Chest Pains

By Zach Ellis

Essay

itsababy

I’m going to tell you a story about breasts. Tits. Boobs. Bosoms. Chesticles. Headlights. Hooters. Jugs. Knockers. Melons.

Mine.

The first time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a fourteen-year-old girl. I was doing jumping jacks in our basement for exercise. He asked if he could join me. We faced one another, sweat pouring off my forehead. Journey was on the radio. We jumped at the same time, his middle-aged body facing mine. Steve Perry reminded me to not stop believin’ as I caught my father’s eyes, staring right at my tits. Just enough time for us to get out of sync. Just enough time for him to see me following his gaze. He walked away when the song was over. We never said anything about it.

The second time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a grown man.

Domenica_Ruta_ 32

The Library of Congress breaks down your book into these categories: Children of drug addicts—Massachusetts—biography—drug addicts. What genre would you put your book into?

I really dislike reducing any work of art to a DSM-IV listing. My mother was more than her addictions and mental illness. And I am more than her daughter.

RUTA_WithWithoutYou_trP R O L O G U E

Glass

My mother grabbed the iron poker from the fireplace and said, “Get in the car.”

I pulled on my sneakers and followed her outside. She had that look on her face, distracted and mean, as though she’d just been dragged out of a deep sleep full of dreams. She was mad, I could tell right away, but not at me, not this time.

Her car was a lime-green hatchback with blotches and stripes of putty smeared over the dents. The Shitbox, she called it. We called it, actually. My mother hated the thing so much she didn’t mind if I swore at it. “What a piece of shit,” I’d grumble whenever it stalled on us, which we could gamble on happening at least once a day, more if it was snowing. Far and away the most unreliable car we ever had in our life together, it was a machine that ran on prayer.

ag2Like writing this memoir wasn’t exercise enough in accelerating through self-consciousness and isolation, now I have to interview myself about it?

Apparently.

 

You’ve been quoted calling your new memoir, The End of Eve, “a comedy about domestic violence.” What’s up with that?

When I was working on the book I found it a bit tricky to explain to people what I was doing.

I’m writing about lung cancer!”

“A great project about watching my beautiful, crazy, abusive mom die!”

I must have sounded so depressing. People would go all doe-eyed. So I started saying I was writing a comedy about domestic violence. Well, that didn’t go over so well, either. Because, of course, domestic violence isn’t something to laugh about. But here’s the truth: I grew up in a violent household. My relationship with my mother always included some level of violence. But it also included a lot of humor. Some days, aking my mom laugh was the only way to get her to put down her weapons. It was the only way to get her to drop the drama. And laughter is a real way to relieve tension—that’s not just a quirk of MY family of origin, it is what is true.

Out of Focus

By Paula Younger

Memoir

Two years after my wedding I stood behind bulletproof glass searching evidence tables piled with pictures of smiling brides and grooms.  Jenny, the police officer assigned to photo viewing day, led me to the Misc. box, a cardboard beast overflowing with pictures and negatives.  She warned, “This might take a while.”  A blond woman flanked by her husband and her parents said, “Can you believe we have to do this?”  She rifled through boxes for a glimpse of the dress she had so carefully picked out, her husband’s smile, photos of friends and family.  I was looking for those things too.  But I was also looking for something else.  In that police basement I was searching for the last pictures ever taken of my mother and me.

Mother’s Day is a yearly obligation, like taxes, that sneaks up on me, fills me with dread and guilt, and forces me to tell a short series of little and white, only moderately willful–though potentially disastrous (at least if I get caught)–lies.

I know people who live for these things–these holidays and way-markers on the calendar.  I’ve felt and done it myself–even tried to do it on purpose in the manner of a deliberate outward-turning “lifestyle change.” I know that these things parse the metronomic passage of time into a reliable series of meaningful events, thereby turning the calendar into digestible avocational cycles of preparation, payoff, clean-up, and recovery.  The next life goal and feeling of accomplishment need only ever be as far away as the next major or minor holiday, birthday, or anniversary, and you can set your own cycle period by choosing to observe more or fewer of them, significantly reducing–if not eliminating completely–awareness of mortality and the indifferent siege of time.


