Excerpt 46

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.

Excerpt 45

Have something in common with Alexis de Tocqueville:    Finding pleasure in the company of very few people.

He wrote:

“My contemporaries and I go by more and more divergent ways— sometimes such opposite ways that we can hardly ever now meet with like feeling and

thoughts…my mind has neither family nor motherland and such spiritual and moral isolation often gives me a sense of excruciating loneliness.”

I’m just like the South that I came from…always seem to be on the wrong side of history.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet women of all ages who experienced traumatic abandonment during childhood. They have come from Nepal and Sicily, Vietnam and China, Mississippi and Arkansas, New York and Maine. Our emotions are the same.

We are all so similar: fiercely independent, exceptionally responsible, sophisticated about money matters, always well-organized, and unusually private. We seek order out of chaos. A strong sense of self-mastery is longed for, above all else…all in a determined and deeply heartfelt effort to feel safe.

“… wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.”

Gabriel García Márquez (Love in the Time of Cholera)

 

Excerpt 44

FURROW

 We are detached hearts that

Flutter in the breeze.

One appeases, another pleases.

Sacrosanctity sought by both in wrinkled

Cloaks of naïveté and knowledge.

Pummeling, seeking more of both:

Intensity of love and hope.

And we impoverished mortals that

We are, no longer quote the raven

Nevermore… But furrow for sustenance in

Deeper realms where only the impenetrable

Dwells.

What joy is found is so translucent, always a

Conduit of confusion. The only

Answers do evaporate into a kingdom of

Almighty fate.

We wish we had control of all but slowly

Realize for the door of cruelest mortality,

Acceptance is the sole key to any kind of

Sanity.

Excerpt 43

Manhattan

1971

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.

 

 

Excerpt 42

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.

 

 

 

Children’s Book: Fantasy Friends on Furlough

 

 FANTASY FRIENDS ON FURLOUGH

 

YOGA FROG

The yoga frog stuck out his tongue

In order to eat tasty morsels of young…

Quail eggs!

No legs, he begs!

Just meat juicy and sweet

To make my parts so flexible and neat.

 

And please remove this spaghetti!

He cried to the dragonfly, who

Was hoping for calm

But instead got confetti

When he flew through the shredder

On the desk with the teddy.

Oh my!

What a mess!

Bear hair!

What a pair: the frog and the dragonfly

Searching the sky

Looking for, hoping for yum-yum pumpkin pie.

But instead in their eyes

Fell rays of moonlight.

They said it felt good.

Then bid all a good night.

 

Naked Crayons

[envision crayon sticks dressed in adorable outfits]

The naked crayons went out to play.

“Yippee, whippee,” they cried as they rolled in the hay.

Cathy, the cow, ambled into the barn.

“What are y’all doing?” she drawled with a note of alarm.

“We’re searching for jackets and hats with ear latches,

‘Cause winter is coming…

And we naked crayons will become so hard and so brittle,

If we don’t have some sweaters for the inclement weather.

So, Cathy, the cow, took them to

Gertrude, the goose, who knitted them

Jackets that were fit to be tied and as warm as a moose…

So that everyone—tall and short or thin and fat— looked forward

To their winter sleigh rides behind the caboose of the train on the lane that you could watch through your own windowpane!

 

SAOLA

Saola, shmayala…hard to pronounce.

When he jumped on the scale, he was more than an ounce.
Nevertheless, he remained quite rare,
Almost as much as cities with clean air.

He lived in hot Vietnam
With his long, pointy horns,
He avoided all thorns.

Some  feathered friends called him a saola.
But his dream was to be an adorable koala.

So furry and cute,
Wrapped around a tree branch,
Almost a glove.

Ready for a bear hug
And oodles of love.

 

FLUKE FISH

It wasn’t a fluke or kind of rebuke

When Mr. Fluke Fish

Fell in the blackstrap molasses

‘Cause of the stress in

Shopping for his 3D glasses.

You see his eyes are up here

And across over there…

 

PEGASUS

It was raining cats and dogs (but no icky, sticky frogs) [literal

drawing/puppies and kittens]…

(Ostrich and worm are covering their heads)

As Ollie and Winton cuddle together

And say with relief, Oh, what a bother!

Could have been falling on us those fat hogs

With a whine and a holler !

