Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Volume On

One arm around her waist, the other bent, a glowing stub jammed between
index and middle knuckles, the way men hold cigarettes. Wearing a tux,
he’s looking at her in her Jackie Kennedy wig and the lime silk dress my grandparents
brought back from the Orient (they called it the Orient then). Her head is tossed
back, laughing at something he said. Our parents are caught in the lens for a change
in this old home movie where there is nothing but silence. There is nothing but silence
as I sit and watch the hours of birthday parties, Christmas mornings and dinners
my brother has converted to video from reel-to-reel. Our childhood a vacuum,
our childhood muted. But I remember the sound of the front door squeaking open
and my brother looking up to see me on the landing. “She can hear you!” he
screamed at my parents, perched in the love seat, in their matching terry bathrobes, ice crackling and sliding in glasses they’d long stopped drinking from to negotiate the end of our family. Slipping off his maroon-and-cream varsity coat, my brother wrapped me in the scratchy fabric, the collar smelling of sweat and his girlfriend’s perfume, and carried me back to bed, while words still poured from their mouths.

My Grandmother's Gloves

"So what did she give you this time?" my husband asked as our car merged onto the New Jersey Turnpike. "More stuff," I said, shuffling through the bag. There were green linen napkins, cat-food coupons held together with a paper clip, and a faded decorative box. "I wish she'd stop giving her things away."

For the past year, every trip to my grandmother's house has yielded a gift. I wrinkle my nose whenever she points to the bag she's left by the door so I won't forget it. "Grandma, why are you giving me this?" I protested when she gave me her tureen. "Who in the world am I going to make that much soup for?" was her reply. "Grandma, this is one of your favorite art books. Why don't you want it?" "I don't see very well anymore. You enjoy it."

Home, after my latest visit, I put the napkins in the top drawer of the server, and the cat coupons in the kitchen drawer, adding to the pile of others she's clipped. She usually mails them to me, but if she knows we're coming, she slips them into the bag that will most certainly be sitting at the back door.

Now what could be in this old box? I lifted off the top, concave after years of sitting under something heavy. First, the smell of mothballs; next, yellowed and cracked tissue paper. Then gloves. Gloves? On top were a pair of off-white leather driving gloves. And the deeper I dug, the more elegant they became: crocheted, satin with bows, with pearls. And at the bottom, protected in plastic, were--I discovered as I shimmied them out of their casing--above-the-elbow-opera gloves.

The month I turned 13, my grandmother took me to see three operas on three consecutive Saturday afternoons. "I could never do this with your mother," she said, sitting next to me on the bus into Manhattan. "When she was your age, we were in the Depression. It's good to be introduced to culture as a young lady."

Over the years, my grandmother and I saw many more matinee performances together. "Oh, you should see how grand the opera is on Saturday nights," she often said. "The men wear tuxedos, the women gowns." But when we went, Grandma wore her wool coat. We'd grab a bite to eat at the Metropolitan Opera House restaurant for ticket holders, then slip into our seats. "I couldn't do this with your mother," she'd whisper as the orchestra swelled. "No, I couldn't."

I came to see that there were many things my grandmother, for reasons I may never understand, did not do with my mother. Even as my grandmother's health began to fail and the sorrow of age overtook it, it was with me she cried. "I can't read the newspaper anymore...I can't walk across the room...I could never tell this to your mother. I'm scared."

Gloves. I was baffled. A serving plate she doesn't need, I understand. Candle-stick holders she hasn't used in years, sure. But why did she dig out this old box? Then I remembered. A few weeks, sitting in her den on a Sunday, reading the Times, my eyes landed on this season's opera schedule. I turned to her, sitting in what was my grandfather's chair, and watched her for a few moments, holding a magnifying glass to her large-print book, her hands trembling from age.

"Let's go to the opera," I said. Before she could protest, I told her we could arrange for a wheelchair at the curb. There's nothing really to see in an opera anyway, it's all about the music, I pressed. I joked we'd get preferential treatment, that people might think we're famous. "Especially because we'll be all dressed up. C'mon. Let's be ladies together."

"No," she replied. "We had some wonderful times. But now, you should go with your husband."

