"Paul, why don't you go in and say something to her?" Our mother had gotten up, crying, from the dining room table and my older sister, Michelle, was urging me to go into the living room to console her.
A little while earlier, while I sat at the kitchen table, Michelle kept on prodding me, "Why can't you talk to me about how you feel? Why don't you just open up, for chrissakes?"
"Damn it, Michelle. Why can't you leave me the hell alone?"
"You've gotta talk about it, or else it'll eat at you. Might - no, will - do some real damage."
"Look't. You know me. You know how I am. You can't teach an old dog new tricks." I made a barking sound to diffuse and derail her.
Michelle "tsk'ed" me three times. That condescending sound so infuriated me - so much like Old Miss Ward, my third grade teacher, who wagged her finger at me and made the same noise if I talked out of turn. Then, at eight, I talked too much. Now, at 38, I remained silent, reticent, remote, aloof.
"Dad's been in the ground...how long has it been?" - I checked my watch - "...only two months. Give me a freakin' break."
She put the last pieces of cutlery into the dishwasher after rinsing each one off. As usual, all of the forks, spoons, knives and serving pieces were in their proper slots - tines up, blades down - an edict from her overly obsessive husband. She wiped her reddened hands on her apron and then turned to me.
"Are you still seeing your therapist?"
"Yeah, I still go. He wants to see me two or even three times a week, but once is enough."
"Are you sure? Maybe..."
"Listen, 'Chelle. I've already paid for his goddam Jaguar. Leave me alone about it already."
Michelle turned away from me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her slowly shaking her head. I could almost taste the sadness that emanated from her. She took off her apron, and folded it over the handle of the oven. "Paulie, could you help me with these." She reached into the dish cabinet and handed me six settings of cups, saucers and cake plates. From the cutlery drawer, she pulled out forks and spoons. I carried them out to the dining room table, where our mother silently sat, and where Michelle's husband was trying, with no luck, to shush their two kids who were squirming noisily in their seats.
At a carefully orchestrated moment, her husband got up and dimmed the dining room chandelier, and Michelle came in from the kitchen, carrying a cake topped with eight lit candles, all symmetrically placed. All at once, they started singing, "Happy birthday to you / Happy birthday to you ..." I was so stunned I could not find the voice to join them.
The cake, a chocolate babka, was placed on the table in front of our mother. The wrinkles on her face were accentuated by the glow from the candles. Tears had already started rolling down her cheeks. "...Happy birthday dear Grandma / Happy birthday to you." I could not believe how inappropriate it all seemed, so soon after our father's death. But I felt paralyzed, as I always had, when she had started to cry. Years of therapy, and I still did not know how to react.
"How can you do this?" she asked between sobs. "Don't you even realize..." And her voice trailed off.
Her kishkes - her insides - were still being ripped out by his sudden, unexpected death. They had so many plans, so many things they wanted to do. But she also wanted to be a loving grandmother and not to make her daughter's family feel sorry in any way for what they had tried to do. After all, they had meant well.
"C'mon Grandma," said the younger child. "Make a wish and blow out the candles."
From deep within came a rasping breath that made the candles flicker eerily before they were extinguished. She looked at the two young ones and said, "You're good children," and then, "I love you all." She grabbed her cane, slowly got up, and limped into the living room.
I gestured at the cake. "What's all this?"
"We were just trying to make Grandma feel better," Michelle said, purposely too loud - as if Grandma could not hear, but to make sure she had. Earlier, when one of their children had escaped into the living room to hide under the grand piano after he was reprimanded, Michelle made a point of saying, "If Robert hadn't kicked his little brother, he would be at the table with us, having some delicious chopped liver and warm challah." When Tessa and I were together we hated being an audience for their bickering. Even then, attending one of their monthly family shabbos dinners had already become an ordeal.
Only one, thin, plasterboard wall separated us. I wanted to get up and go to my mother, but I could not find the strength to get up from my chair. A feeling of discomfort and general angst had come over me, along with a sour aftertaste from the brisket. I knew I had an obligation to go into the living room to be with her, but I could think of no words to say.
It had always been like that. Michelle was the one who could talk and blabber, cry and sob, emote and react. In fact, she was an almost perfect mirror image of our mother. I was the one who closed myself off and shut myself down, much like my father had done when he could take no more. He would then give Mom the silent treatment, often lasting for days. Sometimes, a musical piece, like one of Mahler's symphonies, would cause Mom's eyes to well up with tears. As she reached for a tissue stuck into the long sleeve of her sweater, she would laugh it off by saying that she and Mahler shared the same birthday.
But when I stood before her as she was sobbing, as she put her hand on my arm and kept me too near, I always felt speechless and so powerless, and then had to wait for her storm to subside before I could press my own reset button and continue on as before. Each of these mini-dramas gouged yet another piece out of me and made me feel a bit less whole. After, while she joked about the Mahler connection, or otherwise dismissed me, I had to then react to that as well. Often, all I came up with were vague reassurances or inane pleasantries - "It's okay, Ma. We all feel that way sometimes." - and a false and poorly-timed laugh.
