I savored Sesame Street.
I went without for over thirty years, but now I was back. I got my daily dose in the morning, sometimes even before coffee, and Elmo came up in conversation at least once every twenty-four hours. He was new to me, but I accepted him as my own.
Oh, Elmo. Elmo, Elmo, Elmo. My incantation.
You know you’re in trouble when you start carrying a diaper bag as a purse, and the baby isn’t even with you. That was what I wrote on the yellow sticky, the one Eli found on the kitchen counter and asked me about. “Are you all right?” he said, looking at me funny before he returned his attention to the American Express bill.
“At least he read it,” my friend said later, when I told her.
“It’s just a line I thought up,” I told him, shrugging falsely while sterilizing pacifiers in the microwave. “Something I can use later.” When I got around to using the quips I collected on yellow post-its for purposes as yet undiscovered, like issuing my own special line of mixed messages in fortune cookies for trendy pan-Asian restaurants that served tofu and the like. “I wonder if we’re giving our baby a dose of radiation by microwaving these.”
I was not all right.
Would someone turn on the T.V.?
My father was a salesman. During his lifetime, he sold many things: baby clothes, blue jeans, hand-knit diapers and, of course, cars. When I was a kid, we parked the silver station wagon with the peeling paint in the stadium lot near the horse track and ghetto homes with chain link fences and snarling dogs, opened up the hatchback, and peddled knit socks. I loved those days, waking early and getting a thermos of hot chocolate, walking around Park ‘n’ Swap to shuffle through used books and records, eating Indian fried bread out of the backs of trucks. Pulp fiction and Peter Frampton, Ian Fleming and Eartha Kitt. Old toys, old coins. Refried beans, cotton candy. One could find anything. One could collect anything. I was too young to wonder if he felt shame, embarrassment.
Every morning, when I was a kid, he’d do a thousand push-ups and leg-lifts. Nothing stopped him, neither respiratory infection nor charley horse. He’d sprawl out on the office/guest room floor next to my room, and I—still in bed—would hear him huffing and puffing, a rhythm that maddened me. The man was driven; I was sure he did them the day he died.
The only sales job I’d ever held was selling coffee for Gloria Jeans Coffee Bean. I did a few push-ups once.
Irony: We are the same, that dead man and me.
Ask anyone. Ask my mother.
The thing about sales was that it was performance; things weren’t what they seemed.
My parents married in their early twenties.
Eli and I married in our late thirties. We didn’t exactly grow up together. We married after Eli lived with something like five women in various locations like the Ozarks and Nantucket; and after I had been to fifteen different countries, studied up on classic rock, acquired multiple advanced degrees, and seen a million movies with my single female friends. In our marriage, co-dependency wasn’t a problem; self-sufficiency was. Both of us tripped and sputtered helplessly over words like, “I need you.” We said it when we were dating, of course; but, hey, that life was over. We didn’t need anyone! Needing was for sissies! Marriage fit us because our premarital lives had left us desperate for lasting commitment and everything, but we were jolted, out-of-sync with reality. All those demands on our time! All that sharing! All that communication—you had to say stuff when you woke up, when you walked in the door, when you sat down for dinner!
And, of course, we had to instantly reproduce.
Eli and I went to see The Forty-Year-Old Virgin when I was eight months pregnant, and there I was, all Pillsbury Dough in maternity overalls, next to the man who did the deed, knowing no one would mistake me for a virgin. Suddenly, in the dark theater, in between references to the eighties which did me right, I felt nostalgic—not for the eighties, but for my virginity: those days when love, life, everything seemed far off, sweet, magical. Ah, my virginity: a time when the world was black and white, a before and after, an interlude between Casey Kasem and important bands. Ironically, that was the eighties.
By the time I put on my maternity overalls, had the sweetness vanished? Did I still feel the pang for things distant, just-out-of-reach? If I thought about it, squinting my eyes and squeezing my temples, I could almost remember the intensity of wanting something I didn’t believe I would ever get.
Oh, the wanting!
The magic: The future spread before me.
What did I want again?
Songs made me think of my dead father.
Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park.” Silly songs like “Mellow Yellow.” The soundtrack to Songcatcher. Other music too. Jethro Tull. Ritchie Havens. Traffic’s “Low Spark Of High-heeled Boys.”
I forgave him his New Age stage, since he saw Bob Dylan with me. I thought of him when I saw albums spin, when the Commodores played, when I saw old pictures of Elton John, Earth Wind and Fire, even Led Zeppelin.
Play that funky music, white boy.
A nineteen-year-old girl came on to Eli at the Toronto airport when their flight got cancelled. He was there on business. Biotech stuff.
