My mother’s bedroom consisted of a narrow, single bed covered in a chocolate-brown and tan bedspread, a long, folding table for her adding machine, and gray metal filing cabinets that ferociously lined the walls. The venetian blinds were never opened. That room was a precise reflection of her hardened soul.
In my parents’ house, nothing was traditional.
For Christmas, sometimes, my father created a tree from small green umbrellas sprouting up like giant cattails from a New Jersey swamp. Other times, Robert sprayed enormous magnolia leaves gold and bound them together like large fans used to cool off a surly pasha.
In those politically incorrect days, there was an institution in Memphis called Home for the Incurables. Nancy briefly belonged to some women’s organization that visited the patients, all of whom could have appeared in a Flannery O’Connor novel. I accompanied her there once.
I had never seen so many helpless, hopeless, and deformed people, and I began to cry.
A nurse softly said to my mother, “You really shouldn’t bring a young child to a place like this.”
Nancy did not respond.
When we were inside her Chevrolet station wagon with the batlike fins over the rear lights, she screamed, “Stop it with the crocodile tears! That’s life. Get used to it!”
[Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana] Music that should accompany the memories…
(My father always said: Don’t settle for an ordinary life.)
Other lovers from the 1970s…
The married French radiologist, Pierre, with the severe features of a Christian Schad portrait, whose patients included many celebrities and Manhattan socialites.
Our first date was in the King Cole bar of the St. Regis Hotel. We hurriedly drank Kir Royales. A very attractive young woman sat alone nearby. He invited her to join us for dinner at Gino’s restaurant on Lexington. She accepted. The dinner was just dinner. She was an actress from Los Angeles and had come to New York to work on a film. Pierre wanted a ménage à trois; but it didn’t happen. (I think she was just an expensive hooker looking for customers.)
He came over to my apartment once a week with a cheap bottle of Beaujolais, some smelly French cheese, purple grapes, and Carr’s crackers. But, he was also cultured and refined; I learned a lot. He always wore underwear that came from Switzerland—softest fabric I ever touched.
We met in an elevator in the medical office building where both of us worked, when he complimented my black fedora with the wide brim. He liked to spank me, lightly and playfully, and talk dirty simultaneously.
The South African psychiatrist whose fingernails were always dirty because he rode his bicycle everywhere and kept it well oiled. He thought I desperately needed him because of my unsavory childhood. We met on the street when he almost ran over me.
The Croatian who always giggled before and after sex. He gargled his snot and rinsed his teeth at meals with coffee. That was a very short-term relationship.
The Jewish art director who airbrushed photos for multinational cosmetic companies. He liked for me to wear a black garter belt and long silk stockings. We met in front of Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” at the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street.
“I’m leaving right now! No one ever ever slaps me!” I shrieked. “Get away from me, Yanni!”
Hurriedly, I packed.
Yanni apologized and begged me not to leave.
I dragged my two worn-out yellow Samsonite suitcases up the two flights of stairs and out the front door of our Earl’s Court bedsitter and waited for one of those shiny, spacious, perfect black London taxis to pick me up and drive me back to my familiar run-down hotel in the Paddington section of London.
The following morning I looked at the fifth century-B.C. Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.
Yanni was so blindly patriotic; amazingly, he had been able to deliver lengthy disquisitions in broken English about Greek history and how those marble panels belonged in Athens: The glorious Greeks and all the infidels.
It rained all that day. London seemed almost empty; the streets were deserted; most of London must have gone away on summer vacation. Everything—buildings, sidewalks, sky, trees, and a few lost souls—all looked ashen.
I had never been so lonely in my whole life.
When I got hungry, I entered a small Indian restaurant and sat at a corner table. All of the customers were Indian, and all of them stared at me with large, dark eyes as I ate my spicy lamb and creamy yogurt. It must have been the first time that they saw a young woman eating alone in a restaurant.
I was a Martian on a foreign planet.
The following morning, I telephoned Yanni. “Can I come back?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, of course. That’s wonderful news!” he responded.
