My mom was murdered by a used-car salesman

It dawns on me that I don’t know how to tell you about my mom. Should I start with her untimely death or with her sad beginning? Should I tell you about her mistakes or her million miniscule victories? Should I start with the day she wished her father dead when she was five or the one when I stood in the shower at five a.m. and wished her back to life? Tell me what you want to know.

My mom did everything in the wrong order. She was a bad girl and then a good woman. She was a mother and then a girl on her own again, twice. She was a slut before she was a virgin and then she was a slut again at 60. My mom gave up everything she wanted for herself and then fought to get it back only to lose it again and again.

If my mom were telling you her own story, it would be a comedy. Somehow she would twist her heartbreak into dark tendrils of humor until you were on the floor laughing. One day I hope to tell her story like that.

Today I think I will start with the end, because one of you asked me to. My mom died under mysterious circumstances but she was not murdered. In retrospect, her death fell at the end of a long line of clues, as well documented as a stack of stolen credit card receipts shoved in a dresser drawer.

My mom liked creeps and I suspect that she knew a lot of them. Three creeps in particular she knew intimately. She married one at nineteen, my sister’s dad, and she had a run-in with one at 35 that left her with me. She found the worst of her creeps in a phone-sex chat room in early 2002.

Mike was an on-again, off-again used-car salesman. He’d sell you a used car whether you wanted one or not. He’d sell you a used car if you asked him about the weather and he’d sell you a used car on your birthday. He sold used cars so well that he went to jail for it several times, the last time just weeks after he married my mom in 2003.

My mom waited patiently for his return a year later. I won’t tell you about how I paid her rent and her expenses while he was in prison. I won’t tell you how much I worried that Mike the used-car salesman would return, or worse, that he wouldn’t.

Mike the used-car salesman returned shortly before my Bubbie died. He timed his reappearance well, and made off with my Bubbie’s savings. He spent his treasure trove on scummy motel rooms and gifts for younger, hotter finds from the sex chat room.

In 2006, my mom fell on the grass while she was walking their Yorkie. She waited hours on the ground for Mike to return from the used-car lot cum scummy motel room. My mom died a few days later in a crummy hospital ICU, her organs shutting down because of drug complications. My mom was not murdered by a used-car salesman, but she may as well have been.

Mike the used-car salesman died two months later in my mom’s bed of all places. When I got there, I found all of his receipts and bank statements stuffed in a drawer and I had to laugh.

 

 

I like black

Black brought us together twice. The first time I was four years old. Your mom brought you over. We went outside to play, our moms had coffee inside. I slung my new pink purse with the cherries on it over my shoulder. Tucked inside I had my art book and my crayons.

So we went outside to play. I led the way up the hill, that hill that seemed so large back then but that was really rather small. We climbed it and sat down next to each other at the top. I opened my purse and pulled out my art book.

“Can I see it?” you asked.

“Okay,” I said and handed it to you.

You flipped through my drawings as I pulled out my crayons and lined them up on the grass. Your eyes roamed over my pages, taking in my imaginary friends, my master plans for a motor home, my silly four-year-old dreams.

“They’re all black,” you said, confused.

“Black is my favorite color,” I told you, putting the crayons in rainbow order because they were not all black. I like to choose.

You laughed.

The laugh cut through me and I hated you. I reached for you and yanked a handful of your sweet, shaggy, golden hair.

You cried.

Your mom saw everything through the window and blamed me. But she was wrong. You deserved it. I gave you my secret and you tried to destroy it.

Years later you reminded me. “Black was your favorite color,” you laughed.

Yes, I know it was. It always has been.

The day before you asked me to marry you, you hid my engagement ring in a drawer. I looked. Damn my intuition.

The next night you wanted to walk on the beach. I knew what you wanted. I stalled, lurked in the bathroom, and bided my time. I don’t know why. When we reached the gloomy beach just after sunset, you got down on one knee and slipped the ring on my finger. You didn’t even have to ask. We lingered awhile until we couldn’t see each other anymore, the black night sky dropping heavy on us and the black water crashing on the sand. The scene was straight out of my art book.

It’s funny, black brought us together and black sealed the deal. You always knew what you were getting, even as you laughed about it. So I think that you like black too.

Sweet sixteen

The third time they did it, it was Heidi’s turn to draw the design and she did a swirly heart pattern for Valentine’s Day. The girls went straight to Emma’s house after school.

