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N O V E M B E R 1 9 9 8
by Margo Rabb
HE 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."
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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."
HAT 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.
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.
Fanny told my mother to give up trying to drag my father to restaurants and the ballet, and to take me instead. I loved being my mother's date; together at Lincoln Center we'd march past the outdoor fountain, through the main hall, past the rustling taffeta and swishing silk of the finely dressed ladies, the sweep of furs, wafts of expensive perfume. I pretended we lived there, in the mansiony hall with marble banisters and chandeliers like explosions of glass. Afterward we'd linger at the Pirouette Café, across the street, heavily under the spell of the performance, not ready to go home. Queens -- our father and his stories of hammertoes and plantar warts, my sister shouting at her calculator as she practiced for the math competitions -- seemed like somebody else's life. For the first time, I began to wonder whether my parents should be married after all.
One night at the Pirouette, the summer before I started high school, my mother's mind seemed elsewhere. "I was talking to Fanny the other day," she said. "She invited me to come visit, for a little vacation. I was thinking you might like to come too, and see Lucy."
I'd been friends with Lucy Gluckman since I was three, when she and her parents lived four blocks away; I hadn't seen her since the divorce. In her letters she said she liked Maplewood, in upstate New York, much better: the houses weren't attached, as they were in Queens -- no more of crazy Mrs. Fonchette scratching the walls. And her father arrived for visits with presents overflowing from the trunk. Her boyfriend, Brad, was captain of the lacrosse team; in ballet class she was now en pointe. Not wanting to feel left behind, I'd embellished my own life: I invented a passionate affair with Luigi, the handsome cook at the Queens Burger; I told her that my recital at the Flushing Academy of Dance had received a standing ovation, when in reality I'd pranced across the floor twelve counts early, like an escaped jumping bean. But the embellishments never seemed entirely false -- sometimes at the Pirouette, after a performance, a part of me actually believed that one day I would be a dancer, twirling around that huge stage, leaping into Luigi's arms.
"You'd like Maplewood," my mother said. "They have shopping, and forests and lakes -- and the community center, where Fanny teaches folk dancing. You could even take ballet there, if you wanted."
"It might be weird seeing Lucy -- it's been so long," I said, wondering how I'd explain my less-than-stellar ballet technique.
"Maybe at first. Then things'll be like before. Some of the people in Maplewood I haven't seen in years -- old friends from Washington Heights. People I've been wanting to see for a long time. Fanny said she's surprised how little they've changed."
Washington Heights: my mother and Fanny had both grown up there, when it was a neighborhood of German-Jewish refugees who'd narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Whenever we drove through it, my mother shuddered, remembering the stone-faced men and women shuffling from store to synagogue to their tiny, crumbling apartments, undecorated and bare -- not like homes, my mother said. She told me once that her parents had never hugged her; I couldn't even imagine it, our hugs were such an event. Even at fourteen I'd sit on her lap on the couch some nights, facing her, nuzzling my nose into her neck, talking as she kissed my hair. "Huggies," we called these moments, as if they were a pastime, a game, a performance.
"Why did your old friends move to Maplewood?" I asked.
She shrugged. "I guess to be happier. To get away. To find a better life."
ANNY and Lucy met us at the bus stop in a yellow Volkswagen bug; Fanny lumbered toward us in her Birkenstocks. "Ya look gorgeous!" she told my mother.
"So do you!"
"That's what they tell me. I say leaving Irv took ten years off my age."
Lucy hugged me briskly. I didn't know what to say at first; we hadn't seen each other for so long. "How's Brad?" I finally asked.
"Oh, good. You know. We're okay. And Luigi?"
"He's pretty good. Actually, I haven't seen him much lately. He's really busy -- making all those burgers and all."
"Brad's busy too. You know -- we kind of broke up."
"Really? Oh, my God. I bet me and Luigi are going to break up too."
"It's really not that bad. My mother says I'm better off."
We stared at our mothers, giggling like teenagers in the front seat. They gossiped on the whole drive, and all the way up the gravel road to the house. It was a gingerbread bungalow, plopped in a sea of bright grass, the blades soft and cottony, whispering under my shoes.
"The block has a service that mows it," Fanny said. "Can you imagine if we had lawns in Queens? I'd have spent half my life getting Irv to mow."
My mother settled into the guest room while Lucy and I prepared the bottom half of her trundle bed. We dressed up for dinner at the Maplewood Grill: skirts and purses and high- heeled shoes. We sprawled out in our cushiony booth; our mothers lit cigarettes and poured us wine.
"I'm so glad you're staying two whole weeks -- a week from Saturday is Summer Showcase," Fanny said. "The whole town comes out. My class is performing first -- four versions of the hora. I'm hoping the girls will dance too."
"Ma," Lucy groaned. "Not the hora."
"How are you going to get the boys to notice you if you don't shake your cute tush?"
"These girls don't know how lucky they are -- dinners out, dance classes. What did we have when we were their age? Boiled potatoes. Hopscotch. There was no music in our house. No dancing. No stomping around. No talking above a whisper. What did my father think -- we'd be arrested by the Gestapo, lurking outside in New York?"
"Elsa became a dancer," my mother said. "Remember Elsa? Elsa Goldstone. I think she even made it to the Joffrey."
Fanny raised her eyebrows. "Then she danced her way out a sixth-story window. A little more graceful than Jack Cohen. You know, I ran into someone who knew his wife -- said she came home one night and found him dead on the couch. Pills."
I stared at Lucy, frozen in her seat. We had always frozen whenever our mothers' conversations turned to people they'd known -- survivors or children of survivors who'd gone over the edge. The stories made me fear for my mother's life; it seemed suspended by a single thread. I couldn't make sense of her emotions: we had our nights out, the ballet, but she spent hours in bed, sleeping off an undefined illness, waking only to scribble in notebooks in her half-lit room. And there were the fights with my father, like sudden explosions, and her Wednesday-night trips to Dr. Mallik, her therapist, whom Fanny had recommended. Fanny shared many of my mother's quirks: cupboards stocked with cans and cans of food, just in case; pocketbooks loaded with tissues, Band-Aids, changes of clothes, as if at any moment they might have to flee; the way they kept track of Lucy and me, wanting intricate details of our plans at all times, as if once they lost track of us for a minute, they'd lose us forever. And the way, when they said good-night to us, they told us they loved us with something akin to desperation, as if they doubted that we'd still be there in the morning.
Our hugs and food and declarations of love -- I knew how much these gestures meant to my mother, and this knowledge gave me an odd kind of power: I knew that her happiness was inextricably entwined with mine. But I depended on her too; I lived for her hugs, her food. I told her I loved her with the same intensity, as if to say, You have to live -- if for nothing else, then for me.
The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.
Margo Rabb is a writer whose stories have been in American Fiction and on National Public Radio.
Illustrations by Liz Pyle
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; My Mother's First Lover; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 78 - 90.