Funny Accent: A Novel

Funny Accent: A Novel

by Barbara Shulgasser-Parker

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429980609
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 214 KB

About the Author

Barbara Shulgasser-Parker is a native New Yorker. She was on staff at the Chicago Sun-Times and was a film critic for the San Francisco Examiner for thirteen years. She wrote, with Robert Altman, the film Pret-a-Porter, and her work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Glamour, The Chicago Tribune, and Mirabella. She lives in Santa Monica, California with her husband Norman Parker.

Barbara Shulgasser-Parker is a native New Yorker. She was on staff at the Chicago Sun-Times and was a film critic for the San Francisco Examiner for thirteen years. She wrote, with Robert Altman, the film Pret-a-Porter, and her work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Glamour, The Chicago Tribune, and Mirabella. She lives in Santa Monica, California with her husband Norman Parker.

Read an Excerpt

Funny Accent

By Barbara Shulgasser-Parker


Copyright © 2001 Barbara Shulgasser-Parker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8060-9


The animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz performed an experiment in the nineteen thirties to help him document his observations on imprinting. Little geese seemed to know the minute they hatched from the egg that they were supposed to follow around their mothers, a sort of genetic safety feature. But would a gosling follow only its mother? Or would it simply follow the first thing it saw?

So Lorenz placed himself before an imminently hatching egg. The egg cracked open, the gooey gosling peeked through the jagged shell, took one look at Lorenz, squeaked "Mom," and dutifully followed the man everywhere. This kind of built-in programming has its assets, but when the programming goes awry — when it's clear that a gosling doesn't identify its mother but rather hopefully assumes the first face it sees will be a friendly guide to a good life — hazards abound.

Farther up along the evolutionary chain the results can be just as disastrous. The first time Misha kissed me he was fifty-one. I was thirteen. Some people might think of this as sexual abuse. I think of it as sexual abuse. Well, I do now, these many years later. But for a long time it didn't seem like abuse; it couldn't have been because I liked it so much. To make a long story short, I've been following around the wrong geese ever since.

So, I started the short story, set in 1967: "She was thirteen the first time. He was fifty-one. They were in the kitchen leaning against a Formica counter and laughing," and one of the magazines I sent it to was good enough to publish it.

It had taken awhile to get it right. More was required than a simple retelling of the events. It seemed important to explain that the "he" was a survivor, someone who had triumphed over Adolph Hitler's plans to kill him. It seemed important to place him among my parents' friends, as another one of the lucky ones who lived. Of the thirty-seven thousand Jewish inhabitants of the Kovno ghetto, he and my parents were among the three thousand to make it through the war. Their interrupted lives continued in America. The doctors washed dishes. The lawyers delivered seltzer. The accountants taught Hebrew school. All of them studied English, worked nights, earned baccalaureates anew, ate distressing foods, counted unfamiliar money and, in response to their ordeal, survived yet again; it had become habit. When the exams were over and they were opening practices and starting businesses, the postwar boom tossed them spinning into the unexpected good life. They found themselves homeowners, parents and citizens who, benevolent and patriotic, would cheerfully come to regard newer immigrants as "foreigners." They were solid, participatory members of the community, licensed, board-certified, registered, and so they treated illnesses, sold property, built shopping centers and negotiated their way through life with funny accents and unbending wills. He was just like the others.

