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Recent Work By Marni Grossman

You’ve begun to feel like some neurasthenic Joan Didion character.  Only without the shiny coating of beauty and glamour.

Increasingly, you have nothing to say.  You are, distressingly, empty.  Empty and blank and tired and done.  Just…done.  

All you’ve ever wanted is to make everyone happy.  Now, you make no one happy.  You are nothing.

You listen to Azure Ray and cry, hating yourself and slicing up your arms with razor blades.

In The Bell Jar, you think, Esther got that plum internship.  Where’s your fucking prize?

You exist.  Just barely.

I have a knack for spotting the semi-famous.  A talent for spying the marginally well-known.

Gloria Reuben, for instance.  She hasn’t been around much since her days as a one-time contract player on “ER” but I saw her at an outdoor cafe in the East Village.  Also: Kenley Collins, the runner-up from season 5 of “Project Runway.”  She was in line at the AMC Loews on 3rd avenue.  I felt a little thrill of recognition and then a trickle of shame at my own unseemly interest.

My father is wearing a decades-old sweatshirt with dolphins printed on it.  There is a single drop of drool suspended improbably from the corner of his mouth.  I’m fascinated by it.  I watch the clock.  Two minutes go by.  Still there.  Five.


I don’t like to brag, but you ought to know that I received a 760 on my American History SAT II.  A 760 out of 800.

Like I said: I don’t like to brag.  Even so, you ought to know that a 760 is a very good score.

The Kaplan SAT Prep website says that “a score of 600 is considered very solid.”

If I’d gotten a 600, I probably would have cried.

600, as Kaplan suggests, is a respectable score.  But that was the kind of kid I was.  A perfectionist.  Also, a crier.

But more than that, I was an eager student of American History.  In some ways, it’s my birthright.  I was born the same as the Boston Tea Party.  To which I’ve long attributed my distaste for taxation without representation and beverages involving bags.

Moreover, one of the first books my father ever read to me was the Esther Forbes novel about the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain. I cried when Johnny disfigured his hand in a tragic silversmithing accident.  I  cried more when Rab died at the Battle of Lexington.

I loved historical fiction.  Was, in fact, nuts about it.  For most of my elementary school years, I was obsessed with Ann Rinaldi’s Danielle Steel-ish take on our country’s past.  I even cribbed large parts of the plot of The Last Silk Dress when writing my piece for the 4th grade Young Authors Symposium.  Plus, it was largely due to Ann that I always remembered the date of the Boston Massacre: the 5th of March.

Did I mention that I have a well-worn VHS tape of the 1972 historical movie musical “1776”?  That, to this day, I can sing along with Blythe Danner (a.k.a. Mrs. Thomas Jefferson) as she waxes rhapsodic about her husband and his prodigious violin skills?

I can.  It’s true.

This is a long way of saying that it was with much consternation that I watched these past weeks as the Texas Board of Education dismantled and distorted our country’s past.

* * *

Not content with promoting creationism, last week, Christian conservatives on the Texas Board of Education won a major victory, passing curriculum changes that left historians scratching their heads.  Board Members sought to stress the Christianity of the Founding Fathers and the genius of American capitalism.  They also sought to deify Ronald Reagan, legitimize Phyllis Schafly, and erase separation of Church and State.

In a stunning example of whitewashing, the Board moved to downplay Martin Luther King Jr. and instead focus on the Republicans in Congress who supported civil rights legislation.

“Republicans need a little credit for that,” Board Member Don McLeroy said.  “I think it’s going to surprise some students.”

‘Surprise” is one word for it.  “Enrage” is another.

McLeroy, a dentist by training and erstwhile college cheerleader, also pushed to soften history’s take on Joseph McCarthy.  “Read the latest on McCarthy,” he insisted.  “He was basically vindicated.”

O rly?  LOL, Mr. McLeroy.  ROTFL.

The Texas Board of Education is, apparently, a place where “facts” mean very little.  Where reason can’t be found.

When Mavis Knight, a Dallas Democrat, introduced an amendment that would require students be taught that “the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others,” she was roundly defeated.  And when, time after time, Board Members voted against including more Latino figures into the curriculum, Mary Helen Berlanga had had enough.  She left the meeting saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America, and Hispanics don’t exist.”

They certainly can pretend that, it turns out.  If the Texas Board of Education had its way, school children would never know that this country included ethnic and religious minorities.  That “white” and “Christian” are not synonymous with “American.”

As it stands, Texan students can forget about Thomas Jefferson.  Turns out he’s totally overrated.

* * *

Barbara Cargill loves Jesus.  She just hates everyone else.

From her position on the Board, Cargill objected to a standard for a sociology course that defined the difference between sex and gender.  She was fearful, she said, that such distinctions would bring students into the frightening world of “transvestites, transsexuals and who knows what else.”

Cargill, it turns out, is also not a fan of crime victims or the mentally ill.  She won passage of an amendment that would teach sociology students about “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices.”  Life choices like rape, eating disorders, teen suicide, and dating violence.

“The topic of sociology,” Ms. Cargill noted, “tends to blame society for everything.”

If only I’d be taught about personal responsibility.  Maybe then I wouldn’t have chosen to starve my way through 11th grade.

Then again, I’m no victim.  Barbara Cargill’s absolutely right.  I chose my choice and I only have myself to blame.

* * *

I am, on some level, the enemy.  I realize that.  I’m a left-wing Jewess with a degree from Vassar in Women’s Studies.  I use words like “heteronormativity” on a semi-regular basis.  I’ve taken workshops on white privilege and rallied for abortion rights.  I’ve volunteered for Planned Parenthood and donated to gay rights groups.  I’m like Barbra Streisand in “The Way We Were.”  Nose and all.

I have an agenda.  Of course I do.  But I’m not on the Texas Board of Education.  I’m not a decision-maker.  I’m just standing on the sidelines, slack-jawed, as fundamentalists pervert the beautiful, awful history of this country.

* * *

I’ve been watching Henry Louis Gates’ series, “Faces of America,” on PBS this week.  It’s a fascinating look at the varied backgrounds of twelve high-profile Americans.  Uber-WASP Stephen Colbert is one, as well as Meryl Streep.  Also biracial journalist Malcolm Gladwell, Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

I reveled in the diversity Gates exposed.  Diversity of ethnicity, obviously, but also experience.  It’s the diversity of this country that makes it so unique.  The tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  The “wretched refuse.”  It sounds cheesy, I know, but these people are the backbone of America.

Yamaguchi’s family was, I thought, one of the most compelling.  While his family was interned in a camp in Arizona during World War II, Yamaguchi’s maternal grandfather fought for America in Europe.  Most Japanese-Americans served in a segregated unit, but George Doi was part of the 100th Infantry Division, an all-white unit.  In the New York Times, he was declared “unquestionably the company’s best soldier.”

My mother and I watched Gates elucidate all this to an emotional Yamaguchi, tears streaming down our own faces.

This is America, I thought.  Flawed.  Cruel, at times.  But also a place where an immigrant can find redemption.  Something worth fighting for.

This is the America that the Texas Board of Education wants to forget.  Internment camps and the Trail of Tears and immigration quotas and the KKK.  Racism, imperialism, expansionism, Manifest Destiny.  Mexican-Americans and African-Americans.  César Chavez  and Dolores Huerta and Emma Goldman and Bella Abzug.  Stonewall and Selma.  Communists.  Socialists.  Tree-huggers and dolphin-lovers.  Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and- G-d help us- atheists.

