During the winter of 1981 I took the semester off from college and moved back home, despite my parents’ shaky marriage, to make money for a trip to Europe that coming summer. Because I’d earned extra credits from playing in the college orchestra and taking viola lessons I could take the time off without delaying my graduation. By lying about my future plans—the fact that I had them—I got a job as a short-order chef at a restaurant two towns from ours specializing in gourmet sandwiches and soups. Crew’s was one of only a handful of thriving businesses in what had become Middletown’s bankrupt, decaying downtown. Throughout Connecticut the economy was bad then, but it had pointedly flattened Middletown. On Main Street restaurants had closed, the movie theater had closed, and, finally, Kabatchnik’s Department Store, always a beacon of fashion, closed too. That winter, even the string of holiday lights cast over the dogwoods lining the street’s sidewalks made the trees look less festive than barren and small, like the solitary old women who still walked Main Street for their daily trip to the Italian Grocery, their shoes flat and practical, their backs bent and tired, their winter coats buttoned tight and worn.
At Crew’s every sandwich had a name. Roast beef with Boursin cheese was “The Cadillac.” Tuna, Swiss, lettuce, and tomato was “The Winner.” Pastrami and mustard was “Big Red.” A Reuben—corned beef, Swiss, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing—was actually called a Reuben, but I’d never had one, so when they hired me as their short-order chef I had to learn even that.
The hierarchy in the kitchen went like this: chef, salad-chef, short-order chef, and then the waitresses. Given the leverage over the caste of waitresses, you’d think a person might want to be a short-order chef, but I rather liked the calico aprons the waitresses got to wear, which, with their leotard tops, gave them a granola-friendly look, the kind of look I’d taken to wearing at college in my Birkenstocks, long skirts, and shaggy sweaters, the kind of look that made most of them—hard-talking, hard-drinking town girls for whom college wasn’t a possible option, or a desired option—look soft and flowery and even bookish in ways they were not.
For several hours each morning, the restaurant was ours: the chefs. Maggie, head chef, was my boss. Lynn was the salad chef. She rinsed mounds of lettuce and arranged them in bowls, and she often accompanied herself by humming one or another of Barry Manilow’s hits. Lynn, shy overall, was not shy about her love of Manilow. Maggie, wiry and sprightly, was bossier and tougher than Lynn, and when she wasn’t ordering us about she spent the morning roasting sandwich meats. I prepared the sandwich board, filling it with lettuce, tomato, mustard, and mayonnaise, along with heaping supplies of roast beef, turkey breast, pastrami, corned beef, and Swiss and cheddar cheeses. I made up tuna and egg salads too, and at least once a week, I added dried parsley and oregano to cream cheese for the hometown version of Boursin.
Maggie also had me make the onion soup, a Crew’s specialty. After chopping dozens of onions and dropping them into a huge pot, I’d then fill the pot with several gallons of water, carry it to the stove, and hurl it onto a burner. Between the hauling of the soup and the hauling into the freezer any number of fifteen pound roasts of meat, which arrived once weekly enmasse, not to mention the hauling of near daily grocery deliveries, the job was marvelously physical, which thrilled me. At college I was a swimmer, and between the weight lifting that inadvertently came with being a short-order chef and the luggage lugging I was bound to do throughout Europe, there was a growing chance I’d return to college to swim my best times yet.
A woman from my hometown named Hope Amato—someone I knew—baked the restaurant’s desserts. Each Thursday morning she delivered pies: apple, chocolate cream, and lemon meringue. She also delivered a banana cream pie just for us, the chefs. And so each Thursday during our mid-morning coffee break, Maggie, Lynn, and I would sit in the still dim, deserted dining room, the bare oak tabletops yet to be set, eating huge slabs of banana cream, a calorie explosion I figured I’d earned from all the hauling and heaving. As the waitresses trickled in, we never offered them pie. If one asked for a slice, Maggie was first to raise an eyebrow, a sign that the request was unwelcome, then to begrudgingly give in. “Don’t pig out,” she’d demand while unabashedly pigging out herself. The semester before I’d taken a sociology class called “Group Behavior” and so I recognized this exclusive hoarding of the banana cream in its most objective term, as a group norm.
Hope Amato and I had been in the same year at school. In third grade we’d had the same teacher and, along with all the other girls in that class, Hope had come to my ninth birthday party. She was in my fifth grade class too, and for a while we sat side-by-side. It was during this time that I gave her a necklace of mine that she admired of porcelain beads on a leather strap. She was unusually petite, and the necklace, which had just fit my neck, fell onto her tiny, flat chest, clashing with her tiny, gold cross. Perhaps because of my Jewishness, the cross always stood out to me as her main adornment—something I’d never own—but in fact she wore both necklaces every day for the rest of the year.
I didn’t see much of her in junior high and high school. I was bound for college and had been tracked as such. But she wasn’t. I would see her in the halls, though. As a teenager she remained tiny, enviably slim and petite. Her sandy hair curled loosely around her face then fell to her shoulders in some variation of a shag haircut. Though not the most popular girl, she could stand her own with the pretty-girl set, and in her junior year when she began dating Tom Bishop, the best jock in the class below ours, the two of them looked made for each other. Month after month, they could be seen kissing by their lockers, kissing in the gym, kissing by the playing fields. That spring I took to skipping the last two periods of the day and once, sneaking across the fields, I spotted them in the distance, kissing by the baseball diamond. They were standing just outside the hometown dugout, tiny Hope on a wooden bench, which put her exactly at Tom’s height. I had yet to fall in love and could only imagine such an endless embrace, such passionate kisses. The next fall, our senior year, when Hope’s dainty stomach began to balloon, it was Tom for whom I felt the most sympathy. Honorably, he’d married Hope. Rumors were they’d moved to an apartment above Martin’s Grocery in our small and, like Middletown’s, increasingly depressed downtown. Come that next spring, Tom, a new father and a high school junior, would be working rather than pitching baseball, and this seemed the greater tragedy. It was hard to worry for Hope when she seemed so elated, as if with her marriage and pregnancy she’d already reached the pinnacle of her dreams.
