Short Stories


How can I describe the massage Naomi gave me in the motel, the last night we were together? That was months ago. When she was done I felt I had disappeared. She was remembering my body as she stroked it. With each touch I felt myself being lifted to the canvas of her mind as a person she had once been with. Though I knew what she was doing, I did not make her stop. I was already victim to loneliness.

Loneliness has no eyes, no ears. It is deaf to kind offers. Loneliness is a long dull ride to nowhere. A slow motion suicide. The heart suffers, puffs up with sobbing and shrinks in despair. Loneliness breeds an obsession.

The mind sweeps across this desolation; it spots one small person. That person becomes the obsession.

I won’t describe Naomi’s massage any longer. To do so would give it substance; I can’t give credence to an act that wiped me out of her life for good.

I know something now. The mind can forget, but the body will die from remembering.

My face has been blown away. My bones are covered with white powder. I gnaw on my private drama; it begins to taste like real food. Obsession feeds me.

I find myself alone with my four walls and my addiction. I have enough food to last me for several months. I will drag myself to work in the morning. Then I can return and obsess until I’m obese with these thoughts. I was a reasonable person with a certain amount of health, but when my simple needs for sex and affection, yes, for love then, were denied me, I became ill. A sorry did not make any difference.

Now I am afflicted by several ailments: I’m addicted to not getting what I need when I need it. This is not saying anything remarkable, but for the first time I am saying it. I am a prisoner of rejection and I have bone decay in my left ankle. I must walk with a cane. I will look like a cripple.

No one pushed me down the stairs.

The doctor thinks it started with a simple repetitive motion; the one-inch movement of my foot up and down on the pedal on my vibraphone as I was trying to make something beautiful. I’m conscious now of all my repetitive gestures — tapping computer keys, even shaking hands carries a new danger. I fear that repetitions of thought might calcify a lobe. I’m not in charge, beset by circumstances way out of my control.

In the repeating motion, my ankle remembered something else, some trauma perhaps in childhood. My ankle obsessed on the past; it could not forget, nor could it let go. To hold on meant life. To let go meant death of something loved. To forget meant time had passed and the body had aged. Something stopped the motion of life. The lifeblood did not flow. Nutrients were cut off from the bone. Decay began.

Though I can propel myself along with a cane, I don’t like the image. I must sort this out.

Mindy says I should keep going to Al-anon meetings. I have been to several. The sincere and painful stories are comforting and annoying. Again, I’m afraid of repetition. Will I become more, not less addicted to my obsession? Will I get hooked on the pain of others? How do I free myself of this trap? I think my mother’s taunts, “You are stubborn and self-centered,” buffed my skin until I shone with some kind of otherworldly pride. I want to be proud of myself.

I have not stayed a recluse. Twice I made love to someone I didn’t find attractive; relief was only momentary. I felt drawn to a musician, but she informed me she had a lover in Canada and they were working very hard on sustaining their relationship long distance. Friends tried to fix me up.

One day I found myself in Joan’s house in Westchester. It was the fourth of July. I thought maybe here I would find relief from my condition. The hard-core Christian theology books on her coffee table frightened me. Then she confessed that she had never been with a woman before. At one moment she ripped open her blouse and seizing my hand, forced it on her breast. I was horrified. Her desire put the cap on my feelings. I was stuck with my obsession.

I prickle with embarrassment. So many people are made ill by diseases far worse than mine, diseases that can’t be overcome. To dwell on a missing person, a case of mistaken identity is a shameful luxury. Still, a syndrome in my make-up needs repair; this is an internal affair. If I cauterize my obsession, it will not fester. Diligence in this work can lead me to another plateau.

Naomi invited me into the dark moist places of her body. There were no familiar ferns, no star moss, only plants she could name. Yet, she was home long enough for my obsession to root. When she tore herself away, I had no time to transplant my obsession into my own folds. Perhaps it is this fact that obsesses me most; my obsession is not yet with me alone. I can’t clutch it like a child does her doll.

She is the obsession. Her body, the shape of her mouth, the sounds of her voice. She sang them to me. I listened, mesmerized, ready to be wasted by her.

