Non-Fiction

The First Husband

      Over the next two years we dated on and off.  Ian continued to feel the timing was wrong for us, that I was too young to know what I wanted and I should have more experience.  You’re destined to have hundreds of lovers he told me, but he was the only one I wanted.   During one of our non-dating hiatuses he sent me a postcard with only the words, No One Not Worthy of You, on it. I was confused by the double negative, and finally wrote to him to ask what he meant.  “Don’t sleep with anyone who isn’t worthy of you,” he answered.  I wasn’t meeting anyone else, worthy or not, and was quite miserable.  A few months later we began seeing each other again, and when Ian suggested I go to Planned Parenthood for a diaphragm because he hated condoms, I did.  

     I kept the diaphragm in my night table, and one morning I went downtown, as usual, closing my bedroom door without realizing that our miniature Schnauzer was sleeping under my bed.  Ordinarily, the animal spent the evening in my parents’ bedroom,  chewing on a cache of licorice-flavored Juicy Fruits my mother fed her dog while she watched TV.     

      I knew something was up when I returned home from school about an hour after my

mother had arrived, and she responded to my hello with the silent treatment.  Eyes narrowed and accusatory, she stood in the middle of the kitchen, a hand on her hip. What? I pleaded. What did I do?  Retracing her steps for me, my mother led the way to my bedroom; the door was closed the way I’d left it. Like a good detective, she had kept the crime scene untouched.  Inside, the floor was littered with my underpants and chewed up shoes. Cooped up in my bedroom all day long, Pepper had gone on a tear. My night table door was ajar and on the floor next to it was my diaphragm, its plastic case an inch away. I scooped them up without inspecting for Pepper’s teeth marks.  

     It was there in plain sight on the rug, my mother said. I didn’t go snooping. 

     For an instant, I considered lying, but knew she would never believe I was keeping the diaphragm for a friend. She made an about face, like a commanding officer, and I followed her back to the kitchen.

      Well, she said, after a prolonged silence, what do you have to say for yourself?

      I knew I was expected to say something about my sexual conduct, but I didn’t know how to begin.  I can’t believe my rotten luck, I said. How was I supposed to know the damned dog was sleeping under my bed?   Would she be able to laugh at the situation?  She was not a prude.  As the youngest of seven siblings, she had been privy to their escapades, and had often implied that she had been a hot-blooded, boy-crazy adolescent. Besides, she considered herself to be modern, college-educated.

     She stepped closer to me, slapped me across the face, and called me a slut. 

       I am not a slut, I said, my eyes teary from the sting.  Never had she raised her hand to me like this.  I am not a slut, I repeated. On the contrary,  I  took responsibility for my actions.  Fortified by my outrage, I suddenly felt capable of great cruelty towards her. 

     Up until this juncture, I‘d been my mother’s confidant,  absorbing the fallout from her rages against my father. You’re not a man, she yelled, accusing him for failing to defend her against petty slights made by his brothers’ wives. My father listened passively, and like a trapped bear made low grunting noises with each lash of her tongue.   

     The discovery of my diaphragm came at the peak of mother’s unhappiness.  She had poured her heart out to me and I had not reciprocated. I had betrayed her and defied her authority with my secret passionate life.  Though I know she wanted to protect me, all I could feel was her hostility.   

      Before she’d even laid eyes on Ian she pre-judged him, belittling him for ‘bothering’ with me instead of dating someone his own age;  then she complained because he hadn’t come up to the Bronx to fetch me on our first date.  Why doesn’t he come to meet us?   What’s he afraid of? She said.  I told her he wasn’t avoiding her that I just didn’t think it was necessary that he ride the subway all the way up to the Bronx when we were only going to turn right around and go back downtown.

     You’re just making it easy for him, she said. You’re behaving as if you have no family, no self-respect. The minute he calls, you go running like an obedient dog.  I hated the way she ran roughshod over me.

      A few weeks later when she met Ian for the first time, she was coiled and ready to pounce.   He had come to the Bronx for an outing I’d planned in Van Cortland Park. They sat opposite each other at the large dining room table. My mother pulled her shoulders back, using her best posture to appear formidable, a habitual response to being short.  Her  lipstick, Passionata Pink, glowed  like war paint.  As soon as Ian told her he’d be hitchhiking through Europe for the summer, she wanted to know what his parents thought about it.

     My parents?  He chuckled. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what they think. I’ve been on my own for quite awhile. Ian dug into his chair and folded his arms across his chest for protection. 

    I understand that you’ve been on your own, but that doesn’t mean that your parents aren’t concerned about you. She looked at me, as if to say, I’m concerned about him, and his parents should be too.

     Of course they’re concerned, Ian smiled, but they wouldn’t dream of interfering.  Even if they disapproved they probably wouldn’t say anything. I mean people make mistakes, but when you’re an adult, that’s your own business.

     I knew this was not what my mother wanted to hear, but I couldn’t figure out how to steer the conversation to safer ground, and I had the sinking feeling that nothing I might say would help, that this crossing of swords was inevitable.  