When I told Hope how much I admired her banana cream she nodded shyly. This was on my third Thursday at Crew’s. The first two weeks we’d pretended not to know each other. It was as if that high school tracking system had ruptured any connection. She had two babies now, a three-year-old and a sleeping infant whom she rocked in a stroller. I had Wittgenstein’s philosophy in my pocketbook, which I was reading, strangely enough, for fun.
“You live around here, Emmy?” she asked, still not quite looking at me. In college I was known as Emily, but everybody from childhood knew me as Emmy.
“I’m home with my parents for a while,” I said. Then I added, because Maggie was close by, “but I’ll need a place of my own soon enough.”
“Our place is pretty nice. We’re moving. Outgrown it.” She glanced at the sleeping baby. “But it could be good for you.” Her eyes settled on my neck and she pointed to the red blotch, something like a fading hickey, where I tucked the viola under my chin. She nodded knowingly.
“It’s not what you think,” I began, but she wasn’t listening. Her attention shifted to her just-awakened child, whom she clearly needed to feed.
“Damn it, I forgot the formula,” she moaned, dropping the now wailing baby back into the stroller. She grabbed her toddler, whisked him and the stroller around, and with her still intact diminutive frame—the babies hadn’t affected her figure—clunked her way toward the exit.
Once Hope had gone Maggie said, “God, I don’t envy her. When my kids were that age I was ready to throw in the towel.” We were seated at our coffee break table, with Hope’s glorious pie as the centerpiece.
“How old are your kids?” I asked Maggie. Despite the lines creasing her brow, she looked young enough, about twenty-five, I guessed.
“Eight and six,” she said to my amazement. Could she be thirty? Thirty-five? Or, like Hope, did she have her kids well before twenty? “How old are yours?” she asked.
Even more amazed, I answered, “Mine?”
“No kids yet?”
“I’m not even married.”
“Like that has anything to do with it.” When she laughed, Lynn joined her, snorting wisely, as if to say, Isn’t that the truth. It was then I remembered they were both divorced.
I looked at them and nodded, as if I actually knew something about marriage, children, divorce. About adult loneliness, loss, and bitterness. But what did I know? Even with my parents’ heartache of a marriage, I was on thin ice. What I felt certain about was the emotional satisfaction of eating something sweet. At college, for example, every one of us girls was addicted to Tab.
So I said, “Lynn, you need more pie. Maggie, you too. You too.”
In sociology, my favorite theory was the French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s “anomie.” Our professor had explained what Durkheim meant by anomie, something akin to feeling adrift in one’s own land, a collective loss of identity, an atmosphere of uncertainty that descended when the social norms and social bonds between people within a nation came undone. This had to do with the complexity of modern life. Where we were once all farmers, we were now in an economy consisting of countless specialized jobs. With this specialization, the spaces between people had widened and the feelings between them had become impersonal. Without the old roles and rules a sad listlessness had struck people, like a pox, and this was the psychological manifestation of anomie. When I imagined myself, soon enough, in Europe, Durkheim’s France in particular, I imagined being able to see the anomie in the wilt of the Europeans’ eyes or perhaps in the slow pondering of their collective gait.
I took to anomie like college girls to Tab. I longed for the chance, just once, to feel that sad listlessness, something, I sensed, that would always remain beyond my reach. For when the professor said nation I heard family, and when the professor said rootlessness I said to myself, in my best Yiddish accent, oy gavolt, the roots, roots, and please spare me, but more roots. In just three generations of American life we’d become irrevocably rooted, it seemed to me, in Middletown. How could I not know exactly who I was and where I belonged? Indeed, my father, who had grown up there, now worked in a family-owned building on Middletown’s Main Street that bore the family name right on the façade. On the sidewalk right before the front entrance our name, Miller, appeared once again, permanently etched into concrete. Farther down the street, an uncle owned a linen shop and the family name once again glared in the public light. And at the synagogue one block north of Main Street, a building founded by my great-grandfather, we were given honorary front row seats, which meant that on the High Holidays we were always on display. Sure, there was no question who we were and our degree of belonging. But this rootedness brought with it a decisive lack of privacy.
Being Jewish in our hometown, outside of Middletown, meant being unique—we were the town’s sole Jewish family—and this too was part of the undesired singularity, the embarrassing noticeability, of these particular roots. Everybody knew us as the Jews. Clearly, a little anonymity is what I longed for, not anomie, but the words sounded so much alike I quickly mixed them up and craved, rather than feared, Emile Durkheim’s vision of the world. If only, I thought, listening to my professor describe the theory. If only I could get my hands on a little anomie.