This is the America that the Texas Board of Education would rather you not hear about.

They say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.  And if we only teach the PG-version of history, we run the risk of making the same mistakes all over again.

I’ve taken up counted cross-stitch again.  Right now I’m doing a portrait of TV’s “The Golden Girls.”

Something’s off.  Sophia’s glasses, I think.  Or maybe it’s Blanche’s turtleneck.

Michael Gross can’t be trusted. Beneath the genial, aging-hippie demeanor of “Family Ties” lies a heart of darkness.  A blackened and shriveled soul.  A stalker, a rapist and, twice, a murderer.

He leaned in close.  Like they do in the movies.  He leaned in close and I could see his every pore, his every hair follicle.  He leaned in close and I didn’t move away.  He leaned in close and then, without preamble, he began to sing.

* * *

In the mornings, the mall is empty.  A ghost town of neon lights, discounted clothing and discarded dreams.  The tawdry trappings of late capitalism.  Some shit like that.

In the mornings, it’s just the mall walkers and the anorectic.

The anorectic comes to sell her jewelry at the Cash4Gold kiosk.  She always wears sweats.  Navy sweatpants, a pink sweatshirt and a down vest.  She is freezing.  And somehow, even under the sweatpants, I can see the outlines of her knobby, fat-free bones.  She can’t work anymore.  She hasn’t eaten in three decades and she’s living off discarded rings and bracelets.

* * *

The mall has a rigid caste system and we kiosk denizens are at the bottom.  It’s the lack of walls, I think.

* * *

We wear name tags.  All of us.  On lanyards around our necks.  We wear name tags and yet, somehow, this renders us even more invisible.  Disposable.

* * *

I took this job because it was the only one I could get.  Selling calendars at a kiosk in a suburban mall for $7.25/hour.

I work across from a Claire’s.  A hop, skip and a Hot Topic away from the food court.

My mother refers to me as “the Calendar girl.”  She thinks this is incredibly clever.

I should, of course, be grateful.  Grateful that I have a job at all.  Grateful that I’m able to live- rent-free- in my parents’ house.  Grateful that I have food and clothing and a roof over my head.

“Try,” I say to myself, “for a little gratitude.  Pack up your pity party and remember that you are lucky, lucky, lucky.”

Mine is not an American Tragedy of Dreiserian proportions.  I know that.  Mine is not even on the same scale as an Us Weekly cover story.   Tragedies generally take place on Russian Steppes.  They don’t usually involve Jonas Brothers calendars.  But this is my life and I’ll cry if I want to.

* * *

A woman I know from synagogue stopped by the kiosk the other day.  “This is what you’re doing with your Vassar degree?” she asked.

* * *

I ran into a friend from college last week.  She was home on October break, doing a little shopping with her mother.  We embraced.  We exchanged news.  I kept her talking because I didn’t want to be left alone, four hours to go until closing time.

She’s graduating soon.  In December.

I scared her.

My life frightened her.

“It’ll be different for you,” I promised.  “I make poor life choices.”

* * *

My manager, Scott, is a pathological liar.  Among other things, he’s told me that he was in a counter-narcotics group in the military” and that his ex-army buddies want him to join them as a “hired mercenary.”  By his own statements, he’s been a manager at a Big Lots and at Naturalizer, a truck driver, a fireman, a wannabe policeman.  He saved a Labrador from a dog-fighting ring.  He’s written two mystery novels.  “Sometimes,” he told me, “when I was writing my book, I just couldn’t believe how good it was.  I blew myself away.”  Scott thinks that convicted felons should be conscripted into the military instead of confined to prison.  “And if they die,” he said, “no big deal.”

Scott is small and thin.  He has the slim-hipped figure of a young Audrey Hepburn.

Scott says that his roommate Helene has the hots for him.  He says that he can’t tell her about his girlfriend because she’ll go all “Fatal Attraction” on his ass.

I met Helene.  She wears turtlenecks and corduroy jumpers.

The other day, Scott came back from the bank and told me he’d witnessed an armed robbery.  “I chased the guy down,” he said, “and I got a good part of his license number.”

Scott is 42 and he makes $10/hour.  He spends his time worrying about Units per Transaction and plan-o-grams.  He spends his time making up self-aggrandizing stories to impress his bored young coworkers.

I read his novel, Honor and Deception.  It was awful and I was relieved.  I’m ashamed to say that I took some pleasure in that.  But maybe he’ll have the last laugh.  I imagine that, one day, I’ll be Scott, my crappy unpublished novel rotting in some drawer, the butt of my coworker’s joke.

* * *

“Day-by-Day Calendar Company, this is Marni speaking-“

Without fail, Scott answers the phone.  “Hello, Marni Speaking.”

It wasn’t funny the first time.

* * *

Julian works at the Cash4Gold kiosk and he is too young for me.  We have nothing in common.  He doesn’t read unless forced.  He’s 19 and he just graduated from high school.  He’s Dominican and Puerto Rican and he’s beautiful.  He talks to me sometimes and I try my best to keep him entertained though I wish he’d leave me to my New Yorker.

He invites me to go running with him.  He’s either attracted to me or subtly trying to tell me I’m fat.

“Tell me your life story,” he said.  “Twenty seconds.”  I pictured it as a movie pitch: ” ‘Girl, Interrupted’ meets ‘Annie Hall’  with a dash of ‘Ordinary People.'”  But I knew he wouldn’t get the references.  So instead I listed only the facts.  “And now you work here!” he finished, laughing.  “And now I work here,” I repeated.

Julian says that he has a 60% shot of making the NFL.  Julian says that he was asked to model for Calvin Klein.  Julian says that he has two million dollars.  “My godfather left it to me,” he added.  “I just can’t get access to it right now.”

Julian says it would take hours, days even, to tell his life story.

Julian and Scott are liars.  But maybe we all are.  Even me.

* * *

Ariane has yellow and black teeth.  She smells of cigarettes and perfume. She’s nearly thirty though she says that everyone thinks she looks much younger. She’s had some trouble with law.  “Parking violations,” she says with a sigh.  “Those fines add up.”  She says, “I wouldn’t go back to Dunkin’ Donuts now even if they paid me a million dollars.”

I lent Ariane $90 and I don’t think I’m ever going to get it back.

Scott thinks she’s stealing.  “Maybe it’s a mathematical error,” I said hopefully.

I drove Ariane home.  She doesn’t have a car anymore.  She lost her car and her license in 2004.  “I had a little bit of a drinking problem,” she told me.  “I got a DUI.  And then I took the fall for my little brother in this drug thing.”

Ariane lost custody of her kids, too.  They live with her ex-husband’s parents now and she and her boyfriend rent a room in a rundown house on Maryland Avenue.

The electricity went out for three days this week.  $150 worth of food got ruined.  And they have bug problems and the house is overcrowded and she’s behind on rent.  Also, Ariane’s paycheck hasn’t come yet.  And could she maybe borrow some more money from me?  “I hate to ask,” she added.

I said, “sure, no problem” and went to the ATM.  I knew it was probably a bad idea but I did it anyway.  Because she needed it more than me.

Ariane told me that her older brother died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  She doesn’t believe that he committed suicide though.

When my friend Jill called from London the other day, I told her about the money.  She laughed and said it sounded like maybe? possibly? Ariane was a drug addict.

Today she left early for the third time this week.  She didn’t feel well and I said go ahead and go.  It’s okay.  When I counted the till at the end of the night, $40 was missing.  “Did you leave her alone?” Scott asked.  I had, actually.  I’d gone on my half hour break and left her alone with the register and the keys and the cash.  “Maybe I added wrong,” I said.