“You first,” Heidi said to Emma, grinning and bouncing on the bed. Both girls were in their panties; Heidi wore a bright red lacy bra that belonged to her older sister and Emma wore her favorite Hello Kitty t-shirt. The door was locked just in case and the music was blaring.

“Wait, put the towel down,” Emma said. She didn’t want her mom finding any stains.

“Okay, okay, silly,” Heidi laughed.

Emma had lined up their tools on her bedside table: the sewing needle from her mom’s strawberry-shaped pincushion, her granddad’s old Army pocketknife, which she swiped from her dad’s basement workroom, a pink plastic lighter for sterilizing the metal, several towels, cleansing pads, Neosporin, band-aids. Last summer Emma had taken a first-aid class so she considered herself an expert.

Heidi reached for Emma’s leg. Emma jumped. “Your hands are freezing!” she giggled.

“Sorry,” Heidi mumbled and rubbed her hands together. She started on the inside of Emma’s right thigh, using the needle to outline her design. With every prick, Emma startled, the pain raising the hair at the nape of her neck and making her nipples poke through the tops of the kitty ears.

“Mmm,” she said every time the needle entered her skin.

When Heidi had finished outlining, she carefully placed the needle on the table and gently dabbed a towel over the specks of blood on Emma’s thigh. She reached for the knife and began to connect the dots. The knife barely hurt at all as it sliced Emma’s soft pale skin – the pain would come later. Emma held her breath, watching the path of the knife along her skin. Heidi’s hand was steady.

“You’re so good at this,” Emma said in awe as Heidi finished up her design. The blood seeped over the knife tracks, obscuring Heidi’s work. Emma felt the pain rising along the cuts, so sharp and pure and perfect. “Ah,” she moaned and lay back on the bed.

Heidi cleaned the tools while Emma chilled on the bed. After a while, Emma sat up and reached for the lighter, using it to heat the needle until it glowed red. “Your turn,” she told Heidi.

Emma’s hands always wavered, even when Heidi went first. She would never be as talented as her friend, she thought sadly. Still, she continued, doing her best. She loved the sight of Heidi’s blood rising along her thigh, she loved her friend’s sighs, she loved and hated how Heidi’s hand slid down into her panties while she worked.

Emma’s thigh throbbed hard under the band-aids as she dabbed away Heidi’s blood with another clean white towel. She sterilized the knife and ran it along the needle pricks, her heart pounding as Heidi began to hum. She worked slowly, with both hands so Heidi’s small thrusts wouldn’t jerk the knife. After a few minutes, Heidi lay silent on the bed. When Emma finished tracing the design, she wiped away the blood and spread Neosporin over her friend’s thigh. She applied three Tinkerbelle band-aids over the cuts.

“It’s time for you to go home,” Emma said. “My mom will be home in twenty minutes. Help me clean up,” she poked Heidi on the shoulder and reached for the pocketknife. She carefully wiped it clean and flipped it closed, then cleaned the needle.

Heidi sat up and grabbed the trash bag, tossing the band-aid wrappers and dirty towels. She tied it shut and shoved it inside her backpack to get rid of on the walk home.

The girls sang along to Counting Stars and danced around the room, thrilled with their matching bandages, their matching wounds, their matching pain.

After they dressed, Emma put all of their supplies in her art box. If anyone saw it, they wouldn’t think twice since it was already full of odds and ends – pencil stubs, dried up erasers, her compass. She stashed the art box under the bed and checked and re-checked her room. No one could ever know what happened here.

“Don’t forget to clean it,” Emma warned Heidi, and gave her friend a quick hug before she left.

Later on, after dinner, Emma’s mom circled the house collecting laundry. She found the blood-speckled towel still spread across Emma’s bed and panicked.

Dear Mr. Hoffman

Photo via vanityfair.com
Photo via vanityfair.com

I’m sorry you’re dead. I’m going to miss you, you, one of the few actors who really got self-destruction. You always made me believe in the bad in the good and the good in the bad. You always creeped me out.

Mr. Hoffman, if you’re up there in ODer’s heaven, keep an eye out for my dad. He’s funny and you’ll like him. He’s a youngish-looking fifty-something with white hair and a jaunty fedora. He died seeking that alternate plane of existence that I know you knew so well. He chose the tantalizing promises of a sly lover—alcohol—over the greedy gropings of his little daughter. He died alone, like you.

