THERE ARE PEOPLE who come with me however far I go. Ben, of course. Family, like it or not, and certain longtime friends who are so present in my interior life that I can almost feel their reactions to events around me. Moving frequently as a child, from neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school, you can develop a metaphysical entourage, and add to it as you go along.
Sooner or later, though, you need a good visit to recharge the connections.
Andrew and I tried to arrange our trips so we could see as many family members and friends as possible, and we’d split up to cover more territory. Andrew’s family outnumbered mine by far, but they were concentrated along the East Coast, along with all his friends. My people were all over the place. Ben was in New York State, Mom and my brother’s family in Texas, my sister’s in Colorado. I had close friends in Washington, New York, Louisiana and South Carolina. With that kind of spread, it was hard to see everyone I wanted.
There was a period of low airfares and we seized the moment to go together, arranging with Brigitte to take care of our animals so they could stay at home. While Andrew spent time with his family in Washington, I would go to Ithaca to stay with Ben for a long weekend. Graduation was in sight, and we had much to talk about. Then I’d meet Andrew and fly to Houston, where my family was gathering.
I loved the drive from Washington to Ithaca, an eccentric little college town that encompassed both the exalted Cornell University and the offbeat little Ithaca College, whose high-ranking Theater Arts School was Ben’s choice. The green landscape, carved by glaciers, was famous for its waterfalls and gorges (“Ithaca is gorges” joke the local T-shirts). I’d made the drive many times since Ben’s freshman year, so even in a new rental car it felt as familiar as old slippers.
Last time, Andrew and I had both stayed at Ben’s group house off-campus. At the time, he was sleeping on a bed made of layers of foam packing material laid out on the floor, and he generously offered it to us while he took the living room couch. Visiting parents who stayed in B&Bs or hotels had comfort and service and, best of all, clean sheets, but I believed you could get a more comprehensive understanding of what your child is up to if you spend a few 24-hour cycles in the middle of things.
The ramshackle house they called The Estate was on East State Street, thus the name. Its current tenants were all in Theater Arts. Ben and the other straight guys had the top floor, the gay guys had the ground floor. The arrangement was based on the fact that the gay guys kept the place clean and visitors didn’t see any filth unless they went upstairs looking for it. This time, in addition to the theater events Ben wanted me to see, it was a big party weekend, so for the sake of my privacy and my liver, I reserved a hotel room.
By now I knew many of the aspiring actors, directors, playwrights and set designers in Ben’s circle and enjoyed watching their work, certainly in the big productions, but especially when I was allowed in on the table readings, to watch the actors get into their characters for the first time. I liked sitting up late with them after a performance, when everybody got drunk and confessed to depravity and glory.
Ben and I made the usual trip to the supermarket for the event called Mom’s Dinner, a tradition since his high school years, in which I prepare a big spread for as many guests as there are dinner plates in the kitchen, and then at the last minute Ben invites ten or so more and tells them to bring paper plates. His friend Brian came shopping with us, and they entertained shoppers with spontaneous dialogues and devastated the townie at checkout with impersonations.
We went to brunch on Saturday and Ben gave me a recap of his recent emotional upset, when he was passed over for the role of Romeo in the biggest theater production of the senior year. His friend Joe, housemate and rival, got the part.
We talked about the theater versus film, where some of his friends were headed. He was sticking with theater, he said. Theater people took acting more seriously. Having recorded commercials with theater people in New York, I shared the same view. Film placed too much emphasis on looks and used editing to fix a weak performance. Ben had stunning looks and a historical tendency to slide by. As long as he stayed in theater, he’d be working on his craft. Or just working—he was already planning to wait tables in New York, where his aunt Susan, a celebrity chef, had plenty of friends. He knew the drill, having worked at a Thai restaurant in Ithaca the past two summers. “I’m an actor, and actors know how to wait tables.”
We came back to the house talking about graduation. Ben had been worried, probably since freshman year, possibly even since our divorce when he was seven, about giving equal time to his parents and their partners. The four of us had all shared his high school graduation with no problem, but we had all lived in the neighborhood. Now, with the traveling and the staying over and the dinners and photos, it would be more of an issue.
The way I saw it, his dad paid the tuition and he lived in the same country, so he should be in the limelight at the college graduation. I felt more personally attached to Theater Arts than the college as a whole, and I considered the crowning event to be something they called the Sherry Party. It was a theatrical send-off for the seniors, written and staged by the freshmen, who spend the school year gathering material (and clothing) on individual seniors to portray them in sketches bringing out scandalous highlights of their student years. Besides the seniors, only a few favorite professors and fewer parents attend this event, and I had the honor of being there Ben’s freshman year. At the end of a merciless bash-fest ratting out every last senior (the freshmen had gone as far as interviewing sour exes), the kids joined hands and serenaded them with “(You Are the) Wind Beneath My Wings,” leaving all of us crying out loud without shame.
That had blown the formal commencement speech right out of the water for me. Graduation was college. The Sherry Party was theater.
“Are you sure?” Ben asked. “Because you could all four come for the ceremony and we could do two separate dinners and . . . ”
“Dad needs to be at your college graduation. I don’t, unless you need it.”
