The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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From first to sixth grade I went to a small private school in Charlotte, North Carolina. The other children all had rich parents: businessmen dads and stay-at-home moms who were involved in the PTA. They were Southerners and went to Christian churches and lived in big, two-story houses.
My family was different. We were not Southern. We were not Christian. We weren’t even Jewish. My parents took my sister and me to a Unitarian Universalist church so we could explore many faiths. My mother and father weren’t married. They had different last names, and my sister and I were stuck with a hyphenated combination of the two. My dad did not put on a suit every day and go to an office and earn big bucks. He had a full beard and an earring and long, unkempt hair, and he stayed home to care for my sister and me and write country songs in his spare time. My mother was the one who got dressed up and went to work in an office.
In first grade I informed some of my classmates that you did not have to be married to have children: my parents weren’t married, and I’d still been born. One of the girls went home and told her parents what I’d said, and my mother received a phone call from my teacher asking that I keep to myself the fact that “you can have the honeymoon without the wedding.”
In second grade I began to realize that my dad didn’t look like the other dads when he came to pick me up from school. In fact, most dads didn’t even come to school unless it was a special occasion. When the teachers called my name to go home, I would run into the parking lot ahead of my dad, so no one could tell I was with him.
One day I asked my mother why my dad couldn’t just go to work and cut his hair and shave and wear normal clothes.
“Because he doesn’t want to,” she replied.
“But he embarrasses me!” I said.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “You have a father who has time to get to know you.”
I rolled my eyes and continued to pretend that he wasn’t my father.
These days my father does put on a suit every day and go to an office. His hair is short, and his earring hole has almost closed up. He writes a new song only every few years. Like my seven-year-old self, my dad’s employer wants him to look the same and act the same as everyone else, even if that means he has to be someone he’s not; even if he has to pretend.
Charlotte, North Carolina
On a warm summer day before my sophomore year of high school I found out that one of my closest friends had received her first kiss before I had. I was disappointed: We were both awkward outcasts, but I considered myself better-looking. And she went to an all-girls private school, whereas I was free to mingle with boys in public school.
Not long after school began, my friend told me that she had met a boy and they were dating. That winter she confided that she’d lost her virginity. I suddenly felt juvenile and boring. To keep up with her, I conjured a phony boyfriend.
His name was Matt, I said, and I’d met him on the school bus. He lived with his father in a neighborhood not far from mine and went to another public high school on my bus route. He was sweet, funny, and very good-looking. When it came to intimacy, we were taking it slow. (I didn’t want to slip up and describe something incorrectly. Fortunately there was enough sex on TV and the Internet that I had no trouble finding convincing details for foreplay.)
After a month or two I became nervous that my lie would spin out of control. So Matt and I began to have arguments. The last straw was when he started sneaking beer from his father’s stash and calling me when he was drunk. I have no idea why I chose that ending, but it seemed to make sense at the time.
Strangely enough, inventing Matt had made me feel powerful: I had created a character others believed to be a living, breathing person. And, if only for a short time, I’d been able to pretend that I was just like everyone else.
Jamaica, New York
Over the years our daughter Julia has lived in many parts of the world, and she’s developed a ritual to let us know that she’s OK: she often leaves messages on our answering machine. “Hi, parentals. It’s Julia,” she might say in a sleepy voice. The sound quality is often poor, the messages brief.
A few weeks ago we got a strange message from our daughter: “Hi, it’s Amelia,” she began. We didn’t think much about it at first, but then she did it again: “Hi, it’s Amelia.” It was downright odd. The therapist in me was on full alert. Did our daughter have two identities? Was she living a double life and forgetting which name to use? I wondered how to ask her about this new name without putting her on the defensive. I thought about it whenever we talked by phone, but I said nothing. How long would I be able to pretend I hadn’t noticed?
When her two brothers came home for winter break, we played the messages for them. The first agreed that it was strange. The second listened with great attention, his head bent over the answering machine. Then he turned to us and translated: “Hi, familia.”
