At 13, just home from the big date with Belinda Goldstein — the very first date of my life — Bernice, in her pink bathrobe, sat me down at the tiny kitchen table in our Brooklyn apartment, and tried to talk to me about girls.
“Mom, not now,” I said. But I couldn’t get away. Some power always held me back from breaking free of her. It was the power of not wanting to do to her what my father did.
She said she wanted to know what I knew about romance. I bolted into the bathroom and slammed the door.
The apartment had only one bathroom, which I shared with my mother and Fran, who had just turned sixteen. I looked now at the miniature bottles of perfume stacked in military like rows atop the toilet; the big mirror with no streaks, no marks, no sign that it had ever been utilized; the towels I wasn’t allowed to use. I never felt comfortable in there. My mother and sister had too many instructions to follow: Put used towels in the hamper; after showering, drain all water from the tub, and then hit the lever to the drain so that the next person to shower doesn’t accidentally start to fill the tub; don’t use the expensive shampoos; clean the toilet seat and put it down after use; never shower for more than five minutes, as condensation is bad for the wallpaper. I looked in the medicine cabinet at my mother’s bottle of anti-anxiety pills, and wanted to take some, and sit on the couch, alone for the rest of the night, watching baseball games.
“Did you fall into the toilet?” Bernice called.
I ignored her, but then she knocked on the door, and announced, “I bought that cheese you like,” as if I could be bribed. Bernice believed that if she bought the cereal we liked, or the right kind of rye bread, we would like her better. She’d been reading and rereading some self-help book on single parenthood; I’d seen it on her bedside table, but didn’t quite know what it was all about. So far I hadn’t noticed any big changes.
“I’m off cheese,” I called back.
“Off cheese?” Bernice asked. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s part of a training thing for baseball,”
“So what do I do with all this cheese?” Bernice asked. And then after a moment she said, “I’m going to call the super, and have him force this door open.”
So I emerged from the bathroom and resumed my place at the kitchen table. What advice would she communicate, I wondered? I pictured her demonstrating with a banana and a condom; I’d seen that done in a movie once, and looked around the kitchen, relieved to see only apples and oranges. I clutched suddenly at my forehead and faked a headache; and as I knew she would, she then ran around the kitchen, fetching aspirin and water and even a cold compress for my head. And then I was safe, in my bedroom, in the dark, (the cold compress resting on my forehead) recovering from this phony headache, free from her, at least temporarily. What a night. Belinda Goldstein, what a mistake.
I hung around with a pack of boys, and somehow it was decided that all ten of us would go to the movies and for ice cream afterwards with this pack of girls from seventh grade. I wanted to ask this girl named Helen Shapiro, and felt sure she liked me too. The previous Valentine’s Day I’d given her a card, and printed my first and last name on the bottom. Below my printed name, I’d signed my full name, having seen that done in business letters and thinking it the custom for all correspondences. When Helen read the card she laughed out loud, and showed it to all her friends, and told me — smiling and blushing through her braces and chewing gum — that writing my name twice in that way was cute. So I’d stumbled onto something.
But on the night I picked up the phone to call Helen to invite her to the movie, I panicked and remembered her father, Mr. Shapiro, the accountant, with his baldhead and thick eyeglasses. What if Mr. Shapiro, and not Helen or Mrs. Shapiro, answered the phone? What would I say? What did one say to a father? So, I called Belinda Goldstein instead. I didn’t really like her, but she lived alone with her mother, and she wasn’t that bad.
It was arranged that on the day of the big movie, all the boys and all the girls would meet at a neighborhood community center at a certain time, and depart from there in a mass group. None of the other boys had asked Helen to be their date, but she showed up anyway. Perhaps, she wanted to say bon voyage to her girlfriends. Perhaps she held a last ditch hope that somehow an extra boy would materialize, perhaps a cute one who might know the proper way to sign his name to a Valentine’s Day card. Of course, no such boy existed, and as the horde of adolescents finally departed — every boy with a girl, every girl with a boy, the fatherless Belinda Goldstein by my side — I turned around and saw Helen Shapiro alone on the front steps of the community center crying.
