In September even the birthday parties stopped. Now they’re starting back up again, but quietly. They’re mostly at home after school instead of the usual Saturday extravaganzas at the Chelsea Piers bowling alley. No one’s even hiring magicians to do the old disappearing-underpants trick; we have no stomach for vanishings.
Today — a warm, particularly acrid-smelling Thursday in October, 2001 — happens to be Benny Spiegel’s ninth birthday, and I’m on my way to the middle-income West Village Houses to pick up my two sons at his party. Call me perverse, but I can’t think of any place I would rather be than Benny the Terrible’s birthday party. Somehow I have landed in a generation of strivers, but I don’t ask much as I stroll down workaday Washington Street breathing through my mouth. I walk this street every day: to the Grove Street School to pick up my boys, to the post office to kiss my slides good luck as I send them off to galleries, to the library to hunt for a Friday night video. How at home I feel with cobblestones under my shoes, the Hudson River by my side. Even the dog pee that leaves a sticky sheen on the lampposts belongs to pets who know my scent.
The West Village Houses couldn’t be stingier on the outside, clad in small maroon-washed concrete blocks trying their hardest to look like brick. But inside they are a little society of helping professionals — social workers, guidance counselors, even a bonafide nurse or two. I open the metal door and, like the neighborhood dogs, take a whiff. I detect vanilla and butter and cane sugar, and though I am four floors away I know instantly this is the smell of Benny Spiegel’s birthday cake made by Janeen, the baking babysitter from Jamaica. I rush up the institutional stairs toward my children and our friends and the solace of buttercream. When I push the button marked Spiegel a harsh buzzer sounds, welcoming me in its unceremonious way into the last bastion of Manhattan nurturers.
Mara, Benny’s mom, lets me in.
“My landsmen,” I say, stretching my arms wide to include all the moms and kids and Janeen in the galley kitchen. Mara herself, I should point out, is not a nurturer, but a nurturer’s spouse. Her husband Barry is a clinical psychologist, but she works for the board of ed, which gives her insider knowledge, which is one reason we sometimes call her Queen.
“Spiderman,” she says with some regret by way of greeting, showing me her living room, where the kids are gathered on her impractical off-white carpet around Benny’s impressive Lego collection and the moms are madly chatting the way moms will. The room is strung halfheartedly with plastic spiders and fake spider webs.
“He had to have Spiderman, Brooke,” says Mara. “Thank heaven it’s almost Halloween.” We’re all feeling funny about Spiderman these days. The movie is due out soon, and it stars Toby Maguire, who’s adorable, but on the down side, the posters have all been pulled because they showed Spiderman scaling the twin towers. In the middle of all the spiders, a yellow cartoon-character pinata hangs from the ceiling fan.
“Pikachu,” I say with a fondness I didn’t know I felt for the squeaky pansexual Pokemon. Mara apologizes for mixing her birthday-party metaphors. But I don’t mind this relic from a benign ancient civilization.
Eventually we hug, and stare into each other’s eyes. We all do this these days, with new license. I notice that Mara has not plucked her eyebrows. They are growing in dark and choppy, as if they’ve fallen out of their v-formation, and I fear this is brash old Mara’s only way to cry for help. I scan her up and down for signs of additional neglect, and sure enough her toenails have just the tiniest circle of red polish left, and her toes look as if they’ve been squashed together too long, like old garlic cloves. “You okay?” I ask, and she waves me away with the kind of half-answer we all trade in lately: “Yeah, yeah, peachy.”
I keep an eye on all the moms, on Shlomit our kibbutznik and Desi our dance therapist and Arlene the mother of twins and Lizzy, especially Lizzy. When I go to sleep I don’t see the towers fall and rise and fall again a mile away from my bed; what I see in the dark is a tiny collage of crosshatches, formed of the worry lines around my friends’ eyes.
I scan the room for Glen and Danny, my boys, and find them with Jinsong, a new Chinese boy in Glen’s class who shares Glen’s belief that life is one great physics experiment. They are attempting to saw their slippery Spiderman plates in half with plastic knives while little brother Danny cheers them on. I kiss the sweaty tops of their heads and get the day’s news. I ask Jinsong whether his mom is coming to pick him up because, speaking of peachy, Jinsong has a new baby brother I’m in love with; I want to have my party pleasures all lined up.
