Posted in Uncategorized by anna on October 29, 2009

I was seventeen. My mom was drinking a glass of white wine and watching Nick at Nite. Ricky was screaming at Lucy that she had some ‘splaining to do. I said I was going to work (late shift at Dairy Queen), she said be careful and I walked out the door.
I’m twenty-five now, and I have to divorce my father. I don’t mean that in the teenage “tell him you hate him and slam your bedroom door” way. I mean it in the literal way. I’m married to my father.
I guess I have some ‘splaining to do.

My parents separated when I was little, after my father’s unsuccessful 7-11 robbery attempt. He put a pair of pantyhose over his head, stuck his finger in the cashier’s back and asked for all the twenties in the register. She kneed him in the balls and called the cops. I was in the candy aisle trying to hide Milky Ways in my dress. (I was eight.)
My mom bailed him out of jail and kicked him to the curb and he moved to Boulder. For awhile he lived with this I’m-a-dancer-not-a-stripper woman named Liz. But once he ran out of money he was alone.
Imagine my surprise – remember at this point I’m seventeen and basically a bastard as far as paternal care is concerned – when he pulled up at the DQ drive in and asked what the Blizzard of the month was.
“Pumpkin,” I said. I hadn’t seen him in seven years.
“You got big, Ellie.”
“You look like shit.” He did. He had a scratch on his forehead, a parting gift from Stripper Liz, and a band-aid over it like a really bad, really white rapper.
“Get in the car.”

I’ll never forget when I learned what a sociopath was. In the sixth grade I got bussed to the local high school for math because I’d tested off the middle school scale and into pre-calc. I sat in the back and read a book on Ted Bundy I’d found from the high-school library, misplaced on a rack with some YA paperbacks. A sociopath is someone who disregards the rights of others. This person can be charming and attentive and sharp but something is missing. This was when I realized there was a good chance my dad maybe was a sociopath.

“We just need to get back to Boulder,” he said as he pulled onto the freeway. He lit up a Newport and smoked it out the window. “You’re not happy here with Mom, right?”
I took a cigarette from his pack. “Boulder’s pretty far.”
“I’ve got a great condo just out of Flagstaff. With a backyard. You can plant shit.”
“Why are you here, really?”
“Well, Liz left,” he said, “and this thing we cooked up is kind of a two person job.”

First when he told me, it seemed like a great idea. The more I thought about it, it seemed like a great weird idea.
We did a test-run at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick. Mostly empty, some overweight thirty-something guys in hoodies with beers discussing Javascript with the bartender.
“Follow my lead, El,” my dad murmured.
We sat at the bar and he broke into the geek conversation with some anecdote about standard programming syntax.
One of the hoodie guys moved one stool closer to me.
“What’s your name?”
He was like, “Are you old enough to be in here?”
“Is that any of your business?”
My dad put his arm around me. “Stop hassling my girl.”
“Sorry, man,” said the hoodie. “But you’re a little old for her, right?”
“Age is just a number, son.” My dad shrugged and tossed back his Maker’s Mark. The hoodies were looking at him like he was going to impart some wisdom, tips to lure a young girl or write a great code.
“We’re trying to get to California, but we don’t have the money,” said my dad.
“What’s in California?”
“Her folks.” My dad took a sip of his Maker’s. “’Cause I’m a an old-fashioned man, and I’d like to do this properly.”
“Wait, do what properly?” asked the hoodie, and my father turned to me.
“Baby, I have to ask you something.”
He got off his seat, knelt down and pulled a ring box from his jeans. He opened it. There was a ring in it.
He said, “Will you marry me?”
I took a second, like any young girl would, and then I squealed, “God—yes!”
There was a round of claps and the bartender brought some free drinks and the hoodie said, “How’d you guys meet?”
I saw my dad thinking fast, but before he could say anything I spoke up.
“Expository Writing class. He was my professor.”
I glanced at my dad to check if I’d done well. He looked proud of me.

We called them “Fakeposals.” You’d be surprised at the amount of support people will give the recently-engaged. Cash, checks, free drinks all night, a couch to sleep on. And our age difference didn’t make it completely unbelievable. My dad was a good-looking guy, a little rough around the edges maybe but nothing a dumb young co-ed wouldn’t overlook. I looked older than seventeen, and could pass for a sheltered college girl in her early twenties whose only vice was being hot for Teacher. And the damn ring was a prop cubic zirconia, which I always took off right after we left so that it didn’t start feeling too real.