As the passengers rushed around, trying to book new flights, cell phones abuzz, she suggested they share a hotel room. She did so bashfully, looking—I imagined—like Skipper, Barbie’s young cousin, who—I thought—resided in some beachside co-op. The come-on girl’s long, natural blonde hair flipped like wind sails over bronze shoulders. Rose-tinted blush on her cheeks. Sparkling teeth like a model in a gum commercial. Apparently she hadn’t noticed the gold ring on his finger. “We can share a room, if you’d like.”
Eli told me he said to pretty Skipper, “Uh, that won’t work.” I could picture him responding this way, looking overhead at departure flights.
I, too, had a brush with infidelity. Once, when Aubrey was sick and Jordan wasn’t even around yet, Eli stayed home and I went to a wedding alone.
Among the glamorous, I felt like a hausfrau. My roots were showing. We weren’t talking dark roots; we were talking gray roots. Though thin, my body resembled a flat tire. For the first time ever, I understood why women wanted boob jobs. Frankly, I didn’t have breasts anymore. My stomach had a ripple of a c-section scar slicing it like a marsupial. I tried to figure out when I started looking like someone’s mother.
Was it only when I became someone’s mother?
I spent the night explaining to wedding guests in sequins, silk, and gowns, “I’m a stay-at-home mom.” I’d say it, watch for the reaction, and follow up. “I used to teach and write for a magazine.” I thought about adding, “I’m starting my own business: fortune cookie messages.”
A religious crowd, we were about to pray before dinner. Angeline the Hausfrau, for whatever reason, dropped her dishwater hand into the lap of the man sitting next to her! Right into his lap! He politely picked it up, held it the way everyone was holding hands during the prayer, and she was quick to pull away. Hausfrau didn’t look at him for the rest of the night.
She wondered if Eli would care. Would he think about it? Did he picture her as a woman capable of coming on to a man? Did he picture her as lovely, or as a hausfrau? Did he see her in maternity overalls? Did he remember she had no breasts?
What did he think of me, anyway?
There was a common theme in the seventies: Imposters.
The Stepford Wives? Imposters.
Episodes of The Bionic Woman? Someone’s face would rip off to reveal robotic insides. Imposters.
Creatures were constantly feigning humanity to obscure hidden perversions, alien intentions. Though the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out in 1956, I couldn’t fully explain the impact the remake in 1978 had on me; I would forever picture Donald Sutherland letting out a Body Snatcher howl at the end. Oh, who could you trust? Wasn’t that the question, after all? If Donald Sutherland turned out to be a body snatcher, who was safe?
One of my childhood friends, Stacy Something-or-Other, was spooked by the trend. “Have you told your parents?” I asked. We were in second grade.
“I don’t like bringing it up.” Stacy did a penny drop off the monkey bars.
“They might get the wrong idea.” She landed in the sand like Nadia Comâneci, legs properly spread, arms outstretched. “I don’t want them thinking I’m an imposter.”
“Oh.” I was electrified, riveted.
“I’m also pretty sure I was adopted. But I’m not bringing it up.”
I smiled, giving her a wink of confidentiality.
Oh, who could you trust?
Was Lassie even a real dog?
Aubrey, three, blessed people when they sneezed. Already the baby waited for God’s benediction when she let loose.
What do you say? I prodded my kid, sometimes.
We’d be sitting in the kitchen, our haunt. Jordan, ten-months-old, in the highchair with the zebra on the cushion and the fruit puffs stuck in every crevice, Aubrey in the booster chair with grape halves tucked underneath, me in the kitchen chair stained with unidentifiable food items—all of us huddled around an array of breakfast/snack/lunch/snack/dinner/snack items: macaroni and lactose-free cheese, smooshed banana bits, a pulpy apricot piece, the ubiquitous cheerios—some smashed to thousands and thousands of bits on the kitchen floor. Sippy cups askew, sticky juice puddles gathering. A Pediasure bottle resting on its side in a circle of strawberry. Jordan—my truly beautiful bouncing baby—sneezed, Aubrey—gorgeous eyes aglitter—froze, our world akimbo, somehow reminding me of a Van Gogh still life. And then, then, it happened: Jordan radiated bliss in anticipation.
What do you say? I whispered; a breath, a hint, a clue.
Aubrey, knowing it was her moment, proudly offered, “Bless you.”
The world was set aright again.
The funny thing was that when I sneezed, Aubrey did nothing, nada.
Continued playing with her Dora the Explorer figurine or rubbing her stuffed dog’s nose. Jordan’s expectant look faded. All three of us grazed into the next moment of our lives together.
Yes, we grazed.
I’d asked myself this: Was it like the sound of a falling tree when no one was there to hear? Did the tree make a sound? Did my sneeze make a sound?
Did I even sneeze?
And sometimes I asked: Did this mean Angeline Wells was without God’s blessing?
In the beginning, Eli brought me chocolate chip muffins and steaming pots of coffee. Every morning, there were e-mail epics in thrilling, well-written prose. We played games with the car radio, pressing station buttons, guessing the artists of rock ‘n’ roll songs. We told each other about our fetid pasts, relishing disclosure. Our first kiss made walls shake. He was smart, bookish, and not a misogynist. Despite his love for the Doors (I hated the Doors), he also loved the Blues. He taught me the difference between Chicago and Southern Blues. He showed me that not all Republicans were racists.