Dr. Schrier, my therapist, had sounded just like my sister when he counseled or exhorted me to "just open up," as if it were so damn simple. After Tessa and I split up, he suggested that I start keeping a journal. He claimed that writing would stop me from dwelling entirely inside my own head, which I admit now could be a dangerous and noxious place to be. I had often imagined myself as something of an author so I got online and started a blog, just as internet blogs were becoming popular. At first, I titled it "Badfella," a take-off on my all-time favorite movie, but after I began, when I started taking it more seriously, I changed its title to the much less original, but much more appropriate "My Random Reflections."
Soon, I started looking forward to typing out my thoughts. I often spent much of my evening stop-and-go commute, thinking about what I would write when I got home. Sometimes, I printed out several of my blogs and brought them to Schrier to discuss. I actually thought I was getting deeper and closer to my soul until one day, I got feedback from a reader for the first time. Three words in the message - "shallow" and "superficial" and "flat" - resounded in me like rapid-fire gunshots. What the fuck? I wondered, and then, Who the fuck? when I caught my breath. I wanted to fire off a caustic response but I was too furious to even think straight.
That night, at my weekly 9:00 appointment, I ran through my usual litany of how the past week had gone. I then decided to tell Schrier about the response to my blog. When I was done, as always, he said, "uh-huh" and waited for my reaction. When I remained silent he said, "You know, it's actually ironic because that is exactly what I've often said to you."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you never seem to open up - really open up. Sometimes I get a glimpse of your feelings, but only a glimpse. We both know you are quite good about using words to describe surface thoughts that sound as though they were deep-seated and buried, but, in reality, you rarely dig deeply at all."
On a few rare occasions, always when I was alone, I had allowed myself to open up, but only slightly. The experiences were sometimes excruciating, and occurred only when my defenses were down. I felt a burning inside, as annoyance mutated into fury, and apprehension into blind terror, and as their own churning momentums spun out of control. At other times, I felt loss, nothingness, a black void, and profound emptiness. It was easier to just wall it all off.
I knew we were getting close to the end of the 45-minute hour, and I was too pissed off to respond. But on the way back to my studio apartment, I could not get out of my head the possibility - the probability - perhaps, the absolute certainty - that I would never be able to dig any deeper, get down any further. A pervasive gloom gave way to resentment and then to an anger so white hot that I banged my fists on the steering wheel.
It was the same thing with Tessa, the Italian - referred to and pronounced as "Eye"-talian by my parents - when we were dating and even later, after we married. I fell in lust with her long black hair and sexy voice on our third date, after we met, quite accidentally, on the Long Island Railroad. On one sunny, Sunday afternoon, we drove up to the Cloisters. The view from the turrets was spectacular, but the pheromones from Tessa were much more overwhelming. She was wearing a short blue skirt with no pantyhose. I can still remember that day as if it were yesterday. And I couldn't keep my hands off of her.
When we left, I drove down the Henry Hudson, the West Side Highway, then slowly through traffic on the new roadway that was replacing the torn-down elevated highway. She sat so close to me that her alluring odor was palpable, and seductively intoxicating. We passed through the Battery tunnel, made our way out to the Belt Parkway, and then parked in the strip under the Verrazano Bridge. We were soon embracing, hungrily devouring each other's mouths, as the sun fell first over the bridge, and then over Staten Island, directly across the Narrows. But we were too busy to notice. Because of the early evening chill, we closed the car windows, which quickly fogged up from our own feverish activity. The car was soon filled with the special smell that remains with me to this day - the musky aroma of Tessa in heat - an odor that I simply could not resist.
"I love you," she said to me at one point. "I love you so much."
All I could think of was Woody Allen, who in one of his movies stuttered, "I loave you.. I loove you..." but he couldn't get the L-word out. I just mumbled, "Mmm" and let her believe what she wanted or needed to.
The more I wanted to be with her, the more our parents put up roadblocks to discourage us. In her extended, gregarious family, the welcome was warm and heartfelt but on a deeper level, I knew I was being held at arm's length. My own parents, who were living much more solitary lives, were quite willing to be openly contemptuous of our relationship. On the few occasions when Tessa was with them, she tried very hard - I don't know if I would have persevered as long - but all she got for her efforts was an icy formality that barely masked their hostility. Only my older sister was supportive. By then, Michelle had met her accountant husband-to-be so she had a kindness and understanding to mete out, although often only sparingly.
After several years of dating and then living together, we decided to elope. To avoid all the complications that were sure to be exacerbated by the discord in our families, we flew out to Las Vegas to get hitched. We got married in an Elvis Presley chapel, witnessed by the next two couples lined up to tie the knot. We marched in to "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and exited to "Love Me Tender." We turned a serious life-event into a humorous anecdote which could always be recounted for a quick laugh. This was my normal modus operandi, the basic way I approached life, and my over-riding way of doing things. Why get serious, when you could always joke about it? Joy, as well as pain, would simply evanesce like the smoke from my ever-present pipeful of marijuana. And I could go on toking on life, untouched and unaffected.