In my junior year of college I attended York University in England and spent weekends with my grandparents in their rambling house near London. I tried to act like a happy twenty-year-old, but I revealed the truth to my journal: I was depressed and lonely and had suicidal thoughts. I’d also developed a dark attraction to the poetry of Sylvia Plath, who’d taken her own life.
One Sunday afternoon, as I gathered my things to head back to school, I realized my journal was missing. I searched my grandparents’ house until darkness fell and I finally had to race off without it to catch my train back to York.
When I returned the next weekend, my grandmother announced with great cheer, “Here’s your diary! The cleaning ladies found it.”
I went along with her story, though it was clear to anyone who set foot in the house — where every surface was covered in layers of dog hair, and faded Christmas decorations from years past hung limply on the walls — that no cleaning person had visited in a long time. When I inspected the journal, there were fingerprints on almost every page.
At dinner that night Granny said to me, “Tell me about that writer you like, Sybil something-or-other.”
“Sylvia Plath,” I said. “She was an American poet living in England. She killed herself in 1963.” I’d never mentioned Plath to my grandmother, so I knew she must have read my journal.
“Her poor family,” Granny said. “She probably had no idea how much she was loved and needed.” She continued, “I remember being twenty.” Another slip: Plath had been thirty when she died; it was I who was twenty. “It was the hardest time of my life. It is for everyone. But things get better. Sybil would have found that out if she’d held on just a little longer.”
My grandmother had been through many hard times: the Second World War, trouble in her marriage, the death of an infant daughter. So her statement about twenty being the hardest age didn’t ring true. But I agreed that “Sybil” should have hung on.
Granny put her gnarled hand on mine for a moment, then asked if I wanted pudding.
One August night, while my parents were at a show, my sixteen-year-old sister got a phone call at the house. A woman who claimed to have been my father’s mistress for the last eight years demanded to know his whereabouts. After she hung up, my sister phoned me. “Holly,” she said, “it sounded like Claudia.”
Claudia. The closest person I’d had to a best friend in high school. Schizophrenic, bipolar Claudia. I told my sister I’d be right there.
The next time the phone rang, I answered it. The caller refused to give her name and hung up, but I knew that voice from hours spent listening to it on the phone during Claudia’s manic highs or suicidal lows.
When my parents got home, they were surprised to see me there. I told them Claudia was having an extreme episode. As if on cue, the phone rang again. My father answered it and went outside.
“What if she comes here?” my sister asked.
“She won’t come here,” I assured her. “Claudia is just crazy and needs attention and has serious daddy issues.”
Then Claudia’s truck came tearing into our driveway, spewing gravel. She jumped out and began screaming. While Dad went to talk to her, we turned off all the lights and stayed away from windows. I took my sobbing sister upstairs, then went back down for my mom. I found her sitting in the dark living room, pale and wide-eyed. “Come upstairs, Mom,” I said. “Abby needs you. Mom?”
Dad came inside. “Holly, I need to ask you a big favor,” he said. “Claudia can’t drive home. Will you follow us in the car?”
Mom protested that it should be her, but I told her I’d do it; I’d dealt with Claudia before.
My dad drove her truck, and she rested her head on his shoulder during the ride. When I got there, I helped Claudia into her house, then got into the car with my father and waited for him to speak.
“It’s not what it looks like,” he finally said. And I believed him, because sometimes daughters just have to believe.
This past summer I went on a ten-day camping trip with my eleven-year-old son’s Boy Scout troop. I don’t like camping at all. Even Motel 6 is too primitive for my tastes. But I went because Tyler really wanted to go, and the thought of ten days away from home by himself scared him.
I’d made up my mind before we left that I was going to have a bad time, but I was also determined to hide it from my son and not spoil the trip for him. I pretended to enjoy getting up at the crack of dawn to the sound of reveille and standing in the cold, damp air, sipping bad coffee. I pretended to like eating prison-quality food in a cramped mess hall filled with noisy boys. I pretended to have fun hiking through the rain-soaked woods with wet feet, swatting at the bugs that buzzed around my head.
