EDITOR’S NOTE BY HALIMAH MARCUS
When thinking of Malerie Willens’ “Lebenslügen,” I keep coming back to the phrase she uses to describe the apartment where Lexi, an aimless and intelligent woman in her thirties, lives with her shut-in mother. “It’s a shin-busting labyrinth of furniture,” she writes, and while I know that shin-busting is painful, unpleasant, and not really meant as a compliment, I can’t help but feel that when applied to Willens’ writing, “shin-busting labyrinth” is also deserved praise.
Willens’ prose is packed but uncluttered, full of witticisms, trivia, news-clippings, and equivocal chatter. Though there are only three main characters, “Lebenslügen” is a story in which those characters knock up against one another, leave bruises, and make noise. There’s Wiener, the downstairs neighbor who’s “a radical who’s not all that radical,” Lexi’s mother Nan, a former “leggy little princess from Queens” who has become “like some Judeo-Christian suzerain,” and Lexi, whose world, once the size of New York, consists now of only the aforementioned two.
In “Lebenslügen,” we spend Monday through Saturday with these fine figures — hanging around The Babylon, as they affectionately call their apartment, and taking trips to the zoo and the country. Six days spent with Wiener, Nan, and Lexi is enough to see that amidst all the shin-busting, The Babylon is more than an eccentric fortress; it’s a home built from real affection and tenderness. There’s love behind the repartee, expressed in ways so small and lovely, one might mistake them for ordinary.
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by Malerie Willens, recommended by Electric Literature
I can hardly stand in the kitchen long enough to brew the coffee, thanks to the smell of Lord Bosie’s cat food. There’s photos of Nan — my mom — from her dancing days, when she remembered to pluck the hairs that corkscrew sometimes from her slackened under-chin. We’ve got every issue of Harper’s Bazaar from 1966 through ’78, the page-bottoms brittle from bathtub reading. It’s a shin-busting labyrinth of furniture, with an entire wall reserved for Bobby Kennedy campaign gewgaws. And this is just the kitchen.
Downstairs, our front awning’s got the name of the building — The Avalon — aka The Babylon — written in once-grand gothic script. In the lobby, a chandelier casts a rosy light, and tatty silken flower arrangements do little to dispel a stasis so still, you feel obscene for moving through it. This lobby has seen much happen — broader, brighter days — but there is also a sense of suspension, a warning or waiting for some future shoe to drop. What it lacks is any trace of the present.
Our neighbors are private people who scurry between the roar of the street and the heavy slams of their own doors. We’ll hold the elevator for someone whose hands are full, but we will not get personal. Everyone’s got theories: 3H handcuffs himself to the bedposts while verbally abusing the maid in low German; the Kangs have eaten Malt-o-Meal every day for ten years; glamorous Mrs. Minkin is really a man.
A year ago I moved in when Mom started wearing a dashiki. “No turbans” I said. “Once you’re in a turban, there’s nothing I can do.” I’d just lost my job and left the man I loved and hated, and The Babylon was my refuge. My friends were constantly around, which they aren’t anymore. Real life put a natural cap on all that escapism — for them at least. Mom would hold court, telling stories in her bare feet, toes en pointe atop the ottoman, right hand aloft with a cup of Lapsang Souchong. She said we were all as clever as the Algonquins — the ones from the hotel, not the Indians, although they, too, may have been clever and probably also drank too much.
The red rotary phone receiver is looking like a hot dog, probably because I skipped dinner last night. It dwarfs Mom’s witchy hand. She’s on the line with the realtor. They should be talking escrow, mortgage, unobstructed views. Instead she’s describing my difficult birth, the prying out of me from her. It happened over thirty years ago but still it’s front-page news for Mom. The heroism, she loves it: both of us special from the get-go. Apparently I had horns on my fontanelles from the forceps, and I think I’ve still got them in certain spots. On a related note, I should tell you that I’m one of those rare Semitic blondes. Chosen, yet flaxen. Like Dominique Sanda in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I mention this because some people think it’s important. “Good job, Lexi,” they say, once they’ve put it together. “Nice work.” As though I had a choice.
Incidentally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the forceps had prodded the anxiety lobes of my brain. I walk the streets with the palpable sensation that I’m about to be crushed by a falling air conditioner, piano, or loogie. I hover somewhere just shy of terrorized, a zone of heightened perception, with occasional thunderclaps of balls-out fear: prickly heat, heart like a bongo, sweat-specked small of my back. The nearly erotic tingle of parts not meant to tingle: belly button, toenails, air against skin. Sometimes I can almost detect a sixth finger on my left hand, to the left of my pinky.
Mom segues from the birth story to a harangue about the property. Where’s the bomb-shelter? When is a mature tree officially mature? And the nearest twenty-four hour pharmacy — does it deliver?
