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Starting Out Sideways
1who's a putz?my name is Roseanna Plow, and I came down the birth canal sideways. All my life, this is the way my mother has introduced me to strangers. She's never described my birth with malice, only with wonder. It is the wonder of my mother's life that when I left her womb, some thirty-two years ago, I made the decision to enter this world broadside, oblivious of the discomfort this might cause her, my benevolent baker, my main sponsor. My mother would hug me hard to her curvy side as she explained my arrival once more for new ears."She came down the canal sideways," she'd tell the surprised listener, and I'd feel the pokey bone of her hip against my cheek and imagine myself arriving on Long Island on some sort of gondola, no one at the helm, the boat floating sideways, smashing into everything else in the narrow channel. Always there was a beat of silence when my mother finished describing the event, as if she were waiting for the school nurse, the newneighbor, my first grade teacher to offer some reason why I might have chosen to do this.Sideways down the canal. It is an apt metaphor for the many collisions I've had in my life--the constant clashing of horns with my mother, my now-deteriorating marriage to my husband, Teddy, which my mother had anticipated ("Marry someone respectable," she had said, when she showed me the navy blue pantsuit she planned to wear at my wedding, "and I'll consider wearing a dress to the church."), the way I'd upset my father during college by shortening my name from Pulkowski to Plow. Last week, my husband sat me down at our kitchen table and told me in a calm voice that he was in love with another woman. Not just any woman, he explained, but my best friend, Inga. Then, as if in compliance with my mother's prediction of his worthlessness, he packed a bag and walked out.My mother is coming across town for dinner tonight, my first guest since Teddy's departure. She is coming alone, leaving my father at home with his pot roast and his beer. She is planning, I suppose, one of those woman-to-woman talks I've gotten used to now. On the stove in my small apartment's kitchen, I'm simmering a nice spaghetti sauce. It's my mother-in-law's recipe, of which my mother will undoubtedly disapprove.Just the same, I'm glad for her company. It's been eight days and three hours since Teddy packed the small Champion gym bag--tenderly tucking his iPod in last--and left our apartment. In that time I've imagined him in the arms of my best friend, Inga. I've imagined them in her bed, in her bedroom, which I've seen a thousand times. The patchwork quilt made by her grandmother. The white wicker shade on the bedside lamp. Theprim smell of lavender emanating from her drawers and closet. There is a little wooden plaque, which hangs between her closet doors. I gave it to Inga on her thirtieth birthday. THE FIN FRIEND MEANS FOREVER, it says. Now at night, when my wine bottle is almost empty, when the last chocolate chip cookie is eaten, when I've cried as much as my body allows, the plaque seems funny to me. Inga, my F'in-friend."I never liked that lantern jaw," my mother grumbled on the phone, when she'd gotten the gist of how it was that Teddy had left me. I could feel her fidgeting on the other end, one hand buried deep in the pocket of her pleated brown slacks, the other squeezing the receiver. "That broad needs a good shot in the head," she said. So rough my mother can be, like a moll in the Rat Pack. I wondered what my father was thinking as she said this.After I'd shaved all those letters off my last name, my father stopped talking to me for a while. My mother never had the same problem."Plow," she sniffed the day I first breathed my new name into the dormitory phone. "Why not Steamroller instead of Plow, for the way you've run over your father's heart?""Ma," I pleaded, but a cold silence whistled back at me through the wire. I could read her thoughts. Sideways, she was thinking. Everything half-assed and sideways.She has a mouth like a sailor, my mother. She's tough, despite her slender body and pixieish face. She's Donna Reed on drugs, Shirley Partridge with an attitude. She was forty-two when I was born. She's seventy-four now and she still smokes. While my friends were having their nice seventies and eighties childhoods, I grew up in a fifties nightmare, with tuna casserolesand Jell-O molds where suspended things floated, with a mother who believed that Kraft Miracle Whip could be used in anything. Back in the fifties, according to my Aunt Sophie, my mother used to open doors for men. Heavy glass bank doors, reception hall doors, the doors