Yet I was anonymous enough at Crew’s. For all Maggie and the others knew I’d be a short-order chef for the duration—for the rest of my life—and when Maggie raised the possibility of group dental insurance at the March staff meeting I began rah-rahing along with the waitresses and Lynn. By then I’d become an accomplished sandwich maker. The orders would begin to trickle in at about noon and I’d start, calmly enough, preparing one sandwich after another. By twelve-thirty, though, the lunch rush would be on. The door between the kitchen and dining room would fly open with calico-aproned waitresses entering and exiting as if perpetually confused whether to stay or go. With the urgency of a medical crisis, they would post lunch order after lunch order. Two Cadillacs. One Big Red, one Reuben. Onion Soup, hold the cheese. Onion Soup, extra cheese. To keep up with the orders required a concentration as pure as a meditating monk. I’d read the sandwich name, pull out a plate, lay out the bread, mayo, and lettuce. Soon enough, I was spinning, gracefully as a ballerina, between sandwich board and microwave, microwave and stovetop, between turkey and pastrami and tuna salad, between rye and wheat and plain white bread. If Lynn was singing Manilow, I didn’t hear it. I had ears only for the sound of Crew’s bizarre sandwich names, each one ringing with its own association of ingredients, each one its own note on a musical scale I had, out of necessity, strained my ears to hear. I had eyes only for the elements on my carefully prepared sandwich board and the seconds visibly ticking on the microwave screen. I had a towel tucked into the belt holding up my jeans. I had Nike sneakers on for extra comfort and lift. As I learned the best ways to maximize my time—while melting cheese in the microwave for one sandwich I’d pile on the makings of a Cadillac for another, for example—I was honing my organizational skills until they were as sharp as the meat slicer.
I was now a step ahead of the waitresses. Their orders would post and before they could get them I’d have them made. If a sandwich were left too long under the heat lamp it was my prerogative, Maggie insisted, to raise my voice to get, as she put it, “the goddamn order out.” But I never yelled or swore. Politely, I tried to catch a given waitress’s eye then direct it to the ever-chilling sandwich or soup, hoping she’d catch my drift. For in that kitchen, despite what turned out to be a knack for sandwich making, for the delight of such physical work, I’d lost my tongue. I was glad, then, for the total preoccupation of the lunch crunch. For during the minutes outside it, I felt something I’d often felt during my school years in the greater Middlesex County. For something I felt even more strongly at home. That I was alone.
If there were another reader in the world like me, someone who felt that a book was as delicate as a snowflake, or as necessary as air, I would meet that person at college. That’s what I imagined during those hours I’d skip high school classes, bored with a curriculum that, in a town where only a handful would go to college, was bent toward the remedial. I’d leave school then drive myself to Hurd State Park. At Hurd, I especially liked climbing the trail to the river overlook, which led to the top of a line of cliffs high over the Connecticut River. Up there, I’d gaze out and imagine the day when I was free of it, the subtle sense I always carried of being different, of being Jewish in our small town, of being curious about school-related things in a world of kids who only longed to graduate high school and get on with it. Hope Amato’s early pregnancy bore no shame. She was only starting out a bit early on what was the right path, the enviable path. Even I felt that envy. I just wanted to delay that time a bit and go, as soon as possible, to college, please. Climbing the path to the river overlook, always in a rush, as if this actually were the path to college, I’d begin to tingle with sweat as I neared the top. The air above the river was always cool, though, and alive with a breeze. I’d spend long hours by myself up there, looking over the world that was all the world I knew, the Central Connecticut River Valley, imagining other worlds to come. I’d populate these worlds pretty specifically, with parent-substitutes better suited to me than my biological parents, who were typical of the few Jews scattered throughout the Central Connecticut River Valley: good, honest, hard-working people, family-oriented and often even politically active in a local kind of way, but not intellectual, not artistic, bookish, or painterly like the Jews I often read about in New York City. We were country Jews, rural Jews, Jews who made homemade rhubarb sauce each summer along with every other country gentile, and, as far as I could tell, this was as different from the city Jews, the New York Jews in particular, as night was to day.
I also longed for a boyfriend, someone as honorable and athletic as Tom Bishop, but more scholarly, more rabbinic. Someone I’d always admire and wouldn’t tire of, the way my mother had tired, year after year, of my dad. I imagined I’d know this boy when I met him. I imagined he’d just as easily recognize me. I imagined a world wholly different from this one above the quiet, expanse of river I gazed down at. What I never imagined was that I’d carry this landscape with me, inside me, always. That no matter where I went, to college and beyond, the world would always be a beautiful, river-filled valley that I was gazing at from a quiet perch of some distance.
There’s a conversation I had recently with another single woman, my best friend growing up. Among the dozen or so in our class who went to college, Clare and I were the only two to get a liberal education, the most impractical educations our friends from town ever conceived of. What were we going to do, exactly, with our Chinese religion classes, our ethnomusicology, our ridiculous love of theater? By our sophomore years, we’d cut off ties with most classmates from home. Now, by phone, we were discussing our twentieth high school reunion when Clare brought up Hope.
“Little Hope,” she said. “Remember?”
“Little Hope,” I repeated. I told her yes, I did remember. We discussed the pregnancy, the decimation of poor Tom Bishop’s baseball prospects, the apartment over the local grocery. “I was in that apartment once,” I said.
“Really?” Clare asked.
This had been soon after the birth of Hope’s first child. I was seeing a boy from town then myself, a drummer in our school band. Our dates consisted of driving to the state forest, parking on a dirt road, smoking a joint, and having sex in the front seat of my parents’ Buick, then sharing a milkshake and fries from Mitchell’s Dairy before we went home. For a few months, while in the loopy haze of having lost my virginity, I thought I really loved this boy. As it turned out, he bought his dope from Tom Bishop, the new dad.