My daughter, not yet eight, has grown suddenly careful with her money.  She’s not greedy.  (She often forgets to ask for her allowance.)  But, now that she’s figured out that money is finite, she spends what she has with great deliberation.

Prior to our recent beach vacation, she planned a lemonade venture for weeks in her mind, fantasizing about the preparation of the drinks, the inevitable line of customers, the transactions.  Our family has a running conversational riff about one day opening a store selling only her favorite foods: salmon sashimi, cucumber, chocolate, a few others equally eclectic.  She’s sophisticated enough to know it’s a joke.  So when she contemplated the lemonade stand she settled on two items she thought would have a better shot than sashimi: lemonade and chocolate brownies.

My wife donated the brownie mix.  My daughter and her cousins worked on the sign for two days, including graphic representations of their offerings.  They stirred the lemonade from a mix, planning to add lemon slices for authenticity, but in their excitement they forgot that last touch.

They set up their stand in the shade of a tree on a corner in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where cars are banned and people run errands with golf carts.  My wife and I went off with the six-seater to pick up house guests, leaving my daughter and her two cousins in the hands of my sister and brother-in-law, who monitored from lawn chairs.

I feared that the first lesson of commerce would be how hard it is to pull in customers, but I suppose I overlooked the cuteness factor of two eager little girls and a well-tanned five-year-old boy with a mop of thick dark hair and a smile that could melt icebergs.  Less than an hour later they had sold out, if you don’t count the three brownies they’d set aside for themselves.  And who’s scrooge enough to count that?

They declared with pride that they had eighteen dollars — six for each of them with no arguing about the relative contributions of the youngest.  But I was determined that there be a business lesson in this.  I said they must deduct expenses.

“What are expensives?” my daughter asked with great seriousness.

Aw, heck.  I explained the concept of costs, but my heart had gone out of it already.  We deducted three bucks and they each ended up with five and we headed for the ocean.

Over the next two days, my daughter proudly left three shops in a row without spending her share of the bounty.  Then, on the way home, we stopped in Richmond.  A few blocks from the Jefferson Hotel, we passed a plain storefront with agates and geodes in the window.  It specialized in beads and rocks, playing down the access-restricted head shop in back.  Beads and rocks, as it happens, are the specialties also of every seven-year-old girl in the world.  We entered with my daughter in the lead.

The place had only the most basic merchandising, home-made strands of beads and minerals hanging from plain hooks, drawers filled with colorful beads, rocks and small fossils sorted by type on tables and shelves.  My daughter was — well, like a kid in a rock shop.  She had to have everything, but knew she couldn’t.  The clerk behind the counter — eager, friendly, New Agey — must have been disappointed with our admonitions about the budget, but she didn’t show it.

After about twenty minutes of touching everything, creasing the brow, doubling back, touching again, my daughter settled on a shelf of sparkling golden rocks.

“I think I want some gold,” she said.

It fell to me, over her shoulder, to point out like a heel that she was looking at pyrite, fool’s gold.  So what?  It sparkled, it fell within her budget, and the one she selected filled her palm perfectly.

Scarcely an hour earlier, we’d been dragging her through the hot, humid streets of Richmond, urging her forward, reprimanding when she dropped too far behind.  Now, leaving the store with her treasure, the kid had springs in her steps.  She knew for sure that she’d chosen wisely, that she’d taken possession of something that in turn had the prospect of possessing her.  She declared that she’d start a rock collection and that she’d look up on line, when we got home, about pyrite.

In that moment, she reminded me of an older nephew whom we’d taken to the Bronx Zoo years ago, before we had a child of our own.  All he wanted to do was go into every gift shop and buy trinkets, which he’d stuff into his pockets with an owner’s pride.  Real live lions and giraffes and elephants — couldn’t take those home.  A rubber rhino to control, to have forever, to place on the shelf as a trophy — that’s what a kid’s after.

My daughter, among other interests, pursues fireflies at night with the determination of a big game hunter.  She’s evolved from wanting to trap them in a jar, where they surely die, to wishing only to see them glow in her hand for a few seconds.  Then she sets them free and seeks another.