Then I realized something: Tyler was smiling — not just a little, but a lot. Unlike me he hardly noticed the bad food, the weather, the bugs. He was having the time of his life — and I was missing out on it. After that, I paid more attention to my son, and soon I no longer had to pretend to be having fun.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, and my family went to church every time the doors were open. I would attend youth lock-ins and retreats where the other adolescents would sob emotionally, apparently weighed down by their many sins, but I could never summon such tears myself. As a teenager and college student I skipped church activities whenever I had the chance, but after I married my high-school sweetheart, I fell back into the routine of Sunday-morning, Sunday-evening, and Wednesday-night services. That’s what was expected of a Christian couple.
When I was twenty-eight, an elder of our church pulled me aside one Sunday and informed me that I had been nominated to be a deacon. I told him I would serve, because that’s what I was supposed to do and because I knew my father-in-law, a longtime deacon in his own church, would be pleased.
I’d been a deacon for about six years when I had my first sexual encounter with an “escort” while traveling on business for my employer. Within a few months I had discovered what seemed to me to be the true joys of life: strip clubs, Internet chat rooms, pornography, whiskey, and dive bars. Instead of feeling stressed by my double life, I felt energized.
Then came a debate within our deacon body over whether a divorced man could be a deacon. At question was Steve, who had been divorced as a young man but had since been happily married for twenty years to a respected member of the church. After significant discussion about the meaning of the phrase “husband of one wife,” we decided not to appoint Steve.
Two weeks after our decision, I submitted my resignation as a deacon, citing unspecified personal reasons. I also removed myself from all other church duties. I’d concluded it was better to be an honest sinner than a dishonest churchgoer.
If there is a God, he clearly hasn’t called me to be one of his chosen people, and I’m OK with that. I no longer feel the need to pretend.
A serene Renoir print in a faux French-Provincial frame presides over my small bed in my darkened bedroom. I lie still and tense in my seersucker pajamas, my blond hair spread over the rumpled pink pillowcase. I am nine years old.
Please don’t let my father come in tonight, I think.
The air is hot and muggy. Through the open windows I hear crickets and the occasional howl of a neighborhood basset hound, but no breeze flutters the shades.
A dark figure appears in the doorway. It is not my father but my mother. Rather than making me feel safe, however, the weight of her presence overwhelms me. She sits next to me on the bed. Tonight we have to play her game.
“If all the mothers in the world were lined up,” she says, “who would you choose? Would you choose Aunt Helen?”
“Would you choose Ginger?”
“Who would you choose?”
The headlights from a passing car cross the shades.
“I would choose you, Mom. I would choose you.”
“Can I help you with anything?” I asked. She was looking at the red apples. I briefly considered suggesting she go for the green ones, to match her eyes, then reconsidered.
“Do you work here?” she asked, sounding both suspicious and intrigued.
“No, but I was hoping that wouldn’t stop us from talking.”
She smiled. “Well, I was thinking of making soup.”
Aisle by aisle, we continued our dance. In dairy I gave her my name and asked hers. At the deli counter she asked what I did for a living; I said I was a writer, which I wasn’t, but I wanted to be one. After we’d checked out, I offered her a ride home. I never said whose home, and it didn’t really matter. Two steps inside the door and we were grappling and kissing, dropping groceries as we fumbled our way down the hall to the bedroom.
Once we’d made love, she got up and put our clothes in the hamper. I picked up the apples — the red ones we’d ended up getting — and put them in the kitchen. We never did get the ingredients for the soup, so we ordered Chinese instead and ate it watching reruns and saying almost nothing.
We’d been living together for less than a year, and already we were bored. Neither of us was brave enough to admit it, so this was how we coped: we cheated — with each other. But these fake encounters were already losing their luster. When they failed to excite, we would have no choice but to search for what was really missing. For now, however, we just went on pretending.