When I arrived at the bedsitter, there were piles of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and laying on the rickety dining table was a signed black-and-white photograph of a glamorous blonde woman holding a microphone.
He really had missed me!
The night before he had picked up a nightclub singer and brought her back to “our” apartment for cold ouzo and hot sex.
In the 1970s, I was the poster girl for multiculturalism.
My curiosity was boundless; my lovers came from all the over world.
The Jewish cosmetic dermatologist, Alan, whose bedroom and bathroom walls were completely covered in mirrors, including the ceilings. He dated mostly models, and his sister acted as his personal maid. She cleaned the kitchen and vacuumed the living room, while we fucked in the bedroom. Alan and I met at a party given by a German doctor, whose Chinese butler hit the bottle sometimes…once he put cherry tomatoes in the fruit salad!
When he served dinner, his face turned bright red and he merrily chuckled.
Joshua, the married Zionist, who criticized the way I dressed; he said I was always so buttoned up. Too conservative.
If you want Las Vegas, go to Las Vegas! And he was so cheap!
He was involved in all sorts of political organizations and would get discounts on rooms at the Sheraton on Seventh Avenue. We were not allowed to lie on the sheets because the rooms supposedly were used only for meetings. We had to lie on top of the bedspread.
He was impotent and insisted on masturbating above my stomach. When it was time to go home, he always told the taxi driver to drop him off first (we lived about ten blocks from each other).
He would give me a few bucks for the taxi—never enough to cover the bill and the tip.
[Men who are stingy with money are equally stingy with emotion. Stay far away from them!]
Whenever we lay on top of the hotel bedspread, I thought about my former Greek husband who insisted that bedspreads in hotels were always filthy. He also had a fetish about library books; he would never touch a library book. Dirty pages! And he wasn’t talking about pornography!
Jesus, the Puerto Rican, who was an honors student at Columbia University and had won a full scholarship, lived in International House. His room was about seven feet by four feet.
He taught me how to carry my purse in bad neighborhoods. We spent a lot of time in a bar on West End Avenue and in his tiny single bed.
Gordon, the African-American professor of African studies at Hunter College. He was from Tanzania. His perfect classic features made him look like an Indian maharajah. All he needed was a jeweled turban to complete the picture.
Leon, the investment banker, who stacked towels beside the bed because he sweated so much during sex.
An ex-girlfriend called him Skunk, not because of body odor, but because of his hairy chest, which was all dark hair except for a white streak exactly in the middle of his chest, as though it were a precise guideline for open-heart surgery.
At Christmas, even though he was Jewish, he recycled the holiday cards that he’d received; he crossed out the greeting and signature of others and sent them to his lovers and business associates!
In his den, he had an oil painting of a naked man chasing another on a football field; the chaser had an enormous erection.
He was 48 years old and still desperately in love with his mother. The initials for his company were M.O.M. He was a creative and ruthless businessman. Made a fortune on Wall Street.
Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”
I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never came.
My mother and I were master/slave; Hitler/Jew; shark/bloody leg; Mr. Murdstone/David Copperfield; Johan/Henrik in Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband.
Whenever someone asked about my “Mom,” my gut reaction would have been to answer, Mom? I don’t know anyone like that. Nancy, my biological mother, the popinjay, the vituperative termagant, was certainly no Stella Dallas.
To my mother, every aspect of life was categorized as a bargain or overpriced.
That included me: poor Return On Investment.
I had no siblings. To visit her after I left home for college, a formal invitation was required. Christmas was the only time that I was permitted to return to my parents’ house.
Thanksgiving. Memphis. 1966
My father and I went to the local Holiday Inn for our Thanksgiving dinner.
My mother was indisposed, once again, because of her drinking.
We ran into Anastasia at the restaurant; she was one of my father’s loyal, female friends. If I had looked closely, I might have seen the Trojan condoms in her Lucite handbag; Anastasia was a wealthy divorcée who got her kicks by pimping for the secret society of artistic, homosexual men in the East Memphis neighborhood.