New York was a natural pit-stop to grab some extra money, and it was a fucking cash cow. We did three fakeposals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and never paid for a single meal. My dad got better and better each time he proposed. There was more emotion in the way he got on one knee – it was like the more he lied, the more real conviction he had. Balthazar, Momofuku, Scarpetta, Craft, the best restaurants in the city. We got $3,000 cash total from New York and God knows how much more in meals. That’s how much people enjoy seeing love.

Valentine’s Day for us was like Black Friday for the retail industry. On Valentine’s Day I had three-hundred dollar steak and caviar at Peter Luger’s on some rich old couple’s dime. They bought us a bottle of 1926 Macallan scotch worth three thousand dollars and my dad got so drunk he fell under the table. I drank whatever he didn’t finish.

In the car on the way back to our hotel, I was wasted and sloppy and my dad was pissed at me.
“The fuck, El?”
“What’s wrong?” I mumbled.
“You shouldn’t drink on jobs,” he said.
“But you do, all the time.”
“Yeah, but you drank too much. It makes me look bad. You seem like a kid.”
“I am a kid.” I fell over to the side and hit my head hard against the window.
He sighed. “Think we’re done with New York, huh?”

If you say a word over and over, like “banana” or “chair” or something, they start sounding like meaningless noise. Marriage proposals aren’t any different. And our “how we met” story wasn’t static – it changed by geography. Once we hit Indiana he was a friend of the family who I’d been in love with ever since we met at a barbeque. It stayed that way all the way to Missouri, when some starchy guy in a suit hit dangerously close to home. It was seven in the evening. He’d just paid for our meal and my dad was talking him up for plane fare with the California line.
“You look about my stepdaughter’s age,” he said to me.
“Hope that’s not how you two got together.” He laughed.
Totally deadpan, my dad said, “I don’t think that’s very funny.”
“You know what I think?” the guy said to my dad.
“What’s that?”
“I don’t think you’re planning to marry this girl.”
My dad was shocked. “Excuse me?”
“She’s young. And beautiful, and naïve. And you’re taking advantage of her.” The suit shook his head. “You’re in it to hit it and quit it.”
“You’re totally out of line,” my dad said in a low, angry way, “and if I were you I wouldn’t open your goddamn mouth again.”
“We’re in love, man!” I said, pretty drunk off the three vodka cranberries he’d bought me.
“Well. I know a courthouse in Columbia that’s good for quickie licenses.” The suit shrugged and grabbed his briefcase off the table. “Just saying.”
My dad stood abruptly and yanked me up by the arm. “You ready, El?”
“Sure,” I said, assuming he meant “ready to go back to the car.”
“I’ll drive there,” the suit said, giving me this smile like he was doing me a favor, helping me seal this deal. “Just follow me in your car.”

My dad has a lot of monikers from his heist days, and I don’t look much like him, and the paperwork was light. I’m just saying, it’s surprisingly easy to marry your father in this country. The suit was the only person in attendance, still with that shit-faced smile, like he was living his own sinful dream with his dumb stepdaughter. Some little Asian woman took a snapshot of us right after we were married by the on-duty judge. The flash hurt my eyes and I ran to the bathroom and threw up vodka cranberry.

I woke up in the car with the cubic zirconia on my finger. It was drizzling outside and my head was pounding. “You are now entering Kansas.” The Shirelles were playing and my dad was sucking on the filter of a Newport. He wasn’t looking at me. I took the ring off, put it on the dashboard, told him to stop, and I got out of the car. I haven’t seen him since.

Like I said, I’m twenty-five now. I hitchhiked back to New Jersey, graduated from high school a year late in the middle of my class, went to college in New Hampshire where girls wear pearl earrings and this kind of thing doesn’t happen to people. I met a boy on the lacrosse team, a journalism major. We’ve been dating for five years. He’s amazing and I’m pretty sure he’s going to propose soon, which is why I need to divorce my father. I haven’t told the boy. Maybe I never will. All I know is that I don’t want him to ask me to marry him in a room full of strangers.


the last days of rachel cohen, 1979

Posted in Uncategorized by anna on October 14, 2009

(printed anonymously in the East Side Hebrew Institute Alumni Newsletter, 2006)

Twenty-seven teenage girls were expelled from the East Side Hebrew Institute for Women in 1979. I was one of them. ESHI never released an official reason for the expulsion, and the twenty-seven of us swore silence in order to avoid the wrath of our parents and the community.

We are in our forties now, most are observant Orthodox wives and mothers, and I’m sure the majority would be thrilled to let the story fade into obscurity, but as the years have passed it’s weighed me down, and I need to air it for my own well-being.