She gave me her lips; she stole them back. She offered her breasts; she denied she did that. I was careful with her. I was not. I dove into her like a fish that had never seen water before. I was as hungry as that boy on Broadway who lay on cardboard, motionless; his sign asks for food as he sleeps, as he dies. I didn’t ask for food, I took. She didn’t say no. She didn’t say yes. Something was stolen. She was partner to our crime. I’m looking for clues. Were they embedded in the beginning?

Josh and Ellen thought Naomi and I might enjoy each other. We weren’t mated, or dating. We were free.

Josh was worried about me, about my loneliness. His concern keeps me from going off the deep end. He gave me her number and said I should call. When he added, “she has a kid,” I laughed in his face. Another mother and child to care take! With my work as a Special Ed teacher there is no end to needy kids if that’s what I want. Just like my mother did before me, I give. But, I need fun, someone I can count on, after work when I’m alone.

Besides, I was still unwinding from a seven-year relationship that ended badly. Kids were there, too — not my kids, but somebody else’s. Where did my generosity come from? I guess I never bought the hype that it’s got to come out of your own womb. Yet, the thought of another heart-rending combo wrenched my stomach. A single parent with kids is my nemesis.

Freyda got more mileage out of her situation as single parent than a Volkswagen does from a gallon of gasoline: scholarships to camps, discounts on tennis shoes, free passes to shows, lovers who could second as baby sitters. Yes, I’d gone through that once before, being the other mother.

And now this Naomi has a kid. What if it’s a brat?

A friend said, “Well, you never know. This is a new situation, so try it.” So much for my resolve not to be sucked in by my own brand of dragons. Even her phone voice drew me. I am sensitive to voice textures; hers was sparkly and gritty, a voice of substance, I told myself. I now knew what people meant when they asked: Is there chemistry?

When she said on our first date, “I don’t want to rush seeing each other again until I get back from a Yiddish folk festival on the West Coast,” I quickly replied: “I don’t want to just stick it in either. I have to visit my parents in California.” Later, when I reflected upon my seemingly unremarkable response, I blushed. Was I, in fact, exposing desire? And not talking about the timing around our trips, but making reference to a concrete act: insertion of a part of my body into hers? And though a lesbian might stick her finger(s) into the vagina of another woman, she/we don’t refer to our body parts as it.

Well, there I was, right off exposing the intricacies of my sexual desires and suggesting that she share them with me. To put it bluntly, my need to fuck had surfaced again, not penetration in a jabbing sense, but entering and melding with another woman, both sexually and emotionally.

But did I come on too intensely? Too soon? She certainly seemed ready and willing as they say. (The fact that I hadn’t made love for three and a half years meant that I was very needy!) Is that why, several weeks and dates later, after our west coast trips, after her kid’s barbs and the motel, she called me up to announce: “It’s not good for me to be intimate with you,” then put me on hold, where I’ve been ever since. Naomi was gone before I could find the answers.

Stop. Slow down. Too much enticing and prickly information is missing. Naomi is a Yiddish singer, a specialist so to speak in the language. I’d hoped to sing with her as well as make love. It’s time to ask? Why am I drawn to mothers? They make me crazy. ‘Over my kid’s body’ they will say. ‘Over my children’s graves,’ they will yell at you. Nobody with any brain would step between a mother and child.

Look how Mary and Jesus were severed by murder. Demeter and Persephone were ripped apart by rape. So why haven’t I learned yet: you see a hand tugging at the mom’s apron, you split!

So Naomi has a lilting, textured voice. On the phone she says, “You will recognize me at the restaurant by the button on my chest.”

Someone’s eyebrows are smiling at me, like upside-down grins. The photo of her son pinned to her breast is tiny, the implication enormous. How could I know that her beautiful arched brows and elegant nose, her short full shape, will cause me great pain.

She apologizes for being late. Her cat clawed the arm of a friend and she had to take him to the emergency room. “Sammy dug in and wouldn’t let go.” I make a mental note: She finds her cat’s aggression humorous. She’s lived in the city too long, that’s what it is. Or, perhaps she’s anxious. I can commiserate. It’s hard to admit you’re looking for love.

