It was a sticky hot evening in early August, the kind of weather that just depletes you of any and all energy and allows you to finally understand the meaning of the word wilt. I parked my car and stayed inside, grateful for the air conditioning and wondering if the short walk I was about to make in the oppressive humidity towards the restaurant would end up making my hair frizz in spite of how long I’d spent straightening it and I decided I might as well just go ahead and embrace the fact that of course my hair would frizz while I looked out the window to see if he’d arrived yet. He hadn’t, but he wasn’t late; I’m just always early. I sat in the blessed environment of cool air and scanned the cars and the people emerging; every person was walking slowly, shoulders slumped, the weight of the weather finally – at seven o’clock in the evening – taking its toll.
When I saw him pull into a spot right in front of the restaurant, I turned off my ignition and hopped out of the car and I met him at his front door.
“Hi, Sweetheart,” he said to me with a smile, and I kissed him hello on the cheek. He looked exhausted – more from battles at work than from the weather – and I took his hand and led him towards the glass door of the restaurant, a door that had grown almost opaque due to the fog.
“Two, please,” he told the hostess, and just a moment later we were gratefully drinking water and nibbling on edamame and I was telling him all about the date I went on just the night before and how the guy might have some potential but it was almost impossible to tell this early on. Plus, I’m not one to gush quite so easily.
“On the plus side, I didn’t feel the need to create a distraction so I could get the hell out of there,” I told him. “I didn’t even once consider setting myself on fire like I did the time I went out with the teacher.”
“What was wrong with the teacher?” he asked me. “It seems you would have something in common with him.”
“All he talked about were directions,” I explained. “And I’m not kidding – he literally spent a half an hour explaining new ways I could get to work and then he told me that I was going to really miss the South Shore after my move and he looked offended when I told him that I was just more of a North Shore kind of girl. How is that offensive? And did he actually believe that I was riveted as he spoke endlessly about sidestreets?”
“Why didn’t you just cut him off?” he asked me. “You’re good at changing the subject.”
“I was too busy counting my teeth with the tip of my tongue and reciting lines from Goodfellas in my head,” I explained – and I was serious. I had mastered methods that allowed me to endure a date that made me contemplate becoming a completely celibate lesbian.
“This guy sounds good,” he told me with a smile. “Is he funny?”
“He made me laugh out loud a few times,” I said, “and that’s always a good sign. He thinks I’mfunny.”
“You are hilarious,” he said to me, giving me my favorite compliment. “And anyone who makes you laugh must have some kind of potential.” He reached over the table then and took my hand and he gave it a warm squeeze.
“Thanks, Jack,” I said – and I meant it.
At that very moment, a man I didn’t know approached our table and he said hello and he shook Jack’s hand and I stuck my hand out for him to shake mine too and I made sure to say my name so the guy would say his, which is what needs to happen when it’s clear that Jack cannot remember who someone is. And after a few warm words, the guy left the table.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“An architect,” he told me.
The air conditioning in the sushi place was on full blast and I began to use my napkin and the one I’d stolen from the table next to me to fashion a makeshift blanket because a little skirt and a strappy camisole worked perfectly in the sweltering humidity, but I was beginning to actually get concerned that my growing shivering was making me appear a Dragon-Roll-eating-crack-addict.
Just as the check came to the table, a woman walked by and said hello to Jack. She was the mother of a kid my brother’s age, but I’d never met her. I guess her kid didn’t play lacrosse; the only parents of Devin’s friends I knew were the ones I’d stood on fields with for hours on end. But when Jack and I stood up and he offered me his arm as we left the restaurant, I saw that woman look up at us from her own table and I smiled at her and she kind of blinked hard.
“That woman is staring at us,” I whispered to Jack as we were leaving.
“She probably thinks you’re my date,” he answered and I started to laugh.
“She doesn’t think that!” I said, but then I thought about what a stranger had just seen. I called the person in front of me “Jack.” We were affectionate. There was a comfort level between us. And my mother was not with us at that table.
