SEXUAL PARENTS (Conclusion, finally)

(sorry it took so long, but it was so damn painful writing this story, the worst. so let's have some feedback, you lazy, mooching cocksuckers you. i give you gold and this is the motherfucking thanks i get.)


It was a beautiful Sunday late in spring – not unlike today – June 7th to be exact. My father had just got home from his Sunday morning tennis game for which he had had to get up at 6:45. Now that he was popular again he had a singles and a doubles match every weekend morning As was his routine upon walking in the door, he grabbed the Times sports section and made a beeline for the bedroom. My mother, as was her routine, slid into high gear, throwing our lunch dishes into the sink, whisking perishables right from under us and putting them into the refrigerator. She then announced to us at large, her brood of four, that she and my father were “going in for a nap.”
As soon as she was out of earshot, Tony said, “You know what they’re going to do, don’t you?”
I had a suspicion, but my two younger siblings, Max and Joanna, seemed genuinely curious. “What?” they asked in unison.
“They’re going to have sex.” Then, as if it was no big deal to him, Tony turned on the Giants game on the TV.
Max, at eleven the youngest of us, replied, “You’re crazy. Who would want to have sex with Dad? His breath is unbelievable. Every time he tries to kiss me I give him te top of my head.”
“Yeah, well, Mom’s no bargain,” Joanna responded. “Did you see how the fat on her arms jiggles? If I were Dad, I’d be like -- ” She stuck her finger toward the back of her throat.
“What about my arms?” said Mom as she came striding back into the kitchen in her unflattering Oriental-styled robe. We laughed nervously.
Mom stared at us. “What’s so funny?” She had her hands pugnaciously placed on her hips. But you could tell she really wasn’t interested because without waiting for an answer she said we were making way too much noise for her and Dad to fall asleep and that we should, “Either take it outside or watch the TV in the family room. We got you guys the biggest screen in the neighborhood, and nobody watches the damn thing.”
“It’s not a family room. It’s a basement,” said Max.
“It’s yucky down there, Mom,” said Joanna. “There’s all these spiders and bugs.”
Family room was an exaggeration. The new TV was too big for any other room in the house, so my mother had had it put down the unfinished basement along with the kind of indestructible wall-to-wall carpeting you find in Motel 6 hallways. We hardly ever went down there.
“Alright, then go outside and play. It’s a beautiful day.” She clapped her hands. “Chop, chop, out of here.”
Hands still on hips, she waited in the doorway till, like a reluctant herd that realizes it has no alternative, we began migrating toward the steps to the basement. “Mom,” I said, “lose the bathrobe. It is so lame.”
“If you really want to know, this robe is pure Japanese silk and cost over $65 at Macy’s,” she retorted. “Your father loves it.”
With that, she turned on her heel and scooted back toward her bedroom. “Oh, dad loves it,” I said, and my siblings laughed. It was a thing we did back then, echoing a comment we found too earnest or emphatic. My father would declare something like, “Kennedy’s just the man this country needs,” and one of us would say, giving it a decidedly sexual slant, “Oh, the country needs him alright.”
We turned on the new TV and Tony found the Giants game, which only he and Max wanted to watch. Joanna and I leapt on Tony, trying to wrest the remote from him, but the conflict was suddenly made moot by an astonishing noise that came from the grate directly above our heads.
The sound started softly, “Oh, oh, oh…,” as if someone, a woman, were suffering. It subsided for a moment, then started again, a little louder, a bit more intense. “Oh, Oh, Ohhh….”
“What the heck is that?” said Max.
We stopped scuffling over the remote and froze. Now the sound was gaining in speed, rhythm, pitch, decibels. “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” It clearly was building to something, like the rumble of an earthquake; and the four of us, absolutely still and silent, waited for the climax of we knew not what. It, or should I say my mother, came with a long, startled shout – “Oh, oh, oh, ohhhhhh!” Then there was a delighted gale of laughter from both our parents. The sound was so present, it was as if they were in the basement with us.
