My father had a certain way of eating apples. He’d crunch into them with excessive force. You could hear every piece of apple dispensed in his mouth—lacerating moments and spitting around the apple pieces, as if saliva didn’t matter.
This was so unlike my mother who had an adroit seriousness with all things. Seriousness, religiosity—these were my mother.
This protracted seriousness made me so crazy that I ran around the house, the neighborhood, the inner city—crying, screaming, unkempt, taking on a planetary wildness of my own. I yelled at her and my brothers and attacked innocent life forms with a high-pitched voice that could have been the aborted fetus of Beverly Sills.
I endeavored to be in honors English, read good novels, but when my friend Hank begrudgingly gave me his honors English syllabus, I struggled to complete the assigned book, Our Mutual Friend, in one evening.
I never finished Our Mutual Friend, and when the English teacher, Mr. FF, asked me to reveal the pathology of the literary man with a wooden leg, I could not.
I didn’t want to peruse hundreds of pages, but the alternative was a mediocre classroom challenged by plebeians who were not uplifted by Hemingway or the Bronte sisters. They’d rather read the gory details of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and call it literature.
I vicariously entered honors English and its symbolisms, bending my ear in the hallway when Mrs. Q, junior year, elucidated the meaning of Catcher in the Rye. “Holden Caulfield is a Jesus character wearing a mitt to catch all the innocent kids.”
With my ilk, we barely made it through the F word. Also, our teacher was fixated on writing a Broadway script, not surmising whether Holden Caulfield was an adolescent savior.
It was particularly tortuous when my supposed “friend” Hank (honors English sycophant and favorite of my mother’s) bragged about what great instructors Mrs. Q and Mr. FF were.
“We were lucky to have them,” he said, repeating this sentiment when we were in our 50s.
I did not have any literary mentors, particularly in freshman year, because my dullard/teacher said my B average, my inability to deliver Call of the Wild soliloquies, would exclude me from honors English the following year.
I was with intermediate kids who picked on me but acknowledged I once in a while made brilliant remarks about Call of the Wild, though never brilliant enough for our Jack London instructor who said that if mediocrity were good enough for her, it was good enough for me.
Our high school made us return as adults in 2007 because technically we had never graduated. We needed refresher courses in English, science and mathematics. I, for example, had never taken a chemistry course or written about Chaucer.
Mother’s attentions, it seems, were magnified toward Hank when all of us obligingly reported for homeroom in the new millennium; she drove him but asked me to take the bus.
During high school, the original one, I declined to ignore my insanity and promised the world it would hear me lamenting/moaning, and Dad, chewing his apple, queried, “What will the neighbors think?”
“Fuck the neighbors,” I replied, realizing that Hank and my mother would not include me as a guest at dinner that evening.
A tornado of post-pubescent fires burned inside me.
In the 1970s, I felt suicidal—that the walls might burn—I was in the midst of people who threw spitballs and repeated badly thought-out opinions of mine during Holocaust class.
My history teacher, who resembled Attila the Hun, and whom we called “Professor Attila the Hun,” berated me, “you never know what you are talking about.”
On the first day of class she pulled my ponytail and shouted, “Someone with your low IQ need not act smart!”
She, with gray moustache and bald spot, was educated at the New Jersey College for Women, and could cite most events from the French Revolution.
“What the hell are you talking about?” she yelled. “Roosevelt couldn’t bomb the trains going to Auschwitz—he’d have killed the Jews. Are you nuts?”
Laughter filled the Holocaust class where two teenagers—a future admiral and an adulterous lawyer—sat.
“Bomb the trains!” these young men hollered whenever I spoke. They were convinced I meant, “Bomb the trains, kill the Jews, kill the Nazis, but at least you kill the fucking Nazis.”
These boys, budding Kierkegaards, couldn’t tolerate my pseudo-intellectualism, certainly not when they were 16 and knew all the answers.
The above brutes did not return to high school in 2007. “The admiral” was killed during the Gulf War because he didn’t tie his shoes and slipped on an oil patch, banging his head into a nuclear missile. The “lawyer/adulterous chap,” who fornicated with his female client’s husband, had his Connecticut law license revoked and could not get it unrevoked, though his mother was the President of the Connecticut Bar in New Britain. Indeed, the faygelah attorney was so imbued with a sense of smug morality, he decided, prior to the Ebola Virus outbreak, to set up a law office in Liberia and have sex with as many naked men per night as possible. It is unclear if he is still in Liberia, or perhaps the remains of his body are floating in the ocean.
Those who eagerly returned to school in 2007, as if they had never left, were the passive-aggressive ones who said they didn’t do well on their tests, but would ultimately receive the 96, in comparison to my unstudied 72. Hank was in the passive-aggressive realm, and my mother never failed to remind me that she should have traded my egg for his.
Whereas Hank believed his uncle—an ex-devotee of the Church of Scientology who only worshipped Tom Cruise (and disputed if there was an equator)—was “completely unsuited to open-mindedness, and did a poor job raising me.”
“He’d rather I read People Magazine than watch the news,” Hank acknowledged, whereas my mother made us watch Walter Cronkite every night, faithfully, even when presidents got shot.
Hank wanted the solemnity of my mother and she wanted him.
Hank’s legal guardian, Uncle Henry, was my friend, and I discussed these matters, that is, why my mother, and not me—was invited to Hank’s graduation party in 2007. You’d think Hank would have adjusted his attitude, but he was still as belligerent as he was in the first high school era.
Henry listened patiently to my dissing Mother and his nephew. “They never include me—think they’re better than—even though I have an MFA in Creative Writing!”
