Do you like this? My mom asks, stepping outside her bedroom door and into the hall. Black bootcut stretchy jeans, silk slip top with tiny lace frill. I look down. Are those shoes new? I ask, and without skipping a beat: “They were on sale,” extending her last word with a puff. Sort of like a “duh” with an implied “this conversation is over.” Simple black Prada pumps, like the others. You know I take really good care of my shoes, Abby. I have to teach you. That’s what you have to do. You have to take them to the shoemaker so they don’t get ruined! The emotion in her voice vibrates at the word “ruined.” She returns to the matter at hand. What do you think of this top, she asks. It’s nice, I say, but what are the other options. It is important to engage. Does my stomach look big? No, it looks fine. You look good, you look good. Next, the alternates. Navy satin with droopy tie bow sleeves. See, Abby. Aren’t these bows just feminine and pretty? Ya, ya ya. Highlight your best physical features. I fumble with something shiny inside a glossy dish. Don’t forget about the jewels.
She puts on long, droopy earrings and stares back at me in the mirror. Try these, she says, and hands me a pair of danglies. You have perfect ears, she says. Look, she says. Perfect. Look at your earlobe. I tilt my head to a slight right and move my eyes to the left. Oh? But before I can think of anything else she keeps going. Her words are sharp. Look, see. Look. My ears are long and droopy, but your ears are just perfect. There is a conviction in her voice, a kind of certainty that must have been born somewhere, someplace, from some rulebook about the way ears are meant to be. She read and bled the chapter on lobes, scooped up the info and swallowed it to spit out again. But then she says something else. She lets out a breath and says, well, I have my dad’s ears. Grandpa had droopy ears. Her eyes dart to look at me. But you didn’t get them, she says, yours are perfect.
Your sister might be intellectually smarter than you, Ryan, but you are leaps ahead of her emotionally. I’m talking about emotional intelligence. I hear my dad’s voice as I stand at the top of the stairwell. Volume control is tough for him. Runs in the family. I think for a moment, before I take any steps. That’s so not true. Way better emotionally than Ryan. He’s a huge bully. Plus I’m sixteen and he’s twenty. That’s an important detail, but he never talks about it. Dad is good with the small stuff but only selective small stuff. Sometimes he decides that hard facts don’t count, because circumstances. That’s not really the full story, he says. You say exactly what happened and he says that isn’t fair to say. For example, I say, you cheated on mom. He says but it was over anyway. What? But it was over anyway, it was over anyway, he repeats. What’s funny is that in his head that makes total sense.
This is just like that. He always says things are harder for Ryan than they are for you. Did you know he couldn’t read until the third grade? Each time, I am not sure whether to make a face and act surprised, or gently remind him that I have heard it all before. I end up switching off. Half the time I ask for more details. Are you sure it was the third grade? What counts as “reading”? The other half I say, yeah yeah yeah Dad, I know.
Dad can be two-faced. He sort of means the business about emotionally immaturity, even if he claims it’s just a line to make Ryan feel better. My brother’s ego needs boosting, perpetually, apparently. But I know my dad means it, because we bicker like maniacs. He raises his voice, I screech at him, he howls back at me. We turn tomato red. I disrespect him, he panics, I defend, I bring up something utterly tangential, he screams, “You sound just like your mother!” Then I yelp, “Are you trying to make me resent my mother!” He pauses. Dad stops, as he always does, to think. He stares at me, in the eye, then at my whole face. I stare back at him, mostly wondering what he is searching for. Must be strange for him. My face is his face combined with the face of the person he hates the most ever. He blinks and huffs and snorts and walks outside to have a cigarette, and I watch the door slam. I look around to search for a witness but I don’t find one and drag my feet upstairs. This never happens with Ryan.
It’s different with my brother. He asks bunches of questions and lets the answers wash over him. Like “Why do I need to wear a helmet?” or “How does congress work?” or “How do I get a wine stain off a leather shoe?” or “What’s the deal with this girl never texting me back?”
Sometimes Dad replies, well Ryan, it’s very flattering that you think your dad knows the answer to everything. But ninety eight percent of the time, my dad claims authority on the subject. Well, it’s a funny story actually! You know I worked at a bicycle shop once and there I learned you really need to wear a helmet because blah blah blah. Or, let me tell you Ryan, when I was a young man, I always chased after the wrong girl. As Ryan listens, his mouth falls open. He doesn’t even notice. But I do. My dad takes this as a sign of respect. I am never lulled, and apparently that is poor manners. It’s not even conscious for me, being critical. It’s just the way I have always interacted with him. Like a forcive habit. I don’t even realize I am doing it, being on defense, or offense, or whatever it’s called.
