Read an Excerpt
Leggy Blonde • CHAPTER ONE •
When I was growing up, my parents had a country house in Delaware County in upstate New York near Oneonta. It used to be a barn. From the outside, the building looked pedestrian in this rural setting. But when you entered the house, you entered a world of ultracozy urban sophistication. My parents renovated it into a 1970s-style retreat with shag carpets, a pit fireplace, water beds, and Danish modern furniture. They dug a pond for swimming, and kept a chicken coop. As a child, few things were more gratifying than reaching into the trap door of the hen house and pulling out a still-warm egg. We had pigs and riding horses, and the garage housed a pair of snowmobiles.
My dad, George, was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, who had become a successful Manhattan accountant. My mom, Ingrid, was German, a child of wartime who had come to America as a teenager and eventually became a model and Pan Am stewardess. She used to joke that he wanted her for the free travel. Dad was rough around the edges, always cursing and usually shocking people. Mom was elegant and refined, a stunning blond classic beauty. She was constantly saying, “Gorsghe!” with the sweetest German accent whenever he was inappropriate. They met when he was sleeping with one of her model roommates. It was love at first sight. By the time Dad told Mom about his wife and three children, she was already hooked. (Dad’s first marriage ended soon after. He had three young children, my half-siblings. Barbara, the oldest, lives in Oklahoma and has four children. Michele has one child and lives in New York. Her husband runs the Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park. Billy is an on-again-off-again drug addict and lives alone in Florida.)
My father’s partner in one of his businesses was a man named George Morgan. He lived full time in Delaware County, about fifteen minutes away from our house. The Morgans’ wasn’t just a country retreat; it was a working dairy farm. Picture cows and horses, rolling grazing hills, a city kid’s fantasy of the country.
Dad and George ran tax shelters through some of the local farms. Don’t ask me to explain how that all worked. I have no idea. If it sounds a bit shady, that’s because it was a bit shady. But back in 1977, it was completely legal.
When I was six, our family moved from our Manhattan apartment to our country house for the summer. It began well, with my dad teaching me to ride a two-wheeler. The final test was to ride down the steep hill and brake at the bottom right before hitting the pond. In typical-me fashion, I went right into the pond, bike and all. Dad ran into the water to save me from drowning (luckily, I had just learned how to swim), and the bike from disappearing in the muck.
One night in June, my parents decided I was old enough for a sleepover at the Morgans’ with their daughter Becky. Our families had dinner together at their place, then my parents went home and I stayed. Becky, one of five kids, was seven, and her friend Dawn, who was sleeping over, too, was eleven—which made her four years cooler than Becky. It was one of my first sleepovers. There would be seven kids under one roof, most of them older than me. I was used to nights with my parents and baby brother. This would be a lot more fun.
I don’t remember much about the sleepover itself. There was a storm that night but I wasn’t scared. It must have been okay, because Becky and Dawn still wanted to hang out with me in the morning. The rain had stopped. It was a perfect blue-sky summer day.
Becky said, “Let’s sneak out of the house and ride the barn cleaner in the barn.”
Dawn said, “Cool!”
I said, “Cool!” I would have done whatever they wanted. I had no idea what a barn cleaner was, but I liked the sound of “sneak out” and “ride.” I threw on jeans, a T-shirt, and my favorite Mickey Mouse sneakers. The sneakers were among my most treasured possessions and I wore them proudly. We ran to the barn, laughing. We jumped in muddy puddles and called them chocolate milk. Becky was barefoot.
The barn had a heavy sliding red door. We went inside and saw a lot of cows. Specifically, a lot of cow tochis (Yiddish for behind). The animals were lined up in two rows of about twenty on the left and right sides of the barn. The cows faced the barn wall with their tails toward a center walkway. Positioned right underneath the cows’ backsides was an oblong oval made of steel planks inside a metal casing. It reminded me of a baggage carousel at an airport, except this one was multilayered, narrow, and dirty.
Becky flipped a switch right next to the entrance, and the steel oval started moving. It was surprisingly loud, first clanging into operation and then making a grinding sound as it rotated clockwise. I didn’t realize what it was at first. Then a cow lifted her tail, and a cow pie plopped out of her rear end and landed with a wet splat on the barn cleaner. I watched the pile move along the belt until it disappeared through a chute outside the barn; the only sign of the poop when the rotation was complete was a brown smear. I watched with amazement as a few other cows pooped and the belt carried it away, out of sight. The strong smell, though, wasn’t going anywhere.
