I CAME BACK to my life—to my son Ben and his entourage, our flimsy little house, our sturdy black Lab and the carping, clamoring chorus of my clients. It seemed to me that I’d been away—not just in another country but also in another dimension. Sitting down at my desk, facing stacks of job folders, I felt a shock of panic, as if I’d slid into my car in a strange neighborhood and realized I didn’t have the ignition key.
My office was the way I had left it. The jobs were organized by due date. The goals were the same as ever: simply persuade the audience to buy things or ideas—new clothes, new furniture and a new house in a new neighborhood. To attend a trade show or support a cause. It was the same stuff I’d been doing for years, but suddenly I couldn’t make sense of it.
I was drifting somewhere outside the vicinity of the practical, still holding the fragile forms of joy and revelation that had come to me on my trip. I wanted to tiptoe around the ideas like in a glass forest at night.
Where did that vision come from, that moment on the bridge? Was it Art calling out to the dreamy little girl I used to be? The me who loved to create stories and pictures?
Or was it all the Czech beer I’d pounded down to calm my nerves?
And coming down to earth for just a minute—what about that wild ride with a backpacking grad student born after I’d reached legal drinking age? What the hell was that all about? I had a teenaged son who had survived my divorce, then my remarriage and divorce again in rapid succession without losing his balance or his sense of humor.
The only thing to do was shut the door on it for now, and wait for a better moment to bring it out again for scrutiny. Maybe my new life had gotten a little out of hand. Embracing my artistic spirit was one thing. Embracing the artist was another. At the moment, the only stories and pictures allowed on my agenda were the kind that had to be pitched. That’s what they paid me for, and it was time to shake off these menopausal histrionics and suit up for the game.
As a copywriter, I’d worked my way up and out of advertising agencies and was now freelancing for my own roster of clients. I worked with art directors and filmmakers to make print advertising and broadcast commercials. The assignments came from marketing people, sometimes in such a rush that I worked like a short-order cook.
One brochure, four panels—to go!
Two spots and rotate the tags!
Where’s my small-space ad series?
There was a lull before Andrew came back from Europe. I had been with him around the clock for two weeks and now he existed only in my mind, and our relationship felt spiritual one day and ridiculous the next. I needed to talk to someone else just to know how to think about it. So on the way to a meeting with one of our clients, I spoke about it with Chip, my art director friend and partner. He wasn’t much older than Andrew. We’d had many personal discussions. He was an on-the-level guy.
“I should stay out of his life so he can find a girl his age and get married,” I said, wrapping up my story with the photo negative of my true fear.
“Marcia–he’s a man,” said Chip. “You don’t need to make decisions for him.”
Now there was a stunning thought. It had never occurred to me to think that I was not in charge of Andrew’s life. I would have to hold that in mind. As his elder, I did want to give him whatever practical wisdom I’d gained. But as a friend I wanted him to grow and thrive and be happy, whether he was with me or not.
If this was love, it was new to me.
Ben gave me a typically creative accounting of what had gone on while I was away. He had stayed at Dad’s house, as planned. Yes, he and some friends did stop by our house after school, but they didn’t stay long and didn’t mess up. Well, yes, a couple of kids did come over one night, but he told them they couldn’t come in. What was he doing there at night instead of at Dad’s house? Oh, he had to get a notebook or something. It was a school night.
My handsome, charming, engaging little devil. He had dramatic coloring and a show-stopping smile. An only child—he used “lonely child” to get sympathy–who lived at the center of a perpetual crowd, playing the role of host, master of ceremonies and guest star in turn.
I was in my office trying to get into the rhythm of working when I heard the doorbell. I wasn’t expecting a delivery. It wasn’t time for the after-school crowd. It must be Jehovah’s Witnesses. But whoever it was rang the bell again, which meant they had seen my car in the parking space out front, knew I was there and weren’t going away.
It was a neighbor I knew only slightly, another single mom whose son was a few years younger than Ben. She had the hard grin of an assertive lady trying to soften the approach.
“I want to tell you first that I just think Ben is adorable . . . ”
“ . . . but you have to know about the noise and the kids and the beer cans . . . ”
She launched into a newsreel of scenes I had already imagined, and as I listened politely, I couldn’t help but remember the past winter when I caught her son and another kid starting a gasoline fire in the dry woods behind our row of townhouses. I could see him standing right where she was now, trembling, tearing up, begging me not to tell his mother.
“It’s really bad between me and her right now,” he’d said, and his shrimpy sidekick nodded, eyes bugging in terror.
