Earliest memory: The jolting CLACK, CLACK, CLACK of my stroller slamming over the cracks in the sidewalk, on our way home from the park.
It was always nearly dusk when the gravity suddenly overcame my mother, of how much of the day—all of it—had slipped away while she’d mused and pondered, excitedly jotting phrases and lone words, connecting them with bold arrows labeled with instructions. At night she was agitated, frustrated, dejected, imprisoned in her typewriter chair. I usually fell asleep under the desk, instead of in my real bed—a giant cushion in a corner sectioned off by a jungle-printed curtain.
Daytime she was happy, relaxed, dreamy, ordering cappuccino. Occasionally we shared a piece of cannoli. I played under the sidewalk café table. I had two rabbit finger puppets—a mom and baby. I pretended they got separated, desperately searching for one another in the mountainous folds of my mother’s bag. Then, always just before it was time to go, they were reunited—overjoyed relief.
“What are you working on these days?”
“I’m on my third book of the series.”
I can tell you this now: The “series” is a series only in that my mother’s ten short novels are identical in voice, setting and plot formula. The stories, however similar, are not connected—they don’t feature or reference each other’s characters, fictional circumstances or events; there’s no apparent advantage to reading them in date-published order.
In theory, all ten stories could be taking place simultaneously, never intersecting, in the same unnamed, unremarkable high school which could be her own, her small-city New Jersey of the late fifties and early sixties: school dances and birthday parties, party dresses, milkshakes, radios, street corners and spring daffodils are peripherally mentioned, though her high school-aged readers in the eighties perhaps could have perceived the time period as their own. It is a clean-cut teenage universe—no drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or swearwords; no sex or violence, though certain characters might inspire readers’ own fantasies.
When she was struggling desperately to get a publisher, her characters had names seemingly chosen out of mere obligation to distinguish one character from the next—Mary, Susy, Judy, Billy, Jimmy. Finally, her eventual agent bothered to point this problem out to her. My mother didn’t take offense to this criticism as she had to others; she’d been fully prepared, unconsciously perhaps, to change the names to whatever the hell a publisher wanted them to be. So, she set to work rectifying the problem, becoming obsessed with magazines and baby-name books full of perfect names to be discovered—Michelle, Nicole, Courtney, Heather, Amanda, Jason, Jeremy, Brian, Corey, Justin, Trevor, Travis, Melissa, Jenna, Kristen, Caitlyn, Alexis.
“What’s it about?”
Each story inhabits its own high-stakes, all-consuming extracurricular institution—School Newspaper, Yearbook Staff, Student Government—which provides the ideal circumstances for the ultimate perfect clash between the always-female two main characters, the protagonist and antagonist.
The antagonist is undisciplined, arrogantly impatient and impulsive, stubbornly forceful, contently obtuse, unapologetically uninformed and oblivious, flagrantly dismissive and negligent, almost-deliberately clumsy and sloppy. She is obsessed with being maximally impactful, and she openly regards others as having no higher purpose than to constantly anticipate and prevent or quietly fix the cascade of impending disasters she generates, so much so that she frets about being wasteful when she fears she is not producing enough calamity for others to achieve usefulness. Or she is a vociferous proponent of teamwork, because working closely with others is necessary for artfully offloading responsibility. When met by resistance, she treats the resister’s objection as if it were an aversion to work in general, as she insincerely sympathizes while explaining why work is necessary. Or she pretends the issue is that the resister simply lacks problem-solving capability, as she charitably improvises thoughtless, problematic solutions for the resister to implement. She gives unsolicited advice on smarter practices for managing the burdens she imposes, to help others minimize their own frustrations, or for the sake of the greater good, as she preaches ad nauseum on the need for self-awareness. Or she is a diligent worker, but only because she fiercely hoards easy, soothingly monotonous or gratifying tasks, though she insists these tasks demand meticulous critical thinking and that is why she alone can be trusted with them and why they require her undivided attention. She is a self-misdescribed perfectionist, a wannabe technocrat and procedural-policy wonk. She asks convoluted, esoteric questions and makes her lazy accomplices affectionately complain about her oppressive nitpicking; in return she helps bolster their own fanciful identities or simply spares them any real abuse. She is a self-appointed ambassador whose self-assigned mission is to introduce others to the elite echelon of high standards. When challenged on the efficiency, accountability or fairness of a particular workflow arrangement she insists upon, she invariably resorts to her tiresome mantra about the importance of high standards as the reason why that arrangement is necessary: the quality of the final product is a reflection on the institution; everyone is expecting high quality and will be unsympathetic, highly critical and unforgiving if that expectation is not met, and the failure will be remembered. Or she superiorly professes to not care who does what so long as everything necessary gets done, so long as she herself is never responsible for doing anything necessary. She is an announcer of already known or obvious facts, a facilitator of interactions that are unnecessary or would happen regardless of her involvement, a concerned enthusiast and alarmist under tremendous unexplainable stress, intrusively collecting progress and status updates with which she does nothing. Or she is too blissfully lethargic to interfere, except to contribute presumptuous criticisms, cautionary anecdotes and excessive input on all matters concerning etiquette, tact, diplomacy, optics and common sense. She is always overwhelmed because it is always tumultuous in the whirlwind of others’ imbroglios, predicaments, rivalries, vexations, antipathies and feuds. She vocally prides herself on being uninvolved in conflict, while complaining that her role requires her to keep up with all the details. As you can guess, it doesn’t; she is merely a voracious spectator. Or she is too self-absorbed to notice or care, ever busy-bossily ensuring she is presented precisely according to her specifications.