Belinda Goldstein talked throughout the movie about how fun the junior high prom sounded. We shared a popcorn and a soda. This made the night unbearable; the first time I reached for some popcorn and my hand found Belinda’s there too, and fingers touched for just one awful moment, I almost couldn’t live with the knowledge of this lost opportunity. It should have been Helen Shapiro’s buttered finger. Belinda’s lipstick on the soda straw we shared almost killed me. And in that dark movie theatre, the wrong girl sucking at the soda right next to me filled me with a particular dread, a fierce headlock of a thought that this first date could never, ever be forgotten for its splendid missed opportunity. Helen Shapiro would never forgive me. I would never sit next to her in the dark, never see her lipstick on a straw and then put that same item into my own mouth and taste her, never get to pretend I was squeezing out to visit the bathroom just so I could rub against her knees for a moment.
I remembered this in the dark of my bedroom, comforted only by the absence of my mother. Then suddenly Franny was in the room and I could sense right away by her heavy footsteps and by the tone in her voice that she knew, that somewhere within the grapevine of high school girl culture Helen Shapiro had told another girl about her own horrible night and this unnamed girl had told yet another girl and it had all come back to Fran. Only my first date, and I already felt in awe of the solidarity of women.
“Big tough, Mister Man,” Fran said. She had a twenty-five year-old boyfriend, a guy who worked as a disk jockey at local dance parties for teenagers. Our mother didn’t know about him. Fran had also gotten a tattoo of a rose on her leg; she also hid that from Bernice.
“Girls have different kinds of feelings than boys,” Bernice said. I’d been so alarmed by Fran’s angry presence that I didn’t even notice that my mother also was there.
“Ever hear of privacy?” I asked, and rolled in the bed away from them.
“I’m going to call Helen Shapiro right now,” Bernice announced. “I’m going to talk to her woman to woman.”
I groaned. I wondered if my mother had gone completely insane. She needed a boyfriend more than I needed a girlfriend, I realized. Yet it felt that to reject any of her ideas, even one as far fetched as this, would somehow, someway, do to her what my father had done to us both.
“Your sister can chaperone,” Bernice said.
“Maybe she can bring her boyfriend,” I said, and Fran reached down through the dark and punched me in the arm.
“Why haven’t I met him, Francine?” Bernice asked.
“I have my own life,” Fran said. She was yelling.
“But I’m your mother,” Bernice yelled back.
“Don’t worry, I can pick men better than you can,” Fran said.
“Why do you have to bring your father into every conversation?” Bernice asked, now crying.
“Because after him, the Gluckman men are all suspect,” Fran said.
My junior year of high school, I visited the library and searched through phone books of various big cities for my goddamn father’s name. Seated with a stack of the books at a table inside the main branch of the New York Public Library, I located a Daniel Gluckman in Washington D.C. Could it even be the same man? Surely, there must be other Daniel Gluckmans in the world.
I boarded a Greyhound Bus from the Port Authority one midnight. I knew it didn’t make any sense. I should’ve called first, at least. I hadn’t even seen or heard from the man in five years.
I informed my mother and sister that I’d been invited on a ski trip to Vermont, and they regarded me suspiciously, yet said nothing retaliatory. In Washington D.C., I inserted quarters into a phone booth and dialed Daniel Gluckman’s number. The phone rang and rang, and finally a woman — who sounded as if she’d just been crying — answered the phone.
“I’m looking for Daniel Gluckman,” I said.
“Who may I ask is phoning?” the woman asked.
“It’s his son, Neil Gluckman.”
I could have sworn — after a moment of silence — I heard a man’s voice in the background, a muffled male voice, perhaps even a New York accent, but it may have been my imagination.
“Daniel Gluckman is no longer with us,” the woman said.
“He lives somewhere else?” I asked.
“He passed on to the other side last year,” the woman said.
Again, I heard — or thought I heard — a voice in the background, but then again it could have been the TV.
“Did he ever speak of a son?” I asked.
“He did not believe in talking of the past,” the woman said.