As she belabored the incident, I longed to talk about myself: How I sometimes felt like a needy kitten, taken from mom too soon. My twin left the womb easily. But I, smaller and weaker, had to be pulled out and put into an incubator for a few weeks. I even wondered right then: would I claw into this Naomi and have trouble letting go?

She pecks at her food. Is she uncomfortable with me? Then, without asking, she dips her pita into my humus and takes a sip of my wine.

I think I like her as we move easily from one topic to another. I tell her about doing music with “my kids.” I want her to know I feel affection for my students. She tells me about her son. How she wants him to play the violin and read but he likes to play baseball.

“I can play catch with him,” I say, my body stretching, taking on her shape. Solid legs walk on the earth. She/I won’t blow away. Her face has clouds and sunshine and rain in it. Her voice catches mysteries I want to learn. When I remark that she has many aspects, she says, “All of them are real.” We both smile knowingly.

“You’re a special person, Naomi.” Special Ed teachers use the word special too much, but with her I really meant it.

“There are special grasses called climax grasses on the island off the coast of Washington where Ira and I are going next week,” she laughs. “Have you heard of them?”

I’ll never forget the anger in her voice when I asked, “Why don’t you sing at the national women’s music festivals, not only at the Yiddish ones?”

“What did they ever do for me?” she hollered at God.

That turned my head around! The good middle-class wasp I am always asked, “What can I do for them?” She made me see many things from another angle.

Have I mentioned Freyda? We split a year ago, and we didn’t make love our last two and a half years together. That was not an easy relationship, but I can proudly say Freyda’s two daughters are fine young women just now beginning to appreciate the love and care I gave them. In an emergency, I’m still there for them and Freyda, too. But that’s another story….

When we agree to meet again after she gets back from the climax grasses, and I from California — I have to help my parents move into a retirement home — we both smile like cats who have swallowed canaries.

I walk away from her glad my arm wasn’t clawed by her cat.

My twin sister has sent an SOS from Napa, California. She needs help with our parents. There are smears on their bathroom mirrors and little food in the refrigerator. They never have people in. It’s time to get them into an assisted living home. For the first time in sixty-five years they will, like me, be renters on this earth; not an easy pill for them to swallow.

Putting your parents into a retirement home is not like sending a kid to camp. How do you handle their last stops before heaven when one of them doesn’t want to move to an assisted living home and the other does, desperately?

My brave mother suggests that she and I take a walk to the new retirement community, Pleasant Valley Home, being built only a few blocks away. She suggests how I might convince father that spending $2,800 a month to rent an apartment there isn’t too much money.

When we get back to the condo, father is perched on the sofa, staring straight ahead. Lest he detect that we have been talking about him, I put on my placid, friendly face and give him a hug.

“I’m not going to move into that goddamn hotel for old geezers,” he snarls, “if that’s what you’re up to.”

“I spoke to the manager there and signed us up,” Mom announces. He eyes her sideways, lips tight as a vice. “Well shut my mouth,” he says, then clamps his lips again. This is a terrible time of reckoning for both of them: neither daughter is going to put an addition on her house and take them in.

My teacher’s salary pays rent for a studio, holding my musical instruments, my computer and me. The only land I have is the park across the street. My sister and her husband built a beautiful ranch house on the out skirts of Napa. But, now she is exhausted from looking over them for the past four years and ready to collapse. She has raised her kids and now wants a life of her own. How she has faced her trials — the death of a daughter in a car accident, emotional stress with her husband, breast cancer — I’ll never quite understand. Since we left our parent’s home thirty-five years ago, our communications have been difficult. The fact that she does have land and a house matters little; she is in no position to give any more than she has already given.

When I mention that an apartment in Pleasant Valley Home, suitable for their needs, won’t be available for six months, Mom begins coughing non-stop. It turns out she has another chest cold plus sinus problems aggravated by pollen and pollution that hover in the valley. It doesn’t help that the weather has been extremely hot and dry. Mom ends up with a serious case of pneumonia and needs to be taken to the emergency room for care and medications.