We stared at each other in silence, switching our glance from sibling to sibling as if therein might lie the answer to the mystery of what had just transpired. Finally, Max said, “What was that?”
“Do you think Dad’s hurting her?” asked Joanna. “Maybe we should call the police.”
Tony chuckled scornfully. “That’s an orgasm, you idiots. That’s what a woman sounds like when she comes.”
“Women don’t have orgasms,” said Joanna.
“Yes, they do, I read it in Seventeen,” I said.
“Have you ever had one, Allie?” Max asked.
I hadn’t, but before I had a chance to answer, Mom started again. “Oh…oh…oh…”
“Jesus, here she goes again,” said Tony.
“I’m getting out of here.” Joanna got up and headed toward the stairs.
“Wait,” said Max, “don’t go.” He sounded pained, as if he didn’t want to be left alone to have to process his mother’s animal noises. Joanna, just twenty months older, has always played mother hen to Max. She turned around and sat on the chair next to him. And the four of us sat there for what seemed like forever and listened to my mother go through what must have been half a dozen climaxes.
The next Sunday afternoon found us once again down in the basement watching the Giants game, Max and Tony because they wanted to and Joanna and I because Tony’s friend, the very cute Richie Brigham, was over. Somehow we had rather quickly – I guess kids are able to do that – put the sounds of our parents’ lovemaking behind us; so once again we were taken quite by surprise when we heard the first of my mother’s “Ohs.”
Tony and I looked at each other. I was horrified that Richie would be aural witness to my mother’s wanton sexuality. Tony shrugged, as if to say, nothing we can do. Joanna jumped up. “I hate this stupid game. Who wants chocolate chip ice cream.” She made for the stairs, but Richie said, “Wait, what the hell was that?” His head was cocked like a spaniel’s. The sound came again, louder, more urgent. “Oh! Oh!”
“It’s my parents having sex,” said Max.
“What a whore!” Richie said.
“Screw you, Brigham,” said Tony. “I’m sure your mother does the same thing.”
“My parents don’t even sleep in the same room anymore,” said Richie.
“Come on, the game’s almost over. Let’s go out, and I’ll pitch to you,” said Tony. He started up the stairs, Joanna following. They stopped when the rest of us didn’t move.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Richie. “This is too amazing.”
Tony picked up his acoustic, which he took with him almost everywhere. He started singing, “...forever my darling, our love will be true, always and forever, dear, I’ll love only you...”
The music, in this case, was no competition for my mother’s yowls. As my parents’ lovemaking wound down, Richie shook his head. “Amazing, Halpern, you’re mother is truly amazing.” He looked played out, as if had personally participated in the action in the room above.
Word spread, not among my, Joanna’s, or Max’s friends. But Tony was eighteen, at an age when he and all the other high school seniors discussed each other’s mothers in the most graphic sexual terms. Our mother, which was beyond me, was considered, despite her jiggly arms, a primo M.I.L.F., mother I’d like to you know what. And so the next Sunday afternoon, carload after carload of post-pubescent teenaged males dropped by the house.
At first, Tony tried to stem the tide, but his friends arrived two and three at a time, each with a six-pack of beer. “Come on, Halpern,” they’d say, “You got the best TV in Demarest.” Or, “You let Brigham in.” Or, “I showed you my mother’s vibrator collection.”
This time when the first of my mother’s “Ohs,” made its way through the grate, everyone was already listening. All chatter instantly faded away. I looked over at Tony and his eyes were closed, as if he simply couldn’t bear betraying his own mother. I went over and sat next to him and slung my arm over his shoulder. “It’s okay,” I said. “Next weekend we’ll just go over to Aunt Ellen’s and hang out.”
By this time, my mother was about mid-way through her string of half a dozen orgasms and the goat-boys (that’s what I called teen-aged boys back then, because to me their rooms always smelled vaguely of goat) had gathered directly below the grate, tittering and guffawing. Looking back at it, I am certain that several of them had erections. One of the largest, roughest-looking of the boys, a friend of Richie’s whom I had never seen before, was reaching up as if trying somehow to take off the grate. Tony stood up and came toward him.