So I returned to the Greyhound station. I ate a grilled cheese sandwich in the station’s coffee shop. And then I came to a decision. I knew it didn’t really make any sense, but I wanted to move forward with it anyway. I asked a taxi driver to take me straight to the address I’d discovered in the phone book, to the very residence where supposedly this Daniel Gluckman lived. Once there, standing outside the small house, it’s like I became eleven years old all over again. I found some rocks on the street. It became like the completion of a circle, a resolution of sorts of all the old shit that still thumped away inside my heart. I threw a rock, smashing a small window in the front of the house. Some lights went on inside, but I didn’t run away. I could see a man inside the house, just standing there. I looked at him, could not say a word, held one more rock in my hand but could not heave it at the man, although this was my strongest intention. Finally, I just walked away, as simple at that.
I took the next bus back to New York, not knowing if my father was dead or alive, or even if I had located the correct Daniel Gluckman. I did everything I could to convince myself that I’d finally earned closure, that I’d finally broken the cycle. But I could feel the past lurking in the future, like a shadow waiting for its next chance to sabotage my life.
I believed I could escape from my grandmother, mother and sister into a kind of pleasant and dreamy detachment. My girlfriend, Daphne, and I lived in the Williamsburg Section of Brooklyn. No direct bus or subway line existed between our place on Havemeyer Street and my mother in Park Slope, or my grandmother in Brooklyn Heights or my sister in Manhattan. I believed I’d found a kind of refuge. I could collect my unemployment checks and sleep late and linger over a coffee at some hipster café up on Bedford Avenue and see my family only if and when I felt ready.
For my twenty-third birthday, Franny bought me a book about the father wound. I felt offended at first. Why did my sister always think she knew me better than I knew myself. Franny dated men our father's age, and she usually ended up supporting them. So I thought she was projecting her father issues onto me.
But then one random night I met a woman in a Williamsburg bar. The woman’s nose ring, her dyed black hair, her sturdy boots all conspired to give off the impression of either East Village punk or downtown art student experimenting with a new look. She took a mirror from her handbag and checked herself out, and I waited at the bar sipping my beer to see if a boyfriend would materialize.
I finally got up the nerve to walk over to her. She turned and smiled and asked, “Are you Paul?”
"Neil," I said.
"I'm Heather," she said, and smiled at me.
Heather explained she had a blind date, a guy named Paul, who had suggested they meet at this bar. Be wary of any guy who would suggest meeting a first date at a bar, I told her.
Something Daphne had said the night before had pushed me to a whole other level of self-deception. Daphne informed me she'd started to look at bridal magazines. She said that during her lunch break from her job in Manhattan at an art gallery she liked to walk to a magazine store and flip through bridal magazines.
Now, I forced myself to believe that Heather would not talk on the phone with my sister like Daphne did, occasionally revealing something personal about me, which my sister would then report to the other Gluckman women, my mother and grandmother. Heather would not check out books from the library with my library card and then forget to return them. I don't know why that small detail about Daphne suddenly bothered me so much. Mostly, it felt appealing that Heather was not a Gluckman woman and would never in the future become one.
“Where would you take a first date?” Heather asked. She had a slight space in between her two front teeth, no wider than a baseball card, which added to her charm. There was a tattoo of a three-dimensional box on her shoulder.
“Probably to a bowling alley or a stock car race,” I joked.
And she laughed, and shook my hand and told me a few things about her life. She claimed to be a painter. Days, she worked as hairdresser in an expensive salon, and nights she did her artwork.
“I’m all about freedom of expression,” Heather said.
“What does that box mean on your shoulder?” I asked.
“Oh, I got that by accident when I was drunk one night."
I paid the bill, and we walked a few blocks to her apartment building. We climbed up a wooden staircase, and then through a metal door. Her place was decorated with her paintings, which all looked basically the same -- canvas after canvas filled with three-dimensional boxes. Boxes overlapped boxes, boxes existed inside other boxes, and boxes existed adjacent to, under, over, within other boxes. They were all done in the same dark pencil.
“Let’s create something,” Heather said.