After a fiercely descriptive lecture on what could have happened to the woods, the poor creatures living in them, the neighbors’ houses on both sides, not to mention their own pyromaniac butts, I agreed to keep it between us on the condition that, if I ever—ever—saw him doing anything—anything—I didn’t like, I would go to his mother immediately and he would be shit out of luck.
“Thank you for telling me,” I said to her sincerely. “I’ll have a talk with Ben.” I closed the door and went back downstairs to my haven, where I would try again to summon up some purposeful thinking.
One of my greatest fears as a mother was that I would fail my child. That I would fail to construct the solid foundation of unconditional love that would carry him in confidence all his life. I wanted to install a comfort zone inside him so that, when he was a man, he would have a place to go where, no matter what was facing him, he would know he was good, and right, and strong.
I was a war baby. My handsome parents, Midwesterners descended from immigrant miners and farmers, were dedicated to upward mobility, and the aerospace boom propelled them to California, where I was born, a few days before the firebombing of Dresden. My father’s aerospace career became the centrifugal force that held our lives together. As far as I knew, helping him sell airplanes was our purpose on earth.
Like many little girls then, I was brought up to find and follow the man. It was vital to be pretty. It was good to be smart—but not too smart. As my mother achieved the status of corporate wife, she tried to show me the ropes, and I tried to hold on to them. Whether I did bad or good, the ultimate judgment came from my father, but through my mother. I know now that this circuitous communication stemmed from his own inhibitions, but at the time I assumed it was because I was some kind of a monster, the subject of whispered conferences behind closed doors.
I loved to draw. My parents bought me a spool of butcher paper and I would stretch the paper clear across the floor and cover it with a parade of images that told some kind of story. When my brother was born, the stories became appropriately hostile, but the reaction of my novice parents—examining them in another room and then interrogating me with the fake friendliness of someone approaching a mean dog—suggested to me that there was something horrible in what I was doing. What was it? I worried. I stopped drawing on the butcher paper. When I picked up drawing again, I made paper dolls and drew dresses for them. That seemed to be acceptable.
But there was still my other great fault. We were now a family of five, and on occasions when we were all at the dinner table, my father would launch into a kind of cocktail-induced state-of-the-union speech. I would see the moment coming, and cringe. He would hold up his hand and say something like, “Yes, you all think you know everything but there’s one person here that’s smarter than all of you . . . ”–his voice would lower sadly–” . . . maybe even all of us”, and his right hand would rise above the table like a space ship, and his finger would point at me. I would feel sick and ashamed.
My brother would roll his eyes, but those of my mother and sister would narrow in expressions of furtive loathing.
“Don’t hold up your hand in class,” my mother often told me. “The boys don’t like it.”
With adolescence came one thing that saved me from being “the brain”—well, two things. Boobs. Big ones.
It was time to consider my future. My mother was prosaic.
“You should marry for love, but money helps.”
“You’re so smart you could be a lawyer, or even president.”
“Better take typing so you always have something to fall back on.”
My father was more poetic.
“Be good, sweet maid,” he quoted Charles Kingsley, “and let who will be clever.”
So there you go . . . I had my marching orders. And a permanent gnawing fear in my belly that whoever I was, whatever I was doing, was shameful.
On my second marriage, in my forties, I found myself consulting a therapist who straightened it all out for me. The marriage was failing, I was miserable and, at six, Ben was showing the effects. It was a frantic household: Jewish father, Gentile mother, two start-up businesses, a precocious child and a Hispanic live-in. It was a round-the-clock culture clash with little peace, and I gave in to the solution of the times.
The therapist, a strikingly pretty woman with dark shining eyes and enough intelligent authority to re-order a small republic, quickly sorted out the issues, outlined the criteria for making a decision (counseling for Ben, divorce for me) and gave me the gift of seeing the patterns that got me to where I was. My first husband had the ambition of my father but his love was unconditional and therefore cheap. In my second husband I found the reliable disapproval of my father and the charming duplicity of my mother, and I identified it as love because it was uncertain and hurtful. In both cases I’d ended up supporting their ambitions instead of profiting from them.
A dream I had during that period revealed just how deeply I’d buried myself: Kind doctors opened up my body and smilingly presented me with a bloody embryo, which I recognized joyfully as mine . . . or me.
But while my brilliant therapist was pointing me in the direction of self-discovery, there was a sinister sabotage operation going on of which I was only vaguely aware. Since we were both working mothers, our appointments were scheduled in the evening after dinner. Often by the time I sat down on her couch I had knocked back several vodka tonics. So the knot of residual fear and anger inside me was suspended in alcohol, protected from all efforts to extract and undo it.