She threw raucous, extravagant parties where handsome young boys and older patrician men were introduced. Women were invited also, but they tended to be in their 50s and 60s and were oblivious to Anastasia’s lascivious machinations.
Writing in my diary is my therapy. Goethe said:
“The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, re-created, molded and reconstructed in a personal form and an original manner.”
Often, I wish I were a ballerina so that I could sweat blood for beauty and for art. I gesticulate in front of the mirror, with my arms outstretched reaching farther and farther.
Art has helped more people recover from abuse, abandonment, and betrayal than all the psychiatrists in the world.
If not that route: War…Hitler, Stalin, Mao—all were abused children. The plus side???
Abused children have much more interesting sex lives as adults. There are roles to be played: domination/submission; fetishes to act out; neurotic kinks that find expression at some deep, dark primal level.
I must bring energy to despair. Move over Jean Rhys!
Weeks later in New York City, I lost my virginity to Noah, a not nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, on a large, heated waterbed behind blood-red padded leather doors in a closed wing of Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital on First Avenue.
After fucking, he told me that he felt like he had been through a meat grinder!
Noah had an amphetamine-addicted roommate who shared his East 24th Street apartment. Both were dental students at New York University and had easy access to Bellevue.
My parents never even had medical insurance, which they considered an extravagance, until they were eligible for Medicare. They gambled…and won the health lottery.
And when my father died, Nancy gave his body to a medical school so that she wouldn’t have to pay for cremation. Afterward, she refused to accept his ashes; she told the hospital to dump them in a public veterans’ grave.
However, when Robert’s clients expressed interest in making charitable donations in his name, she made a wise decision: Their money was used to buy magnolia trees to be planted in a large area, which was being developed into a community park, near the Memphis city limits.
During the too brief period between the end of school and the beginning of River Run Riding camp when my trunk and I were loaded onto an airplane to Philadelphia, my mother would lock me out of the house for, at least, five hours daily.
I used the toilet in my father’s shed, which protected his gardening tools and the occasional antique Japanese lantern.
[J. S. Bach’s Concerto for Violin in A, BWV 1041]
I found a somewhat comfortable spot on the red brick steps that led to our back door. I would sit there for hours, reading overweight Russian novels about the rich and poor, blessed and cursed, landed gentry and peasants, gambling, alcoholism, lust, and unrequited love—my kind of books.
Alcohol: the greatest nepenthe ever created. I read about it a lot, before I ever tasted it.
When the warm Tennessee sun filtered through the white magnolia and pink dogwood trees, and the pages appeared to be shrouded with Irish lace from the shadows of the leaves, momentarily, I was almost happy.
When I returned to Frenchtown at Christmas, during my freshman year at college, my mother called me a Fat Pig, over and over.
“You need to lose two inches off your hips, “ she commented icily. I had gained ten pounds.
Her porcelain doll had grown pudgy. Totally unacceptable.
After college/After Greek marriage/After divorce:
But deep down, I really relished being pursued by men. They definitely upgraded my standard of living. For the first time in my life, I felt powerful. I understood that these affairs were mutually beneficial.
I was poor; men took me to glamorous parties, to expensive dinners, to the theater, and on trips: yachts in the Caribbean, Florida, and Bermuda; luxurious resorts in the Dominican Republic, Spain, France, and England.
I went out almost every night, even though I had “early arrival duty” at the Greeley School.
A girlfriend warned me: “Be very careful. Remember the movie
Looking for Mr. Goodbar”?
“The dull ache will not depart,” Faust says in the first part of Goethe’s epic. “I crave excitement, agonizing bliss.”
[music: Ralph Vaughan Williams/The Lark Ascending]
Through the Internet, I met a wealthy widower, a self-made Israeli businessman. He had all the qualities that Joshua lacked—infinite self-confidence, decisiveness, and a pragmatic view of the world.