     That’s true, she conceded, but it’s not easy for parents just to sit back and do nothing when their children are involved.  The air was thick with her disapproval. 

     He shrugged, as if to indicate that he’d never given serious consideration to the subject. I tried to make eye contact with him, to get him to make conciliatory noises, but he was intent upon his own thoughts.

     It may not be easy, he offered. On the other hand, it could also be a relief.  I mean a relief for them to realize they’re not responsible for their children anymore.

      We really have to go, I interrupted, fully aware of the damage that had been done.

      Parents, she said flatly, never stop feeling responsible.  Her eyes were riveted on Ian’s skull.

      He followed me downstairs. Outside, he said, I don’t think your mother likes me.

      Don’t be silly, I lied.

     My mother thought Ian was flip and cavalier. What kind of parents does he have? She asked.

     I told her that his parents had grown up in Texas, and his father, Hy had had Lyndon Johnson as his English teacher who had given his favorite student a watch for winning a declamation contest. Hy had been away in the Navy for four years during Ian’s early childhood and he divorced his mother, Patricia, soon after he was discharged. Patricia and Hy had shared custody of their three children which was unusual in the 1950’s.   Ian and his two younger sisters had moved every other year, living with his mother one year and his father the next. Hy became a sociologist, writing textbooks on marriage and the family, and Ian had gone to graduate school at Columbia in the same department where his father was a professor.   

    Some family specialist, my mother said. What kind of stability was that, shuttling back and forth between parents, bouncing all around the country, never living in the same place for more than a year?  They did the best they could, I thought.  It felt as if she was looking for things to disapprove of.  Ian’s looks were nondescript, she said.  Isn’t he kind of slight? I didn’t think he was your type. Really, I’m surprised at you.  Besides, he wasn’t Jewish, he was too old for me, and nothing good could come of it, she said.  My father agreed with my mother.  I should break up with him. I said I would and then I lied to them and kept on seeing him. When they discovered I was lying, my mother was enraged.  Implacable, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, stamping her foot on the starburst floor-pattern, its darts radiating her anger like piercing arrows, my mother yelled,   I forbid you to see him. As long as you live in this house you must abide by my rules.

       Life with my mother had been a life of appeasement, diffusing the rage she had usually aimed at my father. Now the balance had shifted and my parents were allied against me; with my brother out of the house, I was isolated and vulnerable, the sole target of my mother’s belittling invasions. A chilling surge welled up  in me against her, fueled by years of holding back and buckling to her will.  

      I can’t live here anymore, I told Ian on the telephone. I don’t want to lie anymore and see you on the sly.  He agreed to meet me an hour later under the marquee of the Kent movie theatre.

     That night I announced that I was leaving.  It was late. My parents were in bed, watching TV, Tex Antoine and Mr. Wetherbee.  They didn’t think I meant that I was leaving that instant. My mother had delivered her ultimatum and she knew I was angry, but she thought I’d get over it.  She didn’t think that I’d take my cello and school books and walk out the door, unmoved by whatever genuine concern she may have had for me.

      The Beatles, “She’s leaving home,” played on Ian’s car radio.  Who knows how different my future would have been if my mother had not forced me to take that stand against her.  If she had welcomed Ian, she would’ve scared him off, I’m sure of it.   

      Days went by without a word from me, then weeks.   It was as if I’d dropped off the face of the earth.  When I finally telephoned my mother was too proud to bring herself to acknowledge me. 

      Who is this? 

       It is your daughter.

       I have no daughter, she said, my daughter is dead.

        I cannot imagine anything my daughter Lila would do to make me disown her, not even for a minute.  When she was in high school and had her first boyfriend, I told her to tell me when she was ready to have sex.  I’m not ready yet, she said. Fine, I said. After her first semester in college, I repeated the offer. Mom, she said, I hope you don’t feel like I’m a loser or something because I haven’t had sex yet.  She was a sophomore when she told me that she was on the pill and introduced me to her boyfriend.  A little over a year later she flew to Australia to visit him after they’d been apart for a semester studying for a junior year abroad. When she got back from the trip she told me that he had waited until she got there to tell her that he didn’t love her anymore, but he still wanted to be friends. I don’t know how she managed to remain friends with him.  I wanted to kill him. I am still sometimes frightened by the love I feel for my daughter.

      It was my father who negotiated the peace between my mother and me. I telephoned him at his office and we met in a diner in the Village. He took off his hat and I stared at the toupee on his head. He’d been bald since he was young and for all of my life.  I never understood why, at 50, he decided to get a rug.  I stared at his synthetic hairline and the matted-looking thing he thought made him look handsome again, while I listened to him  go on about how much I had hurt my mother, how devastated she was, and how everything she’d done had always been for my best interests.  I’d been so happy living with Ian that it was easy to feel generous towards my mother, especially since it looked as if I’d never be going home again to live. 