How long could this continue? Forever, in theory, but then there is the protagonist.
The protagonist is absurdly glamorous with her French and Italian expressions and casually condescending critiques, distractedly gracious, conveniently flighty and scattered, seemingly unaware of the unusualness of her unique status as an object of apprehensive, humored intrigue warming into trust and affection. Or she is an impish pest eventually appreciated for revelations owing to her perceptive pranks. Or she is unfashionably serious and principled, excluded and parodied, then proven indispensable for solving logistical challenges. Or she is a petty, litigious know-it-all, or a scathingly sarcastic curmudgeon, or a seemingly joyless hardliner, shushed, ridiculed, then vindicated for having been right about everything. Or she is rigidly methodical, or defiantly hostile and feral, or eerily antisocial and voyeuristic, alienated, hassled. She is the shown awkward or nervous remorse once her peculiar protectiveness is discovered, of everyone except the antagonist.
The protagonist constructs an elaborate vocabulary of terms—drearily functional, incisively scientific, rigorously technical or deliberately inarticulate—for all the exasperating tasks the antagonist deems necessary. Or the protagonist requests clarification on terms the antagonist flings about matter-of-factly, terms the antagonist insists are self-explanatory or industry-standard, though she proves unable to produce definitions that do not ultimately undermine each other. The protagonist has a memory like a steel trap for everything the antagonist says and does. Or she keeps a notebook handy and immediately starts jotting feverish shorthand the moment the antagonist starts speaking, much to the antagonist’s outrage.
In the end the institution is forced to enact a resolution, or accept a consistent application of an existing policy, whereby the antagonist is relieved of her most cherished responsibility or burdened with additional ones. But first she narrowly manages to save herself, multiple times, with increasing desperation. She condemns the protagonist’s claims for misrepresenting the truth despite being technically true. Or she refuses to comment, because of her commitment to focusing on what really matters—the yearbook layout, the draft budget, the yearend edition of the newspaper—except to express that the protagonist should be held accountable for dangerously stalling progress. Or she claims to have taken the protagonist to task for other failures, in order to explain that the protagonist is motivated by self-defensive resentment. Later she circulates a dire warning that the protagonist’s mission in life is to expose and examine rather than avoid and resolve problems, or, to seize glory rather than earn respectability, though perhaps anyone who matters enough to warn is already aware, as the protagonist is surprisingly candid, or she reveals nothing, politely asserting her right to mental privacy, or she exercises that right by lying, though never with the intention of actually fooling the antagonist.
What offends the antagonist most is the dishonesty of the tactics the protagonist is willing to use to win. The protagonist pretends to hold insulting assumptions, then apologizes for having been mistaken but never regrets suggesting it was reasonable to believe. Or she pretends to be surprised or confused but also pretends to be trying to hide it, to avoid being rightfully accused of faking these reactions for the purpose of misrepresenting what the antagonist said or omitted or implied in private discussions, increasingly the antagonist demands to argue privately as the subject matter becomes increasingly fraught. Or the protagonist is misleading about being misleading, with her extreme standards for accuracy and specificity where matters of objective fact are concerned. Still, she deviously neglects to correct the antagonist’s reasonable misconceptions, so the antagonist is tricked into innocently presenting verifiably false information as evidence.
“There are check and checkmate moments,” one astute critic caught on after about the fifth or sixth book.
Helplessly enraged, the antagonist ominously prophesizes doom or danger, or simply perceives it, grieving the institution’s misfortune of being disgraced by losing its integrity, prestige, value, worthiness or importance, a loss that will reverberate deeply in an all-directions ripple effect.
The protagonist steps out of the stuffy meeting room and into the bright, all-but-forgotten outside world of the school which is all a-bustle with excitement over the end of the schoolyear. She walks out into the glorious sunshine or refreshing drizzle, wonderfully alone. Or, a boy has asked to walk her home and she has obliged, but her quiet, distant contentment is palpable when he suddenly stops and, with a puzzled expression, asks why she is smiling.