Finally, I scan for Lizzy. I always feel better in a room that has Lizzy in it. I find her leaning over the kitchen counter, deep in conversation.
Hungrily I make my way toward her.
Mara puts a hand on my forearm, and I jump. “I wouldn’t go over there if I were you,” she says. “Mara,” I say. “I’ve been sitting at home alone all day, listening to public radio. They just did a segment on the plague, and they weren’t talking about the Middle Ages. I think I can handle the conversation over there.”
Lizzy and I met nine years ago on a bench at Bleecker Street playground. It was November, and our babies were packed into their strollers, and it started to drizzle. The other mothers briskly packed up those yellow little Cheerios dispensers they had and slid them into their diaper bags with the Provencal patterns. They left in pairs or trios, as they always did, with their shirts tucked in. I was new to the neighborhood then, and new at this job, with an asthmatic baby, a career as an illustrator slipping from my fingers, and a husband working long lawyer hours but not making partner. It was not clear any of us was going to be okay.
At exactly the same moment, this woman and I turned toward each other. I went first. “Do you ever feel like you’re going to lose your mind?”
“I was going to say ‘fucking mind,’” she answered, smiling.
She pointed to a building across the street. “See that pile of laundry about to fall off the windowsill? That’s my apartment,” she said. “Race you.”
We got to her dim hall laughing and out of breath. We shook the rain out of our hair and left shoes and strollers and puddles all over the tiled floor.
She had the same dining chairs from Workbench as ours. Glen was crying in that starved, enervated way that could crank up to an attack. Or maybe it was another ear infection. I sat down at my chair, pulled up my shirt and nursed him.
When her baby was successfully transferred to his crib, she held out a hand for shaking and introduced herself. Then she told me I looked like a hot meal would do me good.
She fed me leftover spaghetti with pesto warmed in the microwave, on a Winnie-the-Pooh plate.
“This is the best meal I’ve ever had in my entire life,” I told this stranger named Lizzy, “and I don’t even like pesto.” I asked for seconds, and thirds, and somewhere in the middle of the helpings I began to cry. Lizzy looked around for a Kleenex and when she couldn’t find one she shrugged and handed me a Pamper. With my mouth full and a strand of spaghetti not quite sucked in, I added “never touch the stuff,” and my crying resolved itself into laughter. We laughed like lab partners at the delight of trying to fill me up faster than Glen could empty me. I blew my nose into the diaper, and we laughed some more.
At home later that night, as I lowered Glen to his crib trying not to set off a screaming fit, I noticed something foreign in his fine brown hair. I fished out a fragrant green spaghetti strand and clutched it like Scarlett O’Hara with her radish and thought that maybe I wouldn’t lose my mind after all.
Now I look among the gang, my gang, to see if everyone is here, but my eye lands instead on a familiar red-and-white paper on the kitchen counter. It’s a Metro-North schedule, opened like an alterpiece triptych to the page headed “Leave New York.” Oh, no, I think. Please no. She’s loud and annoying and has garlic toes, but please don’t let Mara leave.
But I have walked straight into what I’ve begun to think of as “the conversation.” Here in Manhattan it drones on in the background all the time. It starts furtively, like preteens discussing sex. It used to be easy to ignore. The first snatch I hear is this: “I say, if you’re going to move, really move. Go to Camden, Maine.”
And now they begin the list. They are talking about benign things, wonderful things like backyards and the rolling hills of the Taconic Parkway. I like these things as much as anyone.
“So what do you guys think about Nyack?” asks Arlene. She’s never quite gotten over having twins, and needs our blessing on every decision she makes.
The group decides Nyack is a viable option. They move on to highways. I listen patiently while they approve of the Palisades and the Merritt. Mara is measuring out miles in the air between her thumb and forefinger.
I look over at Lizzy but I can’t get her eye. She and I always say, when our time comes, reserve us a room at the Village Nursing Home, and then scatter our ashes from Pier 40. We’ve picked out the bench in Abingdon Square where the late-morning sun shines and where we’ll feed the pigeons just to annoy the yuppies.
