About a week after moving back home—an unhappy circumstance following my first romantic failure—I was looking for nailclippers in my mother’s dresser when I found two items that opened up to me a bit of her inner life: there was her cartridge of birth control pills; there was her journal. Although not quite exotic, these were evidence of separate phenomena I’d never given much thought to—my mother had sex and my mother was aging, and documenting how she felt about both.
(Her razors dangling from the shower rack had a similar revelatory effect: It was strange to think Mom shaved her legs and armpits. It was strange to think she showered. Before moving home I’d apparently never considered that she groomed herself, but, if asked, would have guessed she woke up every day blow-dryed and fully garbed. I find solace in my belief that many sons assume their mothers exist this way.)
That morning, a snowy one, with flurries wetly pelting all our house’s windows, I’d come down to the kitchen just as she was leaving for work. It was still dark out—before going to her office, my mother always swam one mile in the JCC’s pool, which meant she started her days driving in the traffic-less pre-light dawn. I sometimes imagined her swimming: a slender, black-haired woman in a black one-piece swimsuit, going back and forth between the pool’s tile walls, and so not really going anywhere. I’ve found that in many respects I’m an American, obsessed with things like progress, and I considered her routines absurd.
My mother was the Seniors Outreach Coordinator at the Minneapolis JCC, and in winter part of her job was to organize volunteer groups to shovel the front walks and driveways of elderly, incapable Jews in St. Louis Park. (On our answering machine, I heard messages from sweet-voiced old women thanking my mom for her help, which she always listened to with a hand pressed to her chest, as if to hold her own gratitude in place; sometimes she called back to thank the women for thanking her.) Today, because one of her volunteers had phoned-in sick, Mom would be shoveling, too. Already she’d zipped up her puffy white winter coat, and we exchanged good mornings as she reached into our refrigerator to retrieve the container of coffee yogurt that would comprise her lunch. I could tell, too, that she was debating what from the refrigerator’s bounty she could offer me for breakfast. Our relationship was a judo of politeness, the ultimate aim of which was to maneuver the other into accepting a favor. Mom was nurturing and sensitive around me because I was touchy about living with her again, about having just broken up with my girlfriend of five years, and because, even though I found waiting tables a noble and enlightening endeavor, I knew I wouldn’t do it forever, didn’t know what I would do next, and was becoming restive (I wasn’t eccentric enough to go after any PhDs, but was thinking a Master’s Degree in psychology might look nice on my wall). In turn, I was careful with her because I thought she was still damaged from her divorce three years prior, which had followed my father’s announcement that he was “essentially a gay person.” She’d since hunkered down into her habits – all the lap-swimming, bed-making, plant-watering stuff that helped her pass hours painlessly, and which I gently berated her for because I thought these routines kept her stuck in the same unhealthy mindset, disallowing her from confronting her sadnesses and resentments head-on, thereby disallowing her from Getting Over them. In fact I was obsessed with helping her Get Over her marriage, and thought that if she tried smoking pot with me, or let herself sleep late a couple mornings a week, her brain would rearrange itself and register only the beauty of falling snow, the glow coming off the cookies she baked, and so on. But she never acquiesced. And even back then I sensed something slightly off about my motivations. I think it was this: Mom’s moping habitually around was proof she still loved my father, which was comforting for me to believe. I wouldn’t have been shocked if a therapist happening by with a pipe and a portable couch told me my attempts to help her Get Over it were actually attempts to remind her how hurt she was, to remind her how much she loved my father despite the impossibility of being with him (the therapist now thoughtfully regarding the tobacco smoke he exhales), as a means to convince myself that, emotionally, nothing had changed between them, and that their marriage was still metaphysically intact. That is, I wanted somehow to preserve their marriage.
Now, gently, as if wary of waking up a dangerous beast inside it, she shut the refrigerator’s door, and put her yogurt into the small, polypropylene cube that would keep it cool until noon. Also she crossed the kitchen to place a chilled orange down in front of me. Then she watched the orange for a moment, her fingers hovering above it, suspicious it might roll away.
“Please remember to walk the woof,” she said.
“The woof will be taken care of,” I said, and began to peel the orange. Immediately one of my fingernails broke off against its rind.
“We had a good walk this morning, so she should be all right until midday or so. Rabbit likes the snow,” Mom said. “No one was out yet and she got to run off the leash. She loves that.” For a moment she looked at the window above the sink, which, against a backdrop of gradually lightening morning darkness, was dotted with snowflakes, and accumulating more of them. “It’s so silly,” she said. “Everything’s just going to need to be shoveled again tomorrow. But the volunteers signed up a month ago, and I can’t switch around their schedules. It’s so hard to plan these things sometimes.”