Do women still wear opera gloves? I thought as I pulled on each one, smoothing out the lace up past my elbows. Something felt scratchy against my left forearm. When I pulled off the glove and turned it inside out, I found a small tag, a price tag. My grandmother had never worn these gloves; and, I realized sadly, had probably never seen how grand the opera is on a Saturday night. When I go, I will get all dressed up and wear them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

When the Boardwalk Came to Life

The metal gates on storefronts from Chelsea to Virginia Avenues rattled up with a crash. Concession works slowly pushed couples in high-backed wicker rolling chairs. And for the kids in town, the amusement piers reopened: Painted horses bobbed on the carousel. Hawkers at the arcades dared people to Teeery yer luck, only a quarter while the Lucky Wheel clickety-clacked around and around. The air was filled with the toasty aroma of popcorn and peanuts. On Easter Sunday, after its winter nap, the Atlantic City boardwalk turned magical for another tourist season.

Too early for "summer people," the Easter Sunday celebration was like a cocktail party for the locals before the big banquet began. Every year, through junior high and high school, my best friends--Linda, Susan and Diane--and I saved our allowance and baby-sitting money so we could buy a new blouse or jacket from Lit Brothers to wear to the boardwalk on Easter Sunday. We set our alarms to get to an early mass and be out in time to get to one of our houses (usually Diane's) to get dressed and put on enough makeup to brighten our faces (but not too much for our mothers to notice). Then we made our way to the corner of Ventnor and Jackson where we caught the jitney that took us uptown to the boardwalk.

Now, if a boy liked you, he'd never ask to spend the entire day with you because he was there with his pals, too. This was a friends day. Instead, he'd arrange to meet you at a set time at the Orient Express on Million Dollar Pier. The two of you would climb into one of the red torn chairs that jerked along tracks through a dark labyrinth. A mechanical dummy rose out of its sarcophagus. You'd scream. He'd laugh--or maybe he'd take your hand and still be holding it when the car rolled out into sunlight again.

Anything was possible the day the boardwalk opened.

I am the child of newlyweds who honeymooned in Atlantic City, then decided to stay and raise a family there. When grand hoteels with names like Marlboro and Blenheim framed the boardwalk like an ornate setting around a jewel. When biplanes flew up and down the shoreline, beckoning beachgoers to visit the "World Famous Steel Pier," then to dine at Captain Starn's on the inlet. Visitors came from all over to our city by the sea from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when the Miss America Pageant provided a stunning epilogue to summertime.

But by the late '60s, when my friends and I were starting to meet those boys on the pier, the crowds had stopped coming to town. Air travel was less expensive and families were choosing more "exotic" destinations than the Jersey Shore. Over the course of the next decade, dozens of business failed. My dad sold his discount drug store and took a job delivering liquor and groceries. Still, every Easter Sunday, our families hoped that the new season would be better and pull us out of the downward spiral. Wasn't it possible?

Then, in November 1976, the year that we graduated from high school, the referendum was passed that would bring casino gambling--and a livelihood--back to Atlantic City. Most of us were thrilled with the prospect of a business boom, of construction jobs for our fathers and brothers, perhaps not fully realizing that before something new can go up, something old must come down.

Bally's Park Place, a casino hotel, stands where the Marlboro-Blenheim once surveyed its domain. And if Captain Starn's hadn't been torn down and you got a coveted window seat, the view of the open bay would be obliterated by the Borgata. Although many ma-and-pa stores still operate, they are a tiny batallion that fights for territory. The boys from Ireland who came to work the piers summer after summer are long gone, the piers destroyed or converted to serve new functions: a shopping mall, a helicopter landing pad for high-rollers. And though the echoes of laughing and shrieking children--of us--are dim, I can hear them between the thud of the crashing waves.

Today Atlantic City is a year-round resort. Even in winter, hordes of people pull their coats tightly around themselves as they stalk the boardwalk from casino to casino, in and out of the of neon tabernacles. But I remember winters when the only hue was the gray of the sky and the pigeons that scavenged for food. But just until Easter Sunday, when the boardwalk would come to life, full of sights and sounds and smells...and everything was possible again.

