Authors: Hilma Wolitzer
“What do you think it might be?” she asked.
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“Ah, but it’s your feeling,” she said.
My mother did have someone like Violet in her life.
In mid-July Michael lost his job at GM and acquired an apparent writer’s block. He had extra time on his hands now, he said, and enough unemployment insurance and some savings to subsist for a while. I kept receiving genial and entertaining e-mails from him, but no new manuscript pages and no explanation for their absence. It was as if the final pages of a published book I was avidly reading had fallen out, and I might never get to know what happened next.
Of course I wanted to find out where Caitlin was; Michael had made that part of the narrative terrifically suspenseful, and Caitlin herself, Joe’s beloved Cake, an intriguing figure. Why did she always choose such selfish and unstable men? And what did the three small tattoos on her body— the blue circle on her ankle, the white bracelet around her wrist, and the yellow half-moon on her back—represent? But more than anything else, I wanted to know why Joe felt so responsible for Caitlin’s disappearance.
When other writers I’d edited developed blocks, I would carefully feel my way around the problem. It never seemed like a good idea to just ask if they were stuck; someone superstitious might take that as the laying-on of a curse. Until most writers are forced to admit they’re blocked, it simply isn’t true. It’s merely a lull in the creative process, a time for dreaming and gestation. And who’s to say that isn’t so? To paraphrase Dr. Joie, it’s one dance where I always let the writer lead.
So I wrote chatty, cheerful notes back to Michael, without even mentioning his manuscript, the elephant in the room. And I resisted a startling temptation to bring up that other pressing, but much too personal matter, the steadfast worried feeling in my chest. So instead I spoke of the humid weather in Manhattan; the arrest of another prominent athlete on assault charges; and a couple of interesting pieces I’d read in
The New Yorker,
one on the patenting of ideas, and the other on St. Petersburg.
Perhaps because I had more time to myself now, too, I was writing more often in my notebook—nothing shapely enough to be considered a story yet, but the cast of characters had grown. A fictional version of Dr. Joie, and an amalgam of Michael, Joe Packer, and Tom Roman had been added to that someone who now was and wasn’t my mother. And all of their lives were loosely connected by certain details. I’d forgotten how pleasurable it was to unroll the ribbon of language onto the page, especially when there was no pressure to do so, and no one to cast a negative opinion about what was written. My notebook had become a place to retreat, which I badly needed since the big blowup with Ev a couple of weeks before.
He’d come home from work one night, slamming the door hard behind him. His footsteps were heavy, and he didn’t call out to me as he usually did. I was sitting up in bed, writing, and I quickly closed my notebook and shoved it into the night table drawer. I didn’t call to him, either. When I came out of the bedroom, he was standing in the hallway, yanking off his tie. “Oh, so you’re home,” he said flatly, and I could hear the scarcely controlled anger in his voice.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, knowing the answer already, and wanting and dreading to have it said and over with.
“Your son paid me a visit at the office today. To
I guess he figured you’d busted him.”
son. “He’s your son, too,” I said, sullenly. I wasn’t even going to attempt to deny the charges.
“Yeah,” Ev said. “A little detail you seem to have forgotten.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about the way you shut me out, Alice, and the way you’ve lied to me.”
“Listen,” I said, “I’m sorry that I lied to you about the Clichy. It was really stupid.” Wasn’t that what Scott had said about taking it?
“What else have you lied about?” he asked.
I thought immediately of Violet asking that day in the diner if I was having an affair. “What? Nothing!” I told Ev in an outraged squeal, although I felt strangely guilty, and probably looked as if I needed to be hosed down. “And I didn’t even know for sure where the Clichy was until it turned up on the windowsill that day.”
“But you didn’t bother sharing it with me, then, either, did you? And you make me out to be some kind of monster to my own children.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do! You feel as if you have to protect Scott from me. What have I ever done to him?”
“You’re exaggerating, as usual,” I said. “But you are harder on Scott than on the other two.”
“That’s because Suzy and Jer don’t break my balls the way Scotty does.”
I said. “It’s just that kind of hostility and crude language I’m trying to spare him.”