“If there’s anything I can do, just say the word.”
“Thank you. Everything will work out, though,” she said. “I just hope the roads aren’t too bad and that everyone can get there all right.” She took a step toward the garage, and then reconsidered it. “Do you want anything from the store? I need to pick up some things on my way home.”
“You’re overdoing the Mom thing. I’ll be fine. I can go to the store, too, if you need.”
“There are more English Muffins in the freezer,” she said, then shouldered her swim bag and lunch cooler and went downstairs to the garage. A moment later she came back up—she’d forgotten her car keys, and spent a minute looking for them before realizing she hadn’t forgotten them, they were in one of her jacket’s pockets (“I really am losing it sometimes,” she said), and then she left again.
Earlier in the winter, before I’d officially moved in, I’d stayed over at Mom’s during one of my preliminary, Ibsen-esque fights with Jenna, and hid her swim bag in my room. My intent was to shake up her routine and take her out to breakfast before she went to work. When I came downstairs in the morning, Mom was pacing around the kitchen, frantically opening and closing the cupboards, lifting up newspapers and magazines as if her bag might be beneath them.
“It’s not in its place,” she said.
“Would you have left it at the gym?”
“No,” she said. “I couldn’t have.” She opened the refrigerator, laughed at how unreasonable she was being, and closed it. “I remember having it yesterday, and bringing it into the house. I do.”
“Are you sure? Not to be clever, but you might just be remembering bringing it in two days ago, or earlier in the week.”
“No,” she said. She listed the reasons why she was certain she remembered—NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” had been on, a report about the musicians selected to perform at the upcoming party for Bush’s second inauguration, which she’d listened to in her car and then, once she’d come inside, on the house’s stereo. She went to the front hall’s coat tree, under which she always stored her bag. She checked beneath all the parkas and slickers to see if she’d hung it up. Then she went down to her car to see if it was in the back seat or the trunk. “It’s the strangest thing,” she said when she came back up.
“Mom. Let’s do breakfast. Let me take you to breakfast.”
“I’d just – I’d really like to find my bag. I don’t feel awake until I swim. It wakes me up.”
“You can miss one day,” I said. It made me nervous watching her, but the only guilt I felt was that she didn’t suspect me.
Her instincts rooted in repetition, she went again to the coat tree, and then again to her car.
“Where could it even be?” she said. Her voice marbly.
“It will turn up,” I said. “Let’s go to French Meadow. Maybe your bag’s at French Meadow.”
From the front hall I heard her say, quietly, and to herself, “The inauguration. I remember. I distinctly remember.”
She left shortly after, and bought a Speedo from the JCC’s athletic desk. When she found her swim bag the next day, nestled under a blanket in her trunk (“I don’t know how I missed it,” she said), she threw away the new swimsuit.
Having read some of Freud’s juicier bits, and also Goodbye, Columbus, I’ve begun to wonder whether I really was just rummaging for my mother’s nailclippers. As a result of my father’s egress (he said he hadn’t been hiding his sexuality from us, but truly hadn’t known he was gay; I chose to believe him, but wondered how he could conceal this from himself for four decades), I endeavored in those years, my early twenties, to be conscious of my subconscious. That is, I went around trying to Know Myself and be True To Myself and, close friends have since informed me, I was generally self-righteous, sex-obsessed, and boring, principled in the way only people oblivious to large psychological parts of themselves can be principled, holding forth all the time on fracking and education reform, pounding tables as I made important points and making the silverware bounce and chime. (In fact, this behavior led directly to the end of my relationship with Jenna, who, no matter how well or loudly I argued its value, was uninterested in finishing her bachelor’s degree.)
Mom’s room was silent except for the occasional gust of wind that made the windows shudder in their panes, as if someone were outside, tapping on the glass and wanting in. All her blinds were pulled up to let in the pinkish, just-emerging light; even though in winter she left before the sun was fully up, and returned after it set, she always raised her blinds in the mornings. Another of her habits. Maybe she liked the idea of her room getting sunlight, whether or not she was there for it.
I don’t think I took a deep breath or felt a sense of trespass or anything when I opened her dresser, but now, retrospectively, I mentally pause before sliding out the drawers. It was a waist-high thing made of chocolate-colored wood, its contents organized according to their mass: heavy wool sweaters folded like straitjackets in the bottommost drawer; jeans and fraying t-shirts in the middle; her socks, underwear, swimsuits, and bras floating ethereally around in the top, almost as if the drawer was filled with water. Her undergarments (to my relief) were beige and uninteresting (although some of her bras were decorated with a miniature, useless bow right in their centers). Also the top drawer contained her journal, her nail clippers and emery boards, her birth control dial, old pairs of glasses and swimming goggles, Band-aids, Band-aid wrappers, and a satin jewelry box filled with diamond and pearl earrings and her wedding and engagement rings, all of which she still occasionally wore.
