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Growing up is an ambiguous concept and, in many cases, a seemingly arbitrary process. Rarely is the call to maturity as blatant and sudden as the events that jerked writer Dani Shapiro out of the last vestiges of her meandering girlhood. In her new memoir, Slow Motion, the author of the novels Playing With Fire, Fugitive Blue and Picturing the Wreck details the events surrounding the car accident that landed her parents in the intensive care unit, forcing Shapiro to bring her own life into sharp focus.
Memoirs by the young are something of a gamble -- often the writers have neither the self-awareness nor the quantity (or quality) of life experience to warrant a book-length exploration. Slow Motion is the exception that proves the rule. As a pretty, pampered young girl from an Orthodox Jewish family living in northeastern New Jersey (the part of New Jersey the jokes come from, she writes), Shapiro grew up feeling torn between her parents, her religion and a desire for freedom from its constraints, and the rewards of developing her intellect vs. cruising by on her abundant beauty. Prior to the accident, she was a Sarah Lawrence student who took up with her best friend's married stepfather, Lenny Klein, a flashy attorney who dolled her up in couture suits, trotted her around the world and showered her with lies and lavish gifts. She traded in college for the gilded cage, dropping out of school to pursue her acting, her ambivalence-ridden mistressing and her drinking. These events, and those that occur after the accident, are presented with the artful structure and language of a novel and the absorbing pace and intriguing details (running through the airport in her mink coat; tossing back screwdrivers on a lunch break from her hospital vigil; hiring a private investigator to track the activities of Lenny) of a true-crime thriller.
At its finest, Shapiro's writing has the spare elegance of a thin, gold bracelet -- with all the timeless appeal and fine craft that implies. The moment when she wheels her father in to see her mother for the first time since the accident is absolutely heart-rending, yet devoid of melodrama. Her self-examination is stark and untainted by self-pity, as during a boozy appraisal of a businessman during the plane ride to her parents' bedside: "The whole notion of physical beauty has grown increasingly important to me as my intellectual curiosity has vanished ... I have used myself as a physical instrument, slicing my way through the world with nothing but youth, long legs, and long blond hair. At times I think I have chosen the easy way, but every once in a while I realize that this may be the hardest way of all."
Even as the tragedy brings out the very worst in Shapiro's family, it ultimately brings out the best in her. Eventually, Shapiro decides to tend her own garden instead of being an exotic bloom, artfully arranged for display, then left to wilt in substance-addled oblivion. A great piece of writing and an inspirational tale for those who would consider trading substance for surface, Slow Motion illuminates the rocky road to integrity and maturity in graceful but wrenching steps. -- Salon
The portrait of her family, and of her mother in particular, is as unsparing as her self-portrait—no airbrushing hides the ugliness of the anger that drives her mother: she is incandescent, lit from within by a rage she has carried all her life, and which, at the moment of the crash, became her life source. It will force Shapiro to become estranged from her father's family at the time she needs them most. Novelist Shapiro too often settles for cliches when she is capable of evocative and original prose, but her story accumulatesemotional power as a lost young woman finds her way back to normalcy and a sense of purpose.
The night before I receive the phone call that divides my life into before and after, my face swells in an allergic reaction to a skin cream, then blisters and chaps. I am at a health spa in Southern California, a place where wealthy older women go to rest and rejuvenate, where young matrons snap their bodies back into shape after pregnancies, where movie stars stretch out on massage tables in private Japanese gardens, offering their smooth backs to the sun.
I am none of the above, and for the past three days, since arriving at the Golden Door, I have often paused amid cacti and rock gardens to wonder what, exactly, I'm doing here. I am twenty-three years old, and my life has become unrecognizable to me. I have slid slowly into this state the way one might wade into an icy lake, dipping a toe in at first, then wincing, pushing past all resistance until the body is submerged, numb to the cold.
When the phone interrupts my post-hike breakfast of a half-grapefruit sweetened with honey, I am sitting cross-legged on my bed, listlessly flipping through the pages of the San Diego Herald, staring out the sliding glass doors at my private patio. I am upset about my face, which is itching and beginning to blister. My eyes are slits. I have never been allergic to anything before, and am worried that this rash might spread down my neck and across my chest, causing me to swell inside, my body choking on itself.
"Dani, it's Aunt Roz, darling."