“Alright, Zig, cut it out,” he said. I was scared because the boy was so much bigger and sturdier-looking than Tony. Suddenly, there was a small explosion, a sharp snapping sound, and I realized that Zig had pushed a lit firecracker up into the grate. Almost immediately after there was a sudden cascade of stomping across my parents’ bedroom, then a door being yanked open, then the angry sound of my father’s voice preceding his appearance at the top of the stairs. “What the hell is going on down there!”
I can only imagine what it was like looking down at the dozen or so of us gathered in the basement below, a mangy collection of pimply, orthodented, shaggy-haired teens, caught in the act, frozen.
Not realizing there were kids in the house other than his own, Dad had barged out of his bedroom with nothing but a pillow held in front of his crotch. “All of you, out! Right now!” He singled out Tony with his glance and shook his head back and forth in grave disappointment.
Poor Tony. “Alright, guys, you gotta go,” he said. His friends trooped up the stairs past my father, who was staring pointedly at each and every one of them. They averted their faces, all, that is, except Zig, the last one up the steps. Zig stared back at my father, stopping right next to him and looking him up and down. He was at least half a foot taller than my father, broad-shouldered and powerfully built. “Nice outfit,” he mumbled, then shuffled toward the front door with an insolent, unhurried gait.
My father turned, slipping the pillow from in front of his crotch to cover his behind as he headed back into the bedroom. A short time later he came out dressed neatly in khakis and a golf sweater, what little hair he had left wet from the shower and parted at the side. The set of his face was tense, serious. “Tony,” he called out, “Can I see you in the den right now.” There wasn’t the usual irony in his voice at having occasionally to act like a traditional parent meting out discipline.
No hollering or yelling came from the den, just every now and then a loud, muffled phrase from my father, nothing from Tony. After about a half hour or so, Tony came trudging out, his head slumped, his eyes cast toward the floor. He closed the door behind him. My father didn’t appear again till dinner time, at which point my mother announced, “Your father and I are going to Rut’s Hut. We’ll be back around nine.” We, the children, were not, as we always were on previous Sunday nights, invited to join them in this family tradition.
I followed Tony to his room and hung around in the doorway while he picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Allie, get out of here,” he shouted over his shoulder. “And close the door.” I pushed the door till it was an inch or two from being shut, then retreated about a yard down the hallway.
“Hey, Brigham,” I heard him say. Richie must have said something like I’m sorry because Tony suddenly shouted, “You should be sorry. That Zig is an asshole!” I heard him slam down the phone then start to cry, big convulsive sobs. I tiptoed back into the doorway and just stood there, listening to my big brother weep. It was more upsetting than seeing my mother cry, which she did from time to time when talking about her deceased parents.
For several days after, my parents were silent and grim during mealtime. They seemed only to speak to us if we addressed them first, or if they were ordering us to take our coat out of the kitchen, or put out the garbage. But by Thursday things began to ease a bit, and Friday my mother drove Max and Joanna and me and two of our friends to the Rialto Movie Theatre in Ridgefield Park. My mother seemed her old self again, changing stations on the radio every time a new song came on and asking us how we could stand listening to such garbage. Still, I had the feeling that we somehow had not properly atoned for the Sunday afternoon incident and that it would come back to haunt us. And I was right.
Mom picked us up after the movie. It must have been around 11. As we reached the crest of the little rise just before we came to our driveway, we were greeted by the flashing red light of a police car. It was parked on the wrong side of the street, right in front of our house. “Jesus,” my mother said, sucking in her breath as we pulled into the driveway.
Two policemen were talking to my father on the front stoop. “Tony’s in the hospital,” Dad announced as we approached. “He was in a fist fight.”
My mother ordered us into the house with our friends, and the policemen drove my parents to Valley Hospital. It was agony trying to keep calm among my younger siblings and their friends. Joanna wouldn’t stop crying. She was shaking and her face was pale. She went upstairs and got her blanket, which she had pretty much abandoned two years ago, and held the corner of it to her mouth. She kept on asking, “Is he going to be okay, Allie? What if he’s dead?”
