On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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I was eleven years old when my father left us for a shiksa named Kiki. This was the summer of 2002, during a heat wave so extreme children could be seen breaking eggs on the sidewalk to see if they would really fry. I tried it myself one afternoon, but the whites merely oozed into the cracks I sometimes stepped on when my mother was being difficult — Step on a crack, break your mother’s back! (Only once did she develop symptoms of a back injury, a freak coincidence so terrifying I avoided sidewalks for a month.) As for the egg, my mother eventually saw the yolky mess while taking out the trash and scolded me for wasting food.
This was in a town called Sugar Land, Texas, where the summers were so hot and sticky I’d get a rash on the inside of my thighs. On the day my father left, the high was 113 degrees. When I came downstairs, I was planning to beg for a trip to the water park, but I discovered the living room was crowded with cardboard boxes labeled in permanent marker: MEDICAL TEXTBOOKS, BASEBALL CARDS, VHS TAPES. It was my father’s handwriting, the letters all capitalized and slanted, as if the boxes were shouting.
My mother stood at the far end of the living room, her pink terry-cloth robe open to reveal the awful nightshirt she wore whenever she was angry at my father. The shirt was covered in plasticky cartoon cows leaping over a moon with thick eyelashes and sultry human lips. My mother knew precisely how disturbing this shirt was to everyone but her.
“Years from now,” she said to my father, “you’ll remember this as the day you ruined your life.” When he didn’t so much as look at her, she added, “Your own mother warned me not to rely on you. Did you know that, David? That’s how you know you’re a real asshole — when your own mother sells you out.” This side of her came out on occasion, usually when she was driving or watching Judge Judy.
“What’s happening?” I asked, startling both of them.
My mother turned so that the nightshirt moon was gazing directly at me. “Good morning, Laney. I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just say it. Your father is moving.”
“More or less.”
I looked at my father, stunned that he and my mother had managed to keep this from me. “Where are you going?” I asked him.
He made an exasperated face, as if he’d already explained this to me a thousand times. “Just to a condo across town. It’s nothing to worry about, Laney. Really.”
Just then a large man with a shaved head and a tattoo of a sledgehammer on his bicep walked through the door and lifted one of the cardboard boxes. “Careful,” my father said to him. The box read: RECORDS A–D.
“Go get dressed,” my mother said to me. “I’m taking you out for a McDonald’s breakfast.”
Confused — we never went out to breakfast — I ran upstairs to do as she said. In honor of the occasion, I put on a pair of dangly pancake earrings I’d bought the week before. If you scratched them, they released a maple-syrup smell. I stared at the earrings in the mirror with such concentrated greed and delight that I forgot, momentarily, that my father was leaving.
Like death, my father’s exodus was something nobody had explicitly warned me about but that I had been anticipating for some time. Recently he had been more distant than usual. Instead of eating dinner with us, he’d take his meals to his den, and I wouldn’t see him for the rest of the night. Sometimes he wouldn’t come home for dinner at all. On those nights my mother would call her best friend, Judy (not the judge), and ask for advice: “What’ll I do if you-know-what happens? Where will we go?” For as often as my mother spoke to her, I’d never actually met Judy. All I knew was that she lived in Kansas, where my mother was from, and had a daughter my age named Rue, who was trouble. “She’s too pretty for her own good,” my mother had once said of Rue. I was eleven — a nothing age, when you are neither child nor adult but rather a creature made of hormones and rage — so what I heard was: Laney, you are too ugly to cause trouble.
Downstairs my mother was waiting by the door with her purse, her keys on a lanyard around her neck. If my mother could be said to have a sound, the way a pig has oink and a cow has moo, it would be the sound of these keys jingling: car keys, house keys, mailbox keys, keys to her classroom, to the teachers’ lounge, to the main office, to the supply room, and more than a few mystery keys whose origins had been lost long ago but which she refused to discard. She had changed into a pair of high-waisted jeans and a maroon windbreaker she wore whenever it was cloudy. Today was not cloudy, but the sky appeared muted, as if at any moment it might crack open with rain.
On the way out of the house, I asked my dad, “Will you be here when we get back?”
“Of course,” he said and then planted a kiss on my forehead. “I may be moving, but I’m not leaving you. Do you understand the difference?”
I lied and told him yes.
In the car my mother checked her face in the sun visor’s mirror. “We’re not going to McDonald’s,” she said, dabbing at the bags beneath her eyes.
“Then where are we going?” My earrings suddenly felt ridiculous.
“You’ll see when we get there.”