He was the kind of man who would never go to a shrink or to his sister to ask permission to make a life-altering decision.
Raz had a wonderful sense of humor, and he actually listened carefully to me and remembered what I said.
Both of us had had unhappy childhoods because of our parents’ aggressive rejection of us; we completely understood each other emotionally.
Raz was dark, exotic, übermasculine, as well as exceptionally warm and affectionate. He liked music, so we went to several cabaret shows at the Alqonquin, Feinstein’s at the Regency, the Carlyle, and jazz shows at Birdland.
While in bed, he sang Broadway show tunes to me with a Hebrew accent. He knew the lyrics perfectly!
We took sybaritic boat rides around Manhattan while eating glazed Chilean sea bass and listening to a live band play Cole Porter songs, as we slouched against each other on the banquette and gazed at the sparkling Manhattan skyline.
He spoke Arabic also and told me that there are no curses in Hebrew, but an infinite number in Arabic.
For example, the Arabs say, “May your underarms be infested with all the fleas from all the camels in the desert.”
For breakfast, I served him cornflakes with bananas and Sanka. His
He asked, “You don’t cook, do you?”
“Nope,” was my reply. “How do you know that?”
“The banana slices are thick; you don’t have much practice with a knife.” He was correct. Clever observation.
I admired him tremendously. He came to New York with nothing at age 25 and shared a room with a prostitute in a seedy hotel on Broadway until he could afford to rent an apartment. He slowly built an international wholesale office-supplies business and made shrewd investments in New York commercial real estate. He was waiting for a ten-million dollar offer for his warehouse in Long Island City.
Childhood rage can be an incomparable gift.
It gives us energy, concentration, and indomitable drive.
He had two grown daughters and a son-in-law, plus grandchildren.
Everyone lived in the same apartment building, and they all depended on him financially. He was the all-powerful godfather.
I knew unequivocally that I could never be a member of his tribe. [music: Leonard Cohen sings “Alexandra Leaving”]
“Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart. Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine.
It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost. Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.
As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.
And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by that honor had your own restored –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
Alexandra leaving with her lord.
Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.
As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked –
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
That hides behind the cause and the effect. And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost. Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.”
The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front yard of the house across the street from us. The NAACP had purchased the house for an African-American minister. Every weekend several of our neighbors strutted up and down the street carrying loathsome signs painted black and white: “N——, Get Out.”
The one Jewish lady, Mrs. Roseborough, on our block (and the only person who had a swimming pool) had produced Tennessee Williams’s first play Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay in her backyard.
She became a target for the KKK, as did my parents, because they refused to participate in the Sunday marches. Not long afterward, a Molotov cocktail sailed through our window, and obscene and threatening phone calls were becoming a common occurrence at three in the morning.
Often Robert was out of town on business trips and sexual escapades, so my parents decided for safety’s sake that it was time to move.
My parents sold their house to a lovely black lady, a missionary, who traveled back and forth to Africa. Her niece, Zola, was one of my favorite playmates. Until my father died, Zola’s aunt was his landlady; he rented the small office building behind the house for more than thirty years. It was always a peaceful, respectful relationship.
Children’s Book [From: Fantasy Friends on Furlough (in a Putrid Pandemic)]
Doughty Dodo Bird
Doughty dodo bird was so determined.
The ermine looked up at her and said,
“You never give up…what’s up with that?”
The dodo replied, “My dreams are big, and
I don’t give a fig about those who tell me,
No, your aspirations are silly, you will fail
Do—n’t Do—n’t tell me what I can do.
My plan is to fool you too!
I will succeed and
Fulfill my need to
Be the best that I can be.
Touchy toucan was quick to give you a peck with her beak.
“Think before you speak,” she squawked,
“Or you might dread the consequences.
The words you spout
That all come out
Can cause unnecessary harm
And will alarm those who don’t understand
And are too shy to take a stand.”
So be polite.
Avoid a fight.
Try to cultivate wisdom
Instead of a schism.