So it was 1979. I was sixteen years old and everyone at ESHI called me “Bones,” because I’d had a three-inch growth spurt that summer without gaining a pound. My homeroom was run by Miss Moritz, a severe young Midrash teacher who may still be at ESHI (assumedly now a severe old Midrash teacher).

There were two things Miss Moritz would kick you out of class for:

One, not having your uniform pressed.

Two, associating with Rachel “Chell” Cohen, my best friend at ESHI, whose real name I can use because she’s long dead of leukemia, and even if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t give a shit.

“Way to go, Bones,” she’d probably say, scrunching up her nose in her trademark smile, and then she’d drag me to McSorleys for a beer.

Chell was raised Chabad like the rest of us, in a small, dirty apartment on Delancey Street with five little brothers and sisters. Her father was a rabbi and her mother a dutiful rebbitzin, setting the table for the young scholars from the seminary and members of the synagogue who dropped by with a bottle of vodka to talk Torah with Rabbi Cohen. Often, these visitors were our fathers. Often, our fathers were drunks.

Chell’s parents were pillars of the community. Chell, on the other hand, was a complete abberation.

The dirtiest pages of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” were pasted in her schoolbooks. She played poker with the janitors at ESHI and never lost a game. She talked me into seeing Deep Throat and laughed at the shock on my face in the theater. She drew comics of ESHI as Dachau, complete with Miss Moritz as Hitler. She distrusted religion, politics and anything else that even remotely resembled authority.

I realize now that where Chell belonged was a liberal college campus whose green lawns echoed with protests and riots and shitstorms, where she could argue about Proust in lecture and smoke grass with boys who drank brandy and wrote on electric typewriters.

But Chell had always been that way – that wasn’t what made 1979 remarkable. What made it remarkable is the flasher.

He got chubby Ellen Liebman first, last on the way out the door after PE.

“Do you like my coat?” he’d asked her. He was standing on the bottom of the flight of stairs.

“Sure,” Ellen answered timidly. She squinted at his bare legs under the trenchcoat. And then before she could bleat some excuse, he spread the trenchcoat wide.

It spread through ESHI like wildfire that Ellen had seen some guy’s thing. It was the biggest news since Chell’s last second-base rendezvous with one of Rabbi Cohen’s seminary students. At first she was ashamed, but Ellen started liking the attention after awhile, and by homeroom on Friday she was as blasé as a movie star about it.

“It’s just a body part,” Ellen said, dramatically rolling her eyes. “It’s not like, the living end or anything.”

“This from a girl who thinks you’ll get pregnant if you swallow,” Chell repeated under her breath, chewing on her pencil. I snickered. Miss Moritz smacked her chalk down.

“What’s this all about, ladies?” she asked in Hebrew, staring straight at Chell. Chell stared straight back.
“Ellen saw a penis, Miss Moritz.”
“Excuse me, Rachel?”
“A male sexual organ.”
Miss Moritz pressed her lips together until they turned white. “Four demerits for Rachel Cohen. Detention.”
“Oh, come on!” Chell threw her book down disgusted. “Is it because I said ‘penis?’ I could’ve said ‘cock.’”
“Four more…”
“Cock, cock,” Chell said. “Cock. Cock, cock, cock.”
The classroom was dead silent.
“Twenty-five demerits in two minutes.” Miss Moritz marked them down in her ledger. “I think you’ve broken a record.”

It was about this time Chell found out she was sick. She had gone to the eye-doctor and he noticed she was seeing double. When she told me she’d be dead before commencement I was inconsolable for a whole week-end, skipping meals and sobbing in bed, but Chell was remarkably calm.

“I just have a couple things I have to do,” she said.

The following Monday in homeroom, he was back on the steps. Chell had been staring obsessively out the window all morning, and she pounded me hard on the shoulder. I leaned back in my wooden chair to catch a glimpse and nearly fell backwards. Miss Moritz glared at me and I looked back down at my textbook. But many of the other girls were staring out the window.

When the final bell rang, a crowd of us – half of Miss Moritz’s homeroom – bolted through the hall, Chell at the lead. She pushed open the front door of ESHI and froze at the top of the stairs. He was at the foot of the staircase, just like Ellen had said, clutching the edges of his jacket. He seemed taken aback by the number of us.

“Say, uh,” he said, and shifted awkwardly from side to side. “You girls like my coat?”

“Don’t be nervous,” Chell told him reassuringly. “Do you want a cup of coffee?”