I hugged my stepfather goodbye in the parking lot and berated myself for not fully appreciating the freezing temperatures in the restaurant now that I was once again drooping in the crushing air of the night and I drove home and immediately called my mother, who hadn’t been able to join Jack and me for dinner because she had an appointment of some kind and had to be in the city.
“Hi, Mommy!” I chirped when she answered the phone and I wondered when she would learn that she didn’t have to scream into a cell phone to be heard.
“Hi, Tuffs,” she yelled back, but I could hear the smile in her voice. It’s maybe one of my favorite things about her – that loving warmth that feels like a perfect hug dipped in Angel by Thierry Mugler perfume.
“So listen,” I said, “if you hear any gossip that Jack was on a date with some woman tonight, there’s no reason for concern. It was me. But people came up to the table like they sometimes do and I’m relatively certain that one of them thought I was dating him – which is gross, he’s like thirty years older than I am – but I didn’t want you to worry.”
My mother laughed.
“I never worry about that,” she said, and then she asked me if Jack had used the reduced-sodium soy sauce and I told her that he had because I’d stabbed him in the wrist with a chopstick when he reached for the full-sodium option on the table.
Listen: I know my family unit is not all that typical. My real parents were divorced. My father died a very long time ago now. I have a sister and stepsisters and a stepbrother who people think is really related to me. And because of the kind of work my stepfather does, I sometimes find myself in situations that a regular teacher like myself normally wouldn’t be in and I guess that during some of those times, I’m mistaken as a mistress.
I can’t even pretend to care too much about such a misguided public perception because at a lot of those events, really good appetizers are served. And really, call me what you want as long as there are people carrying silver trays with perfectly prepared bite-size treats that I can eat while you begin to judge me.
I’ll get over it. And sometimes it all gives me a good laugh.
Like the time I accompanied Jack to a Yankee game to which he also invited two clients. My mother had a prior commitment and had to miss the game – it was fine, though; she often goes to over fifty games a season – and so there I was in a car with my stepfather and two strangers and we had just begun to cross the Throg’s Neck Bridge when Jack started to do his teeth-clicking thing. It’s like a twitch for him and it serves as the most irritating sound in the world for me. I would rather listen to a cacophony of static, piercing fire alarms, the monosyllabic droning of a Kardashian, and the sound of someone fiercely cracking his knuckles over and over again rather than listen to that fucking clicking, so I’ve found a few ways over the years to somewhat temper the sound so I can keep from begging him to just drive over the bridge’s divider and put me out of my misery.
The best way to cease a sound that would cause a deaf person to feel a sense of true gratitude is to shove some gum into his mouth. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years as I’ve honed my skills, and please feel free to try any of these tips should you ever be trapped in a car with my stepfather while on a bridge or in a tunnel:
1. One piece of gum won’t work; you’ll need at least two.
2. He prefers minty gum to fruity gum.
3. Often he will just open up his mouth rather than put out his hand to take the gum. You have to kind of toss it in like he’s a carnival game, but this time the prize will not be a giant panda; it will be a few moments of fucking peace and quiet.
4. If he’s annoyed with you for being annoyed with him, he will refuse the gum as though you are offering him a tab of strychnine and a shot of antifreeze to chase it with. He will clamp his mouth closed and he will do it out of pure spite and it’s immature and mean but it’s also effective as hell.
5. If the gum is shunned with as much vociferousness as an Amish person shuns a flatiron, there is one other option to end the clicking besides knocking your own head against the wall to at least make it stop in your own head. What you can attempt right before you choose to embrace willful and self-attempted unconsciousness is hair petting. Yes, you can pet his head and for some reason that often temporarily stops the mind-numbing sound, but I’ll go ahead and offer this suggestion: you have to know him pretty well before you start petting some hair because otherwise it’ll be really fucking awkward for both of you.