Becky walked all the way down the length of the barn, past the rows of cows, to the back wall, a good two hundred feet from the door. She said, “Just jump on.” She showed Dawn and me how to do it. The trick was to get onto the belt with each foot firmly planted on a single plank. The planks shifted underfoot, and if you stepped on the seam, you might fall. Obviously, you didn’t want to jump into manure either. I remember having some misgivings about getting my Mickey Mouse sneakers dirty. But I wanted to impress the older girls and prove myself. If they could do it, so would I. Becky rode the belt first. Then Dawn. And then me. Becky did it again and again, each time with a slight refinement, like raising her arms over her head. Dawn would copy her, then me. It was follow the leader.
I was shaky the first few times, but I got the hang of it and thought I was just as good as the older girls. It was almost too easy. Becky decided Dawn and I were ready to move on to the next level of difficulty.
“Now we’re going to do it on the turn, okay?” she asked, her eyes daring us to chicken out.
By “the turn,” she meant the bend in the belt, the U-turn at the door end of the vast barn. I took a closer look at it. When the planks shifted to accommodate the curve, a gap opened farther between them. It was only a few inches wider, but I could see the rusty teeth of the machinery that made the belt go around. The parts looked old, the mechanism primitive. It might’ve been built a hundred years earlier.
“It’s a big deal,” said Becky, acknowledging the bravery and skill required for this trick. “It looks easy when I do it, but it’s not.”
She showed us how. Becky jumped on with expert placement, one foot on each of the two adjacent planks. She held her arms out like airplane wings and leaned slightly forward for balance. The curve seemed to move faster than the straightaway. Her red hair swung as she jumped off, landing on the dirt floor of the barn like a cat. I was really impressed.
Dawn’s turn. She copied Becky’s style and made it all the way around the turn. When she jumped off, she was laughing. My heart started racing. I wanted to laugh, too, to be part of the crew. I was the youngest, and the smallest, but I could show them that I was just as brave.
It didn’t go well.
I was supposed to stick the landing but I skidded. Maybe the metal planks were slippery or my Mickey Mouse sneaker treads were worn down or, more likely, I probably just misjudged my jump. I was a clumsy kid—and an even clumsier adult for obvious reasons.
My left foot slid into the gap between the planks. The teeth of the machinery underneath caught hold of it and started pulling my leg down inch by inch. The barn cleaner continued to turn.
I didn’t feel pain at first. I just felt stuck and confused about what was happening. There was pressure. I instinctively tried to free myself, but my leg was being pulled down farther into the gap. The pulling and pressure forced me to sit. Then I felt overwhelmed and had to lie back.
The teeth had chewed my leg up to my knee. Becky started to run out of the barn. Dawn, clearly the most intelligent among us, screamed, “Turn it off! Becky, turn it off!” The switch was two hundred feet away. Becky raced down the length of the barn and hit it. The belt ground to a stop and the barn was suddenly quiet—except for, you know, the screaming.
If Dawn hadn’t yelled, and if Becky hadn’t turned off the belt, I would be dead. The moving steel planks would have chopped my leg off, and I would have bled to death. Even at six, I was aware that I was half an inch away from never seeing my mother again.
Becky and Dawn charged out of there, leaving me alone with the cows. I remember turning my head and noticing a swishing tail and the shape of a hoof. The barn smelled like manure and something new, something metallic, but not metal. It was the iron-rich smell of blood.
Running flat out in a desperate panic, Becky and Dawn reached the Morgans’ house in a minute or two. I could hear them screeching for help, their voices shrill and piercing while they ran.
I thought, Something is really wrong.