I was to pick up an ounce and have it ready for us. This was on a Friday afternoon, my senior year of high school. I opened the door along the side of Martin’s Grocery and bumped into a baby carriage parked inside. As I climbed upstairs, I could hear the store’s cash register ringing open. At first I knocked only lightly on Hope’s and Tom’s door. When no one answered, I reluctantly knocked harder. I felt awkward, knocking on a near stranger’s door, a girl I’d known best when we were eleven, when whatever differences that lay between us and would ultimately separate us made no difference. Finally Hope answered, her newborn in her arms.
Hope smiled, said, “hey,” but quickly turned from me to the baby whom she pecked on the cheek. The baby had a wet face from tears but at this moment wasn’t crying.
At Hope’s suggestion I walked into what was a living room-dining area, a place that smelled like the grocery below, of coffee and the fumes of cars in the small lot. The TV was on and tuned to General Hospital, which I sometimes watched too. Unfolded laundry was splayed over a worn, plaid couch. A baby’s crib stood off to one side, beside the entrance to what must have been a bedroom. Just that entranceway seemed incredible to me. What was it like, I wondered, to sleep a full night in the same bed as your boyfriend? And to do that so often you didn’t even think of it as exceptional? That Hope Amato could live such a life and still look exactly as she did before her pregnancy perplexed me. Where were the signs of such monumental change?
“Want some?” she asked, pointing to a pot of coffee.
“No. I’ll just get the package and go.”
She carried the baby to the crib, lowering him down. She cooed, and the baby cooed back. Straightening herself, she stopped to catch the latest plot twist on TV. Eventually, she walked to the kitchen where she fetched a baggie with the dope already measured inside it.
“You and Billy going out tonight?” she asked, taking my money.
“I guess.” I registered Hope’s expression, an amused, subtle smile, which spoke volumes about her surprise that I’d be with Billy or that Billy would be with me. We were an unlikely couple, me with my reading habit and he an incurious underachiever. But we had the music in common, and now we had pot-smoking and sex. For a while, that was enough.
She turned from me, still smiling, and walked through the bedroom entranceway. I heard a drawer open and close. When she came back her arm was outstretched. What she’d handed me was small, square-shaped with something circular inside it, and wrapped. Before this I’d never seen a condom, so I looked at it quizzically.
“You once gave me a present, Emmy,” Hope began. She was on the couch now, ready to turn her attention back to General Hospital. “So now it’s my turn to give you one,” she said.
“That says a lot about what was really going on,” my friend Clare responded over the long-distance wire. “Can you imagine being a mother at seventeen? She must have been overwhelmed.”
“She seemed happy. Home with her baby, watching TV. It probably beat going to school. But no, I can’t imagine being a mother at seventeen, no.” I paused and then added, “But I always imagined I’d be a mother.”
“Girls always imagine they’ll be mothers. It’s our biology pushing our brains,” Clare said, yawning with the obvious.
“Do you ever wish you’d done it differently?” I asked.
“So I could be a mother?”
“Or even someone’s wife.”
“Emmy, you sound like you think it’s all over. We’re not that old. Maybe you’ll meet your dream man at the reunion!” Clare referred to our twentieth high school reunion, which we were planning to attend out of curiosity. “Hey,” she added, “maybe you’ll see Billy!”
“Maybe,” I said, sighing sadly. “If so, he’d better buy me a drink. Billy owes me one.”
One icy winter night Billy had driven my parents’ car—after sex, after dope—into a telephone pole. We’d had to get the Buick towed home and I’d taken the heat for the accident to protect Billy, who didn’t even have a license. After that we barely spoke. It was as if the crash had jolted us from a dream-state. Without that Buick, our vehicle for sex and dope, we had no way to connect.
But I had things in common with Terry Whitcomb. This was the man I dated during that semester off from college. I’d met him at Crew’s when he’d complained one day about the onion soup’s saltiness. He told a waitress named Bell that he wanted to speak to the chef.
“Can’t you tell him I got the message?” I asked. The lunch hour had already peaked and in fact I had time. But all I’d done was follow Maggie’s recipe. She should go, it seemed, not me.
But he was insisting and Maggie, using an imperial tone, had stated that she “truly couldn’t be fucked.” Bell, the most outspoken of the waitresses, and pugnacious, said a quick, “fuck you too,” right back at Maggie. For a moment I thought a fight would break out, though I didn’t quite see why. Instead, both women glared at me. So I swiped my hands over the towel tucked into my belt, yanked the towel free, and went forth. The complainer, my lover-in-waiting, turned out to be a small man, with long blond locks and a hefty beard. He looked cheerful and elf-like.
“You’ve got to tone down the Worcestershire,” he said, motioning for me to join him.
“You can tell?” I asked. It did surprise me how much Worcestershire sauce I ended up using in a given day at Crew’s, not only to spice up the onion soup but to add flavor to the tuna and egg salads. Until this job, I’d gone my whole life without Worcestershire.
“Allow me,” he began, and, pulling out a pad and pen, he jotted the recipe from the Berkeley café where he’d been a short-order chef.
It turned out we had more in common than the pick-up work we’d found between semesters. Terry, who now lived in Middletown, worked as an adjunct professor at the local university and wrote poetry. He was athletic, too, cycling hither and yon. He was thirty already, but with his jolly Santa Claus looks he seemed both younger and older. He ordered a beer and asked me if I wanted one, but I was still working. Before I left, we exchanged numbers.