She’s talking so fast, I wonder whether the realtor is still on the line. Was he ever on the line? Is this a trick phone call and she’s just humoring me? I’m desperate to move us out of this wretched city, deep into the wilds upstate, but Mom hasn’t left the house in half a decade, except to see doctors. I pinch her arm to get her back on track, to finish the phone call without terrifying the poor realtor, if he is indeed still on the phone.
Her warbling’s white noise to me. I’ve heard three decades’ worth, and I’d gladly hear three more, if I could hear it in a place where cows moo and crickets… sound however crickets sound.
My sense is that she has captivated the realtor with her phone energy. You don’t need the visual to get sucked into her sunshine. People have always been drawn to her, ever since she modern-danced in the ’60s and painted herself gold in the ’70s. She lights up a room. It’s not the sort of light that illuminates, but it’s light, and people like light. My dad liked her light, enough for a two-month bender before he opted out and married one of his Alexander Technique in Dramaturgy students while I was in utero.
Mom slams down the receiver. She has agreed to the plan. Like a field marshal I’ve been strategizing, and now we have a date. We will visit what will perhaps be our future house in the country, on Saturday, five days from today. At the very least I’ll put her in the car and we’ll drive. Clarity and scope, may we get it on the road like the dreamy legions of sophomoric artists since the beginning of cars and roads. Clarity and scope is what we lack in this high-rise dungeon, full of real and imagined detritus: hers, mine, ours, whoever else’s.
We’re having breakfast when Ezra Wiener makes his appearance. Mom calls him Ezra but to me, he’s Wiener. Wiener’s a radical who’s not all that radical. He answers phones at the headquarters of long-shot lefties — council members, board supervisors, would-be mayors. He spearheads stump speeches in free clinics and rents urns of Sanka and platters of bialys for elderly constituents who’ll be dead by Election Day. He’s vegan, borderline anemic, and a progressive — from a long line of Workmen’s Circle types — frozen in time like a chain-smoking, army fatigue-wearing cliché of 20th century America in its third third. He’s lived in the Babylon since 1985, when he broke up with his new-age girlfriend, Lucinda, who predicted your future according to the striations in your fingernails.
Wiener loves us and we love him, although there’s sometimes friction between him and me. He thinks we’re royalty. Rotting royalty, not the kind that owns hotel chains. Less socially ambitious, less rich, more likely to let our hair go gray and let our kids take baths in linguini-filled bathtubs because they read about it in a book.
He joins us at the breakfast table. I’m reminded of the funky health food smell of an aging vegan man: a mélange of dried apricots and alfalfa. It’s a sexless but not unpleasant smell, so utterly devoid of animal, it reminds me of dust, or plastic. He comments on the glass bottle of seltzer, old-style with the pump, that’s always on our table. No SodaStream, this. It’s the real Shapiro. He says it reveals Mom’s true Naomi-ness. Before she was Nan, she was Naomi, a leggy little princess from Queens, but at some indeterminate point she decided she was finished. Now she’s like some Judeo-Christian suzerain, picking and choosing from the grand traditions, assembling her own private pupu platter of spirit animals and idols and sometimes even scripture, but mostly just the cultural stuff. The thing of it is, WASP or Jewess, Mom won’t leave the high-rise.
Wiener’s feeling ornery, I can tell by his twitchiness. I don’t want him asking about our potential exodus to the country, which he’s against, so I derail him with talk.
I tell him about the book I’m reading, a maritime history of World War II. There’s this part that’s stayed with me, that I can’t get out of my head. These young women on passenger ships. Husbands in concentration camps. After escaping Nazi Germany, these women — probably wealthy or at least well-off — would sail back and forth between Europe and America on these ships, sometimes for months at a time on the same ship. They were basically the professional girlfriends of the First or Second officer, or whatever other officers needed company. They weren’t prostitutes. They were simply gay and lively, attractive enough, and terrified of setting foot back on European soil, where the terra wasn’t exactly firma and these delightful-or-I-die ladies knew it. And so they sailed and sailed, acting like their best selves, taking of the aspics and eau de vies and meringues, the tonic evening breezes, slow-dancing to the small but fine orchestras, behaving at the card games, nipping at the nightcaps, and feeling hugely fucking grateful, I imagine, for the reprieve from terror and loneliness.
“Sure,” Wiener says, buttering his muffin. “The water babies. That’s what those women were called.”
Mom stares me down like a boxer in the ring. World War II always drives a stake through her heart.
“It’s an astounding footnote of the war,” says Wiener.