So after I learned why I had made bad choices in relationships, I went right out and did it again. I met and married a big, burly blaster—explosives! —a runner and weightlifter—great body!—an Irish alcoholic and absent father—but sober now . . . and sort of present.
What was I thinking?
I was thinking I’d assured myself of laughs and lusty lovemaking long into my twilight years, but the joke was on me. Sex stopped short at the altar. Jobs stopped for a recession. He mooned my son. I invited him to move out.
Coming out of that short-lived disaster, I launched the program of sweeping change that resulted in what I called my new life.
After the recession I’d moved my office from downtown Washington to my house in suburban Maryland, so I could be there while Ben navigated the minefield of adolescence. My workspace was arranged with a long white desk on which the computer, printer, phone and fax machine sat under a wide window that framed the forest. Tall bookcases lined the adjoining wall, filled with books—reference, poetry, art, history, cooking—and stacks of consumer magazines and advertising annuals. Free shelves were devoted to favorite photos, lucky charms, gag gifts, found objects and memorabilia. Hanging over my desk was a big black bullwhip, a gift from an art director. Ironic considering art directors are the slave drivers of copywriters like me.
Off to the right of my desk stood my easel and tabouret, set up and ready for any spare minute I might have to dab at a canvas. Then there was the fireplace, with a convertible couch in front of it. Next to that was a TV/video/stereo system with a wide-ranging collection of rock, blues, alternative and classical music. Toward the back of the long room, a rubber mat defined the workout space, with my weight bench, barbells and a freestanding pull-up unit.
This was the three-dimensional model of my psychological interior: hope and resolve brought forward into the light, pushing into the background a pattern of fear and anger, like ugly wallpaper.
Outside on the deck was the thing I’d dreamed of since my days of crying in the bathtub—my own whirlpool spa. It was my reward for the punishing mental and physical work I undertook every day.
I got up at six to make breakfast and see Ben off to school. Then I would go for a run—three to six miles—on the smooth, speed-bumped streets that laced the suburban landscape. After a shower, I would go down to my office and answer phone calls and e-mails; look at my schedule of jobs, deadlines and meetings; and get to work. At noon I would go out on errands and bring back a salad or sushi to eat at my desk. Later, my trainer might arrive to make me do pushups and leg lifts and bench presses and whatever other torture he had in mind for me, while Ben and his friends had after-school snacks upstairs in the kitchen.
Then I worked until night fell. While Ben did his homework, I would fix dinner and pour myself the first of many glasses of white wine from the bottomless carafe in my fridge. In bed by ten, I would read for half an hour until my eyes closed and I drifted off to sleep.
This was the routine I’d developed since I started my new life.
Sitting at my desk, I could gaze out the window at the forest of trees and go somewhere far away. The trees loomed over my wooden deck like affectionate sentries. They motioned to me through the sliding-glass doors. We’re here. Everything is all right.
Ben and I grew up together in our place on Deborah Drive. It was a development of attached townhouses surrounded by tracts of McMansions, a veritable poverty pocket of Potomac, the Maryland suburb where Washington lawyers moved when they made partner. My friend Chip called the neighborhood “The Medical Park” because of its sterile 1970s architectural style. Its affordability had attracted immigrants—Asian, Middle Eastern, European. Iranian families lived on both sides of us. The women kept to themselves, but the men made it their business to give me the supervision I was obviously lacking.
In spite of our humble digs, our kitchen became the gathering place for the group of McMansion kids who had become Ben’s posse. Several of them would squeeze into the tiny space after school to rummage through my fridge and pantry for snacks, and talk about goings-on that would have made their parents’ hair stand on end. Downstairs in my office, with my ears open and my mouth shut, I was privy to a lot of dirt. Sometimes it helped me head off a real disaster.
We’d weathered some turbulent passages in this house, not the least being concurring adolescence and menopause. We’d had episodes around drinking and drug use, mine as well as and his, and then there was my third marriage, which lasted about as long as a bad joke but left us laughing. When Ben found his creative outlet in theater and I found mine in painting, the dark days seemed to be behind us.
My reunion with Andrew was tentative, to say the least. On our home turf we were now farther apart than ever, separated on my side by the cheerful chaos of my son and his ubiquitous friends, the pressing phone calls and faxes and messengers of my business, the established agenda of my grownup social life. On his side, there was the overwhelming presence of his family, a pack of talented eccentrics who held onto him like a teddy bear. His Russian father was a Gulag survivor who became a distinguished professor; his mother had moved to her own room after eight babies and turned to nursing. Andrew, the seventh, was raised by older sisters and turned on to drugs by older brothers.
