The Iowa Review
Meet Miss Subways, Part 3
Dad arranged, when I was seventeen, for my very first summer job. (Other summers, I'd practiced the piano in a futile attempt to become, well, a concert pianist. This, said Dad, wasn't work. It was just play.) I was to be a file clerk at some insurance company on Wall Street. As it happened, I got very sick—with shingles—just before the job began. I could barely move, and when I did move was in a lot of pain. So when, at five minutes to five on my very first day, the vice president of that company, whose name I forget, asked me—in what seemed to be a kind of test—to help him carry some enormous desk to the basement, I told him that it was now too late for any work and that at any rate I wasn't being paid to move furniture. Dad was horrified when I reported this to him, saying I was being paid to do whatever that guy wanted me to do. Mom, though, was pleased. "Fuck 'em," she cheered. "Fuck 'em all!"
I came out to Mom and Dad when I was eighteen. I had called them from my dorm room at Yale, senior year. They were both on the line. I had something important to tell them, I said. But I couldn't say it. All I could do was cry. "Do you want us to guess?" asked Mom. Yes, I did. "Are you sick?" she asked. No, I wasn't. "Are you failing some class?" she asked. No, of course I wasn't. "Are you sexually attracted to men?" That was it! "Is that all?" she asked rhetorically. "That's nothing to cry about. All your brothers went through this." "Did Dad?" I asked. There was silence on the line. "Well, of course he did," Mom finally said. Dad himself said nothing.
When Steve died at twenty-one, it seemed to all of us that he had killed himself. Both Mom and Dad—ashamed—said not to tell anyone this. I, of course, ignored this advice and told pretty much everyone. Years later, though, I learned that his death—much like my conception, allegedly—was an accident. I learned, too, that not only had Steve been gay, it was not just some phase he had "gone through."
Look," Mom snapped, upon my later mentioning some little non-sexual problem I was having with a boyfriend. "I am not your friend, I'm not your therapist, and I don't want to hear about it!" So much, then, for Mom's "is that all?" So much, then—one must confess—for my ever wanting anything more to do with the woman.
"You realize, don't you," Dad told me soon after that little non-conversation, "that your mother is crazy?" He meant this, I knew, quite literally. He then proceeded to describe Mom's craziness. Years later, I learned that it has a name. Two names, in fact. Mom had both a borderline personality disorder and a narcissistic one. (The borderline personality displays, among other things, extreme black-and-white thinking as well as instability in relationships, self-image, identity, and behavior. The narcissistic personality displays a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.)
When Dad died—on July 4, 1993—his last words, according to Mom, were "I don't feel so good." I sort of wish they were "I don't feel so well." I wish, too, that I had been there.
After Dad died, Mom started showing signs of dementia. She also started—at various weddings of grandchildren—competing in the bouquet toss. This, of course, was rather unseemly for a woman in her seventies and now eighties. Even more unseemly was that she not only tried to win, but often did win these contests, one time doing a victory lap around the dance floor, bouquet held high above her head as if the thing were a trophy, and then shaking it at some poor young loser. And so one time, to prevent such shenanigans, I literally twisted her arm behind her back to keep her off the playing field. I don't think, though, that anyone saw me do this.
Mom also began dating Seymour Pine. The two had not seen each other since the Depression. He had been a wrestler back then, at Brooklyn College. He became a New York City police inspector after World War II. As such, he led the raid on the Stonewall Inn, inadvertently causing the so-called Stonewall Riots in 1969 that in turn caused the gay rights movement. Seymour—or "Sy" —now proposed to Mom . . . again. But she turned him down, again, not wanting to "have to take care of anyone anymore." He then broke up with her, finally realizing that she was no longer the girl of—well, if not of his dreams, then at least of his own memories.
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Kevin Kopelson is a professor of English at the University of Iowa.
This essay originally appeared in Volume 45, Issue 1 of The Iowa Review (Spring 2015).
Meet Miss Subways was published on The Daily Palette in three parts, consecutively.
This page was first displayed
on October 13, 2016