THE summer after my mother died, I dreamed about her first lover. In the dream I followed him, detective-like, slinking through museums, coffee shops, libraries, subway trains, hoping he'd lead me to my mother. He strode like a movie star, confident and oblivious of the rest of the world; at dusk he wound his way through Central Park, down narrow paths along patches of forest to a small, secluded lake. There, drying off by the shore, stood my mother. She looked nothing like she had when I last saw her -- her hair matted against the hospital pillow, her belly bloated with growths. By the lake her black hair gleamed like velvet; her stomach looked taut and smooth. "At last you've found us," she said, reaching for my hand. "I've been waiting."
The dream had started that summer in English class, when Ms. Poletti asked us to write a story about true love. Groans all around. Felix Manquez sailed a spitball at the blackboard. "I don't know any love stories," Luisa Rodriguez whined. Willy Silva muttered "Bullshit" through his gold teeth. Marisol Peters ignored the class altogether to doodle across her NO GUNS IN SCHOOL! bookmark -- a gift we'd all received from the Board of Education. We were students in the Bryant High School summer program, who for various reasons had been unable to pass our classes during the year. I stared out the barred windows to the rolling pavement of Queens. My mother had died that January; the only spring-semester class I'd passed was hygiene.
"Love is beauty," Ms. Poletti sighed, off in her own reverie. We'd just finished reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning in class; Ms. Poletti had recited each stanza in a Britain-meets-Queens accent, her flower-patterned dress dipping frightfully low as her bosom heaved. She was an anomaly at our school, flitting about like a robin, perching on our desks to impart to each of us seeds of hope. Rumors about her abounded: Luisa swore she'd seen Ms. Poletti adjusting her G-string in the girls' bathroom; Felix had spotted someone on the subway reading a romance novel by a Madame Poletti. In the cafeteria and on the walk to the train after school we made fun of her, arching our eyebrows, shrilling our voices; but the consensus was that she was an improvement over Mr. Gendler, the English teacher we'd all had that spring. He had been fired in May after recruiting on campus for the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Everyone was passing now -- that is, everyone but me.
Failing English again was a remarkable achievement, considering that I was the only native English-speaker in the class. I wasn't a terrible writer; my subjects were the problem. For the "How you overcame your deepest loss" assignment, I'd written "Snuffy: Better Off Dead," about my recently departed overweight gerbil, who'd suffered a slow and painful demise after getting stuck in the Habitrail. Most recently, on a "Topic of great social and political import," I'd completed "Plaid Pants: Should They Be Outlawed?," which had garnered a round of applause when I'd read it to the class, but received an N -- Ms. Poletti's polite way of saying I had failed.
She called me to her desk that day after class. She sat there like a magistrate escaped from Las Vegas, her sequined glasses slipping down her nose. "Miss Bloom," she said. "Are you familiar with the phrase 'Attitude is everything'?" She tapped a pink fingernail on my compositions. "These essays have a tone that's not suitable for the assignments. Good writing isn't about glibness. It's about life. Think Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Think 'How Do I Love Thee.'"
She smoothed the ruffled pages. "Now, this Snuffy piece -- I see things to admire here. Clear language. Solid composition." She removed her glasses. "Yet you haven't let your readers feel your triumph over this loss. What was your connection to Snuffy? What did he mean to you?"
I shrugged. I didn't know how to explain myself. All I knew was that after school and my shift waitressing at the Queens Burger, when I put my mother's old typewriter on the dining-room table and listened to my father snore in front of the TV (he liked to keep it on even while he slept, for company), the last thing I could write was something serious.
She surveyed the index card I'd filled in on the first day of class. Under "In your own words, why did you not succeed in English during the regular school year?" I'd written, "My mother died." It was strange to see it on the stark white card -- name, address, Social Security number, grade-point average, dead mother.
"I know that other things have been going on in your life," Ms. Poletti said. "But if you fulfill the assignment just one time, you'll pass this class. I don't think you want to stay in high school an extra year."
I said I didn't think so either.
She sighed. "You shouldn't have trouble with this. It should be a pleasure to write about love."
THAT night my father wheezed on the couch while zebras leaped across the TV screen. The narrator droned on about mating practices as I settled in front of my mother's Smith-Corona. The first thing that came to mind was my parents.
On a cold rainy night in March, over a year ago, Simon Bloom gave his wife Greta their twentieth wedding anniversary present.
"Is it clothes?" Greta asked excitedly, clutching the huge box. "A case of wine? A crate of imported fruit?"
"Better," Simon said.
Greta ripped open the cardboard to reveal a glimpse of shiny red enamel.
"What is it? What is it?" shouted the Blooms' two charming daughters.
The packaging fell away to reveal -- a fire extinguisher.
"It was on special at Sears," Simon said, taking the extinguisher from her, stroking it lovingly. "Should we test it?"
Alex, the elder daughter, who was home from college, jumped up excitedly. "Yes! Yes!" she cried. The younger daughter, Mia, shook her head like her mother; neither of them were very interested in fire extinguishers.
"Simon," Greta groaned, "we don't have time to test it. We're supposed to be at the restaurant now.You agreed, for once,to go out tonight."
Simon didn't hear her. "I think that hooks there," he mumbled to Alex.
"Simon, will you listen to me?" Greta screamed.
Simon didn't look up.
"For once, will you just listen to me?!"
"Just a second -- "
Greta lifted a plastic ashtray off the nearest shelf. She threw it at him. It missed and bounced off the floor. She picked up a candle in the shape of a turtle -- a Hanukkah present from her daughters years ago.
"Not the wax turtle!" the daughters shouted. "Not the wax turtle!"
I crumpled it up; this was not a love story. No matter what my parents talked about -- the telephone bill, cleaning the gerbil cage, who bought the scratchy brand of toilet paper -- they'd fight. Eventually Alex and I removed all fragile objects from their shelves, and at night I'd lie awake listening to the arguing, my sheet wound in my fist as they screamed. In the beginning Alex and I tried, in little ways, to repair our parents' marriage: we taped to the refrigerator the Queens Independent write-up of my father's shoe-repair shop; we ordered two laminated oversized buttons made from their wedding photo. But soon my mother began to call her best friend, Fanny Gluckman, nearly every night (Fanny had divorced her husband, Irv, four years earlier) and whisper on the phone.