This was the love I thought I’d been waiting for. Each Friday for the next month we’d meet at his apartment near the university. He’d have ordered take-out Chinese, or perhaps have made a stew in his handy stockpot, and in the background he played classical music, the kind of music I’d grown to love while learning the viola and playing in the college orchestra.
I’d arrive typically wearing an Indian-print skirt and t-shirt, looking more like a Crew’s earthy, feminine waitress than one of its muscle-bound chefs, and I was glad, after the hours at Crew’s, to be seen in a more feminine light. Terry and I would eat, talk, discuss back roads for biking, and once in a while Terry shared one of his poems with me. They were small, moody things, words thick with feeling but thin on specifics. I’d read them slowly—foggy woman, he might say, or ambling night—and gradually nod. His compositions, I’d come to see, were like incense: smelly atmosphere, something one might use to inhale and calm oneself with. I couldn’t say what they were about, but I liked how they made me feel.
Eventually we’d make our way to his bedroom for what became our weekly round of lovemaking. This on a double bed, which thrilled me, as before I’d only made love in the front seat of cars and once on a college dorm bunk. Terry was older than me by a decade, and the most experienced lover I’d known. Patiently, he ushered me into the throes of orgasmic rushes. Classical music in the background helped. A little wine went a long way too. One Friday night, resting in Terry’s bed in the afterglow of sex, I felt so grown up, so “self-actualized”—a term I’d learned in a class on gender roles at college—I began laughing in wonder.
Terry asked, “What’s so funny?”
“This.” What I meant was sex and Terry and Friday nights near the university and the classical music coupled with Terry’s hazy poems—all of it seemed too good to be true.
“You know, I always wanted to leave home. All the time in high school. But I like it at Crew’s. It’s not a bad job at all.” I formed a muscle in my left arm and Terry and I laughed at its sizeable bulk. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” I added, “but I’m glad to be home.”
What I meant was I was glad to be in Terry’s home, in his bed, even if only one night a week, which became our unspoken rule. More than that and we’d be truly involved, which we still hedged about. We had a decade of years between us, after all, and that was a lot to consider. Less than once a week, though, and we’d be denying ourselves such basic pleasure: food, company, ever-improving sex. Home, my real home, a large, renovated farmhouse that sat squarely in the center of our little town, was a quiet place. If and when my mother was home, it was only to eat, catch up on phone calls, and watch TV. If and when my father was home, it was only to eat his own meal, later and separate from my mother’s, and to leaf through mail. Despite their hostility, my parents slept in the same bed, an act of mutuality that baffled me given the hatred that flared during their waking hours.
“If I leave the bed, I leave him,” my mother once explained, leaving me more confused than before. “If I left, how would I live?” she clarified, by way of near hysteria.
Eventually I told Terry the story of the tension, the silence, the chilly atmosphere in our home. It began when I was about twelve, I said. But maybe it had been there all along. Maybe I only began to feel it at twelve.
“What’d you do?” he asked. “I mean, how’d you cope all those years?” We were in his bed, our legs twined together. To enhance our lovemaking he’d lit a candle, and its glow flickered.
“I’d read, mostly. But once I learned to drive I’d go to this river overlook,” I said. “I’d leave home, then leave school, then leave town. I’d stare at the river and imagine leaving for good.”
“Where’d you want to go?” He squeezed my shoulders lovingly.
“To college,” I said. “For the longest time I set my heart on college.”
“Where will you go after college?” he asked, still squeezing.
“I really haven’t thought about that. I just like it this way.”
He kissed my mouth. “What way?” He was clearly angling for some acknowledgment of him, the bed, the special candle, the lovemaking that had just finished and would, if I answered correctly, soon commence again.
“I like being in college,” I said.
Passover came late that year, in early May, well after Easter. I was used to there not being another family in town celebrating the same holiday. These were the times when our house felt like a kind of island, dislocated and separate from the mainland of town. A driveway circled our roomy, old farmhouse, and as the relatives gathered, driving out from Middletown and Durham and even as far away as Meriden, our house slowly became encircled with cars, one parked after the next, which ultimately seemed like a metallic fence, materially marking how this night, for us, was different from all other nights.
My mother had been preparing for two days. The night before I’d helped her set the table, an elaborate enterprise given all the ritual foods we’d eat at the seder. To begin, we’d lifted from almost every dining room chair one of my father’s suit jackets. It was his habit to arrive home and drape a jacket over a chair. Our rarely used dining room thus had the perpetual look of a vacated board meeting—chairs strewn with men’s business jackets, but no men.
That night my father worked late as usual, and once home slipped his jacket over the back of a chair. My mother used the rote act as reason to distance herself from him.
“Stop it,” she complained. “Can’t you see we’re working?”
He mumbled that he was sorry, took his cue to leave, and we continued our preparations—skimming the simmering chicken soup, preparing matzo balls, chopping parsley sprigs and boiling eggs—without encountering him again.
The next night, as the relatives arrived, my mother and father were all smiles, all hellos. The house was freshly dusted and vacuumed, the silver polished, the skimmed soup simmering once again. Like a happy, cooperative couple, my parents sat at opposite ends of our fully expanded dining room table, my father leading the service, my mother rushing from the dining room to the kitchen with as much focus and determination as any of the waitresses at Crew’s.