And a snoutful of fodder…

 

Pegasus was showing off his shiny shoes to Norse, the horse, and PlumPie,

the horsefly, and MaggieMead, the centipede (who really needed lots of

shoes!).

Oyvay!

To polish all those shoes took three hours and a half!

Enough time for a cow to give birth to a calf!

 

TEA TIME

 The Germanic gerbil [wearing little Valkyrie  hat w/upturned horns]

And the Balkan bat

Met together for tea

In their nondescript flat.

Too sweet, said the gerbil

With a throaty, loud gurgle!

Too hot, said the bat

With a big, bad splat!

So they went out together

In inclement weather

To search for a drink,

The color of ink… 

 

 Gremm

There once was a fish named Gremm,

Who savored his M&M’s

Until the time

He got jealous you see

‘Cause one day he looked at them

Carefully and woefully

And said, “Oh no! It can’t be!”

Your colors are better than mine.

Your beauty is ever so fine.

It’s time for a switch.

Yes, you I will ditch.

Instead I’ll eat plankton.

And from now on will be known

As handsome Gremm Franklin.

 

[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castor_and_Pollux]

TWIN FROGS

[one—black on red/one—red on black]

Castor lived in Castoria with polka dots on his back.

Pollux lived in Polluxian with more spots to pack.

There was a bridge connecting the two.

It was frequently crossed by Ladybug Blue.

When she saw the twin frogs,

She was quite all agog!

Who are those creatures? She cried.

They stole my best features!

I am the only one to have such a pattern;

They copied my clothes;  I have no place to hide!

I will now charge them rent!

I have lost all repose!

And  will make them pay through the nose!

So, they went to the judge who parceled out wisdom.

Now, now pretty critters, he said.

There are plenty of polka dots to go all around.

Let’s stick them to snowflakes to see what will happen.

 

The dotted snowflakes fell to the ground without making a sound. Others disappeared to find new adventures with leopards and ponies.

Then Castor, Pollux, and Ladybug Blue rolled around and around

While coated with glue.

When they stood up their patterns were different;

A little uneven but quite prepossessing.

They all were quite happy with the brand-new designs.

They shook legs in agreement and wiggled their spots.

They went out on the town to show off  their outfits.

They got lots of attention and honorable mention from the fashion newspaper.

A trend had begun ‘cause of freckles, black spots, and red dots.

The reporter told them, I’m sure you’re related or extremely well mated.

What a nice family you have in your sartorial splendor!

 

ELEPHANTS

When two big elephants kiss,

They find such perfect bliss.

With their long, crinkly trunks

Free of smells of local skunks,

He and she show their affection

And wiggle their tails in opposing direction.

They feed each other peanuts and straw,

While the nearby donkeys bray

Hee-Haw!

 

Flaky Flamingo

Flaky flamingo was such a fussbudget

And so irresponsible.

Never did what he said he would do.

Never said quite the truth.

Was always late and appeared at the

Gate with another excuse.

Boo-hoo Boo-hoo, he cried.

Well, the other critters said, Enough is Enough,

And old flaky flamingo ended up fried

In a deep dish of ointment ‘cause of  all the delays

On his appointment days.

 

Palomino Puma

Palomino puma was super sleek and fast.

Had the habit of chasing rude and rowdy  Ruby the rabbit.

After too many races and both out of breath,

They agreed to stop hating and start contemplating what a

Peaceful life would be.

Just then, interrupted by a friendly, but fearsome, flea who said,

“Let’s all live together with Peace

As our goal…

So never again must we hide in a hole.

 

Purple Pumpkin

 

Purple pumpkin was perplexed by the

Hex on the local barn.

“Why am I purple?” she purred like a kitten.

“Because you are special, the color of yarn.

One day in the future, the sweetest girl will

Twirl her horsehair paintbrush across a large canvas.

Then you will arise above ordinary lumpkin

And be transformed into an immortal pumpkin,”

Said the wise fairy who lived in the aerie.

 

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

Willy nilly.

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

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt 41

THEN AND NOW

 

Thirty, forty, fifty? It doesn’t matter how old you are, only how old you look….” begins an eye-catching cosmetics ad.

Jane Fonda, in retrospect, said, “Turning thirty was scary as hell.” Louise in Honoré de Balzac’s Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées (The Two Young Brides) wasn’t too thrilled about her thirtieth birthday either: “I shall soon be thirty, and at that age woman embarks upon dreadful inner lamentations. If I am still beautiful, I shall perceive the limits of feminine life; afterwards, what will become of me?” In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Bart found the approach of her thirtieth birthday to be more than she could bear.