I don’t want to be the reason Ariane gets fired.

People have sad lives.  They have dead brothers and drug habits and kids that don’t live with them anymore.  And I can’t help but think, “there but for the grace of G-d…”

* * *

I’d like to think that I lent Ariane that money because I’m a kind person.  But I’m not sure that’s it.

I wonder if I lent her the money in some misguided attempt to assuage my class guilt.  I wonder if my generosity wasn’t just another form of condescension.

* * *

Whilst manning a kiosk alone at 9:15 on a Tuesday night, it is hard to believe that I’m anything more than this job.  That I’ll ever be anything more than I appear to be: the girl who sells calendars at the mall.

* * *

People have sad lives.  I repeat this to myself late at night.  It has the ring of truth to it.  People have sad lives and it’s a wonder that any of us have the energy to try for something better.

* * *

He was in his eighties maybe.  Plaid shirt, cowboy hat.  He was looking at the baseball calendars and I came up behind him, ready with my opener.

“Let me know if I can help you with anything.”

The man turned and smiled at me.

“Do you like baseball?” I asked.

“You should sell music here,” he said.

I pointed to the store across the way.  FYE.  A record store.

“Oh,” he responded.  “Do you like Glenn Miller?”

I said I did, yes, but I like Benny Goodman even better.

He leaned in close.  Like they do in the movies.  He leaned in close and I could see his every pore, his every hair follicle.  He leaned in close and I didn’t move away.  He leaned in close and then, without preamble, he began to sing.

He began with a few bars of “Goodnight My Love.”  “I was thinking of my wife,” he told me.  And then he sang “At Last.”  He had a sweet, tuneless voice that made my chest ache.

He told me how to play the harmonica and how to clean dirt off of cassette tapes.  He’d just started in on “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” when his son came to take him away.

“Sorry,” said the son, giving me a conspiratorial look.

I didn’t return it, gazing instead at his father.  “It was wonderful meeting you,” I told him.  I held his eyes for as long as I could and then he left, leaving me alone with wet eyes and a broken heart.

My mother says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She says that beauty is only skin deep.

My mother says that I’m gorgeous. She says that I’m adorable. That I’m not fat, no, she swears, it’s the truth. My mother says I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.

Right, I say with a smirk. Through love cataracts.

My mother says there will be days like this. There’ll be days like this, my mother says.

* * *

We are one. An undulating mass of freshly shaven legs, glitter eyeshadow, cheap taffeta and hormones.

We are women. We are thirteen.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are playing. Or possibly Sugar Ray. “Bad Touch” or “Mambo No. 5.”

When a slow song comes on, people pair up. Pair off. Mary Nash with Roger, Anna with Alex. No one comes for me, though and “we” becomes “I.” Alone, I stand around for a minute, nervously picking at my dress. But I’m not stupid, not blind. I beat a hasty retreat.

I walk fast, with purpose, to the bathroom. In the mirror I can see that I am not what I thought I was. Under the fancy dress, I’m just me. Ugly.

I lock myself in a bathroom stall and hang my head between my legs waiting for the moment to pass.

I am, in fact, intimate with ladies’ rooms. With powder rooms and lounges, the loo and the john. In fact, sometimes I feel as though my life has been nothing more than a long line of evenings spent hiding in bathroom stalls.

* * *

My face is the shtetl. I am Galicia. I am the Warsaw Ghetto. I am Zabar’s. The new Woody Allen film. I am some tertiary Philip Roth character.

Because my eyes are dark and brown and heavily-lidded, they are often described as soulful. Or mournful. Sorrowful. There’s something of Susan Sontag in them. And there’s a bit of Rosa Luxembourg in my long, hooked nose. Or maybe Emma Lazarus. In my smile, there are echoes of Anne Frank.

I invite comparisons- not to movie stars- but to Holocaust victims and Ellis Island rejects.

Even my body is foreign: fleshy and puckered. Tits and ass and hips. I have unruly brown pubic hair. One part ChiaPet, one part steel wool. I have a faint mustache that I bleach faithfully. My hair gets greasy and my skin is dotted with fading pimples. I am neither svelte nor toned. It’s telling: there’s no English word for zaftig.

I am much too much.

* * *

I am not a pretty girl. I know this, but, at the same time, I’m hoping someone will come along to contradict me.

I’m not a pretty girl and the most I can aspire to is “striking.”

Striking. Or “unusual.”

In college, a friend asked me to be in her student film. “You have such anunusual face,” she said.

But everyone knows, of course, that “unusual” is the polite word for ugly.

* * *

Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But the thing of it is, pretty does well.

Studies show that being attractive comes with plenty of benefits. Pretty people make more money, more friends. They get more sex and better jobs.

And while my mother would have me believe that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, science says otherwise. Beautiful people, they say, have symmetrical faces. Lithe bodies. Wide-set eyes and generous mouths.

Even babies know this.

In 1989, psychologist Judith Langlois found that infants have an innate sense of what is and is not attractive and act accordingly. The babies in her study stared significantly longer at attractive faces than at unattractive ones.

Which is to say that I am- and always have been- doomed.

* * *

Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But women have always known this to be a fallacy. We know that all we’ve got is the curve of our ass. That a pretty face is worth more than a Ph.D. We know that when our looks fade, we will be irrelevant, obsolete.

We know this and so we spend our lives, our money, trying to be beautiful. We tweeze and we pluck and we shave and we wax. We curl our eyelashes and we host Botox parties. We starve ourselves or we corrode the pipes with our vomit. We go under the knife again and again. We buy, buy, buy.

And we never give up the hope, propagated by Hollywood and children’s books, that we will wake up one day and be- quite suddenly- transformed. A swan.

* * *

For women, looks matter. Pretty is pretty damn important.

* * *

I always knew this. And when I was sixteen, I decided that if I wasn’t going to be beautiful, I’d better be thin. If I was thin enough, I reasoned, no one would notice that I was ugly. Models, after all, are allowed to be unusual. To have crooked noses that meander leftward and asymmetrical faces. So I’d be thin.Yes.

Yes.

And for a while, I was. I was very thin. I was 95 pounds and then, for a moment, 88 pounds.

But I was also starving. I was puking in the shower and cutting my stomach with razor blades. And I wasn’t any prettier.

* * *

My friend Lacey recently tagged this awful photo of me on facebook. I detagged it.  Because I’m vain and I’m insecure.

“I look hideous,” I wrote on her wall. “And fat.”

In the picture, I’m in the midst of a story. In full flow, prattling on about something or other. I’m clasping my tote bag. Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body is poking out. Maybe I’m extolling its virtues.

My breasts look enormous and so does my nose. I look heavy and cow-like and the photographer has, unflatteringly, shot me from below. Also, it’s my bad side.

And so I detagged the picture. Of course I did.

But I’m giving the picture a second life here. Because, when it comes down to it, this is what I look like. Living and breathing and reading and yes, eating.This is what I look like. Caught up in the moment. This is what I look like.

It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.


 

For several years in the early ’90s, Lifetime aired reruns of “thirtysomething.”A relic of this happy time can be found on the Entertainment Weekly website.The article dates from March of 1992 and is titled, “Hope (and Co.) Springs Eternal.”

“It was Monday night,” writer Kelli Pryor began, “and ‘Murphy Brown’ was a rerun. But I was happy anyway. We had ‘thirtysomething.'”

I was seven in 1992. Too young for such sentiments.

