Authors: Saralee Rosenberg
Thirty years and still climbing.
Our fate has been our great fortune.
To Zack, Alex, and Taryn
Whom I love and cherish
Only the journeys you share are the ones worth taking.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
from Pirket Avot (“Sayings of the Fathers”)
“SOMETHING IS WRONG with Mom and Dad,” Phillip whispered.
“OKAY, THANKS GUYS. That wasn’t at all humiliating.” I found…
UP UNTIL THE MOMENT I raced into the ballroom looking…
ON A NORMAL BUSINESS DAY, a network news operation is…
AS YOU KNOW, I recently dove off the comedy cliff.
I MARRIED DAVID FORTUNE on my thirtieth birthday, certain I…
ONE OF MY FONDEST childhood memories was of spending summer…
IN HONOR OF my twenty-first birthday, my father bought shares…
YES, I CALLED HIM. Well not right away. It took…
I’VE BEEN ON some first dates that involved unusual modes…
“GLAD IT’S NOT ME” is the universal refrain when you’re…
I NEVER UNDERSTOOD the concept of paying to have the…
I’M JEWISH, but what little I’d retained about my heritage…
TURNS OUT I couldn’t live with myself unless I confessed…
WHAT DID GRETCHEN MEAN, if it all went down according…
MY MOTHER WAS a big fan of letting her badly…
RIGHT BEFORE TAKING an eighth grade science test, I remember…
COMEDY IS BORN FROM TRAGEDY. Not much of a news…
WORKING IN THE NEWS BUSINESS, I heard stories every day…
I HAD THIS CONVERSATION with Rachel so many times, even…
DON’T YOU LOVE the days when things are going great?
I PUT UP A POT of coffee (the way I…
WHAT A NIGHTMARE to go from feeling the crowd’s love…
“SO WHAT’S THE LATEST with your parents?” Ken punched up…
OH, TO BE ABLE to choose our defining moments, for…
GIVEN HIS DESPONDENCE, I was afraid to leave Ken for…
AWK-WARD. That was the only possible word to describe the…
THERE IS AN OLD SAYING in politics that every campaign…
SO WHAT DID I DO when I broke up with…
GOOD THING ABOUT being an adult traveling solo? You could…
a freshman at Penn State, I took a class called Interpersonal Communications. It met every week at the library, and involved little more than moving from floor to floor observing other students’ body language, study habits, and social behavior.
Easy A, I thought, until we were given our first assignment. Write a short essay on religion, sexuality, and mystery, demonstrating our ability to make a point while using the least number of words.
The professor informed the group that in his fourteen years of teaching the class, he had yet to give out a top grade. Still, he held out hope.
I submitted the following: “Good God. I’m pregnant. I wonder who the father is.”
I got an A.
Inspired, I became a big fan of brevity, never imagining that one day, the shortest sentence I would say aloud would turn into the longest sentence of my life.
OMETHING IS WRONG
with Mom and Dad,” Phillip whispered.
“What?” I hollered over the blaring music and the din of a hundred kids running wild.
No matter that my older brother was an in-demand attorney who earned more in a billable hour than I did in a week, to me he was still a putz. Therefore, family bar mitzvahs were the perfect venue for conversation, as it was near impossible to engage in anything other than short, superficial chatter over an ear-pounding “Everybody dance now…”
Yet Phillip insisted we talk. He pointed to our parents, Harvey and Sheila Holtz, who were seated across our table, but obscured by a massive centerpiece. “Look at them.” He leaned in. “Don’t you think they’re acting strange?”
“For about thirty years now.”
“Don’t joke, Robyn. They haven’t said two words to each other all night.”
I peered around the foam board cutout of hockey great Bobby Orr, and sure enough, they had turned their chairs to
literally face the music. An unusual gesture for two people who wouldn’t know Ashlee Simpson from Homer Simpson.
“Mom, how’s your salad?” I yelled. “Great raspberry vinaigrette.”