            I wish I were immortal Athena living in the rent-free Parthenon. Instead, I’m thirty years old today, doubting my wisdom and inhabiting a New York City apartment that costs too much.

In work and in love, I find myself lurching forward and backward. The romantic and the realist continually joust on the playing fields of my heart and my mind. My résumé covers a lot of territory; in schools and summer camps I’ve taught children how to read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, to perform water ballet to the music of Ferrante and Teicher, and to jump horses over post-and-rail fences. I’ve been the administrative assistant to the president of a men’s clothing company and a production planner of mattress ticking (for jailbirds’ cots and cheap-motel beds) for a Fortune 100 textile corporation—the most horrendous job! Additionally, I’m a volunteer for an organization that helps autistic children and for a nonprofit group that promotes preventive medicine.

Now I’m gainfully employed as the assistant editor at a medical magazine on Manhattan’s East 60th Street.

On a pleasant summer day nine years ago on Bayswater Road in London, I met a swarthy Athenian—the kind you’re supposed to have a vacation romance with, but never marry. In rapid succession, Michael, the Greek, became my lover, my husband, my ex-spouse. I married Michael because he looked like a young Omar Sharif and spoke the little English he knew with a seductive accent and toss of the head. We shared zero history. I sought connubial bliss liberated from all traditional restraints. I got exactly what I wanted…for a while. That idyllic summer we communicated by drawing simple pictures, as we indolently reclined on green canvas chairs in Hyde Park. He was exotic, tempestuous, fiery, emotional. Everything I  (exceptionally reserved WASP from bucolic Germantown, Tennessee) was not.

As husband and wife we traveled through the splendiferous Greek islands. The fragrance of white jasmine permeated the air as we nibbled fresh figs for breakfast on the tranquil island of Kos. We rode docile donkeys to the top of a steep hill on Lindos, Rhodes, for a breathtaking view of the blue Mediterranean. The countless cicadas hummed on Crete as we merrily wandered through the picturesque farms dotted with whirling windmills. Michael enthusiastically guided me on an unforgettable Hellenic sojourn. I will always be grateful for having been sucked into the vortex of Greek culture.

I’m passionate about all kinds of literature. It reveals the multifarious ways there are to think, to live. Biographies and autobiographies of writers also intrigue me, especially books limning the dark side of women and men considered to be artistic giants. Some rotten people have created great art.

Discovering what I am about is the main thing—an illusion as good as any other. I’m a promiscuous reader, a dilettante, an autodidact. Creative agitation in women of thirty or thereabouts is not uncommon. Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden, a collection of short stories and novelettes, and Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Americans—their first literary achievements—were written when the authors were twenty-nine and thirty-one, respectively.

Physically, I’m in better shape than I was in at twenty. A low-sodium, low-cholesterol, high-fiber diet, and low-impact aerobics are integral parts of my ritualistic health routine.

The rapid changes in women’s roles during the past decade have left me wobbly and straddled uncomfortably on the cutting edge of a social revolution. I don’t want to be defined by a job or lack of one. Evaluate my character, not my income!

In truth, sometimes I fear I’m a latent Southern belle, an inchoate Blanche DuBois who prefers Wild Turkey to Colombian Gold, unmistakably more of a Jean Rhys woman than an Ann Beattie character.

My idiosyncrasies are growing more pronounced. As Evelyn Waugh did, I detest the telephone and even prefer confirming appointments by mail. Always walking on the shady side of the street, always wearing sunglasses to prevent (I hope) the development of cataracts, never browsing in department stores, shopping for just about everything from mail-order catalogs, are among my myriad eccentricities.

Until a year ago, keeping a diary seemed a waste of time, but now maintaining meticulous records of impressions, literature gobbled or savored, is as crucial as wearing mascara, lipstick, and perfume. Constructing chronological tables as I read is automatic. I want to know how old the women, whether real or fictional, were when they graduated, married, had children, gave birth to novels, had their first extramarital affair, divorced, murdered, committed suicide. I want to know the same about the men.