Dad pretends like he wants to be judge, jury, and executioner. Secretly he loves the pushback. He would never admit it, but he just loves it. It raises his blood pressure but also makes him take a long look in the mirror. And thoughtful people like being made to think. After Dad comes back from his cigarette, he pulls out a tub of strawberry ice cream. I hear the freezer door open and walk back downstairs to the kitchen. We sit and eat with tiny spoons and he tells me a story I’ve heard ten times. I don’t say anything because for some reason in that moment I want to hear him tell it again.
On Saturday morning, my mom drives me to acting class. She complains about being hungry, in a passive aggressive, frustrated, there is no solution for my problem, sort of way.
“Why don’t you get a muffin or something.”
Quickly she responds: “Well would you eat a muffin?”
“What?” I say.
“Why would I eat a muffin if you wouldn’t eat a muffin?” she spits back.
“What?” I say, pretending to not understand. “I’m gluten intolerant.”
“Oh.” A long pause and stare out the windshield. It goes a moment too long and the silence needs to be broken.
“What are you going to do?” I ask for no reason.
“Well!” Her voice shoots up.
“Why don’t we stop at Starbucks and get you a muffin.”
A pause, then defeated sigh, and finally “okay.” We are silent as her eyes scan for parking.
“What kind do you like,” she asks, thinking about it now.
“I don’t know, they have this pumpkin bread-”
“I hate pumpkin,” she says, like I had said something stupid. This makes me laugh, followed by an aftershock of anger. The kind that sits in your chest and tries to get up out your throat.
I only say, “okay.”
“Well!” she barks, then lowers her register: “isn’t all that stuff fattening?”
I let out a trembly screech, “God Mom!”
“Who cares!” I say, as if she has never heard that one before.
Barbara shifts gears and smacks her hand onto the back of my seat to look over her shoulder. We park and step onto the curb.
“Can you call your dad?” she says, each word coming out impure. I ask why.
“Because,” she says, “he doesn’t answer me.”
I state the obvious. “You stress him out.”
“Oy,” she says, “don’t even tell me.”
We wait in line. I look at her face as she texts furiously. If I complain, she says she is working. If I lean my head over and express interest in who is on the other end, it goes one of two ways. She pulls the phone away from me like I’m a nosy little sister and yells “Nothing!” This means it’s a boyfriend. Or it’s not a boyfriend, and her response is delayed, half-mumbled, and something like: “It’s just Karen.”
“What about one of those tomato focaccia things,” I say tapping on the glass box.
“I hate tomato,” she says, eyes committed to her screen.
“Oh right,” I say, “I forgot.”
A pause and she looks up. “I stopped eating tomatoes to get pregnant with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Stop eating tomatoes if you want a girl,” she says, “is what they tell you.”
“Oh,” I say, “well I only want girls.”
“Then you better stop eating tomatoes now,” she says, picking at her split ends with angry fingers. The secret that isn’t a secret is the hair extensions. Makes her feel sexy.
I think about this for a moment but come up with nothing. We order something with egg whites.
“They just heat up the eggs,” she says, “Gross.”
I watch her take tiny urgent bites.
“So gross,” I say, but only part mean it.
After lunch, we go window shopping. I tell her a story about two friends hurting my feelings, with such an indulgent degree of detail that her eyes glaze over. Mom, what do you think. Huh? I asked what you think. Oh, these girls are obviously jealous of you. So jealous they can’t even take it. I look at her but no words come out. We trot into the shoe department, and she tells me her best friend is sick, they don’t know with what. She tears off split ends furiously, and it looks like it hurts. It’ll all be fine, she says, it’s just scary. I beg for more details but sharing time is over. Her eyes swell.
She picks up a pair of short patent-leather boots. We both stare.
“Ab are these big dyke shoes?”
“Mom don’t say that.”
“Sorry,” she trails off.
“Well,” she says, “are they?”
“Um,” I start.
“I just need navy boots,” she says genuinely.
“I don’t really like them.”
“Okay,” she says, “thank god for you.”
“I need something more feminine,” she keeps going.
“You know Karen loves big dyke shoes.” Karen is her best friend.
“Karen would totally love these,” she talks over me with a little smile. She snaps pictures and asks to try a size 39. My feet drag to a tiny black stool. I cross my legs and arms and watch my mom distract herself.