I rested my head against the window and sighed. Why was everything always a disappointment? I’d gotten my first period a couple of months earlier and was still lamenting this unfair turn of events. It seemed impossible that I could endure for the rest of my life the way my body would vibrate with frustration when nothing was actually wrong. Just the week before, I had burst into tears when my mother put too much mustard on my turkey sandwich.
We parked in front of a Petco. I looked imploringly at my mother. “Am I getting a rabbit?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “From now on, we get what we want.”
I had been asking for a rabbit for almost two years, but my father had a strict policy against warm-blooded pets. As a consolation I’d been given a box turtle named Shell Silverstein, whom I loved dearly but wasn’t allowed to handle without plastic gloves. All that was behind me now. Here in the Petco parking lot, the world felt suddenly bright and benevolent.
Inside, my mother stormed up to an employee whose name tag read: DOUG. He was tall and bony, with a thin-lipped smile exactly like my father’s. For a moment I thought my mother might slap him. “Where are your rabbits?” she demanded, as if Doug had spent many years hiding rabbits from the general public.
Doug led us to an aisle that was all rabbits and rabbit accessories. I stood entranced, watching the rabbits breathe through their tiny noses. After twenty minutes of deliberation I decided upon a small brown-and-white one with silky ears. I named him Dalí, after the surrealist painter. I’d been saving the name ever since seeing a poster of The Persistence of Memory at my dentist’s office.
On the way home, I sat in the back with Dalí’s metal travel cage. A larger wooden hutch was in the trunk, along with food and a package of bedding. Already I loved Dalí more than I could stand. My heart plummeted each time he launched himself across the cage, his eyes darting around as if he had only minutes to live. I know how you feel, Dalí, I said to him through ESP, but soon you will feel safe. I will make you feel safe.
We were nearly home when my mother took a sudden turn into a McDonald’s. In all the excitement I’d forgotten about breakfast. “Order whatever you want,” she said, for the first time ever. Anywhere we went to eat, there were always rules: no sodas, no sides, no desserts. I heard a tremor in her voice, and when I looked, tears gushed from her eyes. The only other time I’d seen her cry like this was the year before, on 9/11.
“Am I supposed to be sad?” I asked while we waited in the drive-thru line.
“Only if you love your father,” she said, half laughing. Then she wiped away a tear with the back of her hand.
I sat there for a moment, trying to squeeze out a tear to prove my daughterly piety, but Dalí was looking at me with his tiny black eyes and we were inching closer to the ordering speaker and the whole world smelled like french-fry grease, so I didn’t feel all that sad.
I ordered a sausage McMuffin, and my mother ordered a large vanilla cone. “It’s practically the same as yogurt,” she said, “so it counts as breakfast.” We ate in the parking lot, the sun beating down on us. On the radio Dr. Laura Schlessinger was talking to a man who wanted to get pectoral implants so he might finally love himself. I watched in disgust and awe as my mother licked melted ice cream off her wrist.
On the seat beside me, Dalí hopped frantically from one end of his cage to the other. When my mother wasn’t looking, I pinched off a piece of sausage and slipped it through the metal bars. Did rabbits eat pork? Apparently they did. Dalí’s little mouth chewed contentedly, and my heart lifted. This must be how God feels, I thought, when he gives us something to be happy about.
At home the Mayflower moving truck was still in the driveway. “Here we are,” I said to Dalí. “Home sweet home.” When I looked in his cage, I saw that he had produced several perfectly formed turds. I wanted desperately to flick these droppings across an empty room that had just been vacuumed, and for my mother to force Kiki-the-home-wrecking-shiksa to pick them up with tweezers, one by one. “Gently now,” my mother would instruct.
Inside, the cardboard boxes were gone, leaving empty spaces where my father’s things had been. The unfilled room produced the same uncanny feeling as when he unexpectedly shaved his beard — both instances of him removing, without warning, something that had seemed permanent.
Amid this strange new emptiness sat my father on the sofa, reading Scientific American as if this were a normal day and a man with cantaloupe-sized biceps hadn’t hauled away his life. When he looked up, his eyes seemed smaller than usual. “Did you have a nice breakfast?” he asked.
He squinted at Dalí. “What’s that?”
For a moment I was nervous — I had broken his rule, after all. I looked around for my mother to explain, but she had gone to the backyard to set up the hutch. “His name is Dalí,” I said. “He’s a rabbit.”
There was a flicker of annoyance in my father’s eyes, as if he were about to protest, but then it was gone. This is how I knew he was really leaving. “Good for you,” he said.
“Do you want to meet him?”
“No, thank you. Rodents and I don’t mix.”
“Rabbits aren’t actually rodents,” I said, watching Dalí’s nose twitch.
My father smiled as if I’d said something silly. “For all intents and purposes, yes, they are.”