My hypochondria is as evident as H. L. Mencken’s condition was, positively due to our mutual birthday. I am star struck by worry; Virgo is culpable. By working for a magazine where I have unlimited access to medical journals and textbooks, I’m relieved of the urge to move to an apartment within whispering distance of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Between three and three-thirty in the morning, I frequently wake sweating, with heart palpitating. My milestone birthday ended one passage and began another. I agonize: This is it. No more mistakes allowed. Finality. Horror. No more living in the future. There is only now.

According to recent National Institutes of Health statistics, the average life span of a thirty-year-old Caucasian female is eighty years. As a borderline optimist, I rationalize that I still have approximately ten years to go before tripping over the halfway marker.

Please, dear Fate, now that I’m old enough to be a senator, I suggest your letting me live as long as the nonagenarian Georgia O’Keeffe.

I bid a fond farewell to my twenties.

 

 

Forty-nine! Wow! How did that happen! I am firmly entrenched in glorious prime time!

Physically, emotionally, and psychologically I’ve changed during the past nineteen years. Geographically, I moved nine miles—from midtown Manhattan to a small community just across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

Thankfully…I’ve become more adaptable, flexible, resilient; whatever life slaps me with, I have grown confident enough to handle it with equanimity.

My marital status changed, too.  At age thirty-two I married a native New Yorker, the firstborn son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. My articulate husband and I share a love of Shavian plays, Mozart sonatas, and Verdi operas.

Warm and loving, my spouse has taught me a lot about the redemptive powers of unconditional love and affection.  When I withdraw into seemingly impenetrable silence, my customary but unproductive way to deal with anger, he instinctively knows how to gently take the defensive wall down, brick by metaphorical brick.

When I changed husbands, holiday customs were also altered. Instead of feasting at Easter on roasted lamb and mageiritsa (traditional soup made of sheep’s entrails), I politely swallow matzo  and gefilte fish at Passover.

I wear the same size dress as I did a decade ago and have no new cavities. My hair—once the color of undiluted espresso—is heavily and naturally streaked with silver. I’m not going to dye it. The trichological transformation that I see in the mirror forces me to come to terms with aging. That’s meant in a positive way—acceptance of living, with more joy and more dignity, as a mature woman, never again to be called a pretty girl.

The late Alfred Charles Kinsey, founder of the Institute for Sex Research, said that a woman reaches her sexual peak around age thirty-eight. (I say between thirty-eight and forty-eight; two years ago I had to replace my All-Flex arcing spring diaphragm.)

Marrying for the second time and learning to drive a car (in effect, for the second time) coincided. Both require a lot of patience and a certain tolerance for risk. The year I left Tennessee, when I was seventeen, I had stopped driving after a near-fatal collision with a tractor-trailer on a major highway. Many years later, a girlfriend who owned a gleaming BMW persuaded me to sidle into the driver’s seat. I’ve been driving (unfortunately not BMWs) ever since.

My forties are better than my thirties. I sleep peacefully through the night. I know and accept that I’ll make lots of mistakes as long as I live; neurotic perfectionism is no longer part of the package. Living in the present is second nature to me now, like counting calories and the dollars in my mutual funds. I’ve grown more tolerant of my weaknesses and adamantly refuse to desert my most fantastic dreams. As Yogi Berra said: “It’s not over till it’s over.”

Always searching for an illusive frontier, I still don’t really feel settled.  Deep down in my heart, I’m the worldly Somerset Maugham, the peripatetic Graham Greene, the restless Paul Theroux waiting for the next train. I look forward to change, to the next destination. I want to live in motion in a continually changing landscape with a changing cast of characters. Disliking quotidian routine, I want to be able to distinguish every day from all other days. I want to live fully in a rich phantasmagoria.

Evolving and learning give me the greatest pleasure. In my imaginary perfect world, based on my criteria for adventure, next year I would become a race-car driver and five years later—a commercial airline pilot; I’d fly 747s to Hong Kong, Sydney, Cairo, and Berlin. My altruistic side would head a foundation that keeps every library in the United States open seven days a week, twelve hours a day.

The unknown with both its disappointments and surprises enriches me. Being a quiet maverick of sorts, I suspect I’ve become somewhat addicted to those adrenaline rushes that invariably accompany the excitement of the unfamiliar.

In Passages, Gail Sheehy writes, “We are becoming accustomed to the idea of serial marriages. It will be progress when we come to think of serial careers, not as signifying failure, but as a realistic way to prolong vitality.”