to the train station. She would swing them open violently with one thin arm, staring down boxy men in their thick-lapelled suits and ordering them through with a little half smile. "Go 'head through," she'd tell the men, and they went. They felt her eyes on their backs as they walked ahead of her. We all do.My mother stopped sending me care packages after I changed my name to Plow. No more home-baked cookies and Tetley tea bags. No more crackers with orange cheese that squirted like shaving cream from a can. She was outraged when the college sent home word of Roseanna Plow's making dean's list. My 3.8 grade point average meant nothing to her. She saw only the missing vowels and consonants. The next time I went home, I found my dean's list certificate tacked up over my father's workbench. Someone had put little carets between the letters of my truncated name, adding the u and the k and the ski.I knew it was my mother. I was eighteen at the time and a little chubby and I stood in the garage and saw how I hadn't worked out for her, how she'd wanted me to be everything she wasn't--better educated and yet submissive. It was a puzzling paradox, considering how I'd been raised by this strong, proud woman, a woman men didn't fuck with, even back in the fifties.My mother calls my father Pulkowski, as in: "Pulkowski, crack me open a beer," and "Come over here and light my cigarette, Pulkowski," and "Pulkowski! Put the kid to bed and watchthe ball game with me." Never an ounce of Cinderella in her, ever. How I wish I'd been a bit more like her this past terrible year of my marriage, where Teddy's back has been a cold marble wall dividing our bed in two.Even when my parents dressed up for a party, my mother smothering us in her cloud of Evening in Paris, wearing her wide, full-skirted bowling dance dress and her string of pearls and her red lipstick, even then, she'd wink at my father in his good suit and say, "Nice threads, Pulkowski. Now help me with this goddamn zipper." How I wish I could have ordered Teddy around with the same confidence! Hold me in your arms, Stracuzza! Kiss me, goddamn you!The way my mother talks to my father dazzles me still and makes me jealous. The way he responds is the main reason I changed my name from Pulkowski to Plow. When I left home and heard my name aloud in other people's mouths, I felt like my father being pushed around by Helen Pulkowski. I'd hear someone say "Pulkowski" and there was my mother, cigarette dangling between her thin red lips, eyes twinkling seductively at her man. No article in Cosmo has ever, remotely, suggested my mother's techniques for seducing a man.At ten to seven, as I'm seasoning my sauce, I listen for the sounds of my mother's arrival. First the click of my unlocked door opening, then the soft flopping of her jacket over the back of the couch. She's arrived early, as she tends to do when she deems an event formal. She sighs, clears her throat, and finally calls her greeting."Good evening, Madame Butterfly.""I'm in the kitchen," I call from my steamy little corner, butmy mother's footsteps recede instead of moving closer. She's heading for my bedroom. She'll peek through there, open a few closets, maybe go through the medicine chest, searching for confirmation of Teddy's departure.Soon enough she's standing beside me with her thin wrists crossed, a cigarette caught between the fingers of one hand. She's wearing a crisply ironed oxford shirt and blue polyester slacks. She's studying me, looking for signs of damage."Hi, Ma," I say, looking up from the sauce. She nods once, like a store clerk. I feel her heated thoughts. That bastard better not have damaged her little girl. She'll give him such a lump. I swirl my spoon around and around in the sauce, my wrist moving like I'm rowing a boat."What's the matter? You nervous?" she says. "Give me the spoon, before you scrape a hole in the bottom of the pot."She slips her cigarette into one side of her mouth before she pulls the wooden spoon away from me."Move," she says, knocking me lightly with her hip from my spot in front of the stove. Her Salem Light dangles over our dinner."Ma, your ashes ... ," I warn."Yeah, yeah, my ashes." She stares into the sauce. "Let me just tell you something, Miss Ashes. There's no shame in your husband leaving if he was a nudnik to begin with.""Ma!" I say, grabbing the spoon back from her. We can only talk if we're stirring. "You never gave him a chance," I tell the sauce.My mother snorts a little, stretches her open hands in front of her. "Teddy's a putz," she explains calmly. "And now he's left you. Case closed."I squeeze the spoon so tight my knuckles crack. Something about my Yiddish-speaking Catholic mother