Becky’s mother, Linda, rushed through the barn door. I’d always liked her. She was a very nice woman, and the sight of her made me feel better. The sight of me, however, sent her into a wild panic. Whatever Becky told her had not prepared Linda for seeing me ground up to my knee, seeping blood. She tried to pry the steel planks apart, using all her might as she pulled, but they wouldn’t budge. Even with the adrenaline strength of the archetypical woman who lifts a car to save an infant trapped underneath, she couldn’t move it an inch. I registered how hard she was working, and how important it was for her. Her frustration mounted by the second. She broke out in a sweat and kept talking to me as she worked to free my leg, a rambling commentary that I can’t remember a word of. I knew she was doing her best, but I really wanted my mom. I heard a commotion outside the barn. Excited voices, shouts, a siren, and flashing lights—a rescue squad had come.
I passed out.
When I came to, there was a pillow under my head and my father was next to me. He’d been retrieved from his office down the hill. I was glad he was there. I was on my back, and looked up at him as he rubbed my head. Down by my leg, rescue workers were taking apart the barn cleaner piece by piece using blowtorches. I wondered if the blowtorches would burn me. Dark, sticky red was everywhere, on the planks, all over me. Someone had cut off my jeans up to my mid-thigh and put a tight rubber strap around my thigh. The smell of blood was tinny and heavy. People moved in and out of my vision both at frantic speed and in slow motion.
I screamed, loudly and continuously, because I knew what was happening was terrifying. So many adults were freaking out. The pain was, oddly enough, not so bad. It was non-pain. I later learned that I was numb with shock, or had broken through a pain threshold. My brain shut it off. Fear, though, didn’t have a threshold.
A man came toward me with a loaded syringe. They were going to give me a shot. From the very first vaccine I can remember getting, like most kids, I’d had a fear of needles. The sight of it then was even more frightening than the blood. I screamed riotously.
“Stop screaming! Stop screaming! Shut up!” The man with the needle, sweaty and angry, yelled at me to be quiet. He got right in my face. I was unnerving him, a man trained to keep his cool under the most grisly circumstances.
My father leaned over me and whispered in my ear, “You just keep on screaming, Aviva.”
I felt a sting on my arm, and everything went black.
When I woke up the second time, I was still in the barn, on the barn cleaner. Three hours had gone by. It took that long to dismantle the machine. They were only then lifting me out of it. I looked down. My left foot looked like ground meat with bits of shoestring and canvas from my chewed-up Mickey Mouse sneaker mixed in. The pulpy mess hung onto my ankle by a thread and the skin along my shin had been ripped from the bone up to my knee. The bone was denuded, bright white, like a French-cut lamb chop.
A stone wall bordered the property, a common feature of the country farms in that area. As the fields were cleared, the farmer stacked the plowed-up rocks into a wall. That wall was probably older than the house. As I was carried from the barn to the ambulance on a stretcher, I saw people sitting on the wall, dozens of them. The whole town had gathered Little House on the Prairie style to wait for the injured child to be rescued. They didn’t react when I was taken out; they just silently stared. Years later, I remember watching “Baby Jessica” brought out of the well, and the people cheered and applauded. The Delaware County crowd was somber and subdued. I must have looked pretty bad.
“We’re going to the hospital in Albany, Aviva. The doctors will take care of you,” said Dad. He was next to my bed in the ambulance. We sped off. The siren blared loudly. I had an IV in my arm and before long, the meds knocked me out.
When I came to for the third time, I was on a steel table in a white room. I was alone, still dressed in my T-shirt and cut-up jeans, no blanket covering me. I looked down and saw the Mickey Mouse sneaker on my right foot. The familiar sight was made grotesque in comparison to my mangled left leg. Grass, hay, and bits of manure stuck to a clump of skin and blood and bone. I burst into tears. My reaction was visceral, a sudden onslaught of hysteria. My foot was destroyed. It was real.
I’d had bumps and bruises before. The sight of blood on a scrape was enough to rattle any six-year-old. This was the same feeling times a million. I was afraid without even understanding what would happen a day, an hour, or a year down the road. I didn’t know anything—where I was, where my parents were, what would happen to my leg. All I knew was fear and pain. I screamed wordlessly like a wounded animal.
And then my angel came in.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” I cried and reached for her.
Mom was my everything. I worshipped her. She was truly exquisite. People always said she looked like a Germanic Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched. She was bewitching. When my mom walked into a room, she brought beauty and grace with her. She always smelled wonderful, too. I’d been lying there in that cold, sterile room, wishing for her to appear. And she did. She hugged me and her touch was warm, gentle, and tender.