When Arlene says Nyack for a second time, rolling it around on her tongue like this year’s beaujolais nouveau, I take a swat.
“Cute,” I say, “but wrong side of the river. No trains. You’ll need two cars.”
Moms begin firing out towns, and as quick as they say the names I shoot them down. I hardly ever leave the city limits, but somehow I have stores of intelligence on every burgh they mention.
“Cold Spring,” says Shlomit, who was in the Israeli Army and can be very commanding. As if on cue, we hear the military sound of a low-flying helicopter, a sound as common these days as Mister Softee’s jingle. We know the drill: we freeze, look toward the ceiling, and then, when it stops, release all our hot breath into Mara’s living room and try to pick up where we left off.
Cold Spring is easy: “Way too many antique stores and three incredibly overpriced restaurants, the kind where the menu actually says ‘fine dining.’”
Desi says Katonah. “Great art museum, but racist.” I tell them about friend of a friend who was racial-profiled there. “Not once, but twice,” I say.
I dismiss Larchmont’s highly reputed school system, tell them Irvington is the boonies, Montclair not half as integrated as they make it look. Meanwhile I look around the room to see who’s serious, to see whom I stand to lose. But it’s no use – I can’t stand to lose any of them.
Finally I can’t take it. “The West Village!” I scream and they all look up at me as if I’ve started voguing across the off-white rug. “Why not consider that? Especially seeing as how you’ve all already made lives here and your children attend school here and you have jobs here and own apartments here and have made very good friends here.”
Lizzy has been uncharacteristically quiet, so I walk over and sling an arm around her. “Looks like it’s you and me, my dear.” I note, with alarm, a faint smell of cigarettes on her. She quit smoking before Sam was born. I know it’s the fall trend, falling back into conquered bad habits. But Lizzy isn’t trendy. Lizzy can’t start smoking again. Her mother died of lung cancer.
“Brooke,” she says. “Nip it.”
I protest; I am just warming up. I tell them, with the satisfaction of a really well-placed cliché, that you can run but you can’t hide, even though I suspect it’s entirely possible to spend a lifetime hiding in Irvington, Westport, Easthampton. Janeen calls from the kitchen with a two-minute warning on the birthday cake. I try a different tack.
“I’ll tell you about life outside the city,” I say, and from my arsenal I recount for them the scariest, most spiteful suburban story I can think of. They’re all in a tight circle around me now. .
“It’s Wednesday,” I say, “and you take your kids out to eat at Chuck E. Cheese because – I look around the room and name husbands — Avi…Roger…Barry… James just called to say he’ll be late again. At first you don’t want to take them to Chuck E. Cheese and you’re sure you’ll never be that kind of suburban mother.”
Lizzy is tightening her jaw and neck tendons in a way that says shush up now if you know what’s good for you. I know she’s trying to save me. But they made me listen to them and now I’m going to give it right back to them.
“In fact you hold out for a long time, but all of your kids’ friends go there and talk about it at school until it starts to seem as normal as wearing running shoes all day. And you pass it in the s.u.v. on the way home from soccer or Hebrew school or guitar or ikeido or the orthodontist, and your kids beg, and you know that they’re at the developmental stage where it’s important not to be too different, so you put on the blinker and you turn into the parking lot.
“What a lovely parable, Brooke,” Arlene interrupts. “A novel way to tell us you have a little problem with the suburbs.”
“And Chuck E. Cheese surprises you” I continue, “because they serve a bowl of strawberry applesauce, beautiful pink applesauce.” Like a geisha, I cup my hands toward the circle of moms in a beautiful-bowl-of-applesauce gesture. “It’s right there on the table without you even having to order it. The kids love it and you love Chuck E. Cheese for being so attuned to your desire to get some good healthy food into them and not pander to their worst tastes. And because everyone’s so happy and having their needs met, you make Chuck E. Cheese a regular stop on Wednesday nights, when the afterschool schedule is especially nuts.
The kids are getting restless. A fight is breaking out over the Bionicles, but I am not ceding the floor.