So there we were on the tippy top of the Throg’s Neck Bridge and it was very windy and the traffic was starting to pick up and I’d tried to talk to the two people in the backseat, but Jack kept getting work-related calls that he would take on speakerphone and it would quiet the rest of us so the conversations were really brief and halting. And when the clicking sound started and I knew I couldn’t lose my shit about it the way I usually did because this time we were in front of business people, I decided to briefly pet him on the head and it worked instantly. The clicking came to an immediate halt and I stopped contemplating whether or not I’d definitely die if I jumped off of that bridge and whether or not eternal silence would actually be better than incessant teeth clicking.
But it was also at that moment when I saw a brief look of possible judgment flit across the features of the woman in the back seat of the car, a person around my age. I had never met before and she had only met Jack once before and I saw her eyebrows furrow a little bit. I looked back at her and smiled.
“You know he’s my stepfather, right?” I asked gently. And that’s when she exhaled a breath that was so strong that I felt it as it moved through my hair.
“Oh, my God – I didn’t know that! And I was thinking, ‘Jack, this girl is young enough to be your daughter!’”
First things first: I know many a wealthy man who dates women young enough to be someone who still has scheduled playdates, but Jack fled from that kind of scene many moons ago. Second, I fully understood how that woman’s thought process had formed like a really fucked up puzzle that’s missing a few pieces. I called him by his first name and I patted him on the hair affectionately and I yelled at him to stop shaving and to concentrate on the road while we headed up the ramp to the bridge. I saw completely how it was all misread, and I guess I could have had some fun with this girl’s clear discomfort, but she seemed sweet and I was too tired to destroy her hope and belief that men only choose age-appropriate women.
I often try to locate the humor in the situation when I find myself in an environment that I’m not entirely accustomed to or when I’m surrounded by people with whom I might not have all that much in common. I see the whole thing as an experience that might turn into a story, and besides – no matter how uncomfortable I might feel, I can always pull off the ability to smile and to chat with anybody. We might not end up talking about anything particularly significant and I will probably don’t have a prayer of remembering the person’s name, but I will never retreat into a corner because I’m uncomfortable; I’ll fake it until I actually feel comfortable or until a waiter saunters by with something like a giant shrimp wrapped perfectly in a bright green peapod.
Just the other night, I found myself at dinner with my parents and I asked Jack what was new with him and with business and with all of the events he always attends and he asked me if I would be his date for an upcoming one, some political fundraiser.
“Why aren’t you going?” I asked my mother. She attends most events with him and she’s great at schmoozing with people. My father was excellent at doing that too and I always love it when I can pinpoint a quality within myself, trace it back to the source, and see that it’s a defining trait of mine that I was gifted by both of them.
“I’m going to be at an event where I’m taught how to make challah,” she explained, and she sounded so excited.
“Please come with me,” Jack implored, and I’m not sure why this is, but I often can’t say no to Jack the way I can to everybody else in my life. Or – more accurately – I do say no to him but he refuses to retreat or to take my “no” for an answer, the kind of thing that makes him a killer in business and rather irritating as a family member.
(On the wall of his office is a photograph of him with some major government leaders and the photo is inscribed, “To Jack, a man so tenacious he won’t even take ‘yes’ for an answer.’”)
I didn’t want to go. It was at night and I have to be at work very early in the morning. I didn’t know a single person going besides my stepfather, and I knew he would be circling that night, not babysitting me. But I decided to say yes and join him at the event and I did it knowing that the whole thing couldn’t possibly last longer than four hours and that maybe I could make some contacts myself. Do Netflix executives with the power to greenlight a 13-episode commitment for a series show up to support Congressmen?
I got home from work in the late afternoon and had only an hour or so to get ready so I jumped into the shower and let the water run through my hair and I thought about the dresses I had that could best be characterized as “business casual,” and I remembered a dress I’ve never worn, kind of a pretty shift, and I decided that I would throw that dress on even though it was sleeveless and only about forty degrees.