Mr. Hoffman, I know your secret. Everyone else thinks that you died on your bathroom floor atop a scattered mess of needles and baggies, but I know the truth. No, you died in an elusive, exquisite, and delightful paradise. You died happy.

Mr. Hoffman, I feel like we know each other. May I call you Phil? Phil, this isn’t easy to ask. Phil, if you’re wandering around ODer’s heaven and you bump into a dark and curly-haired, middle-aged former beauty, Phil, will you please tell her that I love her? Phil, go ahead and give my sister a hug for me. Tell her that I get it, that I finally understand that infinite draw to the dark side. I finally understand how your soul responds to vice as much as virtue. I get that sometimes you can only find peace on the path to self-destruction. I realize how sin is a long-lost art supply.

Phil, I’m going to miss you, but perhaps one day I’ll join you on that alternate plane of existence. I hope that someday I learn to eviscerate and reinvent myself through my art the way that you did. Phil, I admire the way that you lived, and although it terrifies me, I have to commend you on your death as well. You never failed to surprise me. Maybe someday you’ll look for me up there, too.

Where are you right now?

Last week I took a trip to Puerto Rico. Where I live, it’s winter – bitter, gray, snowy – and it has been for awhile. So Geoff and I tossed our swimsuits in a bag, bought some sunscreen, grabbed the kids, and headed for the airport. A few hours later, we squinted in the late afternoon tropical sun and shed our sweatshirts.

We spent our time on the beach, swimming and building sandcastles. Geoff opened a coconut for us and poured the water into our mouths. We hiked in the rainforest and we explored cobblestone streets and centuries-old castles. I took a lot of pictures, and of course, I posted some on Facebook. I shared my sunny moments, my too-cute kids, my lucky life with my winter friends. I did it not so much to show off as to bring my half-frozen friends with me, even if just for that one second that they scanned my photo in their Facebook feeds. Because, let’s face it, winter is long and hard and everyone needs an escape.

On our last evening, we stopped at a beachside park before dinner, to let the kids play and watch the surfers. As I sat on a stone bench, my phone tucked away in the rental car, I watched the people at the park. There was a young mom chasing a toddler younger than Nate, one hand on her phone at all times. There was a young woman in professional-looking skirt and blouse, perfect hair, clearly just off of work, typing madly on her iPhone. She never looked up at my kids who were playing on the grass around her. An older man sat on a bench a little ways down from us, eyes locked on his phone, and never even glanced at the surfers just yards away and directly in front of him.

Everyone else in the park was elsewhere. I’d love to believe that they, like me, might have been posting photos to help thaw their winter friends. I’d love to believe that all the people in the park were sharing their version of paradise. But I fear that they were trying to escape themselves. That reality is just as ugly even when you sit just yards from the beach, beauty staring you in the face.

I’m back at home now, and honestly, it’s nearly impossible to escape from the polar vortex outside. Ice is forming inside my windows. Our vacation feels distant, dreamlike. It’s tempting to read my email, text a friend, flip through my Twitter loop, anything to avoid looking at the snow piles outside and wondering how long it will be until I see grass again. Reality is hard to take and escapes, even real ones, are only temporary.

Still, if you’re reading this from paradise, text me a photo.

Is love adorable?

What did you think of my story?

You haven’t answered me. Did you read the comments? Were they right, is love cute? Is the photograph of us on the hill as kids truly adorable? I don’t think so.

Maybe you disagree. Maybe you treasure those old memories the same way that you might enjoy taking the kids to the top floor of a tall building and showing them how to crush people on the street below with your thumb and forefinger.

You can’t really do any damage, you know.

The photograph on the hill captured the start of our love. Imagine it as a delicate wrought iron cage, its door left open to let the birthday guests run back inside for cake. Nothing is really locked up yet, just held loosely.

Years pass with the cage door still open. You even escape for a while, leaving me light and wondering. Can you believe that I desperately asked myself, at twelve, if anyone would ever really love me? The answer was always there, a little clue tucked inside my photo album.

At nineteen, when you brought me flowers on my birthday, you were not shy. You snuck up on me quietly in the rain and stashed those flowers inside the cage. I didn’t even notice you slip the door closed.

At twenty-one, you brought me a puppy wrapped up in your shirt and while I was playing with him, you used the new leash to tie up the cage door. You were not shy.