"Hi, Roz," I respond, confused. This aunt, who lives in suburban New Jersey, is not someone to whom I'm particularly close, and she would have no reason to know that I am at this health spa, much less track me down here at the crack of dawn. Though it doesn't occur to me to be frightened, though no alarm bells ring in my mind, I watch as my thighs begin to shake for no apparent reason.
"Dani, I'm calling because--"
She pauses, speaking very slowly, as if to an imbecile.
"The first thing you should know is that everything's all right," she says. And then, "Mother and Dad were in an accident."
"What kind of accident?"
"In their car, they--"
"Where were they? Where are they? Why are you calling me?"
"Now, Dani, if you'll just slow down--"
She keeps repeating my name, and she says it the way I hate, the way my mother's family has always said it, with a sort of pseudo-classy soft "a," as if we're from England, not New Jersey. There is an edge to her voice, as if she's somehow holding me accountable for being on the other side of the country at a moment like this. She thinks I'm a fuckup, a college dropout, a high-class drifter.
"They're both in intensive care," she says.
"Overlook Hospital, in Summit. They were driving home from your mother's office last night--"
"It was late--there was nothing you could have done--"
I file this away somewhere, under miscellaneous family insanity. I am my mother's only child. My father has a daughter from his first marriage, my older half sister, Susie, who lives in New York City.
"Has someone called Susie?"
"How did you find me?"
"Your mother gave me the name of the place you're staying."
"So she's conscious--"
Aunt Roz snorts, actually snorts into the phone.
"Dani, your mother has two badly broken legs. Her tibia, her femur--"
Roz is a doctor's wife--the kind who thinks her marriage license includes a medical degree. Her husband, my uncle Hy, is a surgeon, and my favorite family member. I may be speaking to the wrong person.
"Where's Hy? I want to talk to Hy," I say. My voice has begun to shake along with my legs. Hy will tell me the truth. His hoarse, pipe-smoking voice will soothe me, tell me this isn't as bad as it sounds. I look wildly around my room at the sliding Japanese screens, the elegant, lacquered breakfast table upon which a fan has been set, detailing my day's activities: 9 A.M. aerobics, 10:30 stretch 'n' tone, 12:00 massage.
"Uncle Hy is with the doctors."
"How's my father?"
"He'll be fine--" Roz says flatly. "Not a scratch on him--and he wasn't even wearing a seat belt. It's your mother you should be worried about."
I don't stop to wonder why, if my father is fine, he isn't the one calling me in Southern California. My brain has gone numb, my instincts taking over. I will find out what has happened to my parents one small, manageable blow at a time.
"I'll get the next flight home," I say, calculating how long it will take to get to the San Diego airport.
"Good idea, Dan," says Roz.
I sit on the edge of the bed and dial a number in New York. There is a high-pitched buzz in my head: sounds, thoughts, language itself distilled into a single note of terror. I float out of my body and watch myself from a corner of the ceiling; this is something I do often--watch myself as if my life were a movie, as if I were only acting a role in this moment, as if it can be played back, cut, edited later.
His office phone rings once, twice, then is answered by his secretary, Marie, a woman who knows me--and my role in his life--well.
"Mr. Klein's office--"
Her voice is low and sexy, modulated within an inch of its life.
"Marie, it's Dani."
"Dani, how are you? How's California?"
I have often wondered how she keeps it all straight: wife, daughters, girlfriend.
"Is he there? It's an emergency."
She puts me on hold and I close my eyes, try to quiet the buzzing in my head. My heart is skipping beats, thumping irregularly in my chest. Years from now, when this happens, I'll wonder if I'm having a heart attack. But at this moment in my life, at twenty-three, I think I'm indestructible. I figure I have until I'm thirty. At thirty I'll expire, like a bright flame burning itself out.
Lenny's voice pours through the phone lines, across the country, into my ear. The last time I spoke to Lenny was three days ago, when we were staying in Los Angeles at the Bel-Air Hotel, and we had such an ugly fight that I asked him to leave me alone for a few days--and he actually did.
"Lenny, something bad's happened."
I can almost hear his head clicking off the possibilities. Something bad could mean virtually anything at this point: police, drug bust, vehicular manslaughter, God knows what.
"My parents--were in a car crash--it sounds pretty serious--"
The words are coming in gulps of breath. Saying it out loud, saying parents and car crash in the same sentence, saying it to Lenny Klein--it's all too much. My system is shorting out, and suddenly I'm panting.