      Ian was my champion; he knew he loved me, he said, and when, about a year later, we decided to marry,  he volunteered to convert to Judaism because I said it would help repair the initial rift with my family. Ian was an atheist but we had spent months going to Jewish Theological Seminary for weekly lessons.  His interest in Judaism was intellectual; he liked the idea of sharing this bond with Freud, Marx, and Einstein, and he had written his dissertation on the sociology of religion. Also his father’s second wife was Jewish. Even his father’s mistress was Jewish. When I look back at it now, it seemed as if Ian was treating his conversion with the eye of a social scientist, going native so he could report on tribal rites.   

     The day of the final ceremony, we drove around the Upper West Side with the rabbi, an elfin man, and two rabbinical students who would witness Ian’s conversion. He was worried that the rabbi would not set foot in his German car, a VW bug, but the rabbi made no comment about the car.  First, we stopped at the Mikvah on 88th street where women went to be purified after they menstruated and were thought to be unclean. There were no women there when we walked in, and Ian was asked to dunk three times in the pool while the rabbi stood at the edge, chanting a prayer for his ritual purification. Then we drove to 95th street and the office of a physician who would perform a ritual circumcision. While the rabbi and rabbinical students looked on, Ian lay on the examining table with a rubber band around his penis. 

     Do you know who you have here? The rabbi announced while the physician  examined his penis for a pulsing vein. “A doctor of sociology!”  

    The physician was not impressed and drew blood from the syringe. Before the three witnesses he asked, “Now are you satisfied?”  

  Did it hurt?” I whispered to Ian as we drove back to the seminary for the final part of the ceremony.

     It didn’t tickle. 

      Back at the seminary, we entered a sanctuary and the rabbi stood at the bima, behind him were the closed curtains of the ark that housed the Torah.

     Here on the seventeenth day of Heshvan in the year five thousand seven hundred and twenty-nine, before two witnesses Baruch Shapiro and David Cohen is Ian Wirth, and then he broke off to ask Ian for the Hebrew name he had chosen to become a Jew. 

         He stood with his arms crossed. Ishmael, he said. Call me Ishmael.

         The rabbi cried out in horror. Impossible! Absolutely not! Choose another name,  he begged.  I sank in my seat, the seminary students looked at me and I looked at Ian who was adamant about keeping the name of the renegade son of Abraham and Hagar.

         I expected the rabbi to renounce us.  Ian’s reasons for becoming a Jew had no place here. The name he had chosen was the first honest assertion of his alienation, and the pride he took in being an outsider.  My own motives were also impure, a cowardly act of propitiation. I felt ashamed beside the earnest seminary students.  One of them looked perplexed, and stared into the distance. Then he raised his hand and the rabbi acknowledged him.

     But rabbi, remember, there is the great Rabbi Ishmael, from the Talmud,…. And he spoke in Hebrew some reminder about this Rabbi Ishmael’s midrash, his wise  commentaries on the Torah.     

       The old man listened, and the distress disappeared from his face as if he’d just been anointed with a sweet-smelling balm. Ah…yes, Rabbi Ishmael.  Without another word, he completed the ceremony and Ian became a Jew, Ishmael Ben Israel.

       Though Ian and I had wanted a small, informal wedding, I’d let my mother have her way and make all the arrangements, inviting over a hundred guests. My wedding was the one she had wanted for herself and never had because it was wartime in Ft. Myers Florida where my father was stationed.  A judge married them in his chambers, with two strangers for witnesses 

         My mother chose her oldest sister Lena, who had been like a mother to her, for my matron of honor. My aunt walked down the aisle with her hands ensconced in a muff of pink and purple mums; an opulent mink collar my aunt had recently bought, became the border on her floor-length brocade gown.  My mother had so thoroughly identified herself with this wedding that 30 years later, in her dotage, she’d tell me how she’d been married once before to a sociology professor whose father taught at Columbia.  That was my husband, I corrected her. She had the wedding album to prove it, she said. But it was my wedding album, she was thinking of.  My mother had had her hands full worrying about where to seat the Filipino husband of Ian’s mother, The man had insisted upon coming to spite his wife who was in the process of serving him with divorce papers.  Put him at my table if there’s no place else, I said. We won’t be spending much time there anyway.

      When Ian first gave his dad the news that he was getting married, Hy had been  jealous.   Hy had wanted to divorce his second wife, Ruth and marry his mistress, Sylvia.  I met Sylvia, at an academic conference of sociologists. She had sent me a pair of plush red-striped terry-cloth towels for a wedding present. It was hard not to like Sylvia even though I disapproved of her.  Later, I’d think of her as my favorite mother-in-law. Sylvia had been a graduate student in Hy’s’s department, and she and Ian had been in a study group together.   Hy, Ian told me, claimed to be the father of Sylvia’s son, Nicholas, who was born when Sammy, the son Hy had with Ruth, was about eight.  Lowell, Sylvia’s husband had been a most loving father to Nicholas, in spite of the uncertainty of his biological tie to his son. Ruth was not aware that Hy was having a long-term affair and the two families occasionally socialized together.  The only reason Sylvia and Hy didn’t get divorces, Ian told me later, was for the sake of the children.  I had attended dinner parties at Sylvia’s place where Hy was among the guests, and had been mesmerized, wondering how they managed to keep from killing each other.  

                                                          ***

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Categories: Non-Fiction

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