“Aviva,” she said into my hair. It sounded like “Aveeeva” with her accent.
As she held me and said my name, I thought, Everything is going to be okay. That’s the power of unconditional love. No one else could have comforted me like her, and all it took was one word.
Before leaving the office and arriving at the accident scene, my father called her back at our house. I imagined it like a movie scene: Mom putting flowers in a vase, my baby brother, Andre, then two, playing happily in his wooden high chair, the summer sun streaming in through the kitchen windows. I pictured my German grandmother standing next to Mom at the counter, fixing something sweet and delicious, when the phone on the wall rang. Mom grabs it, untwisting the long cord, and says, “Hello?”
“Ingrid, something terrible has happened,” says Dad.
She learns in an instant that her only daughter had suffered a horrific accident. The phone drops in slow motion, hitting the floor with a sonic boom. Our world has blown up. My mother’s anguished screams carried across the hills as she collapsed.
When she recovered, Mom drove to Albany and my grandmother stayed behind with my brother.
In that white emergency room, she did her best to calm me down, but I was still hysterical. A nurse or doctor came in. Another needle . . . Another cold steel table. This time, I was naked under a blue surgical blanket and could feel the wheels turning as we rolled down a white corridor.
Surgery Number One: Attempt to Reattach Severed Left Foot
When I next woke up, I immediately vomited. My postop puking soon became a tradition. Every time I woke from surgery, look out. Technicolor yawn.
I felt woozy and was seeing double. The intensive care room vibrated white and bright. It took an hour before the queasiness stopped and I could focus.
My parents were in chairs next to my bed. Dad said, “The doctors reattached your foot.” He explained that my foot was fastened to my ankle with sutures and a pigskin wrap. It wasn’t a graft. The pigskin served as organic surgical tape, holding it all together. The surgery took fourteen hours, apparently, and was deemed a success, yet I was not out of danger. My foot was bandaged like a mummy, except for my toes sticking out the top.
Every hour, doctors and nurses in white coats came into the room to look at them. The toes were lacking oxygen and blood, dark purple. The doctors pricked them with needles. “Do you feel that? How about this? Do you feel it?” they asked. I didn’t feel a thing. My toes were numb. The rest of my leg throbbed and burned unrelentingly.
I stayed in intensive care for a day or two, and then I was wheeled across the hall into another room. I had a roommate, a boy a few years older than me. I had no idea what was wrong with him, and only caught one glimpse before the nurses closed the curtain between our beds. In the middle of the night, I woke up when several doctors entered our room and surrounded the boy’s bed. I could see the shadow on the curtain of the doctors holding him down, of his struggling against them. Then I heard the boy’s frantic choking and gurgling. They were trying to ram something down his throat. For all I know, the doctors were saving his life, but it sounded like torture. He begged, “Stop!” over and over, his pleas cut off by wet gagging. The doctors weren’t swayed by his protest. Whatever they were doing seemed barbaric. I was scared out of my mind that when they finished with the boy, they’d push back the curtain to do the same thing to me.
My parents told me the next day we were leaving Albany and going to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, for “more serious medical help,” as Dad said. After the night I’d had, quaking in terror about what had happened to the boy, I was ready to get out of there. I would have sprinted to the door, except for my pigskin-wrapped, black Frankenfoot.
• • •
My mom and I rode in an ambulance for four hours from Albany to Manhattan. Mount Sinai Hospital was on Madison Avenue and Ninety-ninth Street, not far from our apartment. I barely knew where I was. City, country, good hospital, bad hospital—I just wanted the hell to end. The ambulance pulled up to the hospital entrance, and my mother’s best friend, Sarah, was there to greet us. She was like a godmother to me, and remains a close friend. (Incidentally, Sarah and her sister, along with their husbands, were the cool hippies who created Hotsox, those rainbow toesies tube socks. Remember them?)
My mom beamed at her. “Hi, Sarah!” she said, like it was any other day. Of course, Mom cried and agonized about the accident—for years. But she did it in private. She never let me see her upset. The doctors had been telling my parents all the potential outcomes, including deadly infections and amputation. Mom always managed to keep it light around me. She smiled and tried to raise my spirits. As a mother myself, I marvel at her strength and find myself wondering if she used up her lifetime supply of it that summer, and had nothing left for later on.