Mom cracks her knuckles, shuffles an imaginary deck of cards. I cross and uncross my legs, averting her Sonny Liston stare. I’ve chosen the wrong anecdote with which to distract everyone. Leave it to me to leaven the room with a Nazi story. Except it isn’t really a Nazi story. But I mentally slap my own wrist because I should’ve known better, should’ve made small talk about our Indian summer or the donut-lavash hybrid down in Soho that’s shanghaied the city’s dignity.
However. I secretly love that Wiener knows about the water babies. And I love that that’s what they were called. I want to find a book about these women, pretending to live their lives — sometimes living them — always only on water, the very essence of a liminal existence. I make a mental note to Google the fuck out of this.
Mom begins to very lightly cry and I know I’ve screwed up. This war upsets her the most, despite Vietnam being more age-appropriate. Wiener refills her coffee and she pecks at her pile of pills like a wren plucking worms from the earth, capsule then tablet then capsule again. She pinches up the pills with cerise nails, placing her mood in her metabolism’s hands.
“Don’t worry about me,” she says. She can tell I feel bad. “I’m famously good in a catastrophe. I was the Rock of Gibraltar until the late ’80s. Ask anyone we know.”
And with that, I kiss her on the head, I tousle Wiener’s hair, and I leave for work.
I’m on the 6 train, heading downtown. It’s jammed. I’m lodged between two Chasidic men and I yearn to touch them. I’ve had this urge off and on since I learned about their don’t-touch-the-ladies policy. These men with yellow armpit stains, wool coats on a hot day like today, and beards that reek of herring. They won’t touch me? I understand it’s a biblical thing, but Christ. So I sidle up to them on subways and I make my presence known. I sort of shimmy in their space, letting my knuckles brush against them. They act unflappable but I like to think they exit the subway and run to the nearest bathhouse or fortune-teller to make it all go away.
I’m leaning ever-so-slightly against the big, barrel-shaped one, feeling sorry for making my mother cry. His white dress shirt is strained to the max. I’m focusing on our feet, trying to forget about the water babies, and Mom, and what feels like an oxygen deficit in my train car. Between the thoughts in my head and the humid waves of train-heat and the squeeze of the Chasids, I’m getting the panic. I’m shaky and swoony and my face floats up away from my neck. These expressionless commuters, scanning me up-and-down. A thin film of grime is coating my face and I imagine stripping it off with a carrot peeler, the residue falling away in long skinny ribbons. This is where it all ends? The moment of my death, flanked by strangers with bags full of receipts, Tupperware leftovers for the day’s desk lunch. Umbrellas in case of a rain event. I can see how it would look, me collapsing onto the mottled old ladies and fleshy tourists in the priority seats, and I feel preemptively apologetic for dying on them.
I swing around the pole so that I’m facing the back of the big Chasid and I notice his scraggly neck-hair. I imagine taking a straight razor to his moist, pink skin and shaving the scruff into a clean line. Spring Street, doors open. I leave my Chasids and the people in the priority seats, all of them unaware of what they’ve just averted.
I enter the open-plan office and orient my bags, and myself, at my desk, and I get the feeling, as I always do, that my co-workers are surprised to see me. And every day at five-thirty, when I say my goodbyes, they give me that same patronizing quarter-smile. I’ve worked there for three months. Why do they always think I’m never coming back?
This arts administration gig is part-time for me and a career for them. Preparing grants to bring graffiti — the artistic kind — back to subway cars. That sort of thing. I listen to my voicemail and pretend to sip the institutional coffee. Oily beads of non-dairy creamer dot the surface. The day moves like a gouty gymnast. I try to limit my clock-watching but it’s difficult to gauge without watching the clock. It’s a self-perpetuating engine of time-obsession: the less I watch the clock, the more I wonder about the time. This is why I suck at meditation.
At 5:30 I bid adieu to the executive secretary, who has been trying to sell me candy so that her daughter wins a two-day trip to Orlando. My workday is done. I stop on the way home to buy the gingersnaps Mom loves. I’m keeping her happy till the weekend, when the sweet country breeze will convince her in ways I simply cannot.
The city is quiet, the weather unseasonably warm. Any potential visitors to The Babylon have left town early for Memorial Day. I’m standing over the sink, scraping dinner off the dishes. It’s not long until summer, so each day it’s lighter and you wonder whether you can still fit some day into your day and get something done. Mom’s in the living room, answering Jeopardy! questions, loudly, before Trebek’s finished asking. She always answers in the proper question format. She can’t remember ten minutes ago, or any online password she’s ever had, but she’s nailed the strange punctilio of Jeopardy!
“Who is Otto Von Bismarck?” I hear her say.
The sun bounces around the windows of floors three through seven in the building opposite. I see people with heads bowed at their kitchen sinks. I interlock my hands beneath the warm running water. The water and sun are merging, a single source of heat. Wet, hot anxiety.