"Honey, do you have any kind of bag," Lenny says gently. "A paper bag, a plastic bag--"
"Just do what I tell you. Do you have the bag? Hold it over your nose, and take some slow, deep breaths. In and out ... in and out. Good girl."
I hold a piece of Saran wrap with bits of grapefruit still clinging to it over my nose and mouth, improvising a bag, and try to do as I'm told. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror above the bureau: I'm in gray sweatpants and a sweatshirt, my hair pulled back in a ponytail, my face red and swollen.
"I've got to get back," I say. "Could you have Marie get me on the next flight out of San Diego to Newark?"
"Easier said than done."
"What do you mean?"
"There's a fucking blizzard in New York," says Lenny. "They've closed the airports."
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, a home where Sabbath was observed, my father wore a yarmulke, and we kept meat and dairy separate, according to religious dietary laws. Though I've strayed far from that home, in moments of pain, or shock, Hebrew words fly into my mind like a flock of blackbirds, foreign and unintelligible. They ride the crest of memory--these words and prayers--a whole other language I once spoke so fluently I even thought in it, and now no longer understand. Sometimes I think I have locked it deep inside myself and thrown away the key. Other times, I think it's accessible if only I know where to look: a language within my language, a heart within my heart.
So when I get off the phone with Lenny and dial my half sister's office number in New York, there is a tune drifting through my head, a prayer sung at the beginning of Sabbath services. Avinu Malkenu, Harenu v'anenu ... I have not attended shul since leaving for college six years ago, at seventeen, but no matter. I can identify the song, sing every syllable the way, as a teenager in the 1970s, I knew every Springsteen lyric.
Susie, a psychoanalyst, is in session. Her machine picks up, and for a split second I almost blurt it out--Dad and Irene were in a car crash--but then I think of my half sister sitting in her office in Greenwich Village, surrounded by the accoutrements of her life: volumes of Freud, Oriental rugs, framed Ferenczi letter, burgundy velvet analytic couch. I picture her wearing her granny glasses and ethnic jewelry, her long wavy blond hair almost to her waist, a patient lying on that couch. I say it's urgent, to call back the minute her session ends.
If I am twenty-three, Susie is thirty-eight. She is a grown woman, certainly more grown than I am. She is an esteemed shrink, author of a book on schizophrenia, exotic traveler, and recently divorced from her psychiatrist husband. Her life, at least compared with mine, is sane and stable. Still, I somehow feel protective of her. I want to hold back the tide. She would say it is projection--that it is myself I am trying to protect here, flinging up my arms, shielding my face from the shards of a life swirling around me like broken glass.
I try to imagine my parents, but have virtually no information to go on. Which car were they in? My father's little sporty Subaru? My mother's Audi 5000? Where did it happen? What, exactly, happened? How is it possible that I don't know, at this very moment, whether my parents are alive or dead, in critical condition or just a bit banged up? Lenny said there's a blizzard. Was it the weather? Did their car skid off the highway? Were there other cars involved? I squeeze my eyes tightly against it all, but the images churn, they don't stop. I want a drink, a pill, anything. I methodically dig my nail into the palm of my hand. I want to move the hurt. I don't know how long I sit there--a minute? an hour?--before the phone rings again.
It's my uncle Hy. Talking to Roz made me numb, talking to Lenny made me hyperventilate, and talking into Susie's answering machine made me mute. But hearing Hy's voice, filled with love, and with something else--something I can't yet identify--makes me weep.
"God, Hy, what's going on?"
"I don't know," he says quietly, this man I have always counted on to know. I decide to take it a parent at a time.
"How's my mother? Roz said she has broken--"
"Dani, your mother may never walk again."
A door slams shut inside me, then another, then another.
"And my father?"
"We don't know what's wrong with your father."
"Where is he?"
"He's in a coma, Dani."
"What happened?" I whisper.
"He passed out at the wheel. It may have been a stroke--we just don't know."
I finally recognize the unfamiliar note in Hy's voice: he's treating me like an adult, telling it to me straight.
"Get home," he says. "Get home now."
