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I Know You Are, But What Am I?1985
On my twenty-fifth birthday, my mother gave me a man.
This was unusual. I hadn't received a gift from Mama since my father had a massive coronary four years before. After Daddy's death, Mama claimed I didn't appreciate her last birthday gifts (the turquoise nylon briefs and the plastic Pagliacci shower cap), nor did I carry the tote bag she had ordered after sending in sixteen blue stickers off the Chiquita bananasso that would be the end of any largesse from her social-security check, thank you very much.
I started to protest, then thought better of it. "Fine by me," I told Mama. Because the tote bag showed a dancing twelve-inch Carmen Miranda banana shaking a pair of maracas to this message: just put one in your mouth. I needed those kinds of gifts like I needed the kind of whopper crotch infection I got after wearing those polyester birthday briefs Mama surely had picked out of a Railroad Salvage Store bin labeled: CHOO-CHOO CHEAPO ASKS SHOPPERSCAN YOU BEAT THIS PRICE? FIVE FOR A BUCK! Mama must have been having trouble with her bifocals that day, because not a single one of the five briefs was the right size. Either that, or she didn't like how skinny I was getting and hoped I would eat enough to fill out first a size six, then a size seven, and then three size eights.
Twenty-five was a big birthday for meif only to put twenty-four behind me. On the cusp of my quarter-of-a-century anniversary on earth, I found in my kitchen cabinet a monstrous rodent chewing himself blue in the face on a Brillo pad, causing me to bag Brooklyn and my grunt job in publishing and move out to the 'burbsOssining, to be exact, where I had landed an assistant-manager position in the Editorial division of Boorman Pharmaceuticals, whose corporate headquarters squatted like a behemoth battleship in the middle of the lush Hudson River Valley. The jobor rather, the seemingly hefty paycheck attached to itpermitted me to rent an apartment with a closet and a real bathroom sink. I bought my first cara silver Toyota Corollaand wondered, as I drove it back to Connecticut to show it off to my mother and sister, if I would get free samples of drugs.
It was unusually hot for May, and my T-shirt was soaked through by the time I made it to New Haven. The only way I could afford the car was to have the dealer strip it of the power brakes, the power steering, the floor mats, the cassette playerand, unfortunately, the air-conditioning.
"You want me to remove the engine too?" the salesman asked.
"You can keep that in," I said, as I signed on the bottom line. After he asked me, too pointedly, if I'd like to take a ride up to Hyde Park in his fully air-conditioned Celica, I told him, "Sorry, I need to stay home and clean out my vegetable crisper." I honked my horn long and loud when I left the lot. Cocky men like that gave me the creepsyet sometimes they had their uses. In my brief but wanton sexual career in the city, I prided myself on having whipped more than a few hopeless characters into datable shapeor at the very least I had pulled the plug on one sheepskin-lined water bed and trained its owner not to wear black shoes with tan pants, and vice versa. But the quest for a tolerable Friday-night escort was slow going. A girl could easily get discouraged. She also could get desperate. I posted the car salesman's business card on my freezer door, underneath a magnet that said MONEY STINKS, BUT BOY DO I LOVE THE SMELL! just as a reminder of that.
At home I found my older sister, Carol, parked on my mother's red plaid couch. Why Carol ever had gotten married was beyond me. She moved only two blocks away and visited Mama every afternoon. Her husband's name was Alfonso. Everyone called him Al. His middle name was Dante. Carol didn't even think this was funny. Al Dante was the ultimate in guido: He used to work for our father's cement business before Daddy died and the company went under. Al drove a gold Cutlass with a jacked-up rear. Al said, "Whazzadoin' now?" whenever he got annoyed at Carolwhich was practically every time she opened her mouthand every Friday night he took his bowling bag down to the Ten Pin. Once Carol begged me to come along to watch, and I actually saw Al make the sign of the cross before he sent the big black ball barreling down the alley. "Fuggin' A!" he hollered when the Holy Mother granted him a strike.