But by the time 1995 rolled around, I too had become a “thirtysomething” devotee. At the tender age of nine, I found myself totally engrossed in lives of Hope and Michael and their crew of good-hearted-but-hapless yuppie friends and relations. I also caught “Sisters” in syndication and consequently began a lifelong love affair with Swoosie Kurtz.

I watched “Hope and Gloria” and “Murphy Brown” and “Designing Women” while my friends tuned into “Double Dare” and “Guts.”*

Though I hadn’t yet completed the fourth grade, I identified with these older women. Their problems felt familiar somehow. Sure, I didn’t have kids or lovers, but I had the angst thing down pat. And, in my own mind, I was Melanie Mayron with a dash of Sela Ward and a sprinkling of Annie Potts.

Which is to say that I was an odd sort of kid.

For a while, I was precocious.

When I was in fifth grade, I tried to take Waiting to Exhale out of the library. If it was good enough for Whitney Houston, it was good enough for me.

The librarian, Mrs. Cooley, had other ideas.

“If you want to check this book out,” she said, “you’ll need permission from your mother.”

Parental permission, my ass! This was censorship, plain and simple. A civil rights issue. This so-called librarian was threatening my intellectual autonomy and she had to be punished.

So I left the library, vowing never to return.

* * *

Like I said: for a while, I was precocious.

I quickly outgrew the YA section and took to stealing my mother’s paperbacks.I read The Joy Luck Club at 11 and I kept a well-worn copy of The Client in my night table drawer. I stayed inside during recess, illustrating my own literary works. I kept my legs crossed neatly at the ankle and completed assignments with a maniacal efficiency. I was given to attacks of anxiety and periods of dreamy melancholy. I was 12 going on 42.

For a while I was precocious and then one day, I wasn’t. While I’d been reading Joyce Carol Oates and The Bell Jar and writing overwrought poetry, everyone else seemed to have been, you know, living. And, without my noticing, they’d surpassed me.

I was, it seems, the proverbial hare.

* * *

And so, the big reveal.

At 23, I remain stubbornly, regretfully, embarrassingly virginal. Pure as freshly fallen snow. Chaste as a home-schooled trekkie.

* * *

Things started to slow down in seventh grade.

All the other girls were shaving their legs and buying bras and kissing boys. I, on the other hand, was dutifully preparing for my bat mitzvah. I was writing bad poetry for the Lit Page.

At the time, the situation wasn’t dire. Sure, I hadn’t been kissed or gotten my period, but at least my braces had finally come off. And my friend Roger had been hinting that someone liked me. I just needed to wait it out.

So I did.

But nothing ever happened with the boy. I finally got a name out of Roger and we slow-danced at my bat mitzvah party, him all sweaty and nervous, me flush with the success of the day. But he never revealed the secret himself and it seemed rude to mention it.

I just needed to wait it out.

* * *

The summer before high school, my sister was a counselor at a Jewish sleep-away camp. At 13, her campers were a full year younger than I. But their lives were on the fast track. A couple had been caught giving blow-jobs. Kissing at Make-Out Rock.

I was unspeakably jealous.

That was the summer that a boy kissed me behind the dorms of Haverford College.

We were playing truth or dare. Or maybe just truth.

“I’ve never been kissed,” I said.

He looked at me appraisingly and said, after a minute, “You wanna?”

I shrugged and we got on with it.

It was the fourth of July.

* * *

When I was sixteen, I decided that I was fat and I was ugly and that something had to be done. Soon I had little time to think of boys. I had little time to think of anything, in fact, other than the day’s figures. Calories and pounds.Mathematics had never meant much to me, but in those days, it became fraught with significance. Subtraction was sacred, holy.  Addition was profane.The devil’s arithmetic.

Men were irrelevant in those days.

 

I just needed to wait it out.

* * *

A gangly redhead kissed me in a dirty hostel room when I was seventeen. He was tall and pasty and more than a little nerdy. He was sweet, though. He had a passion for music: the trombone. Apparently he had a passion for me, too.

“I really like you, Marni,” he said. And then, as the song says, he kissed me.

It was…awkward.

“Do you maybe want to try again?” he asked.

I demurred. Maybe later.

* * *

Then I was eighteen. College-bound. No longer starving myself, I was heavier.Heavily scarred, too. But my breasts had come on fast and full. I was a D-cup and a senior and I was finally getting out of Dodge. Going to Vassar. Moving on and moving up.

That summer, the boy who gave me my first kiss was the first boy to see me naked.

We’d gotten back in touch and, for months, we’d been spending hours on the phone with one another. At their best, our conversations were like vaudeville routines. They were screwball comedies. We were like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant but Jewish. He gave good phone. There were jokes and songs and maybe a bit of soft-shoe.

It was dizzying.

And then he came to visit and he saw me naked and he put his fingers inside of me and I sucked his dick.

He came and then he went.

We both did. To college. To new lives.

He stopped calling.

He’d seen me naked and he’d been repulsed. It was, I thought, the only explanation. He’d seen my thick thighs and my drooping breasts and he’d run for the hills. He saw the patch of stubble on my thigh I’d missed when I’d shaved in the shower. He saw the bulge of my stomach and the hook of my nose. He saw that I was imperfect. That I wasn’t beautiful or thin or desirable.He saw all these things and he stopped calling and I just needed to wait it out.Right?

* * *

But the waiting never stopped.

At Vassar, there were two girls to every guy and of that small pool of guys, half were gay.

“I’m not going to lie,” my friend Lindsay told me, “your self-esteem will plummet.”

I just needed to wait it out.

* * *

“You could have sex,” my friends say. “No guy is going to turn down free sex.”All of them say this exact thing. You could have sex. If you wanted to.

Technically, I suppose, that’s true.

As far as I know, I am physically capable of sex. My nipples retain the ability to become erect. My vagina seems to be in working condition. And, as they put it in those Viagra commercials, my heart is healthy enough for sex.

But here I am staring down 24 and still a virgin. A virgin who hasn’t kissed a boy in five years. I used to be precocious but somewhere, somehow, I became a late-bloomer.

They say Tina Fey didn’t lose her virginity until she was 24. I cling to this fact like a talisman.

* * *

In the Bible Belt and on the Senate floor, old white men shed crocodile tears for sexually active teens. They tell us that girls who put out are sluts, destined for a life of unhappiness and amorality. The kids put on purity rings and listen to the Jonas Brothers and wear “true love waits” tees. Abstinence is the watchword and condoms are mentioned only in hushed tones.

In the other America, the America of those raunchy teen comedies and craigslist casual encounters and Cosmo- in the other America, virginity is death. Virginity is the province of D&D disciples and nuns. Even priests seem to get it on. Virginity is the dirty little secret, the skeleton in your closet.

But regardless of which America you live in, sex happens. Pledges are broken and Tolkien-lovers get lucky.

Sex happens.

 

For everyone else, that is.

 

 

 

 

*I should note that, though I wasn’t allowed to watch television on the weekdays throughout my childhood and adolescence, I still managed to see pretty much everything that aired in the ’90s. I should also note that I wasn’t all the discriminatory in my tastes. I too watched “Double Dare” on occasion.

My mother believes that bisexuality is, to use her word, “greedy.”  “You pick one gender and stick with it,” she once said.  She also thinks that Lorena Bobbit is misunderstood and Jenny Sanford is a hero.  And once, when she found me watching an episode of Friends, she told me, “Real life isn’t like that, Marni.  People hopping into one another’s beds.”

