight toward me, arms stretched out wide for me. I reached out to receive him, and took him into my own arms with joy.
He spoke. One word. He called my name.
I didn’t look at Chana’s face.
I stood over Schloymala in his crib one last time. I tried to explain, not sure if he could
understand my message. I had to end my summer vacation early and go back to the City. My sister was getting married, weeks sooner than expected. I must get back in time to attend the bridal shower, serve as maid of honor at the ceremony. My very-religious-very-observant-rabbi uncle would be performing the ceremony in his own home, in Staten Island.
I told Schloymala I loved him, was sorry to leave him. He lay there smiling, cooing my name, proud of his power, and oblivious to the circumstances. I kissed him good-bye.
Schloymala’s father was driving me to the City a day early. He had burst into Essie’s bungalow, announcing we were leaving that night; he had to be back in the City and no one could drive me in a day or two. I had to go back with him now. No, there was no time for me to call my parents and let them know I would be early. I threw my clothes into my borrowed suitcase: my modest long-sleeved blouses, my skirts that should have been a bit longer, my bathing suit no man had seen, my summer-yellow cotton nightgowns. I felt dizzy. I wanted to ask Chana for her help. Don’t make me go with him. But that would require explaining why, that would mean hurting her; I didn’t want to hurt her. Chana pressed my last week’s wages into my hand, plus another week’s worth as a tip, and kissed me good-bye on the cheek.
Before I had a chance to think, Rabbi Yitzchok had me in his station wagon, driving down dark country roads, with no one in the City expecting me. What an amazing, acrobatic act he had just performed.
And what a dilemma for me. But in this moment, I couldn’t even think. Fate seemed to have chosen my reaction for me, and it was — freeze. I was holding my breath, waiting to see what happened to me next. Frozen.
* * *
Scene 23, Summer of 1970, Part 6
Stalker’s Assignment Number 12
We weren’t alone for long. Rabbi Yitzchok Weiss had to pick up another passenger at a nearby bungalow colony, another rabbi returning to Brooklyn from the Catskills. I moved to the back seat. I held on to the idea he was taking me directly to my parents’ in the Bronx.
“I’m dropping her off by her relatives in Brooklyn,” Yitzchok said to his passenger. What? My own Borough Park relatives knew nothing of this. His straight-out lying embarrassed me. But I stayed quiet. Best not to create a fuss, I figured. Play it safe. Do not embarrass the rabbi. And somehow this was my fault, I was sure.
I sensed my silence made me complicit in his lie, but I did not know I had any choices. The darkness of the night and the strangeness of the men became too strong a presence for me. I was growing more anxious.
The two rabbis in the front began reciting — in Hebrew, in unison, from memory — the travelers prayer for a safe journey. Again, I was listening, like an outsider, to a prayer I knew of but did not know by heart from years of repetition. The country sky was punctuated with the periods of stars, far from my City’s lights that would outshine them. As I realized I did not know what would happen to me when the passenger left us in Brooklyn, a freeze of vulnerability crept up my spine. My head felt as though it were splitting, as it tried to take in facts which didn’t jive with my old life. My re-entry to the City was becoming shaky and scary. I couldn’t quite make this out as my life. My heart was beating stronger, quicker.
I remembered an old trick. I could shut off. I could shut off my awareness, like turning down the volume on a radio. I turned my mind way down until I couldn’t hear it anymore; until I wasn’t there anymore to notice I couldn’t hear it. I was a blank — not asleep, just not there – I was a television screen gone blank.
I came back to myself in Brooklyn.
“I had to drop him off first, so now it’s very late, too late to go back up to the Bronx,” said Yitzchok. “I will drive you home tomorrow morning. You can stay by my place tonight.”
I tried to carry myself as though all was normal because then it would be. Meanwhile, some of me was coming loose. As I walked up the steps to his Borough Park private house, I hoped my tentative legs did not reveal my vulnerability. I was feeling as though I was pulling along a tag along shadow of myself. I tried to get my parts to coincide, to merge back into one, but it wouldn’t hold. I thought of the eye tests at the optometrist. “Tell me when the two boxes come together, and when they come apart.” A part of myself kept drifting away if I didn’t concentrate.
The living room sported the same plastic, see-through furniture covers I sat on when Chana interviewed me, but now the room was dark in its summer bachelorhood. He showed me my sleeping place. It must have been his and Chana’s room; I saw the ubiquitous twin set that served as the marriage bed in a Jewish Orthodox home. I went to sit down on the first twin, but he said no, the other one. Was it that he wanted me in his bed, or in his wife’s? I didn’t ask. I moved to the one by the window, as he directed. He brought me a tall glass of coke. “Drink this.” I sipped it. I tasted rum. I thought, this is the father of the children. I missed his sons; I missed Schloymala.
The end-of-summer air came through the screens, past the Venetian blind slats tilted open just enough to let the breeze skim by the brocaded drapes. A sprinkling of chilled air fell on my face. I was curled up in my summer cotton nightgown, under a stiff, white sheet. My dark, curly hair sprawled across the bouncy pillow. “Grow your hair,” Dave had said. “Grow it long.” Finally my hair reached halfway down my back, nourished by wholesome summer sunshine and Israeli beef cholents.
The full moon had pierced my eyelids and silently woke me. Yitzchok was in the other bed, separated from mine by a nightstand. I thought of my parents beds’ arranged the same way. I remembered Dave, and missed his embrace — missed spooning with him on his sister’s double-bed on Sunday afternoons, surrounded by cheerful yellow- and green-flowered wallpaper. That had been just last summer. Hers was my first air-conditioned home bedroom. The family must be wealthy, I had concluded.
I longed for hours spent with my right cheek pressed into the male-scented skin of his chest; his left arm supporting the narrow of my back; his right arm bringing me so close into him, we could have merged if only the skin would be more forgiving. “I wish I could carry you in my pocket with me,” Dave said. “Then we would never have to be apart.” He told me he was experienced in these matters of girlfriend and boyfriend, but he could understand and respect my boundaries. We pressed up against them best we knew. We thought we explored all opportunities; looking back now, our knowledge was limited. If only I could do it over. Our hearts burst with love that summer, and our skins knew the ease of familiarity. I knew joy within the comfort and excitement of his embrace.
Now in Yitzchok’s bedroom, as though I were sleep walking, I took a step towards the other bed, where a man with long arms and broad chest lay, and where an embrace might await me. I missed Dave.
Yitzchok must have been awake; I don’t think I made any noise in the night. He sat up before I made it to his bed and put up his hand to stop me. “Wait there,” said Yitzchok. He joined me in my twin bed and helped ease my loneliness. I had no fear; the boy-men beaus of my high school days had been safe and reliable. I was accustomed to the rules being discussed frankly and respected, and took for granted no line would be crossed without consent. Now, we had no discussion, but Yitzchok assumed my innocence accurately and safeguarded me. He did not spend leisurely hours with me, savoring each moment. No, he was not Dave. I was still hungry, but, at least, I was not alone; my fast was broken.
We developed a routine. In the afternoon, I took the subway downtown from the Bronx, and waited by the steps of the 42nd Street Library for Yitzchok to pull up the car. He took us to Brooklyn. I told no one. My loneliness was trumping my respect of others’ marriage vows. I should have given it more thought, but I would have to make that mistake again to learn the lesson.
My sister got married. I was the maid of honor. In the photos, my tanned face and legs look out-of-place next to the light, white, summer-in-the-city complexions of my family — a permanent testament to my difference.
“I was going to wait until I graduated college to marry, but when I saw what happened to you and Dave, I decided not to wait,” my sister explained. The cause and effect relationship escaped me, so I filed the comment away in my “someday I will understand this when I’m older and wiser” mental file folder.
Now I had a bedroom to myself for the first time. I rearranged the furniture. My weight was getting back to my normal – halfway between break-up-skin-and-bones scrawny and fresh-country-air robust. I was back in jeans and T-shirts. Like the other cool chicks, I gave up wearing a bra, again. With me, it made so little difference, anyway.
I had more friends than when I left; somehow having a summer away had made me more exotic and interesting. Or, was it that being single, without Dave, I was more available now? I was going to be okay. I looked forward to school starting soon at CCNY, and I needed the challenge, the distraction, and the novelty.
Then Dave phoned me.
* * *
Scene 24, Summer of 1970, Part 7
Stalker’s Assignment Number 12
Dave was in love with Thelma, and he was a new person. More like the person I had thought he was, when we first met. More like the person I had expected him to be, but he refused to become. But now, somehow, he had forgotten all about dropping out of school and going on the road to become a rock star. He was going back to CCNY to get up his grades so he could transfer to a state college upstate, and Thelma would transfer to the same school from her private college. They had it all mapped out, how they would be together. After all, they had been going together for a long time – two weeks? Or was it three?
“But, she wears make-up!” I protested, remembering Dave’s once insisting that I remove my surprise black eyeliner right away, before his friends saw his hippie chick reveal her lame collegiate roots; take it off or he was getting off the bus and never talking to me again.
“I like her make-up.”
“She wears stockings!” How bourgeois and unhippie-like was that! The ultimate! Any self-respecting chick knew better than that. And that was what Dave had required: hippie chick cool. All that effort I put into it, and now he doesn’t care?
Yes, I knew about Thelma. Thelma, petite — even shorter than me — with her waist-long, silky, straight red hair. Skin so white, it needed freckles to survive in the real world of sunlight. Thelma and my best friend, Ava, and I graduated high school together. Ava had introduced me to Thelma. And I had introduced Ava to Dave, and, and, and – how could this have happened?! — this summer Ava introduced Dave to Thelma! Damn her!
I remembered Ava saying, Oh yes, Thelma wears jeans. (In those pre-designer days, jeans were the simple, cheap, cool thing to wear by the unpretentious. And we so aspired to being unpretentious.) But hers are made by her private dressmaker!
Yes, one thing Thelma inspired better than anyone else we knew: envy!
“After we broke up, wherever I went, I was looking to run into you,” Dave said. Finally I phoned. Your mother said you were away for the summer. Somehow, after that, I felt free. Knowing that I wouldn’t run into you on the street, on the bus, suddenly I felt free. Then I ran into Thelma at the painting party . . .”
All this and we still told each other exactly what we thought, no inhibitions.
“Thelma wears a bra!” I said. How low can a person go?
“I like all that.”
Thelma phoned me. All chit chatty and friendly. She gave me all her news.
“Dave and I made love nine times this Saturday.” Yes, I know he liked to count. No wonder he became an accountant. He counted everything. I mean everything. Thelma gave me their statistics like she was reciting a darn weather report.
I didn’t let on how much it hurt. I didn’t let on how cruel I thought her, for telling me. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell anyone. I just filed it away. Cruel bitch. Just filed it away.
Why did I ever leave town and allow this to happen? If I had been home to take Dave’s call, none of this would have happened.
Ava told me Dave’s parents were so happy. “Dave has really straightened out since he stopped seeing Baby and took up with Thelma.” So I was the bad influence? How unfair!! I was the one begging him to . . . Oh, what’s the use.
Later, I wondered. Did I help kill her?
Was it my long memory that killed Thelma?
* * *
Weeks are passing without word from Stalker. Unprecedented. I savor the peace. But then I wonder.
His last words to me — ” I will kill every man who ever touched you. I will kill you. I will kill every man in your family. I will kill your brother-in-law. Do you doubt me? The next time you see me, one of us dies!”
Possible explanations why I have not heard from him for weeks:
1. He is already dead.
2. He has come to his senses. He has sobered up, realized his folly, and given up on me. He is too embarrassed about his behavior to call me again. He is respecting my boundaries, finally.
3. He is slowly making his way cross-country, stopping along the way to visit every man who ever touched me: to intimidate, harass, or otherwise make miserable or harm. To kill?
4. His sore throat and hoarseness that didn’t go away after two weeks developed over the months into throat cancer and he has lost his voice — through surgery, or disease.
5. He refused treatment, is dying, and is too weak — in any sense — to call. Or he wants to spare me the pain of watching him die.
5. He is fine but he hates me so much he won’t even call me anymore to tell me how much he hates me.
What are my options? The thought of him suffering — first, yes, the part of me that has suffered because of him says Yes! Good! His turn! Next, my humanity surfaces, I would not wish harm to a fly. Finally, my love wins out. If he is suffering I want to go to him, to comfort him, to beg him not to die hating me. To let him know, he does not die unloved.
But not talking to him for so long — it’s been like quitting an addiction. Like an alcoholic, or a tobacco addict — if I make one phone call to him — I could be completely hooked again. And it could be lethal this time.
I start setting the burglary alarm when I go to sleep at night. Just in case.
Summer of 2009
We’re on the phone. Stalker is in the Bronx; I’m in Portland, Oregon. He continues telling me about 1974. I don’t interrupt him to ask if he has the recorder on. I don’t want to disturb the mood. I hope he does — we try to record it all. But what to do with our documentation? How to transcribe so many hours of conversations, with the nuggets buried unpredictably? “We could get a college intern,” I said. “An intern could get some college credit for the project, for transcribing and cataloging.”
“Do you really want someone else hearing some of those tapes?”
He’s right. It might be over the top. But I’m surprised to think he would be turning shy. No, no. It must be my sensibilities he is thinking of. But our conversations are Art. And the best art goes beyond the pedestrian constraints of privacy. Isn’t that what helps make it art? Going where others hold back? Saying what others wouldn’t dare to reveal? Saying it for them?
Stalker takes me back to 1974. Where was I in 1974? I had just run away from the Bronx, and moved to Portland. Stalker was in Richmond, Virginia.
Deborah thought I was in love with another woman, Amy. She was just a girl. No, I wasn’t in love with her. While I was with her, I was missing Deborah too much. Nothing happened with Amy until after Deborah died. And it wasn’t love, it was my clinging to a moment of breath. I was sinking, grasping for any life. Amy held me as I sobbed into her.
But Deborah thought I was making love to Amy. She stormed into my apartment one night. She passed my roommates and their friends, playing cards in the living room. They saw the gun in her hand. The gun she borrowed from her brother. They scrambled. She made her way into my bedroom, and pointed the gun at Amy. I heard everyone in the apartment clearing out, slamming the front door behind them. I got between Amy and Deborah.
I pulled the gun into my belly and said, ‘You wanna shoot somebody, shoot me!” The gun was in my belly a long time. But she didn’t pull the trigger. She didn’t kill me.
I made her promise to give back the gun. Told her never to bring that gun to my apartment ever again. She promised.
How could I have known she would get another? Her father’s ancient Colt 45 — the deadliest weapon on earth?
I should have known, I should have known!
After the horror, came the humiliation! Why didn’t you do something?
I am not a thirty-year-old girl, brilliant, wealthy, beautiful, with everything to live for.
I am a lousy old bum with nothing to live for. No wife, no kids, no future.
If I choose to die — oh, women have a right to choose, kill your children — but MEN don’t have a right to die!
Just let me die in peace. When the time comes. That’s all I ask. Take my ashes to the waterfall. Find yourself a good man who deserves you. I don’t.”
Is that what this is? Peace?
* * *
Scene 26, The List
Summer of 2009
“I got your essays, Baby. Thank you for completing your assignments by the deadline. You find it easier to confide through writing, than by talking, don’t you?” Stalker’s voice is strong and authoritarian on the phone. This particular tone of his makes me uncomfortable, but somehow, I find it strangely reassuring when he takes control of the conversation. As though I am in good, strong hands. Knowledgeable hands, the hands of someone who knows what he is doing. Maybe this alpha male nonsense of his has its good points?
“Yes what?” asks Stalker.
“Yes, I find it easier to write than talk.”
“That’s good. Address me in complete sentences. And who are you speaking to?” asks Stalker.
“er . . . Sir?” I’m guessing here.
“Yes, I find it easier to write than talk to you, Sir.”