“Shut up!” I yelled at her, much too loudly, much too meanly. But her fear was contagious and I couldn’t stand not knowing what was going on with my brother.
At some time after four o’clock, I felt my mother jostle me awake. We had all fallen asleep in front of the TV set in the kitchen.
“How’s Tony?” I asked.
“Shhh,” she said. “He’s resting.” She scooped Joanna into her arms. “Come, help me get everybody upstairs.” We put all the kids into beds in Joanna’s and Max’s rooms. Joanna woke up and groggily asked, “Mommy, is Tony going to be okay?” And my mother nuzzled my little sister’s head with her lips and said, “He’s going to be fine.” Joanna immediately fell back to sleep.
I followed my mother back downstairs and trailed her around the kitchen as she turned on the kettle and selected a teabag. She looked grim and tight-lipped and her eyes were red and watery, like she’d been crying. I was frightened.
“Where’s Daddy?” I asked.
“He’s at the hospital with Tony.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“He got punched and kicked in the head. He hasn’t regained consciousness.” I suddenly felt the most intense cramps and rushed into the bathroom only moments before shitting myself.
“Is he going to be okay?” I called out through the open powder room door.
“The doctor thinks he’s going to be fine,” she said. “Only it’s so damn scary. His face is all black and blue.”
At the first glimmer of dawn, my mother and I headed back to the hospital. The story of last night came out in a mumbled rush of words, as if she couldn’t bear to say it if saying it aloud made it undeniably real. Apparently, accompanied by Richie Brigham, Tony had tracked Zig down at his house on Cramden Road, the little street of ramshackle homes that was sort of a delivery alley way behind the stores that made up the downtown of our little village. As best as the police could put together, Tony had challenged Zig to a fight.
I know my brother. And even though he was a great athlete, he had never been in a fist fight in his life. It just wasn’t in his nature. I closed my eyes and covered them with my hands as my mother explained that the Brigham boy had waved down a passing police car. Tony was lying on the sidewalk, and, despite being unconscious, Zig was repeatedly kicking him in the head. The patrolman leapt out of his car and it was all he could do to pull Zig away from my fallen brother. Zig’s defense was Tony had hit him first.
Unusually early in life I developed the habit of preparing myself for the worst by imagining it ahead of time. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the sight of my beautiful brother prostrate on his back, his face broken and misshapen, his bruised and purple eyelids swollen shut, a helmet of bandaging doubling the height of his head. There was a monitor on either side of his bed, one tracing his heartbeat, the other his brain activity. To my uninformed eye, both waves seemed languorous and minute.
Clustered around Tony were at least half a dozen people in medical garb, solemn-faced doctors and nurses. And watching them for some kind of clue, his face paralyzed with terror, his eyes unblinking and crazed, my poor father, the courageous battler, the pugnacious defender of the disadvantaged, scared shitless, his hand held to his mouth as if he were afraid he was about to vomit.
My brother. My generous, decent, talented, mellow-voiced brother, beaten to a pulp – literally. I wanted to sprint over to the bed and lay my face on his chest. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and pull him to me and pepper his neck and face with kisses. I whimpered convulsively, silently, stifling my sobs for fear that I would disturb him, frighten him, telegraph how desperately battered he was, how perilously beaten. He lay there like a corpse, oblivious to the team attending him, senseless, bleeding internally, our family’s best hope.
The image has haunted me every single day of my life, its power timeless, never ebbing, an icon of tragic sacrifice. To me, at the far left of reformed Judaism, no pieta comes even close.
My father spotted us out of the corner of his eye, my mother and I clutching each other desperately, panicked at the prospect of standing alone. Dad sidled toward us, unable to pull his eyes from his first born son. As we came together, my father managed to swivel around to look at my mother, his face contrite, desperate to be forgiven. My mother glowered at him, whispering fiercely under her breath, “This is what happens when you name a Jewish boy Tony!”