It's ten in the morning. My best bet seems to be the red-eye out of LA, which doesn't take off for another thirteen hours. Lenny arranges for a limo to take me from San Diego to LA, and has Marie book me on three afternoon flights to New York, just in case. I even try Boston and Washington, but it seems this blizzard is blanketing the entire East Coast. Lenny Klein is a man who can make virtually anything happen--that is, anything money can buy: center-court seats at the U.S. Open, oceanfront villas on the Cote d'Azur, Cuban cigars that arrive each month wrapped in plain brown paper--but he can't cut a path through a snowstorm. He has been known to charter private jets when commercial airlines didn't conform to his schedule. But all the money in the world won't get me home faster. No planes are landing anywhere, period.
The limo--stately, elegant, dark blue--pulls up to the gates of the Golden Door. Everything Lenny does falls just to the south side of flashy. It's the mid-1980s after all, and flash is in the air, but as my mother has put it, Lenny has taste. "After all, he chose you," she has said more than once, placing me in the same category as his vintage Ferraris, his homes in Bedford, Jamaica, Martha's Vineyard. Lenny is a collector of fine things, and I am a thing. A girl in Lenny's girl collection. I guess my mother feels that if I have to be carrying on with a married man, at least I'm doing it with somebody rich and powerful, somebody who will show me the world.
I fold myself into the back of the limo, my single piece of luggage in the trunk. In the back of the limo there are assorted tapes, a sound system, and a telephone. What there is not--what I had been secretly hoping for--is a crystal decanter filled with something amber: scotch, brandy. I need to sedate myself for the three-hour drive. My body has not stopped shaking. I think about my mother and shudder at the degree of impact it must have taken to snap a thigh bone in two. Try as I might to imagine her with shattered bones--Hy mentioned both legs, pelvis, ribs, nose--I have always seen her as indestructible. A therapist once told me my mother reminded her of Mary Tyler Moore in the film Ordinary People. She is angular, energetic, fiercely private, imperious. How is she handling being flat on her back, in traction, at the mercy of doctors, nurses, and order-lies? Is she telling them what to do? My mind zings back and forth between my mother and my father--the words coma, femur, critical, stroke forming, dissolving, then forming again--as we pull away from the Golden Door and head north to Los Angeles.
I summon up my nerve. "Is there any scotch back here?" I ask the driver. The bright morning sun is muted by the tinted windows.
"No, ma'am," he answers, then pauses. "Would you like me to stop at a liquor store?"
"No, that's all right, thanks."
It is the first time in my life I have been called "ma'am."
The limo speeds north on the San Diego Freeway, and the fact of motion itself is a relief. We are going somewhere--moving fast in the wrong direction. I should be heading east on a plane right now, circling above Newark airport, waiting for a break in the sky, a small ripped-open seam that would allow us to land. I snap a Carly Simon tape into the cassette deck, lean my cheek against the cool dark leather as the car fills with the opening drumbeats of "You're So Vain."
The car phone rings. It's Susie. I had given her the number when she called me back at the spa.
"Dan, it's me."
Months sometimes go by without any communication with my half sister. I have no idea what she thinks of me--if she thinks of me at all. I always feel small around her; small, and stupid. I have looked up to her all my life. On top of being a shrink, she's a serious classical pianist who has studied for many years. I have listened to her play Liszt etudes and Chopin nocturnes, watched her graceful fingers flying over the keys, her brow furrowed in concentration as she transformed notes on a page into something that moved me. I have also studied piano since I was a child. I wanted to be like Susie. I have perfect pitch, and the music always came easily to me, but by the time I was in high school the last thing I wanted to do was spend long hours practicing alone, and so I tried out for the cheerleading team instead.
"Where are you?" she asks.
I look out the window at the arid landscape of Southern California. Heat waves rise up from the blacktop of the freeway. Billboards advertise condominium developments with names like Hacienda del Mar.
"I don't know," I answer. "Where are you?"
"I just got to Jersey."
"What's going on?"
"Well, Irene's going to be okay. She looks awful--like a caricature of someone who has been in a car crash--but Dad's in pretty bad shape."
Susie's voice is harsh and flat. As usual, my half sister minces no words. She's furious that no one thought to call her until I did--that my mother's family seems to have forgotten that she exists. The trouble between Susie and my mother goes back nearly thirty years to the time my parents first started dating each other. She's a phony, nine-year-old Susie told my father. Don't marry her. They have barely tolerated each other over the years--each has wished the other would disappear; my mother could be at death's door and Susie would probably perceive her as all right.