Eli and I once made love in the car in the parking lot of the church at which we got married. Afterwards, I ran around outside without panties on. Naked in a church parking lot, asphalt on my barefeet, while my husband put on his blue jeans in the shotgun.
I used to wear go-go boots. Actually, that’s not true. I thought about wearing go-go boots.
He recently said, “You’re cosmopolitan.”
“Thank you,” I said, though I didn’t think he meant it as a compliment.
“All these dichotomies you set up . . .” He poured an inordinate, non-cosmo amount of hot sauce on his pizza slice.
Hmm, I thought. I was a cosmopolitan. We were a group. We didn’t do hot sauce on pizza. Maybe a little crushed red pepper.
He continued, “Between love and romance, motherhood and womanhood, sexiness and straight-lacedness, the ordinary and the extraordinary—they’re false dichotomies, Angeline.”
“You think so?” I asked, curious—more than anything—to hear what he’d say.
“To marvel that one has chosen motherhood or being a stay-at-home mom rather than pursuing professional endeavors, at least to me, is to rehearse a singular quandary of a singularly modern, cosmopolitan era, for that singular brood who has been taken with it since feminism and the sixties.” Eli could be very articulate, particularly for a non-cosmopolitan.
“What did you just say?”
“It’s like metaphysical schizophrenia,” he concluded with finality.
Aubrey teasingly asked me yesterday, “Is Big Bird a duck?”
Back to imposters.
“He might be,” I answered, playing along. Aubrey, brilliant at three, had no doubts over Big Bird’s duckness.
When Aubrey began watching Sesame Street, friends delivered tirades against TV, bad values, talking birds. But after my lengthy hiatus, I couldn’t wait to see how the characters had fared. Gordon, Maria, Luis, Susan, and Bob. For a while, I couldn’t get over the fact that these actors had spent their whole careers with puppets. At one time, did they dream of movie stardom, rather than public television for kids?
“Well, they sign yearly contracts,” a friend reminded me. “They could’ve left.”
But they didn’t.
So Sesame Street, thirty years later.
Snuffleupagus was no longer a figment of Big Bird’s imagination. I knew about Mr. Hooper. But David. How did I miss the news?
Now, Sesame-obsessed, I searched the Web. Northern Calloway, despite his winning moniker, was bipolar and maybe psychotic. Did he do sit-ups incessantly? Did he frequent the Humane Society like a ghost in chains from a Dickens’ novel? Did he have a penchant for Dairy Queen? These, my dad’s demons.
Psychiatric wards, heart failure, violence, asylums, cancer—rumors surrounded him.
But Northern Calloway died.
Though Mr. Hooper’s death was written into the show, David’s wasn’t. Like a tree falling in the forest, like my sneeze in the kitchen. Nothing, nada.
Metaphysical schizophrenia was falling in love in your mid-thirties, abandoning everything you’d supposedly worked for, and signing up for Infant CPR. Goodbye, mini-skirts; hello, maternity overalls.
Who was the imposter now?
I walked into Eli’s office (the guestroom) while he fixed the printer. I wore low-rise jeans and a black lace bra; he didn’t even look up. While staring at an ink cartridge, he answered my staged question. “Have you seen my sunglasses?”
“Nope,” he said. “Where’d you last put them?”
I thought, Who were we once? I thought, I’m virtually naked.
Last night, he came into the bedroom, wearing a full-length bathrobe. He sat down on the bed. I was already under the covers, reading.
Touching his back, I said, “Your robe is a turn-on.”
When we first got married, I had this elaborate theory on how sleeping in the nude fostered marital intimacy: It’s good for man and woman to sleep naked on a small bed and constantly bump into each other all night long. Eli, into nudity, was never quite into the bumping-into-each-other part.
The other night, when I rolled over and bumped into him, I discovered boxers and a tee. Huh, I thought.
“If I sleep with clothes on, my allergies aren’t as bad,” he explained in the morning.
“Oh,” I said.
But there he was the other night, and he had spent the previous Saturday putting baby-proof outlet covers on all the plugs. “I feel like the Cleavers.” He turned to look at me in bed, naked but not particularly beckoning, my sex drive analogous to my breasts: plummeting. “How was your day, June?” He smoothed down his robe. “I’m worried about The Beave.”
Show, don’t tell.