I was up and down nearly as much as my mother. As we prepared to serve the main course, she spoke directly to my father for the first time that evening, calling to him to lift from the oven the twenty-five pound turkey we’d soon consume. He always carved the meat. But he must have been talking with a relative, for he failed to show. After a minute, I leaned in to get the bird.
“Emmy, are you sure?” my mother asked.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
Easily, I carried the roasting pot to a counter then lifted the turkey onto a large platter. The carving knife was already set beside the platter, waiting for my father. Eventually, my mother began to carve, slicing the breast along its rounded outer side. Quickly, I stepped in. Just that week Maggie had taught me how to slice alongside the bird’s frame until I could remove one whole breast, then the other. When I did this, my mother stood to one side, delighted.
My father finally arrived. “Emmy’s done it,” my mother told him. She jubilantly jabbed the bare carcass. “You see? Emmy’s a wonder. So obvious, really, to slice close to the bone, but who’d have thought? So you see? We don’t need you, after all.” She sounded close to ecstatic.
“So you can go back,” she said. “Go back!”
The next month, June, I was ready to leave, to give my two weeks advance notice at Crew’s and then I’d be off to Europe. I was to travel with two college friends. We planned to Eur-rail from city to city. Our first stop would be Paris, home of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, of Emile Durkheim and his great sociological theory, anomie.
Upon my giving notice, Maggie looked at me like she’d known I’d quit all along.
“You’re not like us,” she said, shaking her head. “Can’t put my finger on it, but you’re not like us. But you’re sure fast with a sandwich. Where are you going?”
“Don’t know,” I lied. “Just want a little break.”
“Didn’t realize we paid you that well.”
“No kids, no husband. It’s different for me.”
“You said it.” In a surprisingly friendly way, she patted my back. “I’d kill for a little break myself,” she whispered, shaking her head.
The last Thursday at work I was to drive to Crew’s bearing Hope Amato’s pies. Hope had called that morning begging for help. She had a migraine, she said. “The kids. They’re driving me nuts.”
For the second time, I climbed the stairs alongside Martin’s Grocery, which at this point, in light of the town’s first mall, would soon go out of business. Yet despite the lapse in clientele, the sound of the cash register and the smells of coffee and car exhaust were the same as I recalled from my last trip there the year before. Even the noise of the TV inside the apartment seemed the same, though that was impossible. General Hospital was an afternoon show and I arrived just before eight-thirty a.m.
Hope answered the door in her bathrobe. Her hair, that light, curly mass, was still disheveled from sleeping. Tom Bishop sat at the kitchen table, spooning food into the baby’s mouth. The other child sat on the couch, hypnotized by the TV.
Hope and I each carried a chocolate cream pie down the stairs, then we climbed back up for the two apple pies. She knew to place them on the floors of the car I drove—that old, dented Buick—where they’d be less likely to topple over.
“I usually stack them in boxes,” she said. “But I just can’t this morning. One more thing to do and I’m going to die.” She smiled brightly, as if she’d just made a marvelous joke, but in a moment her smile crumbled and she looked ready to cry.
Without thinking, I reached out and snagged her into a hug.
“It’ll be okay,” I said.
A second later we pulled apart, staring at each other like the strangers we really were.
“I owe you one, Emmy,” she said quietly.
I’d already started the Buick when she called from the stairwell entranceway, her voice now startlingly loud, “No banana cream this week! Tell them I’m sorry! Tell them I’m fucking sorry to hell! If they complain tell them to go to fucking hell! You tell them, Emmy, go to fucking hell!”
When I told them, recounting the scene, the words and the way Hope tightened the belt of her bathrobe as she ranted, as if she might snap herself in two, Lynn and Maggie instantly got it.
“The marriage is over,” Lynn said, her tone matter of fact. She then slipped into a Manilow tune, one of his fairytales about love everlasting.
Ironic, I said to myself, hearing Lynn. But I didn’t dare mention the word. Irony. This was another college term that had no place off-campus I knew of.
Maggie, shaking her head, said only, “Poor little Hope. Poor little Hope.”
Call it ironic, but at our twentieth high school reunion, Hope Amato gave me the warmest hello of anybody there, although I didn’t recognize her at first. But she spotted me almost as soon as I entered the restaurant where we were soon to be served gigantic slabs of meat, impossible to finish, a menu from another era, some twenty years ago when we were graduating high school, a time when a plate-sized chunk of beef could make a customer feel sure he was getting his money’s worth. No one talked yet of cholesterol.
“Emmy Miller. It’s Emmy Miller,” Hope said. “I wondered if you’d be here. I kept saying to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be something if Emmy Miller were here.’”
I stared at a red-haired woman, slim but tall, who, for the life of me, I didn’t recognize.
“Come on, Emmy, guess. Guess! You know who I am,” the woman claimed. “You once gave me a present. A necklace. You once had me over. Don’t you remember?” She winked as if this were one good joke. “I loved your parents’ big house.”
I could only shake my head. When she finally lifted her hand from her nametag, and I read Hope Amato Sanchez, I gasped. The red hair, obviously, was dyed. But the height I couldn’t account for. Sure, she wore heels, but even in heels I figured her as smaller.
As I apologized for my memory lapse she grinned, happy to have fooled me.
“So, where are you now, Emmy?” She winked again as if we were about to share secrets.
“Not too far,” I said. “In Boston. I went there years ago. And you?”