However, I cling to my past eccentricities like white napkin fuzz to a black wool skirt, and I’ve generously added a few more. (Although occasionally now, I will amble into a department store when the inviting newspaper ad proclaims “40 percent off all merchandise.”) I can tell whether I like someone by the way she removes a paper lid from a jar or the way she organizes bills in her wallet. I’m critical of my own behavior as well…if I have more than ten items to buy, I never sneak into the express line at the supermarket. Anachronistic, chatty letters or e-mail (I LOVE E-MAIL!!!) are always preferable to disruptive telephone calls. And the other day I took my innocuous beige cloth coat to a tailor; per my request, he lined it in blazing-red satin: the anthropomorphic me.

When standing in motionless movie lines, I inconspicuously eavesdrop. Women and men in Manhattan, it seems, habitually talk hyperbolically about money and jobs. I prefer to go to films alone, to sit on the aisle, and to be totally absorbed in the celluloid drama in front of me. As an intense observer, I don’t want anyone to break the spell immediately afterward.

Modern life is too frenetic for my taste. Abandoning raucous aerobics, I spend more time these days practicing laid-back yoga. And I need more time alone.  In Gift from the Sea, a collection of poetic essays about the conflicts and challenges facing women, Anne Morrow Lindbergh felicitously wrote about the importance of solitude to a woman’s mental and spiritual well-being. Lindbergh said, “Woman must come of age by herself. This is the essence of ‘coming of age’—to learn how to stand alone. She must learn not to depend on another, nor to feel she must prove her strength by competing with another. In the past, she has swung between these two opposite poles of dependence and competition, of Victorianism and Feminism. Both extremes throw her off balance; neither is the center, the true center of being a whole woman. She must find her true center alone. She must become whole. She must, it seems to me, as a prelude to any ‘two solitudes’ relationship, follow the advice of the poet to become ‘world to oneself for another’s sake.’ ”

I strongly identify with Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. “The search,” Binx says, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

Despair stalked me in my early years…but no more. I have what I want: not an easy life, but an interesting one.

There are infinite paths of possibility. Pulitzer Prize–winning Robert Frost said it best:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt 40

MOM

“Do you love your mother?” I asked Alex.

“She’s dead. I had her cremated. I loved her and hated her,” Alex answered.

Alex was a 43-year-old woman. I wondered why her mother gave her a man’s name.

Alex and I met while working as freelance copy editors at an upscale women’s magazine on Madison Avenue and 60th Street. We spent hours together under a hot Halogen lamp in a tiny, windowless room with holes in the walls. Our space was a converted storage room for art supplies.

She was a bona fide abstract expressionist artist from Chicago. Once a year she had a show of her vibrant, violent paintings at a gallery on Mercer Street. I was a poet manqué and an essayist from a bucolic town in southwestern Tennessee, just five minutes from the Mississippi line.

We had great conversations about men, mothers, sex, and literature. They were all closely related.

Recently married for the third time, Alex would cry sometimes when she talked about her fights with her husband. They regularly went to a marriage counselor, and Alex saw a psychiatrist on the side—for her emotional needs, not sexual.

She grew up on rice and beans and slaps from her Mom, who collected stray cats and food stamps. Her mental condition permitting, she worked part-time selling bras in the intimate apparel department of a fine selected store.

Alex’s older sister ran away from home to save herself when she was 16. That was the end of all contact. Dad was long gone.

Alice Miller, the Swiss psychologist, says that rotten childhoods can be somewhat redeemed if the young victim of bad parents is fortunate enough to be cherished by a sensitive, nurturing adult.

Alex was saved by  an adoring, feisty aunt who taught her about goodness, love, and hope. But she couldn’t teach Alex about jealousy.

Most of Alex’s fights with her husband were about his looking at other women. Not touching, just looking. Alex ended her second marriage immediately when she found out about her husband’s affair. They lived in a big house in Bergen County, New Jersey, but he had to spend a lot of time in California for business. When he was in the Garden State, they made love every day. That astounded me. She was so lucky. My first husband was a native Athenian (Greece, not Georgia). We made love about three times a day before we got married. That’s when we lived together in the Earl’s Court section of London. Most of the people who lived in that section were Indian. Taki liked to go out for lamb curry at midnight. He liked for me to walk ahead of him and smile at the men standing around. He liked for me to pretend that I was a whore. When a man would  approach me, Taki would rush to my side. That excited him very much. Then he couldn’t wait to go to bed with me. We were in our early 20s. Taki lost all sexual interest in me shortly after we married. I think a lot of married couples never have sex.