Unable to stand it any longer, I untangled myself from my mother’s arms and moved toward the bed. I literally had to weave my way through doctors and nurses. For some reason they did not stop me. I wanted to wrap my arms around my brother’s waist and bury my face in the crook of his neck. But there was so much bandaging and tubing around the upper part of his body that the only place I could lay my head was on his stomach. Which I did, weeping, mewling, burying my face in his hospital gown so as not to make any noise. His body was warm but still as a stone. I yearned, passionately, to infuse him with the great pulsing of love I was feeling, the longing for everything to be okay again.
Tony remained in a deep coma. My parents moved into his room, taking turns sleeping on a cot. They learned to read the EEG monitor next to his bed, staring at it constantly, willing the iridescent green line to flutter and dance. It didn’t. And still my parents took turns holding Tony’s hand, chatting to him about what a beautiful day it was outside, or the wonderful drive we were going to take up to Cape Cod when school let out, other times pleading with him to wake up, begging his forgiveness. They were constantly asking each other if they hadn’t seen his eyelid twitch, his lips purse, his head move. Several of the doctors hinted gently that there was little hope, but the heartbreak of our family, the community, students and teachers at the high school, was overwhelming. I sensed that no one at the hospital had the heart to tell us how bleak things were.
A second and a third week went by, then a month and a second month, and nothing changed except that Tony’s body began to shrink. Being the eternal pessimist, I had given up hope almost from the start. If either my mother or father had, I saw no sign of it. A woman from the local hospice branch stopped in Tony’s room and spoke about “letting go.” My father yelled at her to get out. My parents had always been proponents of assisted suicide, euthanasia, the right to pull the plug. But not for their first-born son.
A week later, it proved to be a moot point. Tony stopped breathing at five a.m., the hour of the wolf, 70 days after his fatal beating. My mother was holding his hand, my father was lying fitfully awake on the cot next to his bed. They called us at home and I, who had turned 17 and somehow managed to get my license during this mournful time, drove my brother and sister to the hospital. We gathered around Tony’s bed and held each other and wept.
The funeral, as you might imagine, was an extraordinary event. People love the intensity of feeling of a young man dying before his time, an athlete, a leader, handsome and kind and charismatic. Temple Sinai, our small, reformed synagogue, was packed with people who had never before been in, as they put it, a “Jewish church.” The baseball coach spoke, the superintendent of schools spoke, the rabbi spoke, Richie Brigham, Tony’s best friend, spoke, and I, as the voice of our family, I eulogized my brother, too.
I recalled for the more than five hundred people crammed into our little schul how whenever my parents went out for the night Tony would let us watch all the horror movies little kids aren’t supposed to watch, and how he would keep an eye out for my parents’ headlights on the driveway, and always manage to sneak us back into our beds just in time.
I told the congregation that when Tony learned that no one had asked me to the Thanksgiving Hop last fall, he insisted I accompany him and his date, dancing with me every other dance, and how I felt so ridiculously proud and loved to be dancing with the best-looking, most popular boy in the senior class, even if he was my brother. I started to cry, of course, and hundreds of people cried along with me.
We sat shiva for a week, and our split level on Mountain Road was filled with visitors and baskets of fruit and platters of cold cuts the entire time. In an odd way, we had done much of our grieving, or at least our short-term, superficial grieving, during the two months Tony was in a coma. The funeral ceremonies were almost a relief. The Republican mayor, a state senator, a retired major league ball player who lived in town, Bill Parkyn, the tennis player, all stopped in to pay their respects. It was flattering. For brief moments it diverted us from our loss, from the pain.
That came roaring back the Monday morning our shiva was over. We had to get ready for school, our parents for work. We moved in slow motion. Joanna couldn’t bring herself to get out of the shower. Max refused to get out of bed. Moving on seemed like sacrilege. And yet, as we all know, after tsunamis, Colombines, nine/elevens, life, somehow, always does seem to move on.
Tony was dead. How did the rest of us fare?