What kind of annoying game is this? I feel like my father has risen from the grave.
“Then we will continue this way, until you trust, and can talk freely. Until then, I will send you more essay assignments. But, I have a request. Not a demand, but a request. Would you cut out all the female bullshit? I don’t want to hear about the color of the wallpaper. I am not Oprah. Just tell me the facts. I was a journalist before I was a DJ. Can you stick to the who, what, where? Can you do that?”
“I will try.”
“What was that? I can’t hear you.”
“I will try to stick to the facts. Sir.”
“Better. Now, I need a list: anyone who ever touched you, where you were, when it was. Starting with the first time a boy held your hand. You want novelty — I can do that for you. You will never be bored. And that is why you will always love me. I will fulfill your every dream, your every fantasy. But, first I need to know what you have experienced, so I know what you can handle. If I am to provide you with novelty, I need to know what you have already experienced. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand. Sir.”
“Good girl. Now get to work. Don’t make the list too long, but you better not leave any detail out. If I find you left anything out, I will punish you. We need to be honest with each other, so we can trust each other fully. I know that is hard for you, but I will help you. Can you trust me enough to give me the list?”
“Yes, I can trust you enough to give you the list. Sir.”
Maybe, I say to myself.Maybe. Boundaries: met and pushed against. What will give? And, how dare he talk to me like this?!! Punish me? Like I am a child! I didn’t think my parents had the right to, even when I was a child! But heart is beating faster; he has my attention. That much I know. I want so much to tell someone everything, but I am too afraid to. He knows he must force me, or I will never do it, even ifI want to. A part of me is relieved to be forced. But, he knows that, doesn’t he?
“Then get off the phone, Baby. And don’t email me until you send me the list. And don’t spend your time emailing anyone else, or on the phone with your girlfriends. Oh, I better not catch you on Facebook. I will be watching. Get the list done, first.”
I figure an Excel spreadsheet is the best tool.
* * *
Scene 27, CCNY
Summer of 2009
Stalker wants the facts, just the facts thank you, and that lets me off the hook for a bit on essay writing. I construct a spreadsheet, detailing my experiences, boiling them down to who, what, where, when. Without the humanity, the context, or the explanation. Though, I am sure, he will select items for me to expand on; he will interview me on the phone for more details, or give me follow-up essay assignments. This is just a starting point, I know.
But I feel resistant. I want to stay in the sweet present, on the phone all hours with him — singing duets, sharing YouTube videos through Facebook, laughing at his impersonations, and hearing his funny stories. Even hearing his painful stories brings the pleasure of growing closer. No, I don’t want to go back into my memory vaults. But to complete the spreadsheet, I must travel back in time. I don’t want to go . . . don’t make me go! I don’t want to be that person again.
Fall of 1970
Dave and I go to the same school again, except now it’s CCNY instead of Science. Mornings, we meet at the No. 12 bus stop on Pelham Parkway and Williamsbridge Rd. in the Bronx, just as we did when a couple. We travel together to Fordham Road, then flash our weekly student bus passes to take the downtown D train. We get off by the 145th Street stop in Manhattan for the CCNY North Campus, or the 125th Street for South Campus, depending on our class locations. The walks are longer and steeper than seem right.
For most of our friends, the road forked three ways after high school: stay in the city, live at home, and go to virtually-free-for-residents City University schools (CUNY); go out of town to one of the New York State University schools (SUNY); or, go to private schools. Thelma was one of the few I knew at an out-of-state private college. Many of Dave and my friends were at “City” (CCNY) in Harlem, with us. Attending school out of town was not an option for me, even though I had a state Regents Scholarship that would have covered the tuition. “I forbid you to go out of town to college,” said my father. “You will stay home and go to school. Bad things happen to girls who leave home. You will live here, with your mother and me, until you are married.”
After 1969, the year 1970 (starting in September, of course — isn’t that the natural year, the school year?) was anti-climatic. In July 1969, Dave and I had sat with my mother by her portable black and white television and watched the first moon landing. In August, Dave and I passed up going to Woodstock — which we thought was just another concert and not worth the effort — but the festival’s impact reached us in the City, just the same. The year had been punctuated with not very peaceful protests against the War in Vietnam, and student rages targeting any school administrations in smelling distance. In May 1970, students like us were being gunned down by our fellow Americans, at Kent State. The country had gone mad. Our generation was protesting the oppression of everything and everyone. Peace, peace, peace we demanded. Leave us alone to smoke our dope and listen to our rock ‘n roll music and exercise our right to make love not war. Give us freedom — freedom to liberate the world from your rules from your money from your oppression from your war from . . .
For our generation, consequences would not happen — we were certain — if we could just free ourselves from The Man. From the Pigs from the school administrators from the men in suits from the Man.
We women were going to liberate ourselves from men and people of color were going to be really free finally and the white men who were running the country and keeping the power all to themselves and making everyone else miserable were not going to do it anymore because we were going to have . . .
No matter how nasty we had to get to secure it. Peace and freedom were our birthright. Free concerts (music should be free! Woodstock was liberated for all!), free dope (leave capitalism out of our drugs, won’t you?), free love. Bring in the communes and the flower children (so peaceful). Take possessiveness out of relationships, and with it evil jealousy and bad vibes; no more owning each other in oppressive relationships. Back to nature, back to the country; leave the evil city (and we invented this city vs. country all by ourselves, you know — no one had ever thought of this before us!), and rise above the competitiveness that makes us pollute our planet and hurt each other. This is what the generation gap was all about. And you were with them or you were with us and there was no gray area because we knew what was right because you can’t trust anyone over 30, you know. You just can’t.
Psychedelic hippie Grateful Dead twirling Joshua light show isn’t that real trippy man? Can you dig it?
We had our own lingo and you knew how cool or lame someone was by his hippie dialect culled from the speech of our Black brothers. (We were a diverse group of Bronxites –White Jewish White Irish White Italians we were.) That’s how you knew if someone was cool — was that a fringed-suede jacket on a long-haired cool cat? Was that a flower-child hippie chick walking down the block? You could spot them, straight or cool, a mile away, even before they opened their mouths and you might hear them say, “Dig it, man. Dig it.”
Of course, sub-groups sprung up. You could categorize people by music: The Dead people vs. the Airplane people. By clothes: work boots, cowboy boots, moccasins or Fred Brauns? You could stereotype by drugs of choice: downers vs. uppers, vs. psychedelics and subdivisions thereof. Politics — oh, we were all one on the politics: Get us out of Vietnam because we are dying there! Or, at least, give us the vote at 18; we could fight, we could drink at 18. Give us the freakin’ right to vote you out of office!
The draft lottery. What a medieval torture device. The government was like a game show host putting slips of paper into a bin and rolling it around and pulling out birthdays and posting them on the board and are my friends getting called up in the draft now or later? Later, later, please . . . maybe by then the war will be over and they won’t come back from Nam in a body bag. Yes, war was the fuel; the stakes were Life and Death. Not just in Nam, but stateside too. Kent State could have been us.
In the first years of the decade, the cats sitting around the table with me in the South Campus cafeteria might as well had lottery numbers carved into their foreheads like the mark of Cain. Some of them were doomed; Get Out of War cards were evaporating as quickly as you could strike out “student deferral.”
And they wondered why we used drugs.
September 1970, age 17. I could not yet have perspective on our place in history, or on how the times affected my personal life arc. I had no basis for comparison; I had never been a teenager in a different time. I didn’t appreciate that this was a turning point for society, besides for me. The culture, the mores was changing, just as I was struggling with separation from my parents, from my religious practices, my boyfriend, my high school . . . I was unmoored and grasping for anything close by to help me stay afloat.
Dave was still nearby. He welcomed my sitting on his lap at our group’s table in the South Campus cafeteria, in Finley Hall between classes. The next year, I scheduled my classes in the morning — 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00 — without a moment to waste in the cafeteria. After classes, I went straight to midtown to work in a publishing office. I overstuffed my days so I would not have to wonder what to do with myself. But as a freshman, I had fewer scheduling options.
Scheduling was exacerbated by open admissions. Consistent with the idealist movements pushing to make everything available to everyone (for free), the People forced the City University system to open its doors wider. Enrollment increased by 75 percent, in September 1970. I stood on-line, excited at the classes I saw in the catalog, only to find deadpan professors consulting their index cards and chalking on the blackboards. Course section, after course section, were full and closed. The freshmen gratefully took whatever classes they could, even if it didn’t really fit their overall plan. American History at 9:00 am? What a find! Grab it! Next class Psych 101 at 11:00 am? Okay, I’ll take it! Then Geology at 3:00? Fine! The mouth-watering Creative Writing, Renaissance Literature, Modern Art and ancient Latin will have to wait for another semester, when I had more seniority in registration.
For now, I found my delight in the cavernous, basement bookstore in Finley Hall — an ancient, rickety, mammoth structure (it would be put out of its misery and demolished in the next decade). Tall racks overflowed with more books than I had ever seen in one place. I spotted Carlos Castaneda, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth on the shelves. Could books that I had been reading for pleasure belong to college courses? This was assigned reading?? I must take those courses!
In the long stretches between classes, we hung out in the back of the cafeteria. The back doors, with nothing to slow them down, banged shut several times an hour, making us jump and curse. “One day we’ll reminisce about the good old days,” said Wanda. “We’ll wish we were back here, complaining about the slamming doors.” Someone found chess sets in the student lounge and brought them downstairs to us, and we paired up. Dave and I had played for more than a year, and knew each other’s moves too well. Mixing it up with other players was exciting — I played Ben in the cafeteria, and sometimes at his house. Patrick didn’t like chess, but Will was a solid player. Ava and Wanda watched. (Unlike the other chicks, I was comfortable with the game; my father taught me when I was about five.)
Simon was usually nodding off in the corner and the Barbarian would show up early in the morning with him, then split from campus. I was too naive to understand why.
If not playing chess, I was sitting on Dave’s lap, inhaling the scent of his blue workshirt; it was as good as last year. Sometimes I would go to his house in the afternoon, too, and we would be together, just like last year. But the shadow of Thelma was hanging between us and dulling the air for me, though I don’t know if he sensed it. Perhaps it was just me. I wanted to feel the specialness of being the only one. Finally, I asked him to choose between her and me.
Dave’s reaction surprised me.
* * *
Scene 28, Boom!
Summer of 2009
Baby, you must promise me two things. One, you must tell my stories. Do not let my stories die with me. And two, you must pour my ashes into a pristine waterfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I will flow into the Shenandoah Valley. Will you do that for me? I will make a detailed map.
I promise the first to Stalker, but I never promise the second.
Richmond Virginia, 1974. Deborah’s father was dying. He was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, but that could not save him from the cancer eating away his lungs. Deborah loved her father more than anyone, except maybe me. And those bastards at the hospital, Deborah’s hospital. Where she worked. They didn’t care what she was going through. Those bastards.
We buried her father. She took a trip to Mexico without me. A little vacation to clear her head. I thought she was better when she came back. She turned 30. I bought her the prettiest week’s worth of panties I could find for a birthday present. Size small. She had been with another man; I wanted her to have new things. We needed to start fresh. She loved trying the presents on and modeling them for me. She was giddy and playful. Maybe we could be happy again.
She kept her promise to me. She never brought her brother’s gun back.
I was growing weary of Virginia. I was a Northerner, and they never let me forget it. I turned 22. I missed my family in New York. I missed my friends. It was hard for me to make new friends in Richmond, took a long time. Too long. I never fit in. I missed Chris, Simon, the Strong Street Boys, Bruno, Rich, Ben, Patrick. Baby.
Deborah and I lay in bed one night. Had we made love that night? I don’t think so, not if she still wore her bra.
Deborah said, “So are you going to marry me, or what?”
I thought of the Bronx. I wanted to go home.
I should have said, no, I won’t stay in Richmond. Come with me to New York. But all I said was –
What? Women can’t read your mind?
She got out of bed and went into the closet and came out with a Colt 45. No it was not her brother’s gun. She kept her promise on that. This was her father’s ancient weapon in her hand.
“I will do something you will never be able to undo.”
I leaped out of bed like a wild man. I saw it in slow motion, but still I didn’t have time.
“NO!!” I screamed. My hand stretched out a mile in front of me.
Straight to her heart. She was a doctor. She knew how to do it. No taking chances with a shot to the head, leaving a cripple who couldn’t get a second chance at it.
Straight to the heart.
BOOOM!!! The gun flew into the air.
If I could go back in time. Just let me get that gun before it goes off. I just need 30 more seconds. I would trade my life for those 30 seconds. Quantum Leap back.
It’s not like in the movies. It takes a long time to die.
This was 1974. We didn’t have cell phones. Shit. I didn’t even have a phone. I ran downstairs to the neighbor. Ran naked down those flights and banged on that door.
“Call an ambulance!”
No answer. I fuckin’ kicked that door in with my bare feet. That’s a lot harder to do than in the movies, too.
The newspaper article said that the police found drugs in the apartment. Maybe there was a little pot. That was all. It wasn’t like they said.
The smell of burned tit filled the apartment. I will never get the smell out of my nostrils. For five months, I couldn’t sleep because I smelled burned tit. Even when I went home to the Bronx. Back to my parents’ apartment in Kingsbridge. I can still taste it in the back of my mouth.
She was bleeding out. It takes a long time. Even though she knew how to do it. Straight to the heart – sure death. I held her in my arms. Helpless.
BOOOOM!! I still hear it every night. If I drink enough, I can silence it for a few hours and sleep. Pretty soon, I’m dreaming it all over again.
The police cut off her bra. I see the damage. Her perfect little breasts, torn apart. The blood doesn’t stop. She flutters and dies. In my arms. Her blood on my living room floor. Her blood on my hands.
The gun had a single bullet in it. She knew what I would do if it had another.
Just give me another 30 seconds. I demand a do over. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I didn’t mean it.
Say what you want. I heard it before. Yes, that is what my sisters said: I was young. She was troubled. Say what you want, but I was responsible. I was the man. She was never the same after we killed our son. I should have seen the signs. I should have known. I am responsible, as good as if I pulled the trigger.
They must be thorough in these cases. They must cut open the body. Search. Inspect. Weigh every portion.
“Was she pregnant?” asked the police.
The abortion – Murder One.
Deborah – Murder Two.
Another son? My son? Murder Three?
I had to call her brother. Fuckin’ hardest thing. I had to face her family. I stood in church – the same church where I had sung solo at Christmas, I stood like a Judas. I had to bury her. I moved slow motion. I knew a special circle of hell awaits suicides. Her nightmare was not over.
I asked her mother for my letters back. “No, anything you gave Deborah is a gift. You can’t take back gifts.” They wouldn’t let me have one thing of hers. One sweet thing to smell, to save. I’m left with burnt flesh in my nostrils.
She left a letter for me to find. She knew what she was doing.
I visited her grave a year later. Alone.
I made a solemn vow.
“I will make the greatest sacrifice, dear God, if you will spare Deborah from an eternity in hell. Take me, take me instead. Do what you will with me. I vow: I will not take my own life – I will live out my sentence in this purgatory called earth, if you — spare her. Take me. Spare her.”
I cannot self-terminate. I agreed to live this hell of an existence on earth, if she would be spared.
I made a deal. I’ve kept my part. I will check that God kept his.
When my time comes, I will rescue her.
The next one — Murder Four — that was six years later.
* * *
Scene 29, Baby’s Vow
Fall 1970. The Bronx, New York
“I can’t share you, you must choose.” I told Dave. “Thelma or me.”
“I will give her up.”
“When will you tell her?” I didn’t let on my surprise, or my relief. I acted as though I was asserting a basic right to have him all to myself, no apologies.
“Tonight. I will call her tonight.”
Thursday night. 8 p.m. My phone rang.