But Al loved Carol, in a way no man yet had loved me. I knew it from the way he came up behind her and lickedlike a kitten lapping at a bowl of milkthe back of her neck as she washed the dinner dishes. And Carol loved Al, in a way I had yet to love any manI knew it from the way she squawked, "Get outta here," and jumped so hard that dish soap flew like joyous Spumante bubbles over the faucet and dishwater dripped from the sink.
Sometimes I envied what my sister and her husband had together: a closeness that allowed them to sit in silence after dinner, Al crushing walnuts with my father's old pewter nutcracker and Carol using a silver dentistlike implement to pick out the meat, saving the particularly good-looking nuts to pop into Al's mouth. Other times I thought that what Carol and Al had between them was nothing more than what my own parents had possessed: a beat-up car, a chipped front porch, and a worn shag carpet. Like my mother, Carol wore an apron every day. Like my father, Al never dressed up except to go to a wedding or funeral. On such occasions Al would not let Carol wear high heels, because then she would be taller than he was. "Why don't you just tell Al to go blow?" I asked once, and Carol said, "Oh, for God's sake, Lisa, until you get married yourself, you just won't get it. You don't get it." Then she sighed as she bent over the creaking wicker laundry basket and sorted Al's underwear into one pile and hers into another. His and hers. His and hers. I watched her, horrified. If that was marriage, I thought, those two could have it.
The back door of my mother's house usually was locked against murderers, burglars, and aunts who wanted to borrow (without asking) my mother's prized no-stick lasagne pan. But the early advent of summer apparently had melted down Mama's caution. I let myself in through the screen door.
On the couch, Carol dropped her knitting needles and clutched the double skein of white yarn in her lap. "Lisa, you scared me. I lost count of my purls. Besides, you could have been a rapist!"
"Why don't you lock the door if you're so scared of that?" I asked.
"Because it's ninety degrees outside!"
"Tell me about it," I said, wiping my face on my wet T-shirt. "How can you knit in this heat?"
Carol resumed clacking her teal-green needles together. "I just got these new number nines," she said. "And this great white yarn for half price" Then she brayed up the stairs, "Ma. Maaaaa! The working girl is here!"
There was a thudmy mother's feet hitting the ground as she rolled out of bed from her afternoon napand then the dull sound of something being dragged along the bare wooden floor. My mother came downstairs the way things usually got done in my family, culo avantior in regular English, bass ackwards. On each step Mama bumped a long brown box that reminded me of the cardboard coffin my cousin Dodici and I used to fashion out of the container that held our five-foot artificial Christmas tree.
Dodie and I were strange kids. We liked to play funeral.
"What's that?" Carol asked.
"For the birthday girl," Mama said. After making a real production out of dragging the box downstairs, Mama hoisted it up so easily I suspected there was nothing but tissue paper inside. She motioned me to sit down on the couch and put the box in front of my feet. Carol made annoyed clucking sounds as she gathered up her white yarn and looked so enviously at the box I could tell she hadn't a clue about the contents. The sheer size of the box seemed to promise that whatever was inside would make up for all those past bad gifts and prove that Mama was a real mother.
Then I remembered how the words real mother always were used as an insult in junior high.
YOUR UNIQUE SECURITY PRODUCT HAS ARRIVED! the outside of the box announced in green letters. With the sewing scissors Carol reluctantly offered me, I slit the tape. When I turned down the flaps, a man mannequindressed in a white V-neck T-shirtsolemnly gazed back at me. He was naked from the waist down. On his head he wore a navy Yankees cap exactly like the one that had belonged to my father.
"It's a dead man," Carol said. "In Daddy's baseball cap!"
"It's not a real uomo," Mama said. "Not a real man."
"I can tell that, Mother," I said, as I checked his groin and found only two white buttonsbig as cream doughnutsthat connected his limp cloth legs to his more substantial body.