Within minutes of settling me into my room at Mount Sinai, the nurses set up an oxygen tent around me, and paid very close attention to my vital signs. Dad demanded it. He took control of the situation and was issuing orders to everyone. His inner Brooklyn tough guy really came out when it came to saving his little girl. As a hotshot accountant, Dad worked with some huge names in entertainment and on Wall Street, including Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Woody Allen, Michael Milken, and the Morgan Stanley banker John Mack, who was also my father’s best friend in those days. Dad was the no-bullshit money magician known for saving his clients a ton of cash. By contrast, Mom was gentle and kind, a magnificent shiksa goddess. Together, they were a prominent couple in New York society. When they walked into a room, even a hospital room, they were a force to be reckoned with.
Dad was so well connected he got consultations with every vascular specialist in America and called in the best doctors. Just about everyone he knew tried to figure out how to preserve my leg. He brought in alternative therapists, including a woman who applied fresh aloe sap to my leg to draw out bacteria every hour for a couple of days. A friend of his at the Museum of Natural History unlocked an exhibit to access an ancient sample of some miracle regenerative mineral. Along with the oxygen tent, which was supposed to help blood flow to my foot, I spent hours in a hyperbaric chamber. It looked like a submarine, and mimicked the pressure of descending deep under the sea. My mom went in it with me. It was dark and noisy. A nurse told me that if we ascended too quickly, our skulls would cave in. Naturally, I was terrified of the metal contraption after that.
The traditional doctors were dismissive about the alternative therapy at first, and openly hostile later on. Dad started referring to the doctors as “egotistical moneygrubbing schmucks.” This was the beginning of his lifelong loathing and distrust for Western medicine. His frustration with them was a rippling undercurrent of tension throughout my hospital stay.
While Dad tallied up grievances, I collected stuffed animals. Whenever people came for a visit, they brought one for me. I had a hundred piled up behind my bed, and at least five tucked in with me at all times. Letters rolled in from my parents’ friends, from rock stars and politicians, who offered to do whatever they could to help. Each new doctor was the great white (and usually Jewish) hope. Dad pulled every string, tried every “cure.”
Mom was a loving presence in the chair next to my bed, always smiling and optimistic. They were both desperate to keep me whole and intact. I’ve since been told that had the accident happened in 2012 and not 1977, reattachment would have worked. The seventies were the infancy of vascular surgery. The chances of saving my foot were none to none.
• • •
Cow shit—why in the world did I, or anyone, think playing in manure was fun? Why was that a good idea? Becky suggested we jump around in excrement and I’d said, “Cool!” What the hell was I thinking?
Because of the cow manure infecting my wound, gangrene was running rampant throughout my system. I was put on IV broad spectrum antibiotics. The catheter stayed in my arm for another three weeks.
My toes, meanwhile, went from navy blue to midnight black. The blackness crept from my toes up my foot. It was a week or more before my parents could accept that it would have to go.
They brought in a doctor named Leon Root. (Small world aside: Years later, I went on a blind date with his son, Matt Root. We were having dinner and he mentioned his father was a doctor. I said, “Your father is Leon Root?” Matt nodded. “He consulted on my amputation when I was six!” I announced, a little too enthusiastically . . . probably not ideal small talk on a first date.) Dr. Root had an amazing reputation. He was like a god among mortals. He examined me, then told my parents in the hallway, “The infection is bad. We have to amputate. It’s a question of whether we amputate at the knee or the ankle. I recommend the ankle.”
That was what my parents wanted to hear. The more leg I had, the more normal my life would be, they thought. They hoped I’d be able to get a screw-on foot of some sort to attach to my leg. Technology advanced every day. Anything was possible in the future, they thought. My father sat down on my bed and told me, “You’re going to have another operation. The doctors are going to remove two or three of your toes. You’re going to be like the Bionic Woman,” he said. I pictured Lindsay Wagner from the hit TV show with her cyber limbs that were ten times stronger and faster than human ones, but was unmoved. I didn’t care about having super strength or bionic toes. I didn’t care if they chopped off my head at that point. I just wanted the pain to stop. I welcomed surgery. I thought it would be the end of the nightmare.