During the summer of 2002, I taught a seven a.m. introduction to magazine-writing class at a community college Drought parched the land and wildfires disfigured the earth; similarly, my own days spoke of thirst. Thirty-two, living at home, about to move into a gross apartment, no love life, ovaries rotting, good looks fading, an increasing need for sleep. I saved every cent of every paycheck, and packed an occasional box to make the future seem real. As far as I was concerned, I would forever wake at the undignified hour of five a.m., I would forever teach prerequisites to bored students, and I would forever argue with my father about the way I took care of my car. For a while, I even forgot I was an adult. Angeline Knox in her thirties—already not the same Angeline Knox of her twenties. The depressed thirties followed the roaring twenties: after college and pseudo-romances and faux-careers in other parts of the country, I crawled back to the desert to teach close to home.
“Your new apartment isn’t safe, it has termites, the appliances are older than me, and the neighbors look like they might kill you,” my dad said. “And when was the last time you washed your car? Or changed the oil? And how do you expect to pay for the alarm system you’re obviously going to need?”
“You know, dad,” I’d tell him on another occasion. “I can hear you on the phone from outside the house. That’s how loud you are. You’re screaming into the receiver.”
Sometimes, we’d take a break and go for pizza and a movie. Both of us liked pizza. Both of us liked movies. In the summer of 2002, we ate much pizza; we saw many movies.
One day, while driving home from work, I saw a car on fire. One of those seemingly random, weird things one encountered in urban landscapes. Very Mad Max. The driver pulled into a gas station which I thought wasn’t too bright, and police cars gathered. I wondered if I’d make it through the intersection before the explosion, the inevitable fireball that would mushroom into the sky. I wondered if Al-Quaida were behind it. My mom was out of town; I wanted to tell my dad about the possible terrorist attack. Wired on coffee, I went home to grade papers and tell him. “We’re at war,” I’d say. This was my summer of anxiety, my season of an unknown future.
But nothing was as it seemed.
The future took shape without pyrotechnics. In the beginning of August, when my bags were packed, my father died in a car accident. No mushroom cloud, but I envisioned a tumbling, rolling truck. Tumbling, rolling, tumbling, rolling, tumbling . . .
It happened while I was teaching. When I came home, he was gone.
On Sesame Street, David was already dead.
Angeline Knox would be someone else in a couple years.
Back in the classroom, maybe only a week later (because, amazingly, you still needed to go to work), a student wrote an essay about heartbreak: boy-met-girl, boy-dumped-girl, girl-all-alone.
The student described her loneliness as, “the sweet scent of solitude.”
I repeated it aloud to myself: The sweet scent of solitude. The sweet scene of solitude. O, The Sweet Scent of Solitude.
I bet she was proud of that one.
Despite the decent alliteration, I had a few questions: What does solitude smell like? And how was it sweet?
Could it be worn as perfume?
After my father’s death, my mom had to clean out his medicine cabinet. She found his half-used deodorant stick. She pulled off its top. She inhaled a whiff. Walking over to where I sat on the couch, she asked, “Do you want to smell your father’s deodorant?”
This was the sweet scent of solitude.
Show, don’t tell. Even when you were talking about death.
Imposters everywhere. Perhaps, Big Bird—our collective big old Big Bird—was just a mutant duck. Posing as a fun-loving city bird.
When my dad died, he was driving home from the gym. One of those hulking and impossible four-door trucks skipped over the median and rammed into the driver’s side of his car. “Killing him instantly,” the police said. It was a phrase we’d hear over and over, apparently meant to comfort us. A Natalie Merchant CD was stuck in his CD player.
Later, I drove to the site of his accident and spoke to the women at the automotive parts store nearby. I went alone. It was only a couple days after his death. I parked my car. I got out and walked into the store. Quiet, deliberate, falsely strong. A brave imposter.
The women inside were stereotypes: “girls” with chipped or missing teeth (did they get punched in the face?), thick makeup with blue licks of acrylic eye shadow, cheap yellow gold jewelry, rings on every finger, halter tops revealing wrinkly cleavage, short-shorts with butt cheeks spilling out, bleached hair. Middle-aged stuff.
They cried when I told them who I was.
Who was he? they asked. Did he have a wife, kids?
What kind of man was he?
My mom never drove down that road. She’d go around the block to avoid it. Whenever she spoke of his death, she said, “When he was killed. . .” She never said, “When he died in a car accident.” I thought she was trying to make a point. Someone killed him.
He also had the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the car, but he was listening to Natalie Merchant. Now, forever, I was left with Merchant spinning without sound in the destroyed and bloodied car, an indelible mark in my small world.
I still thought about those automotive parts women, the way they cried, the mascara trailing down their old cheeks, not stereotypes at all, how they wanted to know who my father really was. Was that just an imposter in the car?
O Brother Where Art Thou?
I didn’t feel particularly ennobled by my role as stay-at-home mom. I could wear go-go boots if I wanted—no one was stopping me. I just didn’t.
