Eagle Man

He was there again today, on his bench at the tip of the pier. Arms spread out like wings bunched high at the shoulders. His two gym bags were spread out in front him, casually marking his territory. There was a neatly folded white towel draped over one of the canvas bags.

He was tanner than the last time, if that were possible, his skin like a tawny leather stretched taut from the top of his forehead to the tips of his toes. His eyes were closed.

I imagine him having once been in the merchant marines. The head of a small fleet of boats. Or maybe a solitary sailor who’s made his way through dangerous channels and lived to tell the tale.

Now this bench at the tip of this pier is as close as he comes to freedom from man’s laws — a freedom I associate with the open seas.

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Green Bananas

He said that he didn’t want any artificial life-prolonging measures. When his time came, that would be it. He was adamant about it. The way he was adamant about everything. I nodded as if I were listening. As if that made perfect sense. But I wasn’t listening. I couldn’t begin to think about a day when he would be gone. He was 92 and had until the age of 91 been in seemingly perfect health.

From time to time, he’d make jokes about not even buying green bananas. But I didn’t listen to those either. I had no doubt he would live to be 100. Which would put me at 68. I’d deal with things then. Or maybe I’d never have to. Maybe he would outlive me.

Then one day his doctor was on the phone telling me that my father was a very sick man. He’d sent him in an ambulance to the hospital. I took the train up there and waited while they ran tests, but even before the tests were confirmed they were saying cancer. Without a new liver they couldn’t treat the cancer. And they weren’t going to be looking for a liver for him.

The whole thing took a month. The day I thought we (my siblings and I) were moving him into a residence, a day I thought was six months from the end, was the day his doctor said he was too sick to move anywhere. And then a week later he was gone.

One day before that fateful doctor’s appointment, he’d taken the train into the city where he’d visited the federal reserve bank in lower Manhattan and then lunched at Bobby Van’s. He’d had a great day, he said.

It was an astonishment to him that he could have been out and about one day, and looking at his imminent demise the next. And because of how skilled he’d been at hiding his ailments, never complaining, it came as an astonishment to me as well.

I would have done anything to delay his death, except the face the reality that he was dying.

Though it’s going on two years now, I still feel robbed of something nameless and absurd. As if he’d broken some implicit agreement we had. We won’t talk about death. And then it won’t happen.

 

 

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Disappearances

Five years and counting. That’s how long it’s been since my friendship with E. ended. If I were to be honest, I would go back further, to the day of my mother’s funeral.

Until that day, I thought of E. as my closest friend. She had recently been dumped by her secondary girlfriend — the one she’d been cheating on her primary girlfriend with for years. She was still licking her wounds, fantasizing about throwing herself in front of the nearest bus, taking meds to numb herself so she wouldn’t do anything rash.

The day of the funeral, E. took the train out to Westchester and a cab to the Temple. She sat in one of the pews without saying anything to anyone. As soon as the service was over, she hightailed it back to the city. She didn’t go to the cemetery for the interment, or come back to the house for the bagels and lox supplied by the Temple.

We never discussed it. I never expressed my anger or disappointment. Not directly, in any case. But it was the first real red flag. Or the first that was so outsized that even I couldn’t miss it. But still I chalked off this breathtaking lack of empathy as an outlier; she was in too much pain to do more.

E.’s justification, had I asked her for one, would have been, “You didn’t even like your mother anyway. All you ever did was fight.” It would have been a grotesque distortion of the facts.

But it’s a moot point, because we didn’t discuss it.

The normal person would have backed away then. “The hell with her,” my ever-so-pragmatic mother would have said. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” my ex would have said ironically, with a wink and a nod, perverting the “get going” from its original meaning — redouble their efforts — to the new one, to flee.

“Now you know. Isn’t it better to know?” my friend P. would have asked.

But, no, it wasn’t better to know, and so I swept the evidence under the carpet, where it lay in wait.

There were other indicators over the six years between my mother’s death and the ultimate collapse of our friendship, but still I refused to take in the information in the way that any normal person with even the slightest instinct for self-preservation would.

And then the day came when I insulted E.’s daughter, her precious daughter, with a sarcastic comment about her lack of table manners, and E. ex-communicated me from her life once and for all. She told me that her therapist wondered why she would even want to remain friends with me after the heinous crime that I’d committed.

The years have slipped by.  E.’s mother has died. My father has died. Huge chunks of our respective pasts have begun to slip away.

But what happened between us is not of interest to her.

It is behind her.

She will not look back.

What will it take for me to do the same?

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Family Stuff

I come from a family where being smart was nearly everything.

My mother, who by certain measures was the smartest of us all, offered lots of bits of advice over the years. But her most recurring theme with me was about keeping my mouth shut. “No one will ever marry you with that mouth,” she once said. I was probably 22 or so at the time. Her words were, need I say, prophetic.

But it began much earlier than that. The lesson she kept trying to teach, which I kept failing to learn, was that it was perfectly fine to have thoughts that you didn’t share. Maybe they were called “white lies” at that time. Good lies. Lies that were designed to make someone feel better not worse. For example, she said, “You don’t have to tell Rochelle that the brand new dress she’s wearing is unflattering. You could tell her what a beautiful fabric the dress is made of, or what stunning colors.”

Rochelle was one of the tough girls in my junior high, bordering on what in those days passed for a “hoodlum, but at the time she meant everything to me. She had a big warm personality and went after what she wanted. And maybe I envied her her talent for being “bad”: to brazenly come to class with some lame excuse for not having done her homework, because she’d spent the day before hanging out with friends rather than working on it, or to talk back to her teachers when the spirit moved her.

At some point Rochelle and I went our separate ways. There were no hard feelings. It was just one of those things. And under my mother’s strict tutelage, I did manage to keep my mouth shut. But that lesson, about not saying what you think, never really stuck. I’ve had to keep relearning it, over and over again.