“Is that because of his royal blood?”
“Like yours. They may have sheltered you from ‘bad’ words back at the palace, but the rest of us have to live in the real world.”
As he spoke I envisioned the house in Riverdale, the gated gardens where men were bent over hoeing weeds, the windows of my room with the white curtains billowing. He was right, he was wrong! “Fuck you,” I said, shocking both of us. I had never said anything like that to Ev before, and it seemed to turn every loving act between us right onto its head.
“Ha!” he countered. “And
the one who’s crude.”
“Crude and cruel,” I said. “You
on Scott. He’s your little scapegoat, isn’t he?”
“Get off it, Al. That’s bullshit and you know it. I’m just reacting to his con-man behavior. You’re always covering for that kid, and believe me, you aren’t doing him any favors.”
“And you’re always so critical of him.”
“Because he screws up all the time, that’s why! We gave him an expensive education and what has he done with it? He’s not even going to college.”
“Not everybody is college material.”
“So is he going to work in the stockroom at Tower the rest of his life?”
“There are worse things,” I said, although I couldn’t think of any at that moment.
“Jesus, you’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t understand why you hate your own child.” That was untrue and unfair. The moment I said it, I saw Ev holding Scotty’s forehead over the toilet when he was little and throwing up. I couldn’t do it because I’d always begin to retch myself. But I was still reeling from what he’d said about me, as if Scott and I were a couple of helpless siblings against a brutal parent, and I wouldn’t take it back.
“How can you say that?” Ev shouted. “I love him! That’s why I want him to grow up and take some responsibility for his own actions.”
“You’re just jealous of his freedom,” I said.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“He’s young and he can still do anything he wants to with his life, that’s what you can’t stand. And what have you done with your expensive education?” I added, because I couldn’t stop myself. “Where is
brilliant career?” Even before I saw the stricken expression on Ev’s face, I knew that I’d just had the final, fatal word in our argument.
We hardly spoke to each other after that. And then Ev, too, began to appear in my notebook, but only as a minor character, a cynical dentist named Earl whom the other characters visit. He causes them pain, and stuffs their mouths with cotton and clamps, so that they can’t speak or even cry out. His office becomes a masochist’s mecca for his patients, who think deeply about their own troubled lives as he works torturously on their teeth. Across the top of the first page of my notebook, I scrawled “The Dentist’s Chair.” Now I had a villain of sorts, and a title, even if I didn’t have an actual plot.
But venting myself on the page didn’t make me feel much better about Ev and me. Our life together didn’t seem authentic anymore, and I couldn’t help comparing our marriage to my parents’. When you grow up in Eden, everything elsewhere can seem pretty flawed. And Ev and I had both become really miserable. He was still furious with me, he’d implied I wasn’t trustworthy, and he’d taken to sleeping in our sons’ old bedroom, which served as a guest room now. I noted that he’d chosen Scott’s bed, and sometimes I wandered around the apartment at night with my pillow and a book, looking for another place to lie down that wasn’t the lonely, mine-strewn field of our own king-sized bed.
One night I could hear Ev moaning in his sleep as I passed the boys’ room, and I almost went inside to wake him and try to talk about everything. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My own anger was still alive under all that despair, and I guess I was afraid of intensifying his. Besides, it was our style to wait things out, to let them blow over by themselves, and then just go on.
When I told Violet what was happening at home, leaving out the final awful thing I’d said to Ev, she still took his side. “Well, you did lie to him,” she said. “That wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence.”
“I was in a lousy position,” I argued. “And I had to give Scotty the benefit of the doubt.”
“Why? You knew in your heart what had happened.”
She was so exasperatingly rational. Maybe she didn’t get it because she had no children of her own, but I wouldn’t give her the free pass I’d so wantonly handed Scotty. I was angry with Violet, too, now, and feeling even more isolated.
A few days later Suzy came to see me after work—a rare occurrence in her busy life. I knew I couldn’t burden her with my marital problems, but it was oddly soothing just to see her there, to be reminded of previous domestic happiness. When she was in the first grade, Suzy had made Ev and me raise our right hands and solemnly promise that we’d never divorce, like the parents of so many of her schoolmates. Were we still bound by that oath?
