In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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When I was seven, my father used to complain that I ate like a dinosaur — the kind that stood on its hind legs and ripped off tree branches with its mouth. The louder he yelled at me, the more I used my spoon like a shovel, until he’d wrap his fingers around my wrist and squeeze so tightly I couldn’t breathe.
My mother never ate. She just sucked on her knuckles and took lots of quick, short breaths through her nose. She’d look down and rub her fingernail back and forth in a crack on the table. Her eye shadow was one greasy, green line across the middle of her lids.
That’s why I liked it when Lyla and Stanley came with us to the deli for dinner. When other people were around, my father forgot I was there and I wasn’t able to hear my mother’s breaths. Since only four people could fit at a table and my father needed lots of room for his elbows, I sat off to one side by myself. On my table, I built a castle with packets of sugar and pretended the salt and pepper shakers were knights on horses. I poured ketchup on a napkin, speared it on my knife, and waved it around like a bloody flag. When my father gave me a look like the cartoon hunter whose eyeballs jut all the way through his shotgun, I’d stop playing and stare at Stanley, counting how many times he dipped a corner of his napkin into his glass of water to wipe his face.
Stanley was a tailor for Fields Brothers, and he ate as if he were sewing. He pinned his peas with the prongs of his fork and stared down his nose at his food, as if looking through the eye of a needle. He divided his food into little hills of different colors and ate one pile at a time. He laughed inside out, inhaling, “Ah, ah, ah,” his head moving like a sock puppet. He hardly ever looked up from his food, but he laughed at all my father’s jokes.
His wife, Lyla, looked soft and cuddly, like one of the teddy bears she kept on her desk at my father’s law office, where she was a secretary. She had dimples in her cheeks and a fake beauty mark above her upper lip. She was skinny on the bottom and wide on top, and there were half-moons of flesh high on her chest where the top of her bra never reached. She called me Cookie and always kissed me hello.
Lyla smelled like the color purple. She didn’t have a car, so my father gave her a lift to and from the office. Early on Saturday mornings, when he drove me to dancing class, I’d take a deep breath and feel like I was riding in a field of lavender pansies. I once bought my mother the same kind of perfume. It was called Evening in Paris and came in a little round bottle with a cancan girl on the label. Years later, I found it in her medicine cabinet, still wrapped, the paper ripped just a little at the top.
When we went out to eat at the deli, my father never looked at the menu. He called the waitress by waving one finger in the air and making a clicking sound with his tongue.
“What’s everybody having?” he asked us.
“I don’t know, Richie,” Lyla said. “What are you having? What’s good?”
“I’m having a corned beef on rye. Corned beef’s good.”
“OK. I’ll have that, too.”
“With a knish,” my father added. “You want a knish, Lyla?”
“No, not for me. I’ve been a good girl all week, Richie.” She tucked in her shirt. “See? I lost five pounds.”
My father stared at Lyla’s chest. “Where? There?” Lyla giggled and poked my father in the shoulder.
She turned to my mother. “Freida, you just eat bananas and rice, and you lose a pound a day. My cousin’s wedding’s next month, and I gotta get into my gown.”
“What could be so bad about a knish?” My father frowned. “You’ll diet tomorrow. Get the knish, Lyla. What you don’t finish, I’ll eat. Stanley here will just have to let out my pants a little, right?”
“Again?” my mother asked. Stanley held up three fingers, and my mother opened her eyes wide and laughed.
“I’ll also have an order of fries, and I’ll tell you what. You got any kugel? Potato kugel? I don’t like spinach. Give me a nice piece of kugel,” he said, looking directly at my mother.
“Richard, you really don’t need the kugel,” my mother said.
“Shut up, Fred.” He smiled at the waitress. “What do you think, honey? What’s your name?” he asked, getting his face up close to the name tag on her blouse.
The waitress took a step back.