Suddenly I was leaning on a kitchen counter and he, with a martini in one hand, was leaning toward me, looking into my eyes, looking at my mouth, raising his free hand to my waist as if he meant to touch it, but withdrawing it before he did. As he studied my face with what seemed a clinical attentiveness, I won dered, Was there something wrong with me — an erupting blemish of ghastly fascination? His face was as close to mine as a dentist about to drill. I could feel his breath, a communicative moistness, sending a message I was eager to absorb. I was breathing, barely, but I didn't move. I was equally afraid and exhilarated. My parents had known him for thirty years and I trusted he would behave sensibly. So when he kissed me and eased his way through my startled mouth, when I felt him surrounding me with his arms and pressing my thin torso to his hot chest, and when I considered wriggling free but didn't, the sensation was, at first, more of betrayed confidence than revulsion. I was, in fact, too young, too raw to respond, a late developer. My body hadn't yet been wired for comprehending, let alone experiencing, the sensual pleasures he proffered. I sat motionless, assessing the way his tongue felt in my mouth. But mostly I welcomed his boldness because it initiated me into a hitherto forbidden world. He was treating me like an adult, I thought, a term I wanted applied to me. And if that meant enduring his heated embrace, it seemed a small price to pay for accreditation.

I was, as I said, a slow developer with a face that expressed an exoticism beyond my years, and I found I had the more than passing attention of many of my parents' male friends. But I wasn't yet quite sure why it was that men chased women in the first place and what they planned to do with them once they caught them. So the reason that this thirteen-year-old did not push away the man with his tongue in her mouth could be a little difficult to explain.

"Am I your type?" he asked me between kisses. "What do you look for in a boyfriend? You do have a boyfriend, don't you?

"No," I said shaking my head shyly. I wanted him to know that I was free. Free to be his.

"Impossible," he said. Or, to give you a better idea, "Eem puhsabool." Most of my parents' friends came from Lithuania, as Misha did, but the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Czechs and the Hungarians spoke with the same Yiddish lilt. For many, Yiddish was their first language and it left their mouths forever twisted and vocal chords trained. I learned that a Yiddish accent had less to do with the precise production of consonants or vowels than with the whiney interrogative in which they were sung.

"Impossible," he said again. He looked at me, his eyes sweeping over my face and then my body so that I felt embarrassed by the scrutiny. "What you need," and here he paused, pleased that he was not only going to tell me what I needed but also suggest where I could get it, "is a guy. That would solve your problems." I was interested because I could see that he was referring to himself. He wanted to solve my problems. Subtly, tacitly, he was moving in on me, into my brain as intently as toward my body. He was approaching as if he knew more than I did, which he certainly did. But the allure of it was that there was something in his strategy that assumed some knowledge on my part as well. I sensed the presumption and relished it. My ear for the dog whistles of social intercourse was somewhat more well developed than my glandular system. I hadn't yet felt the flush of lust, that squeeze of pumping fluids feeding the sexual apparatus. But even if I didn't know what it felt like to succumb to an overheating pelvis, I did understand what it was to be manipulated, and it pleased me that he held me in high-enough regard to bother. He was going to trouble over me and I was flattered.

So, wondering where my parents were, I put my arms around his neck and opened my mouth to him.

The years passed. I'd see him at parties. He drank with the men. He danced with all the women, although everyone agreed that he and my mother made an especially graceful couple. Each time I would see him, his appearances weeks and sometimes months apart, the courtship would seem to begin again, puz-zlingly, as if from the start. His indirectness left me bewildered. I wasn't sure if he was trying to fool my parents or me. I would mistake his hesitation for courtliness, and wonder, Has he forgotten that he kissed me the last time? Was my memory faulty or hadn't he wrapped himself around me then? Without his acknowledgment to assure me otherwise, I wondered, Had anything actually happened, or had I imagined it all? Detecting my confusion, he would proceed at each meeting, but slowly, delicately resuming his artful scam like a swindler returning to an old mark. And like the best con men, he made being taken seem a pleasure.

Between visits I would pout in front of the mirror, examining myself critically for what drew him to me. At that time, I could find no clues in my surprised eyes and curling mouth. "You're a beauty," my mother would tell me, but I thought I knew better and had only pity for the poor woman. She longed to have a daughter as beautiful as she once had been. I cringed at the sight of my lollipop head, stubbornly upright on a stem of ligaments and bone that, with the green veins visible, reminded me, in translucency and explicitness, of a dissection chart. My face, to me, looked dull, boringly near symmetrical, with a mop of black, lank fibers framing an oval of squint-inducing whiteness bisected by a left-leaning nose. Where was the beauty?