“What is the Code of Hammurabi?”
The sun makes me squinty. Am I visible to the people at their sinks? I keep my cool. I breathe. I remember not to hold my breath.
“What are the House of York and the other one — with an L?”
Windows get lifted and shut. I hear dishwasher jingle-jangle. Who are these neighbors in the opposite building, and the one beyond it, and all the others? These neighbors of ours. Neighbors we don’t know. Neighbors after dinner. What will they do when the dishes are done?
We have tea and cookies in front of the TV. The middle third of my body is soaked and soapy. It’s good to sit with Mom, enjoying the dampness of my clothes, the rawness of my hands. We watch a sitcom and within the first minute, I sense a subtly religious agenda: it’s an eleven-person Caucasian family in a big, brightly lit house.
“Let’s see what else is on,” I say delicately.
So she clicks over to the next station and waits to be dazzled, oblivious to the fact that she can skip ahead without being held captive to every single channel, one by one. I’m flummoxed at her interest in the tweens. They’re rehearsing for a dance contest in which the cool kids will challenge the nerdy kids for playground dominance. They all mug, pout, and gyrate exactly alike. The tough kids and the nerdy kids have all the same moves. They’re pressed and formed like chicken tenders. So much for youth-culture.
Ready for the big day?” I ask.
“What big day?”
“We’re seeing the house, day after tomorrow. Did you forget?”
“I just lost track of time.”
“You talked to the realtor on the phone, Mom. Remember? You flirted a little.”
“You know I haven’t left the house in an awfully long while.”
Of course I know this. Does she think I forgot? I grab the bottle of nail polish off the coffee table, grab her leg, and start in on her toenails.
“I can’t do it,” she says loudly, competing with a commercial for a stereotype-busting army cosplay game for girls.
“Of course you can do it. Why can’t you do it?”
“Look at the memories here. Go ahead and look. It’s like a museum.”
She pulls away, mid-pedicure, making me stripe her toe mauve.
“You think the memories will disappear if we leave?” I ask.
“I just can’t picture it. What would we do up there?”
“What do we do here?”
“I said, ‘What do we do here?’”
“Come on, Mom. I work three days a week, I come home. You’re splayed out and propped up, day and night. Nobody calls anymore unless I call first. The windows are sealed shut and the A/C makes the death rattle. The sun shines in and the dust looks so solid, I could take a bite out of it.”
“So get a dust-buster.”
“All right. I’ll get a dust-buster. In the meantime, let’s do a practice run tomorrow. Like a warm-up trip.”
“I don’t know, Lex. Where would we go?” she asks.
Two staccato buzzes. It’s Wiener, a rolled-up newspaper lodged in his armpit.
“Hello, dashing bachelor,” Mom says.
“Greetings, Guinevere,” he says, falling into his armchair. He sometimes calls her Guinevere, which she seems to like. I don’t ask.
I flip the channels. Mom mentions the country. Wiener starts in.
“For the life of me, Lexi, I don’t get it. Your mother will cease to exist if she leaves town,” he says. “This is her town.”
“This was her town, Wiener. You know the last time she went downstairs? She’s changed and the city’s changed. Neither for the better.”
“But she’s still involved, she still cares. She subscribes to nine-thousand magazines, she gets three newspapers… she knows what she needs to know.”
I’m signaling him with my eyes, forcing them open so that the ocular muscles begin to pull and strain. He doesn’t see.
“People think they can just leave,” he says. “You take your problems with you, Lexi. The land? Open road? What a sham. You want to be gentlewomen farmers? The fabulous mother-daughter butter-churning babes of the north woods, smoking Virginia Slims, ashes falling in the butter. You’ll be bored to tears. You’ll rock all day on your porch, but instead of — what’s that cookie — the Proust cookie?”
“You mean the Madeleine?”
“Instead of Madeleines you’ll have off-brand Nilla Wafers because there’s not a Madeleine for three counties, let alone a real Nilla Wafer, let alone a real doctor.”
“That’s enough,” I say. Wiener’s lost track of his words. He wants us to stay.
“It’ll do wonders for your career. What does your gallerist say? Do you still have one?”
“I have a new one. Lizzy’s on hiatus with some disease I thought they’d already cured. Rickets or something.”
“What does the new one say?”
“Pinky likes it: abandoning the city for bucolic sobriety. He says I should get site-specific. Do a Christo and Jeanne-Claude-type wrap, but of a Burger King instead of the Reichstag. It’s a dumb idea.”
“Pinky’s a guy?”
“I think so.”
“You’re bonkers, Lexi. You haven’t made art since you moved in with your mom. Finally you’re starting to work again and you want to wrap a Dairy Queen?”
“Burger King. And I’m not doing it.”