decreeing my husband a putz reminds me of another time. When I was a kid, she used to load me into the Plymouth station wagon and drag me off to Bascome Brothers Photographic Studio for an annual portrait. Mr. Bascome would seat me on a little mound of beige carpeting and then pull down screens behind me that looked like window shades with pictures on them. One moment, I was posed beneath the boughs of a cherry blossom tree. Then--a tug again--and there was a Christmas tree over my shoulder, a fireplace to my left. One last pull and I was floating in azure blue clouds, as if I'd died and Mr. Bascome was photographing me now up in heaven. I'd feel goose bumps each time his hairy wrist reached above my head and changed my world. This is what my mother did with her short, snitty proclamations, spelling out my life in her singular opinions."Ma," I say, still stirring wildly, sauce spilling over the sides of the pan, sizzling onto the range. "You don't understand anything.""I understand this," she says, grabbing the spoon and pointing it at some imaginary chart that hangs above us. "Even Oprah doesn't bother wasting an hour on 'My husband left me for my best friend' anymore. It's that predictable! It's that uninteresting! It's so"--my mother is pointing the spoon at me now--"beneath you, Rosie! You went to college! You were on the dean's list!" The sauce plops on my white tile floor like perfect drops of blood. "Your problems should be more educated than some putz leaving you for a bottle blonde.""Ma! Put the spoon down!" I shriek, wrestling the spoonfrom her, using hold techniques I've learned in my work for keeping the autistic safe. I take a deep breath, try to restore calm in the room. "Everything isn't about TV!" I cry. "I'm sorry my problems aren't trendier, but did it ever occur to you that this separation might just be temporary?""Please!" my mother snorts, and a cloud of smoke, or maybe steam, exits her mouth."Ma!" I yell, waving the dripping sauce spoon like a baton. "The point is you don't know enough! You can't call Teddy a putz if you don't know enough! He's my husband. It's my marriage. I decide who the putzes are. I decide."I drop the spoon, reach above the stove into the cupboard, and start pulling out dishes. My mother is uncharacteristically silent beside me. I'm pulling out the salad bowl when I feel her fingers gently pinching the exposed flesh at my waist. "Hmm," she muses, "most women lose weight when their husbands leave.""Ma!" I whirl around, slamming the bowl down too hard on the countertop."Hey," she says. "Hey, hey, hey." She pats me gently on my cheek. "It's only a few pounds." She runs her fingers through a thick tangle of my long hair."You're a beautiful girl, my Rosie," she croons. "Look at you, with your father's gorgeous chestnut hair." She flicks her cigarette into the sink. I take a step back from her, give her my chilliest look."I can't believe you are evaluating my life on an Oprah scale.""It's not on the Jerry Springer scale, that's for sure, since you've never hauled off and walloped the putz. Which I have wanted to do about a hundred times ...""Enough!" I announce, running cold water over her cigarette butt. "We're eating dinner now."Something about my proclamation silences her. "May I set the salad bowls?" my mother asks sweetly.We eat my mother-in-law's spaghetti sauce in silence. After dinner, when my mother finally leaves for her 10.29-mile drive back to Commack, down the Veterans Highway, then a little ways west on Jericho Turnpike, I sit at the table and stare at the salt shaker. My mother is right, of course. Teddy is a putz. But he is the putz I married, four and half years ago. And marriage is a sacred thing. Even my mother believes this. I head for the refrigerator and uncork a half-full bottle of Pinot Noir. Is it really so wrong to try to work things out with my own husband? I pour myself a nightcap, then pull out the Chips Ahoy! from the cupboard. Helen Pulkowski, of all people, should appreciate the sanctity of marriage.I'm scrubbing sauce off the range when I discover the wine bottle is empty. I double bolt the door and settle myself on the couch. I plump up the cushions before moving into the corner, shoes off, feet tucked beneath me like a sunbathing cat. I hum a little--the way I do when I'm sort of loaded. I lift the phone receiver: white, lightweight, shaped like a bar of soap. I inhale deeply, exhale, and punch in the number. Eleven merry tones. The phone rings once, twice, and when I hear someone picking up, I almost slam down the receiver. But then I don't. Why should I? Who would wish to hurt me? My best friend? My husband? Of course not. A second later, a female voice is