She went to a stereo in the corner of the room and flipped a switch, and the room filled with Gregorian chanting. Above the stereo, tapped to the wall with masking tape, a hand-written sign read, ‘ Only those who care about you can hear when you are quiet .' I recognized the quote. Daphne had it written inside one of her drawing journals.
She motioned for me to sit at a table in the center of the room littered with various kinds of paints, and then handed me a sheet of sketch paper, and smiled. She set to work on something, drawing with a pencil, and it didn’t take long to see what she was up to: more three-dimensional boxes.
I dipped the brush into a dish of orange paint, moved it across the paper without trying to create anything in particular. I painted an orange blob, an amorphous creature. I dotted it with two dark eyes and a nose.
“What are you making?” Heather asked.
“Myself,” I said.
“That’s probably all you ever think of,” she said.
She seemed annoyed, and shot me an angry look, as if the painting might at any moment jump off the paper, swim across the table and become her next bad boyfriend. I looked again to the sign positioned just below the window, , read it like a marker for what I would do next. Only those who care about you can hear when you are quiet
I hated first dates. I felt a little ridiculous in my standard khakis and corporate button down shirt. Jane looked amazing in her black skirt and sleeveless, salmon top, and I complimented her necklace as we entered the dance club. It was a multi-colored beaded number, hanging down to her belly button.
“It was my Mom’s,” Jane said. She lifted the necklace toward my face and smiled. Her slanted, dark eyebrows made me think of film noir heroines. “She left it for me in her will. It’s all I have of her.”
I prepared for the night to fall apart, like so many nights had in my romantic life. I’d started seeing a therapist half a year earlier to unearth why, at twenty-eight, I always seemed to be single. The therapist theorized that since I felt such responsibility toward my sister, mother and grandmother, I believed I did not have room in my heart for yet another woman. If I gave myself over to love, according to the therapist, I feared abandoning the women in my family the same way my father abandoned me. Maybe I just feared that if I gave my heart over to someone and that someone left me, I would have to experience all that lose all over again.
Jane tugged at my hand, and said, “Neil, I love this song.” It didn’t take me long to feel lost by the way Jane danced. The music danced in accordance to her. The music created itself in response to the way she moved. Her necklace bounced against her body. Under the darting lights, her skin glistened and shined. Other guys checked her out, and a few even danced with her. After a while, I wanted to sit at a table off to the side with a drink and a cigarette. When I took a small step away, Jane smiled at me and touched my arm.
“Where’d you learn to dance, at a Bar Mitzvah?” she joked.
“The nice Jewish boy in comfortable black shoes,” she said, and laughed.
Jane grabbed my hand and led me toward the bar. We stood side by side in a crowd and finally managed to get the bartender’s attention and order drinks. Then, we walked outside, to a balcony in the back of the place overlooking an alleyway.
“What do you anyway, at the clinic?” I asked. I met her through my sister. They volunteered together at a woman’s clinic downtown. My sister arranged this date for me. Franny argued that my self-imposed sabbatical from dating was starting to feel unhealthy. She said Jane seemed perfect for me.
“Do you want to hear something that just absolutely cracks me up?” Jane asked, ignoring my question. She allowed her knee to touch mine. I took a long sip from my drink. I had to go to the bathroom but didn’t want to ruin the moment. “I took a trip to Portland, Oregon. A friend of mine lives there. And I discovered a pet grooming place named Virginia Woof. Get it. I just die every time I think of it.”
“I never read her,” I said.
“I guess you weren’t a women’s studies major,” she said.
“You dance like a journalist, come to think about it. Watching. Detached. Prepared for some drama or tragedy to occur.”
“You dance like a dance major with a minor in feminist studies.”
“Can I tell you another random fact about me, totally random? I have this idea that one day I’ll be the kind of woman who drives around in a car littered with bumper stickers, tons of them. I go to flea markets in my spare time and collect them, all kinds. But since I live in New York City there’s no sense in getting a car. Weird huh? You might want to stay away from me. I’m an eccentric type. A bumper sticker type.”
“I love bumper sticker types. I was going to tell you about that. I don’t ever date a woman unless they have tiny messages spread out all over their car.”
