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150 Rockview Irvine, California May 1983
I was five when the FBI came for my father. twice. the first time, I was alone with him in our two-story condo in Turtle Rock, a new development in Irvine, California, when two agents knocked on our door one sunny afternoon just before Christmas. They wanted to arrest him right then but couldn’t, as I would be left home alone, so he called my mother, who sped to the house with her boss. When they arrived, agents cuffed my father and took him away. I turned to my mom’s boss, also a family friend of ours, and asked him, “Jesse, are they arresting my daddy?”
“No, honey,” Jesse replied, kneeling down next to me. “It’s not real. They’re making a movie.” Of course I didn’t know it was the FBI who had come to take my father, nor do I remember my father being led away in cuffs or my exchange with Jesse—my mother told me about it years later. But that episode represents the final blind spot in my memory, as I remember everything after that.
Christmas was kind of a bust without Dad, so my mother and I decamped for our next door neighbors’. Virginia and Al had two teenagers, Monica and Albert, Jr., whom I adored. Albert chased me around the house as I squealed with delight and taught me his foolproof Rubik’s Cube strategies: either remove the stickers or take the thing apart piece by piece and reassemble. Monica, sixteen, gorgeous, and popular, tried to give me makeovers with her scary metal eyelash curler—I refused—and took me along when she and her brother “borrowed” a neighbor’s car from the supermarket parking lot. My mother fetched my presents and placed them under their tree, and on Christmas Eve I curled up with Monica in her bed while my mother slept in solitude next door. But when I awoke Christmas morning, to my surprise, my father bounded through the front door wearing his bathrobe and carrying a cup of coffee, nonchalant as the cloudless sky.
“Hey, kids!” he called out in his cigarette-scarred Brooklyn singsong. At the sound of his voice I shot up and bolted downstairs into his waiting arms, and he scooped me up and threw me onto his shoulders. I was in heaven.
Until they came again, some months later. My cousin Kara was visiting from Miami at the time. She was sixteen and improbably blond, since my mother’s family was populated with raven-haired Russian Jews. Kara was involved with a Colombian dealer on the lower rung of one of Miami’s drug cartels, and their relationship was so toxic that her mother, Rita—my mother’s youngest sister—had shipped her west and enrolled her in University High School just to separate them. The distance didn’t help, as Kara and Miguel burned up our phone line for so many consecutive hours that she wore a hole in the seat of one of our rattan chairs. But when my parents were at work she let me eat all the grape jelly sandwiches I wanted, so she was fine in my book.
My father was a carpet cleaner with his own business, C&C Carpets—which stood for Cassese and Cassese, our last name—and my mother stayed at home with me until my first day of school, when she handed me off to my preschool teacher, who held me on her lap while she addressed the class because I was crying so hard. I was an only child and begged my mother for more siblings, but she patiently explained why she couldn’t have any more. “I had a cesarean,” she said, nudging her pants down and pointing out the horizontal white scar situated in one of the folds of her burgeoning middle-aged belly. Because she had spent every day of the past five years with me she was more like my sister, and we developed quite a bit of friction: I’d egg her on with my petulant mouth, which could whip her into a frenzy, and she would retaliate by whacking my backside with her hand, her hairbrush, or whatever was available, until her long brown hair frizzed and her almond eyes burned with fury. Once she broke one of her wooden spatulas on my ass. We laughed about that when I was older.
My mother had appointed herself the disciplinarian, the “no” person, leaving my father the role of yes man. Where my mother sought to curb my calorie intake, my father left Twix and Skor bars under my pillow and pretended not to notice when I crawled into his nightstand and raided his stash of Baby Ruths and Red Vines. After dinner he’d let me dip my finger in his scotch, and even though its fiery malt burned my mouth, I appreciated the gesture. After my mother tucked me in at night, my father would tiptoe up the stairs and rouse me from sleep by playing King of the Mountain, wrestling me for dominance of the bed. “Don’t stimulate her!” my mother would shout from the bottom of the stairs. We’d then lie flat on our backs, face each other, and join the soles of our feet in a reciprocal bicycle motion and he would sing to me, encouraging me to join in:
Give me your answer, do!
I’m half crazy
All for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.
Then he’d hurl me heavenward and hoist me up onto his shoulders, and even though I was afraid of heights I always lost my fear around him. When I had nightmares it was my father who rescued me from the bogeymen, bounding up the stairs like a bunny rabbit to save me from the dancing clown who popped up in my dreamscape and frightened me so. He would drive me to kindergarten every morning and we’d make up silly songs, usually riffs on pop and musical theater classics, with slight alterations. Like my father’s signature “How Are Things in Guacamole?”—an homage to the more traditional “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” from Finian’s Rainbow, which he’d warble in his gravelly baritone. (I was raised in the 1980s by parents who grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, and it showed.) My father brought home colored pencils and tried in vain to pass on his talent and enthusiasm for drawing, and even though it was apparent that I hadn’t inherited his substantial gift he plugged away with me anyway, buying me how-to books on the craft that spoke to young children. When I had chicken pox at three, strep throat that made me vomit all over him at four, or that nasty bout of diarrhea that sent me home from school at five, he came home from work with armfuls of stuffed animals, coloring books, or candy. When I was a little older, my mother informed me with a hint of chagrin that my first word had been “Da.” Apparently my father had indoctrinated me while my mother took a short solo trip and she returned to find him triumphant over my newly acquired verbal skills.