"I called Shirl and Harvey," says Susie, referring to my father's younger sister and brother. "I think they'd better get here."
I squeeze my eyes shut.
"Do you think--?"
I can't bear to say the words. Since I've been old enough to contemplate loss, I have imagined losing my father. Whenever we have been together and said good-bye, I have wondered if that good-bye would be the last. Though he is a bear of a man, an imposing figure, really, I have seen him as physically fragile, vulnerable, picturing a fatal heart attack, an embolism, a stroke--my father falling like an old heavy tree to the pavement on Wall Street, where he works, or while walking to temple on a Shabbos morning.
"The doctors are asking me what medication Dad's on," says Susie.
I think of the possibilities: Valium, Percodan, Codeine, Empirin. My father pops painkillers like Tic Tacs; he has suffered from chronic back pain for as long as I can remember. In the center of our breakfast table back home, on a lazy Susan where most people might keep cereals he has collected an impressive array of plastic bottles, each prescription written by a different doctor.
"I don't know what he's taking," I say. "Why don't you ask Irene?"
It is a function of my relationship with my half sister that I call my own mother Irene in her presence. I am trying to ally myself with her, to let her know that I understand.
"Irene's stoned," says Susie. "They have her on painkillers up the wazoo."
My head feels as if it's going to explode. My mother stoned is another in a series of impossible images. My father, comatose. My psychoanalyst half sister, my father's sister and brother, and my mother's suburban New Jersey relatives convening in a hospital corridor, pretending to get along. The rifts between my mother and my father's side of the family are deep. They go back at least ten years, to the time my father's sister, Shirl, had the flu and didn't attend my Bat Mitzvah. My mother was certain Shirl didn't have the flu and wasn't coming because she didn't think the service would be religious enough. The night before my Bat Mitzvah, my mother called Shirl psychotic and hung up on her.
"What's the weather like?" I ask Susie.
"Am I going to be able to get home?"
I close my eyes and count to ten. I want to scream at her, tell her to stop answering me in monosyllables, that I'm her sister, not her patient. I want to cry out for help--to let her know that I'm only pretending to be a grown-up, that in fact I'm a complete and total mess. But perhaps she knows this already.
"I'd better go," she says. "The doctor just came out of the ICU."
We are both quiet for a moment.
"I love you."
We are two only children, raised by different mothers, fifteen years apart. Half sisters, connected to each other by half promises and half lies. But today we are all each other has in the world--and the man who connects us is fighting for his life.
I think she says "I love you too," but there is static, and we are disconnected.
My parents had three previous marriages between them. My father married Susie's mother when he was in his early twenties. It was a marriage that worked on paper. Early photographs of the two of them show a young, happy if slightly baffled-looking couple on the beach in Miami or playing shuffleboard at resorts like Kutchers and Grossinger's. But underneath her proper Orthodox surface, my father's first wife was a rebellious, intellectual spirit, and he had no idea what to do with her. Where he came from, women didn't aspire to more than a comfortable family life and perhaps some volunteer work at the temple sisterhood.
After Susie was born, the couple stayed very involved with both sets of in-laws, spending Shabbos dinners either at my father's parents' house on Central Park West or at his in-laws on Fifth Avenue. My father was on the road half the time, traveling to a small town in Virginia, where he was overseeing the family silk mill. Years later, my grandfather would shut down the mill for good, and lend my father the money to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. But back then, my father's traveling must have taken its toll. When he was home, he and his wife fought viciously, or lapsed into tense silences. Still, my father may not have grasped or understood her growing frustration and disenchantment.
When Susie was six, my father returned from a business trip to find an empty apartment, with only his clothes left hanging in the closet. His wife, daughter, and all their belongings were gone. There were rumors, of course, that she had run off with Susie's pediatrician. This kind of thing just didn't happen. In Susie's class at Ramaz, an Upper East Side yeshiva for girls, she was the only child of divorced parents.
My father waged a custody battle for Susie, and won ample visitation rights: Wednesday nights, every other weekend, and Jewish holidays. In the meantime, he was probably being fixed up on blind dates all over town. He was already becoming a tragic figure of sorts, ditched abruptly by his flighty, good-for-nothing wife. On the weekends he had Susie he sometimes took her to resorts in the Catskills, where they'd play a game: he'd go out on dates with young women, and Susie would narrow her little six-year-old's eyes and give him her opinion.