First girlfriend was the one who was too young for him that I don’t know about. Second was Nadine, she was French. But that label was always unclear. Nadine went to UCLA and Larry is obsessed with the UC system, so this was a big plus. His friends said a red flag was that she had been married four times. Dad’s response was that the first didn’t count because she was only nineteen. Nadine’s legacy is: instead of “Croissant,” my dad says “Quossan.” Next came Pam, Cheryl, and Carol. All brunette and rail thin. The type of thin that it’s the first thing you notice when you meet them. This is in part a running joke and in part the elephant in the room. With each new girlfriend brings a new pantry. Pam was a pescetarian-vegan (?) so from age nine to ten I frequently ate defrosted cod. The same year, Ryan went to a fat camp called Camp Shane, or colloquially, Camp Shame. He returned from upstate New York meaner and skinnier. The fall after fat camp was hell for us all. No one was immune to diet advice from a fourteen year old of average weight. We all received threats at dinner. Abby, if you eat that pasta you will end up at fat camp just like me. Watch out. I almost had stretch marks before I went to Camp Shane. Dad, if you keep eating starch, you will get a heart attack and die. No, seriously, if you want to lose weight, just stop eating carbs. Larry snorted and grinned to himself, maybe because Ryan thought he made this up. Pam watched and silently stuck a fork into unseasoned cod. Ryan said cod is not too bad for you. Not as good as salmon, but not bad.
Something was off about Pam, we were told. Next we met Cheryl, who was introduced to us as a doctor with three kids and a large home in Beverly Hills. The truth was she did not practice medicine and the kids were total freaks. She only ate romaine lettuce, chopped bell peppers, chopped cherry tomatoes. No exceptions and no dressing. In high school, these items appeared in bulk flung across the kitchen counter. Why do we have so many bell peppers, Dad, it’s weird. We poked and sniffed. This lettuce is honestly gross, we whined.
Cheryl’s a doctor and says she knows how to be sure to get all the right nutrients, dad chokes up with discomfort in his throat. A pause. “I don’t know,” Ryan says, “she’s weird.”
I watched as Dad finished his steak, fries and butter pecan ice cream scoop. Cheryl finished her bowl of lettuce, and I went to college.
I come home from school and am greeted by the ugliest dog anyone has ever seen. Running after is an absolutely tiny woman in black leggings and a tank top. “Teddy! Don’t bark, this isn’t an intruder!”
“True,” I say, “I live here.”
I look up and shake my head. The moment feels like a flawless replica of a million moments before. I was living a scene from a movie about my life. Every aspect of the animal was so perfectly unattractive that it seemed to be cast. Tiny, yappy, angry snarl-teeth that smell. The girlfriend-person was absolutely exact, a sum average of every girlfriend I have ever met. She says “Carol,” and puts out her hand. I beam.
My dad tells me she is a figure skater. A professional one, in fact. It gets better and better! Larry’s type casting makes Ryan and I oscillate between ambivalence and hostility. Most of all, we are detached. What sort of diet does this one require, I wonder. I frequently call Carol “Cheryl.” This is a true mistake but brings me a tiny spark of joy nonetheless.
Carol can be very offensive. She almost went to the Olympics, and even schmoozed Tonya Harding. This is Carol’s least controversial story, and it makes everyone say wow. If we sit at dinner for more than an hour, the conversation is guaranteed to end with: “Carol, I don’t think it is appropriate for us to talk about this,” or “I think we should stop.”
When we visit my large Jewish family, these issues are of top concern. Our annual competition of Who Can Talk the Loudest commences. Rumors swirl and bagels are thrown. Aunt Judy says Carol is really, really thin. All eyes shift to Carol in a 1960’s mini skirt and over the knee boots. Lawyer cousin Steph says, we just don’t have legs like that in our family, those pencil legs. We just don’t have them. Last Hanukkah we bought Stephanie size 2 Theory slacks. But I did see her eat, Aunt Judy says. Cheryl was thin too, but she didn’t eat. They look at me. What we mean to say is, we hope you don’t think you are fat. Because you aren’t.
For the Cohens, this is a wonderful display of warmth and concern. I formulate a response. Thank you, Aunt Judy, I do not think I am fat. Good good good. Because you aren’t! Again, Judy, thank you very much and I do understand. It is weird that all the girlfriends are so thin! Right, that’s what we all think. We just don’t want you to think you are fat. Ninety year old Grandma June swoops around the corner.
“Abigail darling,” Grandma says, “what do you think about Carol?”
“I don’t really know her.”
“I’d like to see your father married off,” she says, scanning my face for a reaction, “will it be Carol?”
“Who’s to say.”
Grandma sips iced tea with a lemon wedge and pats her white-blonde curls into place. I wait.
“She is very thin,” and the monologue repeats.