Sometimes, I cried to Eli, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do this motherhood thing. It’s too much.” I wasn’t cut out for babies, for hanging out with other moms, for Walmart, for nozzles in sippy cups, for teaching them how to do things we all knew how to do—using a toilet, holding a fork, not rubbing yogurt all over our legs. I wasn’t cut out for two-year-old conversation. Something went wrong, horribly wrong. I was a lousy mom. I was supposed to do something else, something solitary. I was once lovely, remember? Stark? Alienated? Untouchable? Aloof? Unhappy, yes—but lovely. Don’t forget, lovely. L-O-V-E-L-Y. And now, now, look at me.
Eli, a faithful man, bit his lip, endured. Suggested sex.
Sometimes I found his response admirable, righteous.
Sometimes I wanted to yell, You Passive-Aggressive Fuck. Do Something. Help Me. Can’t You Minimally Say I’m Still Lovely?
I am my father’s daughter.
He always wanted to be a history teacher. “If I could do it all over again,” he’d say. He spent his whole life saying, If I could do it all over again. . .
I am my father’s daughter.
A few months prior to his death, my father told my mother, “I hate my life.” It wasn’t the first time he said it. My mother and I didn’t tell people. Our dirty little secret.
In Scooby Doo, the villains always ripped off their masks to reveal their true identities. It was like the Stepford Wives. Underneath the masks, horrible things lurked.
I am my father’s daughter.
I kept thinking about how Gordon and Maria and Luis renewed their Sesame Street contracts, forsaking the movies. A steady income. A good life. Did Bob incessantly say to himself, I could’ve been Harrison Ford? I could’ve been Keanu?
I am my father’s daughter.
I used to envision myself as something else. Someone with more verve, more play. Now I sneezed, waited for Aubrey to notice.
At what point did you admit to yourself, This is my life? At what point?
That was then, this is now.
Judy Blume? S.E. Hinton? Thank you, S.E. May I call you S?
So, post-death, post-apocalypse, I would be unrecognizable to my own father.
Who was the real Angeline Knox? Would she please step up? Remember that show, something with Wink Martindale? “To Tell the Truth.” Speaking of the seventies? Of course, that wasn’t Wink, but I watched the show in syndication in the seventies.
That was then, this is now.
I shopped at Walmart, even though I was a snob and it jarred my sensibilities. I lived for pictures of my kids, trailing after them with a camera in one hand and rechargeable batteries in the other. I went to sleep at ten, unable to comprehend a word my husband said after dark despite the fact he didn’t say much during daylight. I bought Chips Ahoy! I’d try Nutter Butters next. When I was in the airport or some place where people unabashedly stared at each other, the thing I was struck by was this: I looked like a mom now, like someone’s wife—not one of those sexy wives husbands liked to take out on the town or passionately embrace; rather, like the wife who made a shitload of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and lost her sex appeal somewhere in the laundry. That was me.
I could see the disappointment in my husband’s face. A romantic, he was always hoping for a domestic beatific vision: Aubrey would be throwing her helmet-clad head back in laughter while safely racing down the sidewalk on her tricycle; Jordan would be precociously scrutinizing a book called Arts and Crafts for Rainy Days, about to begin a collection of popsicle sticks and non-toxic glue; and Angeline, his beautiful Angeline, would joyfully be singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” till the sun went down when Angeline, his scrumptious Angeline, would transform into a high-sexed masseuse.
My lack of enthusiasm troubled him. A faithful man, he bit his lip and endured. Suggested sex.
Recently, he said he’d like for me to plan a romantic Friday night for us when the kids went down. I nearly keeled over. “Well, you asked what I wanted to do,” Eli said, innocently.
I had asked; that was true. What do you want to do? “I was thinking, Did you want to watch the Will Smith movie or share the chocolate bar in the fridge, or—ideally—both?”
Romantic evening after the kids go down? At nine o’clock, when I finished the dishes? After I wiped up the soggy fish crackers stuck in the tile grout? After I showered off the possible pee on my skin, the definite YoBaby yogurt in my hair, and the soggy fish crackers from under my fingernails?
No, my father wouldn’t recognize me. He knew the young Angeline, the child Angeline—not the mom who wanted to watch Will Smith movies and eat chocolate on the couch.
Imposter Songs: “Burning Down the House” by the Talking Heads. “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. Anything by Wham!
Sometimes, Eli cracked me up. He’d shake a chair to scare Scrappy or Scooby and say, “Whoa, Nelly.” He tried to move one of them from a pillow and say, “Dude, move.” We’d be talking about art, about Peter Paul Rubens, and he’d ask, “Is he the guy where you’ve got a boob over here, and some grapes over there?”
“Pretty much,” I’d say.
Aubrey, too, filled me with adoration. She’d run into our bedroom, naked after a bath, declaring herself a ballerina while doing a pirouette. She’d say, “I’m like this because I’m doing this.” She’d reach for my hand while taking a walk, Jordan in the stroller, and she’d say, “I like walking with you. We’re two mommies.” She’d hand me a masticated hard-boiled egg and say she didn’t like it.
I’d ask, “Which part?”
She’d answer, “The egg part.”