“Sante Fe,” she answered excitedly. “Finally got the nerve to take off. After the divorce, I mean. And I re-married! I really love it out there. The weather’s great. The people are great. My husband’s great. Emmy, to tell you the God’s honest truth, my life is great. Truly great!”
“Great!” I echoed, nodding along. I felt disoriented as I looked, eye to eye, at little Hope.
“And you?” she asked, her smile wide as ever.
“Me?” I paused to figure it out. A mediocre job, but with flexible time for the stories, stirring from within. Approaching forty and still no husband. No kids. Solitude, sometimes cherished, sometimes choking. “I’m fine,” I said. “Hanging in,” I clarified.
Later, I whispered to Clare, “Are you great? I don’t feel great, but maybe you’re great.”
And Clare whispered back, “Have one of these, Emmy.” She handed me her glass, clinking with ice and bourbon. “Give it a good ten minutes. Believe me, you’ll soon feel great.”
Without Hope Amato’s banana cream pie, Lynn, Maggie, and I didn’t linger that morning—my last Thursday at Crew’s—over our coffee break. We resumed our lunch preparations and by the time the restaurant clamored with the needs of the lunch crowd we were buzzing around the kitchen, efficiently in sync with each other’s moves. Lunch orders were posted and picked up, pronto. The soup, slightly modified given Terry Whitcomb’s complaints, was hot and apparently pleasing—at least no further objections came in. Lynn’s salads were up and out, Maggie’s meats had roasted, and my Cadillacs, Winners, and Big Reds flew out the kitchen door.
Later, after the crowd thinned, Maggie asked me to slice a roast for the next day’s sandwiches. She’d recently taught me to use the meat slicer, to place my hands in such a way as to avoid an accident. I’d just heaved a turkey breast onto the slicer when I was struck by the sound of Haydn’s 104th symphony coming over the speaker system. Normally the music at Crew’s consisted of Lynn’s Manilow in the kitchen and a consistent stream of light rock outside the kitchen. The bartender, named Jake, controlled the music in the bar and dining area and I noticed it about as much as I noticed the color of air. But this was different. This was a piece I knew, as the college orchestra had played it just that last semester.
The music was like a visit from an unexpected friend. Haydn! How nice! Without thinking, I rushed from the kitchen.
At the bar, Jake stacked glasses while talking to Bell, that pugnacious waitress I’d learned to avoid. But whatever reservations I had in Bell’s presence were lost under Haydn’s cheerful spell.
“I’ve played this!” I told Bell and Jake. “I love it! Could you turn it up?”
Jake leaned over the bar. It was only then that I realized how smeared my t-shirt was with grease and tomatoes, how damp the rag was that I kept tucked into my belt. I’d never spoken to Jake before, and I was suddenly shy about my awkward entrance onto the bar scene. But Jake didn’t mind. “Sure,” he said, and the music gushed forth. All this time, Bell, who’d been sitting on a bar stool as she chatted with Jake, stared at me. An instant of silence was soon followed by a burst of laughter, far louder than the Haydn.
She was laughing at me. At my outburst from the kitchen, my connection with the music. At the enthusiasm, strangely and seriously sincere, that I showed for this sound.
That laughter, caustic and judgmental, meant to invoke embarrassment if not shame, was something I must have experienced before. For somehow I’d learned long ago in the social scheme at school how not to push certain subjects. How to play down any “culture” when necessary. How to be, more or less, towny.
“And who are you?” Bell said as if it were terribly obvious.
She continued laughing as she jumped off her bar stool, patted her calico apron flat, crossed her arms over her leotard top, and stood closer to me, staring as if at an awfully strange object.
Back in the kitchen, my hands shaking with anger—or was it embarrassment?—I adjusted the slab of turkey on the meat slicer, which caused Maggie to scream. I’d forgotten I’d left the machine on, and the blade whipped forward.
“Off!” Maggie cried, sprinting toward me. “Turn it off!”
In the end Maggie was the one to turn off the slicer as I was too distracted to comprehend her warning. An index finger bled slightly, but, miraculously, that was the extent of the damage. “Oh my God! What were you thinking!” As she spoke, Maggie laughed hysterically, in a manner not unlike Bell’s.
I stared at my hands, remarkably still intact, all ten digits just fine but for their unstoppable nervous twitching. I held them up for Maggie.
“You need to sit down. You need some food,” she said. She lifted the rag from my belt and wrapped it around the finger. Then she threw her arm around my shoulder and led me toward an open table in the dining room. For the first time since I began at Crew’s, I could see that Maggie probably was a very concerned, warm mother to her children, that all that bossiness was only one side of her. Once we were seated, she called to Bell, whom she had no idea had played a role in this mishap, to take my order.
“Feeling okay?” Maggie asked as we watched Bell approach.
“Feeling ironic,” I answered.
Later that afternoon, in the deadly silence of my home, I sipped tea and stared out a window at the trees in our yard. The sadness I felt was a familiar one. The incident at Crew’s had awakened an old loneliness. Its source, layers of separateness I sometimes felt, included today the difference of liking Haydn, of my going to college. On other days, in other years, it might include the difference of having a major religious holiday when the rest of the world was having a normal Tuesday, say. On another level entirely, it included the sense I was slowly awakening to that I’d realize my life not by taking up a profession or learning a trade but through a kind of nose-hunt, an active sniffing that was part and parcel of all the reading and thinking, dreaming and daydreaming, I did.