One night with trouble breathing, I run out of their house and sink my nose into the grass, definitely not climax grass, to suck up a few drops of dew. The hope that Naomi might spark up my life keeps me going. I can play catch with her son. On my father’s couch in his den, I fantasize making love to her. Yes, I had begun to imagine my naked body rocking back and forth upon her, my vagina embracing hers. My fantasies went further; they included a dildo, so that other desires could be acted upon as well. Is it ironic that what I wasn’t seeking any longer with a man, I wanted to obtain with a woman? At least, I am trying to be honest and not at all disgusting as some of my family members would think.

In the adjoining room I hear the difficult breathing of my mother and the fitful tossing of my father. That my parents have taken to sleeping in the same room for the last couple of years — though on twin beds — has been a major miracle and I’m sure is changing my psyche in ways I can only guess at. Do I dare say it? They seem to be closer despite the persistence of old resentments. Perhaps they have simply tired of fighting. All the years I’ve known them, they had separate bedrooms.

I have a dream about them. They are much younger, looking like the pictures I have seen of them taken in their college days. I watch them on a picnic together by a river. My mother is holding my father in her lap. He is dressed in a business suit, yet the size of a baby. He is sucking her breast.

The morning after this dream, I realize I have done all I can this visit to start the action going on their move. I will have to make another visit in a few months. My sister will have to make do with them a little while longer, remembering that our parents have always kept little food in the refrigerator, yet managed somehow to stay quite healthy. Also, they have never been great at socializing.

Naomi is in my small studio. We are eating a salad. We are drinking white wine. There are flowers on the table. We are happy. I reach out to touch her arm. She takes my hands in her own.

She says I have strong hands. I say I am a musician. She says she has thought of what my hands could do to give her pleasure.

I have not made love to anyone for three years. I am terribly hungry. I swoop down on her.

She says, “slow and deep.” I’m not sure what she means — I only know I need her like I need air and water and earth.

She is so wet, there. I want to please her more than anything.

She is sad. She needs to cry. She has those heavy sighs that I feel at home with. I love her sounds; they seem like life. I love her solid thighs. She cries with me and tries to speak: “When you are in love with someone….” I don’t ask her what she means. I hope I am the rest of the sentence.

We meet several times in my apartment. She always brings Carmel Sauvignon Blanc to drink. After we have a glass we make love.

Naomi calls. She asks if she can visit me, as she will be in my neighborhood looking for a fan. I tell her she can use my fan for the summer as I have air conditioning. She will be at my place in twenty minutes. I straighten the studio up and wash myself. Her wet vagina takes over my mind.

She looks wilted. No wine this time. I fix her a cold drink of seltzer and fruit juice. She tells me about her day at work. She does not get along with her boss. She would like to see him die in a plane crash. Her hostility towards him startles me. Then she says: “Two gay men were let go recently in a budget cut. It’s not coincidental. And it makes me afraid.” My comforting of her turns to kissing. We take off our clothes and make love. Afterwards I hold her in my lap and rock her like a baby. She cries.

“When you love somebody….” This time I think I know what she is trying to tell me.

Suddenly she has to go. Her son Ira needs supper. She just meant to be away for a short time. I give her the fan. She becomes impatient with my wanting to tie it up so it’s easier to carry.

When she opens the door to leave I caress her buttocks. She says, “That’s not what I came for.” The Queen of Double Messages shuts the door quickly behind her.

That night she calls me on the telephone. “I think I understand you,” I say. I’ve decided her sentence fragment is about fear, her fear. “I want to assure you that I want to make love to you many times. I really enjoy you,” I add.

She says, “many times I want to call you but I stop myself.”

“Oh,” I say.

Ira’s voice is in the background. He is singing.

She tells me that he is wonderful about making up songs. He’s made one up about all the dead animals left on the side of the road by the cars. His father helped him with the melody.

“They do many creative things together,” she says.

“That’s wonderful,” I say. “Ira does seem like a creative kid.”

“Well, I’ve got to go,” she says.

“Good night, we’ll talk next week,” I say.

I sit in a Chinese restaurant near my house looking over a manuscript. I look up to see Naomi and her son coming toward me. ‘What a coincidence,’ her arched eyebrows say. This is the first time I have seen her son. He looks like a baby. He is six years old. I motion them to my table. Naomi reaches towards me and retracts a piece of red pepper from my plate. She pops it into her mouth.