I suddenly decided to give her some things of mine that she’d liked and coveted since childhood, when she used to try on my clothes and jewelry as if she were auditioning for the future. We went into the bedroom and I began to open drawers and closets. “Why are you doing this, Mom?” Suzy asked, surreptitiously eyeing my red Bakelite snake bracelet. “You’re not sick or anything, are you?”
“No, no, honey,” I assured her. “It’s just that I have too much stuff, it’s time to thin it out. And you’d look better in most of it, anyway.” I handed over the Bakelite bracelet, which was still one of my favorites. She slid it onto her slender, tanned wrist and I said, after struggling a moment with the opposing tugs of possessiveness and generosity, “That’s yours.”
“Are you sure? Maybe I could just borrow it for a while.”
“I’ll borrow it from you sometime.”
Even when she was dying, my mother never spoke about the disposition of her worldly goods. Of course she had a will, in which I was bequeathed a sizable trust, and Faye a cash gift, but it didn’t specifically mention any items of sentimental value. Maybe she thought it wasn’t necessary, that it was clear the only heirs to everything she owned were my father and myself. Or maybe it was because she was still in denial, right up to the final moments of her life. I remembered reading about a young actress with terminal cancer who put her jewelry into individual sandwich bags, labeled with the names of her relatives and friends, and it seemed like such a civilized and courageous act.
Still wearing the bracelet, Suzy turned the key on the Lucien Lelong bottle. The dancers started to slowly move in their intimate dance, and the tinkling music spilled out. The defining sound of my childhood, and of hers. As the mechanism wound down, Suzy gazed at a framed photograph on the dresser of my parents taken only a few years before my mother’s death. “They look so happy together,” she said.
“They made it seem easy . . .” Had they done it with mirrors? I was suddenly, uncomfortably conscious of that feeling in my chest.
“It’s not?” Suzy asked mockingly. Then she looked sharply at me. “What?”
I hesitated. “Nothing,” I said. “I just miss them, that’s all.”
She appraised me for another moment before turning her attention back to the photograph. “Grandma was really beautiful, wasn’t she?” Suzy said.
I was thrilled by her reference to “Grandma,” a title my mother had never known. “Yeah, she was. I always wished that I looked like her.”
“Me, too,” Suzy said.
“Maybe you do, a little.”
“No, I don’t.” She peered into the mirror above the dresser and made a series of grimaces that distorted her pretty face. “I look like Dad.”
“You could have done worse,” I told her. “You could have looked like me.”
“Mom,” she said. “You know I’ve always loved your hair.” She picked up my brush and began to slowly pull it through my flyaway hair, from the roots to the tips.
I hadn’t been touched by anyone for weeks, and the drag of the brush against my scalp was a staggeringly lovely sensation. I sank down onto the bed, thinking that I could have fallen asleep right then, sitting up. “But my
” I moaned.
“Cute?” I said. “Do you mean like Howdy Doody?” But I was thinking of an unusually tender short story Ev wrote shortly after we were married, about a woman whose skin appears to have flecks of trapped sunlight under it.
Suzy continued to brush my hair, which had risen in veils around my face and was sizzling with static by then, and she said, “Mom, I’ve met somebody.” The brush paused for just an instant before it began its mesmerizing work again. But I was fully alert now. So this was the reason for her visit.
“Who is he?” I asked, wondering why this news made me feel so unpleasantly peculiar. Suzy had never wanted for boyfriends, and her popularity had always been a source of pride and even vicarious pleasure for me.
“His name is George, George Levinson. He joined the firm a few months ago.”
“Isn’t there an unwritten rule against that at Stubbs? About mixing business and pleasure?”
“Yes,” she said. “So we have to be really careful.”
I looked up and saw that she was smiling dreamily. The danger factor probably only helped to charge the eroticism of her relationship. I could certainly appreciate that feeling. When I was still keeping Ev a secret from my father, I was very nervous about his finding out about us, and sexually reckless at the same time, one sensation seeming to feed the other.