Anyway, When Alex found the key to her second husband’s secret post office box, she knew that he was having an affair. She had been looking for “Love” stamps when she rifled through his desk drawer. He had a good job and was generous. When he got a small inheritance, he put everything in joint names: Joint tenants with right of survivorship.

During the day she was free to paint and to bake all-natural banana-nut bread. She had had a good deal.

When she discovered her husband’s infidelity, she catapulted herself into a hysterical rage. I told her she should have kept quiet and kept on painting. “Kill him in a painting,” I suggested.

“Why didn’t you keep quiet?” I asked.

“Impossible,” she answered.

Alex was impulsive. Emotional outbursts were alien to me. They were very bad manners where I came from. “If you lose control, the other guy wins” was my motto.

But Alex’s emotions matched her clothes and artwork. She wore Keds that were hot pink, orange, or purple. Some of her paintings of people and things looked like sunsets in Santa Fe, even though she never painted landscapes.

When she divorced the second husband, she got alimony. Several lawyers told her that she wouldn’t get anything because she was healthy, childless, and thirtysomething. But she shopped and shopped until she found a pit bull for a lawyer.

After her divorce and financial settlement, she went to the Greek island of Kos, rode old bicycles without hand gears, and ate fresh figs for breakfast until her money ran out.

 

Alex and I sure were different. That’s probably why I liked her so much. She always told me how well-bred and self-contained I was. I liked her spontaneity and shocking tactless remarks. She crunched cold, hard carrots all day and never apologized for the irritating sound. Several times a day she talked on the phone with her third husband. “I love you,” she whispered over and over, except when she cried and said, “We’ll talk about this later.”

I liked our intense conversations. We dispensed with the small talk pretty quickly.

As a child, Alex slept with one leg hanging over the edge of the bed so that she could jump out when her mother started beating her.

As a child, I slept on my back with my hands on the sides of the narrow bed. My parents didn’t get along, so my mother slept in my bedroom before we moved to a bigger house. Sleep was very important to her. If I accidentally woke her up, she’d start screaming and slapping me across the face. So, even when I had chills and fever, I’d try real hard not to shake.

She made me wear pajamas with feet and plastic soles after she found me lying with my nightgown above my waist.

“The rats are going to get you,” she said.

When I slept with a man for the first time, I was almost 21. My lover was a Jewish dental student at New York University. We did it on a water bed in a closed wing of Bellevue Hospital.

Alex’s first experience was with a 30-year-old when she was 16. He became her mentor and encouraged her to go to art school.

So Alex married him, and they moved to New York. He was very sweet, but Alex didn’t love him, so after she got her degree from Cooper Union, she divorced him and went back to Chicago for a while.

Both Alex and I are childless by choice. Thank God for Mary McCarthy and diaphragms. Someone said McCarthy did for diaphragms what Melville did for whales.

When we were in our teens, we made the decision not to become mothers. Our mothers had branded us with pain.

I said, “Having children is an act of cruelty. Why bring someone into the world to suffer?”

“Yeah, I agree,” Alex replied.

“But I don’t want to die now,” I said. “I have hope for the future. But if I had to choose between exactly repeating my 39 years—with everything the same, not being able to change anything—or death, I’d take death. What would you do?”

“I don’t know. I know I don’t want to die yet. After all, we have squatters’ rights,” was Alex’s opinion.

I looked at the light-blond rectangle she had dyed on top of her dark-blond hair. Her earrings, bright purple ladders made from pipe cleaners, hung like spaghetti al dente. I never wore earrings except at parties or when I went out with small groups of people, which wasn’t very often.

“Time to work,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess so,” replied Alex.

I was reading a story titled, “The Seductive Mother.” It was about a woman who slept with her son.

Alex was working on a piece about a woman who just returned home from the hospital after a mastectomy. It described her ordeal of shopping for a nightgown and sleeping with her husband for the first time after her operation.

We studiously read the repugnant material under the Halogen heat.

Five days later in the mail, I got an invitation to a show of Alex’s paintings at a gallery in the Village.

All of her paintings were exhibited on one floor. Each painting had a number. By the entrance, the guests picked up the sheets that listed the artwork. Alex picked incredible titles. Her paintings blazed on the white walls.