I was the only one at the event with bare shoulders, but I don’t think it mattered. The dress was more than appropriate and I was pleased to give it a chance to venture outside to be admired and the appetizers passed around were fantastic and I met some very interesting people. Every person I encountered who knows my mother told me how wonderful she is, and I have become so used to that comment that I don’t even say thank you anymore; I just smile and say I know. And I watched with pride as Jack moved around the room and how he didn’t have to move so often, that most people came to him, and I think it’s almost funny that it’s taken me this long to understand the visual evidence of business power, but then again, I’ve never really longed to be a part of that world – I just like to vacation there – so maybe it makes sense that the whole thing still strikes me as funny and foreign.
There was a bonus to attending that particular event, because it turned out to be one my brother was at also. He’s going to be twenty-six years old soon, and that’s something I almost can’t wrap my head around because, in my mind, he is perpetually six years old with big wide eyes and the softest cheeks – and I so wish I could remember what his childhood voice sounded like! – but now he is an adult and he is working for his father and he is doing an excellent job. I watched him approach people and shake their hands and I stood beside him as he discussed a recent deal and he clearly knew what he was talking about and he made a great contact that night but he still had time to reach over twelve other people to snag his sister the best looking pig in a blanket the very moment the waiter emerged from the kitchen with a new tray laden with them.
“Poodle, it’s like you’re a real adult!” I exclaimed after some man came over to introduce himself to Devin and I watched the entire thing transpire like I was witnessing a kangaroo stand up, begin to speak French, and then hop into a lake to go swimming without removing his cashmere beret.
“I know,” he responded. “Crazy, right?”
“So crazy,” I said. “But I’m very proud of you.”
I spent a lot of time talking to someone I’d never met, the son of two of my parents’ friends, and he was bright and funny and we talked about Lost and hockey and I looked around at one point and realized that I hadn’t seen Jack in over an hour.
My mother would kill me if she knew I’d lost him in a room stuffed with fattening appetizers. When she’s off-duty, I have to take the reigns, but ever since that time I had a legitimate tug-of-war in my parents’ kitchen with Jack over a kielbasa I stumbled upon him gnawing – he won that tug or war and I legitimately believe that he would have murdered me and hidden my body before he chose to release that sausage – I try to keep my involvement in his nutritional selection to a minimum because, no matter what I say, he will just smile at me, nod, and then add another dash of salt to whatever he’s eating and it all ends with my blood pressure rising far more than his.
Early in the event, I was introduced to the political guy we were all there to support. He almost looked like he was made out of foam or cardboard and he had perfect hair and a perfectly-pressed navy suit and a twinkle in his eye that looked like it might be a part of a cartoon illustration. He was engaging and smart and, later on, it was time for him to give his speech and we all gathered around. He is clearly a man who knows how to tell a good story, something I can always appreciate, but what stood out to me even more is that, at one point, he mentioned the other political party in a way that was meant to be humorously critical, and I realized that I might be the only person in the entire room who belonged to that other party. I felt like I’d just broken into someone’s private treehouse, but I was more than okay with learning the secret knock for the night and holding the secrets I learned close to my chest, especially since the secrets weren’t nearly juicy enough to earn any kind of a worthy payoff.
I found it interesting to see the lines in the speech that those who make their livings through Business applauded at and what it was that made them laugh, but I can’t say that I was shocked by any of it. I’ve lived this kind of experience for a long time now, days where everything makes sense followed by nights and weekends where I’m exposed to a very different world, one that’s defined by favors and an evolving list of collaborators and shifting levels of trust and really good wine and a livelihood that I’m interested in and supportive of, but not one that I long to have myself. But I have been taught well; I can exist in both worlds – and straddling worlds is always fun.
However, if I don’t want to be mistaken for a mistress, I should probably refrain from using the word straddling and petting a man’s hair in public.