“Cindy. Hello, Cindy. I’m Richie. My wife thinks I’m too fat. What do you think, Cindy?” The waitress glanced around quickly, then looked down at her pad.
“Nice eyelashes. You’ve got great lashes, Cindy. Nice and long. Like mine. I’ve got long eyelashes, too. Look.” My father winked, and the waitress blushed as she wrote down Stanley’s order of roast chicken.
My father rolled his eyes at my mother. “Fred? What are you having, Fred? How many times you gonna look at the menu?”
“Oh, gee, I’m sorry. I need a few more minutes. I’ve been looking at the lunch menu.”
He shook his head. “What do you think, Fred? You think you can pick something out before the waitress falls asleep?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Give me the roast beef already. Is it fresh?”
“Watch her, Cindy. In a minute she’ll go behind the counter to smell it.” My father coughed and spit into his napkin. “Don’t you remember last time you had roast beef you made those stupid faces? I had to eat it.”
My mother scratched the back of her head and sighed. “I did? OK. Just a minute.” She opened up the menu again.
My father closed his eyes, leaned his head on Lyla’s shoulder, and started to snore. “Shit, Fred,” he whined, “we’re all getting old waiting for you.”
A couple at another table pointed to my father and laughed. My mother tapped her nails on the table, then put them in her mouth. “Oh, all right. Give me the corned beef too. On rye.”
My father clasped his hands above his head and looked at the ceiling. “God, I owe you. She made a decision.”
As my mother reached over the table to hand the waitress her menu, she knocked a glass of water into her lap. She stood up, and I could see that she was wearing her sandals with the broken straps that she wore around the house.
When the food came, my father and Lyla talked business.
“So, what’s doing Monday morning?” my father asked, his mouth full of corned beef.
“Mr. Bobick’s coming in at nine o’clock to sign his will,” Lyla answered.
“That putz?” My father burped and reached across Stanley’s plate to get a pickle from the relish dish. “You do all the papers? You got everything ready? Try and get him in and out fast as you can. Tell him I’m busy on the phone with a client. I don’t want to talk to him. When he’s ready to sign, buzz me and you’ll come in and witness. Poor schmuck keeps fighting with his wife and kids, wants to give everything to his dog and some funeral home for animals in Wantagh.”
He leaned over and yanked my mother’s hand out of her mouth. “Stop biting your nails. When I go, there’ll be nothing to fight over. I’m spending it all now.” He blew his nose. “Who else we got on Monday, Lyla?”
“You’ve got the broken hip coming in.”
“Vladimir Kuzinsky. The Russian.”
My father nodded. “Right, right. Good case. Big numbers. Guy’s standing on the sidewalk, minding his own business, and a taxi drives up on the curb and knocks him over. Lotta liability. Who’s the carrier? Allstate? Find out. Guy doesn’t speak English. Been here two months and boom. Do the intake and set him up for a physical. We got an orthopedist in Brooklyn, right? Maybe he’ll write that the guy’s got a herniated disc, too.”
“You want to see him?”
“Nah. I spoke with his daughter last week. I’m handling her divorce. Nice behind.” He cupped his hands like he was holding a basketball. “Told her I’m gonna make her rich. She thinks I’m the greatest.” My father leaned back in his chair and loosened his belt. “She’s right. I am the greatest.”
Lyla laughed and touched my mother’s arm. “Tell me, Freida. Is he really the greatest?”
My mother closed her eyes and shrugged. “If he says he’s the greatest, he’s the greatest.” Then she stood up and pushed her chair in. She picked up her pocketbook.
“Where you going, Fred? Gotta pee? How come you gotta pee again, Fred? Didn’t you just go?”
My mother stood immobile, blocking the aisle. A waiter squeezed past her carrying a tray of food.
“Will you get out of the way, Fred?” My father reached up and brushed the top of her blouse. “You’ve got some crap all over you. What is it, ketchup?”