The food was great. Penne primavera, pasta and broccoli, tuna salad. Her husband, who liked to read magazines about guns, had made everything. He was Jewish, cute, funny and a self-employed caterer. Alex was Irish and had married three Jews. I was a Southern Wasp, divorced from a Greek and married to a Jew, a real mensch. Even in Tennessee I had heard women say that Jewish men made the best husbands.

After my divorce from the Greek, who had a bad case of satyriasis with other women, I only went out with Jewish men. They’re so funny! They really have a unique sense of humor. Must be genetic. I went out with lots of Jewish men. It didn’t matter whether they were married or not. The Jewish stockbroker I dated said facetiously, “I think the Ku Klux Klan sent you here to fuck all the Jews to death.”

At the party I met some of the people who worked with Alex at the Metropolitan Museum, where she freelanced sometimes on their catalogs.

Slowly, I walked from painting to painting. The largest and most magnetic was a Kandinskylike composition of red and gray. A bloody-looking configuration in the shape of an enlarged uterus had been superficially dusted with her mother’s gray ashes.

The painting was titled “MOM,” and it was for sale.

 

 

 

Excerpt 39

Why was I traveling by bicycle? I hadn’t driven a car since I was 17, after having an almost fatal encounter with a Mack truck on a major east-west thoroughfare in Memphis.

When I went to Thorncliff College and lived in a dorm for four years in Westchester County, I didn’t need a car because I could take the train that runs alongside the scenic Hudson River to Grand Central Station.

Don’t know if she believed me or not, but the nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment–drugs and/or therapy–would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.

He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy… what a cool bus ride they had together.

Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.

He drugged Douglas and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door.

After his door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated every room of that hospital.

Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek. Much of the attack is now just a blurry nightmare in my head. I was assigned to a bedroom only three doors away from his.

My skinny roommate, Melanie, sat on her bed with her knees clasped to her chin.

She looked like a praying mantis cut in two.

“Why are you here?” the frail, depressed girl asked.

 

Excerpt 38

“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke

My mother’s wedding night was a threesome:  My mother, father, and Joe,  an Episcopal priest, who was my father’s favorite lover. They were in Fairhope, Alabama, an artsy town on the Gulf in 1949.

No family members attended.

My mother told me this when I was twelve years old. We were having dinner at Britling’s, the local cafeteria, in Memphis. I really liked their shredded carrots with raisins.

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

—Isak Dinesen

Excerpt 37

The psychiatric male nurse rifled through my small canvas bag. With a black magic marker, he wrote “Smith” on the crotch of every pair of my white lace panties. Trembling, I stood silently beside him.

Would I spend the rest of my life in this god-forsaken hellhole in the wilderness of New Jersey? Would a bored psychiatrist give me a shot, so that I would become just another inmate doing the Thorazine shuffle?

Another Frances Farmer?

I have never been so scared in my whole life.

Excerpt 36

The other connection with my father’s mysterious past were letters I discovered while cleaning out my mother’s house after her move to an assisted- living apartment.

There were beautiful letters meticulously typed on light-blue paper that expressed shock and dismay, but with great wit and affection, about my father’s sudden wedding.

The correspondent was  a former male lover, who, at that time, was taking courses at Columbia University and living in Greenwich Village.

The depths of my father’s secret life were unfathomable. Layers upon layers upon layers.

 

And my mother’s…the mysterious calling cards from South American men…her frequent references to the Salvation Army, where she had to spend a few Christmases alone because her tyrannical, controlling father, the prominent, respected surgeon,  wanted her to be the dutiful daughter and stay home and take care of her aging parents.

Dutiful was a word not to be included in Nancy’s vocabulary.

She rebelled and fled from her small Pennsylvania town  to New York City. She was too manic-depressive to hold a job for more than a few weeks; I am fairly certain that she also learned to depend on and survived because of…the kindness of strangers (that would be Men).

It would explain much of her Rage. Very similar to mine, actually, but for some inexplicable reason, I was always able to repress/suppress my Rage and channel it into productive activity—especially after I stopped drinking.

(My mother never stopped drinking.)

And what about all the notes and business cards from the South American romeos who pursued my very pretty mother [after her divorce from the Greenwich, Connecticut, banker] when she was ensconced on an Argentine ranch with her married former college roommate ?

Who were these people?

My parents? !

What incalculable strangers!