“Well, okay, but at the Sherry Party you might see and hear some pretty outrageous things . . . ”
“That’s what I’m counting on.”
We looked across the shabby living room, where one of the “downstairs” guys was applying party makeup to a girl who said she’d be wearing red that night. Three other girls were waiting their turn.
“What are you wearing tonight, Nick?” asked one of the waiting girls.
“Gold lamé.” he said. “Strapless.”
I met Andrew for the flight to Houston to see my family.
We were assigned to Mom’s spare bedroom in the assisted-living high-rise so that, as an unmarried couple, we would not present a bad example for the pre-teen nieces and nephews at my brother’s house, a spacious three-story place with a gigantic vaulted great room, spa bathrooms, a swimming pool and a gun room.
The high-rise residence was off the expressway about fifteen minutes away. Mom’s apartment on one of the upper floors had a good view over Houston, but coming from a place right over the white sand and blue Pacific, it must have been a jolt, although she seemed unaware. It had been furnished with as many of her own things as possible so that it would feel more like home than the institutional facility it really was. My sister-in-law had tried to replicate her style, hung her paintings and placed familiar objects around. But beneath the polished surface there was that purposeful intent you find in model homes.
Mom was happy to have us stay with her. She wasn’t sure who Andrew was but she liked him, and she was either unaware that we were sinners, or she just didn’t give a damn. She was more interested in talking about her new boyfriend, a doctor in his nineties.
“He’s Jewish,” she confided to me as Andrew put our bags in her guest bedroom. “But he’s very smart.”
There was a dinner without the kids scheduled at a local restaurant, and Mom wanted to include the smart doctor. That would entail his wheelchair and his walker and, according to my brother, no offer to pay for the meal. But it made Mom happy, and once installed at the end of the table, the two of them kept each other company as the rest of us pored over the menus, which were mounted on wooden planks the size of cabinet doors.
It was a nice restaurant. The dining room seemed unnecessarily huge, or had I gotten used to tight spaces? The décor was rustic. Recorded contemporary music blared, and diners shouted to be heard over it. Voices bounced off the beamed ceiling, punctuating the cacophony of service noises and the screaming of unruly children. It made me feel anxious, all that urgency and assertion. There was too much of everything. The salad bar was so extensive it was frightening. Rows of polished bins full of fresh, pickled, sun-dried, shredded, whipped and marinated condiments, embedded in ice and reflected in overhead mirrors, extending from one end of the vast room to the other. How did they handle what must be a dumpster-full of leftovers every night?
After several rounds of margaritas and family talk, I made the mistake of bringing up how relaxed French parents seemed around the issue of adolescent sex. I cited some advice from a women’s magazine article, which urged you to prepare your “ado” for healthy relationships and safe sex. I didn’t go so far as to tell how it suggested keeping condoms in the medicine cabinet and restocking without comment as they disappear, but I had thought it was an astoundingly practical and sane idea. Since no one was yelling at me, I went on to reveal that Ben and his college girlfriend had stayed in our house for a few summer weeks.
That’s when the yelling started. I was told I had no morals.
Andrew came to my defense, pointing out that the girl was over eighteen, but mothers at the table were still in the high-school phase, occupied with monitoring Internet usage and censoring rock lyrics, and it was just too much for them—especially coming from a couple of heretical exiles like us. The fathers kept their mouths shut and their eyes downcast, waiting for a safer subject.
Were these the same people I’d known before I moved to France? There were people at this table familiar with jail, illegal drugs, all-night parties in parental homes, with gallons of alcohol and messy unprotected coupling indoors and out.
And, even as an adult, hadn’t I passed some of these people on the stairs in our parents’ house one Christmas, going up to snort lines of coke in the guest bathroom?
Mom wasn’t the only one who’d lost her memory. There we were, in the state that leads all others in putting people to death, debating the morality of allowing young love under your roof?
Mom and the doctor, murmuring to each other at their end of the table, were unaware of any discord. Andrew, the bridge between generations, gamely continued to dance across the minefield, but it was no use. We were in the Bible Belt and we were getting a whuppin’.
Sunday we were to gather at the family house. Most of the crowd was going to church, but a couple of them said they’d stay in and open the door for us if we got there before noon. The house was surrounded by iron security fencing and had an elaborate entry system that involved codes and alarms.
We decided to try and make up for the previous night’s scene with a peace offering of food for Sunday lunch—a French solution that might be effective in Texas. I knew of a specialty food store in the neighborhood that had prepared dishes, a good bakery and a decent selection of cheeses and imported wines.
I’d forgotten how wide-ranging the choices were, from buckets of barbecued pork to rows of delicate sushi; potato chips in every imaginable flavor, specialty beers from all over the world; fat-free, salt-free alternatives to everything. We were carried away with the novelty of it all, and had to weed out some impulse items before wheeling our loaded basket to the checkout counter.
“I can’t check you out,” said the woman whose nametag identified her as Lawanda, “unless you put back the wine.”
“Put back the wine?” we both said at once in disbelief.