My Ba'sheret

Ba’sheret. That’s the Hebrew word for soul mate. The meeting, the melding. Soul mate, a lover. Soul mate, a friend. I read an article in the Tampa Bay News a few weeks ago. I had to write a lead based on the piece that was subject-authored. Tricia Rosenthal and her husband had been married for seven years, five of them spent wrestling with the monthly disappointment that there was still no baby. IVF, ICSI, endometrial surgery, Chlomid, Pergonal. Injections. Nothing. And so they decided to adopt. But in their 40s, birth mothers on this side of the Atlantic would find them too old. They thought about Romania, Russia; the children are Caucasian, but the children are troubled. In China, though, they care for their lost little girls, the doe-eyed babies abandoned on church steps, left with notes tucked into clothing. This is Chu. Please take care of her, please love her. Anyway, the Tampa Bay couple traveled to China to meet the little girl that the adoption agency said was theirs. And the moment they saw her, the minute she was placed in their arms, they knew they had met their Ba’sheret.

I knew I would never have a baby of my own. I somehow felt out of step with the other little girls who walked around with their baby dolls stuffed under the shirts, who pulled them out by their plastic legs and announced, “I have a baby boy.” “I have a little girl.” I never stuffed a doll under my clothes. I knew I would never have a baby of my own. Yet, I believed I would be a mother. I believed it when I was in high school, and I first got ill. I believed it when the doctor told me, at 29, that my window of opportunity was quickly closing. But I was with a man who didn’t want children anyway. Maybe this is what was meant to be, I was never meant to be a mother, and the memory of that viscous bundle swirling in the cabarnet water so many years before hurt even more.

Rosalie An Cutchall. Rosalie An Cutchall came to America on a hot August day. When Emily first emailed her picture to me a week before, I watched her unroll like a flag on my computer screen. First the top of her head, that shiny black hair, then her eyes, her short flat nose, and a mouth that was thin and flat. This child doesn’t smile, I thought as the little girl stared back at me.

But Rosalie did smile. She smiled and bobbed, her tiny hand holding onto the coffee table in Emily and Larry’s living room. I was angry that she was so happy. I was angry that Emily and Larry were so happy. Three weeks before, there was no Rosalie. And now, she was the most important thing in their lives. Rosalie An Cutchall was their daughter.

“What do you see when you look at them?” I asked my husband. “I see a couple with a Chinese baby,” he said. But that’s not what I saw. I saw a family. I saw a mother and child. And while at first, when the three of us went out together, to the mall, to a restaurant, while I was sensitive to people’s stares, as the months passed, I didn’t look anymore. I didn’t care.

On the top shelf of my closet, somewhere nestled among my photo albums and the ATT wireless bag I brought my cell phone home in (I can’t get rid of it, it’s a nice sturdy bag) is the information Emily gave me about Chinese adoptions. Not too long ago, my husband said that he’s finally seeing them as a family. He doesn’t see the difference. When a family loves one another, they are the same. But he still doesn’t want any children.

I pull that manila folder down from the shelf, the dust slide off and leaves a thin gray line on my black shirt. I pull out the papers, the brochures, the lists of contacts. I give them a cursory look and lay a final piece of paper on the pile.

“When we met Susanna, I knew she was my Ba’sheret.” My eyes focus on the call-out as I slide the article into the folder and shut the closet door.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Port Authority Police Wore Gray—You Wore Blue

This month, Rutgers student Haisong Jiang graduates with a Ph.D. in molecular biosciences. I don’t know what his plans are, but my guess is they will include a trip--maybe home to China or out west to see his girlfriend.

This next visit to an airport will likely be less dramatic than one made earlier this year when he broke security at Newark Liberty International Airport to give his girlfriend one more kiss—a breach that ended up emptying Terminal C. I was riveted to the story; I wanted to facebook him. And I wasn’t surprised to see that the media had made the connection between Jiang’s leap of love to the final scene in “Casablanca.”

I was weaned on a television picture tube, logging countless hours of old movies, wiping away tears as lovers parted at train stations or docks. But an airport good-bye was different. Something about the sky. And when Rick put Ilsa on the last plane to Lisbon, the bar was set. So I happily drove boyfriends to the airport; and I always asked for that service myself. While metal detectors and baggage checks sort of interrupted the sentimental stroll down the concourse, at least we could stay together up to the gate, the nose of the plane poking at the terminal window. I’d imagine a foggy night, a 1920s Travel Air Light Transport waiting…. Even though Rick and Ilsa’s would be an immeasurable separation, only one day apart could feel like forever, right?

