(This piece first appeared in ken*again back in the Fall of 2006)
“But that still doesn’t explain why you treat your dad that way,” Laurie says tome.
“Well, it’s hard to explain,” I say, snapping the spaghetti into the pot.
We have one of those tiny pots that long spaghetti won’t fit into unless you snap it in half. Usually I cook the bottom part first then whip the top over so that we have long strands, but she had me flustered with all the questions.
“There’s only one way I know how to explain it,” I say, “But you have to
promise to let me tell you the whole way through.”
“Here we go again,” she says, “Just make sure you don’t skimp on the
Laurie thinks I’m a monk the way I prepare things with such shameless
simplicity. She even bought me one of those brown robes, with the hood, it
hangs in the bathroom, but I won’t wear the darn thing; instead I use it as a bathmat.
“You see, my mom stopped seeing her best friend after she accidentally walked in on her in the bathroom.”
“I thought you were going to tell me why you’re so mean to your dad.”
“I’ll get to that part, but I can only tell it this way. Can you hang in there?”
“What do you think?”
Laurie had a legitimate gripe. If she was going to become an official part of the family she needed to know the peculiarities that made us the Newtons. She already knew some of the things that made us tick, which is why she still wore dresses when visiting my folks for Sunday brunch and made the effort to talk about quilts and evening bags with my mom and listened to my dad’s war stories with a straight face, even while I tickled her thigh under the table.
We’d been living together for three months before we got engaged. We really hadn’t a clue what the other was like because we had diametrically opposed work schedules. She worked the graveyard shift for a string of law firms because she made more money that way than doing her proofreading nine to five. I was still subsidized by my folks as I was finishing up my Master’s in philosophy,something that had taken three years longer than it should have. Laurie took the late shift hoping that she’d never have to see my mom dig out a handful of bills from the cookie jar when we visited them.
“It all started when my mom and her friend Molly, you know her, she’s the one who keeps thinking you’re Audrey Hepburn’s kindred spirit.”
“The one who has the beach bungalow in Ocean City, but never goes” Laurie says, “so why can’t we crash there?”
It’s true Laurie bares an uncanny likeness to Audrey Hepburn, specifically from Roman Holiday, only Laurie’s skin is bronzed, but like the star her hair is pinched back to the top of her head and it doesn’t muss as she dices the vegetables without making a peep.
“They were exchanging Christmas presents, in the middle of August, because they hadn’t seen each other in a while. It was their birthday week too. You could say they were killing a few birds with one stone. They always told each other exactly what they wanted, clipped out pictures from catalogues in fact so that nobody was disappointed.”
“Sort of takes the meaning out of Christmas, don’t you think?” Laurie
“It’s not as if she gave me my presents in August.”
Molly grew up in the very same tenement as my mother on the Lower East Side
of Manhattan. Long before it was trendy. Their building was full of Slavs.You could smell stuffed cabbage and polish sausage from blocks away. The Italians lived mainly below Third Street where mom preferred to do her dining and she received several invitations to Molly Cabella’s whenever her lanky brothers had early evening baseball games. When the Cabella boys were home, food was rationed for everybody else.
Back then kids lived for the summers cracking open the fire hydrants. My mom was a tomboy, who in her day, could rip a Spaldeen two and half sometimes threes sewers long, armed with a stickball bat. I found that hard to believe since she’s only five foot two in pumps. Molly corroborated all the stories, but then again they’d told them together, God knows how many times, so how could you be certain what was fact from fiction. They also loved to go to the local dances.It’s hard to believe they went to Webster Hall, but back then there weren’t any fire-eaters, stilt-walkers or cage-dancers and there certainly wasn’t any Techno or Tribal music, they played Polkas. The crowd was Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and all those other former Soviet sausage-eaters.
If you saw Mom and Molly together you’d think they were sisters. They hated their own so much they pretended to be real ones. One day they even pretended to cut their wrists to become bona fide blood sisters, spreading ketchup allover their wrists. My grandmother freaked out. No wonder I have such a warped sense of humor.
Now, my mom had what she happily referred to as staying power when it came to holding a grudge. When her sister Tanya didn’t intervene when Laurie, who was just my girlfriend at the time, was stripped of her bouquet at my cousin’s wedding, mom didn’t talk to her sister for three years. Mom didn’t know Laurie for more than two hours and already she was fending for her honor. This impressed Laurie, but it was the principle that mom was after.
The fact that Molly happened to be naked from the bottom down when my mom walked in wasn’t any big deal. Although, if it had been the other way around I’m sure that mom would have had a conniption. The great horror for my mom was seeing the strips of tissue festooning the toilet, acting as a makeshift seat cushion. The implication was deplorable. This was what you did in a public restroom, but in my mom’s house this was unfathomable, though I’m quite sure she did this wherever she visited, including relative’s homes, especially her sister Tanya’s.