Surgery Number Two: Amputation of the Left Foot at the Ankle
Another long surgery, another rocky reentry into consciousness. I vomited and waited for my vision to adjust. I knew the operation was to remove my toes, but I could still feel them. I thought, Guess they didn’t take ’em. The phantom effect—believing you were intact after an amputation—was common. This subconscious trick of the mind brought solace to some, but no one had warned me about it in advance. So when I could see clearly again in my postop haze, I lifted my blanket and looked down at my legs and was genuinely surprised to see that my whole foot was gone. Just leg, and then . . . nothing.
I felt disappointed. I wasn’t worried about my ability to walk in that moment. I wasn’t picturing myself in a wheelchair, or with a wooden leg like a pirate, or hobbling around with a cane. And I certainly wasn’t considering the future and wondering whether or not I’d adapt, fall in love, have children, or lead a relatively “normal” life. My father had looked me in the eye and told me the doctors were taking a few toes. They took the entire foot. I felt lied to.
To this day, Dad and I haven’t discussed that day, or that conversation. He was winging it. My parents were in pain in an extraordinary situation that no one could possibly prepare for. They were doing their very best. (Interestingly, they did have some experience in this area. My brother Andre had had a surgery, too. He was born with twelve fingers, and had his extra digits removed surgically at birth. Granted, losing vestigial pinkies was less tense for them than my losing a foot.)
Okay, I thought, It’s really gone. Bummer. I lowered the blanket and felt a little bit relieved. That surgery marked the end of the wacky treatments. It turned down the dial on my pain. But my hospital stay was only just getting started.
As unsettling as the black desiccated toes had been, they were preferable to a raw stump. Because of the gangrene infection and for other reasons, the surgeons didn’t immediately cover my amputation wound with a skin graft. It looked like a science textbook cross section of a leg with the white bone in the middle, surrounded by muscle and ligament.
The wound had to be bandaged tightly and cleaned three times a day. Nurses came into my room to change the gauze and tape. The flesh was raw, and the bandages would stick to the wound and meld into a crust. Every time—and I mean every single time—the nurses ripped the bandages off by force, tearing the healing wound open. It hurt more than the teeth of the barn cleaner. As soon as I saw the nurses come into my room with scissors and bandage trays, I would go into hysterics. They had to hold me down. I flailed against them while they unraveled the bandages. It was mayhem.
I didn’t—and still don’t—understand the wisdom of ripping the flesh open and raw three times a day. Clearly they had their reasons, but as a six-year-old, it struck me as cruel and unusual punishment. My mom used her charm, begging the nurses to come an hour earlier, to mix up their schedule so I didn’t fret for an hour in anticipatory dread. She eventually figured out that if she wet the bandages by using a large syringe filled with water, they wouldn’t be as sticky. It helped a little. She also tried to distract me by biting my thigh really hard when the nurses changed the bandages.
Once my infection was under control, I was cleared for a skin graft. My parents brought in Victor Rosenberg, a plastic surgeon (renowned for his boob and nose jobs), to talk about how a skin graft could be done. Just as with each surgery and treatment I’d had thus far, my parents and doctors told me that this was the one that would end the misery. The graft was going to make it all okay.
Dr. Rosenberg examined me at the hospital. He was a very lovely, kind man. First, he looked at my stump. Then he turned me over, lifted my gown, and pinched my tush to see if it was fat enough to take skin for the graft.
I was absolutely mortified. A strange man was touching my butt. It was the most embarrassing moment of the entire hospitalization so far. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people had lifted my gown to look at my foot and I didn’t care one bit. I’d mentally—and then literally—detached from it. My foot, and then the stump, had become public property in a way. But my butt was still private. Or, it had been. Now even that was under scrutiny.
In the end, as it were, Dr. Rosenberg decided to take skin from my thighs.
Surgery Number Three: Skin Graft to Cover the Base of My Stump
He cut the thigh skin into strips, and arranged it across my stump in a crisscross pattern, like woven dough on top of a pie. The skin graft quickly healed, and the torturous bandage-changing sessions with the Nurses Ratched ended. My pain lessened. For the first time in nearly two months, I wasn’t on drugs or in agony. There was a savior, and he came in the form of Dr. Rosenberg.