The times when my mother had finally just finished a book, we got to take the subway above ground to places we’d never been, tried new foods, strolled all over the city, hand-in-hand, singing our favorite songs—“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”—and talking, about Vietnam, Watergate, Reagan and AIDS.
Later memory: We were invited to a daytime party at a fancy apartment on Riverside Drive. Our elderly hostess asked my opinion regarding one of the main characters in one of my mother’s books. I had never read any of her books, I must have revealed through my suddenly self-conscious answer, though I was old enough, at least ten and reading a lot. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my favorite. When we got in a taxi to go home, I remarked something about the hostess, thinking my mother would find my criticism clever and funny. But instead, she berated me, as she never had before, as had been unimaginable to me up until that moment. “You could have at least read one of them.” Then silence for many minutes, then grumbling: “You’d think my own daughter…”
I lay in bed facing the wall, heaving deep, silent sobs. Her books had always been in our apartment, but it had never occurred to me to even open one, that she wanted me to.
Years later, as an adult, I found out how my mother knew that hostess, when she came across the woman’s prominent obituary and remarked, “Huh,” with keen interest and titillation brought about by the sudden memory of a long-passed era.
A few years before I was born, my mother rented a room in the woman’s grand apartment, after answering an ad that offered supremely secluded quiet, privacy and comfort for almost-free rent charged by the semester instead of the month. The room was even more spectacularly quiet than my mother had imagined, with a nest-like window seat overlooking towering treetops, a bathroom with a cathedral ceiling and luxurious tub.
The woman never ceased making it known, though never in so many words, what a disappointment my mother was, what a bill of goods my mother had sold in claiming to be a writer. The woman’s previous tenants were foreign, scholarship students—future surgeons and diplomats, world-class musicians—who performed cooking demonstrations for her guests, gave traditional cultural gifts their poor but respectful families sent for her, kept in touch and visited her when they were in town to give lectures or receive honors. My mother never actually witnessed any such contacts.
My mother locked herself in the room, venturing out only for long, rapid walks, cups of coffee and one cheap daily meal. She tip-toed swiftly between her room and the front door. On the rare occasion that conversation took place, the woman reminisced wistfully about one lovely previous tenant or another, recalling gifts she still had and exotic recipes she still used, flaunting snippets of tedious knowledge she’d acquired, mispronouncing foreign-language figures of speech she’d adopted. Though any topic of conversation would have been less excruciating to my mother than that of her own unwritten work in progress.
Once, haggard, bedraggled, famished, with cash she’d just been paid from one of her unsteady odd jobs, my mother dragged herself into a candlelit Italian restaurant. There, she noticed only too late, was the landlady, dining with a friend, their expressions a mixture of wincing and chuckling at my mother’s ridiculousness. Having already ordered, my mother had to stay and endure.
Surely the sound of a typewriter had never bothered the landlady before—several of her previous, beloved tenants must have had them—and it must have been barely audible through the room’s thick door at the end of a long hall, even with my mother’s tormented, dead-of-night hammering on the keys. But suddenly it bothered her. My mother landed in a crumby one-room apartment with paper-thin walls, amid ceaseless noise—sirens and car horns below, screams and slaps next door—but free again at last.
Years later an esteemed mutual acquaintance was having lunch with the landlady, when, lo and behold, there was my mother with her cappuccino, and me, perhaps, with one of my favorite books I was reading for the second or third time. The acquaintance jumped to introduce the landlady to one of his “favorite people.”
“What are you writing now?”
“I’m all done! I finished the series.”
“So…what are you up to these days?”
The van trips to New Jersey and Philadelphia: Noisy arcades, basketball courts, parking lots. Girls with large earrings and long polished nails, a few pushing baby strollers, cracking huge bubbles with their gum. Boys with boomboxes balanced on their shoulders.
“Are you almost-eighteen-or-older, yet?” my mother would ask when she’d managed to corner one.
The answer was usually nodded rather than spoken.
“You are?!!” she’d reply in an overly enthusiastic voice most people reserve for very young children. “Well, are you registered to vote?”
She hated doing this and was lousy at it, worse than anyone else in the van-trip group. But she had to, to provide an alternative to all the “dopey reasons” young people were being given for voting: you have the right to; other people don’t have the right to; it gets counted.
“Your rights are on the line,” she implored them desperately.
Not that she wanted the dopey reasons abolished altogether.
“‘Whatever gets you to the party’ is my motto,” she boasted brassily, after years of failure had hardened her.
A much later era: The final election night my mother would ever see, though we had no idea at the time. Her clunky television was wiped clean with an old damp sponge and set up on the kitchen table for the ritual occasion. The cats were gently shooed away from walking in front of the screen. It was 2008, my third presidential election since turning eighteen. Spending election night with my mother was a choice.
That long-ago election night, and at least one other long before it: My mother, approving in a low, commanding grumble, “Get rid of the holy-rollers.”