I’ll begin with the villain of this tale. Because it was assumed that Tony had tracked him down by appearing at his house, it was also assumed that Tony had initiated the fight. Zig was charged with second degree manslaughter. He was not yet 17 years old – his lawyer made a big deal about that – almost a full year younger than Tony. The defense argued that the “altercation” was basically a boys will be boys kind of thing. Zig was convicted of nothing more than aggravated assault and was sentenced to one year in some kind of home for wayward boys.
We did not attend any of the legal proceedings, nor was anyone in our family, save Max, obsessed with revenge. Tony was gone from our lives. We were consumed with our loss. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been happy if I had learned that Zig were killed in a car accident or had fallen from a construction site. But it wouldn’t have brought any of us what they like to call these days closure.
A year or so after he was released, Joanna was standing around talking with some friends at the Memorial Day Dance, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around and there was Zig, asking her to dance. She stood paralyzed, not knowing whether Zig recognized her and perhaps wanted to apologize, or whether it was just that he was drawn to her. She was a tiny little thing, delicate, extremely young-looking for her fifteen years, with a strikingly pretty face. When she found her legs, Joanna simply turned and fled into the crowd. There was a stand where they were selling lobster and the smell of melting butter struck her just wrong. She went behind the booth and vomited, then found the parents of a friend, who were only too happy to drive her home. We were now the much loved and pitied Halperns of Demarest, New Jersey.
After that, Joanna wanted nothing more than to get out of town. Although it strained the family budget, she convinced my parents to send her away to Brandon, a prep school in the Berkshires, two towns over from where our grandparents had retired. She refused to come home during summers, getting a job as a junior then senior counselor at a nearby swimming camp. She had a pathological fear of running into Zig again. When it came time for college, she chose Emory in Atlanta, near where my mother’s sister and her husband and three children lived. She seemed not to want to come back to Demarest but at the same time needed to be near family. Today, Joanna has returned to the Berkshires, where she lives with her third husband and his two children. She has worked for the Nature Conservancy since she got out of college.
My mother, who had always had a tendency to put on weight, simply couldn’t stop eating, stuffing her mouth to hide from her monstrous grief – or perhaps the sensual pleasure she was experiencing in her mouth was a replacement for the ones she used to get in her bed. From what I could tell from my explorations of my parents’ bedroom, they had pretty much stopped having sex. Month after month, Mother’s vibrator lay in the same exact spot in the same nest of Kleenex in the very same rear corner of her sock drawer; then one day it wasn’t there anymore. I scoured the garbage and there it was. I turned it on. It still worked.
Within a year Mom had gained thirty pounds. Within two years, she weighed over two hundred. Her once large round expressive eyes were turned into slits by her ever expanding cheeks, her milfness completely obliterated.
My father began drinking increasing amounts of red wine, which had always been his dinner time beverage of choice. He went from a glass to an entire bottle. He now drank Dewar’s before dinner and Courvoisier afterward. And I’m sure he was drinking at the office because he always smelled of alcohol when he arrived home from work. As my mother grew fatter, my father grew skinnier, hollow-eyed. He no longer slept, wandering the house at night like a wraith. Before dawn, he was out wandering through the Demarest Nature Center,100 acres of glorious woods on the hills in back of the Palisades. It was where Tony had done his cross country training. My mother said she thought Dad somehow expected to see Tony come running out from the trees.
Dad died four years after Tony was killed of a severe attack of pancreatitis. He was ordered to stop drinking when it first hit, but he couldn’t help himself. Over the last 50 years I’ve come across twenty men suffering from pancreatitis – eight of them had lost first-born sons. Anecdotal evidence, clearly, but I wonder if there isn’t a connection.
Mom, miraculously, is still alive – if you can call it that. She’s in the Jewish Home for the Aged in the Bronx. She’s deep into her nineties and Max tells me her appetite remains prodigious. He brings her boxes of Godiva caramels, which she devours within minutes of his arrival. She’s not sure who he is but often calls him Tony, petting his head and whimpering. I call her several times a year. She does not know who I am. She does not know what she is doing on the phone. She no longer even knows what a telephone is.