“Good. It’s a misguided venture.”
Mom begins to hum some unidentifiable piece of classical music in the paper-thin vibrato designed to keep the world at bay.
Wiener continues, heedless. You haven’t thought this through. Don’t get impulsive just because you’re sick of things.”
Then Mom comes to. She snaps out of the humming and says, “Lexi wants us to do a small jaunt before we see the house. What do you think, Ezra?”
Wiener’s baggy eyes soften. He relents. “Do it, I guess. See how you like it. Go to the zoo or something.”
The zoo’s not a bad idea, I think to myself. China just gave us a giant panda. There’s an article in the Sunday magazine. “The zoo’s not a bad idea,” I say. “China just gave us a giant panda. There’s an article in the Sunday magazine.”
“Which one? Ling-Ling?” Mom asks.
“Ling-Ling was during Nixon, Mom. You remember. We got Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing for a pair of oxen. Hsing-Hsing outlived Ling-Ling by a long time. He finally died of testicular cancer.”
“I think I recall that,” says Mom. “It said in the papers he’d been despondent over her death.”
“Nixon’s big coup,” says Wiener. “Ling-Ling, the fucking bear.”
“This one’s called Xiu-Xiu,” I say.
The doorman shepherds Mom quickly from the lobby into the Zipcar as though she’s some petite head of state. I wiggle myself into the driver’s side. Traffic is stopped for us on this crystalline morning. Today the zoo. Tomorrow, maybe, the world. It’s the first time I’ve ridden in a car with my mother in over a decade. I adjust my seat and the rearview mirror while she fusses with the vents so that we both get air.
I’m driving north and sneaking glances at her, keeping it casual. The morning sun illuminates the downy fuzz that softens her profile, lighting her up like a Flemish portrait: red hair in a tight chignon, brows plucked down to nothing, pale lashes, high collar. She looks relaxed. The sun warms my thighs and décolletage and I make a mental note to spend more time in nature. You can be in the car and still be in nature. To nature!
Mom asks, “Remember when you wouldn’t take a bath unless the tub was full of linguini?”
“My fifth birthday. I’d read it in a story.”
“Did you like it, Lexi?”
I open Mom’s window a crack.
“Not really. But I pretended to. I’d made such a big deal — I felt bad.”
“I knew it! That was a turning point. You’ve felt let down ever since.”
“By life. You’re afraid to dream big. You never call attention to yourself. You really don’t expect very much.”
“Jesus, Mom.” Her sudden blasts of lucidity always throw me. “Have you thought this through or are you talking just to talk?”
“What a day,” she says. “Today, I mean. A real Indian summer.”
The abrupt change of subject. I get it. We don’t speak until twenty minutes later, in the parking lot. We make it. We arrive.
At the ticket window, Mom looks very short. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was just another old lady at the zoo. To everyone else, she is just another old lady at the zoo. Maybe all the other old ladies at the zoo just look like old ladies, but are, in fact, variations on the theme of Mom: more formidable, or at least denser, than a glance from afar might suggest.
We follow orange signs to the marquee attraction. There is Xiu-Xiu, big and winsome, sitting upright with her legs apart and her belly on display. She’s chewing bamboo. I overhear someone’s father or uncle or brother holding forth. Apparently Xiu-Xiu will eat eighty-four pounds of it over the next twelve hours.
Xiu-Xiu’s mouth arcs into what humans call a smile, though it probably means nothing to her. She smiles and we smile back. Who wouldn’t love big, sweet Xiu-Xiu in the sharp May light? Mom, smiling, cocks her head as though she’s waiting for the bear to tell her something.
I flash on the old python building from when I was a kid. It’s probably gone now, or tricked out with computers and a social media presence. The pythons were my most hated animal. Thick and oily, with those dead eyes. Coiled in their ersatz habitat. They might not have known they were in the Bronx but they knew they weren’t home. I’d cross my eyes and rap on the glass. They’d slither and hiss, eyeing me with those filmy black eyes, but the glass was my protector. I’ve always loved the close shave. Bad things, narrowly averted.
What do I know about a python’s lifespan? Maybe the ones from my childhood are still here. I take Mom’s hand and we walk. We’re moving at a decent clip, hopefully toward some kind of directory while I wait for my instincts to kick in and lead me to the snake building with the funny name. It was glass and concrete, too modern for the times. I take a deep breath and squeeze Mom’s hand, try to focus on the smell of the hot dogs in the old-timey snack carts. The best thing to do when a word escapes you is to clear your mind and let your subconscious do the work. Once you stop trying to remember: boom.