“I did it,” Dave said. But he didn’t sound happy. He didn’t even sound truthful, but I accepted it. I could not share; this was where I drew the line. I wasn’t sure of much else, but I knew being the only one was on one side of my line, and sharing lay beyond it. I was too jealous otherwise.
“Okay then,” I said. It was settled.
I wanted it to be like 1969, early 1970. Walking down the street with arms around each other, legs moving in rhythm to each other. Bitter wind at the backs of our matching navy pea coats. Matching round, wire eyeglass frames. Icy slush cutting through our black socks and brown boots.
Being taken down to Kingsbridge Terrace on a Saturday night, to someone’s old-fashioned apartment in a pre-War brick building. Simon’s mother’s? The first time — finding myself immobile on a recliner chair, realizing I was the only female in a room of ten boy-men — I felt fear. Who was this cat Dave? Do I really know him? How could he take me here? Who are the others? What am I doing here? But they were as silent and still as I was. Except for Patrick, a blond, Irish-Italian Catholic Bronx boy, with a sonorous voice inherited from his classically trained singer mother and a tough, thick, greaser build from his father. He had followed the Barbarian into the bathroom, off stage left. I could hear the Barbarian retching, from where I sat. Patrick returned to the living room, looking not quite as worried, reporting to the silent room. “He is okay. It’s nothing.” Patrick cares. He’s a good friend. The Barbarian followed, slight, pale and sheepish. He looked at me. I looked away, embarrassed for him. I didn’t understand then what was making him sick. They hid that part from me.
Going down to Central Park in April for the be-in with Dave, but turning back in a surprise heavy snow. Strawberry waffles at Jahn’s. (I was careful what I ate out. Anything with meat was too far off the Kosher list to consider, so I stuck with safer vegetarian dishes.) Waiting for his parents and sister to leave the house, so we could stay behind. Dave playing chess with my father in our kitchen. Hanging out by Patrick’s house; the band playing in his basement, my ears finally accustomed to the volume. Dave playing his Les Paul, newly named “Baby.” Summer Schaefer Festival concerts in Central Park. Dave worked in mid-town, but I was free. I spent my summer days shopping for the perfect chess set to give to him as a birthday gift. I could get to Central Park early, and get on line for us. We had the best seats that way.
Sometimes Patrick would join us. Or, was I joining Dave and Patrick? Patrick would sit on my left, Dave on my right. Sometimes I would be reading a book before the band came on. They didn’t mind; they talked over me. Couples, John Updike. Couldn’t put it down! We would walk that way, too: Patrick on my left, Dave on my right. Waiting for the subway in the middle of the night, after the late concert at the Fillmore, walking down the middle of Pelham Parkway in the darkness, the lanes iced over without a passing car, without a bus — still and lifeless, except for us. Watching football games with them. Going to Shea Stadium with them. They explained the games to me, but I didn’t care enough to understand. Being with them was all I wanted.
The three of us in Dave’s parents’ basement. Dave’s and mine matching black pullover sweaters — my mother knitted them for us — thrown aside on leather chair. Patrick holding my bare feet in his lap, teaching me how to keep the soles from being ticklish as he played with them. My head on Dave’s lap. Patrick looking me straight in the soul, with his steel gray-blue eyes. Anthem of the Sun, our soundtrack, playing in the background, then in the foreground. Patrick introducing us to opera. To Robert Heinlein. I saw my first living room Christmas tree when we visited Patrick.
I hoped it would last forever. Why would they want to change those perfect moments? I was like Beth, in Little Women, ensconced in the happy nest of her family, who wonders why any of her sisters would want to leave to find happiness elsewhere.
Maybe Dave called Thelma. Maybe he didn’t. I heard him say one thing, but I felt another.
Wanda was sympathetic, always interested in hearing about Dave. “He was so in love with you last year,” she told me. “He would talk about you all the time. No one else could get his attention.” Was that jealousy I was hearing? Her own obsession? I ignored it. I needed a friend.
“I don’t know how he feels. It’s not clear,” I said.
“Let’s find out,” Wanda said. She suggested using the highest phone technology of the time. “I’ll call Dave from my living room phone and ask about you, and you can listen in on the bedroom extension. We won’t tell him you’re on the line.”
“Okay.” Okay? Had it come to this? Were we 14 years old, not 17?
Punishment for my misdemeanor was immediate. Dave was forthright. Had they planned this all along?
“I love her, but she doesn’t know how to do things,” Dave told Wanda. “It’s because of religion. How she grew up. When everyone else was out doing things on Saturdays — learning how to ride bikes and play ball and swim and socialize — she had to stay home because it was Shabbos. And she still does that. She isn’t like other people. She doesn’t do things. There’s a lot wrong with her. A lot wrong with her family. You don’t know her like I do. There’s something wrong with her.”
He was telling all my secrets to Wanda? My mind switched off and I didn’t hear the rest of what he said. Until the end.
“Would you tell Baby all this?” asked Wanda.
“Yes,” said Dave. He raised his voice and slowed down his speech, as though he wanted to get my attention. “I would tell her myself. I wish she was hearing everything I just said.” He must have known. They must have arranged this. My face burned with the shame.
He exposed me: my confidences, my family. Disrespected my religious practices. Exposed my insecurities about my inadequacies, my athletic and social backwardness. The inner workings of my family. I had told him things I had never told anyone. Let him see who I was. Trusted him to love me for who I was. Rejected, because of it. Embarrassed in front of my friend, because of it. Humiliated. Abandoned.
Wanda hung up and came into the bedroom, pathetic sympathy hanging over her face. “I’m so sorry,” she said. I wouldn’t let her see how hurt and shamed I was. I wouldn’t let on. I smiled, and discounted the incident with a wave of my hand. “I must be going home.” Her face said she wasn’t fooled, and that made it worse.
I gathered up my faded green knapsack of books, and got the hell out of there. My shame flooded my body with waves of red blood flowing too fast, too freely. I stumbled to the bus; my legs didn’t work quite right, my chest was tight, my head floated above me. The person I am, — she is all wrong. I am all wrong. And I have been found out. How could I ever face Dave again? Or Wanda? How could I have been so stupid to let someone in? Stupid, stupid.
I could not change the past. I had made my mistake. But I would never feel this shame again. I would never let anyone see what Dave saw. I would never let anyone in again, I promised. It was the only way I knew to comfort myself.
And I kept the promise. That I did. And that was Mistake Two.
* * *
Scene 30, Magical Thinking
I am Scheherazade, spinner of tales — buying another day of safety, freedom and life with another story. I bask in the glow of magical thinking. If I keep telling this story, no harm will come. No one will kick through my door in the middle of the night, brandishing a throbbing fist. No one will be headed south to re-enact Clockwork Orange in Florida. No one will be scouting the streets of Brooklyn for heads in black hats to crush.
My stories will save us all.
So many weeks since I heard from Stalker. Is he still plotting his revenge, or is he actually executing a plan? Is he slowly driving from New York to Florida, taking obscure, back roads to escape detection — in case I’ve alerted the state troopers?
“Florida!” he had said. “Florida is my Niagara Falls! Never utter the word Florida to me again. Three times in my life, it’s been — Florida! I will go there and I will take care of them all. Do not warn them, Baby, or you will have me to deal with. Clockwork Orange is coming, all the way. I swear. I am Conan the Barbarian!” He was bellowing, screaming, pounding his chest like Tarzan.
Where did the bottle come from? He had promised: no vodka when I visit.
The image of him pounding on his chest — I’d laugh except for the fear, except for my seeing his fist smash into the wall. “Ah, that feels better.” He did it again. Bam! My heart jumped once more. “Much better,” he said, caressing one hand with another. He admired his handiwork. He put it up to my face. “Now, kiss the blood.”
Just let me get out of this in one piece. That’s all I ask.
“If I kill anyone, it will be your fault,” Stalker says. “Because you made me do it. Be good, or you will bring harm to those you love. No, do not stand up. Do not go near the door.” He blocks my path, like a guard on a basketball court. I yield. I didn’t study martial arts. I didn’t wrestle. I didn’t grow up fighting greasers twice my size on the streets of the Bronx: five against one; a 1960s car antenna whipped across my back. Stalker taking back control and pounding the greaser’s head into the pavement. “That was my greatest moment. My worst, and my greatest,” he said. Stalker’s nose was broken nine times over the years, his ribs five.
“The bullet has not been forged that can kill me!” I go back to my corner and hope he passes out from the alcohol. Please keel over so I can slip away. Or, you can just die. I don’t care anymore. Just let me slip out alive. Magical thinking.
Now, weeks of silence: another mind game of his? To keep me in suspense, keep me on edge — keep me always looking over my shoulder — with an ear out for the phone, afraid to open my email. Is that it? Or is it that he can’t call? Is he too ill to call? Is he dead, not even 60 years old? Then my heart goes out to the scared little boy who must live inside the drunken, ravaged man. Just let me take care of that little boy, beaten up after school every day, year after year. I remember a special, blond two-year old boy. So sweet. I want to hold him and protect him.
Stalker was such a bright child, he had started school a year early. As the youngest in the class, he would also remain the smallest. The bullies found him easily. He was six years old when Eddie walked up to him and punched him in the face, breaking his nose for the first time. “My father was so angry at Eddie for doing that!” Stalker said. A little pride was in his voice. “And, oh, that did hurt. But I learned quick. Pain is good. It makes you strong.”
“Did you ever kill anyone in a fight?” I asked him straight out. A pause. “No. I only put them in the hospital.”
I had wanted a new experience, novelty. But, a fighter? Yes, this was a first for me.
Be careful what you wish for . . .
I can’t bear not knowing. I break down and phone him. He doesn’t answer, and his voicemail is full. Each morning, I check online for a clue. I read obituary columns. Death notices. New York — especially the Bronx, Brooklyn. I check for murders in Ft. Lauderdale. In New Jersey. I look for some crazy Irishman on a drunken rampage, screaming my name.
Most of all, I look for Stalker’s obituary. If his dying wish was to keep me in the dark, his sisters would honor it. They wouldn’t call me, and I wouldn’t know he was gone.
I call hospitals. I check for deaths recorded. But I find nothing. He knows how curious I am. He knows I must find out the truth, no matter how gruesome. He knows silence is the worse thing he can do to me.
I get up the nerve to call Florida. Just to check that everyone is alive, with no rapes, no tortures, no murders. But no, I can’t do it. I end the call. I must not alarm anyone. I go back and forth: call, don’t call, call. If Stalker finds out I warned anyone — ah, it would be that much more gruesome, all in my name.
He once showed me his video tapes. “You will watch, and you will learn.” I didn’t want to look, but I had to know what he was capable of.
“He threatens, but he never hurts anyone,” his sister told me. But, she didn’t see the tapes.
Now, not knowing is driving me crazy. Ah, he is so good at this. He wants to be called Master. Rightly so. Master of Torture.
* * *
Scene 31, Surrender
Summer of Love 2009. A phone call: Stalker in Bronx, NY and Baby in Portland, Or.
“Baby,” asked Stalker. “Did you keep your vow to yourself? To never get close to anyone again?”
Yes, I did. In Fall 1970, I promised I would never let myself be so hurt again. I would never let anyone see my failings, my inadequacies. I must have walled myself off after that. Better to be whole and lonely than shredded into raw, bloody pieces by someone else’s careless and cruel hands. I must have cast a spell on myself. When did I let anyone back in? The spell lasted . . . thirty years? Until 2001?
I didn’t give Stalker an answer. We hadn’t talked about 2001 yet; his essay assignments hadn’t reached that far. Of course, I did include the basic facts on the spreadsheet; if he studied it, he would spot it. He might figure out a detailed essay was in order.
He plowed ahead. “You will let me in, Baby,” said Stalker. “I will know all of you. You will keep nothing from me. I will love you until you die in my arms — twenty, thirty years from now. I will stay with you, unlike any other man has stood by you. All you have to do is: obey me. Do you believe me? Do I speak the truth?”
Perhaps I could give myself over. Except for that one little piece at the core of our beings that no one ever shows another. Otherwise, how could people survive? But I reserve this thought for myself — a sliver of privacy sliding into the space between our souls.
“You will surrender to me, Baby, willingly. I will settle for nothing less. But you still have a choice. Say the word, and you will never hear from me again.” His voice was calm and low, the words slow, sweating authority and confidence.
Stalker knows how it works; he has studied the art of dominance and submission. Part of me wants to run. Another is too curious to leave. What would it feel like, to stop fighting so hard? To just let it be . . . let it happen? To stop trying to control anything between me and another? To put myself in the hands of an expert? Someone I could trust – a master. To relax into it, to stop defending against life, against others for just a moment? What might that feel like? Maybe it would feel like– relief? Ironically, might it feel like freedom — to give up control?
He’d asked me this before, but lightly, so we could both treat it as a joke — should I take too much offense. Now he sounded tired of playing that game; he was serious and needed an answer. I resolve to try it, as an experiment. Just to see. What harm could there be in this new experience? I will do whatever he says — entrust myself to him. I might never have another chance to try this with a master. I’m excited at the thought: any wild and crazy thing might happen!
“Come to me, Baby. I will tell you what to wear, and give you an assignment to perform on the plane. When you land at New York’s LaGuardia, I will be waiting for you, bearing your favorite pink flowers. Though you will see me for the first time in almost forty years, you will know me. You will see everything I’ve told you about myself is true. From my long arms and knotty, manly hands to my green eyes. From the scar down my left cheek to the ears so big the nuns would grab them to lift me off the ground. I’m no longer the boxer; I am a broken, old man — but I am still alive and I live only to see you. To hold you in my arms. Come to me now.”
Stalker sings to me. The Boxer He penetrates me with a low-frequency thrill.
I will go to him.
“Stalker,” I said. “You kept your vow, too: your vow not to self-terminate.”
“I made a deal with God. My soul for hers.” His voice changed to a sadder, heavier and thicker register. “But I must confess to you. I almost broke my vow.” Stalker paused. “And, perhaps in the future . . .”
Perhaps what? I didn’t ask, didn’t really want to know.
What would I do if something happened? So far away? “Your sisters. You have sisters. Give me their phone numbers.”
He planted this seed of fear and doubt on purpose, didn’t he? Isn’t everything he does –on purpose? At least I would know who to contact, if it came to that.
Months later, I remembered this seed of doubt, the wavering on his vow. So, I had to err on the side of caution. We called the police.
But for now, I have just one more question to ask of him.
“Stalker, what do I wear on the plane?”
* * *
Scene 32, Rendezvous in Chicago, 2001
(Summer of 2009. Stalker hasn’t asked yet, but I’ll have this essay ready for him if and when he wants to know more about Spreadsheet Entry 27.)
Spring, 2001, Portland, Oregon
My clothes are packed; I’m ready to go. My ride is waiting, he’s pacing the floor. I’m so excited — I could just explode!
It’s 3:00 a.m. Monday morning, time to get up and catch my flight to Chicago. My best friend James Brian Schultz stayed over, to make it easier to drop me off at PDX at this crazy hour. A ride to the airport — that is the litmus test of friendship isn’t it? (Jerry Seinfeld says so.) James “passes” every time! I must remember to appreciate him more. But now I am too distracted.
Last night he took my queen-sized bed for the few hours of sleep; I took the couch, where I made believe I could sleep with this adrenalin pulsing through me. James and I are close, though not close enough to share a bed. But, we used to be. So I don’t tell him the true nature of my trip. Just in case he still has feelings for me. I know, I’m flattering myself to think he might feel something like that. But I’m trying not to assume, trying not to be a totally thoughtless bitch.