The strange thing, as I weighed her half-empty dial of pills, was not that Mom slept with the guys she dated—the guy she dated: an affable, flannel-wearing landscape architect from Fargo who wrote a newsletter called Soil Life—but that, with a little contemplation, it became apparent she wanted to (otherwise, presumably, she wouldn’t have participated). I rarely attributed desires to my mom. Actually, I couldn’t conceive of her desiring anything at all, except to be back with my father. But sex is such a desire-involving activity. Also, passionate—passion being another thing I didn’t believe she was capable of; I imagine it’s difficult to be passionate about swimming the same enclosed distance day after day, and I doubted she looked passionately forward to Tuesdays, when she watered the sunroom plants. Evidently, though, I’d been wrong about her. I clipped my hangnail and let the enamel drop to her dresser’s surface.
The contrast: in evaluating my father—an inscrutable, balding litigator who wanted me, I was becoming increasingly aware, to write his biography—I could only consider him as desirous and passionate. He had, after all, redefined himself purely in sexual terms. To maintain a superficially ordinary relationship, Dad had insisted after he came out that we begin exercising together, and bought us matching weightlifter’s gloves that left exposed the tips of our fingers. Answering one of my many questions, he explained one morning at the Y that being gay “was more than just about screwing”—something to do with a higher manifestation of masculinity (that nevertheless seemed, in practice, to involve incisive wine knowledge, spandex, and the occasional brightly colored scarf).
He lay down on the bench press and placed his hands symmetrically on the bar. “And certainly there are things I miss,” he said. “Having a family. Your mother’s cooking, frankly. But I’m at ease psychologically, and feel much more myself.”
“What else do you miss?” I asked.
He lifted the bar from its holsters, and brought it down to his chest just once before replacing it.
“It’s the kind of thing where I guess I’m used to being nurtured,” he said, “I’ve never really thought of this before. But guys, just naturally, aren’t wired to be nurturing.”
In earnest now he began his second set. As I spotted him, counting off his repetitions while he lowered and lifted the bar, his arms trembling as he worked—we always tried to lift slightly more than we were able—I understood I needed to do something for him. But what, I didn’t know. I sensed, though, that I was the only person he could say things like this to.
Still, everything he mentioned was secondary to the fact he’d rearranged his life (and Mom’s) so he could sleep with men. I viewed him as a man of deep personal desire, with the courage to fulfill his desires even at the expense of those he loved. I wanted to be more like that—to Take What I Want From The World—but knew I was more my mother’s son: an oyster, waiting for the things that nourished me to pass, or not pass, through my shell.
Only in the last six or seven years had I begun to learn experientially about birth control, menstruation, sex, and the embryos that so often resulted. This knowledge had come to me primarily through Jenna and a couple other waitresses we worked with. (It will always wow me that their periods were synchronized because they spent so much time together at the restaurant, blaming one another when the cramps began; during that week their breasts—and tips—were all slightly larger.) Jenna, when we’d lived together, set her cell phone to go off at ten each morning to remind her to take her pill.
After our abortion I insisted we supplement her birth control with condoms, which at first was exciting for the variation, but quickly led to problems. Our sensitivities were diminished, mine especially, and we needed a multiplicity of lubricants, pornography, a vibrator that buzzed cheerily, and Viagra to arouse each other for any sustained time. Our bedroom rituals necessitated that we keep adding more. On one Sunday we both had free there was a moment, when the internet disconnected just as I was looking for a realish-seeming film clip we hadn’t yet seen, and Jenna was shaking down the last bit of solution from our bottle of Wet-Ex, and it all became irrevocably absurd to me, all these hoops we had to jump through just to get each other—or maybe now to get just ourselves—off.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “Isn’t it? It is.”
I gestured to the Wet-Ex bottle in her hands that she still hadn’t managed to extract any lubricant from, and to the paused figures fucking on our laptop.
“All this stuff.”
Jenna admitted the implements were getting chore-ish and distancing, and actually, coming to this realization together was the last truly intimate moment of our relationship, the last time we experienced anything resembling mutual empathy. We didn’t break up then, but something about acknowledging that I was less attracted to Jenna than to an excitement I needed her to help me produce—it pervaded the next few of my weeks. We began to disagree about things and I quit doing small favors for her. The dishes accumulated, our garbage overflowed, I instigated long, silent meals—I am a skilled silence-wielder—in restaurants I wondered what it would be like to work at. I hinted again, and less subtly than before, that Jenna should finish her theater studies, saying I couldn’t be with someone who had no ambition, and I left copies of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard near conspicuous seats in our bathroom and car. In sum, lacking the courage to end the relationship, I made myself unbearable. Jenna one afternoon reconfigured the furniture—always a bad sign—and soon after suggested, timidly but resolutely (as a convincing Nina tells off her Kostya), that I move out.