Everybody dance now…yeah…yeah…yeah…
“Daddy, how about those Mets?” I yelled louder. “Could be our year.”
Come on let’s sweat, baby. Let the music take control…
“You guys want anything from the bar?” our server asked. “It’s free.”
“What?” I cupped my ear.
“The drinks are free. What can I get you?”
Free drinks? Really? Because we are having such a blast at Brandon’s Hall of Fame, we thought we were at Madison Square Garden, not a sixty-thousand-dollar reception hosted by our cousin Barry and his wife, Rhonda, in honor of their thirteen-year-old son, who learned to read from the Torah in between ice hockey clinics.
“Diet Coke, please.”
“I’ll take an Absolut,” my brother said to our white-gloved waiter, who seemed to care as much about French service as Paris Hilton. “And bring my wife another cosmo. Thanks, buddy.” He leaned closer so I could hear. “I’m just saying I’ve never seen Mom this well behaved. She didn’t even do her usual take-the-bread-off-Dad’s-plate-and-hand-it-to-the-busboy stunt.”
“Don’t worry. She’s still up to her old tricks. I heard her go up to the Connecticut cousins and ask if they’re all so rich, why can’t the men afford socks?…Uh oh. Possible host alert. Look happy for Rhonda. Remember. Everything is beautiful.”
Phillip faked a laugh. “Then yesterday I called the house to remind Dad not to write a big check today because Barry and Rhonda stiffed us for Marissa’s bat mitzvah. I think they gave seventy-five a plate, or some ridiculous number…like they didn’t know what a Saturday night black-tie affair on Long Is
land costs…Anyway, Mom picks up and says Dad’s busy, so I said, Where is he? And she says, How the hell should I know? Am I his parole officer?”
“Ten bucks says he was in the basement studying a map of the former Czech Republic.”
“He never called me back.”
“Oh, so that’s where it comes from? You never call me back either.”
“Funny. Then this morning at the temple I said to Dad, Why didn’t you call me back yesterday? and he looks at me. So I said, Mom told you I called, right? No answer.”
“Well I’m glad they’re too busy to talk. Otherwise they’d be killing each other.”
“They took two cars here.”
“I know their license plates, okay? They both drove.”
“But Dad would go by mule before he’d fill up two cars going to the same place.”
Phillip’s wife, Patti the Whip, slid into her seat reeking of nicotine, certain her spearmint gum would baffle even us
fans. Like we’d never have guessed that she’d just spent the last ten minutes outside with her sisters in smoke.
“I need another, hon.” The former cheerleader pointed to her glass. “Where are the kids?”
“I’m on it…Em found a friend from camp, and Max is hanging with some boy whose father owns three homes…He asked Max where we winter.”
“Love it.” I laughed. “Kids comparing vacation destinations…We bought in Arizona. Mel and I don’t mind the dry heat…Dry shmy. A hundred and ten is an oven.”
Patti ignored me as usual and turned to her husband. “Where’s Mariss?”
“Oh. She just called from the Mario Lemieux table to say
Evan is picking her up now, so I said like hell you’re leaving early. This is a family bar mitzvah. We’re here till the bitter end.”
“I thought her cell died.”
“Apparently it’s born again, but that didn’t stop her from bitching she needs a new one.”
“I’ll take her after school on Monday.” She held up a soup spoon to dab on lip gloss.
a new one, remember? You replaced the one she left at the mall without asking me.”
“Fine. I’ll bring it back to see if they can fix it.”
“It’s not broken, Patti. She never gets off long enough to charge it.”
“She’s fifteen. What do you want her to do? Play house?”
I found out the other day that my brother and sister-in-law have signs of Holtz Disease. It’s a degenerative disorder in my family in which every conversation ends in an argument. My parents are carriers, so of course the odds were that an offspring would inherit the gene. Fortunately, they just came out with a new pill called Damn-it-all…You take it, and everyone around you goes to hell for eight hours…. Side effects may vary.