Mill Valley, California
While pregnant I had a recurring dream of giving birth. In the dream, when the doctor presented my daughter to me, she was an orange kitten: the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen. In real life, as I held my daughter, Maddie, for the first time — my first time holding any baby — I couldn’t help thinking that a kitten would have been a lot cuter, and a lot less frightening.
As Maddie grew older, I felt as if I were pretending to be a mother. At the park for her third-birthday party, our grown-up friends far outnumbered the preschoolers. There I was, engaged in adult conversation, when I realized I hadn’t spent a moment with my daughter at her own party. I sheepishly shuffled over and pushed her on the swing a few times, wondering if my actions looked as forced as they felt. When my husband approached a few minutes later, Maddie lit up, and I felt both saddened and relieved: saddened because Maddie never lit up like that for me, and relieved because I could go back to my conversation.
One day when Maddie was five, I told her that we were going to have an evening with just the two of us while Daddy was at band practice — “not tomorrow, but the next day.” She leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Can I sleep all day tomorrow so I can wake up and it’ll be that day?” An unfamiliar feeling washed over me. For the first time I felt truly like a mom. I hugged Maddie tight and whispered that I loved her.
Now when I approach, Maddie isn’t the only one who lights up.
Carrboro, North Carolina
As a kid I spent lots of time playing with my pretend family. They lived on Park Avenue and shopped at Saks and Bloomingdale’s and ate out at restaurants with heavy tablecloths and well-dressed waiters. My real family lived in a rent-controlled apartment on the West Side, shopped for bargains, and ate at Deli City and the Automat.
For supper my pretend mother cooked steak Diane and veal marsala. My real mother boiled everything: chicken, cabbage, potatoes, broccoli, even beef.
My pretend parents drove a dark blue Lincoln Continental with leather seats and a sporty Cadillac convertible. My real family didn’t own a car. Neither of my parents could drive. We took the bus or the subway everywhere.
My pretend mom was gorgeous, a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Onassis, with perfect flip-up hair. My real mother had brillo-pad hair that, on the weeks she neglected to go to the beauty parlor, she brushed back severely and held in place with a steel clip.
My pretend family belonged to a golf club, a cabana club, and a ski lodge. Except for spinning the dreidel each year during Hanukkah, my real family never played games. For a good time we’d settle down to watch Sixty Minutes.
My pretend family threw big parties, and relatives flew in from all over to attend. There was always a band, and the men wore black ties. My real parents seldom socialized or had relatives over, mostly because there weren’t any left. My grandparents, first cousins, and most of my aunts and uncles had been killed by the Nazis.
Though my pretend family looked down on my real family, my real family was tolerant of my pretend one. My mother referred to my games as “talking alone.” I did it only in private, and if someone interrupted me, I’d feel a banging in my chest that I thought was the same as having a heart attack.
As an adult I told a therapist about my pretending. I’d thought she’d be horrified, but she said that such games were normal. I didn’t quite believe her until I had my own kids. Now, on long summer afternoons, when my young sons play with Matchbox cars and Legos, they drop their voices low and call each other “Rambo” and “Ranger” — macho names that are nothing like the elegant, biblical names I chose for them.
I work at what remains of the headquarters of a company whose name you might hear if the subject of financial wrongdoing comes up. Layoffs, then the collapsing economy, and finally a takeover by a former competitor had reduced what used to be four sardine-packed glass towers down to six employees in the data center of Tower 3 and a group of computer-networking guys over in Tower 4.
One of my co-workers joked that he was going to take over the empty office of a fired executive. At first I laughed, but within a couple of weeks he’d done it, and the rest of us followed suit. We scavenged office equipment, break-room supplies, and computers from the pallets of materials shrink-wrapped and waiting for relocation, auction, or landfill. (We decided we weren’t stealing as long as none of it left the property.) After years of working almost on top of one another, we each had our own little kingdom: One of us turned a section of cubicles on the fifth floor into something resembling the bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek. Another moved into one of the vice-presidential suites on nineteen. I chose a midsize corner office on ten that had floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls. The fifty-two-inch plasma TV had no satellite connection, but I hooked up a laptop to play dvds. The granite-topped wet bar had been disconnected and the minifridge removed, so I filled the sink with ice from the break room to keep drinks cold.