Daddy took me trick-or-treating; Daddy bought me Slurpees that gave me brain freeze; Daddy told me that the oceans were formed by dinosaur pee, and I believed him. Daddy heroically caught a little boy before he could crack his head open as he fell off the carousel in South Coast Plaza, cementing his status as my savior. Daddy also nearly lost me to an undertow in Laguna Beach, giving me root beer to chase the salt water out of my nose, and even though I could have died I didn’t hold it against him. My day wasn’t complete until I heard the keys jangling from his belt as he approached our front door after work every night; as soon as it opened I’d jump up as if on a spring and run to greet him. “Daddy’s home!” I’d scream, loud enough for the whole block to hear. My adoration of my father was such that I turned to my mother one day and announced, “I like Daddy better.” Her face crumpled; it must have been a parenting nightmare come true.
One night after dinner there was a knock at the door. I was sitting on the stairs when it happened, gazing upon Kara and my parents as they cleared the dining room table. Before I knew what was happening, Kara ushered me into my bedroom and closed the door. “Let’s play, Jenny,” she said, and tried to engage me in a coloring book or a board game or my wooden blocks. I really can’t remember what tricks she used to try to pull my focus, because I was so intent on opening that door. Whenever her back was turned for the slightest window of time I took it, bum-rushing the door and prying it open. “Daddy!” I yelled, until Kara pulled me back into the bedroom by my shirttails. When her back was turned I ran for it again, and this time she pulled me back by my hair. I tried again and again; we replayed this scene until we were both breathless and sweaty. Finally my mother came upstairs and opened the door, freeing me. But when I got downstairs my father was gone. He never said goodbye.
My parents probably wanted to avoid the scene of his previous arrest—they couldn’t exactly say that he was filming another movie— but as a result I was left with only my imagination to explain his absence. Kara flew home soon after that and my mother left me in the care of the family of one of my classmates, a girl I couldn’t stand. Her mother, Rifka, kept kosher, which I was not used to, as I’d been raised largely without my mother’s Jewish influence. My classmate, whose name eludes me now, treated me like an interloper, a second-class citizen. One night I complained that I was hungry and she ran into the kitchen and came back with a cracker crumb. “Here,” she said sarcastically, extending the crumb on her fingertip. “Thanks anyway,” I said, and threw the covers over my head. She teased me because I ate the skin on my chicken—it was my favorite part!—and her mother didn’t discourage her, instead warning me that swallowing the skin would make me throw up. (Certainly not more than the egg noodles and ketchup she called “pasta.”) After three days I pleaded with Rifka to let me call my mother. Through tears, I begged her to pick me up, and she did, even though it was very late at night. On the way home we got a flat tire—it seemed nothing could go right for us. As the car sagged and thumped its way back to Irvine, I told my mother I didn’t want her to ever leave me again. “Please, Mommy,” I begged her.
“I promise, baby,” she said, a promise just ready-made to break.
Some days later my mother took me to a building in downtown Santa Ana where, after walking through a metal detector, I found myself staring at my father through a thick plate of glass. My mother had explained on the ride up that he was in a “correctional facility,” which I could refer to either as “corrections” or “the facility.” I was so happy to see his gentle, familiar face, but I screamed like a banshee when he couldn’t come home with us. Talking to him through a telephone that hung off the wall seemed preposterous when he was right there in front of me. Why couldn’t I sit on his lap? “Be a good girl for Mommy,” he said before my mother carried me out, his voice sounding hollow and tinny over the phone. “I’ll be home soon, I promise.”
It was the spring of 1983 and I was due to finish kindergarten. When my mother brought me home from my last day of school I found our apartment empty, our furniture and possessions having been put in storage. “Mommy, why?” I asked, sad to leave our house, the only one I’d ever remembered living in. She told me we were going to New York, a place I’d never been, where she and my father had grown up. Because my mother was afraid to fly we had to take a train, and Phil, my father’s partner at C&C, drove us to the Amtrak station. I understood that my father was also headed to New York and we were going there to join him, but he apparently had another way of getting there.
For four days we rumbled eastward, sleeping and eating and playing so many hands of War that our cards bent and softened from all the shuffling. I annoyed my mother by making silly faces in the mirror. “Stop it!” my mother scolded, annoyed by all that she could not control. And then: “Oy, I need a Valium.”
We got stuck in a snowstorm around Denver and my mother took me outside and pointed out the snow, the first time I’d ever seen the stuff. To lull me to sleep each night, my mother, though harried and chain-smoking and shedding pounds by the day, was an oasis of calm as she sang “Dona Dona,” her signature lullaby in her fragile soprano—first in English, then in Hebrew—and stroked my butt-length brown hair:
How the winds are laughing,
they laugh with all their might.
“I like the donut song,” I murmured before I fell asleep.
We disembarked into a New York I can’t quite pull into focus save for the lights on the Verrazano Bridge, a glittering necklace suspended in the night sky that dazzled my young, unsophisticated eyes. We didn’t have bridges in Orange County; Irvine still had tumbleweed rolling down the street. (I’m not kidding—the day we moved to 150 Rockview, a big round piece of brush blew past my mother’s front fender. “I don’t believe this,” she gasped, horrified.) Instead of tumbleweeds New York had litter, even in Staten Island, which is where my father’s brother Frankie and his family lived and where my mother and I were going to stay. For how long, I didn’t know. But I cringed as I stepped over a broken bottle on a sidewalk in Annadale. My mother laughed: “My daughter has never seen glass in the street, can you believe it?” she reported to Frankie’s family. But California’s surfaces had been pristine, honeysuckle and hibiscus blooming even in a planned development like Turtle Rock, where their fragrance beckoned from every traffic island.
One day my mother and I took a trip back over the Verrazano, ending up in a neighborhood lined with cobblestoned streets, which I had also never seen, and which fascinated me. She led me into a building, and after we passed through various layers of security, there he was.
Still tan and healthy, with his prematurely gray comb-over and strapping lean muscle mass, my father greeted us once again with “Hey, kids!” like everything was hunky-dory.