And Jordan’s killer routine of crying at five in the morning till I put her into our bed, where she sucked her fingers and looked at me as if I were a true child of God: if I could do it all over again, would I?
Would I be stark and alienated but lovely?
Or would I renew my contract like a Sesame Street cast member?
I am my father’s daughter. Don’t think he would’ve done it differently.
The other night, at ten-fifteen, I approached Eli in the kitchen. We stood by the refrigerator, and I fixed my red terrycloth bathrobe around my body. I had just finished cleaning the living room, and so I held two pink piggy banks that oinked when a coin fell through the slots in their backs. I said, “Are you coming in?” Which was my super-duper, post-apocalyptic lovemaking battle cry.
The poor man looked at me, not exactly stupefied. Maybe reconciled.
I let my robe drop open, revealing my nightshirt that said Crazy Cat Lady on it. We didn’t even have cats. I saw him looking at it. “This is what we’ve got.” I sighed.
“What? Two pigs and a bathrobe?”
We laughed so hard, falling against kitchen cabinets, shaking walls.
No one toasted me at my wedding.
It was this awkward moment, punctuated with dead-fatherness.
Two years after the accident, I got hitched. Soon, I’d have two kids he’d never know.
I’d say this outright. Though I seemed remarkably “over” his death, I was left with a couple great sorrows; one of them was that my children would never meet my father.
Not to mention, my mother—who had to reinvent herself. At least, she thought when I married, Angeline was taken care of.
So my wedding: no toast. Of course there were logistical reasons—I told one friend I didn’t want anyone toasting me, she believed me even though I was full of it, she told my other friends, everyone believed it, and no one did it. End of story. Period. Dead Father.
My wedding was perfectly lovely. Traditional, pretty, no tripping, no gasping, no secrets revealed. Even some special college friends showed. Just the presence of the dead father, the presence of an absence.
That, and the cake sucked. But we ate it anyway.
And, hey, I was finally taken care of.
We were home from the hospital for one day. Aubrey was still at grandma’s doing the wild toddler thing, and Jordan was asleep in the bouncer, doing the newborn loll.
“Mrs. Wells?” the voice on the line asked. No longer Knox. Post-apocalyptic Wells. Angeline Wells, fatherless, a wife, a mother. I had just had number two.
“This is her,” I said, staring at the room, my domain, my baby. Jordan had a full head of dark hair, my little sleeping princess.
“This is Carol from Sunny Farm.”
My vet’s office. “Hi, Carol.” Carol loved cats, dogs.
“We were going through our ashes, and we came across Token’s.”
She wasn’t trying to be particularly delicate. But Token wasn’t mine. “I think you have the wrong Mrs. Wells,” I said. “This is Angeline Wells.” Scooby and Scrappy were mine.
“Oh, okay,” Carol said, as bright and cheery as can be. “Bye.”
The phone went dead, and I stood there, contemplative.
Was it token, Tolkien, or tokin’? Were the dead pet’s owners gamblers? Members of the literati? Dead Heads?
Just who were these people who had a dead pet named Token? Didn’t anyone want to know?
When my husband was a little boy in New England (where trees grew, snow fell, brooks bubbled, dust never settled, kids played happily, etceteras), he used to go to the dump with his dad.
“Didn’t I tell you this?” he said one night, after the girls were theoretically asleep, when Eli and Angeline Wells were theoretically adult married people.
“I don’t think so.” I dropped my swollen ankles onto the coffee table, all set for romance.
We were talking about garbage.
“We used to go to the dump every few months; it’s not like it is here, where you don’t do that stuff.” My husband left his adorable New England homestead and landed, cheekily, in a hot urban landscape sans Mad Max. Phoenix, Arizona.
He hated Phoenix, Arizona.
He never let me forget it. “I’ll never be able to leave,” I’ve said. “My mother is alone.”
Trash. We were talking trash.
“We’d go to the dump and the attendant or whatever those guys are—”
So, since I grew up in the urban landscape, I quickly pictured “Sanford and Son.” Weren’t they garbage men? Delightful, charming, inner city garbage men? Junk dealers?
Eli continued, “He was a sharpshooter. We’d throw a penny up, so high we wouldn’t even see it. But, then, we’d hear a ‘clink,’ and he’d shoot it—he’d hit it mid-air.”
“Wow,” I said dryly, not as enthralled by the sharpshooter as I was by the idea of going to the dump. “You guys went to the dump? What did you do there?”
“Dropped off things,” he said, ever perplexed by my naiveté.
What, no bulk trash days? “Where’s our dump?” I suddenly felt hot and clammy.
He began painting a picture. “You wouldn’t believe how vast it is.” Vast. “It just goes on and on and on,” he explained. “There are bulldozers and heavy machinery just pushing the trash around—you’re not sure where—but trash is always being pushed around. It’s endless.”
As he spoke, something happened to me. All that trash. Being pushed around.