In the very early morning before my shift started, I’d enjoy my first cup of coffee while staring out my glass walls. Through the now-gutted floors of the first two towers, I could see the red and white lights of traffic from the morning rush hour. I’d pretend I had actually climbed the corporate ladder to this office, and that the name on the door belonged to me and not some guy sitting in a federal prison. I’d tell myself our new bosses were serious when they said we shouldn’t worry about losing our jobs. I’d dream my 401(k) would climb back to precollapse levels. And when the sun had risen far enough to turn the glass windows of the other tower into mirrors, I’d start my day.
I once volunteered in a nursing home. My job was to deliver mail and visit with the residents. The facility was clean and reputable, but most of the residents, due to advancing frailty or illness or loneliness, led diminished lives and were completely dependent on their caretakers. Of course a few were vibrant and funny, but the majority slept as much as newborn babies and didn’t seem to care about the world anymore.
The toughest part of my job was visiting the wing for residents with advanced dementia. Despite constant cleaning, the area smelled of urine and feces, and sobbing, moaning, or screaming could often be heard in the distance. About a dozen residents were always parked in their wheelchairs near the entrance, mumbling to themselves or staring silently into space. One of the silent ones was a woman with long white hair and vacant blue eyes. I’d smile and greet her week after week, but she never so much as twitched an eye in response.
Then one spring morning I greeted her as usual, and she raised her head and looked right at me, her eyes as blue and sparkling as the Caribbean Sea. “Oh, oh, is it you?” she whispered. She reached out her arms to me and laughed. “Is it really you?”
I put my arms around the woman and stroked her feathery hair. “Yes, it’s me, and I love you,” I replied.
She clung to me and laughed some more. “Oh, I love you so much,” she said.
Then her arms dropped, and her eyes shut off like lights. She never looked at me or spoke to me again. I have often wondered who I was pretending to be in that moment.
About two weeks after my widowed father’s funeral, my four siblings and I began the difficult task of clearing out the contents of our parents’ house. We left Dad’s bedroom for last, having been taught as children never to enter it under any circumstances. There, in the top drawer of my father’s dresser, we found a blond wig tucked inside a plastic bag.
“What is this?” one of my brothers asked.
I hesitated, wondering if telling the story would be a betrayal. Then I went ahead and explained.
When our mother had died of breast cancer at age sixty-nine, our father had been alone for the first time in his life. After about three years the loneliness proved too much for him, and he picked up the phone and called a woman named Camille, whom he’d known forty years before.
Camille was married but unhappily so. What began as a platonic friendship evolved into an affair. To create a cover, my dad asked his younger sister to go to Camille’s house, meet her husband, and pretend to be her long-lost friend “Diane.” It worked. Once a week my father would pick her up in the guise of Diane: he’d don a blond wig, drive to Camille’s, and wait in the car while she made a quick exit. As soon as Camille slipped into the passenger side, my father would drive off laughing and throw the wig into the back seat.
This went on for eight years. My siblings and I knew about Camille, but only two of us met her. When my dad died unexpectedly, I called Camille on the phone, and we sobbed together. It was then she told me about the wig.
When I was six years old, I pretended to be a boy. Actually it wasn’t my idea. My mother and her sisters tucked my hair up inside a baseball cap, dressed me in my brother’s overalls and dirty sneakers, and sent me down the block to my cousin’s boys-only birthday party.
Trying to be boylike, I dug my hands in my pockets, kicked at rocks, and held back any semblance of a smile. My cousin and the other guests didn’t say a word about my appearance. I wondered if they could tell that I was a girl. Maybe boys were just too rough-and-tumble to notice. I told them my name was Mickey and chased them with a croquet mallet. Then we all jumped out of a tree into a sand pile while hollering like Tarzan.