But I never felt the fervor of a “Casablanca” farewell. Right airports, wrong guys, I guess. The closest I got was with the boy I met over college spring break. He drove me to the airport (check), walked me to the gate (check). They were announcing last call to board. Time was fleeting! I pictured the propellers spinning as Major Strasser sped along Casablanca’s streets to arrest Victor Laszlo. Perfect. But then, in a nanosecond he’d kissed me (I think) and disappeared into a sea of Tappa Tappa Kegga t-shirts. I took my window seat in dejection until--as the plane began its escalating roar down the runway--I saw him standing on the roof of his van parked along the fence, waving as we lifted off.

While that airport adieu was more romantic comedy than melodrama, it is a memory I cherish. I am sad for today’s lovers. What Mr. Spring Break did could not be replicated in these times, when Port Authority Police give you about 10 seconds at the curb. Don’t even think about shutting off the motor or getting out except for a “Beat the Clock”-style luggage toss. I thought it was mostly our innocence that had been lost in these post-9/11 days. But I’m thinking we lost a good bit of romance too. Here’s looking at you, Jiang.

Too Late to Die (Really) Young

“What’s the name of the street?” I asked, twirling my spaghetti.

Keith took a deep breath, twisted his mouth in thought, then said: “Hamilton.”

I took a deep breath. “No,” I said. “Hamilton is the street we live on now.”

“It begins with an H,” he said.

“That’s not good enough,” I replied. “There are lots of streets that begin with an H.”

“I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

“Harvard Avenue. Harvard,” I exhaled. “If you leave me at the wrong one, I’ll haunt you forever.”

I’d issued this pop quiz to my husband many times over the years. And always, always, he failed. So I told my closest friends and my brother—and I put in my living will—that I wanted my ashes to be spread where Harvard Avenue meets the boardwalk in my hometown of Ventnor, New Jersey, the town just south of Atlantic City.

Why cremation? I’m claustrophobic, I’d joked. But I wanted to sail into the salt air, then hang there for a moment before mingling with the sand on the beach where I once built castles, where I played Truth or Dare with my friends, where I got drunk on Ripple and high on cheap weed. Where I touched boys and let them touch me. I learned who I was on the Harvard Avenue beach. And though I’d been as happy or happier since those days, where I entered life was where I wanted to enter eternity.

I used to think about my death a lot—a preoccupation with the end of my life that had been with me all my life. I was about five when I first saw on television A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic. As the black-and-white images flashed in the darkness of our den, I imagined myself there on the sloping deck. The film made such an impression on me that for weeks afterward, in my nightly bath, I’d recreate the last scene, pushing the bow of my toy boat into the sudsy water, forcing the stern up high, then pulling it slowly beneath the surface while humming “Nearer My God to Thee.” I’ll know I’m dying, I’d think. It won’t come suddenly—it will be a slow slide.

Over and over I read Jo’s poem to her dead sister Beth in "Little Women": With one last look, one loving sigh, on the breast where she drew her first breath, she quietly drew her last…. Yes, I will die quietly and tragically young like Beth, I thought.

But I outlived Beth and made it to 1972: the year I sat in the back of the Margate Theater and watched lovely Jenny die for the fifth or sixth time. I’d already read "Love Story" about 15 times (though I wasn’t as obsessed as Roxy Kaplan, who’d memorized the entire text and walked around school asking people if they wanted to know what was on page 47…or 68…or…). Still, there isn’t a 45- to- 100-year-old-woman who doesn’t know by heart the beginning of the story: What can you say about a twenty-four-year-old girl who died…? I will die quietly and beautifully young, I thought. Eleven years later, in the months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I was so convinced I wouldn’t survive the year that I didn’t buy any new clothes.

My library at home was filled with titles that had “the Light” in them: Waiting for…, Dancing into…, Embraced by . “You’re morbid,” my husband would say. “You need to talk to someone.”
“Or maybe you’re an old soul,” my friend Sharon offered. “You’ve been through death so many times, you’re like a weary commuter who recognizes there’s always the next connection just down the track.” Okay, I’ll accept that, I thought. And I wanted to make sure that when the doors opened for me and I stepped out, my husband would know what to do.

But then some years ago, after a routine abdominal surgery, I developed a blockage—on a holiday weekend. My doc was in the Hamptons, and the residents were afraid to bother him until they knew it was absolutely necessary. Around 2 in the morning, it became absolutely necessary. My vital signs plummeted. As they were rushing me on the gurney to the operating room in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, I wasn’t waiting or dancing or ready to embrace anything. I was scared. I wanted to get back to my money-pit house and my mess of an office where I worked from home at a job I hated and my perfect-mommy neighbor who entertained 30 kids in her yard every afternoon while I was trying to work at the job I hated. I did go home—to a husband, whom I came to see couldn’t remember the name of my final resting place because he couldn’t care less about my life. I finally did see a light I hadn’t been searching for, and we divorced.

