You call me at my new apartment. I wait for you to mention Grandma’s table one more time — it’s been in storage for a year since she died, waiting for a grandchild to claim it. You’ve said you’d measure it and, if it will fit in my apartment, ship it to me. You say, “When you’re all settled and put away —” and I think, now comes the table, but you surprise me, “you can go and pick out some nice china you like. It’s time you got something nice. We’ll pay for at least one place setting.”
You could easily pay for more than one. Cobalt blue pottery for eight, nice looking, is forty-five dollars at the corner fancy hardware store. You bought me a set of sterling silverware a few years ago. We’re not talking money here. We’re talking sighs, as in reluctant acceptance, like when you end a chapter, close a book: your grown daughter has never had a wedding or shower at which to gather kitchenware.
I remember telling you years ago: “I’m never going to get married.” I didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to fall in love and live with someone. Or that I would never have children. It was a statement of philosophy, a statement against the state, not against love; not against men.
But fate must have misunderstood. I have never lived with anyone. I’m part of that great statistical heap of older single women: I’m too picky, too smart, too irritable, too selfish, too fat, too strange looking, too messy, too undisciplined to be loved by a stranger. It doesn’t matter that my objections to the institution of marriage have abated somewhat. I could make exceptions. One.
For the first time I am sad for you, being sad for me. I feel your unspoken empathy and want to say, “It’s not the end of the world that I’m thirty and without prospects.” And I want you to reassure me: “You’re lovable and beautiful and brilliant. It’s not right that you’re being treated this way.”
Instead, I say nothing. I go back to unpacking the secondhand stoneware from Miami, the Beatrix Potter bunny bowl I bought myself in college, the sterling silver.
I hear your mild despair when I tell you my best friend is going out with the short doctor whom my cousin introduced to me first. You say, “Maybe he’s got a tall friend.” I tell you I had a brunch, and you ask, “Who came? People from work?” When I say I went to a movie, you ask, “Who with?”
You say, “What’s new?”
I say, “Nothing.”
You ask, “Anything special going on?”
I mumble, “No.”
You ask, “Were you asleep?”
I want to tell you the truth: I just woke up from a nap. N. and I stayed awake until four, and he left in the morning to go skiing. I almost lost control. I almost was a lost space wanderer in his arms. I almost said, I love you.
I thought I’d lost him the night before at a slide lecture on the Mexican women’s labor movement. When he moved to stand up, I thought that meant he’d had it with this couple business. But he was only afraid of falling asleep in his chair, watching slides in the dark. He said later: “Did you see me staring at you? You looked good.” He had told his friends about me. He said, “I’m proud of what you do.”
I tell you about the slide lecture, how Mexican women helped in recovery from the earthquake. The lecture was given by his friend’s sister. It was his idea to go. I almost love him. Or I do love him and am afraid to say it, with my romantic history of falling chin first on the sidewalk, of creating romance where there is none, of getting lost in it.
We talk again about Grandma’s table and chairs. “It’s $650 to send them,” you say, “and I know you can buy a nice set for $400.”
“I wouldn’t spend that much,” I say. “If I were buying here, I wouldn’t go more than $100.”
“You can’t get anything for that,” you say.
“I’d buy secondhand,” I say.
“Are you planning to move,” you ask, “say in the next five years, back to Miami maybe?”
I say I might move, but that I’ll stay here through October at least.
“You don’t like your apartment?”
“I do. It’s in a lovely neighborhood. Only problem is it’s messy and doesn’t have enough furniture.” I’m quasi-joking. Now serious: “I wouldn’t move unless the rent went up, or unless I moved in with someone.”
“With whom?” A sharpness; you want to know if I’m happy but you don’t want to hear this.
“Someone,” I say. You know I mean N., who I’ve already mentioned to you, but I don’t say it. He was just here a few hours ago.
You don’t want to hear this. It would make your flesh crawl.
I might be ready to move in with someone, I want to say, someone you would like, someone with my sense of humor, someone who almost loves me. When I’m with him I don’t wish I were with anyone else. I no longer look for men on the el to rescue me, to say, “I like what you’re reading; come home with me and I’ll save you.” N. is saving me but he’s not a savior. We’re moving slowly. I’m afraid of mentioning the future, something I got from you — the way you would say, “We’re going to Dallas next week, God willing.”
But I do think of the future. My imagination is rampant. I try to curtail it, but this is what I want: a ceremony with a rabbi and a chupah and the glass cracking underfoot (I hear now they are substituting a light bulb in a velvet pouch), me in a colorful, handwoven-dress, an exchange of vows in some historic old house, the marriage contract — a ketubah — decorated by me in some vaguely Middle Eastern pattern.