After the party my aunts combed out my long hair and dressed me in white anklets and a ruffled skirt. That’s when I realized that I wanted to be a boy. It’s not that I wanted a male body (I didn’t even know the difference yet); I just didn’t want to be a girl, because girls weren’t supposed to be rough, and I suddenly thought that rough was the best possible thing to be.
When I was eleven, I got a huge crush on another girl. I wanted to be Mickey all the time so that I could pursue Rose, who was new to my fifth-grade class. After school Rose and I hid from the others on the playground, and she daringly kissed me. She thought I was cute just the way I was. That’s when I realized I didn’t want to be a dirty, rough boy who awkwardly tried to get the girls’ attention by throwing rocks at them. It was much better to be like Rose: a smart, carefree, risk-taking girl who could fall in love with other girls.
The Internet was in its infancy when I logged on to a sprawling online community called “LambdaMOO,” a virtual world built entirely of words, where members took whatever imaginary form they pleased. My friend Manimal was half man, half leopard. MugWump described itself as “gelatinous amoeba-type goo.” Gang_of_Eight appeared as a group of people moving about in concert, often arguing among themselves. My character, Melanie, had breasts that swelled a cup size or two as time went on.
It’s all a game, I told myself. It wasn’t real. So what if my heart pounded when RazorJack, a virtual cowboy with steel gray eyes, a rapier wit, and a heart the size of Texas, strode into my character’s circle of friends? No way could I fall in love with him. I was happily married with children. A romantic relationship with him — virtual or real — was out of the question.
My feelings paid me no mind, and I ached to be with him. For the first time in my life, love songs on the radio made sense. He and I spent hours together online — hours I should have spent working. (My only Internet connection was at my office.) I often pretended I had to work late so I could be with RazorJack.
I was wracked with guilt. What was I doing to my kids, my spouse, my marriage? I kept trying to leave the virtual world, but I kept crawling back. RazorJack understood. He supported me and was willing to let go if I was. I wasn’t willing. I clung to our relationship.
I lost my job because of the time I spent not working. I lost my wife when I realized why I wasn’t happy at home. I lost RazorJack when I told him I was only pretending to be a woman.
I was smitten with Joseph the first time I met him. A law student at the University of Paris, he was working for a summer in London to improve his English. He had clear green eyes, golden skin, and expressive hands. I loved his French accent and every word that came out of his mouth.
I was surprised when I found out Joseph didn’t drink: During a picnic by the pond in Green Park, I pulled a chilled bottle of white wine from my backpack, and his beautiful lip curled up. Not only didn’t he drink; he didn’t like that I did. I teased him: “Don’t you French come with a wine-tasting palate as part of your DNA?” Unamused, he went on to tell me he also didn’t like that I smoked. I stopped laughing. We had been dating less than a week, and I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable with this attempt to control me.
I was quiet on the walk back to his tiny flat. When we arrived, Joseph told me he needed a few minutes alone. I stood outside the door, wondering what he was up to. I’d noticed earlier that week that he had disappeared for short periods throughout the day. Peeved, I opened the door to tell him I was leaving and that maybe I didn’t want to go out with him after all.
Joseph was kneeling facedown on the floor, shoes off, a thin white scarf over his head. He was praying.
He sat up, surprised. “Someone like you would never go out with an Arab,” he started in his beautiful, French-inflected voice.
I was stunned. “What makes you think that would matter to me?” I asked.
Turns out he was actually “Youcef” from Algeria. But for those two minor details, everything else he’d told me about himself was true.
No wonder he didn’t like drinking and smoking (although somehow he had made his peace with unmarried sex). No wonder he had to disappear five times a day. No wonder his feet were so clean. My face burned. How could I have missed it?
Youcef and I stayed together for about six months. He told me about his family, his heritage, his country. Near the end he asked me to marry him. But as beautiful as he was, I could never get past the fact that he’d pretended to be someone he wasn’t, just to go out with a girl.