For his second wife, he chose another daughter of a privileged Orthodox clan. Dorothy Gribetz was a lovely, sweet-natured girl, and according to everything I've ever heard, my father was crazy about her. So was Susie. He proposed, she accepted, and plans for a wedding were set in motion. It wasn't until the night before their wedding that my father's best friend told him a rumor that had been whispered throughout the Orthodox community: Dorothy had Hodgkin's disease, which in those days was a terminal illness. She didn't know it--her parents had kept it secret from her, and from my father as well.
The night before their wedding my father paid a visit to Dorothy's parents. Was it true? Was she dying? Yes, they told him, Dorothy's prognosis was that she had a year to live. They had kept it from him because they saw how happy he made their daughter, and they wanted her to have that happiness, even if only for a short time--even at the expense of his own, and of Susie's.
I picture my father now, standing beneath the chuppah on his wedding day. He is not the father of my memory, but of my imagination: he is a young man--perhaps he is thirty-two--but his eyes are already old. He turns to watch his bride walk down the aisle. She is a vision of innocence in her simple white gown. This should be the happiest day of his life. His eyes sting as she moves toward him, flanked on either side by her parents, and his heart is hollow. He is watching himself become a widower. He looks around the shul at the assembled guests and blinks hard against the thought that they will all be gathered here again in the not too distant future, that he and his bride will be together one last time in this sanctuary: he in the torn black clothes of mourning, she in a plain pine box.
I grew up absorbing my father's sadness without knowing where it came from. Sometimes he just disappeared. Not like other fathers--fathers I heard about, who drove off in their cars and never came home again--but just faded, as if he couldn't really be there, not all of him. He would be sitting in a lawn chair smoking a Camel, and all of a sudden his eyes would grow vacant, his mouth would crumble, and he would stare off into the distance. I would follow his gaze to see what he was looking at, but I never saw what was making him so sad. I couldn't make out the faint shadow of his first wife against the forsythia hedge in the backyard, holding a little-girl version of Susie's hand. I couldn't see Dorothy huddled in a blanket by the seashore, weak and pale in the final months of her life.
There was defeat in the stoop of my father's shoulders, or in the way he shook a few pills into the palm of his hand, then downed them in one gulp when he thought no one was looking. I thought that perhaps this was what it meant to be a grown-up; that along with growing big and tall, the pinprick of sadness that was inside me too would spread until it covered my insides like a stain.
I was sixteen years old before I heard about Dorothy. Susie let it slip--when Dad, Dorothy, and I were upstate one time, she said--and when I looked puzzled, she stopped and stared at me. You don't know about Dorothy? Susie was by then a thirty-one-year-old psychoanalyst, and on some level, she must have known what she was doing. Perhaps she felt I needed to know. There were already danger signs--signs that I was fading fast myself.
And then there was my mother. Over the years, the story of my parents' courtship and marriage has acquired a delicacy that has kept me at a distance, like an ancient hand-blown piece of glass that might disintegrate if I got too close.
What I was told as a child was this: they first met on East Ninth Street in Manhattan, where they were across-the-street neighbors. It was a Saturday, the Shabbos, and my father was walking home from shul with nine-year-old Susie. My mother was returning from the hardware store, where she had just bought a hammer. Hammers and Shabbos are two things that don't go together: for Orthodox Jews, the Sabbath is a day of rest, when no work is to be done, certainly not manual labor. So when my father met my mother, he must have known she wasn't from his world.
It is a story my mother has often recounted feverishly, slam-dunking the metaphor of the hammer. He knew I wasn't observant. He saw the hammer. He knew what he was getting himself into. She was a career girl with her own advertising agency, who had left her first husband when she was thirty. My father was so taken with my mother that, the following Sunday, he pored over the Manhattan phone directory, searching for her. He knew only her first name--Irene--and her address on East Ninth. I can only imagine what he was thinking, the way his heart must have been racing. Who was the dark-haired beauty from across the street? She looked to be in her early thirties. What had she been through? Why wasn't she wearing a wedding ring? Why was he tracking her down despite his better judgment? He ran his finger down each column in the White Pages, looking for Irenes or the initial I on East Ninth Street until he finally found her in the F's, under Fogel, a surname left over from her first marriage.