The thing of it is, she believes this stuff.  And she imparts these words of wisdom with the air of one bestowing a great gift.  “I’m your mother,” she’ll say, as if that seals the deal.

Some of her most enduring pronouncements are on the delicate topic of mother-daughter relations.  “I’m your mother, not your friend” she likes to declare.  And then, on other occasions, she’ll announce “I’m the best friend you’ll ever have.  I’m your mother.”

My mother is also fond of telling me, “The whole world’s crazy, Marni, except me and you.  And frankly, I’m not so sure about you.”

Logic, it would seem, has no place in her world.  And it’s in spite, or maybe because of this that I find her so utterly charming.  So completely and truly lovable.

* * *

My mother was born in Camden, New Jersey in 1955.  My grandparents named her Debbie rather than Deborah because, after all, everyone would end up calling her Debbie anyway.  This sort of practicality suits my mother who is nothing if not level-headed.  My grandfather says she came out of the womb reciting the Gettysburg Address.

Knowing my mother, this story seems plausible.

It’s hard to imagine my mother as anything other than a fully-formed adult.  That she was once a child is something I’ve never been able to wrap my head around.  What’s more, while there’s photographic evidence of her youth, my mother claims to have no actual memory of the events that transpired.  Suspect to say the least.

My uncle once remarked that he didn’t know he had another sister until Mom emerged from her room at sixteen.  She had, of course, been studying.

It’s safe to say that Mom was a good girl.  Not just a good girl.  A Very Good Girl.  “Always get a seat right at the front of the class,” she advises, “and take good notes.”

* * *

Some things you should know about my mother.

1) While she has many stereotypical Jewish Mom traits, she is not a fan of physical affection.  In fact, hugging is anathema to her.  She will flinch if you attempt to embrace her.  Which, of course, I do as often as possible.

2) I’ve still never used a tampon.  Because, at an early age, Mom impressed upon me the Very Likely possibility of Toxic Shock syndrome.

The Mayo Clinic staff describes TSS as “rare,” but, then again, doesn’t Mother know best?

3) She’s as close to a Christian Scientist as one can possibly be while still practicing Judaism.  I can recall an occasion in high school in which she gave me half an Extra-Strength Tylenol tablet to quell a fever.  The recommended dose was two pills.  Moreover, I wasn’t allowed to take aspirin until I was 21.  “Rye syndrome is real, Marni.”  And if you really want to get Mom going, just ask her about the drug companies.

4) And yet, despite the aforementioned aversion to medication, Mom is a frustrated physician.  She wanted to be a doctor, but was never able to screw up the courage to apply to med school.  These days, she acts out her fantasies by diagnosing friends and family and watching copious amounts of House. Since USA started playing the reruns, House has replaced Law & Order as the go-to television program in the Grossman family.  It’s a constant refrain: “Isn’t there a House on?”

The kicker?  There always is.

5) My mother is not what you’d call lighthearted.  This isn’t to say that she doesn’t have her funny moments or her silly times, but, more often than not, she’s serious.  Studious.  Smart and driven and dedicated.  There is , however, one thing that will—without fail—bring tears of joy to her eyes.  That, my friends, is my father’s physical pain.  Sure, she enjoys his incompetence with technology.  And the way he looks when he wears sneakers.  But nothing makes her giggle like the sight of Dad stubbing his toe or cutting his finger.  When I was twelve, my father fell down the steps at my school and broke his arm.  The mere memory of this occasion makes Mom smile.

6) She has a habit of telling me what to do in great detail.  “What I’d do,” she’ll start, and then she’ll go on for several minutes, outlining exactly how she would go about things.  Mom will, if given the time, dictate e-mails, answering machine messages and sometimes, entire hypothetical phone conversations.  And at the end, she’ll say, “I don’t know why I bother.  You never listen to me anyway.”

7) If you cross me or my sister—hurt us in any way, shape or form—your relationship with my mother is over.  “Ice in the winter,” she’ll say.  “That’s what they’ll get from me.”

* * *

Because we’re Jewish, my family speaks with one another several times a day.  Cell phones have done wonders for the overprotective Yiddishe Mama and mine is no exception.  With the family plan, she can now call me whenever her heart desires.  And often that means that I hear from her repeatedly.

Screening doesn’t work.  Because she’ll just keep calling.

Friends and roommates know this.  “Just pick it up,” they urge. “Please.  For the love of G-d.”

Mom and I speak at least twice on any given day.  Late afternoon or early evening, we discuss the events of the day.  This conversation typically opens with the sally “what’s doing?”  Then, later, I call to let her know I’m in my apartment for the night.

This second conversation is a bone of contention between us.  I maintain that it’s overkill.  I am, after all, 23-years-old.  A college graduate.  I can drink, I can drive, I can vote.  When Mom was my age, she’d been married for a year.

But no matter how old I get, I am my mother’s baby.

I’ve tried to negotiate.  “We talk every day,” I say. “Can’t you just wait twenty-four hours?”

“I’d be going crazy, Marni.  You could be dead.”  She doesn’t say that I could be lying in a gutter somewhere.  She doesn’t need to.  It’s implied.

“You do realize that everyone else thinks it’s insane, right?  That most people talk to their mothers one or twice a week at most?”

“No one I knows thinks so,” she’ll reply.  “They think it’s perfectly understandable.”

No doubt that’s true as the people she talks to are her mother and sister.

She’s a stalker, to be sure.  But a loving one.

Some years ago, my sister told us a story about a friend of hers.  This girl was sheltered, religious.  At eighteen, she went off to Wellesley.  And then, sometime during her first semester of college, she began a relationship with an older man she met on the internet.  To her family’s chagrin, she later ran off with him.  Leaving no forwarding address nor any indication of when she’d return.

“I’d find her and drag her home,” my mother told us.  “What are her parents thinking?”

We pointed out that the girl in question was—in the eyes of the law anyway—not a girl at all.  “She’s eighteen,” we said.  “There’s nothing for them to do.”

“I don’t care,” Mom retorted.  “I’d hunt you down.”

“And if I got a restraining order?” I shot back.

“There’s not a restraining order in the world that could keep me from you.”

* * *

Mom and I look alike.  Everyone says so.  Older people, when they want to be cute, say that we could be sisters.

My mother thinks that I hate hearing this.  “You’re much prettier than I am,” she’ll whisper as they walk away.

I don’t hate it, though.  “I’m not prettier,” I tell her.  “I just have bigger tits.”

My mother and I share the same dark eyes and hair, the same mouth shape.  But she got the deeper dimples and the more discreet nose and I got pricey orthodonture.  We have more in common than looks, though.  More than my fair skin or brown hair, what I inherited from Mom is temperament.

We analyze and overanalyze.  We think too much.  Mostly, we worry.

Mom will vigorously deny that I’m anything like her.  “You’re so much more social.  You always know just what to say, Marni.”  She’ll tell me I’m smarter and more fun and just all-around better.  Which, come to think of it, is just what I’d say about her.

* * *

Much of high school was, for me, an extended Very Special Episode.  A page cribbed from a discarded Elizabeth Wurtzel essay.

Here’s the one where Marni is confronted about her eating disorder.  See her push away her still-full plate.  Watch as she pukes up dinner with the greatest of ease.  And here’s the one where Marni slices up her stomach with a razor blade.  Or the one where she reads Anne Sexton and listens to Elliott Smith.

Like Donna Martin, I did graduate.  But getting there required a larger budget than producers had anticipated.  And I kept my cutting a secret for as long as I could.

I told my mother, finally, during an argument.