For a number of years I rented an office in LA’s Westwood Village and earned a living editing academic papers and coaching students from UCLA. My office was furnished with a few pieces I’d salvaged from the wreckage of my divorce, including a big print of Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a heavy wooden frame. The print had been made so that van Gogh’s thick applications of oil paint looked three-dimensional.
One day a student stopped on his way out to look at it. “That’s a nice picture,” he said.
“Did you paint it yourself?”
When I realized he wasn’t kidding, I explained that it was a copy of a famous painting by van Gogh. The original had recently sold at auction for $39 million.
A short time later another student stopped on her way out and asked the same question. Once again I explained that it was just a reproduction of a famous work by van Gogh; perhaps she’d heard of him? Evidently she hadn’t.
The third time a student stopped and stared at the picture, I was ready for the question:
“Yes,” I said. “Do you like it?”
I came around from behind my desk and stood beside him while we both admired the humble sunflowers, which van Gogh had plucked from the fields at Arles and painted in his room one rainy day. I even held out my finger and thumb to look through them, as I had seen artists do.
“It’s very good,” my young admirer said. “You have talent.”
“Do you think I should keep at it?” I asked.
William Arthur Delaney
San Diego, California
I’m an actor, but for twelve years I held day jobs as a teacher. I taught everyone from homeless preschoolers to union members to teen felony offenders to fifth-graders (by far the most challenging). At some point during each job, I would reveal to my co-workers that I was an actor, and they would say something like “Oh, teaching must be easy for you, then. You just get up and pretend to know what you’re doing!”
I did pretend as a teacher: I pretended to care about tests. I pretended that getting through the day’s lesson was of the utmost importance. I pretended that effective conflict resolution could be taught in twelve forty-five-minute workshops. I pretended that getting your GED would radically alter your life, even if all the odds were stacked against you. I pretended that six months’ rehabilitation could remove the obstacles that racism and poverty had placed in a young person’s path. I pretended that I didn’t care when students insulted or humiliated me. I pretended to believe that my students should listen to me as an authority figure. I pretended to respect my principal and to care about keeping my job.
There are indeed skills that are transferable from acting to teaching; pretending is not one of them. As an actor I never pretended. I always expressed the truth.
My brothers and I had decided to stay home from college that fall and assist our mother in caring for our dying father. He had cancer, and we’d been told he would be lucky to see Christmas.
One rainy morning I was driving my father to an appointment. My mother sat in the passenger seat, my father in back. Once a towering, distinguished-looking man, he’d become a bony caricature of himself: cavernous eyes, prominent ears, a skeletal smile.
We arrived at an intersection where traffic had come to a halt.
“Oh, great! Now what?” I said.
A squad car passed, followed by a black hearse. A steady stream of cars with headlights shining crawled along the wet pavement. My mother and I looked straight ahead in silence.
“I think the rain is supposed to stop this afternoon,” I said.
“Yes, that’s what I heard, too,” my mother replied.
“I guess the farmers need it, though.”
“Speaking of farmers,” my mother said, “I heard the sweet corn is really tasty right now. We should stop by the produce stand on the way home.”
We talked of farming and produce until the long line of cars had passed.
As we drove on, I glanced at my father in the rearview mirror. He was staring through the gray drizzle at the taillights of the funeral procession. Perhaps he was thinking about the people whose errands or commutes would be delayed by his passing corpse. Maybe he was wondering how many drivers would curse the inconvenience.
Then he noticed me looking at him. I looked away and searched for a radio station while my mother continued to talk about the rain.
I was adopted during World War II by a Hollywood couple. My father was a moviemaker, and my mother had been a singer on the radio and in nightclubs. My parents adopted me not because they wanted to be parents but because they needed me (and my brother, who was adopted ten months later) to complete their image of a couple who had it all: house in Beverly Hills, spaniel dog, fleet of servants, and two adorable children.