They sit down and order. During the meal Ira begins to act out. He scoops up handfuls of rice with his hands and throws it into his mouth, then looks at his mother demurely.

“Don’t be so wild,” she says to him and laughs. “Ira loves drama.” They have a thing between them. Would he like spare ribs or beef with broccoli? Ira hasn’t taken his mind off me since we sat down.

“Are you Jewish?” he asks.

Has Naomi put this question into his mouth?

“No. I have many close friends who are.” Mother and son’s eyes are boring into me. “Is that all right?”

“No,” Ira says. He laughs demoniacally and looks at his mother.

“Ira likes to be dramatic,” Naomi says.

Ira has the ball and he won’t throw it.

He asks if I’m going to visit their house.

“I hope so,” I say. I’m already thinking that I better take Josh and Ellen with me. They are both Jews.

“I only let my dad play with my baseball cards,” he says.

I have made a decision. Ira is a brat.

Ira has made a decision too. He doesn’t want me in his life.

That I am not a Jew has never been an issue for me with a lover. The issue has been: would my parents be nice to my Jewish partners. Naomi teaches me to not say Jewish. “You are not waspish. I am a Jew.”

“Are you a good Jew?” I ask, a bitter taste gathering in my mouth. She becomes angry, but says nothing. I say, “I guess you don’t like a Goy to ask you that?”

We are at her apartment in her bedroom. She pulls me to her. When I press my lips on hers, she turns her head away. At first this makes my hunger grow.

“I’ll have to remember this for the future,” she says.

The mind can forget, but the body? The body will die from remembering. Not letting me kiss her invades our lovemaking — if there can be lovemaking without this. Have she and Ira talked together and decided that I am not kissable? English is not her first language. Yiddish is the language of love for her; it is gritty and intimate. It is not cumbersome and prickly as English is, as I feel myself to be now with her.

I think I am falling in love with her. My body thinks I am falling in love with her, too.

My mother asks, “Why do you want to be like a man?”

I say, “I do not want to be like a man. I want to be like me.”

I am not a Jew. I do not know Yiddish or Hebrew. I have never been to Israel. I do not like children who make me feel ill at ease. I feel what they want me to feel: I must be stealing their mothers away from them. I suck their mothers’ tits and they don’t get to do that anymore.

“Ira made mincemeat out of Gabriela,” she says.

“Who is Gabriela?”

“My last lover.”

She is not a nice person. I think she hates goyim. Maybe she hates women. I am a woman. I have licked her cunt. She has taken her lips away from me. I am angry with her. I will take the Hebrew tree of life off of her wall and balance it on my fingertips.

We meet in the coffee shop near her workplace for lunch. I am paying for her lunch because she is giving me her impressions of the manuscript I’ve been working on.

She goes through her suggestions with me. I’ve given her a copy to mark up. At first she is very enthusiastic. I notice, as the pages go by, her marks seem less careful, more slashing. I’m afraid to look at what she has done with the last pages. I remember the marks made on my drawings a long time before by my mother: she made check marks in black ink over all the wrinkle-lines I had drawn in portraits of her face. That’s another story.

I wonder why I let someone I hardly know do this to my work. Her comments are for the most part helpful. A lot of it, she ‘just doesn’t buy.’ I don’t know what that means as I wasn’t trying to sell her anything. Then I get it. She thinks the love scenes are too idealistic. I tell her I wanted to make beautiful lovemaking scenes. She agrees that it’s easier to stand back and be critical than to jump in and test the water oneself.

She talks about herself. She has had several relationships with women. She was only in love with one. “Ira loved her, too.”

Why didn’t they stay together?

“She was manic depressive and she lived in Georgia. We were always comforting each other. I felt like I was running away from Ira when I was with her.”

“Did you try to live together?”

“No. I lost three years in this relationship. But it was very sexual.”


“I’ve been praying about this.”

“About this woman?”

“About being this way. I’m looking for something else.”

“Gee, I’m glad you told me. What do you have in mind?”

The waiter brings our check and the conversation stops. We walk back to her job, this time at arms’ length. I feel very tense.

Josh once shared a Yiddish joke with me. It went like this: “Oy, tatenyu! Ven ikh zol handlen mit licht, volt die zun nisht untergegangen.” In English it means: “Oh dear god. If I sold candles, the sun would never set.”