So I, too, am impatient to see me married off.
I say none of this. We are behind a wall. What if you are on the other side, trying to mouth the same words, but unable to? It seems like the Wailing Wall but is really somewhere more prosaic. The Berlin Wall, perhaps.
You say you’ve cut out a Leo Buscaglia column about love; it’s up on the board in the kitchen next to the one about worry. You say my father is one in a million. We gossip: old high-school friends of mine are getting divorced. “They got married early,” I say, “didn’t they?”
“Seven years ago,” you say. “They were both twenty-three.”
“That’s young,” I say. “You were twenty-two.”
But, you say, people were different then. You say most people now live alone and don’t want another person around saying, “What do you want to eat? What do you want to do?”
I say, “People now go together and break up and it’s almost like a divorce.” I want to tell you how awful it was with that man I mentioned once when I was living in Miami. He and I were together four months, and it took a year and a half for me to recover — long Saturday nights alone, without someone asking, “What do you want to do?”
I want to say, “N. told me last night he loved me. We do sit around and ask, ‘What do you want to eat?’ I sit in his bed in the mornings with a folded slice of Pepperidge Farm bread, dipping it in a bowl of milk because that’s what I feel like eating. Something having to do with the frustration of a past conversation with you. I distanced myself from you, so I need the comfort of milk and bread — mother foods — even take reassurance in the ersatz homeyness of the brand name.” But mothers and daughters don’t talk like this. They talk in generalities. They talk about the feats of grandchildren, or vacation plans, or about a neighbor’s weight loss.
I tell you we are going to Costa Rica.
“Costa Rica,” you repeat. “That’s dangerous.”
I say, “They don’t have an army.”
You say, “Who’ll protect you?” You’re afraid I’ll be attacked by tropical animals. Alligators.
“There were alligators in Florida,” I say.
What you’re really afraid of is travel accommodations.
I want you to ask, “Does he love you? Does he love your writing? Does he love your hair and your ass?” You would never say ass. “Does he understand your moods or at least tolerate them? Do you love kissing him? Do you leave the New Yorker open on his bedspread so he sees the paragraph you circled about kissing? Does he thank you for making his bed, even though you only had to straighten out the comforter? Does he care when you have nightmares? Do you hold him when he cries in the middle of the night? Does he mind sweeping your floor before company comes? Do you buy him fresh-squeezed orange juice and not feel put-upon? Do your friends say he’s sweet? Do you walk across town with him at night, talking, hugging each other? Are you in therapy now partly because you think he’s so wonderful and you’re afraid he might slip through your fingers?”
I say I’m afraid to tell you about men because you’ll be sad when I break up, meaning: because you’ll think I’m a failure and feel sorry for me.
You say, “I understand. You have pride.”
You should say, “I’ll feel bad for you, but you’ll find someone else.”
You do tell me I’m wonderful and smart, but never in terms of attracting a man. Deep down, do you think no man would ever be attracted to me, because of my wild hair, because I am two dress sizes larger than thin, larger than you?
“What do you think I am?” you ask when I accuse you of trying to make me over with your gifts of sweaters and underwear.
You say it’s a misconception that you are trying to make me over. You say, “I saw some sweaters on sale and thought of getting you one, and now you think I have ulterior motives. I bought you underwear because you take mine when you’re home. I bought you a sweater because you can have more than one.”
I ask why you never ask about N., and you tell me, “I don’t like to probe.” You say that your mother still accuses you of not telling her what’s going on. She says, “You children talk to each other more than you talk to me. You tell each other things, but you never tell me anything.”
I ask, “Does it make you angry?”
You say, “It goes right through me.” You sound emphatic. My mother the rebel.
You ask, “Is he nice to you?”
I say I’m insulted you’d think I’d be with someone who wasn’t.
You say, “I didn’t know how well you knew him.” You say, “I’m afraid of what lifestyle you’re conforming to,” meaning you’re afraid I’m having sex with this guy and therefore he must be using me.
You say, “There are so many diseases going around.”
I say, “He’s healthy.”
You say, “I hope he stays that way.”
Another call. You say, “I know someone who has a good friend your age in Chicago with two older brothers. They sound very nice.”
I ask you why you don’t like N. when you haven’t even met him. (Because you are sure he had his way with me in a Costa Rican hotel. You are sure he was the one I had in mind when I mentioned I might move in with someone.)
“I didn’t know how things were,” you say.
You call on a Thursday night, around 8:30. I tell you I’m eating dinner. You say, “So late? I’ll let you get back to your food. It must be getting cold.”
I say, “I’m not worried about that. I’m worried N. will eat it all up.”
You say, “Oh.”