Our honeymoon, such as it was, was soon over. "Why don't you take me seriously when I talk to you?" and "I can't always be the one who makes all the effort." This was Tessa in one of her less agitated moods. But it was far better than a shrieked out "Why don't you fucking listen to me?" or a "Don't you ever give a damn, you miserable son of a bitch?"
Between her "you always"s and "you never"s and her way of looking at almost everything in absolutes, I knew I could never win. Every slight, every perceived misunderstanding, every argument, resulted in a fusillade, an avalanche, a tirade of accusations and recriminations that seemed to last for hours until I could take it no longer. All I ever wanted was a quick in-and-out - a verbal jab, jab, feint, uppercut, back step. My idea was to get it all out, scream and curse and holler and yell, and then get it over with, goddam it. But she claimed that my way shut her down and belittled her. Negated her. Denied her. Made her feel worthless. I often had to bite my tongue and sometimes, it was all I could do stop from lashing out at her with a real knockout punch.
We had decided early on that it was never good to go to bed angry. Sometimes, we went at it all evening until there was a resolution, a reconciliation, or we just got too exhausted, too disgusted, or too turned off. One time, long after midnight, I got into bed first and pulled the covers up to my chin. When she followed me into our king-sized bed, I turned on my left side, away from her. I heard her clicking buttons on her alarm clock before she turned off her reading light. My body was tense, like a clenched fist.
"Honey?" Tessa said, in a small voice.
I said nothing, but I listened to my breathing and also to hers, on high alert for any movement, any nuance.
"Do you want me to hold you?"
I so much wanted her to, but I couldn't. I wanted to be cared for and embraced, but I could not turn over. Instead, I drew further into myself, still angry, still hurt.
The covers rustled almost imperceptibly and I felt her fingers hovering on my shoulder, like soft tendrils gently reaching out to make peace and to get me to come back.
I turned my shoulder inward and shifted my body. Her hand fell away. I so wanted her hand on me, her arms around me, but I was so tightly imprisoned that I could not let it happen. I wanted to scream out "Hold me! Love me! Be with me!" - I wanted so badly to feel the warmth of her body against me. But the more my need for her intensified, the more that other part of me refused to cave in, refused to surrender, refused to succumb. My eyes were filled with tears that stayed dry while I gritted my teeth in defiance. Deep down, I yearned and ached for her but I could not stop myself from pushing her away.
She turned over onto her right side, away from me. Moments later, I heard her breathing become steady and even, and then even heavier and deeper.
Once again, I had lost the opportunity for reconnection, for redemption. I lay frustrated and wide awake while the red numerals, 2:36, then 2:37 and 2:38 stared silently back at me. It was early in the morning, but it was already too late for me.
Because of the unrelenting pressure from our respective families, who could never get beyond their nasty prejudices, but more probably because Tessa and I could never find a way to reconcile our unbridgeable emotional differences and needs, we divorced after four childless years. Another trip out to Las Vegas, and we were no longer husband and wife. This time, there was no "Return to Sender," no "Heartbreak Hotel." And, thank Goodness, no kids.
When we arrived back on the red-eye, Tessa dropped her bag on the floor and immediately left with the dog for a long walk. I spent the time packing, though I had moved out mentally long before. I left her a note that I'd return during the week to pick up the rest of my stuff, and I was gone before she returned. That night, for the first time in years, I didn't wake up wheezing. I didn't have to grope in the dark for my inhaler so that I could take in a lung-full of air.
Dr. Schrier had tried to get me to discover what I could learn from the experience of being with Tessa for our nine contentious years together. Contentious - what a coldly clinical way he had of putting it. I would have described it, more accurately, as "fucked up," used as both a descriptor and a verb. I fucked up. She fucked up. We fucked up. We all fucked up. It was all fucked up. Only rarely, and then only intellectually, was I willing to own up to my own responsibility. But there was only so far I was ever willing to take my own self-examination.
There was an awkward and uncomfortable silence in the dining room, interrupted only by the kids slurping soda through their straws. Mom was sitting in the living room. I could not hear anything, but I could feel her sobbing.
"C'mon, Paulie," Michelle pleaded. "Do me this favor."
"No. I can't." And I shook my head.
"She needs you, Paulie. Please."
So I put my fork down and got up. The lights were off in the living room, but the room was dimly lit from the dining room. In the semi-darkness, I could see my mother drying her eyes. She peered up at me, searchingly, through those glasses of hers with the oddly-shaped over-sized frames. Suddenly, she looked so old, so frail, so lost. I took a deep breath and sat down next to her. I turned to her and opened my mouth, magically hoping that words would come. But I just couldn't. I couldn't say anything. There was only silence.
I put my arm around her bony shoulder and drew her close. She felt so fragile, almost breakable. A moment passed, and she melted against me. A sob, then another. "Oh, Paul," she said. "It's been so difficult."
"I know, Mom. I know."
"Your father was my life. He was all I had."
But what about me? What about Michelle? What about your grandchildren?
But, instead, I held it in and told her, "It's so hard when you lose somebody you love."
And maybe, just maybe, I even meant it.
Rev 7 / September 27, 2004
September, 2004 Copyright © 2004, Lloyd B. Abrams