Max is the only one who lives anywhere near Mom – in Chelsea on 22nd Street in Manhattan. He has a partner, Richard, and they own a travel agency together. It seems they do pretty well, for they’re always going on a trip to Peru or Viet Nam, some place exotic. We speak several times a year, and last year they came out for one of my non-denominational seders, which oddly have become increasingly important to me.
Of the three of us, I think Max has done the best job of moving on. Or maybe I should say Max was better wired to move on. He was furthest apart from Tony in years. He had intense interests, even as a baby – cartoons, television, photography. He was more self-absorbed, less interested in the opinions of, or in pleasing, others. He didn’t worship, as we his sisters did, his older brother.
So what about me? How have I moved on? Well, when I look back on my last two years of high school, I’m astonished I am still alive. Boys frightened me, even the nice ones, even the skinny little ones with glasses. I wondered if I were becoming or, despite my mad crushes on boys in the past, had always been a lesbian. But I felt no desire for even the prettiest girls in my class. In fact, I felt no sexual desire whatsoever. All I felt was terror and this massive, all-consuming pessimism. I couldn’t imagine life ever being fun again.
My friends and classmates tried hard to cheer me up. I was invited to parties by the most popular kids in the school, some of whom, before Tony’s death, hardly acknowledged my existence. Girlfriends called to chat about clothes, movies, boys. I resented their happiness. I felt they were being insensitive to my situation. And when they sensed my irritation, and tried to commiserate, I clammed up. I didn’t want to let go of the pain. Nor did I want to give them the satisfaction of feeling that they were helping me.
My grades, which had always been good, plummeted. The school insisted I see a psychologist. I went with arms folded tightly across my chest, but the elderly therapist had a kindly face. She began by saying, “I know what happened, dear, and I am so, so sorry.” She stood over me and held out her arms. I wouldn’t move. She motioned with her hands for me to come closer, and when I did she enveloped me in a hug. After a few seconds I tried to break free, but she held me firmly, as if to suggest, you have no choice. I slumped in her arms and she massaged my back and I started to cry. She was crying, too. “It’s so sad, such a tragedy, dear, such a sad, sad thing, so unfair.” I realized that aside from the hundreds of perfunctory hugs I’d received during Tony’s shiva week, this was the first real physical contact I’d had in months. It felt wonderful. I needed it.
I told Dr. Zaretsky I didn’t see how I’d ever get over my sadness, my horror, the feeling of being so hopelessly alone. “Oh, you will,” she said. “We just have to get you out of this awful environment – Demarest is not the town for you.”
We spent the next few sessions looking at college brochures. She spoke about Bard and Bennington, Coe in Iowa, Reed in Oregon, small schools, progressive schools. At one of my sessions she brought in a brochure from Port Alice College, a tiny, liberal arts, all-girls (in those days) school of less than a thousand students overlooking the Pacific, just outside of Victoria, B. C. “I know it’s awfully far away,” she said, “but my husband and I visited it last summer and it had the most lovely feel about it, girls everywhere, misfits and beauties, skinny ones and fatties, tall and short, sexy and frumpy, all abuzz with laughter and chatter with a distinct absence of anger and snobbery. And by the way, there were less than 800 murders in all of Canada last year – we topped that in the Bronx alone.”
And that is how in the year of 1958 I began by 50 year relationship with this blessed one square mile of land. When I arrived, I didn’t know one solitary soul on campus. No one knew what had happened to me. And I made an ironclad decision to keep it that way. I wanted to stop being that girl who had had that awful thing happen to her brother. I knew that even if they didn’t mention it, I would see it reflected in my classmate’s eyes. So as many kids do when they go away to college, I reinvented myself. I became that quirky, funny, energetic girl from back east. And the funny thing, my persona somehow began to awaken in me the very traits I was trying to project. I became popular, at the center of a large network of women – the shy, the awkward, the obese, the anorexic – no one was excluded from my circle. You might think that I was doing this to hide from my feelings. But the opposite was true. Beneath this lattice of friendship and camaraderie, I was able in the privacy of my own mind, to work through what had happened to my family.