“And then one Wednesday night you go –” I pause dramatically – “but there’s no bowl of beautiful pink applesauce. There’s a new menu and you hunt and hunt but there’s no applesauce anywhere on it, only a lot of gooey greasy foods with….” And here I waggle my fingers while sliding my hands back and forth, a gesture that in another story might be raindrops or piano playing, but here can mean only one thing: “a big slab of jack cheese on top, sweating from the microwave.”
“You ask the waiter about the applesauce and he doesn’t know so he calls over the manager and he says, oh, the kids weren’t eating the applesauce so it didn’t pay. And there you are at Chuck E. Cheese in your running shoes, in your fat jeans, on the molded plastic seat.” I have no idea what kind of seats Chuck E. Cheese has; I’ve never been to one.
“But all this is okay,” I conclude, “because suddenly you remember the time back in college when you thought you might make a good political speechwriter someday, and you decide to send an e-mail to the executives of Chuck E. Cheese or whatever corporation owns it, getting them to reinstate the applesauce policy, and maybe you’ll start an e-mail campaign among your friends. And you feel like a real activist –”
Just as I’m finishing up my speech, the door pushes slowly open. We all stop and stare as Jinsong’s mom’s small dark head pokes in. She is holding the peachy baby, the first baby born in the neighborhood since September 11th. She never lets this baby out of her sight. He is tightly wrapped, as always, in his white blanket, and she clutches him to her chest like a poultice. Somehow she has managed to take off her shoes. She nods hello, several times, with more downward motion than up, as if apologizing for her presence, and then stands in the doorway next to the Razor scooters, looking terribly far from home. Even the littlest of the neighborhood kids know that if you dig deep enough in the Bleecker Street sandbox you eventually reach China, the far side of the world. It hits me suddenly that I am asking far too much. I am asking more than my friends or my city or my world has to offer.
Lizzy walks toward me and grips the fleshiest part of my upper arm. She says my name and leads me forcibly into Mara and Barry’s bedroom, where I realize I’ve never been. The off-white carpet continues in here. Everything else is pastel and frilly. The dresser is covered with photos. “Look,” I say, pointing to a wedding picture. “Barry has hair.”
“Brooke,” says Lizzy again.
“Stop saying my name, would you?” I say. I know what she’s going to tell me. I realize now I’ve known for days, but I averted my eyes and my ears each time she got too close
“I wasn’t ready to go public yet, but after that…” She points to the living room and hunts for a word to describe my little performance. I fixate on a photo of the kids in their Four’s class play, “Caps for Sale.” How I remember that day. There’s Noam, Shlomit’s son, still blond, with a stack of caps on his head. There’s one of the twins with her chicken-pox newly crusted over. And, as always, two monkeys side by side: my Glen and Lizzy’s Sam. In the back you can just make out an exhausted-looking Lizzy and me on little nursery-school chairs, each with a nursing baby in our lap.
“Where?” I ask, but I realize I already know that too. Her favorite brother lives there. They always vacation there.
She squinches up her face like a student knowing that whatever answer she gives will be wrong. We say it in unison: “Brattleborough.” Somehow my “Brattleborough” is spoken with conviction, hers with a question mark, as if we’re rehearsing each other’s parts.
We’re silent for a minute.
“That’s off Perry Street, right?” I finally say. “Right in the Grove Street School catchment zone.”
We laugh. But then she gets down to business, rattling off practical reasons, the thin outer layer of reasons, for the move. Most of them revolve around her brainy husband James and the internet and his portable business.
I look her in the eye. “Don’t go. Tell him you changed your mind. Tell him you lost your fucking mind.”
She lets out a sigh. “It’s not just James. I’m not as brave as you are, Brooke. You make it hard.”
I feel tired suddenly and sit down on Mara’s bed. Lizzy leans on the blond dresser. I wonder why married people’s bedrooms are so weirdly virginal. I wonder how we all misread so many signs.
I am not brave. I’m afraid that without Lizzy I’m just a woman on a Manhattan bench who doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the storm.