Six months after the incident, mom saw Molly haggling with a fruit vendor. Molly was known to pull a scam on fruit vendors that involved a thumb-thrust till she punctured the melon or whatever she wanted for half price. She had about a ninety percent success rate. For that reason mom wouldn’t go food shopping with the woman, but she didn’t drop her as a friend because of it.
Window shopping was their big thing. They could waste whole days loafing outside windows admiring the displays, imagining the glistening jewelry on their fingers, fancy outfits hanging in their closets. The only thing mom preferred more than window shopping was going into those fancy shops and buying a thing or two. Molly wouldn’t set foot in Bergdorf’s or Bendel’s; it was too intimidating for her. So she waited outside with her mustard-drenched pretzel. She was always surprised when my mom came out with new toys, when she herself couldn’t even make it past the sales assistants.
Mom was in her shining glory whenever she led the sales people into believing she was a wealthy customer. She had it down pat. I know firsthand how she rejected certain items, not her style, wrong for her skin color, fragrances that were too cloying or simply outmoded.
This time however, Molly wasn’t smushing any fruit, she was instead eating a Golden Delicious right from the cart. The whole situation was flummoxing. How could she chew away at an apple, straight off the cart, from a sniffling vendor with cruddy fingernails? She chomped away without a care in the world, without even wiping it down with a Wash and Dry.
Yet this very same woman, best friends with my mom over decades couldn’t sit on her toilet seat without covering it with tissues. There had to be a good explanation for it, but mom didn’t care to know. The same way she didn’t want to know why my Aunt didn’t intervene when my Laurie got stripped of her bridal bouquet.
Instead of asking her friend or even chastising her in front of the fruit vendor she just passed on by and I nodded my head to Molly who had that kind of expression as if her feet were being trampled by an elephant but didn’t want to make a fuss.
When we got home she blamed my dad for not fixing the lock on the bathroom door, which was always coming off anyway because it was one of those cheap screw-on jobs the ones you might see lurking out in the woods attached to a wooden slab of an outhouse.
“I can hammer it in but it’s just going to pop back out,” dad said, with anail pursed between his teeth.
“You can’t do anything right,” mom said.
“Here, then take a crack for yourself.”
Dad pretended to lob the hammer in mom’s direction, but she made a fist.
There wasn’t anything for me to do but laugh. To tell you the truth I got a terrible charge from watching them bicker over stupid things like that. It was funnier than any of the comic books I read and if I played my cards right sometimes I was able to shake both of them down and get some new toys or stay up later than I was typically allowed to.
In the middle of dinner I noticed something peculiar. It really never dawned on me before, but as dad unsuccessfully jabbed at the string beans on mom’s plate because she kept pulling it away I got to thinking that my mom had her own kind of cootie consciousness. Dad stopped trying after a while then I pushed the soda bottle in front of my plate so that he wouldn’t breathe on my food.
When he was done and it was only my mom and myself I couldn’t keep from asking her.
“Why is it that you won’t let dad eat off your plate?”
Mom made that craggy face of hers the one she usually reserved for garbage detail whenever my dad and I fled the scene. She held the salt shaker mid air and I could almost hear the pistons turning in her head.
“It’s, I don’t know, just one of those things.”
“But you kiss him don’t you, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I mean, I know I joke around with him, not to breathe on my food, but it’s all just a game.”
Two days later Molly was back over the house for tea with my mom. The two of them were carrying on as though they were still both a couple of schoolgirls.It was nice that she accepted her friend again, it was less of a burden on me so I didn’t have to feel guilty whenever I said hello to her on the streets.
Mom still wouldn’t let dad eat off her plate so I guess I overcompensated by leaving the soda bottles and milk cartons off the dinner table so that dad could have an uncluttered view.
“I hate your mom,” Laurie tells me, “that’s it, no more brunches!”
“Be reasonable,” I say.
“I am she’s not. To think with what your dad has to put up with.”
“Believe me she puts up with plenty too, it’s just, people are weird.”
“Ugh, you’re so like your mother.”
“Take for instance the way you always stick your tuna fish in my face when you know I hate it.”
“But that’s silly because it’s delicious.”
“To you, but to me it’s yuck. You never use my toothbrush, even that time yours fell into the toilet bowl.”
“Sharing somebody’s toothbrush is disgusting.”
“We all know how far our slippery slope slides. It doesn’t make us bad people, just people.”
I do the dishes with a bit of a smirk, because I hate to do them. Laurie winces noticing the rubber gloves draped over our diplodocus-necked faucet. No cold water again just molten hot.