“I used to love it.” A dreamy look on his face. “I’ll take the girls when they get older.”
I felt nauseous. Nervous. Where was the trash being pushed? It was vast.
Not my girls.
What happened to all that trash? What the hell happened?
So, thinking of displacement and abandonment and trash, I recited Matthew Arnold’s “The Buried Life” for Eli.
He looked at me with the same look I gave him when he talked about the sharpshooter. “How cosmo. Put on the cat shirt and let’s watch Will.”
It occurred to me now, since imposter movies had given over to random sexual liaison comedies, that the imposter complex was really a duplicity complex, which was really a concern for authenticity, the desire to be known. Who was the “real me,” and who knew her?
Perhaps I lost the Bionic Woman fans.
What I knew about my dad, the real Seamus Knox. Struggled with duplicity, felt as if—all his life—he wasn’t quite himself, like he should’ve done something differently.
There was another secret my mom and I possessed. On the last night of his life, he did something strange. I could picture it. My mom would be sitting on one couch, her legs outstretched before her. Quite possibly, there was a cat on her lap, or the newspaper maybe. The TV would be on, primetime hours, a habit my mom did away with when he died. My dad would be on another couch, a couple feet away. He’d have his legs on top of the coffee table; he’d be eating a very big bowl of ice cream out of a black glass that looked like a goblet, purchased at Crate and Barrel in the seventies, during the imposter era.
But this was the secret. He reached over to my mom, touched her arm, maybe her hand. Deidra Knox, about as authentic as you could get. He said to her, “I’ve loved you since the day I first saw you.”
I’d heard the story many times, the story of my parents’ meeting. It was the sixties in Chicago; my old mom was a looker—tall, skinny, mini-skirts, real go-go boots, platinum blonde hair down her back, a Twiggy/Marianne Faithful Thick-Black-Eyelash thing going, probably a necklace of daisies around her neck. She was the boss’s daughter in a downtown Chicago men’s clothing store that thrived, famous for selling the Jackson Five bell-bottom pants and shirts with paisleys and snaps. There was something radical about that store, Steamy Syd’s. A cross between chic and nouveau pimp, lives intersected—or clashed—and spun off into stories, epics, novels. And there, the boss’s daughter walked in one day and needed a ride home. So the boss turned to Seamus Knox, a skinny-ass kid from the metaphorical wrong side of the tracks. Both Seamus and Deidra had immigrants for grandparents, but Seamus’s were grocers and Deidra’s went into sales.
Seamus took her home that day, and the rest—as they said—was history. My poor father always wanted to be a history professor. Instead, he got married, had a kid, went into sales too.
One could call me a romantic with my memories and poems. Most wouldn’t.
I found more yellow post-its when my girls slept. Pen in hand, I wrote, Traded in go-go boots for nipple guards? These boots were made for walking? These boobs were made for chapping! Marsupial Moms Nipple Guards. Keep ‘em pretty. On another, I wrote, Posh? Preggers? Go Cosmo: Marsupial Moms Maternity Overalls. Wear for nine months and then fold into stylish diaper bag and latté holder. You gave up coffee? Also holds juice box! On still another, I scribbled, Angeline died. They buried her in her maternity overalls. The funny thing is, she wanted to be cremated but no one wanted to burn the duds. Marsupial Moms made them.
Forget fortune cookies. I’d launch Marsupial Moms, products for post-apocalyptic moms.
I went to a pool party, consisting of mothers and kids and a few miscellaneous young women–all of them good-looking. The men conspicuously absent, working, not invited. Aubrey held onto me, having just finished her own private swim lesson. She wore her hair in a ponytail, and her bathing suit was red, white, and blue, triggering a comment from another mom, “You look very patriotic today.” Jordan was being held by one of the miscellaneous young women who happened to be good-looking.
I couldn’t help but study the miscellaneous young woman, scrutinizing her, wanting to be near her. She was so young, so lively, so pretty. She bounced up and down, doing underwater ballet or tap. “I gotta dance,” she said “The water is great for it, and I’m taking dance classes.”
“Oh?” I asked. “Which ones?”
She did some sort of cha-cha, Jordan happily springing and bounding with each move. “Salsa and swing.”
“How fun!” I said, a happy imposter—really staring at her boobs. They were great! Perky! I was very aware of my tattered bathing suit, my maternal thighs.
We got on the subject of marriage. She declared, while salsa-ing underwater and holding my baby, “I’ve done a lot of things people want to do before marriage. I’ve lived in Europe—”
I lived in Europe too! A couple months in the nineties! “Where?” I asked, entranced by her salsa and breasts. Aubrey wanted me to swish her around the pool like I was a much younger motorboat, and Jordan was perfectly content with the energy radiating from the good-looking girl. Another miscellaneous young woman floated by. She had short chic hair and big hoop earrings. On her back, the words “Forever Young” were tattooed, and I was pretty sure she was referencing Bob not Rod. “How long were you in Europe?” I asked.