Lawanda straightened her back and jutted out her chin, looking down at us from the moral high ground. “We do not sell wine before noon on Sunday.”
“But that’s in just twenty minutes,” said Andrew. “We’re getting it for lunch, along with all this other food in the basket . . . ”
“Ah cain’t help that,” said Lawanda. “You have to take the wine out of the basket, NOW.” Faces in the checkout line gave us dark looks. Lawanda cocked her head and shifted her weight, looking from Andrew to me, and back.
“You mean, if we leave the wine in the basket, we have to hang around here for another twenty minutes before we can pay for it?”
Lawanda met the eyes of the customers around us, whose baskets were innocent of wine.
“Either take that wine out of your basket or step over there and let these people through checkout.”
“All right,” said Andrew to me. “Let’s forget the wine—the prices are ridiculous anyway.” We removed several bottles of Bordeaux and Sancerre and proceeded through checkout.
“It’s Sunday,” Andrew reminded me in Lawanda’s voice. “Only evil-doers buy wine on Sunday.” We loaded the trunk and pointed the car toward the expressway.
“I guess I’d forgotten how things are here . . . ” I said apologetically.
“Was it like this when you lived in the South?”
“Maybe, and I just didn’t know it.”
The sun was directly overhead when we pulled into the suburban cul-de-sac. The big brick house was at the cul, in a U-shaped line-up of similar big houses, the work of a common builder. One of the two gigantic SUVs was parked on the concrete apron behind the high iron gates. Two monumental Jet Skis, mounted on a trailer, poked out from the double garage.
We lugged the grocery bags up to the front door and rang the doorbell. From inside, we heard the dog bark, but no one came to let us in. We peered through the leaded-glass window into the dimness of the foyer. No sign of anyone, even the dog, who must’ve been in his kennel by the laundry room. I rang again, calling to the dog and anyone else in earshot, “It’s okay boy . . . it’s just us . . . ”
“Maybe they’re out by the pool,” said Andrew. “Here, this’ll bring them.” He clutched the car keys between his knuckles and rapped harder on the leaded glass. A deafening shriek almost blew us backward—a siren! The window rapping had set it off, and the dog joined in a fury of barking and howling.
“Oh shit. Now what?” yelled Andrew.
“Now the police come, I think. The system alerts them.”
We waited on the front step in a pulsing, radiating, spiraling funnel of noise, but no police car pulled up in response to the alarm. Nor did any neighbors come out to see what the commotion was. Their houses sat facing us in dumb torpor.
“ I can’t believe this. Is everyone on this street at church?”
“Must be, along with the police.”
“No Jews in the ‘hood?”
“They said somebody would be here, dammit.”
It was after twelve now. Surly they’d show up any minute. We couldn’t just get in the car and drive away. What if the police saw us leaving the crime scene? And the poor dog was going crazy.
“Better find a shady place to put this food.”
But there was not a spot, not a dot, not a pinhole of shade from the trim shrubs under the front windows to the white curb. There was nowhere to sit down. The car was stifling. Lines on the pavement wavered with heat.
“Okay, let’s go.” Andrew picked up the bags and headed for the car.
“Where to?” I asked, following him.
Ten minutes later we were sitting at a familiar sushi bar, sipping ice-cold Kirins and nibbling edamame while the friendly chef rolled out our futomaki. His wife had stashed our groceries in the restaurant’s refrigerator. The restaurant was empty, but happily so, in anticipation of a nice dinner turnout. It was blissfully cool and tranquil, the daylight filtered, the colors subdued. The only sound was the swash of the man’s knife and the swish of the woman’s kimono as they tended to us. After tasting his appetizer special, we gave the chef carte blanche to keep it coming until we said when.
“Okay, this is heaven,” I said with a sigh.
Andrew nodded toward a smiling Buddha in his niche.
I recalculated. “Nirvana then—even better.”
The church crowd eventually returned to the shrieking, wailing, barking house, reset the security system and calmed the frantic dog. They apparently came to the conclusion that we’d been there, and figured out where we’d gone, because they burst into the restaurant shouting and giggling like a surprise-party gang. With cheerful joshing and apologetic smiles, they herded us to one of the big tables for a try at a more congenial family meal.
Half-listening to various conversations, I revisited the scene I’d encountered at Mom’s the night before.
We’d dropped Mom and Doctor Boyfriend off, and then spent an hour or so at the house before we went back to her place for the night. There, feeling my way in the dark kitchenette for a water bottle, I’d sensed some motion in the hall outside Mom’s bedroom. I froze, and waited. In a minute, there was a startling glint of metal, and a luminous form appeared in the moonlight, followed by a smaller, brighter form, and together they moved silently across the carpet with the mechanical sinuousness of a Slinky.
It was Dr. Boyfriend in pale pajamas, pushing his walker, and Mom, in a voluminous white nightgown, one arm extended to keep her hand on his shoulder. They were opalescent, pearl and silver, silent and magical as dragonfly wings and stars reflected in water. I watched them move through the living room, and the foyer, to the front door and a clean getaway.
“No morals,” whispered Andrew back in our bed.
“Let’s go home!”
–Marcia Muir Mitchell