Saturday

No, But My Grandmother Was

I am happy. For the first time in my life, I am truly happy. It is scaring the shit out of me.
I am sitting in the hot tub – spa they like to call it here at Desert Vistas in the northeastern most corner of Scottsdale in the foothills of the National Tonto Forest.
It is a glorious mid-afternoon in early April, the humidity, as it is most of the time in Arizona, low, the temperature around eighty, the indigo sky dappled with distant wisps of white.
My eyes closed, I hold my face up to the sun. Unlike most of my golfing companions, I have not yet had any skin cancers. Thus, my dermatologist tells me, I probably won’t get any. Despite my Irish heritage, I have an almost olive complexion. There is a rumor in our family that my mother’s mother was Moroccan, a moor, an Arab, even a gypsy – something definitely not Irish.
I love having a bit of a tan. My skin browns rather nicely. I never thought that at this stage in my life, I would still be interested in looking handsome. But I am.
I have programmed my surround sound system so that Dylan’s 1989 “Oh Mercy” is resounding through the speakers out here on the patio, filling me with the most exquisite sense of longing and nostalgia.
Far away where the soft winds blow,
Far away from it all…
There is a place you go
Where tear drops fall.
I feel suddenly and blissfully weepy. I am a survivor now of prostate cancer for seven years. Survivor of an office coup in which I lost my job as editor-in-chief of Dutton Books. Survivor of the loss of my parents and my younger brother, my only sibling. Survivor of my wife’s breast cancer, which has marred her nearly perfect body. Survivor of my only child’s five severe asthma attacks, starting at age fourteen months, with the last one occurring during her near fatal bout with last winter’s flu at the age of forty-two.
So here I am, folks, far away from it all, my job in mid-town Manhattan in someone else’s hands, my house in Armonk, which we lived in for nearly thirty years, with a new family in it.
Most of the time, I wouldn’t change it if I could
I can make it all match up
I can hold my own
I can deal with the situation
Right down to the bone…
Most of the time.
All my life I have been a man of words, editing other people’s manuscripts, having overseen the publishing of well over four hundred books. Yet how pathetic their impact next to that of Dylan, how mild, how arcane. How quickly the arguments and insights dissipated. A tempest in a teapot, really. Out of the millions of words not one Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, not even a Tangled Up In Blue.
Probably I should have been fired. Yet when it happened, I was blindsided. Enjoying a most convivial lunch at Aquavit with one of my authors, I noticed my boss, Mitch Mason, tucked in a corner table with my next in command, a young woman who in less than three years had developed an industry-wide, and I am compelled to add, well-deserved reputation for attracting the next generation of cutting edge novelists. She and Mason must have reached an agreement over lunch, for he called me in and fired me that afternoon.
In a daze I wandered over to Staples and was instantly attracted to a shrink-wrapped package of one dozen old-fashioned grammar school notebooks with black-and-white pebbled cardboard covers.
So, I am writing myself now – my own books. Back in college, I wanted to be a writer. I never had the courage. Now fate is forcing me to.
I am trying to find the resolve to fill my notebooks with exactly what comes to mind, to resist a powerful instinct to tailor my stuff to please. Unlike Dylan, who seems to have begun following his nose around the age of twenty, this is learned behavior for me.
My first book is tentatively titled Thoughts I Never Had At 17. I am filling up my notebooks with them:
Why doesn’t my daughter have more friends;
If I die first, will my wife have orgasms with other men;
Will there be blood in the toilet when I pee or shit, on the sheets, or in my underpants?
Why don’t I feel an impulse to fuck Scarlet Johanson? Lindsay Lohan? Gwynneth Paltrow?

When we first moved out here I met a retired physician named Levenstein who had taken back up his old love of sketching. He’s begun doing drawings for my unexpected thoughts, and the addition of illustrations has added both humor and completeness. Yes, I am almost seventy, but my little book is filling me with a sense of unlimited possibility.
I can survive and I can endure
And I don’t even think about her
Most of the time…
I am naked, and the incessant swirl of bubbles gently buffets my testicles. It is a good feeling. It has taken years following the removal of my malignant prostate to regain my sexual appetite. One can still have orgasms without a prostate. But there is no ejaculate. My friend Marshall, before he died of prostate cancer, said it’s like coming backwards – not as pleasurable, but still a lot of fun.
Emily will be getting back from Mayo within the hour. Part of our being able to retire, or rather my being able to retire, has been her landing a part-time nursing job here in Arizona. Not only is the pay good, but the medical benefits and the easy access to Mayo’s best doctors is priceless. Access to great doctors – another one of those thoughts I never anticipated at seventeen.