But I can’t find it. Not today. We have hot dogs even though Mom is irked there’s not a sauerkraut option. “It’s the zoo,” I tell her. “Yellow mustard or nothing. Or ketchup.” She says in the old days they’d have had kraut, and maybe even a pickle. “Tastes have changed,” I say. “We’ve been leveled. Scrotums snipped by the Good Humor man.” That last part I don’t say but I think it to be true.
Even without the kraut, I see that Mom’s enjoying her dog, and so am I. I have it in my right hand and I rest my left hand on Mom’s knee, which feels like a small grapefruit. Then I do the cheesy feeding-the-cake thing couples do at weddings, with the tangled forearms. I make her do it with the hot dogs and she tells me I’m nuts and resists for maybe five seconds, but she does it and it’s great. We bite each other’s hot dogs, arms linked, and it is this act that renders the day a bona fide success.
“I’m getting a little tired, honey.”
I thought this would’ve happened earlier, so I’m not too bothered about wrapping it up. We head to the car, shadows longer than when we arrived, the late-afternoon languor giving us something to push against, like pool water. I have the feeling that this’ll be a long one, this summer, which is still a month away. It will be hot for so long, we’ll have forgotten it could be otherwise. It’s the feeling that autumn will not only never come, but has maybe never existed.
We’re home just like that, on the couch. My forearms have turned tawny. I remove my rings and see white marks where they were.
“Good day?” I ask. Nonchalance is my middle name.
“Better than expected,” she says. “Truth be told.”
“What was your favorite?”
“Maybe the car. The going and the coming.”
“The car? You liked the car more than the zoo?”
“Definitely. The aerodynamic feeling.”
“Get off my back. So I liked the car. It was a little bright, though.”
“That’s great. See what happens when there’s no stuff around, tying you down?”
“You want me to live in a car?”
I ignore her. “You’ll wear a hat tomorrow, for the brightness.”
Wiener buzzes his two staccato buzzes.
“Come in, dashing bachelor,” she says, working the vibrato. “All my hats are too big,” she says, to what is now the both of us. “Isn’t it true, Wiener? I only have big hats.”
“I can give you a baseball cap. Or a yarmulke made of hemp. For the high holidays. Get it?”
“No baseball caps,” I say. “Not on an old woman.”
“Older woman,” Mom corrects me.
“No baseball caps on an older woman.”
“Why not?” asks Wiener, settling into his chair. “It can be spunky if done right.”
“I don’t want to infantilize her or make her look sick.”
“It’ll ruin my hair,” she says. “Anyhow I stopped caring about baseball when Koufax got married. To Richard Widmark’s daughter, no less.”
“The zoo was a success?” asks Wiener.
“We ate frankfurters,” says Mom. “They didn’t have kraut, but it was nice.”
I scold myself for not getting her out ages ago, when I had a life, when I was too distracted by said life and all the petty gestures and plans therein. I wonder what people called “work-life balance” before it was called “work-life balance.”
It’s too much to think about while trying to seem upbeat for Mom so I excuse myself and take a pill, just ¼, to buff the crags. I sleep the sleep of the wicked, or an angel. Whichever it is.
We leave The Babylon bathed in sunny morning promise. Strapped in to the Zipcar, making progress up the Westside Highway, Wiener’s in the backseat, which I’m not minding. We’re holding coffees. We wait for bumpless stretches and manage to sip enough to get aligned with the drive, the company, the future. Mom’s wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap, which imbues the car with a jaunty nautical élan that makes us seem more fun-loving than in fact we are.
An hour in, I’m reminding myself to really show Mom the country’s most likeable qualities. It’s like introducing her to a serious boyfriend, but one I don’t know all that well. Life, I am thinking, is expectation management. And expectation management is life. We get better at it as we age. If we don’t, we don’t age well.
We see houses with bunting, and later, a billboard for the Hudson Valley Memorial Day Ibsen Festival. This makes Wiener, an erstwhile amateur Ibsenist, snicker.
“What’s Ibsen got to do with Memorial Day? I’m sure he’d have had plenty to say about our military and it would not have been celebratory.”
“Let’s stay positive,” I say.
So he switches gears and says that the most important thing, if we were to really move upstate, is that Mom feels safe.
“I’d feel much better if I knew we could buy my special tea,” she says.
“You drink coffee.”
“I drink tea, too, but only with the leaves. Not in a teabag.”
“You can buy that anywhere now. Or you bring it from the city. There is nothing you can’t have, duplicate, or order, even in the boonies.”
“Then why go?” she asks. “Then it’s just like the city.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “You’d have a lake or a river… and quiet. And fireflies, crickets, fresh corn, leaves changing, clean air, nice Americans.”
“What do I need with crickets?”