Now, trip preparations are completed, finally! And, after all this build up – shall I dare
call it foreplay? — I’m on my way. My checklist:
- Packed: new clothes, including low-cut scoop-neck, tight red sweater. Good fitting, girly jeans. Short, black dress and black hose. Black high heels. Just in case: red silk, short nightie with matching silk undies; coordinated black and red print silk robe. (I made no advance commitments, but I want to be ready in case. Keeping options open! Through months of emails and phone conversations, we agreed to “see what happens” in Chicago.)
- Body shaped and buffed: done. Twelve weeks training with regional women’s bodybuilding champion. Three 90-minute sessions a week, starting 5:00 a.m. Added extra protein to my diet, eliminated cookies and candy. More fit than I’ve ever been. Lost three dress sizes and gained so much muscle that I’m proud to wear sleeveless blouses — just to show off those hard-earned triceps. Still nowhere near my waif-like teenaged weight, but not shabby for my age group, not shabby at all.
- Grooming: done. My thick head of shoulder-length, curly, dark brown hair: coiffed. My first professional pedicure (red polish): done. Teeth bleached. Newly purchased face foundation, powder, eye make-up, lipstick and blush packed for later. It’s only been — decades? — since I wore all that stuff. I remember feeling like a girly girl in my twenties. Surely I can do it again!
- Resurrected from the forgotten back of a drawer: earrings. Gathered up from the front of the drawer: gold necklaces, pendants. A watch with a thin, gold-plated wristband – not my comfortable wide, black leather one — inherited from my mother, buried seven months ago in New Jersey on a crisp September day when an unearthly holiness hung in the air. Hard to explain that aura since I stopped believing, but the tinged atmosphere was palpable that day. People commented on it. Perhaps she took it with her, along with my leftover faith? I will think of that later. For now, I pack the Chicago-bound jewelry in my purse, except for my mother’s diamond engagement ring. I wear it on a chain around my neck at all times: a salve amulet for my raw heart.
I can’t wait to get to Chicago! No matter what happens, I will have a surprise. Maybe, even, I’ll solve mysteries from my youth, get questions answered. Perhaps, perhaps – I’ll get closure! At the least, I will have an adventure.
Novelty – I have missed you. Welcome back!
* * *
Spring, 2001, Chicago, Illinois
My flight arrives at O’Hare on schedule, which gives me an hour to primp. I wait in line for a Concourse B restroom. The women’s are especially crowded here. I’m on edge. Let’s go! Three rows of stalls crowded into the space: the narrowest stalls I’ve seen in any airport. I struggle to pull in my luggage and change into fresh jeans and sweater. Good thing I lost that weight or I’d never fit in here. Next, find a mirror to put on the make-up. Breathe. Calm down. Thread the gold hoops through your ears.
I had pierced my virgin lobes so I could wear the pearl studs James gave me for . . . my 32nd birthday? No, 33rd, wasn’t it? Baby, now concentrate. Find the eyeliner, mascara. See, I remember how to put on make-up. It’s so much bother, no wonder I gave it up when I settled into domestic life with James. Why am I thinking of him now? Oh, I’m seeing another man for the first time since I left my home with James. That’s why. Those walls between James and me; I never could break out of my wall or get past his. Do I feel a tinge of disloyalty? I must dismiss that. James ended our life together, not me. That was clear.
I check the arrival board. East coast flights delayed! Rats! Bad weather? He’s delayed an hour. The hour becomes two. Almost three. I get some Chicago pizza: forget the diet! My excitement is fading into an anti-climatic, annoying airport nightmare. Maybe I’ll have a drink.
Then I spot him. Healthy looking. I know his age, but he appears much younger. How does he do that? His dark brows are drawn in worry. His eyes, darting. He is covering ground quickly, taking short, brisk steps while pushing off his heels: an efficient walker. I remember now, he starting running marathons in his 30s. I had forgotten his unique gait and balance. Only someone who knew about his childhood leg injury would recognize the source of his rhythm. He hasn’t seen me yet. There, he spots me! His frown evaporates and I see relief. Yes, I waited. Of course. No, I’m not angry about the delay. His face brightens with that charming, magical, lighthearted smile. He lets go of his luggage and wraps his arms around me. I bury my head into his shoulder, into his man smell. He feels even better than I remember. Walls are coming down. I am home.
Dave gets us a taxi and off we go to the Fairmont Hotel for four days and three nights.
Scene 33, Quick Update
Just a quick update here to let you know I didn’t forget you. It’s just that I’ve been too upset worrying about the meaning of Stalker’s silence to write you.
I decided something terrible must have happened and that is why I can’t reach him. His pride would not allow me to see him diminished, if I approached him with anger or blame. Anger? Blame? What kind of person would hold on to such mortal, mundane illusions, rather than go to his side and give a last touch of comfort? Rather than hold his head in her hands, as he lay taking his last breaths? To keep him from dying feeling alone and unloved?
No, he would not let me see him vulnerable. That must be why he has not responded. He would let me see him that way only if I came to him with humility, on my knees, begging forgiveness.
Silently I beg him. Do not die angry with me.
I picture him wasted to a skeleton, looking like my father’s father did. I was just eight years old when my father drove me all day and all night upstate. He must have known he was taking me to say good-bye. But I didn’t know, or what that would mean to us. I knew my grandfather — Zaide we called him, using the Yiddish — was sick, but I was not prepared. I had overheard the word cancer, but didn’t know what that was, other than deadly. And “deadly” was beyond me.
I was happy to see my aunt, uncle, cousins, and Bubbe. They cared for my Zaide who lay in the back bedroom in an old house in snowy upstate New York. The front rooms of plastic coated-furniture stayed dark and silent. But the kitchen and dining room — where I slept on a cot for the weekend — were full of life. My father ushered me down the hallway to the last room and I paused at the entry. My Zaide was in his twin bed, its wooden headboard overpowering his shrunken frame like a crown too big for the head of its wearer. Later I would hear he weighed just 65 lbs. when he succumbed, in his sleep, in this bed, a few days after a second bowel surgery. The family would not let him die in a hospital.
He must have been close to 65 lbs. when I saw him. I saw a skull veiled by the thin, translucent skin that had been his face. He smiled at me. Did he motion for me to come to him? I hope not, because I know I said nothing, then turned away after a few awkward moments, and walked back to the kitchen. Scared of death and horrified to see the outline of his skull and — embarrassed. Embarrassed to stand brazenly in his presence, me in my shiny, healthy youth. Wasn’t it an affront to him? I did not have those words then, but that was what I felt: ashamed to stand before him with a lifetime still stretching in front of me.
I didn’t go back to his room for the rest of weekend. I didn’t want to catch Zaide’s death — catch it like a cold. No one made me go, even to say goodbye before getting back in the car to go home to the City. I was relieved.
I imagine Stalker looking like that shrunken man in my Zaide’s bed. Stalker’s shaved head and thin frame — even when “healthy” — had reminded me of Zaide. How long had Stalker been sick, I wonder. Should I take that into account when judging his “bad behavior,” as he claimed I should? That is reasonable, after all. Cut a sick man some slack.
I turned away from a dying man once, in fear. Yes, I was a little girl. But haven’t I grown up? Can’t I do better now?
Yes, that must be it. He must be dying. That is more likely than his having gone underground on a last killing spree, getting his revenge. If he is on the spree, there is little I can do. But if he is dying, I must go to his side and carry out his last wishes. I must hold him and later take his ashes to the waterfall. I must not turn away in fear and disgust — a second time.
He had given me strict orders never to call his sisters again — not after the disastrous results the last time I called them in desperation. They, like me, prefer to move fast, and err on the side of caution. I know, I know. I must respect his wishes. But this isn’t about him now; this is about me. I will have to live with my actions. I cannot picture sitting and doing nothing. If I do, I will have regrets. He will be dead, but I will have to live with my last actions, or inactions.
So, I phone Sister One.
She picks up right away, but my heart sinks when I hear her tone: sternness twisted around a core of fear. Flavored with accusation.
“Baby, oh no,” said Stalker’s sister. “You should NOT have called.”
* * *
Scene 34 Unbecoming Bitterness
Yes, dear Reader. You read that right. In 2001, I flew to Chicago to rendezvous with Dave, seeing him for the first time since the early 1970s. How did that happen, I bet you wonder. Or, maybe you think it was a dream sequence, or fantasy scene.
No, no dream, no fantasy. It happened. But how does one manifest such a brazen, cross-country, multi-purpose rendezvous 30 years after a break-up? A rendezvous borne of curiosity, my need for completion, and my yearning for a “do over”? One needs to mix a quantum leap of blind faith with the heart of an incurable romantic. Mix with questionable ethics and a dash of revenge, and slather on top of a body starved for affection and on the cusp of menopause. And that’s just what I brought to the potluck dinner.
Dave didn’t have a chance.
The years I could afford to pay high school alumni dues, I received the annual Bronx HS of Science newsletter. My Portland address changed frequently enough that I kept my parents’ Bronx address on file with Bronx Science. Apparently my mother liked to scan the newsletter, too. “I see Dave and Thelma are looking for old friends,” she told me on the phone once, before forwarding my mail. Right. Like they were “friends” of mine. Ha! I would never initiate contact.
For decades after their marriage my heart beat in time to bitter music. Wanda had given me the wedding details; I was not a friend enough to make the invite list, myself. A traditional Jewish wedding. A traditional June wedding. A no-expense spared wedding. “Wow,” Dave had confided in Wanda. “They have so much money.” Honeymoon in London followed. Fine! I had been to London, myself, six months ahead of them. All right, it was by myself. But I saw it first! Not that I’m competitive.
They want to be in touch with old friends? Salt in the wound, Mother, salt in the wound. Didn’t she know not to point it out to me? Or . . . well, no, she probably just wasn’t thinking.
Dave and Thelma’s alumni news — on their lives moving ahead, as mine stayed frozen and secret behind the wall of my 1970 vow of self-protection — was something I read with consistent annoyance and, I’ll admit it now, envy.
I should have figured out that Thelma, not Dave, was the one submitting those alumni updates. Dave was more of a closet type of narcissist; a narcissist only by reflection, you might say. He basked in her glow; she generated it from her own heat. I later confirmed: Thelma was the drive behind the family accomplishments and their broadcasts: graduations, post-graduate degrees, birth of children, professional milestones, children attending the best schools, travel abroad . . . yes, living the most enviable life possible, in southern Florida. Well, that was one thing I didn’t envy: living in southern Florida.
Turned out he would have been happy — happier — with far less.
No other alumni appeared in each issue; no one could keep up with her broadcasting each detail. No one else felt the need.
Those were the days before the Internet, of course. You can imagine how that might have changed this arrangement.
And you would be right.
* * *
Scene 35, Be Careful What You Wish For
I can track the seed of my 2001 Dave rendezvous back to the summer of 1997, to a particular evening at home with James.
The house was in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, built on the cinder cone slope of a dormant volcano. Geologists will tell you that volcanoes do not become extinct. You cannot say they are dead, only that they have gone to sleep. Someday — some eon — they might rise up again. You should never feel completely secure around a seemingly dead volcano. Stay vigilant.
In my master bedroom, the hypnotic ceiling fan — suspended from my 25-foot, sea-foam green ceiling — whirled above me. I stared at the blur of the blades while I spread eagle on James’ and my queen bed. The bedroom television was on (some news program?), as was the TV in the great room downstairs, where James was watching some sports event. Vast space and a thin wall divided us; I could hear the broadcast waft up to the bedroom.
James was relaxing downstairs after cleaning up and cooking our salmon dinner on the grill in the backyard. We dined by my special-request backyard waterfall, the final touch that transformed our home in SE Portland, Oregon into my — our? — dream house. How Oregonian of me, buying a dream house. The New York City girl in me just wanted to rent an apartment in a building with a reliable elevator and good vector control, and a super who gives lots of winter heat. But that girl was dormant under the Oregonian layers of silt.
James had hauled the stones from Oregon riverbeds for the backyard rock retaining wall and water feature. A strong man; I liked that. Part Native American, his face fell into deep lines and he had a full head of brown hair — and sparse hair elsewhere — even though he was on the cusp of 60. His clear blue eyes and freckled skin betrayed his WASP mongrel parts; his lack of awareness of religious rites or respect for sacred objects revealed he was wholly atheist.
Now the dishes were in the dishwasher, clothes tumbling in the dryer, VCR and thermostat programmed, cars safe in the garage, and my flowerbeds weeded and watered. I was living in the middle of the bell curve of vanilla, suburban, middle-class American life.
What the hell was I doing in someone else’s life?
I lay transfixed by the rotating fan blades. All was finally in place in my life and would continue just as it was — indefinitely. A body at rest or in motion will tend to stay . . . Life will persist as peaceful, secure and calm: what I had worked so hard to achieve. After my confusing, floundering teenage years and the experimental decade of my twenties, I had finally settled down. James was dependable and daily life was stable. No more surprises.
The realization filled me with dread.
I can withstand anything except monotony and predictability. But, I loved James and I would never leave. I am loyal and dedicated. I am a good partner. He was my rock, my stability, my man. I could count on him. He was kind, intelligent, trustworthy. He accepted me as I was. We had the perfect relationship: I stood behind my wall, he behind his. The unspoken motto of our relationship was, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It worked.
I had arrived at my destination and, short of death or illness, this was going to be it – indefinitely. Dread flowed through me. At that moment, I am sure, I sowed the seed of change. Excitement, novelty, something different — anything! — had to happen, or I would die.
Sometimes a single awareness — if it resonates thoroughly, down to one’s core — a single thought is all that is needed to change life’s course. A seed, an acorn, is sown; it grows underground, unattended and unnoticed while we live another life. Then, it blooms like a surprise. I must have set things in motion at that moment of awareness. Deep down, I know the change was my doing, no matter how it looked to others — no matter how much they took responsibility or blame.
I had experience sowing the seed of change. I knew how it was done. In 1985, a year before my relationship with James began, I had the secret thought — the seed –that catalyzed the next phase of my life: I wanted to be his partner.
James taught botany at Portland State University. I was responsible for taking phone messages for him. Yes, it was long ago before cell phones, before voice mail. Instead, people wrote messages in a book with pink “while you were out” slips, using carbon paper to make a permanent copy. His wife called at least three times a day. When she became too frustrated with being unable to reach him, she gave me detailed messages. I became an extension of her, her avatar at his workplace. I relayed grocery shopping lists (what was she contributing, anyway?), updates on the children, her whereabouts, plumbing crises, the problems with the bank. Apparently she missed having someone, anyone, to talk to; she would visit with me on the phone like a girlfriend, until I had to beg to take leave to tend the other phones. But, I didn’t really mind. I was lonely and needed a friend, too. And I had my fantasy.
She was as disorganized as I was super organized and efficient. Surely I could do her job as wife better. He deserved better. James commanded respect. He was accomplished, educated. He was fifteen years old than I was. Long and lean, he had a deep baritone but spoke softly with measure, choosing his words most carefully. How did he end up with someone so flakey for a wife? Surely the children were suffering.
I could do a much better job for him.
I knew it was a fantasy and of course I had no intention of taking any steps to make it happen. I entertained myself by picturing myself in her role. It was just make-believe.
Apparently, sometimes, that is all it takes me.
One Friday evening in early 1986, James invited me out for a drink with his colleagues. I was flattered, and joined them at the Cheerful Tortoise by the university. Once. Twice. The third time, he walked me to my car and said, “Give me time to work things out.” I said okay. The next day, we made love on my living room floor. He went home and announced to his wife he wanted a divorce.
But I didn’t mean for that to happen! That’s not how it works! They never leave the wife, never leave their lives. At least, not for me they didn’t. I never meant for that to happen.
Another marriage violated. Another woman I cannot look in the eye. What was wrong with me? I hadn’t stopped to think. All I knew was my own loneliness and yearnings, and I could not get beyond that.
But now I owed him, didn’t I?