In a photograph of my parents I have hanging over my desk, they are walking down the aisle of Young Israel of Sixteenth Street on their wedding day. My father is dashing in a well-cut dark suit, and my mother is elegant in ankle-length ice-blue. Their arms are linked as they walk together toward the chuppah, and my mother is smiling triumphantly at whoever is taking the picture, a thin cloud of netting floating over her face. My father is smiling too, but now, if I look beyond the smile, I see that he is haunted. There are ghosts in his mind, ghosts swirling all around my father and my mother in the moment before they take their vows.
I am not yet born, and there is already a piece of my father that is dead.
I am drunk, halfway home.
Or rather, I should be drunk, but nothing seems to be working: not the two vodkas I had in the airport bar, not the bad airplane wine I have been drinking since takeoff. I've recently reached a point in my drinking where one drink can get me drunk or ten can have no effect. But it isn't tipsiness I'm after. I'm looking to anesthetize myself from head to toe, which is why I'm mixing red wine and vodka--a very bad idea and I know it. All I want to do is stop feeling. I want the images of my parents in my mind to fade until there's nothing but a warm, sickening haze, until I get just dizzy enough to pass out in my seat.
I always drink on airplanes--I consider them a sort of time-free zone, an endless cocktail hour. Besides, I'm terrified of flying, and after a few little bottles of Smirnoff and cans of Mrs. T.'s Bloody Mary mix, I can usually forget that I'm in the air, at least for a little while. Forgetting is what it's all about--forgetting that I'm twenty-three years old and have nothing to show for it. Once I've had a few drinks I can convince myself that I have a lot to show for it. Who needs things like college degrees, nice hometown boyfriends, starter jobs at advertising agencies? My friends are all playing a game, and I have stepped to the sidelines. I have chosen to sit this one out.
Instead, I am playing house with Lenny, zigzagging across the country at his beck and call. I have something resembling a career, halfheartedly modeling and doing television commercials. For the moment, I think I want to be an actress. I dropped out of college three years ago after being cast in a York Peppermint Patties commercial, and now I feel that I'm stuck with it--acting and Lenny--as if, having taken a wrong turn, I have had to make a commitment to follow this road wherever it takes me. Retracing my steps has not felt like an option. I have run faster and faster in the wrong direction, eyes squeezed shut, hoping that somewhere along the way the road will loop around again.
A red-faced, middle-aged man is sitting next to me, matching me drink for drink. I've noticed him sneaking glances at me. A thick annual report is spread over his tray table.
"I'll bet you're an actress," he says. "Am I right?"
"Right," I say faintly.
"Have I seen you in anything?"
I reel off the list of my most recent commercials. Hess Gasoline, Coca-Cola, Scrabble. My words are slightly slurred. Although I think I don't show it, I am always flattered and surprised when people ask if I'm an actress or a model. As far as my looks go, I am seething with insecurity, a bottomless pit into which compliments fall for a brief, shining moment, then disappear. The whole notion of physical beauty has grown increasingly important to me as my intellectual curiosity has vanished. A few years ago I was studying music and literature at Sarah Lawrence, diagramming Mozart concertos and reading Tillie Olsen. But why struggle with a term paper on the elements of foreshadowing in Bleak House when I could be cavorting on the beach in front of a camera and getting paid for it? Why deal with caked-over tubes of toothpaste, smelly refrigerators filled with old cartons of labeled food and turned milk when Lenny Klein has handed me keys to an apartment high above Central Park South? I have used myself as a physical instrument, slicing my way through the world with nothing but youth, long legs, and long blond hair. At times I think I have chosen the easy way, but every once in a while I realize that this may be the hardest way of all.
"So are you heading to the big city on business?" my traveling companion asks.
I pause and take a gulp of wine.
"My parents were in a car crash. They're both in intensive care."
"Sorry to hear that," he says, recoiling slightly.
"I actually don't know if they're alive or dead. It looks like my father had a stroke while he was driving."
I look at the bloated lines of his jaw, his thick hands, a gold insignia ring encircling his stubby pinkie finger.
"Tough luck," he says. "But you'll get through."
"I can't believe this is happening," I murmur, more to myself than to him.
"Yeah. Well, shit happens," he says.