Upon arriving home, Emily will head straight into our bedroom, strip off her clothes, slip into her oversized terrycloth bathrobe, and join me in the hot tub. She will groan with pleasure as she slides into the water, soaking away the grime and stress of her pressure-filled job. She will sit bare-assed on the top step of the hot tub and hold out a tiny, size five foot. I will massage it in my large, golf-calloused hands and she will moan aloud.
“The other one’s jealous,” she will say, withdrawing the foot and proffering the other. As I knead her feet, I will let my eyes drift ever so stealthily across her reconstructed left breast, the one she has lost to cancer. It is far from perfect, but not bad, not bad at all. I still love to fuck my seventy-one year old wife – can you imagine? There! Another thought I could never have foreseen at seventeen.
I am anxious for us to retreat to our bedroom, for as we grow ever older, I am more voracious for Emily’s body than ever. I can’t help but think, Will this fuck be our last? How many more times will we make love before one of us dies? Will it be a thousand? Three hundred? Nine?
Em on the other hand will not be as impatient to screw. She will want first to talk about out daughter Meg’s upcoming wedding. This is the last and most substantive piece of my newfound happiness, for it is something I had given up on years ago.
Poor Meg. Instead of her mother’s petiteness, she has inherited my mother’s large-boned blockiness. Although I am sure she is bright, there is an odd slowness about her. She has that quality that I call being on delay, responding to questions a second or two later than you expect, or making a point several minutes after a conversation has moved onto a completely different topic.
She angers easily, stridently, and yet has neither the wit, charisma, or prettiness for friends to overlook her churlishness. It seems ever since she was old enough to have friends, she has had precious few. I cannot tell you how many times Em and I have set out for a dinner party, my heart breaking as we leave Meg parked alone in front of the TV, telling us she just isn’t in the mood to go out (translation: I called half a dozen kids who all said they were busy).
And then, at the party itself, my mind turning to my lonely daughter every few minutes, wondering how much battering her self-esteem can withstand. Would we, upon our arrival home, find her dead in the bathroom, an empty vial of Ambien on the floor? There – another addition to my Thoughts I Never Had at 17 book – terror that my child will destroy my few remaining years of happiness by committing suicide.
And as a backdrop to all this, there has always been, if not her gasping for breath, the dark, hollows around her eyes, the grayish pallor of skin that is not getting enough oxygen, the specter of her asthma.
So when I learned of her involvement four years ago with the son of our good friends, Sarah and Ethan Lerner, my heart soared, guardedly, of course, but with ever more optimism as the relationship seemed to strengthen.
Adam couldn’t have been less appropriate – seventeen years Meg’s junior, college drop out, unemployed, self-conscious but far from self-confident, not handsome, needy, and, apparently, horny as a goat. Meg was pregnant within six months of their starting to see each other.
Or perhaps Adam couldn’t have been more appropriate, for what other man was Meg to capture? Emily and I now have a two and a half year old bastard grandson named Riley. When we were young people used to have children after they married.
As I am pondering all this, I hear a car pull into our driveway. My heart leaps, for as the years have gone by my attachment to my wife has deepened almost to the point of obsession. Her mere presence soothes me. The sight of her face, her outfit, the sound of her voice, the cut of her hair – all of these things feel outlandishly beautiful to me, make me happy to be alive.
I stand and look over the wall of the patio, and a wave of disappointment washes over me, for it is not Em’s Prius that has pulled into our driveway but the Lerner’s Saab. I have begun to hate drop in visits in the same way that I hate the phone ringing. At this stage in my life, it can be nothing good. I suspect the Lerners want to go over some last minute wedding plans. We have been putting the event together in concert, Em and I, Ethan and Sarah, the wives with much more of an appetite for the details than the husbands.
Although the kids (with Meg having just turned forty-three, I use the term loosely) live in Boston, they have opted to hold their wedding here at Desert Vistas. The Hopi clubhouse sits on the crest of Black Mountain, with a 360 degree view of the 8,400 acre Desert Vistas community, six golf courses, desert preserves, at night the lights of Phoenix in the distance, quite a spectacular vista indeed!
Ethan gets out of the car alone and walks toward our house. “Yo, Ethan,” I shout. “The door’s open. I’ll meet you in the living room in just a minute.” I grab my towel and wrap it around my waist, thinking, as I trudge toward the patio door of my bedroom, What the fuck does he want?
“Want a beer?” I ask. I open the refrigerator and uncap a Heineken.