Thank God for the wet-kiss intermission from Aunt Lil and Uncle Sol. How was I doing since my divorce, and what a shame that David left me in debt, and didn’t I know he was a compulsive gambler, and what happened to my beautiful long hair? “We almost didn’t recognize you, dear. You look like that nice lesbian on TV. The one who dances.”
“Ellen DeGeneres?” I sighed.
Since making the rash decision to go from long and brunette to short and dirty blond, I’d heard this a lot. But it wasn’t just my hair. Having recently met Ellen at work, I discovered we were both a boyishly trim five-seven, with sky-blue eyes and jawbreaker cheekbones.
“Yeah, what the hell were you thinking?” Phillip made a face. “It’s so…”
“Short.” Patti studied me from every angle. “But it’ll grow.”
“Well, I love it.” I fluffed it up. “It’s so much easier in the morning.”
“Aunt Lil is right.” Phillip gulped his drink. “You look gay.”
“Mom,” I whined. “Phillip is picking on me again.”
My mother had no problem commenting on everything from my choice of nail polish (“Didn’t I drive a Buick that color?”) to my poor taste in swimwear (“The tag says you’ll look ten pounds thinner. With whose glasses?”). But if Phillip dared insult me, beware the wrath of Sheila Holtz. Until tonight, as if someone finally hit her mute button.
Lil and Sol took their cue. “You kids take care.” Kiss kiss. “And don’t be such strangers. Let us know next time you’re down in Boca. We’ll take you to lunch at our club.”
“You bet,” I answered.
Because there is nothing we love more than watching slow, out-of-shape seniors ordering lunch with little golf pencils and then eating like it’s their last meal.
“Talk fast.” I said to Phillip. “The DJ is supposed to introduce me after the main course.”
“You’re doing your comedy routine?” Patti sniffed. “Here?”
“That’s right,” I said. “The accordion-playing juggler on stilts backed out last minute.”
“No offense.” She coughed. “But aren’t you still in training?”
“Yeah, but comics are like hookers. Even the new ones get paid for their time.”
“Would you two stop?” Phillip cracked his knuckles.
“I thought you were bringing a date tonight.” Patti leaned over him.
“I never said that.”
“Yes you did. You said you invited that radiologist from Lenox Hill.”
“He was a cardiologist from NYU, and we didn’t hit it off.”
“How come?” I sighed.
“Are you sleeping with anyone else?” I asked him.
“Sex is part of dating. I would never promise monogamy.”
“Not even if we became very Close?”
“I’d have to be inspired to offer that. And you’d have to be willing to do anything.”
“Uh huh…do you even like me?”
“Yeah. You’re great…but maybe you should look into a boob job.”
“Leave her alone, Patti.” Phillip said. “She’s been divorced like what? Six months?”
“It’s fine. Much as I’d like, I’m too busy for dating or root canal.”
Frankly, I was too busy trying to hold on to my job as the exclusive makeup artist to two-faced network news star Gretchen Sommers. Too busy staving off the dozens of creditors demanding what little money I had left thanks to my gambling-addicted ex-husband. Too busy selling off our wedding gifts on Craigslist so I could contribute to the Help Robyn from Being Homeless Fund. Too busy trying to starve so that my depressed, après-marriage ass would never again look like an IKEA couch cushion. Too busy trying to break in to stand-up comedy in New York, probably because my life was a joke.
“Robyn, when do you do your little act?” My mother finally turned around.
“In a few minutes…Everything okay, Mom?”
“Perfect.” She turned back around.
“See?” Phillip whispered. “When does she ever say that?”
In spite of my brother’s perfect SAT scores and a law degree from Princeton, most days you could post your thoughts on a lighted scoreboard, and he’d still miss the point like a rookie place kicker. But had Phillip, King of Clueless, finally gotten the story right?
