“Tuffy!” my father called out, and I could hear his voice rebounding against the rolling waves. “Be careful because I won’t be here.”
I was fourteen years old and it was August. I stood in the East Hampton surf, willing myself to ride the next wave that came my way without being caught inside of it like I had been that time last summer when a chaos of funneled water spun me into what I’d been briefly sure was the absolute nothingness of forever. My father was heading down the shore to cast for bluefish. In less than an hour, he’d be dead. Those were the last words he ever spoke to me.
And the thing is, I have been careful. I knew that to fall apart completely in those first terrifying teenage months would only serve to harm me spectacularly in the long run and I guess I’ve always been someone who considered where one moment might fit into the puzzle that was the rest of it. So instead I did the normal sort of rebelling that was so common for a suburban girl growing up in the days when people looked into one another’s faces instead of down at a screen. I sometimes drank cheap beer in basements. I came home from afternoon barbeques held in my friends’ backyards covered in hickeys. I knew the terror of the second when the condom breaks and how difficult it is to pee on a stick when your hand is shaking and you’re not sure if the screaming is inside of your own head or some external horrible audible omen.
“I didn’t raise you to do something like that,” my mother said to me – and I swear I could almost see icicles forming on her tongue.
“Actually,” I responded, “You raised me to do exactly that.”
To fully understand this story, it’s essential that you know two things:
1. I will do anything for my brother.
2. I will go anywhere if there’s even the slightest chance that a pig in a blanket will make an appearance.
It was with those two factors dancing like alcohol-poisoned sugarplums in my mind that I agreed to accompany several members of my family to a political fundraiser just a few days ago. Those events are not typically my thing. I don’t own a business so I don’t view a proximity to politicians as a necessary evil and I generally tend to not want to attend gatherings that are fueled by very small glasses of wine and stilted, albeit polite, chatter. The only political events I’ve attended over the last decade were ones my family hosted or events they were honored at and to those I’d show up on time and I’d smile at everyone and eventually I’d go hide out in the kitchen so I could snag the appetizers first and also pump the caterers for tips about how to make a platter of food look extra pretty. The best tip I ever got was to form the dough around the mini hotdog into the shape of a daisy and then poke that sucker through and whammo: a pig in a blanket in the shape of a flower is born! Then you shove sticks into them to give it all some height and plunge the sticks into some wheatgrass and the whole thing comes out looking like a blooming garden of nitrate deliciousness. I had a ton of them made for a party I threw to celebrate the release of my first book and those blossoming piggies looked so beautiful I almost cried.
“I’m sick of everybody’s problems when I cannot do a single thing to solve them.” I said this sentence to my mother the other day and I was met with a beat of absolute silence, though I swear I could also hear the rhythmic throb of a horrified subtext in the blankness that followed.
“You can’t say that,” she finally responded, an extra breath or two of surprise folded into the disappointment that coated her words like butter turned sour.
“I most certainly can say that,” I said immediately – and the forcefulness of my words quieted us both.
This isn’t who I was, but this might just be who I am now.
I used to have this rather disturbing habit of dreaming about ex-boyfriends while lying beside current ones. The dreams were sometimes a little bit sexual, but more uncomfortable than nightly dream-state visions of my legs wrapped around the waist of someone from my past was the undeniable fact that the dreams were always rather pleasant. On those dark evenings as I slumbered beside someone I really cared for, my psyche seemed to want to entertain all of those yesterdays – and only concentrate on the joy of those former lifetimes.
I never told the unsuspecting men over coffee and egg whites the next morning about what exactly had raced through my mind the night before. To do so seemed cruel to them – and patently unfair to me. It wasn’t like I’d wanted those dreams to happen. But I’d look up and see someone smile as he handed me a steaming cup of coffee and I’d feel a tightness in the corners of my mouth when I’d smile back because I knew I was hiding something and my thoughts would begin to race as I’d try to analyze myself right there on the spot to figure out why that other guy had made a starring role in my dream and what it could all mean and then I’d feel a drop happen in my stomach that would stop me short for just a second because I’d know right then and there that this current man probably had some dreams as well and they couldn’t possibly have all included me.
Last night, however, I did not dream about another man. Last night I dreamed about McDonald’s French Fries. I was able to recall, even after I woke up and took a shower, just how yellow they were and how they tasted just the perfect amount of salty and I knew, even in my dream, that it was a little strange that they were being served out of a navy blue paper container instead of the conventional red one. I think the navy part must have come into play because I picked out what I’d be wearing for work right before I went to sleep last night and I chose a flippy navy-colored dress and I looked at it hanging on the hook on the back of my door right before I closed my eyes for the night.
I haven’t had a McDonald’s French Fry in a very long time, though I’ll happily wager that I could probably find a petrified piece of one should I ever decide to clean out my car. Like Twinkies, cockroaches, and Vicki Gunvalson, my guess is that McDonald’s French Fries will be part of the collection of relics left behind once we all sufficiently destroy this civilization. I take only a bit of comfort in the idea that future explorers will surely deduce that we ate an enormous amount of crap in our time here on Earth, but I also hope they’ll realize that the stuff was yummy as hell. In fact, I pray a distant future scholar will one day write a full dissertation comparing all things Hostess to the lure of those Sirens that Odysseus had to combat. I also pray it’ll be titled The Last Temptation of the Hostess Snoball.