“No, thanks.” Ethan is sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter. “Listen, Tim, I wanted to take one last look at the invitations before they go out.”
The four of us had spent all Saturday and Sunday addressing the envelopes. “What were you doing this weekend? Stuffing blindfolded.”
“Just wanted to look at one little thing.” There is a seriousness about Ethan, almost a grimness, that I am not sure I have seen before.
“Ethan, for Christ sake, they’re all sealed and ready to go.”
“There’s not one that isn’t sealed?”
“You know what – they’re all on the hall table. Go look.” I take a wedge of Jarlsberg out of the fridge and begin slicing it. I hear the front door open. “Em,” I call out, “You home?” There is no answer.
I wander into the hallway, and it is empty. The three shoeboxes brimming with wedding invitations have disappeared. I step out onto the front walk and see Ethan closing, then locking his trunk. He comes trudging back toward the house.
“Hey,” I say, “You don’t have to – I would have mailed ‘em.”
Ethan walks right past me, and I follow him into the kitchen. “I will have that beer,” he says.
I open another Heineken. “So? Everything look alright after all?”
Ethan swivels on his stool and faces me directly, fixing me with his eyes as if it were something that he was forcing himself to do. “Tim, those invitations are not going out,” he says.
I sit down on the stool opposite him. “Uh huh,” I say. “Not going out…”
“No. Not going out.”
“And why, pray tell? Adam call and say they’ve decided to keep the little bastard a bastard after all?”
“This has nothing to do with Adam.”
“What does it have to do with then? Does Sarah know what you’re up to?”
“Keep Sarah out of this,” he says rather adamantly.
“Okay. No Sarah.”
“It has to do with Riley’s religion. He has none.”
“Oh, my God, Ethan, neither do you or Sarah or your kids or me or Em or Meg. We’re all just a bunch of agnostics, if not outright atheists.”
“I insist they raise Riley as a Jew. Otherwise, no wedding.”
“Isn’t that something for the kids to decide?”
“Come on, Tim, you know damn well Adam’s the only kid in this marriage. Meg’s old enough to be his fucking mother.”
“So what you’re saying is, you’re only using this religion thing as an excuse. You don’t think Adam should be marrying someone so much older than himself.”
Ethan doesn’t answer for a while, just sits there scratching at the label on the beer bottle. “That’s part of it, I suppose. I mean, the whole relationship is such a goddamn mess – huge age difference, kid out of wedlock, no jobs or when they have them shitty jobs, the both of us having to help out, probably for the rest of our lives. It’s a fucking mess. I’m so goddamn unhappy with it, and I’m thinking, what do I get out of it?”
“You’re not supposed to get anything out of it. It’s not about you.”
“Bullshit!” Ethan gets up off his stool and begins jabbing his finger at me. “Bull-fucking shit! I’ve spent twenty-seven years getting that kid off the ground, and I deserve something back.”
“Jesus Christ, Ethan, calm down. I’ve never seen you so angry.”
“Fucking right I’m angry.” He sits back down. “I mean, I marry a gentile, pissing my parents off no end, she promises we’re going to raise the kids as Jews, then as soon as they’re born, it’s ‘Oh, God, Ethan, must we go through all the voo doo when neither of us has any belief in it whatsoever.’ And before you know it we’re putting up a Christmas tree and painting fucking Easter eggs. And now the only time my kids admit to being half-Jewish is when their grandparents are handing out Chanukah gelt.”
“Technically,” I point out, “your kids aren’t Jewish because it comes down through the mother.”
“Yeah, yeah, but the point is they’re half-Jewish by blood and now just like a million other half and half kids, they’ve chosen to take the easy way out, and the Jewish population dwindles ever smaller. It’s like, I’ve lost them, they don’t want any part of this extraordinary heritage, just want to meld into the wasp world which they somehow feel is much classier, much more ‘Polo,’ which hysterically enough was created by one fucking Ralph Lipschultz.”
I smile. I am feeling sorry for my good friend, who in so many ways is my ally, so much more like me than the rest of our foursome, Posnick and Phayer. “You make a point,” I say. “I have no objection to the kid being raised as a Jew. In fact, I kind of like the idea.”
Ethan eyes me suspiciously. “You’re a fucking atheist. You hate religion. You’ve actually published a book on the destructiveness of religion.”