We bump through the air, and the FASTEN SEAT BELTS sign lights up with a ding. Usually this would be enough to send me into a panic, but not tonight. What are the odds of a car crash and a plane crash in one family in one day? I turn away from my traveling companion and cover myself with a thin airline blanket. My wineglass is empty, I wedge it between an airsickness bag and an in-flight magazine in the pocket in front of me. Shit happens. Is there some sort of hard-won middle-aged wisdom in that notion?
The captain announces that we're experiencing some turbulence. I curl up in my seat, trying to find a quiet place in my mind where I can rest, if not sleep. I'm afraid to drink any more. My head is spinning, and each lurch of the plane turns my stomach. Lenny has arranged for a car and driver to pick me up at Newark, and I'm planning to go directly to my uncle Morton's house in Summit, only a few blocks from the hospital.
I try to conjure up Lenny's face, but he fades in and out of focus: a thatch of dark hair, big brown eyes, a thick wrestler's body gone soft around the middle. His most expressive feature is his voice, which is deep and raspy, a tool he uses to great advantage in the courtroom. Lenny is a name partner in one of the largest law firms in the city--a firm whose other partners include three former U.S. senators. Fortune recently listed him as one of the top five litigators in the country. I suppose he also uses his physical self as a tool--striding, pausing dramatically, rolling his eyes, raising his voice to a thunderous pitch or lowering it to a whisper. He used that voice to seduce me three years ago.
I met Lenny Klein at Sarah Lawrence. He was the stepfather of one of my close college friends. The first time he called me, that hoarse voice asking for me on the dormitory phone, he said he wanted to get together, something to do with Jess. Would it be absurd to say I believed him? There must have been an odd feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I ignored it. I agreed to meet him one evening in the city--and I agreed not to tell Jess. Her birthday was coming up; I thought maybe he wanted my help in planning a surprise party.
And when he picked me up on a prearranged corner in his white Rolls-Royce, and his arm slid familiarly across the passenger seat, just brushing the back of my neck, what was preventing me from opening the car door and getting out? I was twenty years old, and the idea that a friend's father--a friend's married father--would try to seduce me was something I found unfathomable. And yet, at the same time, I felt thrust into a parallel universe, one I had never known existed. Everything I knew about right and wrong seemed to vanish inside that car.
The truth is, Lenny repelled me before he attracted me. I went through the motions that night, let him take me to an elaborate dinner where I consumed the better part of two bottles of wine, but I had no intention of ever seeing or speaking with him again. I would have some explaining to do to Jess--or maybe she didn't need to know. After all, I thought that would be the end of it. A little adventure, an honest mistake. And even when he started calling me several dozen times a day, even when he drove to my dorm and parked his car outside, I held my breath, just praying Jess wouldn't walk by. He sent me flowers and cards--the floor of my old dorm room was covered with vases of yellow roses, the constant faint scent of decay in the air.
Another twenty-year-old might have called the campus police, filed a complaint. But secretly, Lenny's attentions made me feel like the most special girl in the world.
The in-flight movie is Gorky Park--a film I auditioned for a couple of years back. I watch the tail end without headphones. The actress they cast looks a whole lot better as a Russian spy than I ever would have. I try to focus on the screen, but I'm seeing double, so I close my eyes. Beneath my lids, another film is taking place: My parents' Audi collapses like an accordion against a concrete highway divider, my father's head is flung in slow motion into the steering wheel. His eyes close, glasses crack, lenses pop out from the impact. My mother screams, an unearthly sound, as her legs are mangled beneath her. Steam pours from the hood. All around them, giant flakes of snow drift silently across the nearly empty highway.
I open my eyes, blink hard, and gasp for air.
"You all right?" my neighbor asks. He has moved from wine to Baileys Irish Cream, and his face is the color of sunset.
"Yeah," I lie. "I'm fine."
I make my way down the aisle to the lavatory and splash cold water on my face, then examine myself in the mirror. The rash is getting worse. My cheeks are streaked with tears, and my lips and eyes are all puffy.
The captain's voice pipes into the restroom, announcing that we're about to begin our final descent into the Newark area. The weather in Newark is a bracing eighteen degrees and we should be touching down at approximately six-fifty, local time. Before I return to my seat, I meet my own gaze evenly. The words of the Sh'ma, a Hebrew prayer, tumble through my mind.
You are alone in the world, I whisper to the poor, pathetic girl in the mirror, preparing for the worst.
Posted February 1, 2015
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