Each visit marked a sexual encounter — a kiss, a feel, a quick unzipping in a bathroom or in my bedroom, the promise always looming of more to come one day when he, the initiator of these games, deemed the timing right. Given his seniority in this matter, I naively attributed logic, forethought and deliberateness to his actions. I was sure he must have had a plan. And with my hormones finally dispensing in high dosage, I wanted more, much more. But he remained eerily restrained, a biological anomaly. How could he hold back, I wondered? He went so far and no farther, always stopping us before genital could conjoin with genital. It was as if he was the underage virgin, saving himself for true love.

The substitutes for intercourse were comical. He would fondle me behind a garden of potted plants in a hidden hallway near the den. I'd laugh as he kissed me, grateful that my mother had painstakingly nurtured the shefflera to such camouflaging height and lushness. There were other clandestine locations.

"Here, come here with me," he'd hiss, ushering me into an upstairs bathroom. "God, you feel wonderful," he said holding me against him. Or, what he actually said was, "Gutchew feel wahnderfool." Unlike many of his compatriots, he had mastered the English pronunciation of the letter W and only rarely, in moments of duress, uttered the V sound instead.

"Gutchew feel wahnderfool," he said, and I would have made love to him on the spot but he pulled away. My sweater was up, my bra undone. And suddenly he was hooking me up again and tucking the sweater back in. "We'd better get back. They'll wonder where we are." He examined himself in the mirror for signs of wear, smoothed his hair and adjusted his tie. "I'll go first. We shouldn't leave at the same time."

I could see my flushed reflection looking back at myself chidingly. What am I doing? I asked myself. What am I doing kissing an old man?

I was learning the ropes. I was learning the fundamental lessons a woman learns. I didn't know it at the time. I thought I was unique. I saw my experience as unusual, a dark, tainting secret I would tell no one until years later. I was learning what every woman eventually learns. There are men out there, narcissistic, preening, predatory men who haven't a generous impulse or an unselfish sentiment anywhere within, who also happen to be handsome, charming, fun to be with and sexually attractive. And in the early stages of a woman's education, it is extremely difficult to figure out that these men are to be avoided. My highly unscientific observations have led me to conclude that it is possible to avoid such men but generally luck plays a large role in the avoidance. And the odds are against a girl being that lucky.

Avoiding them is just not that easy. When Misha entered a room, usually fashionably late to ensure maximum attention, the effect was galvanizing to a certain kind of female. His special effects included a perpetual suntan (quick trips to Florida through the winter kept his coloring high), a fastidiously maintained, sylphlike waistline and thick, shining black hair, short on the sides but long enough on top for a few oh-so-casual curls to beckon in the breeze. He wore handmade shoes with soles so thin they seemed designed for floating rather than walking. His suits were made of fabrics so supple that to brush accidentally against the sleeve of his coat was to begin the sensual experience.

Had I been able to write off our passionate moments as youthful indiscretions and move on profitably, I would be a well woman today. I might even have broken away from him and become attracted to more suitable companions, but soon Misha embodied more than just a ticket out of awkward adolescence. He had awakened me, and once this happened I was more or less immobilized by lust. He knew it, and would call long distance only as often as necessary to fan in me an obsession that might otherwise have died.

"I've been thinking about your neck all day today," he once called to tell me, and as a flush spread over me, I hugged my hands between my legs.

I tried to pretend insouciance when he called, trilling my replies languorously the way I thought a woman with innumer able lovers calling to worship her scorching anatomy would do. I wanted to hide from him that he was the only one, that my desire was irretrievable, that I was lost.

"When are you coming to see me?" he would moan. Where, I wondered when I heard the burr on his voice, were his hands?