I don’t answer. I just wind the car around and around the scenic roads off the Taconic. Everything looks too lush for late May. Finally we pull up to the house, which doesn’t disappoint despite the fact that it’s more Georgian than the full-on Federal described in the listing. But it’s good. How many decorative flourishes does a person need? I know about these nuances because my ex was an architect. A preservationist, until he was a developer. And not just with urban landmarks.
The realtor’s out front and it’s not the older gentleman we spoke to on the phone. Turns out she’s his daughter. Mom’s probably thinking, “Why’d he send the daughter? We’re not good enough to disrupt his Saturday plans?” Maybe it’s me who’s thinking it.
She’s barefooted, with short, gamine hair. I’m guessing she went to Bard and feigned a sensual rapport with the works of Thomas Bernhard and Michel Houellebecq while secretly hating them. But I like her strong jaw, her low-key manner. She introduces herself as “Springer.”
“Like the spaniel,” Mom says.
“Actually it’s a combination of spring and summer. I was born on the cusp.”
“The solstice,” says Wiener.
“That’s my middle name.”
She hands me her business card. Springer Solstice Katz.
We follow her into what really is a lovely home. The frisson I feel upon entry is no doubt also felt by Mom and Wiener. Light and expansive yet cozy. A home with nooks. A home to lure city friends for long, bracing weekends. A basement for canning and séances. A fucking wishing-well outside. There’s even Art Nouveau wallpaper, reminiscent of Guimard’s Métro entrances, in the dining room. Mom says she remembers it from 1970s Manhattan’s chicer foyers.
Everyone goes off on their own, then we all converge in the kitchen, the way people do at parties.
“My god, are those numbers?” Mom, horrified, points to the bare forearm of Spring Solstice Katz.
“Totally,” she says.
“So cavalier!” says Mom. “And I thought I was seeing things.”
“No, no, they’re not numbers,” says Wiener.
“Yes they are,” says Springer. She proffers a delicately inked arm. “Numbers. See?”
“She means numbers,” I say. “Like from the Holocaust.”
“Oh my god,” Springer says. “No! That’s terrible! It’s just a coordinate tattoo.”
I explain that this is a trend among celebrities.
“It’s the longitude and latitude of the Flatiron Building,” she says. “My second favorite building.”
“What kind of person has a second favorite building?” asks Mom.
“My favorite’s in Rio. It’s too corrupt. I couldn’t commit.”
“Isn’t there a Sprint store in the Flatiron Building?” I ask.
“Sprint stores are temporary. Buildings are forever,” says Springer.
I appreciate the sentiment but I want to tell her that buildings are not forever. Not in Manhattan, maybe not anywhere. Russian real-estate bullies are forever. Vertiginous, 75% empty luxury high-rises and barely used pied-à-terres, where better places once were, are forever. Two banks on every block: forever. Buildings don’t stand a chance.
“Structures fascinate me,” she says.
My ex used to say that, or something similar. It’s less offensive coming from Springer.
Mom seems shaken. I assume it’s the numbers that weren’t numbers. She says we should get some air. I tell Springer we need a minute. Back porch, bench swing, the two of us sit. Glossy berries dot thickets that would be ours if we lived there. Butterflies zip around and although the sun is bright, the breeze tempers it, reminding me of an exquisite dessert I once had, where the sugar dissolves on your tongue and feels cold in the seconds before it’s gone.
Mom pulls a word search from her purse. She does this when she’s tense. Our view is of mountains. The Catskills? Berkshires? A less famous range? I should know this. It’s embarrassingly picturesque. If Mom was a guy and we’d just started dating, I’d be uncomfortable with the picture-perfectness of it. Tailor-made for intimacy. But for Mom and me, this makes sense. A return to some wordless state in which all is still and stillness still has value. Our two pairs of feet are similarly shaped, side-by-side on the ground, mine slightly less misshapen.
My reverie’s cut short by my phone, buzzing with texts from Wiener, who I assume is still in the house.
LEBENSLÜGEN is the only word in the text.
I respond with, “???”
IT MEANS LIFE-LIES. FROM OUR FRIEND IBSEN, PATRON SAINT OF MEMORIAL DAY (HA!), COULDN’T REMEMBER HAD 2 LOOK UP THE WORD.
“What r life-lies?” I text.
THE LIES YOU BUILD A LIFE AROUND. WE ALL DO IT.
“Who are you text messaging?” Mom asks, mini pencil poised.
“Wiener. He thinks we’re living a lie. Or someone is. I think.”
“How does this apply 2 now?” I write back.
IT’S JUST A GREAT WORD. PLUS, YOU THINK CITY LIFE FRAUDULENT, I SAY RURAL WORSE. NOBODY ON FIRM FOOTING.
“These r not lies,” I text. “Lies, like jokes + orgasms, have bginnings, mddls, ends.”
I look at Mom’s word search and what I see is upsetting. It’s chaos on the page.