We didn’t marry, which was fine with me. I loved him. I looked up to him. He knew how to do things I didn’t know how to do, and I respected that. I needed that. But marriage would make the relationship official and would not fit with my other life: my life on the other side of my wall. “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”
* * *
Scene 36, Falling in Love 1986
When Stalker asks me about “James” on the spreadsheet, I will have this essay ready for him.
1986, Portland, Oregon. My fantasy has come true and James wants me. “I watched you every day from my window. I watched you crossing the campus to the parking lot, in your straight skirt, business suits — gray, pink, navy — with matching high heels,” he told me. I hadn’t a clue he noticed me. He was a man with the ultimate poker face: neutral, steady gaze, and unyielding.
Looking back, I was at my peak of beauty, in my early 30’s. Age had not yet chipped away at my 5’3″ height. I was more toned, more muscular than ever before, and fitting nicely into my size 6 — or smaller — outfits. Once, a lover caught me looking at myself in the mirror. “It’s okay. Admire yourself. You have definition not often found on a woman. I like it.” He stroked my forearm, with its muscles defined. It was 1986, before strength training was a common practice for women. But I had personal Princess Bell hand weights at home. They came with a booklet that told me all I needed to know. I liked feeling strong enough to take care of myself, to carry my own packages. To be independent, self-sufficient. Since I had to be.
My dark, curly hair was not yet streaked with gray. My face — in my youth, a little too round, a little too oily — now matured into a fresh adulthood, but without a first hint of wrinkle. A woman approached me while I was shopping for clothes. She organized fashion shows, and had vintage dresses she wanted to show. “Would you consider modeling? You have a great walk,” she said. “You could fit into the clothes, I’m sure,” she said. Yes, I’d love to do it.
My supple body’s easy walk broadcasted that I was comfortable with my sexual energy. My passion had already found expression with my past lovers, lovers who taught me what I needed to know. Men could tell who I was by looking at me, even if they didn’t know how they knew. I had not yet lost that magnetism — why does it evaporate once we women settle too deeply into domestic life? — when men know they have found easy prey. Twenty-five years later a girlfriend reminisced, “You were pure sex. You just walked by and men turned their heads. Wow! What just went by, they would think, and their heads would turn. It didn’t matter if you wore baggy jeans or oversized sweatshirts. Your sacral chakra was wide open. You don’t know the effect you had on men back then.”
“Oh, I knew I was having quite the active social life,” I told her, with a smile. Why did she think I didn’t know? Afterall, I felt it. I lived it. I guess part of my attraction was that I seemed not to know. Why talk about it? Why ruin it?
James didn’t ask about my past; I didn’t tell. As we lay together each night, I followed his lead. He assumed me inexperienced. I didn’t correct him. I didn’t dance any steps he didn’t first demonstrate. He didn’t ask. I didn’t offer. Later he would say, “You didn’t want to talk about sex.” I could barely keep from laughing.
He moved out of the family home and got a room on a friend’s houseboat. I had never been on one before, the uneasy contrast of a solid house and a watery foundation. A romantic setting, with the moon reflecting on the Willamette River. James taught me the name of each flower that spring, that summer, opening my eyes to delphinia, dinner plate dahlias and the wildflowers of the Oaks Park Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Each evening, he opened a bottle of wine and we crawled into bed — a mattress on floor, which took me back to my early 20’s — to hug and talk. Heavenly intimacy and togetherness. He told me about his childhood, his career, his work. We talked about the university — the politics, the personalities. We became a covert team. He wanted to shield me from the difficulties of the divorce from his second wife, but the stresses finally seeped through, as did his guilt over disturbing his children’s lives. His guilt became mine. We began to mesh, to merge. I supported him through the divorce — those messy meetings with the lawyers; the giving away too much because of the guilt; the financial fallout. I lived through it with him. Afterall, it was my fault, wasn’t it?
But as we held each other every night, we were in a world away from the world. The houseboat wasn’t permanent, but it was enough for us.
One night I felt bold, my curiosity winning out. I risked a prying question.
“The first wife. Ruby. The mother of your oldest child. What happened? Why did that marriage end?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to be married anymore,” James said.
“What does that mean? What happened?”
“Just that. That’s all there was to it.”
I didn’t want to push. I wanted to be different from my past self. More respectful. Give the man some room. Maybe that was all the insight he had, or, maybe that was all he was willing to share for now. Give the man some time. I came to like his respect of his ex-wife’s privacy. Yes, that is what it is. Protecting her privacy.
And that was all ever said about Ruby, the first wife.
We were in love. That blanket of scents and senselessness that poets have tried to describe through the centuries: we felt it and basked in it. It enveloped us and protected us from the outside world. I wore the in-love feeling like a heavy overcoat in the dead of winter, keeping me warm and safe from the outside elements. I brought it in closer, hugged myself in it. Turned up the collar. Impossible to believe I was feeling this again. The scent was so thick; it cradled me through the night and day and I had that heavenly feeling. Senselessness took over. All that mattered was to keep the feeling, preserve it; don’t let it evaporate this time.
He felt it too.
One night, we lay on the mattress in the dark, my face up against his, his arms bringing me close to him. “I love you,” James said. I didn’t have the words. I hadn’t said those words in so long, I could not find them. I had lost them. “Say it. You can say it.”
I whispered back, grateful for having been given the lines, for being forced.
“I love you, James.”
For once, a man felt real, the man felt right.
I wrote my mother. “Would Daddy accept my marrying a non-Jew?”
The answer determined the course of more than I expected.
* * *
Scene 37, Chicken Soup
1986, Portland, Oregon
My mother answered my letter. Yes, she had broached my father with my question: Would he accept Baby’s marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish? Even though it went against everything he had been taught? Even though his Orthodox relatives would reject me, and expect him to do the same?
I knew my mother would accept such a marriage, if only my father would.
My heart was still hopeful, while my mind knew the answer. How could he allow me a man who wasn’t part of our tribe? A man not — neither by birth nor by conversion — “suitable”? Unacceptable to my father’s siblings, their spouses, their children, to our ancestors in heaven, to the memory of those who died so we had the right to marry only other Jews and perpetuate pure blood lines. To keep separate from dangerous people shoving us into the gas chambers or driving us into the sea. “You must not trust those others, you know. They are taught to hate us, taught from the time they are children that we killed their God. How could they get over that? They all feel that way; don’t be fooled,” my father often told me — repeating what he had been taught, what he, himself had read.
My mother asked him my question, and wrote me his reaction in her own anxious hand.
“He said, ‘Oh no. Not another problem.'”
I heard the message: Please Baby, don’t give us any more problems. We have all we can take. Don’t try to marry a non-Jew; we are too Orthodox for that. We would have to shun you. We would act like you’re dead. We will sit shiva for you and . . . didn’t we teach you anything? You will be shaming us and showing the world what failures we are as parents and it will be the end and how could you do this . . .
Okay. No marrying James. Even if he asks me. And in the meantime, dear parents, we won’t talk about it. Don’t ask, and I won’t tell you. I was stupid to ask, to think for a moment . . .
I dropped the topic. Now I sat behind a wall even thicker and taller.
Not that I had to worry about James wanting to marry me. He didn’t ask.
“No one will ever want to marry you,” my father had said. The year – 1972. His voice was edged with undisguised disgust. “You’re so nasty; so fresh. You talk back, you don’t listen. No one would put up with you.”
I considered my choices. The most appealing: I could live with James, and just not let them know. Nothing official like marriage, such a public arrangement. So real. I could live a double life — didn’t I do that in high school? I could do it again. But aren’t I getting a bit old for these charades? That’s why I asked my mother to ask him . . . how wonderful if I could give up hiding. But, perhaps this is my fate. Over and over I do the same thing: being different people at the same time.
I didn’t see my way out.
Though I was an adult, already in my 30’s, I hadn’t yet reconciled my religious beliefs, my actions, and my father’s expectations. Would I ever? It was 1986, and I still believed in G-d. I believed in the sanctity of the Torah. But my day-to-day actions were inconsistent with such beliefs, weren’t they? I sinned: I drove on the Sabbath; I ate unkosher meat; I routinely broke 613 commandments from the Almighty. My guilt stole my soul.
I’m too weak to do the right thing. Too inadequate. Not disciplined enough. I behave badly. I’m ashamed of myself. There’s something so wrong with me, that I can not act as I believe.
Only later did I consider a simpler explanation: Maybe my actions were my truth? Maybe I didn’t believe, in my heart, what I used to believe?
I couldn’t face my father, his disappointment. I couldn’t ask my mother to lie to her husband just to keep my secrets. Better not to say anything more to her about James. Let them think what they will. Isn’t that why I live 3,000 miles away from them? So I can do whatever I want, without my father punishing me? Without my hurting them?
I made my choice: lie through omission. For as long as I could.
Fall, 1972. The Bronx
“You want to move out? No! You’re killing your mother. Take a good look at her,” my father said.
The three of us sat around the kitchen table. Tears ran down her face; she kept sobbing in bitter waves. When she looked up at me, her eyes were full of shame and pleading. I could not bear to meet her gaze.
All I had wanted to do was get an apartment with a girlfriend! I didn’t realize they would care. Didn’t appreciate how much she relied on my company, our chats over morning coffee, lasting so long I would miss my morning college classes. Since I could remember, she kept her pride, acting like she was doing me a favor giving me time or attention. I still assumed she could take me or leave me, that I was a bother, an annoyance to her, as always. A problem.
I had missed the shift. Of course, now I could see it. My siblings were gone — I was the last one. That had changed things.
But how could she let herself get so dependent on me, that she could not handle my growing up and leaving? That wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
“I will never forgive you if you do this to your mother,” my father said.
I stayed, but I knew I wouldn’t stay forever. I couldn’t stay just for her. Even if he didn’t forgive me.
Maybe I never forgave him.
One evening, when I was little — about five, I guess — the family was having supper in our pink, eat-in kitchen on the second floor of the five-floor walk-up. We still lived on Grant Avenue, in the Bronx. Daddy had strict rules governing . . . well, governing everything. Some were religious rules, some his own rules — I was too young to know which were which. The Torah says to honor your father, so I guess they were all religious rules. At least, Daddy led me to believe they were; disobeying your parents is a terrible sin; I must obey him. disrespecting your parents is unforgivable, he taught me.
Here was another master rule: as long as I lived in Daddy’s house, I had to do what he told me. “When you grow up and get married, then you can do what you want.” I longed to grow up and get married.
I was in Daddy’s plain sight each evening at the supper table, so I had to be careful. I tried my best, but it was so hard. So much to remember.
He liked a quiet meal to help his digestion. He always had a sensitive stomach. So sensitive, it got him in the end. But that was many decades later.
Usually he sat quietly, surveying his kingdom of the kitchen from his designated chair, back to the wall so he could see the whole room. Sometimes, he told stories or played jokes on us. He might give Mommy instructions on how to prepare his food differently next time. Sometimes he and Mommy would argue, but he would demand that stop right away; it was ruining his appetite, his digestion, his meal. Mommy would look like she would explode, but keep her mouth shut. Usually.
The children were to be his silent audience; we had our orders. A few years later, I tried to bring my books to the supper table, to keep me company in the silence. But, he forbade that. He took the phone off the hook, so he could have “peace.” So boring. I tried to leave the table as soon as possible, but first I had to ask his permission to be excused, using the right words and the right tone of deference; and even so, he didn’t always grant immediately. And no one had better sit in his chair, or else! And you better eat what your mother cooked for you. Even if the hamburger or the boiled chicken or that glob of fat floating in the chicken soup disgusts you. Or you’re not leaving the table. Ever.
“Do you hear me? Look at me! I’m talking to you! How do you answer me? Speak up! I can’t hear you.”
That one particular evening, that little-girl joy — that lived secretly inside of me — broke out; it broke through his gloom and I got the giggles — the way five-year olds do.
“Stop it!” Daddy said.
I couldn’t stop. I wanted to, but I didn’t have control. I giggled and laughed at my own giggling and . . .
“Cut it out! I am warning you!” Daddy said. He wore a red plaid wool shirt, with two chest pockets full of pens. Red, blue, black ones. A yalmulke was on his head. He hadn’t shaved yet that day; he looked rugged and tough. He was angry now. I was defying him, doing this on purpose just to test him, he said. His brown eyes were turning darker and his voice was getting deeper and louder. He was so much bigger than me.
I tried to stop. But I was laughing and crying because I was laughing to hard.
He was directly across the narrow table. He could reach over and slap me if he wanted. But he didn’t. He could take off his belt and chase me. But he didn’t. Not this time.
He raised himself off his chair as he took hold of his glass of soda. He liked tall glasses — he would pour his tea or juice or soda right up to the brim, seeing how high he could make his drink without going over the edge of the glass. He took hold of that tall glass of cold coke, and flung his arm across the table. The coke flew out of the glass. I didn’t see it coming, it was so fast.
In an instant, quicker than I could duck, the flash flood of his rage — the flying cold soda — hit me in my face.
I stopped laughing, in shock. The air in the kitchen froze and the pink walls turned red and the clock stopped. I was drenched. Sticky, wet, disgusting soda soaked my hair and my white cotton blouse and my blue pedal pushers. Humiliation. I froze. I had no voice.
My mother took my hand hard and pulled me to the bathroom. Was she going to spank me now, for making him so angry? But, no. She surprised me. She helped me out of the blouse, pulled my cotton undershirt — soaked with the sticky mess — over my head, a wet mass of matted curls. She wiped me down and put me in clean pyjamas. I wondered if she would get in trouble, being kind to me like this, when I was so bad and he was angry at me.
After that, when Daddy was around, I didn’t laugh much anymore. I hid, usually in the hall walk-in closet. No one bothered me in there. Invisible. That’s how I liked it.
Years later my mother said, wistfully, “You and Daddy were so close when you were really little. You would sit on his lap, and play together. What happened?”
I wish I knew.
1986, Portland, Oregon
James took me on a road trip in his VW van, far north to Vancouver B.C. We rode in peaceful, comfortable silence. We spent two days in the city, in dull quiet. We drove back in awkward silence. Was he angry at me, that he wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t respond? Our first trip together, and he was done with me. Couldn’t wait to get me home and get rid of me. Well, better we found out now that it wouldn’t work, before things went too far. How could I blame him? I had nothing to offer.
The road was long, dark and empty. My stomach was feeling unsettled. What had I eaten at some truck stop diner? Something bad? It wasn’t agreeing with me. James seemed like a stranger, so far away, behind the wheel, concentrating on the black road, disconnected from me. So I didn’t mention my stomach. I tried to be good and not any bother. I didn’t really know him well enough to tell him I felt like throwing up. I could wait to get home, to throw up in my bathroom, in private.
The trip home was longer than I remembered. I barely make it to my bathroom sink, much less the toilet. My vomiting was violent. I hit my forehead on the faucet. A bruise.
“Oh, you’re ill! I know what you need,” said James.
He put me to bed. While I slept, he shopped and stocked my refrigerator. Next, I heard him opening and closing my kitchen cupboards until he found my largest pot. He was humming. Cheerful. Chop, chop. His mother’s original chicken soup recipe. Soup from scratch. He didn’t serve me the boiled chicken, like my mother did, after it released all its goodness into the broth and turned into a dried up, cardboard carcass. He discarded those chicken remnants, and cooked up fresh pieces to chop chop and put into the soup, brimming with sweated celery, onions and carrots.
He knew how to cook, how to cook everything from Thanksgiving turkeys to pot roasts to stews to chili to barbeques. His mother had paid the rent and clothed her children with her job as a cook. She taught him how to do it, do it the right way.
James didn’t run when I was sick. He stayed and took care of me.
He was all I needed.
“I wouldn’t tell my parents I’m moving in with you, James. They won’t approve. They will only approve if I marry someone, and someone Jewish.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“Move in with you. Just not mention it to them.”