So am I still bent on cremation someday? Well, depending on how one interprets Jewish law (and I’ve read conflicting reports on this topic), I’ll be ineligible for planting
anyway because I will have altered—vandalized—my body, which is a sin against Our Creator. You see, in two years I plan on getting a tattoo to celebrate my 50th birthday.

If I live so long.


Everyone always told me I had the most beautiful mother. My friends’ parents, my teachers. My boyfriends. “I look like my father,” I always responded. But on this late autumn afternoon, with the sun peeking through the thickening October sky beyond the window, I can no longer see it.

“You came,” he whispers through fearful, clouded eyes. He slips his hand from beneath the covers and arduously pushes the arm of the television away. A playoff game is on. I slide the obligatory blue vinyl high-back hospital chair beside the IV pump. Closer, he takes a more comprehensive inventory and finally utters: “You look pale.” “I know. Mommy told me to put on lipstick before I came here,” I force a chuckle, my throat tightening at the irony. I start to tell him that she says I look dead without makeup, but change my remark just in time. “She says my face disappears without lipstick.” I am tempted to tell him the story about my wedding day, when my mother, right before she was to lead my attendants down the aisle, pulled a tube of lipstick from her cleavage and spread a new coat of color on me. Again I stop myself; he wasn’t at my wedding, he wasn’t the one who walked me down the aisle. And until he fell ill a few weeks ago, we hadn’t seen each other since I was 19.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen him at weddings and funerals, where we’ve been nothing more than two guests, two mourners who’ve nodded to each other and passed some pleasantries, like “How are you?” and “How’s work?” He’s a man I haven’t known for more than 30 years. I don’t know if he ever fell in love again, or which team he’s rooting for this October Sunday. I don’t even remember him being a baseball fan. Over the years, my older brothers never spoke to me about him, and at first, didn’t want to include me in the dying of their father. But at one time, for a time, he was mine.

His name is Joe. Joseph. I wasn’t much of a talker as a very young child. And when I did speak, animal was aminal. Glove was glubs. And Joseph was Jofish. What exactly happened between us, I can’t say. It had to do with the distance in miles after my parents divorced and my mother and I moved away. A physical distance that turned into an emotional one. It had a lot more to do with his laziness and my apathy bridging that distance as the years passed.

And as those years passed, as he ebbed more and more from my memories of day-to-dayness with him, I held onto to one. We were at the beach on the last vacation we took together as a family. My brothers were body surfing and he lifted me onto his shoulders. “Can you see the Eiffel Tower?” he asked. “Yes!” I shouted into the salty air. Oh, it was likely the mast of a boat, but I wanted to believe that I could see clear across the Atlantic, because my father was telling me I could.

A second memory has surfaced as of late; it is one that haunts me now, sitting beside him as the sound of the metal food cart bangs and rolls closer. “Daddy, please don’t smoke,” I pleaded with him that night in his apartment.

I was in the sixth or seventh grade, visiting over the Christmas holiday. We were eating the popcorn he’d made in a saucepan (my mother had taken the electric popper and it always bothered me that, knowing how much I liked popcorn, he never bought one for his own home). We were up late watching a rerun of The Honeymooners. At the end, Jackie Gleason always emerged from behind the stage curtains, a cigarette poised in his hand. The Surgeon General’s warning had just started appearing on the sides of cigarette packs and I looked at my father, who, I suppose inspired by Jackie, reached for his own pack.

He smiled. “Nothing will happen to me. I promise.”

Twenty-some years later he did quit. Today, 15 years after that, he’s dying of cancer that started in his lungs, spread to his esophagus, then spine and has colonized throughout his skeletal system.

The food cart passes his room. I want to tell him that he was the first man I loved and the first man who broke my heart. I wonder if he wants to say anything to me. A second baseball game drones on. It’s dark outside; he asks me to flip on the overhead light. I walk beside his bed and reach for the switch behind him. This is the closest I’ve been to him in more than three decades. He takes a long steady look at me, then with a shallow, labored breath, says, “You don’t need lipstick.”

And I want to believe I am beautiful—because my father is telling me I am.