“Whose disgusting car is this anyway?” Ira is sitting in the back seat, examining his baseball cards. I am driving a rented car with Naomi sitting beside me. We are inching along route 95 in steamy August weather out of the city going towards New England. Fine dust blows into my face through the no-draft window. They are repairing the roads again.

“Ira, that’s not nice,” Naomi says. Ira giggles.

I snarl and then cough to hide my snarl.

Naomi’s eyes are piercing my right cheek.

“Who’s your favorite player,” I ask demurely.

“I ain’t telling,” Ira says.

“Let’s tell stories,” Naomi says gaily.

“Once upon a time there was a big bad wolf,” Ira shouts out.

“Softer, Ira,” Naomi says, “We can hear you.”

“I have to concentrate on the driving,” I say.

A long silence.

Naomi turns on the car radio. We listen to classical music the rest of the way.

“Would you like Lane to meet Daddy?” Naomi asks as we turn into the driveway of the medical building where Ira’s father works in Hartford.

“No,” Ira screams, slamming the door behind him. He beelines for a large, unsmiling man standing in the lobby who picks him up, waves at us, then turns and walks back into the darkness of the building. Even after they’ve gone, I see Ira’s black eyes mocking me.

We continue on our way to the motel in Lenox, Massachusetts where we plan to stay for two nights while we attend a music festival.

We are in unit No. 61. It reminds me of the hospital room Freyda’s mother died in. There is a spanking new Bible on the bureau and two glasses wrapped in cellophane. I am in bed naked waiting for Naomi to join me. Here she comes, tightly wrapped up in her bathrobe.

“I have to talk to you,” she says.

I can’t wait.

“It’s not good for me to be with you.”

You’re bringing this up again? Why did you invite me on this trip, then?

“It’s my lips. They don’t want to kiss you anymore.”

My body is numb.

She makes that careful gesture I have come to name, Death’s Kiss. Here’s how you do it: Take three fingers and web them together. Arch them towards your lips. Then in a slow sweeping gesture, pull the hand that holds the three fingers away from the lips. The palm of the hand then opens up as if to let go of some dreadful, contagious disease. The eye then follows the departure of that dreadful disease and the hand relaxes to the side of the body.

“It’s not good for me to be intimate with you.”

Ouch. Take that and that.

“The closer we get, the lonelier I feel.”

It must be something you ate.

“It’s not that you’re not Jewish. I hope you don’t think that!”

Oh, no the idea never occurred to me.

“It’s not because your friends like to tease you about being a twin…”

Why would my being a twin be threatening? I can’t help that.

“And above all it’s not that I’m homophobic or anything like that.”

Goddess forbid, that should be true.

It’s because of Ira isn’t it, Naomi. You feel too much tension because Ira doesn’t want you to be with me?”

“Oh, no, that has nothing to do with it.”

“Then what is it? Why can’t we be together?”

She has turned away from me and is sobbing into a pillow.

I will always remember the time she hugged Ira as he buried his face in her breasts. She looked at me and said, “We go around the streets of the city picking up people, looking for somebody to take care of us.”

Oh, God, there are blows in life so painful, don’t ask me. Could I become a Jew? Could I go to the synagogue and put on the veils the women wear for Friday prayers? Jews seem to know who they are. And I am always trying to figure that out. What sacred rituals must I know, what intimate words must I learn so that this son and this mother can love me? What transcultural, transreligious operation must I undergo to be allowed into their secret ceremonies? And was it really this tragic flaw that caused a big NO in my life when I needed YES? Why was everything about me suddenly so wrong?

I think the straw that broke our fragile connection was, in fact, the grimace I made when her son shouted out, “Whose disgusting car is this?” You bet I wanted to stop the car on the highway and dump him out right then and there on route 95, surrounded by smoking trucks and those endless orange signs for detours. Where were we? About an hour away from that plastic box of a motel room. That gray, dusty place where she massaged me, then told me her lips did not want to kiss me anymore.

Ira really did smile at me. Once. I had turned around to look at him at a stop sign; he lit up with one of the sweetest smiles I’ve ever seen. I want to believe it was for me.


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