In 2007, as I entered Mrs. Q’s honors English class, she inquired, “Why are you here?” I was stupefied and couldn’t muster the correct adjectives. I left.
Nothing in this middle-age world, or in my former teen existence, explained why Mother would align herself with Hank. Yes, me madre, that poor insufferable creature who was once clunked on the head by a milk bottle by an irate ex-lover, fussed over the vacuous Hank.
Uncle Henry, for as long as his nephew knew him, instructed Hank, “Take Bernadette along,” as if I were the candy-striped charity case serial killer.
Hank, however, wouldn’t call me on his rotary phone, particularly if my mother was driving him and there was a sale at Macy’s. I was asked to come along only if the destination was Shop Rite, and they needed help carrying groceries.
Henry, following our 3-month high school internment in 2007, invited me to spend vacation with him, Hank and Hank’s lover Finn in Connecticut. “It’s my graduation present to Hank!”
“Yeah, but technically we graduated in 1979,” I inserted.
“Hank says I’ve been neglectful—I’m hoping this trip offsets my bad parenting.”
In 2007, hence, when the weather was mild in comparison to the snowy New Jersey frost, we entered the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, where the author kept leather bound notebooks.
In Twain’s bedroom, which consisted of two beds and a wooden desk, I felt as abandoned as I had thirty years ago in Zionist summer camp in the Catskill Mountains when the girls made me sleep in my own tent, and the wind blew ferociously, though it was summer.
“It would have been no different with Palestinian girls,” my mother insisted at the time, “they wouldn’t have slept with you either. You have zero social skills.”
At Mark Twain’s house, Finn was with Hank; Henry was devoted to their happiness; and I was the lone ranger on the precipice of suicide.
To avert loneliness, and to draw some needed attention, I went on a rant about “cysts—that my brother called me his ‘cyster,’ though I was not nearly as prestigious as the cystene chapel.” Hank, Finn and Henry and the other tourists were embarrassed by my digression.
“Did Mark Twain call his female siblings ‘cysts’?” I asked the tour guide.
“Well, to my knowledge…”
Cysts, clearly, were not known then, or if they were, no scientific data confirmed them.
“Be calm, would you,” Hank blurted—his furry moustache emphasizing each word, as if he were Dr. Phil. “Don’t do the Bernadette show. Just be you.”
What does that mean—“be you?” Mathematically, a friend (who doesn’t talk to me any more—I refused to pay for her meal at Tom’s Diner) averred that “you are what you are whenever you are being.” To be, in whatever mood swing, is always to be you.
“Does this mean I can wear my Jersey Devil t-shirt?” I asked Hank.
“There is nothing controversial about the Jersey Devil,” Uncle Henry interjected.
In Mark Twain’s house, and for the duration of the visit, I didn’t wear my t-shirt or throw any non-sequiturs in their drinks and remained as non-controversial as toilet paper. It was an insufferable weekend in which I embraced the “c” word: conventionality.
“Everyone succumbs to conventionality,” my mother said when I dressed as the Hulk for a work Halloween party—using green food coloring, which nearly got me fired, because it was all over the office IKEA furniture. Luckily, I stayed late, and with the help of Comet spray and a washcloth, removed it. There are still traces of green under the fluorescent lights.
I wanted to get run over by a car or stoned by residents of Jackson, Mississippi, for defending the rights of black citizens to use a white-only water faucet. The ultimate self-murdering technique, however, was not important as long as I could rest with maggots in an imperial grave site that my father promised me once I had my bat mitzvah.
“If you memorize your Haftorah, I’ll buy you that mini-tomb they have on sale,” he promised.
“Okay, Dad.” I learned the Torah portion that suggests we humans are not bestial like animals because we have Judeo-Christian thought patterns that raise our moral standards.
I died the day Hank and Mother went on a cruise to Puerto Rico to celebrate his 2007 graduation.
I found expired couscous in my fridge and snorted it.
Within hours, while Hank and Mother were drinking tequilas along the Garita at El Cañuelo in the Bay of San Juan, I was dead.
It was a small funeral, and I was buried with two other dead people in the same mini-tomb. My co-dead people lost their composure ironing shirts for the local Little League team; they succumbed to heart attacks simultaneously.
As this was a Jewish burial (24 hours and you go into the Earth), and my mom and Hank did not think they’d be reimbursed for their cruise, Uncle Henry was the only one from that group in attendance.
Praying mantises were present—the talking ones who walk slickly on the coffin and dance in a mellow fashion while honors students upbraid me, “She hated herself because the Nobel Prize judges said her MFA was a vanity degree.”
When no one looked, Uncle Henry put a copy of Franz Kafka’s The Trial in my casket. It is still there, and likely will remain unread, because I don’t have glasses down under. But thank you Uncle Henry—you cared enough.
Eleanor Levine’s writing has appeared in Hobart, Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Monkeybicycle, The Denver Quarterly, Pank, The Toronto Quarterly, Gertrude, Educe, Wilde, Dos Passos Review, Barrelhouse, Intima, IthacaLit, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Roadside Fiction(Ireland), S/tick (Canada), Literateur (UK), Litro (UK), Barely South Review, Kentucky Review, Juked, Menacing Hedge, Artemis, and Gone Lawn. More work is forthcoming inSplit Lip Magazine’s new book series, Utter Foolery: The Best Global Literary Humor, 2015;Thrice Fiction; Cracking the Spine, and The MacGuffin. Her poetry collection, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, was accepted for publication.