Stanley squinted at the spot on my mother’s blouse. “Don’t worry, Freida. Throw it in the machine on cold, it’ll come out.”
My father poked his fingers into my mother’s sandwich. “Food’s getting cold. You eating or leaking?”
She sat down. Then she pushed her plate toward my father.
He ate her sandwich and called for the check. Then he glanced at his watch. “Look at Stanley. The guy eats like a turtle. When I take him to play golf with the boys, we gotta get there an hour early so he can finish breakfast.”
Stanley laughed and reached for his wallet.
“Forget it. I’m picking up the check.”
“No, come on, Richie. You picked up the last one.”
My father took out a hundred-dollar bill. “Don’t be stupid. I need the change.”
While my father calculated the tip, I watched my mother wrap up her leftover fries in a napkin. My father pointed to her silverware. “What about the knives and spoons? You forgot to take those.”
He whispered something in Lyla’s ear and she giggled. “Fred’s just like her old man. He steals everything he can get his hands on. Guy lost all his marbles a long time ago.”
My mother stared at him and hugged her pocketbook to her chest. “Stop it, Richard. Stop it.” She scratched at a pimple on her cheek.
My father pushed her hand down. “Stop picking at your face.” He licked his lips and rubbed his hands together. “Like I was saying, the guy takes everything. The other day I was standing with him at the register, paying the bill for dinner. As I’m getting my change, I see him emptying the whole tray of mints. You know those mints they keep on the counter? Well, he’s putting them all down his pants, right into his pockets until there’s no more left in the dish.”
My mother pulled a tissue out of the sleeve of her sweater and twisted it against her lips.
“Here, Fred. Take the salt shaker, too.”
When we left the deli, Stanley held my hand and gave me a piece of gum. Lyla took tiny steps in her high heels, and my father held her elbow as they crossed the street.
My mother stood very still at the corner, her pocketbook tucked up under her armpit, her arms wrapped around her chest, shivering as the cars sped past.
“Come on, Fred,” my father yelled through cupped hands. “Are you waiting for every car in Suffolk County to get off the road?”
She took a few short steps into the street, then scampered back to the corner. With her black scarf around her ears she looked like a rabbit. By the time she crossed the street, Lyla and Stanley had driven away. My father and I were sitting in his blue Cadillac with the motor running. We looked out opposite windows.
Twenty-five years later, I thought of that day as I bought my mother a corned beef sandwich in the coffee shop of North Shore Hospital. Up on the ninth floor, my father was strapped to a bed, electrodes stuck to both sides of his shaven head.
My father no longer ate knishes and hot corned beef sandwiches. He’d shrunk to a pair of hunched, bony shoulders, like parentheses, and the skin under his eyes had become loose and wrinkled like an elephant’s. Before he went into the hospital, he had sat in the house day after day, folding and unfolding the pages of the New York Law Journal. Every morning my mother put another newspaper on the table, but he never read them, just rearranged them. She gave him his pills and walked him quickly around the block, pulling him by the hand so the neighbors wouldn’t ask questions. He swore she was stealing all his money, so he started sleeping with his wallet. He kept setting off the burglar alarm, and accusing my mother of showing her panties to the mailman.
My mother had taken him to the hospital the day he’d lain on his back on the kitchen floor. He’d kicked his feet in the air and banged his fists on the linoleum, thrashing like a beetle whacked by a newspaper. He’d grabbed my mother by the hand and said, “Mom? Get Lyla. Tell her I’m sick.”
I watched my mother eat her corned beef sandwich there in the coffee shop. Her lipstick left orange marks on the bread. Tissues stuck out of the sleeves of her sweater, which looked like a ball of yarn kittens had torn apart. She held her pocketbook against her chest and tapped her foot.
Suddenly she looked in my direction and said sharply to a point above my head, “Nothing ever happened between them. He told me nothing ever happened.” She wrapped the rest of her corned beef sandwich in a napkin and put it in her pocketbook.