“Okay,” said James. “You’ll be the one answering the phone then. I don’t like to answer it, anyway. And it’s fine with me if I don’t have to meet new people.”
James made it easy. I was thankful. Whenever he could, he would let me have my way. Nothing was a big deal. “Laid-back” they called him at the university. I appreciated that. At the time.
James had left his friend’s houseboat, and rented an apartment near his children. When I moved in a few months later, I gave my parents my new address. “Why are you moving?” my mother asked.
“To be closer to work,” I said. And the walls between us grew thicker and taller . . .
I stopped visiting family in New York. I stopped responding to wedding invitations from cousins. My old life belonged to a different person. I was in exile in Portland, Oregon. I tried to build another world, a new life with my new self. The letters and phone calls with my parents became sketchy, as I said less and less. Instead of becoming fuller and rounder, I downgraded to two-dimensional: screening and censoring myself to fit into expectations and requirements. Not to offend, not to upset, not to rock the boat. I could learn to behave. I can pay this price, I thought. I need James. I love him. He wants me. I can’t hold out any longer hoping that someone else, more suitable, shows up. That waiting was killing me, for sure. No one who is “suitable” will ever want me, anyway.
My relationships tried to take root in a shallow topsoil, skimming the top of a fault line buried in the bedrock below.
And my mind was getting closer to slipping and snapping as its jagged, mismatched pieces strained against the walls.
* * *
Scene 38, A Warning
1986, Portland, Oregon
Only one person warned me about James. Shirley Henry. Shirley Henry was a senior member of the university’s Personnel Department, and had known James for almost twenty years.
“It was too bad, when James got caught,” she said.
Got caught? My face went into instant, defensive neutral. My right hand, holding a kahlua and cream, tightened its grasp — I hoped not visibly. I was hanging out at the Cheerful Tortoise, celebrating the end of the week with about 30 other university staff members. Shirley came up to me, got right in my face. I don’t think she had ever talked to me before this moment. How did she know about James and me? His divorce wasn’t final; I didn’t want people to know yet. I met her eyes, though I kept mine silent. Her gray hair’s frizz and curl was smothered with gel. Her thick bifocals’ frame missed the shallow bridge of her nose. I thought her ugly. I felt small next to her girth, but I did not break from her stare.
Did everyone know? I felt the red — the shame shade of red — creep up my neck.
“I felt sorry for him, that he got caught,” said Shirley. “Baby, if you were smart, you would get out now. If you knew what was good for you, you would run.”
Who the did she think she was? Who asked her? I don’t even know this bitch of a woman. And, by the way: What the hell was she talking about? How could James leave out something this important? I hated the feeling of someone else knowing more about him than I did.
Oh, I knew where this was coming from. Shirley was a bitter woman who didn’t want anyone else to be happy. I knew the type. Jealous. Old and wrinkled and infected with envy. Just last week, another of this ilk came up to me, and said, “Oh, to be young and beautiful. It must be so grand.” She said it with venom, in her crackley, wrinkly, weathered voice, with the juice of the evil eye shooting out from each orb. Oh, I knew the type. They are the ones I must get away from, before the knife goes in my back.
But Shirley knew James for so many years. She must know more about his past than I did. I was blindsided by his reticience. I resented it.
I said nothing. I hoped she would explain herself, without my having to ask and show her the distance between James and me. But, she said no more, and I was not going to lose face by asking.
I turned my back and walked away. I was four years old, turning away from my mother, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of seeing the wound she inflicted.
I didn’t tell James about Shirley; I didn’t ask him when he got caught. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it didn’t exist. Don’t ask, don’t tell. I filed the warning away, and forgot all about it. Until I needed it. Later. Much later.
Our apartment was near a firehouse, and the neighborhood often needed its services. James and I would be asleep, or in bed talking — with our glasses of wine and late night sweet togetherness — when the sirens would pierce through the bedroom walls.
“Get on your fire boots!” I would yell. And we would be up and out and looking for the fire. We turned into fire engine chasers. Nothing as exciting as a good fire to get the adrenaline moving. Then back to the apartment, grilled cheese sandwiches for everyone!
On the other hand, we didn’t chase the any of the steady stream of cars coming into the parking lot, most nights, especially weekends. People would jump out of the cars, run up to one of the apartments across from our bedroom view, dash back to the car and be off. Didn’t even park the car, just pulled into the lot. Finally one, night, they were busted. An army of Portland Police in the parking lot. Sirens. Blinding, flashing lights. Handcuffs. After that, quiet. Except for the nights we pulled on our fire boots!
Although I was comfortable in the apartment, James felt the pinch. He had grown up in rural Nevada, where even poor families, like his, lived in stand alone houses separated by stretches of empty land; not like New York City, where lower middle-class families, like mine, crowded into dense public housing project apartment buildings. I had thought only rich people lived in “private houses.” I was mistaken.
One night, I parked my car in front of an Irvington four-square turn-of-the-20th-century house that sprouted a “for rent” sign in the morning. “James! Hurry! Before it’s gone!” We ran over — it was just around the corner from our apartment — and added our rental application to the stack atop the fireplace mantel. The house was perfect! A backyard for James’s vegetable garden, a basement for his wood workshop, and bedrooms for each of his children (to use when not rotating with their respective mothers). Even a closed sun porch for my painting. I insisted on attaching a deposit check to our rental application — a special touch that surely made ours stand out from the heap.
The house was ours! We could be so happy now!
But, my name was on the rental agreement, along with James’s. We had never added my name to the apartment’s; I could tell myself I wasn’t truly living with James. I was “visiting.” This felt official: I had crossed a line: one that divided me from my parents, my family, and from who I used to be.
A week after moving into the house, my mind snapped.
* * *
Scene 39, Paying the Price
A week after moving into the house, my mind snapped. I was standing at the bottom of the front steps when it happened: the eight, slightly crooked wooden steps, leading to the red door of the faded sunshine-yellow boxy house, trimmed with chocolate brown. The house stood across the street and around the corner from James’s apartment, where I had felt safe.
Now I was outdoors. Exposed. Vulnerable.
I stood alone on the sidewalk. The living room glowed behind the white sheer curtains in the bay window in the front of the house. Inside, I knew, was James. Outside, the October air was too chilly for my forest green hooded sweatshirt. Why was I standing there, why was I out there in the dark? I don’t remember. I didn’t know why. I found myself there, with no past, no reason, no memory of what had just happened. I woke up there, and I didn’t know why.
I looked up at the stars, the myriad of swirling stars that even Portland city lights could not overshadow. I was a speck on a speck of a planet in a whirling galaxy swirling along the emptiness of space, one of countless other swirling galaxies. In space: We talk of it as though space were an entity in and of itself; a location. We’re in Portland, in Oregon, in the U.S, on the planet earth, in “space,” where we hang by nothing. But space is not a location; it is the absence of place — the emptiness in-between places.
Daddy said, the human mind cannot fathom these mysteries of the cosmic design. “We get dizzy just trying to think of it,” he said. An indisputable proof of a god-created universe, for him.
Now, as my mind stretched to understand, I felt it reeling. Perhaps it would . . . perhaps it would snap. He was right. Understanding was beyond me. Even reaching for it felt dangerous. Hubris.
Daddy. He did not know where I was. I was getting smaller and dizzier, a speck of nothing in the giant nothing of space and no one knew where I was. My parents did not know where I was. They thought I was across the street, in that apartment. But I had moved without telling them. Why did I feel lost to them, even though I had moved only across the street?
Because they did not know where to find me. And if my parents did not know where I existed, I might as well . . . is it that I might as well not exist?
I was lost: completely lost in this swirling galaxy suspended in emptiness; hanging by nothing in the nothingness of space and my heart was racing. My heart was speeding I could not even count the beats. It was trying to keep up with my mind that was cracking my mind that was contemplating the unfathomable as my personality evaporated because . . .
Because no one knew where I was.
The fear emptied my core and left me a shadow of myself. I had no substance. I was but a shimmering wave in a shallow pool . . . look! Quick! It is here now. Now it is gone.
I must do something. Anything. Break out of this. It was more instinct than reason.
I could not catch my breath. My heart was going to explode out of my chest, I could feel it. And my mind was caving in on itself; my mind could not catch its breath. Like a cycle of breathing that has lost its rhythm and cannot be caught, my mind was off its tracks as well. I’m here. No, I’m here. I’m the person who says I’m here. No, I’m that person. No, I’m that person. I was derailed. I could not get back into the rhythm of linear time. I was in caught in a circle and I could not catch my breath and I must get someplace safe. I must get indoors. Get inside. It was a feeling more than a thought. An irresistible impulse. My body ran up the front stairs and opened the door. My mind must have followed. I entered a room so warm and bright, it was a planet separate from the cold sidewalk and the infinite stars in the black sky and the gap — the infinite distance between me and my parents.
James was in the dining room. Reading — the paper, was it? He didn’t notice that I had just come in and that I did not know who I was. That I was derailed. I went up the turn-of-the-century wooden stairs that strained even under my light frame, and rushed into my safe bed, with all my clothes on. I might be safer, under the covers, drawn up to my chin. With my knees bent up to my chest. I hugged my knees and closed my eyes. You’re safe. It’s okay. My heart kept beating against my ribs faster than I could count. I went blank. I went somewhere. I don’t remember. I went somewhere.
I don’t know where.
* * *
Scene 40, Beyond the Grave
What have I learned from Stalker?
The memory banks of our brains operate in a FILO world. First in, last out. First memories in are the last ones out. We can’t remember this morning, but we remember 50 years ago clearly. Last in, first out.
Even after decades of vodka, crack and heroin, Stalker’s brain enshrined its first pristine data entries, intact. He could retrieve them, easily.
He quoted from memory: Shakespeare, the Bible (“Old Testament”) and the Odyssey. He knew seemingly endless movies scripts by heart; every lyric and melody he had heard as a teenager. He quoted Rod Serling freely.
Only once he quoted George Eliot:
Not only to be loved
But to be told that I am loved
The realm of Silence
Is large enough
Beyond the Grave
I took it to heart. As did he. The “love” word was the water we swam in by night, the air we breathed by day.
When he dies, this quote will haunt me. Above all others he shared.
What did I learn from Stalker? The realm of Silence is large enough Beyond the Grave.
I learned it’s larger than I thought.
* * *
Scene 41, Too Big
Portland, Oregon. Late 1980s
The house was too big. James could fill it up, but without him . . . the house was too big for me. His muscular ruggedness echoed the storm-worthy, tested timbers of the house. His broad shoulders were wide beams, barely showing the first signs of weariness from carrying the burden. He filled the first-level rooms with the 12′ ceilings; but, at 6’3″, he had to stoop to take the turn on the main staircase — otherwise his head would smack into the shortened landing ceiling.
Beyond his strength, he had the know-how necessary to handle the house, its crafty ways of jutting out where you’d least expect it, its honed resistance to being tamed. James could handle the animal, but it was beyond me.
Since I had become too frightened to leave the house if I didn’t have to, I aimed to make peace within it. First I must survey the enemy. Venturing into its outer regions was an adventure: I routinely forced myself down the nascent, skeleton steps to the concrete-floor basement. The washer and dryer lived down there, as did an oil tank, a terrifying octopus furnace with a black-kettle body that filled the basement center like an overgrown tarantula, and James’s woodworking shop — lit by windows that James secured for me, first thing, with thick wood slats hammered across them.
But I made it up the attic steps — a mature staircase hidden behind an obscure door (it could have been just another closet door!) on the second floor — I made that trip only once.
My legs wobbled as I pushed myself up, away from the safer center of the house — into the top of its world. Who had any idea another universe, abandoned, was up here? (Even James never went into that space, I later found out.) The full-grown attic had a high ceiling and dormers whose age and filth filtered the sunlight like stained glass. This secret world would have been beautiful but for the haphazardly strewn, stiff bricks of yellow insulation that made a stab at carpeting the floor, and the grit of century-accumulated dust I couldn’t help displacing with each step. The dirt was clinging to the hems of my jeans.
The air lacked oxygen; it smelled of neglect and suffocation. My lungs fought me. I didn’t make it to the top of the stairs. I turned back when I saw beams of sunlight expose air particles so heavy, their gravity clumped them into floating asteroids. Besides, being so far from the house center made me dizzy. My heart pounded.
I never went back to the attic.
Even without the attic, the house was much too big for us.
The children were gone for a while; they were taking unscheduled, rotating years with their respective mothers. To disguise the emptiness, James converted one of their vacated bedrooms into a clothing closet (our own bedroom closet was 1908 size), by fitting and suspending rods, moving in chests of drawers, and hanging mirrors. (I don’t know if he even knew of the secret passageway off that room, a four-foot high passage that led to nowhere. A friendly, secret place; I wasn’t too scared of it.) Another vacated bedroom became my study. Another became our spare sleeping room — for relief from snorers and restless leg syndrome sufferers (and eventually became my own bedroom). Of course, even the study and closet room had spare beds. We could put up a lot of company. If we ever had any.
We were running out of ways to fill the bedrooms, living room, dining room, eat-in kitchen, the enclosed sun porch, the front and side flower beds, the backyard vegetable gardens, the garage, the back porch, the . . .
I grew up in a crammed New York City apartments; this house was way too much for me. I spent weekends vacuuming carpets, dusting, washing windows, washing curtains, oiling wood furniture, washing and drying clothes and bleaching the claw-footed bathtub. Wiping down miles of intricate, carved baseboards and moldings, on my hands and knees. Brushing cobwebs from the ceilings and suspended light fixtures; washing dishes (1908 did not design for dishwashers), defrosting the refrigerator; lining shelves and closets; scrubbing toilets, the bathroom and kitchen floors. . . . I found no end to the household chores that needed urgent attention. I didn’t complain. James tended the gardens and shrubs and trees and lawns. He got groceries and cooked. He hunkered down in his basement workshop and built anything I wanted, anything we needed. Above, all else, he was there.
I didn’t complain: with so much housework, no one could expect me to leave the house on weekends.
But now James was going away for a few days, an out-of-town conference. An academic panel, it seemed. My breathing was shallow and labored; the back of my neck, moist.
“You’ll call me every day?” I asked. “You’ll check on me?”
“Check on you? What?” Did he know?
“You’re not afraid of being in the house alone, are you?” He laughed. I looked away.
“Are you?” he asked.
Am I afraid of the giant black-kettle octopus in the basement? Of course not! Though if I go crazy and it comes after me, I just might bolt the basement door and . . .
While he was gone, I found something even scarier in the basement: The first of James’s secrets, hidden behind a box of wood scraps.
* * *
Scene 42, Emergency Room
Portland, Oregon. 1988
What if he never came home? It was 3:00 a.m. James had gone to a party, on the houseboat. He hadn’t minded my staying home as he went off. Relief! Any time I didn’t have to leave the house was a bonus, a plus. But why wasn’t he home yet?
When I heard the VW pull into the driveway and the front door open, I slipped downstairs nonchalantly, acting as though I had just woken up from the noise. Wouldn’t want him to think I was that afraid. James passed me without a look, without a word, and headed to the first floor bathroom in the back of the house. When he came back into the kitchen, he was white-faced and wobbly.
“Take me to the hospital. Take me to Emergency.”
What? What was wrong? The hospital? Me? Leave the house? In the middle of the night? Drive in the dark? I had feared I might have to do this someday; might be called upon to act. My heart pounded at the thought. How could he do this to me? He was supposed to take care of me.
“Why? What’s wrong, James?”
A flurry. Jeans. Sweatshirt. Shoes, sneakers. Purse, keys. I was behind the wheel in a moment. James folded himself into the passenger seat, holding his palm to his shin.
“Hurry.” Perhaps this was the first time I heard any fear in his voice. Ever. It frightened me.