Whereas our mother was like Mama Bear on party patrol
(“This music is too loud…that food is too salty”) she could always be counted on to keep conversations lively by picking up juicy morsels of family gossip at the cocktail hour and dropping them like puff pastry time bombs by dessert.
And whereas my dad preferred to spend his free time pondering the wildlife indigenous to within fifty miles of the equator, he would still be a good sport and invite my mother to dance.
But like the first question asked at the Passover Seder, we wondered why this April night was different from all other nights. For on this night, my parents were glued to their seats.
“Please tell me you’re not doing that whole bit about how lame they are,” Phillip said.
“Have to. All my other routines are R-rated.”
“Then cut out all the curses,” Patti offered.
“It’s not the curses. I don’t think Barry and Rhonda want the kids going home telling their parents about my talking dildo.”
“You have a talking dildo?” Patti giggled. “Does he have friends?”
“Okay, we have a problem here,” Phillip, the senior partner, held up his hands. “You must know other jokes, Rob. You’ve been cracking them your whole life.”
“Comics aren’t just joke tellers, okay? It took me months to develop a solid routine. There’s a lot of nuance and setups and—”
“I don’t care what you do up there. Leave Mom and Dad out of it.”
“Robyn,” my mother interrupted. “After your little show, we need to talk.”
“Oh why wait?” she said to herself. “I should tell everyone right now.”
“You’re pregnant?” I laughed, though no one else did.
“Sheila, zip your lip,” my father yelled. “You want her to bomb up there?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Daddy. What’s going on with you two? We noticed you still had your bread.”
“Don’t tell me when I can and cannot talk, mister.” Sheila jabbed his shoulder.
“Go to hell.” He shook her off.
“Mom. C’mon. Please don’t make a scene,” I said. “Save it for the coatcheck girl.”
“Fine. We’ll discuss this later…I’m going out for a cigarette.”
“But they’re introducing me any minute.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t listen to one more word of your father’s nonsense…Why do you think I’m leaving him?”
Having grown up with a mother whose words were usually code for something else, I knew exactly what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, “Methinks she doth protest too much.”
Would that it be William’s mother was like thine own?
The more she insisted everything was fine, the more I knew she was lying.
If I asked her what was wrong and she answered, “nothing,” that meant everything was wrong, but she never wanted it said that she was a burden to her children. If I asked permission to do something and she said, “Do want you want,” it meant “Don’t you dare, or I’ll never let you forget the terrible choice you made.” Sentences that began with “I’m very sorry” meant that for whatever reason, I was about to be very sorry. And her favorite, “We need to talk,” meant that not only was something wrong, it was about to get ugly.
On the up side, after years of decoding mother’s mixed messages, my interpretive skills were among the best, which had proven helpful since returning to the dating game. I didn’t need He’s Just Not That Into You. I already knew that “I’ll call you” meant “I’ve deleted your number from my cell.” “You’re great” meant “I’d prefer someone with boobs.” And “Let’s get together sometime” meant “I’d rather sleep with a lunch lady.”
So how was it possible that guess-what-I-mean Sheila was suddenly coming in loud and clear? And what had happened since Wednesday when everything was fine? The real question, however, was how could I handle my parents’ marital storm if I was still reeling from my own? A storm in which the wind gusts uprooted me from a luxury co-op on Central Park West and deposited me in the heart of the Maclaren Mommy Mafia: Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“Mom, what the hell is going on with you?” I followed her out of the ballroom.
“I’ve had it. That’s what’s going on.” She headed for the front entrance. “We’re together forty years and do you think maybe once in all that time he’d put a plate in the dishwasher or pick up his socks? Not Dr. Big Shot…He’s too busy studying maps of places he’s never going…”
“Sorry, but if you’re busting up a marriage, the law says you need one good reason.”
“I have plenty, starting with the man is crazy!”
“Then it’s a perfect match!” I quoted Yente the Matchmaker.