“What are all those squiggles, Mom? Have you forgotten how to do a word search?”
Her eyes get this faraway look that feels new, and it moves me. And then, in an uncharacteristically hushed tone, she says, “I used to do a circle. Now I just draw a line.”
This slays me. When did she get so old? Her lines aren’t lines at all, they’re squiggles. The marks of Keith Haring, but more tentative and less organized. Like cartoon snakes.
“Snaketuary!” I say it aloud.
“It’s where the snakes were. At the zoo. The name of the building we couldn’t remember. The motherfucking Snaketuary. That’s it!”
“Language! Yes! It never lets you down. I love the word ‘Snaketuary.’ Our apartment is a Snaketuary. That’s the problem, don’t you see? We all live in Snaketuaries. Wiener’s right. It’s Lebenslügen.”
“I don’t remember the snake sanctuary, honey. But I remember your oral report on snakes. You had that horrible lisp and you were very nervous about having to say ‘snakes’ so many times.”
That, I remember. Slogging through notecards and crossing out each potentially embarrassing word. I changed “symbiosis” to “reciprocity,” but that was no better. “Reciprocity” became “cooperation,” which wasn’t the same thing but it spared me some grief. There was no way around the word “snakes,” though. Not in a report about snakes.
“You remember what happened in the middle?” Mom asks. While you were giving your talk?”
“Of course. Ronald Reagan was killed. I mean shot.” I’m so floored that Mom remembers this, I almost let out a tiny trickle of pee. “Maybe I underestimate you.” I tell her. “Or I overestimate your craziness.”
“Alexis,” she says, taking my hand. I can’t recall her ever taking my hand before.
“Lexi. Baby.” She looks directly into my eyes, says, “This is a great house. It’s all you promised, and more.”
“Yeah, go on. What are you saying?”
“It’s a lovely house and I appreciate your bringing me, but now that we’re here… I just can’t see it. And no I don’t have a reason. I just feel it.”
“But you were why we’re doing this. You’re suffocating, Mom.”
“Suffocating? Me? Hardly. I’m not the reason, Lexi. Don’t waste your time with that. You’re distracting yourself from yourself. I’m comfortable — I am who I am. Comfort never came easy to you, and for that I feel terrible. Nature, nurture, who could say?”
I hear Wiener’s army boots thwacking those pristine wood floors, his lumbering footfall sounding closer and closer until the screen door opens and he appears, with Springer, on the porch for Mom’s grand insight. Have they been eavesdropping?
“Maybe,” Mom says, “it’s time to get a little help.”
“Help? For me, not you? What is this, an intervention?” I ask the three of them.
“Interventions take intervening,” says Wiener. “Your mother’s not exactly on the outside. There’s no daylight between you two.”
Springer looks completely unfazed, which makes me feel not so bad.
“I feel like I’m being punked,” I say.
“What’s punked?” asks Mom.
Maybe I should give you space,” Springer says.
“Not too much,” I say to her. “We love the house.”
She steps off the porch and sort of breezes over the knoll and onto the plateau below it. She’s still close enough to see. She’s downward dogging on the lawn. I can suddenly smell the grass.
“Mom,” I ask, “let’s say I got therapy, or meds, or went on some sort of silent retreat. Then would you consider moving up here?”
“First things first, honey. Once you’re feeling better, you might not want me to. You might not want to move here at all.”
I’m not going to fight or plead. Not here. For numerous reasons, not least of which is propriety, this isn’t the right locale for parsing the state of my mental health. I stay calm, pluck a blackberry as I float across the grass to Springer. I flatten it between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, taste it quickly, swallow hard. She’s in the lotus position, cheeks rosier than before.
“I think we’re going to need some time,” I say. “Get our houses in order — figuratively.”
“No worries. There will always be houses. Like I said, buildings endure.”
Then she tells me to enjoy my Saturday.
I’m the kid in the backseat. Wiener’s driving, Mom’s up front. You’d think I feel worse than I do. I am epically deflated but also buoyant. I try to breathe from the stomach, not the chest. It’s no time for shallow gerbil breaths. The sun is high. We pass the bunting, the sign for the Ibsen Memorial Day thing. I stave off thoughts of a game plan. No next steps, or whatever the corporate term is. I focus on the now, which is Memorial Day weekend, no matter what came before or what comes next. Veterans Day is for people who served but didn’t necessarily die. Memorial Day’s the real deal. It’s also just a weekend for remembering whatever shit you remember. I decide that, for the rest of the drive and even once we’re back home in The Babylon, when the next steps begin to keep me awake, which I know they will because they always do, I’ll think about the water babies. Those women. On those ships. Every slow-dance putting miles between them and the continent on which their men became dust.