James had fallen. At the party, on the houseboat. Tripped, ripped his flesh, through his pants. On the jagged edge of a piece of wood? He wasn’t sure. He had known something had happened, but didn’t check himself until he got home. He had felt something, but not much. He had kept drinking and eating and smoking and only hours later he noticed the damage. In our bathroom.
“I looked at my leg and it was bloody and split open. I saw something white and I realized: That’s my bone. It’s my fucking shin. Hurry. Take the freeway.”
Take the freeway? I’ll die if I take the freeway.
“I’ll get you there. Just be calm. I’ll get you there.”
“Speed up. And take the freeway!”
Not my fault you couldn’t take care of yourself, drinking and drugging. Be grateful I’m helping you at all. Staying out all night and giving me this grief in the middle of the night. My resentment was finding a foothold, and I didn’t fight it.
My first visit to an emergency room. Ever. How many times had I even been in a hospital? Two, three? To visit friends after surgeries. Yes, Dave had had a back surgery. 1972? I was a good friend; I visited. Dave was on the phone with Thelma. The next day I visited Thelma, in another hospital, after her own back surgery. As I sat at her bedside, she took a call from Dave. Took two phone calls from him, as I waited. Dave and Thelma, on the phone. They scheduled their surgeries to overlap, to minimize their time apart. My jealousy fought to surface, but I kept it tamped down. Grow up! When else was I ever at a hospital? I couldn’t remember.
At Admissions, they ask who I am. “Relationship to James?” asks the Admissions nurse. I hesitate. Why did they ask these tough questions?
I didn’t anticipate the medical visits becoming routine. Trips to the emergency room Sunday afternoons. Midnight, any day of the week. Hospital visits in the aftermath of car accidents, surgeries. Home infusion sessions. Trips to the ER when infusion lines failed. ER visits for infections, for allergic reactions to antibiotics to treat the infections. Men, boys, children equal medical emergencies. Who knew?
This wasn’t what I had in mind! I was to be the mistress. The erotic partner. The muse. The fantasy.
But, here I am: the make-believe wife and the make-believe mother who does what is necessary to take care of her make-believe family. I rose to the occasion. The children needed me; I could love them and have purpose. I was grateful for that. But James and I weren’t married, so it wasn’t real; I was playing house. I was a stand-in for the real thing, for the real mothers. Somehow, in this make-believe life, I am in the Emergency Room, and it is real. I am being called upon to act. Like a real person. A real adult.
My mind couldn’t reconcile it all. It creaked and cracked under the strain.
I consoled myself. Now James would see the risks and he would stop the parties and the drinking and the pot smoking. At least, an accident like tonight wouldn’t happen again; he would realize, I was sure, the risk to his health was too great. If he stopped those parties, I could depend on him. He was better off staying at home. With me. And now he would realize that.
Relief. I breathed out relief. His leg was bandaged, but functioning; James would be fine. He even insisted on driving us home. Macho man. I relaxed into the passenger seat, a safe place. Another disaster averted. If only my heart would stop its gallop and be at peace; if only my hands would lie quietly in my lap instead of fumbling, looking for a place.
I lit a Marlboro with the end of the last one. Breathed in the reassuring smoke. Deeply. Breathed out the rarefied remains. Let the smoke do its job. Get home. Crawl into my bed, the safest spot on the planet. Let this all pass over me. Let it pass . . .the panic, the fear. Let it pass.
I knew if I could stop living a lie, I could stop the panic attacks and fear and I could function again. The solution: legitimacy. We would marry. But first, James would have to be acceptable to my family. Otherwise, I would still have to lie to them.
“James, you once said you might convert.” I reminded him.
James was at the oak table in the dining room, working the NY Times crossword puzzle in ink. This feat continually impressed me. He didn’t look up.
“Convert to Judaism.” Like he had said. Like he had once said.
He almost looked up, not quite.
“Why not?” A bitter taste was on my tongue now. He had said! Otherwise, I never would have let it get so far.
“Join an organized religion?” James said. “Never.” He didn’t look up.
And that was the end of that. I was condemned to a life of jagged pieces. If only I could find a way to make it work. But I couldn’t think straight, adrenalin had drenched my body for so many months. I went upstairs. To bed. To resign myself. If I could.
If only I could give up and not care. If only.
* * *
Scene 43, The Jar
Portland, Oregon. 1990.
What type of green fuzz is in this dusty, old, glass jam jar? I held the jar up to the morning sunbeam, coming through the basement window. I squinted, and crinkled my nose. Is it fungus? Dirt? Dried leaves?
Sunday mornings James went to visit his elderly mother. He was a good son, a good person. He never asked me to go with him; I got the treat of staying home. I didn’t mind. I didn’t know her. Sunday mornings was a good time for me to clean the house, to vacuum, do the laundry in our basement. Tend to my own needs. In private. It was my time.
What was I looking for in the basement? I don’t remember. But I was going through the workbench, picking through sawdust sprinkles on wood boxes and glass jars of loosely organized nuts and bolts. Some containers were lined up neatly, most were scattered around the wood saws and drills and clamps. James had ample equipment and tools; he was an accomplished woodworker. I saw the special jar in with the scrap wood. Out of place. That’s what caught my eye.
I had no business being in his workshop. If I needed anything, I could simply wait for him to be home in a few hours. But, I was curious. And this was my house, too, wasn’t it?
I peered more closely at the jar. It was filled with — could it be — pot? I rotated it, hoping for a more recognizable view. I hadn’t seen such a thing since parties in Patrick’s black-walled basement in the Bronx in another life, another universe. I jiggled the specimen in the sunbeam. I had never seen so much in one place. Yes, that must be it. It was pot. In my house. I wanted to weigh it — to check its legality — but I thought better of it. I put it back in its secret spot. Why was this a secret? Why did he keep this from me?
Probably, James has forgotten he even had it. He was like that; absent-minded. The jar was something left over from years ago. Probably. Or, maybe I didn’t know what I was seeing. I had never seen clumps of pot, not like this. Times had changed, apparently. I didn’t dare open this jar and sniff, to double-check. I might not remember exactly what it looked like, but I would know the smell of Central Park summer nights and dim apartments on Kingsbridge Road and the black-walled basements of not-quite-unsuspecting parents’ houses on Tenbroeck Avenue in the Bronx. Maybe I’ll just make believe I didn’t see this jar. Surely after the visit to the emergency room, he gave it up . . .
Don’t ask, don’t tell.
I went upstairs to my room for my Sunday nap. He could have the basement. I had the luxury and privacy of my own bedroom. More than enough walls in this house to go around, and keep each of us separate and safe from the other. I lay down. Turned on the television. Drifted off.
By the time James came home that afternoon, I had forgotten the jar.
If I have to watch one more episode of The Wheel of Fortune I’ll shoot myself. The children, it seemed, were not coming back to live with us: the purposeless of my days was settling in for me like an endless stretch of arctic winter. Each evening, after work, James cooked supper for him and me. Then we ate, in silence, each reading our own books or papers. Sometimes I asked him about his day. It was “fine.” Then he sat in his recliner in front of the television. Years before, each evening — we would eat supper and sip wine in bed and be together. Now, if I have to spend one more evening in front of the . . . with the children gone, surely I have something better to do than watch one more episode of . . .
I signed up for classes at the University. Many, many classes. Evenings, after work. Classes for credit. I should have done this years ago. James didn’t mind. He made it easy, he made it possible. Someone else to take care of the home front as I worked and went to class and wrote my term papers. I was grateful. I became accustomed to being out of the house more, to being in the city after dark, alone. I would soon earn my degree.
This is what I need. We are content. I could do this forever. I could be happy.
Thump. Right below my bedroom. So loud, it woke me. Sounded like a dead weight falling to the kitchen floor beneath me. The clock said 1:00 a.m. James was hosting his monthly poker night. What was the thump that sounded like a body dropping like a dead weight?
I flew down the stairs in my flannel nightgown, feeling my heart go crazy while my head stayed clear. From the bottom of the stairs, I could see down the hall — I could see that James must be on his back, on the floor by the sink: I could see his legs, nothing more yet. Just the lower part of his legs. Stretched straight out. They were still.
I headed to the kitchen: to the 1908 L-shaped gerrymandered kitchen with the irregular, narrow spaces and jagged-corner counters. Not childproof. Not drunk proof. I was at his side in an instance. He was stretched straight out on his back on the narrow wedge of linoleum in front of the sink. I bent down to him. His eyes were closed. His body perfectly still. I called his name. Nothing.
Was he alive, dammit?
* * *
Scene 44, Flower Beds
Portland, Oregon. 1994
“I’m looking for a house. It’s time for me to buy a house,” said James, sitting across the oak dining room table from me. Doing the NY Times crossword puzzle. Not looking at me. Looking at the puzzle.
What’s wrong with this house?
“I don’t want to live in someone else’s house. I need my own. So I can do what I want to it. Without asking anyone’s permission.”
I can understand.
Now he’s looking straight at me. Cold, unblinking blue eyes. Stern broad chin. Thick, light brown hair — more hair than is fair on the head of a man his age. Shoulders set in resolve: he’s made up his mind. I see that.
I went upstairs to the second floor of our rented house and sat on the edge of the antique wood bed (from his mother’s house, the house before the nursing home days), in the front bedroom — the largest bedroom — the one I had made my own. I lit a cigarette. A Camel. Filtered. Looked out the single-hung window — yellowed glass melting from the gravity of age — and gazed on the white oak and cherry tree-lined street and the crooked, buckling sidewalk and the struggling, anemic petunias I had planted and tended from early spring to this on-the-brink of summer evening.
The red, pink and white flowers sat unhappily married with the Shasta daisies next to the volunteer pin oak tree sapling that James had refused to let me pull up when just a few days old. It possessed not a germ of a soul yet, I was sure: I wanted to pull it up before the sapling took over my front yard flower beds. If I could give the pull of death to the weeds, mercilessly yanking out every leafy hint of a non-petunia, a non-Shasta Daisy, a non-tiger face pansy — then why shouldn’t I pull up a tree, too, before it sapped the strength and light and moisture from the tender flowers?
“No,” he said. “Leave the tree alone.”
Perhaps I took too much credit when I said I planted the flower beds. Yes, I picked out the baby plants and brought them home and I changed into my dig-in-the-dirt clothes. But, the dirt was so hard; I didn’t realize the ground would be so hard from winter. All I knew was how to rip open thick plastic bags, spill the store-bought dark potting soil over the kitchen counter and push it into the flower pots I had lined up in the sink. And I knew how to put seeds or cuttings into this make-believe soil and get it all nice and wet from the kitchen faucet and put the pots out on the balcony. Or line them up on the window sills. The apartment window sills. To borrow some sunlight.
But I had not known how to remove the barkdust from an earthbound flower bed and how to slice into the heavy black plastic barrier the landlord had hidden beneath the barkdust laid to keep the weeds out of the flower beds and then how to use all my strength to dig into the dirt. I didn’t know how to do that. Luckily, James never waited for me to give up trying, for me to collapse into tears, or to beg him for help.
He knew if he didn’t intervene, I would never get it done. The petunia starts would stay too long in their flimsy nursery green plastic containers that weren’t big enough to hold much dirt or much moisture for long. The starts would wilt and die, waiting for me to plant them.
And he couldn’t let my neglect destroy these young lives. So James would grab his shovel, the man-sized shovel that I could barely lift, and dig up the dirt in those flower beds and he plopped those plants in so quickly I was ashamed of myself for having taken a whole afternoon and not even having a single plant in the ground yet. But James just laughed and made light of it. He knew how to do things. He had the touch. The experience. And the brute strength.
He was so good to all the plants, especially the tender, young ones. I loved him for it.
As I smoked another Camel and watched the breeze catch the sheer cotton curtain and flutter like an invisible heart, I contemplated my choices.
First, did James expect me to move with him? He did not say “we should look for a house.” He did not say “we” at all. He did not ask my opinion. Think, Baby. Think. What does this mean?
Was this his way of telling me that we were parting? Going our separate ways? After all these months of separate bedrooms. Years of my working and going to class and doing homework as he worked and . . . did things separate from me. What were those things?
Was he hoping we wouldn’t have to talk about it? He hated to talk about it.
Don’t think about it, Baby. Don’t even notice that, I told myself.
Next — what would I do if he did want me to move with him? Would I join him? More of this? Yes, it was better than being alone. On my own. Anything would be. And — this is where the bottom went out of my belly: I wondered, what would I do instead, if he didn’t want me to come along?
Almost ten years invested with James. And now the prospect of being left behind, of being abandoned. No discussion. No explanation. Oh, the very thought of it squeezed the bile into my throat. I watched the cotton sheer curtain tremble in the breeze. My invisible heart beat in time with it. The beat was but an airy flutter; a faint shadow, a bare tremor.
I remembered this taste of being left behind. I saw it before my eyes, behind an almost-opaque film, hiding the bad memory. Don’t look at it. Don’t remember. My mother leaving me behind, alone in the apartment. I was barely nine. I was too bad to be taken along. July 4th. As dusk came to the neighborhood, I watched the fireworks from the window. The other children playing in the street. My family outside, with the rest of the neighborhood. I watched from my jealous window perch, leaning into the glass as far as I could, to get as close as I could to the others down below. To somehow span the forever distance between me and them. To spend a lifetime, trying to span the distance.
I was left because I wasn’t good enough to take. That was my punishment. For what? I remember the punishment, but not the crime, not the sin. The lesson was lost on me. Perhaps none existed, except her need to remove a badness from her own heart. To cast it out so she could be left pure and good. To lock me away, with her badness swallowed into my void, so she could be empty of it. She could be safe.
I knew this taste, and I knew what to do.
Whatever happens, don’t let anyone know they hurt you. Don’t let anyone know you care. Don’t let on that you even noticed they were gone.
Abandonment? Oh, that’s nothing. You get used to it, after a while. You don’t even notice.
Lonely? Grow flowers. They always smile at you, and never walk away.
* * *
Scene 45, Give Peace a Chance
Fall 2009, New York City
It’s a small canvas bag from New York’s St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. The bag, wrapped in plastic, behind glass, is the last item in the exhibit.
“Do you know what this is?” Ms. Ono asked. “When John passed away, the coroner’s office took all his clothes. And I was called in, and they just gave me back this brown paper bag. It was very hard for me, but I insisted on having this bag in the exhibition. I think it’s a very good lesson for people to know what violence means.” Yoko Ono to Allan Kozinn, New York Times, 9 May 2009, regarding the exhibit, John Lennon –the New York City Years
Where was Stalker? He was on a bench, watching one of the videos. Or, was he gazing at Lennon’s piano, at the cigarette burns? He wasn’t beside me when I came to the end of the wall, and saw the bag. Lennon’s last clothes. The bloodied eyeglasses. The tribute by Yoko. Her saying that this bag was all she was left with. At the end, all they could give her was this bag. The irony, I thought. Lennon, the legend, reduced to humble remains. How could it happen? The rest of the exhibit was his life; but here, finally, I felt his death.
We are so small and vulnerable. Even the richness of a soul like Lennon’s, the depth and complexity of a bond such as John and Yoko’s — even their bigness could not surmount the smallness of the body, the shortness of our existence.
Picturing Yoko, left with just the bloodied remains, I cried. I stood in front of the glass and the bag and her message against violence and I pictured her left behind and trying to be brave — she knows everyone hates her, deep down, they resent her! — and my tears flowed and then I felt the sobs come. How many people were in this room, watching the video screens with the movies, the home movies, the tenderest moments made public (isn’t that what an artist does?), giving homage to the piano as though John’s spirit still banged at its keys? A large room, crowded room. It was okay with me — I’m a public crier — I cry without shame, anywhere, anytime — but I feared Stalker would be embarrassed by me. I walked to a corner and cried into the wall.