In the vast and terrible silence of my home, I also felt the despair of being part of a family soon to collapse. Neither parent was there, as usual. I would have liked to sip tea with my mother, who, to the degree she wasn’t hating my father, was really lovely and friendly. I longed to show her my amazingly intact hands.
And when you piled one layer on top of another, what you got was a great need to get in the car, finally, and go.
Because I headed to the river overlook, a place where all that sorrow could be carried and somehow transformed into a little hope—that of imagining my life other than it was—I was late that evening for my date with Terry Whitcomb. That night we were going out to eat at a Mexican restaurant on Middletown’s Main Street that had held up, like Crew’s, despite the depression that decimated so many other businesses.
I’d never seen Terry angry before, the features of his usually jolly face closed, a vein pulsing on his forehead. I apologized sincerely. I’d gotten lost in time, had had a lousy day. I told him about the Haydn, the awful laughing, the maiming I’d almost endured.
“Maggie saved me,” I said, incredulous still that this was so.
Later, when I updated him on my travel plans, explaining that I’d be leaving for Europe the following Wednesday, that I’d be checking into American Express stations in all the major cities, that I’d write him lots and lots of postcards and hoped he’d write me, Terry nodded, saying, “Sure, of course.” But I could sense his lack of conviction.
Later still, after our meal, while we sipped coffee and gazed at each other, Terry’s blond beard such a familiar, comforting sight to me by now, I told him I was sorry once again.
“You don’t have to apologize, Em,” he said. “You had a lousy day. I get it.”
“It’s not that,” I said. “I’m sorry to be leaving you behind. I’m sorry not to include you.”
“You made your plans a long time ago,” he said. “Besides, I’m a working man. I’m a thirty-year-old working man. I can’t just up and go to Europe like some college kid.”
Terry had never called me a kid before. I looked at him, confused.
“What I need,” he said, “is to meet a thirty-year-old divorcée with two children.”
I figured this was a joke, and after a minute of taking it in I cautiously smiled.
But Terry was serious. “It’s dawned on me lately,” he began. “You need Europe. And you need college. And you need to be a million miles away from your parents and another million miles away from here. And me? I need to catch up with my life. I need a thirty-year-old divorcée with two young kids. Em, I totally mean it. I need them like now.”
We never officially said “breakup,” but when I left for Europe my relationship to Terry Whitcomb was as vaguely defined as one of his poems. He didn’t write to me in Paris, nor again in Lucerne, though I sent postcards from each of those places. I stopped talking about him to my college friend with whom I traveled lest it seem I was making a mountain out of a molehill, a relationship out of a convenient sexual liaison.
Anomie: when the spaces between people widened and the feelings between them became impersonal.
It wasn’t a word meant for love relationships but I could think of no other for what was happening, with that big ocean of age between us, to Terry and me. That big ocean of age, not to mention the other major divide: that heavy knapsack of loss that was my parents’ marriage, that hideous silence that kept me running from home.
The French smoked and drank coffee. The Italians always talked, gesticulated, rode trains. The Germans and Austrians were a walking people and a very white looking people in contrast to my own dark, Semitic looks, something I couldn’t help but notice as I read, of all things, Sophie’s Choice while on that particular part of the European tour.
Anomie: when the spaces between people widened and feelings between them became impersonal. As when, in the context of reading a novel about the persecution of Jews and certain Poles, you, a young American Jewish girl, happen to set foot in the land of those persecutors and feel your own darkness, which is your skin and hair as much as your fear.
I blended with the Italians and one day in Florence, tired of the college friends, I took off for a walk by myself. Ambling the streets, surveying the goods of an outdoor market, stopping for cappuccino, or, later, wandering ever more dreamily near the Ponte Vecchio, I was, with my olive skin and dark hair, blissfully anonymous, the very state back in Connecticut I thought I craved. Yet within a short time I achieved nothing other than that drifty, distant feeling I knew as anomie.
Durkheim’s sociology was indeed everywhere. We could go to Rome, we could go to Greece, we could rent a pensione in Paris or Munich or Venice and no matter. I could forget about life back home. I could openly take in all the art and beautiful hillsides Europe had to offer. But I might as well have been on that Connecticut River overlook. For whatever I took in I saw through an invisible scrim of sadness, a quality I couldn’t have named even if I’d realized it was there, as the sociology of this sadness, like the sociology of any sadness, cut, after all, simultaneously along so many lines. But I didn’t know it was there. And so Durkheim’s sociology, not the product of my own, became the unifying theory by which all Europeans conformed. Everybody had it, didn’t they? Over here it was just as my college professor had suggested: everybody was tinged by anomie.
On those days during my last year in high school when I skipped classes and would wander off alone, I’d stop at home before heading to the river overlook. The house would be empty and I’d take a cup of tea to our living room couch and stare out the window to the street. About that time of day, early afternoon, Hope Amato, my classmate, would be out walking, pushing a baby carriage. The first of her babies was just months old. Sipping tea, inured to the silence in my home, I’d watch her, wheeling the carriage, mid-afternoon, on a Thursday, say. All the other kids our age were in school. I always felt sorry for Hope when I’d see her like this, slowly wheeling her baby, the only person out walking the sidewalk of our long, hilly street. I imagined her feeling cast out and alone. I imagined her longing for the company of school friends. I imagined her guiltily wishing away that tiny person she’d created in that carriage, the source of what now made her so distinct from everyone else. I imagined she’d always feel this way, separate and marked by that early, careless passion. I imagined her so very different from the way I imagined me.
Photo courtesy of JJ Bers; view more of their work on Flickr