Once, in a rare unguarded moment, my mother tells me this:
“It is not as though I don’t understand lust,” she says, although she speaks the word with considerable distaste. “I just didn’t understand your father.” She laughs a little, but there is bitterness in it.
“The things he sometimes wanted,” she says, “I didn’t understand.”
We are sitting at the kitchen table. She has had wine. It is just the two of us. It is late. I lean in close.
“He would see these things in movies, or in magazines, or maybe – I don’t know – maybe his friends would tell him things – but these things,” her voice trails off and she waves her hand as if to dispel the images themselves from the space between us.
“Like what?” I ask, my voice barely a whisper.
I am waiting for shocking detail. About the dungeon he had built in the basement of the old apartment building. How he stole the key from the enormous chain of keys that Manny, the building manager, carried around with him, and found a room deep within the building’s very bowels where he lined the walls with leather and drilled holes into the ceiling from which he suspended his chains and manacles. I sit on my hands to keep from rubbing them together in the manner of a cartoon villain, the anticipation so delicious.
Oh, poor mother, I am ready to say, I had no idea. My mouth will fall open. I will put my hand on her hand to comfort her. How awful for you.
I am electric with curiosity.
At this point, I am maybe eighteen, nineteen. And what are we then, if not raw and aching want, walking around all the time, on fire. On weekends, I take the bus up to Boston to meet D., my on-again off-again love. And while the campus is alive and loud and bright, we squander the daylight hours in a tiny cinder-block room on a bare mattress, curtains drawn.
And after, as night falls, we read together, sometimes aloud to each other, sometimes quietly, our bodies touching, radiating heat.
My father bought her a wig. A long, auburn wig. He asked her to wear it one night over her own short brown hair.
“So did you wear it?”
“Just once. And only for a minute. It was hot and itchy. It made me uncomfortable. But your father wanted to take a picture of it. Of me in it. So I let him do that. I think he still has it. Maybe he doesn’t.”
She is quiet for a moment. Takes a last sip of wine.
“A man should want you, I think, just the way you are. Remember that.”
It’s late, we’re both tired, and I push my luck just a bit. “But isn’t it a little complicated? What wanting means?”
She looks at me full on, shakes her head. Then she stands up, picks up her glass, takes it to the sink. “No, I don’t think it is.”
I tell D. about the wig. We agree: “A fan-fucking-tastic idea.”
A friend of mine asks me about a man we know in common. “Do you think that could work?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “do you want it to?”
She shrugs. “I guess.”
We are nibbling some fusion creation – proscuitto and fruit and soft cheese fashioned into some sort of hand roll. We sip California rose from stemmed glasses.
“Do you think maybe you should want it a little more than that?”
She asks me what I mean. I try discreetly to extract a bit of proscuitto from my teeth.
“I just mean that maybe you should want it more. You know, be a little excited about it. Does the idea of him excite you?”
She squints her eyes and wrinkles her nose at me. “I see what you mean.” She turns away for a moment, then turns back to me. “It’s just that I feel like I am running out of time, you know? Like I’m… like there’s just not that many options.”
We let the words sit between us for a while. I try to figure out whether what I want to say will make her cry, make us both cry, will leave us crying and hugging and then laughing, the whole bar watching.
I say it anyway. I tell her she deserves to feel a little crazy in love. Like madness and feverish and crazy. Like so feverish it gets hard to breathe. It’s work, I say to her, love is work over time, and it would be so much harder to do if you don’t have that to start. If you don’t have that to hold on to. Because it won’t always be like that. Can’t always be like that. So it should probably be, at least, at the beginning?
She takes a deep breath, exhales. Brings her napkin up to her face, to her eyes. I do, too.
“Maybe it’s easier for you to say that, now.”
Yes. I know this, too.
“I was waiting to hear bells,” my mother would say. “I thought I would know when I was in love. But then I was 44 when I met your father, and everyone I knew was married. He seemed nice. He wanted to get married, too. So, I thought, well, maybe there are no bells.”
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her, too
Till she cry: “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you.”
(epigraph, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)