For a time, I think, I prided myself on my ability to say what I truly thought, the consequences be damned. The rest of the world might be hypocrites and liars, but at least I was not.

But these days, there’s cold comfort in that. I can no longer even count on two hands the number of former friends I’ve alienated in one way or the other over the years. I’m well into my toes.

Soon those will be used up as well.

 

 

 

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Mother’s Day

Dear Diary,

I remember the last year my father was alive for Mother’s Day. He didn’t have a sentimental bone in his body — marking holidays really wasn’t his thing — though he loved nearly indiscriminately and believed fiercely in family.

I called him on Mother’s Day, to acknowledge the day, and the absence it represented for each of us.

For a moment, there was a puzzled silence at the other end. Had I lost my mind? Forgotten who he was?

And then an instant later, in falsetto, he replied, “Why thank you, dear.”

He was never one to miss an opportunity for a joke.

 

 

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Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

To even write those words is odd, taking me back to a time when every little girl of a certain generation was presented with a little white or pink diary trimmed with gold with a tiny padlock and a matching key.  Privacy was packaged in gilt. Even then it may have been an illusion. Parents’ prying eyes could find the key as easily as a child at a Passover seder could find the afikomen. But still, it was well before the time of the web, and Facebook, and photos of here’s-what-I-made-for-dinner-last-night, interspersed with ritual beheadings and murders in malls that go viral in an instant.

But I digress.

Dear Diary,

It’s been months, actually years now, since I’ve had the impulse to write whether for me, an audience of one, or for you, whoever you might be.

And it’s not that there haven’t been things to write about. But what could I say about those things? I thought that my father would live to be 100. And he didn’t. More precisely, I thought that I would always have the benefit of his kind, loving, all-knowing presence. And now I don’t. I thought he was in fine health. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I thought that there would be some relief from the constant anxiety of worrying when I couldn’t reach him by phone. But there isn’t. I thought I would feel free to pursue my own life, but I haven’t.

The urge to write, to make something of myself, seems to have been displaced by the urge to make pottery. There it’s so easy to see how we repeat ourselves endlessly, until we stop. And perhaps a computer program could be devised to see how our pens (or fingers tapping keyboards) trace the same grooves and delineate the same contours as well. And those programs would throw some faint light on the brain that traced those grooves. But for now, the writing process is more opaque, and its meaning more controversial. I have never written to incite, for example, and to the extent that you could say that I’ve done so to soothe myself, to smooth away the wrinkles on an otherwise fine day, I have failed utterly. Writing has never soothed anything. But there is, even now, when the hope of becoming a successful writer has faded, an urge to talk to myself. To keep a record of the dialogue, or monologue as the case may be, to be able to refer to it later perhaps, to trace the journey.

This, then, is Day 1 in a new journey: Life after Dad.

Dear Diary,

I have survived the worst.

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Burrowing

What she remembers most vividly are his nail-bitten fingers burrowing into her, making her feel alive again, and beautiful. He was never any good at kissing, or intercourse, but his fingers were so far from his brain that they worked almost independently.  Joyously. Without guilt.

And she remembers thinking that it was a gift he was giving her. Her last great romance. At the time, she wondered why she was having that thought. But it seemed so inarguable. He was her last hurrah.

Of course things ended badly. But that was built into from the start. He was a religious Jew and she was the other kind, an atheist who referred to herself as “culturally Jewish” when pressed.

Just today she remembered their fight over the chicken. Someone had made a  joke about pigs — how genetically similar to humans they were, so much so that a human could live with transplanted pig parts, heart, liver, kidneys, provided they were blessed by a rabbi to make it all kosher (ha, ha) — and it had brought it all back.

She hadn’t seen him for a month. He’d been in Israel, where he lived when he wasn’t teaching in New York. He was coming straight to her place from the airport. She’d decided to surprise him and cook dinner in case he was hungry when he arrived. She’d purchased a chicken and whatever sides she thought went with it. Roasted potatoes, maybe. Or asparagus. Something.

When he saw the chicken he knew instantly that it hadn’t been butchered correctly. It hadn’t been held upside down so the blood could leak out as it should. And he knew in that same moment that she was not the girl for him. Maybe he’d already met the other woman at that point. Maybe he hadn’t. Either way, they’d had a fight. Exchanged words. He’d drunk a lot, very quickly. Scotch. A bottle he’d bought for himself and left at her place. And then he’d left her apartment, the chicken still stewing in its juices.

They’d patched it up and gone on a bit longer. But the thing was moribund. They’d stopped being able to imagine a time in the future when they would truly be together. The burrowing came to an end.

Every so often there was the occasional email. One, an advice column directed to a woman in a similar predicament. A non-religious Jew dating an Orthodox Jew. The advice was to stop trying to change him, and take him to the Prime Grill, known for its fine kosher cuisine.

She never answered any of them.

Then two years later, on the night of her 50th birthday, he called to give her the news. He left it on her answering machine. “Hi, I’m calling from the airport,” he began, as he had so many times in the past.

“I wanted to wish you happy birthday,” he said.

For a moment there was near silence. Just the slightest inhalation of breath. A whisper through the wires. She could picture his nail-bitten thumb crooked under his chin, the other fingers splayed around the side of his face, shielding his cheek, almost as if he were defending himself from his own thoughts. Or what might emanate from them. And then he delivered the coup de grace. “I just wanted you to know that I got married last weekend.”

Perhaps his new wife was in the airport bathroom when he’d made the call. Or perhaps he’d made it right in front of her, though that seemed unlikely.

She’d disconnected her answering machine, and thrown it in the trash. It was an over-the-top gesture. Histrionic and superfluous. But also not.

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