I replaced my mother’s birth control beneath what was evidently a very old or favorite pair of Fruit of the Looms and supposed that, so long as she was sleeping with her boyfriend, I hoped it was fulfilling. Certainly there was some mental dissonance—it was, after all, a weird thing to become aware of my mom’s sex life, and simultaneously understand that her devotion to my father was not so consummate as (so says the therapist, gliding offstage on his roller-couch) I’d hoped. But, and I can’t explain why, it was thrilling to be wrong. I felt, I think, the same empathic relief as when Jenna and I realized how impossible our relationship had become; all of a sudden I realized that, in her slow, methodical way, my mother was not merely trying to endure the world, but trying to make herself happy. I hoped she’d be successful. And Dad, I thought as the dresser drawer fitted into its enclosure, whatever he was doing, I hoped it was worthwhile, too. (Thinking of his wanting to be nurtured, though, I doubted the likelihood of this.) Seldom but sometimes I have these moments where my chest becomes a mouth, gaping, and all the world’s good seems trying to enter. (Other times, the mouth remains open, and nothing enters, just gusts of wind.) I hoped Jenna was happy, and did my mental best to undo six years of my pretensions about her needing to Get Ahead in Life and go back to school. I remembered, too, to send myself a small prayer for happiness, without really knowing how to orchestrate it. (To be good was a way I’d heard about, but who knew anything about that? Politeness was the extent of my goodness—I’d held twelve thousand doors open for twelve thousand elderly women—but didn’t know how to move beyond.)
Then, remembering there was a journal to peruse, I opened Mom’s underwear drawer again.
Her journal was a whole other deal, full of death thoughts. It was just a notebook, with eyes of paper caught in the spiral binding from pages she’d ripped out. A blue Bic pen was wedged into the wire. I took it and lay down on her bed, that great big queen-sized square. There were Mom’s customary rationalizing phrases; she’d written “everything happens for reasons” in multiple entries, which bugged me—I couldn’t believe that my father had become gay for any reason that might benefit her, even in a tangentially cosmic manner. But this and other rationalizations were superseded, as I paged through, by her ruminations on abandonment, loneliness, the desire not to die. I realized I had no idea what occurred inside her head. Certainly it was a more complicated place, more shadowy and bat-filled, than I preferred to believe.
Sometimes it makes me very sad to think that my father is gone. It’s as if it didn’t happen very long ago at all, even though I know it did. I miss him.
In restaurants I’m having trouble hearing. It happened again last night with Kevin at Lucia’s. It was so funny! I just could not hear what he was saying. I read something that said restaurants are beginning to play louder music, and are designed to be loud to make a place seem popular. But I don’t think that’s it. My hearing just isn’t working like it used to.
I have a lot to be lucky for, though. It’s difficult to remember that. I think about a lot of people who are in worse positions than I am, and I try to remember that I am lucky. Some people have lived their whole lives in fear.
I folded shut her journal and laid it on my chest. What could I do for her? What did she need done?
In moments that required action I always remained still, wondering about the most proper response while doing nothing. As the time in the restaurant I’d seen a customer pinch Jenna’s ass and just continued to carry drinks to my table, and then, when Jenna told me about what had happened, I acted surprised and pretended not to have watched her flirt back. As the time when my father loaded the bench press bar with too much weight, and couldn’t lift it from his chest; I stood above him, watching him huff and strain as the bar rolled closer and closer to his neck, but didn’t react. When Dad called out for help, a man working at the bench beside us nudged me out the way and lifted the bar back into its holsters. Afterward, Dad and I pretended the whole thing never happened, he too embarrassed to bring up his physical weakness, I too embarrassed to remember my lack of recourse. Subsequently we began to lift lighter, more manageable loads.
I did not do, but instead imagined a thousand other earths where I was an Olympian, always achieving things, so that I could endure this lonely and moderate one I was inert in.
But what’s to be done about one’s troubled parents? Abraham begat Isaac; questions beget questions. All I was capable of—and I’ve come to believe this isn’t negligible—was to make myself receptive to the fullness of their lives, to accept their favors, and to listen.
Everything will work out, though. I just hope the roads aren’t too bad and that everyone can get there all right.