Issue 15 • Spring 2015
My mother had a nearly endless stream of boyfriends when I was growing up. Mostly tall, white and thin, with longish hair that reached down past their ears and ending at their wide collars, but it was the seventies and early eighties, so no one raised an eyebrow back then, if you know what I mean. In the beginning, when I was too young to know any better, I'd try to impress them—twisting a plastic stick into the shape of a cobra, or transforming myself into an owl with only a brown sweater and a pair of racing gloves, the wool sleeves flapping haplessly at my sides as I creaked out the occasional Who? Later, I learned to ignore them, shaking out crumbs onto the living room floor, waving as they went out. Dates too uninspired to even speculate about.
There was Pete, with the Tom Selleck moustache, who only wore blue jeans whenever he came to pick her up—faded, designer, with a logo on the back pocket, the sign of a hand in affirmation, tight across the crotch and hugging the backside. The night of their first kiss I caught them on the sofa, lipstick staining his mouth, and they both smiled goofily up at me from the cushions. Was it love? Was it lust? I couldn’t tell, but nine months later it was certainly over. She took a scissors to his jeans, transforming them into shorts, changed the locks three times and our phone number too, but he still made it to our front door, banging and yelling that he wanted her back, until our neighbors threatened to call the cops. I was a teenager when we found out that he’d overdosed on heroine and cocaine, although his family said he had blacked out while driving.
Tony was older, and recently divorced, with feathered hair—hair almost as dark as ours. He drove a luxury automobile—European, with a hyphenated name I couldn't pronounce—and every weekend and they drove down to Atlantic City. That winter, he went diving in the Bahamas, bringing back a conch shell larger than my two fists with colors as vibrant as a bird’s wing. But one evening he flew into a jealous rage—threatening her at a stoplight, accusing her of seeing someone else—so she jumped out of the car and walked the mile home. Later, we learned he remarried his wife. They put their house up for sale, sold the car, and moved down to Florida. I still have the conch shell.
Morgan was married with so many children that eventually he’d had his tubes tied, which was too bad for us because we wanted more kids. He was born on a reservation, and had the reputation of being something of a lady-killer with soft, earnest eyes. At night, Morgan would sit on the edge of my mother’s bed strumming his guitar, contemplating divorcing his Italian wife, his troubled childhood, the instability of marriage. One day, my mother showed me a photograph of his youngest daughter. “She's so beautiful,” my mother murmured, wistfully, like she wished it was her daughter.
Morgan’s daughter was same age as me, and for a while I contemplated being best friends with her, the sister I never had—or alternately, plotting her demise. She looked part Black, part Swedish and a little Chinese. But not, I repeat, not around the eyes, because I know that was what you were thinking.
Andrew was much younger and still lived at home with his parents—he was closer to my age than to hers. His idea of humor was making fart noises across my mother’s stomach, and hiding blocks of cheese under the bedsheets. I wanted to ambush him, but when he bought her a ladies' Rolex for Christmas, I was outmatched. In the summers, they drank tequila and spent weekends at his mother’s house on Long Island, sharing sips from a flask when no one was looking. Two years later, she dumped him for being too young, but then what about that didn’t she know when they first started dating? Recently, we learned that he'd had his license revoked for too many drunk-driving violations.
Barry was a bus driver who lived in our building with a thing for beautiful Asian women. There was a prettier girlfriend every week riding up the elevator with him—tall, modelly-looking girls who sometimes smiled down at me like an older sister. Barry was so good-looking himself that he appeared in beer and cigarette ads in his youth—driving a bus was just his day job until he caught his first big break. Even after I caught him looking at my legs as I read a magazine in our lobby, I still encouraged my mother to go out with him. She turned him down every time, telling me that she didn’t like his fetish. It was the first time I had ever heard the word, though definitely, not the last.
Daniel was my favorite, a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx who looked surprisingly like Errol Flynn in “Robin Hood.” I had fantasies about him saving us in green tights and felt shoes. He moved in when I was in grade school, and wore big padded slippers around the apartment that permanently kept the impression of his toes, and only a towel around his waist when he stepped out of the shower, rolling his eyes whenever I begged him in a fit of giggles to show me his birdie. He read books in the living room and books in the kitchen, and signed all my excuse notices from school whenever I was late with homework. Unfortunately, reading books doesn’t lend itself to holding down a job, and eventually, despite my tears, she broke up with him too.
I had a crush of my own by then. Billy, a tall, adopted boy with reed-like fingers and eyes so clear you could almost see through to his electric brain, son of my mother’s art dealing friend. One day, he compared my name to a famous painting, and while the adults sat drinking in the living room, kissed me in their hallway. Is it too much to say that I’ve been looking for something as good as that stolen kiss all these years? My mother told me recently that she ran into Billy’s mother while food shopping. She said that Billy had to spend the night in jail for slashing his girlfriend's husband's tires. But this is the subject for another story. If I’m not mistaken, we were talking about my mother here.