“This is true,” I say, “but if there’s got to be a religion, clearly Judaism is the best of a bad lot. Fucking Christianity is a bail out. First of all, it isn’t even monotheism. The holy trinity, for Christ sake. It literally comes out and says it – trinity. Three. I guess the priests realized the masses wouldn’t stand for just one god. And that whole you can get away with anything just so long as you believe in Jesus. Fuck my son up the ass. Steal my neighbor’s wife, plough, donkey. It’s all okay as long as I believe in sweet, forgiving Jesus. I like the Hebraic concept – an angry jealous god, a god who says, If you believe in anybody but me, pal, you’re dead meat. Now that’s a god. Keeps the masses in line. Christ, Ethan, I’m certainly more comfortable with Jews than the fucking Irish.”
“You know,” Ethan says, “I’ve always thought you actually look a little Jewish.” He pauses, as if trying to get the courage to say something. “Could it be that you somehow have a little Jewish blood in you?”
No, but my grandmother was Jewish. The words spring to mind, and from past experience with lying, both successfully and disastrously, I know one thing: if you’re going to lie do it quickly, baldly, boldly, and with complete and utter confidence. “My grandmother on my mother’s side was Jewish.”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“Her name was Funari.” We published a book on Sephardic Jews in the late eighties and for some reason the name stuck in my mind. “She was Sephardic.”
“That’s bullshit. You’re just trying to make me feel good.”
“Stay right there.” I get up and go into the bedroom, whose windowless west wall Emily has festooned with dozens of old family photos. I bring Ethan a sepia portrait of my mother and her five siblings with their parents. “Look, she’s almost black for God’s sake,” I say.
Ethan is glued to the portrait. He puts on his reading glasses, studying the photo as if I no longer existed. “Probably a Yemini or Iraqi Jew,” he mutters in little more than a whisper. “That’s amazing.” He looks up at me. “If that’s true, then you’re a Jew. How come you never mentioned it before?”
“You never asked. I never thought you had any interest in it.”
Ethan sighs deeply. “Nobody but the fucking orthodox want to be Jewish these days. It’s why I like Paul Newman so much. Some reporter once asked why he calls himself a Jew when only his father was Jewish. He said, ‘It’s harder.’”
As I nod my understanding, the front door pops open, and Emily calls out, “Tim?”
I am hoping she will continue straight on into the bedroom, but Ethan says, “Hi ya, Em. We’re in here.”
As she enters the kitchen, I try to catch Emily’s eye, but Ethan is already up off his stool, arms extended. Even before they finish hugging, he says, “I just learned your husband is a Jew.”
One of the extraordinary talents of Emily, whom I am better than at Scrabble, grammar, math, crosswords, chemistry, geology, the treadmill, and golf is her social grace. Her tact. Her circumspection. Her lack of ego. Her not needing to be right, to shine, to dominate.
She looks at me and smiles. I am trying to pump all kinds of warning into my glance, but I feel Ethan studying us, looking for a chink in my story. Emily simply strides over, wraps her arms around me, and declares, “Well, I’ve always been attracted to Jewish men.” I am tempted to whisper some kind of explanation, but I realize one is not needed.
“All these years,” Ethan says, “and I never knew he was a landsman.”
“Yes,” I say, “but that still doesn’t mean the kids are going to bring Riley up Jewish.” I turn to Emily. “Ethan wants to call the wedding off unless the kids promise to bring Riley up as a Jew.”
“Look, I know it sounds crazy,” says Ethan, “but I would feel so much better about this whole thing if I knew the Jews were getting someone back. Think about it. Riley is at least a quarter Jewish and with Tim being a quarter Jewish that’s another eighth.”
“Well,” says Emily, “we’ll talk to them. I mean, considering how much we’re all contributing to this union, I should think we’d have a little sway.”
“You don’t mind?” asks Ethan gently.
“Personally, I think it’d be great if Riley had a little religious structure in his life. Meg certainly didn’t.” Emily glances over at me knowingly. She had wanted to raise Meg in her religion, Methodism, but I vetoed any religious training whatsoever.
Ethan gets up and gives me and Emily each a long, warm hug. “I feel so close to you guys,” he says, his eyes tearing up. “Now I’ve got to get Sarah to go along.”
“You tell her we’re on your side,” says Emily. “We won’t take no for an answer.”
As he heads out the door, I say, “Don’t forget to mail those invitations.”
“I’m stopping by the post office right now.”
I close the door. Emily waits till she hears Ethan’s car pull out onto the street. She looks at me quizzically. “Grandma Lorraine was Jewish?”
I shrug. “Nobody knows what the fuck she was. My grandfather picked her up on the Fordham Avenue trolley. His mother’s greatest fear was that she was part black.”
Emily throws her arms around me. “Well, I’m also very attracted to black men.”
So the invitations are going out after all. And my seventy-one year old wife is still willing to have sex with me. What could be better than that!

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