My father drove off before dinner, leaving behind the baseball cross-stitch I’d made for him in fourth grade, the leather slippers my mother and I had given him for his birthday the year before, and the elaborate espresso machine he knew we would never use, since he was the only coffee drinker among us. I wondered how he would make his coffee now. Would Kiki brew it for him?
I couldn’t help but blame Kiki for everything. I wasn’t yet ready to blame my father, whom I had loved on and off my entire life: On when he flew my mother and me to San Diego to see the zoo’s new baby panda. Off after he spanked me in front of my whole Girl Scout troop. At the end of the day, he was my dad. He’d created me. If my mom was my sun, appearing each morning and enabling the world to operate, then my father was my moon, showing up in varying degrees to perform lesser tasks. He was the person who changed the light bulbs and mowed the lawn. As far as I could recall, he had never told me he loved me or comforted me in a time of sadness. That was my mother’s job.
I’d met Kiki a few times, while visiting my father at the hospital where he worked. She was not the small, blond pixie her name suggested, but rather a middle-aged oncologist with spiky red hair and burgundy eyebrows drawn on with a pencil. Her teeth were large and exceptionally white, so that when she smiled, it was like a bird opening its wings to reveal a secret layer of plumage. She had grown up in Brazil and pronounced my name like “Lenny.”
I’d known from the moment I’d met her that something was afoot. When my father looked at Kiki, his entire body pointed toward her. Still, it was Kiki’s fault, not his. Why show up to work in full makeup, drenched in perfume, if you’re not in the business of stealing people’s husbands? My father gravitated toward her only because she had made herself into a star so powerful and bright no planet could resist her appeal.
In the days after my father left, my mother turned into a colorless version of herself. She spent many meals moving food around her plate or crying into her hands. Most afternoons I could find her on the sofa, reading the first Harry Potter book over and over.
I had a sinking feeling in my gut whenever I passed my father’s empty office, or his unfilled bookshelves, or the gaping space in the living room where his leather armchair had been. But his absence didn’t bother me as much as it bothered my mother, perhaps because I’d grown used to him being gone — at the hospital, or the country club, or a car show, or a dinner party, or one of the many pharmaceutical conferences from which he’d return bearing tchotchkes stamped with the names of prescription drugs. (Once, he’d given me an alarm clock that said, VIAGRA: It’s time to get up!) Or perhaps I still believed he would return.
When he’d been gone a full week, my mother ordered an extra-large cheese pizza (my father was lactose intolerant) and announced that we were going to eat it while watching Forrest Gump, a movie my father abhorred. People sometimes told him he looked like a Jewish Tom Hanks, a compliment that produced in him an irrational hatred of the actor, as if, had my father only been born a goy, he, too, could have been an Oscar-winning multimillionaire.
In the middle of the movie my mother said, “You know what? I love Tom Hanks. He’s a terrific actor, and American cinema wouldn’t be the same without him.”
“I agree,” I said. “I really like Big.”
When the movie was over, I stretched out so that my feet were on my mother’s lap. “What do we do now?” I asked.
She put her hand on my ankle. “We’re moving to Kansas at the end of the month.”
“What?” All I’d meant was: Should we eat ice cream or watch another movie, or both?
“We’re moving to Wichita. I’ve already put the house up for sale.”
I looked around, stunned, as if the house might dissolve around us at any moment. “What’s in Wichita?”
“I have friends there, the Roseburgs — you know Judy and Amos. And it’s cheaper. Judy’s found me work at her school.”
I fell silent. Eventually I said, “I won’t go.”
“You’re my daughter, Laney. Wherever I go, you go.”
She then squeezed my toes one by one, like she had when I was a baby: This little piggy went to the market. This little piggy stayed home. This little piggy had roast beef. And this little piggy was forcibly removed from the only place she’d ever known.
“What about Dad?”
“What about him?”
“What if he wants to come back?”
Her eyes went soft with pity. “Listen to me, Laney. That’s the very last thing you should wait for. OK?”
I said OK, but because I was eleven and eager for any opportunity to disobey my mother, I decided I would wait no matter what she said. I would wait forever if I had to. I had waited more than twenty months for a rabbit, after all, and look what I had now.
Kansas was not what I expected. I had imagined windmills and hog farms and men wearing overalls, chewing on stalks of wheat. I had imagined a perpetual tornado in the background, churning up cows and tractors. What I had not imagined was almost exactly the place we had left: Arby’s and Kohl’s and Walgreens and Blockbuster. It was as if the Wichita Planning Committee had looked at Sugar Land and said, “We’ll have what they’re having.” The main difference was the trees, which were short and randomly placed, as if someone had accidentally dropped them there. And the sky, which seemed . . . lazier, as if there was a haze that kept the sun from shining all the way through. And my father wasn’t there. It was just my mother, Dalí, Shell Silverstein, and me.