Life throws you curveballs, my dear.
This is a sentence someone I’ve known for a very long time whispered into my ear late last night and the whisperer of this nugget of truth knows precisely what she’s talking about. She’s dealing with her own screwy pitches right about now – we all are – and I felt in her hug and her whisper a bolt of blatant empathy that I found rather comforting. Maybe others might have felt put on the spot by what she said or become offended by being included in her mass of a mess, but I took only kindness and compassion away from her words. Sometimes, I guess, it’s hard to know exactly how you’re supposed to feel or which action you should be taking. Sometimes it’s difficult to delineate when you should just sit still and do absolutely nothing at all. Sometimes it’s really hard to sit still, even while the world around you is spinning and you feel like you’re losing your grip on everything, including gravity.
The thing about life and family and a lifetime spent with family is that it changes – and I’m okay with that, I suppose, as long as the changes can be tracked. Far too logical for my own good, I’m weirded out by shocks and surprises, the ones caused when there’s been little or no preamble to a massive and seismic shift in the family unit. I know it’s a real flaw of mine that I look to find the linear genesis of the journey that got us all here rather than just hopping on the bumpy trip right then and there and allowing myself to be careened forward. No, I look backwards – and it makes me feel dizzy every time.
My first memories of my Uncle Lenny are so vivid that they smell like sugar. That kind of sensory detail makes good sense. He owned a busy bakery in Brooklyn for most of my childhood and I remember toddling in with excitement shining in my eyes and looking around in wonder. You know that expression, "It's like a kid in a candy store"? I lived that expression, but my candy store involved layer cakes.
My favorite part of our excursion was always going into the huge kitchen. I think it was probably hot in there with all those ovens going at once, but I have no memory of the heat. What I remember instead is that he had all those icing bags filled with whipped cream and butter cream and he would let me eat as much of it as I wanted directly from the bag. He'd also walk me around the bakery and tell me I could have whatever I wanted and I often chose the largest item I could find, like some giant parfait in the refrigerated case by the door. When we'd leave, but mother's arms were laden down with bags filled with cakes and large cookies (my favorites were the chocolate chip and the huge butter cookies with a big dollop of hard chocolate in the center) and boxes of the small cookies that I grew up calling "Uncle Lenny Cookies." I always gravitated towards the complicated cookies. I liked stuff loaded with sprinkles and dipped in chocolate with jelly in the center. Even today, I like my snacks filled with things like cream or crunchies and I see absolutely no need to ever eat what I consider "unadorned" chocolate. If there's no caramel or nougat, what's the point?
I walked into my friend’s classroom just the other day at about two in the afternoon and I sat down at the desk across from him with a great big sigh.
“Michael,” I stated solemnly, “I am experiencing a spiritual crisis.”
To be clear, that’s a pretty shocking expression coming from me. Spirituality has never even been close to defining the essence of who I am. I am opinionated. I am steadfastly loyal. I believe strongly that a good sense of humor is often an indication of a sharp intelligence. I am brimming with joy on the outside while I am questioning everything on the inside, but rarely is spirituality part of what I’m questioning and maybe that explains why Michael looked at me with the same shocked expression he might have worn had I just declared that I was going off the grid to train for a marathon where I had to run up mountains while shoeless.
“Why?” he asked me. He even looked up from his computer, a thing that only happens when he’s really interested or puzzled by something.
“Do you fast for Yom Kippur?” I responded, my question answering his question.
“No,” he said with a short laugh. And then, almost astonished, he asked, “Wait – do you?”
“So what should I expect?” he asked me.
We had just gotten into the car after he came to pick me up at my house and he was programming the address into his GPS while I buckled my seatbelt beside him and tried not to get the chiffon of my strapless dress caught.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“From today,” he said.
“Have you never been to a Bar Mitzvah?” I asked him – and I didn’t mean to sound quite so shocked because, after all, I know that it’s not something that everybody has experienced, but the guy was raised on Long Island!
I’ve always been the type to ask a lot of questions. I can’t remember that time period or anything, but I’d bet that I was the kind of toddler I really hate, the one who always followed an answer with yet another, “Why?” In fact, I can only assume that one of the reasons I became such a fan of Sesame Street is because – to save the last fraying shred of their collective sanities – my parents shoved me in front of the TV to try to carve out just a moment of peace until my next question popped into my head and then immediately out of my mouth.
You know how every teacher you ever had growing up told the class, “There are no stupid questions”? Well, as a teacher, I can tell you that all of those teachers were lying. There are, of course, questions that are totally moronic and they are often asked by morons and, just as the question sails through the air and hits my ears, I can feel a surge of patience kick in like adrenaline usually does.
I called my stepfather yesterday afternoon and he answered my call on speakerphone because that’s just how he rolls.
“Hi, Jack!” I said. “What would you like for Father’s Day this year?”
There was silence just then but I didn’t worry that the call had dropped because I could still hear him doing that teeth-clicking thing that is maybe the very worst sound in the entire world and he does it all the time, including when he’s brushing his teeth, which you’d think would be an impossible feat but I’ve come to believe that the man can do anything.