During the week my brother and I were cared for by the nanny, the cook, the housekeeper, and the gardener. We saw our parents mostly on Sundays, when we went with them to the country club and ate potato pancakes and creamed spinach from the buffet. We were expected to look and act perfect. I wore frilly dresses, spoke only when spoken to, ate with the correct utensils, and always cleaned my plate. I was a cardboard cutout of a little girl, sitting up straight in my high-backed, country-club chair.
My best memories are of visits to my grandmother’s. “Gammy,” my mother, and my aunt would get manicures, and while they waited for their nails to dry, they’d talk about the good old days in show business. My grandmother was in the Motion Picture Mothers’ Club, an organization for women whose offspring were in movies. (My aunt had appeared in B-movie westerns.) When I was seven, I got to attend the club’s annual rummage sale. It was held in a musty church basement lined with tables, on which were piled hats and earrings and fake pearls and old furs. I tried items on, layering one on top of another, and paid two dollars for all my loot.
Back home I experimented with various outfits, finally settling on a pink satin nightgown, oodles of jewelry, a wide-brimmed hat, and matching gloves. Awestruck by my metamorphosis in the mirror, I decided to give myself a new name: “Madam Modipuss.” Little Janie was invisible; Madam Modipuss was flamboyant. Little Janie was mute; Madam Modipuss was bold. Little Janie always did what she was told; Madam Modipuss had a mind of her own. Little Janie took matters very seriously; Madam Modipuss, quite frankly, didn’t give a damn.
Looking for a safe place to reveal the new me, I went to see the three-year-old boy next door. “I am Madam Modipuss!” I announced when they answered my knock. The boy just stared at me with his mouth open, but his mother invited me in. I spent many hours there and in time became known affectionately as “Modi.”
Sixty years later I am driving through Little Italy on my way to see my granddaughters, who are sitting on the steps in front of their row house. When they spot my pumpkin-colored car, they shout the only name they know me by: “Modi, Modi, Modi!”
My father was a Jehovah’s Witness; my mother, a Baptist. They couldn’t agree how to raise their children, so my family attended church only on rare occasions. We sometimes listened to Baptist church radio and had home visits from Witnesses, who read to my siblings and me from a large book of children’s stories with colorful pictures of lions and lambs frolicking together after the End of Days.
When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend found religion, and I followed him to a small Pentecostal church on the South Side of Chicago. After a strident sermon and some fervent singing, I found myself walking hesitantly up the aisle, kneeling before the pastor, and professing that I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
Along with six or seven others who had done the same, I was led to the church basement, where we were asked if we wanted to be baptized. Yes, I said, not realizing that they were asking if I wanted to be baptized that day. Church women dressed all in white descended upon us and handed us thin gowns to change into. Looking around at the small group of newly saved, I noticed that many were as deer-eyed as I was. Did getting baptized mean that I was joining this church? Should I wait? Did I need my mother’s permission?
A half-hour later, I was standing in the baptismal font to the right of the altar. I was submerged three times: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The white gown stuck uncomfortably to the curves of my naked body, and each time I was raised from the cold water, my hands instinctively went to cover my nipples.
Afterward the other converts and I were led back to the basement, where we dried off and dressed. Then we were brought to a small room upstairs and told to “tarry” (wait) on the Lord to come through us and give us the gift of speaking in tongues. Newly baptized and clearly bewildered, we huddled in a small seated circle while a half dozen sisters and brothers of the church began praying close to our ears. So passionate were their prayers that soon several of us were speaking in unintelligible utterances, peppered with the occasional “Thank you, Jesus.” After a while I began to worry that if I didn’t start speaking in tongues I would be deemed an impostor.
Whether it was the strength of the hot prayers in my ears or my longing to belong, I finally opened my mouth, and words rushed out faster than I could think to form them. I could feel my body in the chair and hear my utterances in my head, but a part of me was somewhere else, in a formless expanse where my doubts and fears didn’t exist.
On the long bus ride home, I was already beginning to doubt what had happened. Did I want salvation so badly that I’d simply pretended to speak in tongues? Or had the Holy Spirit come through me that day to profess the glory of God?