“What about all our plans?” I say, panic rising as I think of how my many of my days are predicated on Lizzy, and Glen’s on Sam. “What about baseball camp?” I skip to the last page: “What about scattering our ashes from Pier 40?”
“I’m so sorry, Brooke. I had to make other plans.” Her voice is shaking but the message is firm.
“Listen.” She puts her hands on my upper arms to steady me and delivers a pep talk about a house they just saw online. “There’s a whole guest cottage. You’ll come and stay. There’s a horse farm right down the road where they give lessons practically free.” She bounces up and down, mimicking Danny as a horse-besotted toddler: “Hawssie! hawssie!”
“I don’t want horses. I want you, here.” I point to the firmament of Mara’s silly pale carpet. We hug, something we rarely do, and I feel the fleshy sensation of her breasts up against mine. I remember us after Danny and Sylvie, our second babies, were born three weeks apart, in our big nursing bras with the clever snaps, always riding up in the back from what felt then like an enormous motherly weight we were carrying. I look into Lizzy’s familiar face, her limp hair, her crooked nose, the crease where her dimple hides. On the news there has been talk of sacrifices to come, lots of talk. What a fool I have been to think I could gather my loved ones around me and pull the drawstring tight.
In the living room, I hear Janeen and Mara shushing the kids. The room goes dark as someone pulls the blinds. I’ve been away from my boys for too long.
“I guess it’s time,” I say, and Lizzy and I go back to the living room. We find a spot on the side near Benny. Mara, looking like a proper queen, carries the cake with its nine candles and one to grow on.
“By the way,” Lizzy whispers. “There are no Chuck E. Cheeses in Vermont. There’s a clause in the state constitution.”
“They send them all over the border,” I whisper back. “New Hampshire takes them in like orphans.”
“You know the New Hampshire state motto, right?” she adds. “Chuckie Cheese or die.”
“Don’t go,” I say one more time, as if I have a say.
The kids tell Benny the Terrible he belongs in the zoo, and, true to form, he bops the two nearest ones on the head. His round baby cheeks are lit by the birthday candles, and he’s beautiful. They’re all beautiful. All I want is to stand here with the moms and watch the kids grow. I want to watch Jinsong’s baby brother grow big and goofy like Jinsong, and break the big kids’ Legos and beg for treats from Mister Softee. I haven’t made other plans. I haven’t even stocked up on bottled water. I don’t see the point. All I want is to grow old with these people.
I look at Lizzy, but there’s no light on her. She looks drawn and pasty. She’s in a car that James is driving up the New York Thruway to the New England Thruway. She’s growing staticky like WNYC, and I’m losing her.
Walking back home with the boys down the narrow sidewalk on a block shrouded with eternal scaffolding, I let the tears come. In each of my sweaty, shaking hands I am gripping a Spiderman goody bag. Under my arm I carry two pairs of blue jeans that Benny Spiegel, raised on Janeen’s pork stew and coconut patties, has outgrown. Mara thrust them at me on my way out and though we didn’t particularly need them I took them without a word. The little buildings along Washington Street mock me now that Lizzy won’t be here to cast her crooked silhouette on their bricks. The blues bar on the corner, Roy Lichtenstein’s studio, the just-renovated townhouses all filled with pregnant supermodels – right now I hate them all. A woman in heels on her way home from work comes toward us and I have to push my oblivious boys aside to make room for her to pass. I feel like taking the whole maroon hulk of the West Village Houses and its do-gooders and shoving it out of my way. Now look what you’ve done, I want to say to the world at large; you’ve driven Lizzy away. Tears and snot are dripping onto my shirt. Glen is eyeing me fearfully, not having a clue what’s wrong. I don’t have a Kleenex. I wasn’t prepared for this. So I grab the wad of Benny Spiegel’s freshly laundered hand-me-downs and blow my nose.
Michele Herman is a longtime writer of fiction and nonfiction, with short stories published in The Sun, ACM, Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art, Proof, and The Worcester Review. Her personal essays have appeared in The Sun, The New York Times, Lilith and other publications. She has a column in The Villager, the award-winning Greenwich Village weekly paper, and teaches fiction at The Writers Studio in New York.