In a characteristically idiotic fashion, I hurled the cutting at her, aiming to wound.  Maximizing the moment’s dramatic potential, I rolled up my sleeve and thrust my arm in her face.  “You didn’t even know about this!” I said.  “You didn’t even know about this!”

I regretted it as soon as I said it.

I couldn’t take it back, though.  Just like I couldn’t take back the red and white graffiti now marring my arms and stomach.

Cutting lost me forever my place as The Good Kid.  I was dethroned.  Summarily dismissed.  Pushed from atop my pedestal.  Good Kid became Damaged Goods.  Anorexia was a blip.  A painful, troublesome blip, but a blip nonetheless.  No permanent injury.  Nothing I couldn’t take back.  No real harm done.  This though.  This was different.

My mother set about trying to erase my scars.  We went to the dermatologist.  Again and again.  We talked about plastic surgery and lasers and debated the effectiveness of various topical gels.  My mother set about trying to erase my scars because even more for her than for me, they hurt.

And then there was this: she didn’t want me to go to school.  At Vassar, she wouldn’t be able to keep her eye on me.  She couldn’t ensure I’d be safe, she said.  She said, “I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to you.”

And there it is, both implicit and explicit.  A variation on a theme.  “You could be dead.”

But something had already happened to me and no amount of Mederma was going to change that.

* * *

In the end, we struck a deal and I went to Poughkeepsie.  Because, after all, children grow up.  Children fall.  They skin their knees and scrape their elbows.  They try and they fail and live to try again.  Children leave.  And you have to let them.

It’s worth remembering, however, that there’s not a restraining order in the world that can keep Mom away from me.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When Marisa Tomei won her Oscar in 1993, a sizable contingent of industry types agreed that the award was largely undeserved.My Cousin Vinny” had none of the prestige of that year’s best picture nominees, “Unforgiven” and “The Crying Game”. The cast boasted no Serious Actors. Tellingly, Tomei’s was the film’s only nomination. And the marquee name? Joe-fucking-Pesci.

But, against all odds, Marisa beat out Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson. That’s—count ’em—three Brits.

Tomei’s win was such an upset that, for years, rumors persisted that she hadn’t really won. That presenter Jack Palance had called her name by accident. That the true winner was Vanessa Redgrave.

It’s not true though.

And I for one never believed it was.

* * *

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Marisa.

Back in 1994, I performed in a talent show at Jewish sleepaway camp. Because I was 9 and it was the early ’90s, I sang “Hero” by Mariah Carey.

In fact, I knew all the songs on Dreambox by heart. “Hero” and “Dreamlover” and “Music Box” and all the rest. I used to listen to the tape on my Sony walkman. I alternated between Dreambox and Forever Your Girl. Later, I’d move on to Jewel and then the Wallflowers and Third Eye Blind. At the time though, it was all about Mariah. (And, when no one was watching, Celine Dion.)

I sang “Hero” because I knew all the words and it’s with no small amount of pride that I tell you I received a standing ovation for my performance.

My stage fright was so bad that, when I sat down, I was still shaking.

“You know who you look like?” a male counselor asked.

“Who?” I responded, catching my breath.

“That actress, Marisa Tomei.”

I had no idea who Marisa Tomei was in 1994.My Cousin Vinny” was rated R and the only R-rated movie I’d seen was a snippet of “Pretty Woman” in a limo after my third cousin’s bat mitzvah. But even though I didn’t know who she was, I knew enough to be flattered. I watched Tomei’s career with interest and was pleased to see that, in time, she proved her critics wrong, garnering another two Oscar nominations.

* * *

The thing is, I don’t look much like her. I’m not nearly so pretty. I feel certain that no one would cast me as a stripper or ask me to dance coquettishly in a Hanes commercial.

Like most girls, I wanted the gamine looks of Audrey Hepburn or the smoldering sensuality of Liz Taylor. To be a cat on a hot tin roof. Holly Golightly. To be dark and delicate. To be desired.

But I don’t really look like celebrities at all. More than anything else, I look like those sepia-toned snapshots of refugees in line at Ellis Island. Or like those photos you see in “The Shoah”: somber-faced and sad-eyed, clutching a suitcase, a tattered yellow star affixed to my best wool coat.

I don’t look like celebrities. I look an understudy in a dinner theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof”.

When I was nine, I dressed up as Louisa May Alcott for Famous Person’s Day.My mother was heartbroken. She’d begged me to go as Anne Frank. “Think of how easy it would be!” she said. “We cut out a yellow magen david, tape it to your jacket and, voila!”

I held firm, though. Little Women was my favorite book and, more than anything, I was bound and determined to pay homage to its author.

I’ve come to regret that decision. After all, I look a hell of a lot more like Anne Frank than Louisa May Alcott.

* * *

When I was 15 or 16, my grandmother told me I looked just like Liza Minelli.

From her perspective, this was high praise.

She pictured “Cabaret”-era Liza—all big eyes and jazz hands.

I, however, pictured David Gest-era Liza—all drug addiction and wrinkles and encephalitis.

This well-meaning comment did little for my already-plummeting self-esteem. It’s no coincidence that in the year that followed, I stopped eating and assiduously avoided all things Fosse.

* * *

My sister once told me that an ex-boyfriend of hers said she was prettier than Natalie Portman. They’d had a class together in college, she said, and he assured her that she was, like, way hotter.

* * *

“You look just like Alexa Ray Joel!’ the waitress told me emphatically. “Just like her.”

“You know who she is, right? Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley’s daughter!”

She paused and then, after a beat: “She didn’t get her mother’s looks at all.”

Great. Just what every girl dreams of: being compared to the paunchy, sad-eyed Piano Man.

Anybody looking for a downtown man?

* * *

A friend of mine used to go around informing anyone who would listen how often she was mistaken for Keira Knightley. For a time, she had a glamour shot of Keira as her Facebook picture.

* * *

My second cousin, Ellen, weighed 67 pounds and was 42-years-old when she died in 2006. We scattered her ashes in a man-made lake at the park where she used to go jogging. For the last two decades of her life, that was all she had. Jogging and books and years of empty dinner plates.

It was hard to look at her.

But Ellen was sweet. She was sweet and she was sad.

She gave tight, hard hugs. Hugs so forceful you could feel her ribcage, her pelvic bone. Hugs so fierce you worried that her brittle little body might break.

Ellen preferred to skip family events as they often centered around meals. But when she did come, she would talk enthusiastically about the latest book she’d read or a foreign film she’d seen. She was nice to me.

She once told me that I looked like Isabella Rossellini.

“Just like her.”

 

My grandather, Marvin, has half a dozen friends that go by “Buddy.” Not a one, I’d venture to guess, has the name “Buddy” on his birth certificate.  But there they all are: Buddys, every one.  A whole generation with just one nickname.

***

Ashkenazic tradition dictates that Jewish babies be named after a recently deceased relative. It is in this way that I got my name, Marni.

I’m named after my paternal great-grandfather, Mike. A man my father knew as Poppy Mike. A man my father loved.

“I wish you could have known him,” my father says to me. “You would have loved him.” And, as an afterthought, “he would have really loved you.”

Mike, I realize, sounds nothing like Marni. But Mike’s Hebrew name, Yitzhak, means laughter. And my name, Marni, means rejoice. My mother, in her infinite wisdom, decided that joy and laughter were pretty much one in the same and called it a day.

There’s something profound in that equation. Laughter = joy. A life without laughter is a life without joy.