speaking."Hello?"It's Inga. I recognize her slightly whiny voice, the Olive Oyltones that used to make Teddy and me laugh. Oh! Popeye! we'd whisper, behind Inga's back, then zip our lips again when she turned around. I hear myself giggling."Hi. This is Roseanna," I say, trying to control myself.There is not a sound from the other end."Roseanna Plow," I say.Now Inga gives a little sigh."Formerly Pulkowski," I go on. "Now Mrs. Stracuzza," I hiss. "Are there any other Stracuzzas around I might actually speak to?" I laugh merrily, like all of this is just good fun. I do this for Inga, my last little gift to her."Roseanna," she says, "it's ten o'clock.""Thank you," I tell her, "for that update.""Roseanna," she says, "it's late."I squeeze the phone as if to throttle it."Get him."The phone clunks down like it's been thrown. I rub my arm as though I've been bruised. Someone's put a hand over the receiver, so that they can talk about me without my listening. This is what they did the last time I called. This is how they treat me. So why have I called again? What is the pretense, I mean. I know I've called because my mother has planted this image in my mind of Teddy as putz, and I'm anxious to be rid of it. But how could a phone call help? Teddy is a putz. I slap my face lightly with my free hand. Focus! What was the bogus reason for this call? Teddy picks up the phone just as I remember."Yes?" he says, his voice so formal that I glance down at myself to see if I'm completely dressed. "It's ten o'clock," he continues."Your adulteress has pointed this out to me."Coldness billows out of the little holes in my earpiece. I squeeze a mauve couch cushion, try again."I'm just calling to let you know that our Visa bill's come in." (I love using this word our when I know she's standing beside him, maybe even listening with her ear pressed to the phone and her cheek brushing his.) I continue: "You know those sheets we bought for our bed at Macy's last month?""Sheets you bought," he corrects."For our bed," I point out."Roseanna," he sighs, "you'd better start paying off the credit card expenses that are yours. Because I must inform you, I'm closing those accounts. Visa, American Express, Discover ... there's another one, isn't there?" He's silent for a second. "Yeah. First Bank MasterCard.""You're closing them?" I say. "What do you mean, you're closing them? You can't just close things ...""Roseanna, those are my cards. You can get your own cards. You have your own income."He is referring to my work as a job counselor for the developmentally challenged and other handicapped workers. I'm surprised. He's never thought of my work as much of an income, not to mention a career, in the past. Moron management is what he'd called it during one awful fight. Still, the money's been steady, and Teddy hasn't turned away a cent of it. And we've always shared the cards, all of them in his name, all of them half-paid off by me."Teddy," I say. "Be reasonable." My heart is squeezing like a sponge. "We're married," I say. "We've got stuff together. Bankaccounts. Cars. Sheets." I'm reciting the meat of our married life as though it's a shopping list. "Now, I know you and Inga are having this ... thing ... right now, but we can't start dividing up our lives all of a sudden. We have to talk ... ."I hear what I have just said and it stops me momentarily. Even through the haze of grapes, I realize how pathetic I sound. I am drunk-dialing a man who's left me for my best friend. I sit up straighter, determined to end this unfortunate phone call immediately."Roseanna," Teddy says before I can do this. "There's something I think you ought to know. Inga and I are buying a house."Little bursts of light, like popping flashcubes, dance before my eyes. A house? Has he gone mad? He has a house, which I am sitting in right now. This is our house, or, at least our apartment. It's the one we'll move out of when we buy our own house, after Teddy makes partner at his law firm and I get pregnant. He's promised me this, he's promised me."A house?" I manage. Teddy is silent. I gaze around the empty living room, where everything is suddenly pink. The window, the door, everything. The inside of my brain is pink."A house!" I scream. "You can't buy a house with Inga! You live here, in this apartment. You have a wife ...""Roseanna," he says firmly. "I will speak to you again when you can be civil."Clunk! goes the phone, and I yell, "Goddamn you, Stracuzza!" I yell it so loud, I think I see the individual fibers of my carpet shaking. But he doesn't hear me; he's hung up. Just like a putz.STARTING OUT SIDEWAYS. Copyright © 2007 by Mary E. Mitchell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.