At our private, sunset engagement party, you were bold. You asked the question as if you already knew its answer. You dead bolted the cage with my diamond ring, and I was thrilled to be inside with you.

Now that we are older, the cage is getting full. It’s cluttered with tombstones and birth announcements. Adventures are falling out, littering the floor underneath. The mess has made us both shy, wary. Inside the cage, we stoop down and flip through the pages of our photo albums, searching for that one reminder of what we both really are.

Only the photograph on the hill doesn’t really exist. I made it up.

Is love adorable? I don’t think so.

Remember that picture?

Ooh, I got Editor’s Pick this week over at Yeah Write. I think that means that I’m doing this right. Thanks so much, guys!


I think the photograph is from my sixth birthday, when I wore my tuxedo swimsuit and sat on my new Strawberry Shortcake bicycle ready to learn to ride. My kindergarten friends are in it, the ones who I carpooled with and played with at recess. My neighborhood friends are there too, lined up on the same hill that we would sled down in winter. You’re there too.

When I think back to when I first started to love you, I think it began that day, in the moment the picture was taken. It’s just a coincidence that the photograph exists, like the photo that your grandma caught of your first steps. The photograph is beside the point. If it did not exist, I would still remember the moment, just as your grandma would clearly remember your first steps. Even without the photo, I would still love you.

My mom wanted to take a group shot of all the kids at the party. The good little Catholic school kids ran to the hill first and sat in a line, me in the middle. The neighborhood kids followed, not to be outdone. But you, you didn’t listen. Looking back on it, knowing how six-year-olds can be, you most likely felt shy. But my mom insisted that you get in the picture. All the other kids were already lined up, so you ran behind the line, right behind me, and you stood there covering your face. My mom snapped the photograph and I started to love you.

It was just a moment, and I don’t remember exactly what happened before or afterwards. I’m sure there was cake and presents, but it hardly matters. The best thing about my sixth birthday party was you. It never crossed my mind at the time that you hid your face because you were shy. No, you covered your face because you were cool. You surprised me and you showed me how to be different.

Now that we’ve been married for a while, I know that sometimes you are shy. When you’re in an unfamiliar group, I can feel your urge to press your hands to your face the same way that you did at my sixth birthday party. But I also know that more often you are cool, that you are not afraid to stand up and do something silly just because you want to. More often, you show me your fun, quirky side.

Whenever I see you like that, you, that boy on the hill, I love you a little more. I know that I am cool too. I know that being with you means that I can do anything and be anyone who I want to, no matter what anyone else thinks. Then I’m glad that my mom took that photograph as proof.

Please forgive me or I’ll give you another lizard for Christmas

Looking back on it, of course I bumped into her at the craft store. My heart was still pounding with the memory of texting her just minutes earlier from the parking lot. “I’m sorry,” I wrote. The thought that I might see her there at the craft store even crossed my mind as I walked through the door and lifted Nate into a cart. Usually it would be a good thought, but this time, no. It breaks my heart to admit it.

“Hi,” she said halfheartedly as we met at the end of the aisle near the cake decorating supplies. I maneuvered the cart around a large metal stepladder; we may as well have been in city lockup together.

“Hi,” I answered, knowing full well that she was angry. It felt strange to have my best friend angry with me at all and the week before Christmas it felt surreal. “What are you buying?” I asked, trying to sound lighthearted.

“Scrapbooking supplies,” she answered.

“I’m getting decorations for Anna’s birthday cake,” I announced unasked.

A minute later we parted, still uncomfortable, still in a fight. It’s funny that we bumped into each other just then, how the universe keeps bringing us together like that. Did I ever tell you that I first met her weeks before my mom suddenly died? At the very moment when I needed a friend the most, she appeared.

When I was a kid, I never wanted a best friend. Something about the idea of having one freaked me out. Now I try to forego labels at all, instead just trying to be the best friend that I can. I think it’s worked. I’ve done such a good job insinuating myself into her life, supplying the ingredients for fun, that she trusts me to be there all the time, not just for the everyday get-togethers, but for the birthdays, the holidays, all of it. Our friendship is such a success that she can believe that her semi-Jewish best friend will come to Christmas dinner at her house unannounced and without an invitation.

And when I can’t be there? Well, this friend who never fails to surprise me, who had a whole secret life before the one she has now, who has had adventures, who has messed up and fixed herself, and who even used to own a pet lizard, well, she surprises me yet again. She stops speaking to me the week before Christmas.