I yearned to know him well, the way one knows an old friend, the way my parents knew him. They spoke wistfully of the war, of deprivation, of bailing each other out of tight spots, of laughing and drinking when the proposition of tomorrow seemed doubtful. But I knew that his excitement with me was rooted in how little we knew each other. It was guaranteed and sustained by the long separations. I must have seemed new to him at every meeting. A few months would have passed. I would be taller, emotionally more mature, better read, more cynical, altered in comportment and conformation. Add to that a bit of sexual frisson, and how enthralling it all must have been for him. I was a new person each time he saw me. As the already formed adult, he remained the same, time after time, yet I found him elusive. When I tried to picture him muddling through his daily schedule, I had no starting point, no image of him fixing breakfast or sitting behind an office desk. I could not call up any credible visual of him as a creature subject to the banalities of daily life. He seemed detached, above the drudgery of commuting, grocery shopping, shoe repair.

I longed for the intermittent meetings, hoping to see him when his American wife, a woman named Angela (whom he referred to as Angel for reasons, friends presumed, having to do with her godlike patience), was off spending her inheritance, globetrotting somewhere without him. He began to interrupt my peace, to become the focus of my life. When we did steal moments alone together, the sexual frustration was corrosive. Inexperienced as I was, I couldn't understand why he would kiss me, remove most of my clothes, put his hands all over my body, put my hands all over his, yet never actually, completely, out-and-out fuck me. I was in hormonal agony, literally aching for him to be inside me. I thought that this man of the world was engaging in some practice well known to the initiated, some kundalini self-denial that gave him unsurpassed pleasure, and that for me to question it would only underscore my sexual ignorance.

Not only did our relationship foster miserable deprivation and sexual frustration, but the infrequent, hasty and unsatisfying encounters infringed on my ability to be interested in other men. Other men, particularly men my age, were wan substitutes. I was paralyzed.

I went to college, where I lost my virginity passionlessly — it was time, I thought — to a college soccer player, but mostly I was alone with my thoughts of Misha.

When I was twenty-three, I took a job in a new city. His occasional calls continued. But enough was enough. Here at last was the chance to shake myself of the infatuation. I knew I had to do something. I would either force consummation or accept rejection. He would sleep with me or he would leave me alone.

When I first considered taking the trip to Boston — a spur-of-the-moment inspiration arrived at one night after Misha had called to perform his ritual telephonic foreplay — I immediately dismissed the venture as absurd. The patent aggression of the act repelled me. I imagined his face on seeing me, the shock registering and my embarrassment. I thought that if humiliation was required to expunge my demons, I'd rather live with them. But that wasn't true. I've never been able to tolerate inertia. Whenever I've been troubled I've always felt I had to do something to set it right. If he said no to me, that would be an end to the uncertainty. Under these conditions, there would be certainty in going to bed together and there would be certainty in not going to bed together. Certainty was the thing, I tried to tell myself Of course that wasn't exactly so. Going to bed together was the thing.

So where did I find the gall? I needed only to recall his kisses, to remember his ardor. "I can hardly stand to be in a room with you and other people," he had told me as we pressed pelvises on the dance floor at a party years before. "I want to throw rocks at them."

And I remember a ride we took when I was eighteen. We were coming back with my parents from a dinner party in a remote corner of New Jersey. They were in front, we were in the rear. The ride was long and in the dark backseat of the rumbling sedan, with my mother and father blithely sitting just a yard or so ahead of us, he undid every button, snap and fastener on everything I was wearing, including the zippers on my boots, to achieve better access. I thought with horror, I'm going to get out of the car and all my clothes will fall off.


Excerpted from Funny Accent by Barbara Shulgasser-Parker. Copyright © 2001 Barbara Shulgasser-Parker. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part 1 - The Geese,
Part 2 - The Late Twentieth Century,
Part 3 - God Gave Us Appetites,
Part 4 - Getting Cut for Love,
Part 5 - Not The Language of Love,
About The Author,

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