Had our old house in Sugar Land been able to eat, digest, and excrete food, our new house in Wichita could have been one of its bowel movements. The Sugar Land house had boasted high ceilings, stainless-steel appliances, and marble countertops. Here there was just a kitchen and a living room (which were really the same room) and two bedrooms. The only upgrade was that I now had a walk-in closet — already I could imagine tongue-kissing boys in there — and a window with a reading nook. I would have killed many full-grown men for that reading nook, which came with a mint-green cushion stitched with yellow fleurs-de-lis. I imagined sitting there and writing in my journal with Dalí in my lap, watching as strange Kansas people drifted by outside, walking their Kansas dogs or pushing their Kansas children in strollers. It seemed incomprehensible that all those years I was in Texas, these people were here, living their lives. For a moment I was struck by how huge and chaotic and unknowable the world was, but when I tried to put it down in my journal, the only thing that came out was: I wonder what Dad is doing without us.
Once the furniture had been unloaded and arranged, the first thing my mother did was hang the mezuzah by the front door. “Bless this house,” she said, kissing her hand and then touching the mezuzah three times. “Well, what do you think?” she asked, turning to me with a hopeful smile.
“I want to go home,” I said. It was only partially a lie.
Her smile collapsed. “We are home. This is home now.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Don’t say that, Laney. Please.”
“Why are we even here? You ripped me away from Dad and the house and everything I knew. And for what? So you can be near one of your friends? What about my friends? My life? It’s completely selfish. . . . I wish I had stayed in Texas with Dad.”
I was still exploring my power to hurt others and was continually surprised by how potent a single sentence could be. I watched my mother’s face waver and then crack open. My heart ached — I had meant to hurt her only a little — but what was done was done. I thought then of the time in fourth grade when the school guidance counselor had squeezed a glob of toothpaste onto a lunch tray and challenged us to return the paste to its container. After each of us had tried and failed, she revealed the day’s lesson: Some things can’t be undone, no matter how hard you try.
“Go to your room and unpack,” my mother said.
“Fine,” I said, pouting so she wouldn’t know how much I adored my new room. She might as well have said, Go to the movies and eat a box of Milk Duds.
And so, as my mom cried in her bedroom — we shared a wall now, and I could hear everything — I sat in my new reading nook, wondering what the rest of my life would look like. I understood that many changes would happen under this ceiling. I would sleep here and dream here, and one day I would leave, just like I’d left Sugar Land. Nothing, I was learning, was permanent, except the endless ticker tape of thoughts in my head. I got out my journal and wrote, Everything is exciting and perfect and terrible. When will life start making sense? And then, because I liked the way it sounded: Wretched is the woman who finds her own mind lonesome.
In the next room my mother howled. I imagined going over there and apologizing, telling her how much I loved my new room, the new house. I missed Dad, but there was also something correct about living with only her. In Sugar Land my father had inspected the house each morning, squinting at whatever messes my mother or I had left behind the night before: my muddy sandals in the foyer, bread crumbs on the counter, a rogue pencil sharpener unforgivably out of place on the coffee table. In the new house we could wear our shoes on the carpet and eat in the living room and keep the TV on even if we weren’t paying full attention. The electricity was ours to waste, the furniture ours to ruin. It had never occurred to me that our Sugar Land house — our Sugar Land life — had been my father’s taste, and that my own taste might be closer to my mother’s.
I changed into my pajamas and got into bed. For a while I lay there, listening to the rise and fall of my mother’s weeping. I knocked on the wall that separated us. “Mom?” I called. The crying stopped, but there was no answer. “Mom?” I called again, and I waited. Everything was quiet save for the drone of a distant ambulance. I thought of how, whenever she heard an ambulance, my mother would turn toward the sound and whisper, “I hope everyone is OK.”
I loved the humor and truth in Becky Mandelbaum’s “Goodbye, Sugar Land” [October 2019]. The story resonates with my own father’s departure to be with his secretary, who was ten years younger than my mother. I was eleven years old.
My mother, too, allowed us newfound freedoms: to pop our own popcorn, to cook spaghetti on school nights, and to paint our bedrooms any color we wanted. Like Laney in Mandelbaum’s story, I hurt my mother and middle sibling with “potent single sentences,” saying their fussy dispositions were the reason my father had left. We were an Italian-Irish Catholic family in California in 1971, so it seems these stories and emotions cross cultures and eras.
My mother met the love of her life years later, but he died in his late fifties. My father is married to his fifth wife and says he, too, has finally found the love of his life.