The flasher’s name was Neil. He wasn’t homeless as I’d suspected, but lived with a roommate in Chinatown. He’d attended Hunter College for a year, he said, until he was turned on, tuned in and dropped out. He paid his rent by hustling in bars, letting old queers buy him a few drinks and take him home. He was deeply damaged from drugs but we thought it romantic, a necessary prerequisite for a soulful young man, like Keats’ opium addiction.

We started having lunch with him every Friday afternoon, digging into our allowances to buy him a proper, greasy lunch at the Minnetta Lane Inn. Soon Miss Moritz’s entire homeroom was coming to lunch with the flasher – all twenty-seven of us.

He was shy at first, hesitant to learn our individual names, like he’d rather think of us an amorphous group. We each tried to win him over our own way, with home-baked bread or clumsily crocheted mittens, but as the most secular and relatable of the group, Chell was his clear favorite.

“You know, if you cross your eyes, he looks like Warren Beatty,” she whispered to me once in math class.

“Warren who?” I said.

It was Chell’s idea to follow him back to his apartment one afternoon. We trailed a few blocks behind him when he left the front steps of the school, clustered in groups of three or four. Finally, a block away from his walk-up on Attorney Street, Chell strode out in front and tapped his shoulder. He whirled around, wild, ready to throw a punch.

I counted out sixty dollars into Neil’s hand. His eyes nearly popped out of his head.

“Invite Chell upstairs,” I demanded.

“You want to make it with me, Rachel?” he gasped.

“That’s the idea,” said Chell.

Neil stared blankly at us, our identical schoolgirl sweaters and long, modest skirts.

“Come on, Bones,” he said, frantically pushing his hair off his forehead. “You’re a sensible girl.”

“So? Don’t act so scandalized. You do it for the queers, don’t you?” I said.

“So, I don’t think your friend here realizes what she’s getting herself into.” He scratched the back of his neck, uncomfortable.

“I’m the one who collected the money,” I told him. “We all put in a couple dollars. For Chell.”

“Sex is serious business.” Neil bit his lip. “You’re too young to get it.”

“You want serious business? I’ve got a tumor in my brain the size of a chicken egg, okay?” Chell snapped. “I might kick it before summer. Hell, I might kick it right in school.”

There was a long pause, a standoff.

“You’re really gonna die?” Neil asked in a small voice.

“Yes, Neil, I’m really gonna die.”

“Oh Jesus, man,” Neil said, and his face crumbled.

“Hey, it’s okay. Don’t cry. Just um, I paid you so… I want you to give it to me. Good. Okay? Don’t cry.” Chell awkwardly patted his shoulder. “Where’s your key?”

As Neil fumbled in his pocket for the key, we took it as our cue to scatter. I shot one last look at Chell as Neil took her hand to lead her up the stairs. Her eyes were dark, glittery in the shadows of the stairs.

Nobody knows who told Miss Moritz about Chell’s bargain with Neil. I’d put my money on Ellen Liebman but it could’ve been anyone jealous of Chell or trying to kiss up to Miss Moritz. Whoever it was ratted out Chell, me, and all the girls who donated to Chell’s fund. In the end it was twenty-seven of us expelled, which didn’t really matter because most of us weren’t headed for college but marriage, and so our education would have been completed in just another year anyway.

On our last day at ESHI Chell and I bought a skin magazine from the corner bodega and pasted the pages on Miss Moritz’s chalkboard. By that time most of Chell’s hair was gone, and she was wearing this crazy dreadlock wig I got her from Harlem so that she didn’t get confused with one of the married women from our synagogue. Sometimes people congratulated her anyway.

“Don’t worry,” she explained to the poor confused well-wisher if they were embarrassed about their awful faux pas. “Marriage and cancer are pretty similar.”

I’m ashamed to say I rarely saw Chell once she went to the hospital to wait it out. We were so close by then I couldn’t stand being near her at the end, it was suffocating. Neil visited once, she said, and then didn’t come again. He had looked thin and sweaty and was probably on drugs. Rabbi Cohen had seen Neil come in, Chell said, and probably banished him from visiting again. I doubted that was true, it was far more likely poor addled Neil had just let Chell slip from his mind, but I didn’t want to ruin her fantasy.

I married shortly after, and did all the things I was supposed to do at the time I was supposed to do them as an Orthodox Jewish wife and mother. It’s as if Chell was never in my life, which was the only way I could continue to live it. There are special, brilliant, fleeting people too big for this world, and there’s everyone else, and neither group should be condemned.