While my mind was bathed in white wine, his was smoked by marijuana.
We tried out different approaches to our relationship. He moved from his apartment back into the rambling old family home so he could afford to share a studio space in town with a couple of friends—including Michele and me. We resumed our agent/artist, student/teacher roles. We were weekend lovers only, when Ben was at his dad’s house, with his “other family,” as he called it.
We traveled together, to New York to look at art galleries, and underwent the scrutiny of my friend Margery, a Broadway PR woman; to South Carolina to see The Belles, my three longtime girlfriends. We visited Miami, Houston, Seattle, Maui and Victoria, British Columbia. Whenever I had the time and he had the money, we went to Madrid and Amsterdam and Berlin and then back to France—always back to France.
Overseas, far away from our assumed roles, we could find what it was that connected us and fashion a framework around it. I’m told we had many things in common with homosexual couples—especially the sense of making it up as you go along. Without an official template, you had to shuffle expectations and habits daily. Before each trip, we would have to agree on the mode—Marcia’s Way, with advance reservations and free-flowing cash, or Andrew’s Way, on the cheap and on the fly—and then we’d both get to experience everything from Business Class to bumming. There was plenty of sneering and carping on both sides, but gradually we learned new ways of looking at the world.
On the home front, common ground was still a long way off, but we were annexing little plots here and there. My far-flung family was a non-issue, and my friends were all for it (You go, girl!), but Andrew kept us a secret until his family and friends could no longer ignore the obvious. One Christmas I went overboard and presented him with a whole wardrobe from Abercrombie & Fitch, which I later learned he had to smuggle into his house a few articles at a time for weeks. Among his marriage-and-children-bound contemporaries there was profound disapproval, but in his family there were so many other sociological and psychological fish to fry that as long as he was conscious, ambulatory and not in jail, they were okay with it.
As far as Ben was concerned, Andrew had so gradually and casually become a regular fixture that there had been no drama—nothing more than a few bouts of what looked like sibling rivalry. After awhile, maturity and good humor did their jobs, and Ben had found a friend in “Uncle Daddy.”
By the time Ben entered his senior year in high school, Andrew and I were out of the closet as a couple, our scandalous relationship was yesterday’s news and I was looking at the phenomenal rise of another artist.
I’d put Ben in my radio commercials since he was three when I needed a kid’s voice, because he had a knack and he enjoyed it, but I never let him audition for any other producer—there were too many nuts in the business—and his audience was mostly limited to Mom and the session engineer.
His big break was Winston Churchill High’s annual musical production, “Blast From the Past.” The school boasted a famous graduate—Darren Starr, who created Beverly Hills 90210 based on his alma mater, and its productions were big deals. The competition to perform in this one was stiff, and parental support bordered on hysteria; people began their kids’ private coaching in grade school.
At sixteen, Ben and his friend Randall decided to try out. Neither of them could sing or dance, but they were in theater and they were very good at standing around talking. So good that tandem roles were created for them. They were to be the Masters of Ceremonies.
I got the cold chills of stage fright when Ben told me. The MC has a huge responsibility, even in amateur production—especially in an amateur production where everything that can go wrong does. Scarier still, the boys had convinced the director that they could write their own material.
The afternoon of the dress rehearsal I slipped into the auditorium and sat in the second row. I needed to be prepared so that however it turned out I could say something encouraging. I was as anxious as any mother, but on top of it was the impersonal anxiety of the professional. As a broadcast producer working with commercial talent, I knew all too well those critical first minutes when a performer shows whether he can do the job or not. In the studio trying out a new announcer, I’d seen many a shaky beginning run into overtime and cost me double.
I had my answer as soon as Ben took to the stage. He owned it. And the audience was in his back pocket, where it would stay and grow for years.
So, after twenty-eight hours of continuous labor, eighteen years of smart backtalk, a thousand viewings of Beetle Juice and Batman, long-running appearances as Elvis, Buddy Holly and Jack Nicholson, ten school theater productions, 30 stitches, two sets of braces, one midnight police call and fifteen thousand milligrams of Ritalin required for a diploma in the nineties, my child was going away to college. We said goodbye in the kitchen on Deborah Drive the night before his father would drive him and his bags and trunks to Ithaca College and a theatrical education. We both cried. It was a joyful, painful, triumphal moment. Nothing would ever be the same again.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell
Chapter 3 will be next Friday’s Weekend Reading.