Stalker found me. Looked at me with a question. Silently I led him by hand to the last exhibit. I pointed to the bag. I could not say anything; I tried but nothing came out. He saw my tears. He eyes said he felt for me. For his hero. He took me in his arms. I cried into his shirt, the shoulder of his black shirt. “My Yoko,” he whispered.
My tears were for his bag. I feared one day, I would be left with his bloodied clothes. I knew that one day, the hospital would be bagging his clothes. His glasses.
“My Yoko,” he whispered. He took my hand and led me out of there. But I was forever Yoko.
* * *
Scene 46, Gimme Some Truth
In the Summer of 2009, Stalker tells Baby a Story
I was living with my parents.
No shame there, even though I was nearly 29.
I was glad that both my parents were still alive and healthy.
I was finally a senior in college — actually I had been a college senior three times before in different majors, acing all major courses from Organic Chemistry to Differential Equations to Scenic Design. But, now, I was The Stalker, on FUV, Fordham University’s radio station. I had found my true calling. Once I got on the air, there was no going back.
I was the late night guru of the airwaves . . . from Asbury Park to Albany . . .
After eight years of wonderful, renaissance learning, I was one philosophy term paper away from a degree.
I went to the Fordham Library. I took out books. I was ready to write that paper!
It was December 8, 1980.
I had probably been on the air, all night, the night before . . .
I slept all day . . . that was what serious FUVer’s did in those days.
I was ready to write that Philosophy paper and claim a sheepskin!
I felt so good . . . that before writing some boring crap about Thales . . . I decided to watch a football game . . .
It was Monday Night Football on ABC.
It was The Miami Dolphins versus The Houston Oilers!
I only intended to watch the first half . . . but, Earl Campbell was having the game of a lifetime . . .
I wuz gonna do my term paper . . . I really wuz!
Then they started that stupid song that I will never get out of my head . . .
“Miami Dolphins” or “Houston Oilers, we’re Houston Oilers!”
Dandy Don argued with no-one about who that song belonged to . . .
But, it was a sweet, pleasant evening . . .
At approximately 10:50 p.m. — we heard the voice of Howard Cosell —
“EXcuse me, but we must interrupt this broadcast of a football game for breaking news from the desk of ABC News in New York!” It appears there has been a shooting on West 72nd Street in New York City . . . and the apparent victim of that shooting is . . . former Beatle, John Lennon!”
“WHAAAATTT!” “What the fuck does that mean?”
About twelve minutes later, Cosell came on again — JOHN LENNON IS DEAD!
I immediately called Sean (Luke Skywalker to my Darth Vader) the greatest Beatles historian on planet Earth — he screamed: “Why is everybody calling me? Leave me alone!”
Then my phone rang . . . my parents phone . . . it was Gail.
Such a sweet little girl . . .
She was crying and screaming . . .
“Stalker! I can’t do this! We need you, now!”
I said: “No, I have to write a philosophy paper and get my degree.”
Then I sat and smoked a cigarette . . .
I REALIZED THAT PAPER WOULD NEVER BE WRITTEN!
I called the station. “I am on the way . . . pull every Beatles album and John solo. If there is an engineer with you — tell him to patch the phone lines into the board, with or without seven second delay, I will be there in 30 minutes.”
I walked from Van Cortlandt Manor, past Bronx Science, across Bedford . . .
It was a very crisp and clear night.
I can’t remember what I was thinking.
When I entered the studio . . . It was very Darth Vader, in the bestest sense . . .
Gail stopped crying . . . she leaped out of the chair . . .
“Do you have the records that I need?”
She nodded yes.
“Are the phone lines patched?”
I took out my headphones and plugged in . . .
I started simple . . . time and temp and call letters . . .
I told “The People” that the phone lines were open . . .
“You can say anything that you want . . . just keep it clean!”
For the next six hours, interspersed with a little music, I heard the greatest stories of real Noo Yawkahs about random collisions with John Lennon.
I believe every one of them — it’s not the kind of thing that you lie about!
“CAUSE WE ALL SHINE ON!”
“LIKE THE MOON AND THE STARS AND THE SUN!” (Instant Karma, John Lennon)
. . . While the little girls on the Ed Sullivan Show were screaming for the “cute one,” on the left, they were missing the real genius on the right. Later, they figured it out.
* * *
Scene 47, An Early Death
In 2009, I saw Stalker for the first time in decades; for the first time since 1970, in Patrick’s parents’ home in the Bronx, in their basement with the black-painted walls. The clubhouse, I secretly called it. Patrick was my boyfriend Dave’s best friend in high school, and he was Stalker’s close friend as well. And, after I graduated high school, Patrick was my own, private obsession.
That last night I saw Stalker, back in 1970, I guess I was the only chick at Patrick’s party — the token chick. Every band needs a groupie, or at least one chick who can pass as one! That party — I couldn’t wait until everyone else left. Then — by default — I would be left alone with Patrick for the rest of the night. Delightful!
The party was more than that; Patrick was conducting auditions for his fledgling Grateful Dead cover band. Stalker sang lead; he didn’t realize it was an audition. So, Stalker was drinking. It was a party, not a job interview, he thought. “I drank almost a fifth of hard liquor that night. Baby, that was the last time I drank Tequila. I got so sick, I switched to Vodka after that,” Stalker recalled.
I had watched Stalker lean over the basement laundry sink, then wipe his face with a white towel, sheepishly smiling at me when his head came up and found my gaze. That’s how I remembered him. Vomiting from alcohol. I should have taken that as a lesson.
Now, almost 40 years later, Stalker asks me — “Whatever happened to Patrick? He went to Portland, too, right? He was there first, before you — wasn’t he? How did he die?” he asks. “Write me an essay,” orders Stalker. Oh, must I go there? “Yes, you must. I need to know it all,” he says. He insists. So, I must. It will help heal me, I think. Surely Stalker knows best.
Assignment 29 from Stalker — What Happened to Patrick?
One of the toughest parts of Patrick’s passing away, for me, was my phoning his mother, Pearl. I left her a message with my condolences. For two months, she couldn’t even bring herself to call me back. And when she did, she broke down in tears. “I finally went back to work, this week. I thought I was ready to talk, to call you. I guess I’m still not,” she said. No apologies needed, Pearl. Please, no apologies. You outlived a son. He was only 42 years old! How can you bear it?
The next time I was in NYC, she picked me up at Williamsbridge Road and Waring Avenue in the Bronx. The old neighborhood. The streets that still glowed for me with Patrick’s smile. Streets that still carried his aura. I got in her car, and looked in her face for the first time in decades. My heart fluttered. Patrick’s eyes were staring back at me. They were from the Italian strain, not his father’s Irish side, after all. I hadn’t realized how much Patrick looked like her. After believing I never would see his eyes again, my heart clenched at the sight of him, staring back at me through her face.
She took me out to dinner. The plate they served me could feed a family of four in Portland. What was wrong with these people?
Pearl and I talked about his life and death. What did she know. What did I know. Where it all went wrong for her son, whatever that meant. I wanted to pour out my heart to her, how much I had loved him and how I missed him, but I did not want to upset her. I tried to keep the balance. I kept trying not to look into her eyes for too long. But, then I would want to, want to very much.
Pearl and Patrick’s sister Florence had flown to Portland right away to clear out his things and send the body back to NY. I spoke to them then, but didn’t see them. “He doesn’t have much,” Florence had said. “We won’t be here very long.”
He had an organ donor’s card in his wallet. Pearl honored it, to a point. “When I look at him, make sure he looks the same,” Pearl told the organ collectors. She buried him next to his father.
Pearl still lived in that house on Tenbroeck. She took me to City Island, for the seafood. She said she never was much of a cook; she would prefer to take me out. I remembered her bringing large trays of lasagna home from her mother’s kitchen around the corner, when Patrick lived with her.
I could barely eat any of the fillet of sole. Too much emotion filled me. I ate around the edges, and took the rest to go as a goodwill gesture of appreciation. But I couldn’t bring it to my parents’ kosher kitchen, so I dumped it. I hope no one saw.
Over dinner we reminisced. “Yes, your house was the hangout, Pearl. You were so permissive. We kids could do anything at your place.”
“That was on purpose,” she said. “I thought I could keep him longer that way. I knew he would leave as soon as he could, but I wanted to keep him home as long as possible.”
Patrick and I kept in touch on and off, over the years, I explained to his mother. Like any 25-year relationship, it ebbed and flowed. In 1994, while I sat in the study of our new house (yes, of course James wanted me to move with him, of course he wouldn’t leave me behind), I had thought of Patrick. I realized it had been longer than usual since we had touched base. I felt a wave pass over me. Perhaps Patrick is dead. My mind dismissed it. What arrogance! I don’t hear from him, and the best explanation I could come up with is his death!? Talk about being narcissistic!
I explained to his mother: He wasn’t dead then. Not yet. But I would never talk to him again.
“So you had a premonition,” said Pearl. “That would have made it even more poignant. No wonder it was so upsetting.”
Yes, she understood. Pearl, the clinical social worker, understood.
After the premonition of Patrick’s death had passed through me, a few months later, James stopped teaching at the University. A sabbatical of sorts. Perhaps a retirement; it was too soon to tell. Then Larry, a friend of his, suggested they take a three-week cruise through the Panama Canal. “Go,” I encouraged him. “I’m still working. Enjoy your retirement; travel even though I can’t go.” He was convinced. James took the cruise. I stayed behind, but the new, big house, the house he had me pick out for us — it felt so empty without him. His adult children were gone — in-between return stints living at home — as well. Empty house. Spooky house.
As James cruised through the Panama Canal, I went to work at the University.
But one day, I came back to my office after a meeting, and I saw something different. I can’t explain why, but that particular time, when I saw a pink “while you were out” notice left on my desk, my breath went shallow. (Yes, it was that long ago — no voice mail! 1994. October, 1994.)
“Mitch called,” the pink slip said, with his phone number. Mitchell Weinberg. Good friend since 1973, from CCNY.
Mitch had never ever phoned me at work. I knew immediately it was about Patrick and he was dead. How did I know this? I can’t say. I can imagine people saying, who should tell Baby? Baby, who followed Patrick 3,000 miles to the West Coast. Baby, who would have followed Patrick anywhere; done whatever he said, anytime, anywhere. And Mitch figuring: he was the closest to me. Let it come from him.
I called Mitch back and I almost said “So Patrick is dead,” but I didn’t want to freak him out. I waited and let him tell me.
He gave me the phone number of Patrick’s apartment mate. I phoned right away. He felt so guilty! “I should have told him not to stay on that high protein diet. It’s my fault, I didn’t tell him to get off it. It causes heart damage.”
I told him it wasn’t his fault. I don’t think he believed me, though I tried to comfort him.
The roommate had been watching football on TV with Patrick. Patrick also wore earphones, listening to a second game. Some team scored and Patrick stood up excited, cheering! And collapsed. Just fell down. He was gone. Just like that. The roommate administered CPR. Right away. If Patrick could have been saved — he had got CPR right away — if he could have been saved, he would have been. Someone was with him. But he never was revived.
“The autopsy showed nothing,” said Pearl. She expected a heart attack. But no damage showed up. Nothing showed up. “His heart just stopped. No reason. No reason they could find.”
Patrick had told me on his 30th birthday, “I can’t believe I made it. I always believed I would die young. I never expected to live this long.”
He still had a few more years, though not many. We didn’t know.
Perhaps that is why he never planned for the future. Lived day-to-day. Never kept a job longer than he felt like. Never saved a cent. Never completed anything. Lived like he had no future.
“He was so much more productive the last few years,” said Pearl over dinner. He was writing poetry again. He had always kept at the music, played guitar. One band after another. One woman after another. For one night, or a few weeks. Yes, a brief, loveless marriage in the 1970s, what I call an arranged marriage, suggested (directed?) by the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists. (How did he get me involved with that?!) Sasha, the great love of his life — he stayed close to her until the end. But she “didn’t like him that way.” I know. She and I had lived together. Roommates. She confided in me.
And she confided in a room full of Patrick’s friends and acquaintances at a Portland memorial service at the local Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist Community Center. James’s daughter went with me; James was still sailing on the high seas. I was in a room full of people (including Sasha) I had not seen since I left the group twenty years before. I went to say goodbye to Patrick; nothing less would have brought me to that room.
More emotion welled up in me than I had expected. People read his poetry aloud. I remember it now.
Note to self — never let Sasha Silverman speak on my behalf!!! I wanted to strangle her! She got up and told the audience every freakin’ detail of his life! How a few years before he had been so depressed, he went back to stay with his mother in the Bronx for months. How he wrote Sasha pages and pages every day, phoned her and poured out his heart. Until one day, he said, “I’m not going to write you anymore.” And how happy she was, because that meant he was better.
He was fucking confiding in her and holding on to her like a life raft in the middle of the ocean he was drowning in and she told a roomful of people this? I felt for him. His embarrassment. His shame.
She said people should not feel sorry for him because he died happier than he had been in years. He had happened to phone her the night before he died and he was so happy and excited, because he had found a new “chick singer” for his band, a chick who had a “fucking amazing voice.”
And we all needed to know this? Bitch.
Pearl told me — in private — how he had been in trouble. She told him to come home for a while, and he did. Then one day he said it was time for him to leave and go back to Portland. “I want to be on my mountain.” Mt. Hood. She was sad, but she couldn’t stop him. She loved him so much!!
He came back to Portland and — what?! — started studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor. Patrick back at school? Wow. He had changed, I thought. “Don’t talk to me about school, Baby,” he would say to me. “I hate when people talk about school.”
And James still sailing the high seas.
I phoned Sasha Silverman. We had not spoken in 25 years. We had things to sort out.
We talked about Patrick for two hours. The meaning of his life. How he was so charismatic, so brilliant, so talented, and so incapable of functioning, so exploitive of people. He died owing me money. I did not mention that.
I felt only sadness for him. “The one thing I feel sorry about,” said Sasha, “was he never got to be a father.”
That was the least of it, I thought.
When James’s daughter and I had walked out of the memorial service, an old friend of mine and Patrick’s came over. He shook his head and said to me, “Patrick was the unhappiest person I ever knew in my life.”
That was what I felt the most sorry about.
Would Stalker understand? Or would his jealousy burn a hole in his heart? I waited for his reaction to the essay. And, once again, he surprised me.
* * *
Scene 48, A Moment
Portland, Oregon 1998
A perfect moment. Baby languished in her backyard, listening to the fountain nestled in the wall that James built for her from rocks he lugged in from the Clackamas River. She watched the sky turn as the sun began to set, as the moment began to shift, as she breathed in the air from her blooming late-season azaleas and early roses. A perfect moment of relaxation and beauty. Her lovely world of the house, the garden; the life with the reliable man. Finally, she could relax. Stop trying so hard. Enjoy.
James came through the kitchen door and sat across from her, at the white round table by the waterfall and the hummingbird feeders. She was surprised to see him looking right at her. He was still. He wasn’t filling the bird feeders, or watering the lawn, or trimming the hedges. He was looking right at her, and she was startled to think that surprised her. She met his eyes. She met him with a full searching gaze. And for once James did not give her his frozen poker face. No, his eyes said something now. What was it? Pity? Shame? Apology. All of those. Baby felt her stomach tighten. James had never looked that way before. Was he about to say something? What was this about? No, he just kept looking at her, in that pathetic way.
She broke the moment. She looked away, regaining her confidence. She was in control. She wasn’t going to ask. She was above this. Above this look. She was mistaken, no doubt. Baby picked up her book, picked up her glass, and retreated indoors.
Only a month later did she remember his look. Perhaps he was going to tell her then? Was that why she went indoors? She didn’t want to know? Nothing was the same after that moment.
. . . to be continued
Also — Stalker, the Soundtrack
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.