She lived in Paris for a year with a rich boyfriend who owned a club. Barely out of high school, the relationship left her feeling vacant and insipid but fluent in French. She wished it had been different. She could’ve danced!
Well, there’s nothing quite like a beautiful young American girl living in Europe for a year. As Oscar Goldman might’ve said at some point to the Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers: Watch Out!
But now, she was older, ready for marriage. “As long as he lets me dance,” she said.
Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but without dance, she’d just be an imposter.
We got out of the pool, the Salsa dancer, the Forever Young floater, the ThighMaster flunkey, and the two gorgeous kids. After getting the two gorgeous kids out of their swim diapers and positioning them in chairs with juice boxes, I sat down, still stung by the impression of the miscellaneous young women.
My envy, of course, eradicated their miscellany.
Aubrey woke me from my, um, reverie. “Mommy, mommy, mommy.”
“Yes, babe,” I turned to my star-spangled daughter.
She pointed to another little girl. “Where does No-Mommy live?”
“Do you mean Naomi?” When you were a kid, it was all about mommy, who had one, who didn’t, and where yours was. “She lives with her parents, her mommy and daddy.”
Aubrey looked thoughtful, as if trying to configure how the name and the existential reality coexisted.
“Just like you live with yours,” I added. “I’m your mommy.”
I wondered if Northern Calloway sat around thinking, “I’m nothing like David.” Did he die thinking about the duplicity of simultaneously being Northern in real life and living on Sesame Street in fiction?
I wished my father had lived long enough to accept his fate. Though he would never teach history, I pictured him in histrionic proportions.
When I was three, my parents moved to the other side of the country. They packed up the pets, the Volvo, the Peugeot. I rode with my dad, and my cousin Scott and the pets rode with my mom. We drove from Chicago to Phoenix, and I was told I talked non-stop. I remembered a few plastic games for the car like bingo and, frankly, I did have a vague memory of looking out the window while my dad drove, talking, talking, talking.
I remembered something else, too. Another car-on-fire event, but this time it wasn’t an urban landscape. And Mad Max was definitely not around. The details were lost in post-Peter Paul Rubens Impressionism. We were on a dusty, empty highway—between towns and landmarks. Something horrible had happened involving a massive truck hauling big, rolling tanks of gasoline; a VW bug flat like an empty tin can; and a truck and trailer with a horse in it. In my impressionistic vision, about as reliable as my impression of the dump, the gas truck and horse trailer ended up on their sides, and the VW Bug was crushed with four people inside. I remembered many dead, including the horse.
Here was the heroic, blockbuster part: in my mind’s eye, my father helped the gasoline truck driver. Despite fire and impending explosion, he pulled a girl from the VW Bug. She lived, while three died. And then there were the infernos and detonations. The orange and blue and black filling the air. A dead horse, the silver cylindrical tanks, the VW Bug not even visible. Yes, as incredible as it sounded and probably was, my father was a hero, emerging from fire, holding a girl who would spend the rest of her life thinking about her reality.
Even though I periodically asked my mom what really happened, this was what I remembered.
This was my dad.
When I was not even a teenybopper, just a pre-teen, pre-bopper girl frightening in my lanky-limb-womanly-suggestiveness, my parents relented and took me and my friend Kristy to see Rick Springfield’s movie debut, Hard to Hold. Again, I remembered very little about it, except that Rick played a rock star named Jamie.
And there was this scene on a balcony. Rick and his love interest looked into each other’s eyes, having found true love that circumvented all existential angst and potential explosions of fire, and the woman said something like, “Jamie, isn’t life nuts?”
For the next decade, my father would occasionally turn to me at key moments with a very solemn look on his face. He’d grow serious. Then, after the dramatic pregnant pause, he’d say, “Jamie, isn’t life nuts?” And he would burst out laughing.
And what was a post-apocalyptic mom? An imposter mom? A duplicitous mom? A cosmopolitan-turned-hausfrau mom? A mom who survived the explosion, the mushroom cloud, the fire in the sky? A mom who associated existential angst with the dump?
Was the apocalypse catastrophic? The end of the world?
When one finally met God and said, “This is my life?"
Aubrey asked me about my dead dad. We told her about the resurrection of the living and the dead. “Will your dad play with me?” She poured over old pictures that rendered him forever young. “He’s playing with Jesus now?”
I told Eli about my occasional dreams. “He’s alive, and it’s just like normal.” Eli, despite his attempts to understand, only knew me as a woman without a father. I looked at him, and whispered, I see dead people. He laughed; he knew the movie.
At the apocalypse, the metaphysical schizophrenia was healed and the false dichotomies dissipated. At the apocalypse, there were no imposters. The post-apocalyptic mom was the mom who waited for the resurrection—all the while missing the dead. I missed the dead.
I am missing the dead.