He is out on my porch eating my food as I am talking to you. He knows a lot about you. He has seen the underwear you bought me, I don’t say. Makes fun of the little bows.
C. and I were sixteen, tenth grade. We were in the treehouse by the sewage-treatment plant. It was night. We were in the treehouse and I was lying down, him on top of me. It was our first lying-down kiss. No, our first lying-down kiss was our first-ever kiss, my first French kiss. We were on my bed. (Remember, Mother, you always said, “No boys in the bedroom,” and look, your worst fears came true. You weren’t home either. In college you didn’t want me to visit my boyfriend at his house because his mother worked. Never mind that we had lived for a year in an unsupervised coed dorm.) The important thing about that lying-down kiss on the bed was that I didn’t like it. I wish I had. I wish I’d loved it, had thought, “Yes, this is it, this is home, this is timeless, this is how it is, how it is meant to be.” But I didn’t feel that. I watched the numbers change on the clock radio. I was apart from my body, watching, taking notes while he thought it was me there.
In the treehouse I was lying on the boards and thinking, “You’re not going to get any boobs. Not going to get any boobs tonight,” thinking how daring I was, how slangy. Now I’m sad when I think back on it. C. and I were at war, our bodies were at war, my mind at war with his body, my body. Oh Mother, instead of training me how to be a good girl, why didn’t you train me how to be a good woman, to love what I had and see it as a present to give with full heart? This is why I blamed you year after year, for holding back, for reining in, for letting your fear govern every act and thought. Men were going to get me, lust was going to get me, wash over me and drown me in its brackish waters. And then what? Would I die of it? What was I afraid of, beyond the usual — pregnancy, disease? What did you make me afraid of? Losing it, of course. My reputation. What other people would say, that I was “fast” or “wicked.”
One morning you and I were watching the “Today Show.” Barbara Walters was reporting on abortion: we watched rigidly. I was afraid to ask exactly what it was. All I remember is a blurry embryo and uneasiness. Another morning before that, on vacation at Grandma’s, sitting at her breakfast table, I asked what circumcision was. Both of you — mother and daughter — giggled, and I felt ashamed for being there, for asking.
That time in the treehouse. I did not want it. I did not know I could be on top, like when I went about my secret pleasure of rubbing body against thumb. (You told me when I was eight: “Big girls don’t do that.” I’d relegated it to a bad habit, something I should give up like my pale green baby blanket, too old to sleep with it now.) I did not know I could take charge, could say, “Slower, faster.” I didn’t know I could respond with my whole body, not have to be the accepter, the absorber of the shocking pressures of a male body — is that thing it? that dark, hard weight against my thigh?
My friends and I in high school rarely found the words to talk about our own (possible) sexual pleasure. Girls’ bodies were divided into zones — bases, where a boy couldn’t touch. Courtship was an elaborate game of “keep-away” from parts that we girls had never explored ourselves, beyond a tampon. That a boy would touch us there — and not against our will — that we would respond with our whole body and not just the restraining hand as we had been taught: it was unheard of.
Mother, I want you to know that the fear and repression was — is — all around, swirling through the air. It’s not your fault.
I was once a fish in my mother’s belly. I was once a cell that joined with another and became one, then divided and swelled rhythmically, mathematically, geometrically into specialized cells and tissues, and became me.
If I told you all this, you would say, “I am disappointed in you,” not understanding why I have to say these things, why I have these thoughts at all. Would you understand that these unspoken things weigh me down, that they are part of the sadness in me?
Once during an extraordinary phone conversation, I asked if you had trouble coming and then translated, “having an orgasm,” and you said sharply, “No, do you?” And I said, “Sometimes,” and you said triumphantly, “Maybe you feel guilty.”
What do I want from you? I want you to take me in your arms and say, That was how things were. I want you to say, You’ve had to learn this on your own, and with a succession of partners. That makes me sad. My little lamb, my dove, here curled in my arms, my heavy lamb, my dozen doves, who has weighed more than I weigh for a dozen years, dear seal, dear dear heart, I did not want to hurt you. I look down at you on my lap, curled where you were once nestled inside me, passing through these very private organs.
Mother, I cry as I’m nestled, chewing bread sopped in milk, tell me that a woman can kiss and part her lips to say yes and not no. Say to me, croon to me: Follow on in your journey, daughter, and leave me behind. For I will not go with you — and you will not stay with me.
Author’s Postscript: You may remember the late-1980s “man shortage.” In 1986 a Harvard-Yale study found that a thirty-year-old, college-educated woman who hadn’t yet married had only a one-in-five chance of ever finding a husband. Later, the study was found to be flawed; the chance was actually three in five.