The pain was reduced so much, I could think about other things. Like love.
While my hospital stay turned my father against medical doctors for the rest of his life, it had the opposite effect on me. I developed a doctor fetish. My first crush was on a resident at Mount Sinai. Whenever he came into my room, my heart would start pounding. I remember him looking a lot like Disney princes, dark wavy hair and piercing blue eyes, bright white smile. He joked around with me, and touched my shoulders to be reassuring. I was almost unbearably excited to see him.
One morning he walked in, happy to see me. I acted like a wise ass, as usual, trying to make him laugh. I was lying on the bed, eating something. Suddenly, he yelled, “Don’t eat when you are lying down! Get up! Sit up!” He looked angry and irritated, like I’d broken a rule and proven myself to be a stupid kid.
Obviously, he just didn’t want me to choke on my food. The tone was no different than a parent yelling at a child for putting a dry-cleaning bag over her head. I got that. But I’d put all my emotional hunger on him, and when he snapped at me, I felt like I didn’t have a friend in the world. As the saying goes, there’s a reason it’s called a crush.
I had Mom, though. She hardly left my side for the entire two months I spent in the hospital. When she went to the bathroom, she left the door open so I could see her. If not, I would freak. She slept with me, changed my clothes, and gave me sponge baths. When she had to go—to pick up my brother or for whatever reason—her best friends, Sarah and Irena, also a German former Pan Am stewardess, took turns staying with me. They brought me Chinese food from my favorite restaurant, Bruce Ho’s Four Seas on Fifty-seventh Street between Park and Lexington (now a Starbucks). Although I loved Sarah and Irena, I cried when they came into my room. Their arrival meant Mom was going to go away. I needed Mom desperately. I couldn’t stand to be separated from her. That attachment, and the panic of losing it, I believe, was the basis for the anxiety disorder I later developed.
My dad had to go to work during the day. My two-year-old brother, Andre, was being cared for by my grandmother and baby-sitters. Grandma came to the hospital a few times. My half brother, Billy, Dad’s son from a former marriage, came once. A haunted soul, he was sixteen then and already deeply involved with drugs. In the not-too-distant future, he would become a crack addict. That day, though, he was wonderful. He gave me an enormous red panda and told me funny stories for hours. In my experience, the most troubled people are often the sweetest. They carry a certain sensitivity to life’s pains and turn to drugs to numb themselves.
• • •
At the beginning of August, a team of doctors and nurses crowded into my room. The head nurse cleared her throat to make the announcement. “Aviva is ready to go home,” she said. “Congratulations. We’ll miss you!”
I appreciated all they’d done for me. My parents had me write thank-you letters to every rescue worker, doctor, and nurse who treated me. But I wouldn’t miss any of them for a minute: I was so happy to leave. We didn’t have a lot of clothes to pack. I’d been living in hospital gowns for two months. But we did need a second taxi for all of my stuffed animals.
Unbeknownst to me, the original reason we’d moved to the country for the entire summer was so we could renovate, decorate, and move into a new apartment in the city. While I was in the hospital, my dad oversaw the move from our old place into the Kenilworth at 151 Central Park West. The new building was a thirteen-story landmark built in 1903 with a dry moat around the perimeter and a russet brick facade. Along with the historic Dakota, Beresford, and San Remo, the Kenilworth was a perennial on the lists of the most prestigious buildings on the Upper West Side. Our four-thousand-square-foot apartment was on the tenth floor with spectacular views of Central Park from each window.
My dad had grown up on the edge of poverty in Brooklyn, sharing a bed with his grandfather like in Willy Wonka. He went from having nothing to wanting for nothing. Now that he had money, he liked to spend it and enjoy it. Our lifestyle was opulent. And this apartment was a major step up from our smaller place on West Fifty-eighth Street. My parents bought it for a mere sixty thousand dollars—even in 1977, that wasn’t a lot—because the West Side was considered dangerous compared to the snooty and expensive East Side. In reality, Central Park West was about as dangerous as a pillow fight, but whatever. We felt more at home among the artists and bohemians on the West Side anyway. Our neighbors were Michael Douglas and Bill Moyers. Everyone in the building seemed to have interesting jobs and lifestyles: museum directors, designers, artists, and mavericks.