Jane touched my hand. We looked at each other for a long time. She asked me if I would fetch her another drink and we decided on shots of tequila. I ran off and came back with four shots, two for me and two for Jane. With the first round of shots, we toasted my miserable father. With the second round, we toasted a couple in the corner of the balcony making out. She asked me for a cigarette and we sat in silence for a while.
“I have dozens of bumper stickers so far,” she suddenly said. “I have one that says: Maine, the Lobster State. It has a little, cute picture of a lobster in the corner. And I have another that says: Maine: Born and Raised. It just shows how absolutely crazy I am. I’ve never even been to Maine. It just seems like such a darling state, though.”
“Aren’t you worried that if one day you are driving, you’ll give off the wrong impression?” I asked.
“So what’s the worst that can happen, someone actually from Maine honks their horn in false solidarity? I grew up on Navy bases all over the place with a single father, always moving to my Dad’s next post every couple of years. I guess I just always longed to be the girl from a small town, from someplace like Maine, anchored there, always the girl next door instead of always the new girl. Anyway, not all my bumper stickers are lies. I have one that reads: I Brake for Chocolate. And that’s true. I do absolutely brake for chocolate.”
I experience a sudden, irrational fear: Could I trust a woman who presented this false portrait of herself as the girl from Maine? If she could so publicly advertise this false home state, would she be more likely to just up and vanish one day, just like my father did? It didn’t make sense, this fear, but I couldn’t shake myself free from it. I wanted her and didn’t want her simultaneously. I wanted to want her without the risk.
When we left the club, the street smelled like raw sewage. A homeless woman passed and asked for money. Jane suddenly started to cry, just a little. I worried about that Bermuda Triangle, that omnipresent point in my romantic life when I returned home puzzled and frustrated.
“I lost my necklace,” Jane said. The moon was full. I hadn’t noticed that earlier.
“I’ll find it,” I said. We returned to the club together. She waited on a couch in a lounge area near the door. I rushed back upstairs to our former place on the balcony. I figured the clasp had broken and the necklace would be on the ground somewhere, waiting to be rescued. I remembered a time a few years after my father vanished. My sister, nineteen years old then, had a thirty year-old boyfriend who gave her a black eye, and my mother seemed broken and lost spending whole days wandering around our Brooklyn apartment in a bathrobe.
Now, I hailed a cab and Jane told the driver her address in Chelsea. We rode up Sixth Avenue. The swirl of the city relaxed me. I could sit in a back seat of a taxi riding around Manhattan for all eternity. What a refuge from my family in Brooklyn. Jane rested her head on my shoulder. “Virginia Woof. Woof. Woof,” she said. I understood that she was drunk. She said nothing for a block or two. I looked at her and thought she might have fallen asleep, but then suddenly she said, “I don’t blame you for not finding it.”
I felt utterly depressed. My sister would no doubt question me in the morning about my experience and intentions. My therapist tried to convince me that allowing another woman into my life would not suffocate me. But my sister would tell my mother about Jane and my mother would tell my grandmother, and there would be questions and speculation.
At her apartment building, I helped Jane out of the taxi. She fumbled in her purse and handed me her keys. I managed to locate the correct key at her door, and then we stumbled into her studio apartment. She disappeared at once into the bathroom. She returned 20 minutes later in pajamas, her hair up in clips, and her face freshly scrubbed. She went to the small kitchen in the corner of the room and asked if I cared for some hot chocolate.
“Maybe you’re a bad omen,” she said. We sipped hot chocolates now at her table. “If I see you again, maybe I’ll lose something else, and I’ll keep losing things every time I see you until I eventually have nothing left.”
Perhaps that hole in my family, that bottomless pit, created by my father’s sudden, inexplicable departure, was like a sense of pending loss I wore around my own neck.
“We’ll find it,” I said.
“I’m tired. Let’s say good night.”
I returned to the dance club. This time, I found the necklace almost immediately under our table on the balcony. I stuffed it deep down into the front pocket of my khakis. I left the club and started to walk back uptown toward Jane’s apartment. I stopped on the next street corner, though. I felt the necklace in my pocket, waiting there like a hostage. I walked in the other direction, toward my own apartment in Brooklyn.