 

Life and death

When Geoff’s grandma calls me, I never answer the phone.

No, wait, it’s not what you think. I love Geoff’s grandma. For simplicity, let’s call her Grandma. Grandma is everything that my Bubbie wasn’t. She’s loving, kind, friendly, funny. She’s delightful. I’ve felt close to her since Geoff and I started dating. Honestly, she inspires me with the way that she loves her kids, grandkids, even her husband. She’s a great role model, and I’ve told her so.

But something about her scares me.

Grandma is pushing ninety. She’s been in good but not perfect health for the last ten years or so. About seven years ago, Grandma and Grandpop were in a car accident that left them each with various ailments. Still, they hang in there, and they are always, without fail, happy to hear from us and ready to welcome us for a visit. They both adore the kids. Grandma still gets down on the floor to play with them.

A couple of years ago I started shutting her out.

We were at her house for a visit, and Grandma started to feel dizzy. She went up to her bedroom to lie down and a little while later she called me upstairs. Me, not Geoff, not Grandpa, not even her own grown daughter. I found her lying on the bed next to her blood pressure machine. Her blood pressure was too high, she told me. She didn’t want to go to the hospital, and she asked me to stay with her. I sat on the edge of her bed, held her hand, and put my other hand on her shoulder. We took deep breaths together.

I was scared.

I told her that she would be alright, and after about half an hour her blood pressure returned to normal. The next day she paid a visit to the doctor. She made a quick recovery and the rest of our visit was just fine. You’d never have known anything had happened.

But I did.

When I was sitting with Grandma up in her room, I had the strangest feeling. With my hands on her and us breathing together, I felt like I was giving her some kind of a transfusion. A life transfusion. I could feel the energy passing between us, even though I didn’t understand it. In the moment, I could only think in dichotomies. If I was giving her life, then she must be giving me death in return. I didn’t want death. I still don’t.

From then on, things were different between us.

When she calls, I don’t answer. I tell Geoff to call her back. I still love her, and we visit. The kids send her artwork. Still, I’ve been stingy with her. I haven’t let her hear my voice, I haven’t given her any more life. I’ve closed myself, as if life were a special gift of mine and death a curse of hers, rather than both being realities that we share.

I’ve been wrong.

I hope that I can find the courage to be open with her again. I hope that I can do the small things that she requests as she gets closer to the end of her life. I hope that she will trust me to help her.

I like to get messy too

Anna has been hiding her dirty laundry.

Every morning lately she’s been melting down when it comes time to get dressed for school. “Mom, I can’t find any pants!” she yells, like I’m keeping them from her. Usually she finds some, never mind that they are too short and seasonally inappropriate – or on the third day of wear. The important thing is that she learns to fend for herself, right?

In the evening, while I’m watching reruns and folding laundry, everyone ends up with a stack of clean clothes. Except Anna. Without fail, her pile will have just a pair of socks and a t-shirt while everybody else’s clothes tower over me. Against my better judgment, I checked her closet last week – maybe she shoved her dirty things in there. But no, the closet was relatively clean. I should have worried, but I didn’t.

Anna has always been hopelessly, even hilariously, disorganized. When she was a toddler, she would fill every available tote bag with her toys and hang them all on her toy stroller, carting it all over the house. We used to call her the bag lady. Last winter, one of my new year’s resolutions was to help Anna learn to organize her toys. I bought her a bunch of cute little colorful bins, and made chalkboard labels for each one. She had so much fun labeling and organizing her toys. It worked great for about two weeks, and then we promptly forgot all about organizing. Honestly, I’m happy when the toys make it into any bin at all. I don’t mind if she makes a mess when she’s playing.

So this morning, I was trying to find a few more items to fill up my laundry basket. I wandered into her room, thinking that I would grab her pajamas from the floor. Then I noticed a bin on the floor by the window. It had a pair of dirty leggings in it, along with some doll clothes. So, I grabbed the leggings and peeked in another bin. It looked like it was full of trash. I pushed the trash aside and underneath I found a bunch of dirty nightgowns. Then I turned and noticed a gift bag, full of dirty t-shirts and even a piece of my jewelry!

Needless to say, I am really glad that I checked her bins. God only knows where all of her toys are. And I was just about to buy her some new pants.