And so I was named Marni. Rejoice! A name prone to mispronunciations and misspellings. Marny and Marnie and Marnee and Marie and once, Marini. I had a boss who called me Marini. She had it printed on my nametag. I continued to answer to “Marini” for weeks, never bothering to correct her.

Sometimes, when children call for their mommy, I think they’re asking for me.

***

I wasn’t supposed to be named after Mike. Which is to say that my name wasn’t supposed to be Marni. Rather, I was to be named Celeste. And then Poppy Mike died and Celeste became my middle name.

I feel fairly certain that, had I been named Celeste, my life would have been radically different.

Celeste means heavenly and is the name of a willowy blonde. Celeste has delicate ringlets and slender wrists and wears a lot of lace and chiffon. Celeste doesn’t sweat or fart. Celeste is dreamy and gentle and otherworldly. Celeste, I think, would have been pretty. I imagine her, 23 now, in some alternate universe. My beautiful doppelganger. She got the looks and I got the biting wit.

According to the United States Social Security Administration, Celeste was the 437th most popular name the year I was born. It should be noted here that Marni has never been in the top 1000 most popular names.

Celeste Grossman. Can you picture it?

***

Grossman. Gross Man. Gross, man!

You think you’re so fucking clever.

***

My mother and father are products of their generation.

In 1955, Deborah was the 2nd most popular name and Debra the 4th most popular. Debbie was 63. My mother entered a world overrun by other Debbies. She even had to contend with the snack maven, Little Debbie. She wasn’t unique. She was one of many.

My father’s name, Jerome, has long since fallen out of favor. 1953 was a different story. #107. Its derivative, Jerry, was #29. These days he’s Jerome Grossman, Esq. And he’s not the only one. Google it. There’s one in every state and at least four in Manhattan and another handful in LA.

But my father is Jerome K. Grossman. The K stands for Kent. The cigarette company. I swear. Scout’s honor.

***

There’s another Marni Grossman out there. A film and television photographer from Toronto. She has her own website and imdb page. Nearly all our google results are about her. Which shouldn’t make me bitter but does. The other Marni Grossman worked on “Scary Movie 3.”

I know her, actually.

Well, sort of.

When I was seventeen I struck up an internet friendship with her. “Dear Ms. Grossman, this is a strange e-mail to write and an even stranger one to receive. We have the same name.” Something like that.

The other Marni Grossman- Marni Gayle Grossman- is lovely. She’s prodigiously talented. She has two kids. A daughter and a son and a thriving career. She likes hiking and outdoorsy things. She likes the Canadian mountains and grizzly bears. She has something of a hippie-Walden-back-to-nature ethos.

The only thing Marni Gayle and I share is a name.

Over the years, we lost touch. I went to college and she went on shooting Anna Faris and Susan Sarandon.

I’m still the only Marni Celeste Grossman I know. I like it that way.

***

My grandmother, Myra, had a gold necklace with a large M charm. The M was a large capital letter in block print. She wore it all the time. I remember it vividly. And, when I was small, she’d sit next to me while I took my bath and recite all the family members whose names began with M. “ ‘M,’” she’d say, “is for Myra. And Marvin. And Molly and Mike and Max and Marni!” She’d point to me and I’d squirm with pride and pleasure. M is for Marni, M is for Marni. Marni, Marni, Marni…

Grandma promised me that necklace. But it’s gone now. Misplaced in the passing of years. Somewhere in the haystack of old birthday cards and dated clothing and broken dustbusters. Just underneath that pile of discarded paperbacks and stumps of lipstick. “Oh honey,” Grandma sighed. “I lost that years ago.” Grandma’s M necklace went the way of the Buddies. Into a database kept by the Social Security Administration.  A thin gold needle in the haystack of history.

The house on Cornwall Avenue was two blocks from the beach. It was large and white and perfect. Out front were lilac bushes. In the back, on the driveway, we would ride our bikes and drag our red wagons and wash our sandy feet with the hose. The house had three stories, several balconies and room enough for most all of us. For kids and grandkids and friends dropping by. The neighbors had a pool, but we had the carriage house. We held birthday parties there. Fourth-of-July celebrations. It smelled of wet sand and must and sweat and memory.

We’d walk the two blocks to the beach in flip-flops, carrying fold-up chairs and coolers of water and boogie boards. Aunt Nomi would tote along peaches and plums in plastic bags and some other aunt or uncle would bring money for the ice cream man. The cousins- bolder than I- would jump waves, venturing deeper and deeper into the murky froth of the Atlantic. I, who was not-so-brave, stayed by the shore building sand castles and hunting for snail shells with my father. In the afternoon the ice cream man would ring his bell and we’d go running after him, hankering for fudgesicles and ice cream sandwiches and chocolate tacos. Our mothers would rub sunscreen onto our sandy backs as we dripped chocolate down our fronts. 

At 4:00 or 5:00 we’d start back, hopping from foot-to-foot on the hot late-afternoon sand. Our feet burned and blackened, we carried our shoes clutched in our small fists, limping our way back to the house on Cornwall Avenue.

* * *

It is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed. Me, I imagine mine in Super-8 film. Like an episode of “The Wonder Years.” Like a Ford ad, circa 1972. I remember thin legs in terry cloth shorts sticking to the leather of the car. I remember the view from the back seat. My parents’ voices rising and falling musically from up front. My sister faking sick next to me. Windows down. The smell of sea-salt. Tossing quarters into the toll booth. Downtheshore. All one word.

This was where my grandparents lived. My Bubbie and Zadie*. But it was more than that. Downtheshore was my grandparents. The dark blue of the kitchen carpet. The porcelain tea sets and cat figurines in the living room. Ketzie** the cat, gray and cranky, hissing at us kids from underneath Bubbie and Zadie’s bed. Oreo cookies dipped in milk. All of us cousins, one multi-legged creature with 18 tanned arms.

Like I said: it is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed.

* * *

At 78, my Bubbie is still beautiful. She no longer has the tremendous breasts of her youth. Cancer got those. And she can’t walk these days. Her feet are enormous: swollen to the size of melons, fit only for special-order shoes and thick support hose. But she retains that sexy Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth. A killer smile. Eyes that sparkle and perfectly arched brows. An enviably thick head of hair. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though. I am 55 years her junior but all I have over her is youth.

In my favorite photograph of my grandmother, she is 16. In profile. She is wearing a fur headpiece and staring pensively away from the camera. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. She hasn’t yet been introduced to my dark and handsome grandfather. She hasn’t yet given birth to her four children. She doesn’t yet know that her beloved father has only a year to live. She doesn’t yet know that in three decades she will lose her sister- her best friend- to breast cancer. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though.

* * *

At 78, my Bubbie is losing her memory. This is a fact, though I choose to believe it is merely conjecture.

If we don’t use the A-word then it isn’t real.

She has good days. Days when she can reminisce with fluency about yesterday and last year and thirty years ago. Days when she cracks jokes. Days when she tries to press her jewelry on me, saying, “you like this? Take it!” She has good days and this makes it easier to forget that she has bad days too.

* * *

Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the house on Cornwall Avenue over a decade ago. The house was too big so they downsized to a small yellow box of a house five blocks from the beach. It didn’t matter much. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore. Couldn’t. Some years later, they built a ramp for her wheelchair. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore so neither did we. We sat on the porch and ate dried fruit from candy dishes and watched the roses grow into maturity. We still held birthday parties. Fourth-of-July celebrations. We still stopped for soft-serve at the Purple Penguin on our way home. Downtheshore.

Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the little yellow box on North Union last year. To an apartment in a retirement community. They are in independent living. There is, however, the option for assisted living. Nursing care. But Bubbie still has good days and Zadie is still only 83 and we still have 15-year-old sand lodged in our toes and our tans haven’t faded completely. This is merely conjecture but I choose to believe it is fact. This is merely grasping at straws. But I’ll take it.

* * *

One night not too long ago, Bubbie woke Zadie up in the middle of the night. “What’s Debbie?” she asked him urgently. “What’s Debbie to me?” “She’s your daughter,” he said.

* * *

My mother doesn’t believe that there was blue carpet in the kitchen of the house on Cornwall Avenue. We ask my father. He has no recollection whatsoever. “What’s for dinner?” he asks instead. I remember it distinctly though. Blue carpet in the kitchen. It was there, I think, even if it wasn’t. Blue carpet in the kitchen downtheshore in the house on Cornwall Avenue.

 

*For those of you who aren’t Chosen- you get your Easter eggs and we get circumcision- Bubbie and Zadie are Yiddish words for “grandmother” and “grandfather.”

** Ketzie is Yiddish for cat.  Go figure.

I.

My sister is a bright red slash of lipstick.

I wrote that when I was fourteen. We were supposed to be creating vignettes, a la Sandra Cisneros in The House on Mango Street. The line seemed just right: literary, poetic, true. I thought I’d done pretty darn good.

 

II.

My sister is a bright red slash of lipstick. Beautiful and bold and unexpected. My sister is the color that cosmetics impresarios dub “Fire” or “Dragon,” “Flirt” or “Seduction.” “Revolution.” “Absolutely irresistible red.”

My sister is a lawyer. A career that was, perhaps, inevitable. She doesn’t back down and she doesn’t equivocate. She will wound you. She will draw blood. But she will be right.

My sister is no shrinking violet. She will not be satisfied with your pinks or mauves or corals. She is high-gloss and high-intensity. She is capital letters and neon lights.

 

III.

My father had hopes that my sister would become a violin prodigy, That she would be the next Sarah Chang. But the Suzuki method is crafted for other children. Children more disciplined.  Children less willful.  Less manipulative.  The sort of children who nod dutifully and always respond in the affirmative.

But my sister always loved the word “no.”

Undeterred, my father bought her- at two-years-old- a tiny violin and a fistful of lessons at the local music school. He had dreams of a family chamber music trio. He’d play the piano, Hannah would fiddle away and, when I was born, I’d join in, tooting melodically on the flute.

It was not to be.

My sister informed the music teacher and my father that she would play only if they both got under the table and turned off all the lights. So they got under the table. Turned off all the lights. And Hannah? She remained stubborn and unyielding. She never played a note.

My sister is a bright red slash of lipstick. She is Fire.

 

IV.

“Everybody in Cleveland just thinks of me as Dan’s Hot Wife,” she complained.

“I…I don’t know how to respond to that,” I said.

 

V.

My mother taught Hannah about good touching and bad touching. This was, presumably, between the lessons on not accepting candy from strangers and never getting into an unmarked Ford Escort. Hannah heard and understood.

My grandmother went to strap her into the car seat.

“Don’t touch my privates!” she shrieked.

 

VI.

That summer, I was 5’4” and 90 pounds.  I was sixteen. I couldn’t sleep on my stomach because my hipbones dug painfully into the mattress. When I breathed in, you could see the whole of my rib cage pulsate. I hadn’t eaten in months and I was dizzily, dangerously thin. I was hoping to lose another 20 pounds by the fall.

Hannah was home from school. We were fighting. Viciously. Over what, I can’t remember. She threw a picture frame at my head. I called her a bitch.

“You’re awful and ugly,” she spat at me, “and no one will ever love you. No matter how skinny you get.”

It was the thing I was sure was true but hoped against hope wasn’t. I knew she was right about me and I hated her for it.

To this day, it’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to me.

My sister is a bright red slash of lipstick. She is Dragon.

 

VII.

My sister was the world’s most beautiful bride. This is not opinion but fact. Everyone said so. She was radiant. As she always is.  Spinning. Unearthly. Faster than the speed of light.

I watch her go from my seat on the sidelines.

“The boys and girls are one tonight.

They unbutton blouses.  They unzip flies.

They take off shoes.  They turn off the light.

The glimmering creatures are full of lies.

They are eating each other.  They are overfed.

Tonight, alone, I marry the bed.”

-“The Ballad of a Lonely Masturbator” by Anne Sexton

There’s a masturbator in the preschool class my friend Kat teaches.  She fondles herself at nap time and sometimes at the little round table where the class eats graham crackers and sips apple juice.  The child’s two-and-a-half and she’s getting it regular.  She’s taking matters into her own hands and she’s getting the job done.  Satisfaction?  Absolutely.

Color me impressed.

Kat has promised to ask the masturbator for some tips.  I wait with bated breath.

* * *

I like masturbation in theory.  It’s efficient.  It’s self-sufficient.  No messy interpersonal drama.  No emotional entanglement.  Just good aerobic fun.  And there’s opportunity to accessorize.  To dress up your pleasure with a vibrator or a dildo.  The choices!  Silicone, latex, pastels, neon: the kinky catalog of possibilities is endless.

The thing is, I’ve never quite gotten the hang of it.  Orgasm- clitoral, vaginal, mental- has remained tantalizingly out-of-reach.

And believe me, I’ve reached.

* * *

Jay knew that I was orgasmically challenged and he took it upon himself to rectify the situation.  It was a vanity project.  He would be the man to break through my defenses.  He’d be the man to storm the castle.  And so he poked.  He prodded, he sucked, he licked.  He bobbed up and down like a seal at Sea World.  For my part, I made what I hoped were sexy, satisfied moans.  “Oh.  O-oh.  Oh!”  I tried to arrange my face in a simulacrum of blissed-out beauty.  I sucked in my stomach.  I worried that I had not waxed enough.  I noted with displeasure the dark little patch of hair I’d neglected on my thigh.  Jay fingered.  Jay rubbed.  Jay stroked and Jay dug his stubby fingers deeper into my unyielding spinster’s vagina.

I appreciated his efforts.  Really I did.  I showed my gratitude with half a blow job and a complimentary appraisal of his manhood.  “I’m no expert,” I said, “but it looks big to me.”

I wanted to please him.  My pleasure was secondary.  An afterthought.

* * *

Freud would have things to say about me.  Krafft-Ebbing, too.  I’d be pronounced frigid and my unnaturalness would be studied and written up.  Cosmo would suggest 97 fail-safe tips.

But the problem- for me anyway- can be found in Woody Allen’s famous pronouncement on the subject: “Don’t knock masturbation.  It’s sex with someone I love.”   What happens if masturbation is sex with someone you loathe?  Can you ever make love to yourself if you don’t even like yourself?  Or do your ladyparts wither and die on the vine?  Are you left always wanting?

* * *

I envy that masturbating moppet.  I envy her lack of inhibitions and I envy her unabashed embrace of pleasure.  More, I envy her innocence.  At two, she hasn’t yet learned that she’s fat and ugly and wrong.  She hasn’t learned to pluck and tweeze and groom herself into someone else.  She doesn’t yet know that, if she knows what’s good for her, she’ll play dumb and act coy.  That boys don’t like girls who talk too much.  Who have opinions.  Wants.  Need.s  She doesn’t know to say that math is hard and sure, we can do it on my parents’ bed.  She has no idea that she’ll fake it to spare his feelings.

She is joyful and she is free.  Tickle me Elmo?  You bet your ass.