It took a while to process all the anger and regrets – if only we hadn’t moved to Demarest; if only Mom and Dad had really been napping; if only fucking Dad hadn’t yelled at Tony – but what I ultimately realized was that the murder of my brother was something that goes on in this world, what, a thousand, two thousand times a day. THE TRIUMPH OF HATE OVER LOVE. Zig’s firecracker wasn’t an innocent lark – it was an expression of his jealousy of the deep, delicious bond between my parents. He completed his mission by murdering their beloved son with his bare hands. If he’s still alive and not in prison, he’s out walking the streets right now, filled with loathing for all those who are capable of feeling great tenderness for others. It is an affront to him, for he cannot feel it himself. And he is not alone.
I love love. Sex. Rolling around in bed with someone I’m crazy about. I know, there have been a lot of rumors about me over the years. Ms. Guyader, head of the French department. Alex Brodsky, our poet in residence in the early nineties. What do you think – we profs don’t hear the gossip about us? But you know something – it was none of the above. No, the love of my life is none other than Chet Lipton. Stand up again Chet – at 82 standing isn’t all that easy.
But at 82, I’ll tell you one thing: Chet is one hell of a lover. In fact, the only time I feel really safe in this world is with Professor Lipton inside me, our arms tightly wrapped around one another. I, who am capable of being terrified of violence just about every waking moment of my life, am somehow immune to fear during intercourse – not that I can’t imagine someone breaking into our room and threatening us with a gun. Oh, yes, I can imagine it, but it has no power over me. Shoot, I think to myself, obliterate me. I can’t think of a better way to die, making love with the man I love.
Somehow I can’t imagine that people who enjoy making love as much as I do, in the way I do, have a thirst for violence. I am not talking about the kind of love-making that two great liberals, Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton, were famous for, love-making with your suit pants on, love-making into someone else’s mouth.
I know it’s probably stepping over the bounds, your dean, a female no less, talking about having a penis inside her. But why not? Really. Is it any less seemly than if I had a passion for fly-fishing? That quirky old self-sufficient woodsy northwestern gal yanking a barbed, razor-sharp hook suddenly and lethally through the mouth of a dazzling, unsuspecting speckled trout. We love it. But the same old gal moistening her own vagina to slide her lover’s penis into her – we feel squeamish. In other words, violence good. Sex bad. Why? I’m not sure. But what I do know is I’m going to do something about it.
I am officially retired tomorrow – Sunday. Monday morning I am taking the 57 mile bus trip down to Seattle and I am going to camp out on the grounds of a little company called Microsoft. They’ve got a wonderful stretch of lawn on East Maple Street, and I’m going to pitch a tent there and put up a sign that says “No More Violent Games, Mr. Gates!” And I’m going to camp out there, just like Cindy Sheehan camped down the road from Bush’s ranch, and see what happens. If any TV stations or newspapers want to interview me, I’ll tell them the story of Zig and my brother. And if no one comes, that’ll be okay, too. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my days.
If you’d like to join me, I’d love your company, even for a day here and there. Even for an hour. Even just to stop by and bring me a latte. And if you think I’m nuts, that’s okay, too. It’s going to be a long slog – I’m aware of that. But you know, the human animal does evolve. For the most part, aside from Jeffrey Dahmer and a few remote tribes in New Guinea, we don’t actually ingest each other any more. Rape, polygamy, fratricide, homicide are all against the law. Progress is slow, and sometimes we go backwards – but look what some other proponents of non-violence have accomplished – King, Ghandi, Mandella. Maybe it’s time for a Caucasian woman to have an impact. Dishonoring violence – that’s my goal – to de-romanticize it, expose it, get people to see that it’s the tool of the angry, the hateful, the depraved.
So my advice to you, and that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re making a

commencement speech, isn’t it? – give the graduates a piece of advice. Something simple they can return to again and again when life gets complicated. Mine isn’t remotely original. It’s something they said back in the sixties whose profundity didn’t hit me at the time. But it’s a better idea than anything I’ve ever heard in my life. Make love, not war. Thank you.


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