The morning after her purchase, I emerged from the shower to find her in a huff.  My wife explained the problem: she’d lost the pyrite — had it and then didn’t.

“How do you lose a rock in a hotel room?”  Maybe the same way you let a firefly go.

When my wife went into the bathroom I helped my daughter search the covers of each bed, look under and behind every piece of furniture.  Gone.

I was halfway through Round Two when she turned to me, reconciled to her loss.  “Well, thanks anyway for helping me, Dad.”  I paused and swallowed.  That unprompted thank-you was real gold.

We ran out of places to look, but she found the rock in her knapsack a few minutes later — had put it there for safe keeping and forgotten.

That afternoon, back home, she asked without prompting to use the computer.  Then she came back downstairs, requesting help.  She did a Google search and couldn’t find fool’s gold or pyrite.  Turns out the first six hits or so for fool’s gold reference a movie.  And she was spelling pyrite wrong.  I set her up on Wikipedia and she printed the results.

The article states: “Despite being nicknamed fool’s gold, small quantities of gold are sometimes found associated with pyrite.”

So true.

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.

Ritual

By Zsofia McMullin

Essay

We have the ritual down pat: My Mom gives me an old t-shirt to wear and she takes her clothes off to her underwear. I mix the hair dye in the bathroom, wearing those plastic gloves that come in the package. I squeeze the dye into a little one-cup Tupperware dish and use a small brush from another hair dying kit to apply the color.

She sits on a little office chair we pull into the bathroom, with a specially designated towel around her shoulders.  I have to start the application at her temples, because that’s where most of the white hairs are. My Mom has tons of hair. It’s thick, curly, and unruly. And going gray. Rapidly.

Once I am done with the temples, I move on to the front of her heard, carefully applying the dye right along her hairline where the surgeon cut her head during her brain surgery a couple of years ago. There is a small hole right in the middle of her forehead where they took out some tumor-ravaged bone.

When I glance in the mirror, I see myself 20 years from now in my Mom’s face. My nose, my cheeks, my curly hair – all like hers. Our laughs are the same and so are the looks we give when someone is bullshitting us: Just a small squint of the eyes, a downward tilt of the head, an almost unnoticeable turn of the lips. It’s a killer look and I am glad I inherited it from her.

By the time I am done with the entire bottle of color, her head looks like a giant radish, dark red from the dye and all of her hair is piled on top of her head. I wipe down her ears and her forehead – I am messy – and we move into the bedroom where we sit for 25 minutes.

We chat. Sometimes about nothing. Sometimes about everything. We have one of those great, complicated, incomprehensible, emotional, wacky, mother-daughter relationships. She knows me better than anyone. I love her for that. I hate her for that. It’s painful and revealing when someone knows you so well.

I know her now too. I know her as an adult – understand her so much better than when I was a rebellious teenager, eager to break free, eager to do anything to not become like her.

I now know that it’s impossible and have given up on pretending that it’s not happening. I cry during commercials. I cry when I say good bye to people who are dear to me. I lavish love on my friends – even if it’s never reciprocated. I yell at my husband to put his hat on when it’s cold. I can’t sleep at night.  I am bull-headed. I always cook way too much food. I always think I know what’s best. I don’t dwell on the past. I plan ahead. I am a fatalist.

We fight. Never about anything that matters; there is never any doubt that we fight out of love.  But even that is rare these days. The long, drawn-out, tearful screaming matches of my teenage years are gone, when all the male members of our family quietly retreated to some distant corner of the apartment while we went at it.  I don’t even remember what those fights were about. Curfew? School? Boys? Who knows?

Now when we fight, it’s more of a quiet, subdued fight. She tells me what’s what. I get defensive. Our eyes well up. We move on. She is always right – but not in that annoying “I told you so” way. She just is – quietly, confidently.

When the 25 minutes are up, she sits back on the office chair and leans above the bathtub so I can rinse her hair. The dye runs in dark streams down her curls and into the drain. I shampoo her hair then massage in a handful of conditioner.  I tickle her ear and neck as I massage and she giggles. I hand her a towel to wipe her eyes. I try to be careful so that I don’t spray her face too much with the shower head, but it’s impossible. We are both soaked by the time I am done.

I clean up.

She dries her hair.