I rolled into the Kenilworth in a wheelchair for the first time that August. The lobby had high ceilings and marble floors, with architecture and moldings like a European museum. The elevator walls were covered in velvet, with bronze handles and a high, rounded ceiling. Having been cooped up in that small hospital room, it was like leaving a prison for a palace. We took the elevator to our apartment. Excited as I was to explore my lavish new surroundings, I was still too weak to check the place out and went straight to bed to rest.
A day or two later, I got to look around. I noticed that one of the park-facing windows had a big X in tape across it. “What happened here?” I asked.
No one answered me. I found out later that my father had punched the window and broken it. He’d been sleeping in the apartment all summer alone. And when reliving the accident one night, he got livid, had no one to talk him down, and lost control.
Fortunately, our apartment was right above a ledge, so all the broken glass landed on the ledge and not on the street below. But the big blue X remained—a reminder that not everything was perfect.
Otherwise, the place was beautiful. It was photographed for Architectural Digest and other magazines. Myron Goldfinger decorated the apartment with wall-to-wall oatmeal-colored carpet, white walls, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The dining room was raised on a platform with several steps leading up to a Knoll glass table that seated twelve. The living room was raised, too, with tan leather couches and chairs with chrome arms and legs. My parents’ bedroom was huge and their marble bathroom had a giant tub overlooking the park. The shelving throughout the house was custom-made Formica, which was very chic back then. There were also mirrored beams throughout.
The apartment was the ultimate status symbol. The poor German refugee and the Jewish kid from Brooklyn had arrived. I don’t know if my parents were analytical about our move coinciding with my accident. In hindsight, it was a fascinating coincidence. The universe gave and it took away, almost simultaneously. It was as if you couldn’t have happiness without an equal amount of sadness. We were surrounded by the rich, the beautiful, the famous, the talented—but money and status couldn’t protect you from accidents or pain. No one got through life scot-free. Consequently, I have always been skeptical of happy times. Whenever I’m exceeedingly happy, I’m suspicious that dark times are around the corner. It’s a mental curse.
Not that any of this mattered to a six-year-old. I just wanted to be a regular kid. I daydreamed about candy and wanted to run around outside in my favorite OshKosh overalls. My parents were ready for normalcy to return as well. But it wasn’t instantaneous. I was still weak, and frighteningly pale. I’d gone from staring at the four walls in my old hospital room to being boxed in by the freshly painted white walls of our new apartment. My stuffed animals and I had just moved from one bed to another.
My mom started taking me out in my wheelchair to Central Park. One day we came around a curve in the path, and there was my dad. He was waiting for us, holding a leash with a beautiful, soft, caramel-colored puppy, a sheltie. He handed me her leash. She jumped into my lap, and I hugged her tight. I fell in love in a heartbeat. My parents wouldn’t let my brother and me have a pet at our old apartment. I actually recall thinking at the time: I had to lose the foot to gain a dog? Not that it mattered. I was so thrilled with her I thought she was worth it. I named my new puppy Clever. We were inseparable from that moment forward.
In late summer, my parents drove me to Roslyn, New York, forty-five minutes away on Long Island, to Lehneis Prosthetics. I was going to get an artificial leg that had a big name attached to it—“prosthesis.” The prosthetist, my first of many, made a plaster cast of my stump by laying warm wet strips of plaster cloth on my leg. It tickled and my first thought was, I love this! Until it dried . . . then the doctor came at me with an electric saw to cut off the cast. When I saw and heard the saw, I had a complete panic attack. I flashed back to the day of the accident for the first time. It’s strange, but I hadn’t thought of it once in all that time. Meanwhile, the saw itself was tiny and harmless. As soon as the teeth touched skin, it shut off automatically. But the noise triggered the memory. I was traumatized and hysterical. Once again, Mom had to deal with pandemonium and she handled it with that soothing combination of strength and reassurance that had by now become her hallmark.
Summer was coming to an end and I would have to leave the safety of home and return to school without a foot. The prosthesis wasn’t ready in September. I was entering second grade, and I’d have to do it on crutches with an exposed stump.