The night before I receive the phone call that divides my life into before and after, my face swells in an allergic reaction to a skin cream, then blisters and chaps. I am at a health spa in Southern California, a place where wealthy older women go to rest and rejuvenate, where young matrons snap their bodies back into shape after pregnancies, where movie stars stretch out on massage tables in private Japanese gardens, offering their smooth backs to, the sun.
I am none of the above, and for the past three days, since arriving at the Golden Door, I have often paused amid cacti and rock gardens to wonder what, exactly, I’m doing here. I am twenty-three years old, and my life has become unrecognizable to me. I have slid slowly into this state the way one might wade into an icy lake, dipping a toe in at first, then wincing, pushing past all resistance until the body is submerged, numb to the cold.
When the phone interrupts my post-hike breakfast of a half-grapefruit sweetened with honey, I am sitting cross-legged on my bed, listlessly flipping through the pages of the San Diego Herald, staring out the sliding glass doors at my private patio. I am upset about my face, which is itching and beginning to blister. My eyes are slits. I have never been allergic to anything before, and am worried that this rash might spread down my neck and across my chest, causing me to swell inside, my body choking on itself.
“Dani, it’s Aunt Roz, darling.”
“Hi, Roz,” I respond, confused. This aunt, who lives in suburban New Jersey, is not someone to whom I’m particularly close, and she would have no reason to know that I am at this health spa, much less track me down here at the crack of dawn. Though it doesn’t occur to me to be frightened, though no alarm bells ring in my mind, I watch as my thighs begin to shake for no apparent reason.
“Dani, I’m calling because-”
She pauses, speaking very slowly, as if to an imbecile.
“The first thing you should know is that everything’s all right,” she says. And then, “Mother and Dad were in an accident.”
“What kind of accident?”
“In their car, they-”
“Where were they? Where are they? Why are you calling me?”
“Now, Dani, if you’ll just slow down-”
She keeps repeating my name, and she says it the way I hate, the way my mother’s family has always said it, with a sort of pseudo-classy soft “a,” as if we’re from England, not New Jersey. There is an edge to her voice, as if she’s somehow holding me accountable for being on the other side of the country at a moment like this. She thinks I’m a mess-up, a college dropout, a high-class drifter.
“They’re both in intensive care,” she says.
“Overlook Hospital, in Summit. They were driving home from your mother’s office last night-”
“Last night? ”
“It was late-there was nothing you could have done-”
I file this away somewhere, under miscellaneous family insanity. I am my mother’s only child. My father has a daughter from his first marriage, my older half sister, Susie, who lives in New York City.
“Has someone called Susie?”
“How did you find me?”
“Your mother gave me the name of the place you’re staying.”
“So she’s conscious-”
Aunt Roz snorts, actually snorts into the phone.
“Dani, your mother has two badly broken legs. Her tibia, her femur-”
Roz is a doctor’s wife-the kind who thinks her marriage license includes a medical degree. Her husband, my uncle Hy, is a surgeon, and my favorite family member. I may be speaking to the wrong person.
“Where’s Hy? I want to talk to Hy,” I say. My voice has begun to shake along with my legs. Hy will tell me the truth. His hoarse, pipe-smoking voice will soothe me, tell me this isn’t as bad as it sounds. I look wildly around my room at the sliding Japanese screens, the elegant, lacquered breakfast table upon which a fan has been set, detailing my day’s activities: 9 A.M. aerobics, 10:30 stretch ‘n’ tone, 12:00 massage.
“Uncle Hy is with the doctors.”
“How’s my father?”
“He’ll be fine-” Roz says flatly. “Not a scratch on him-and he wasn’t even wearing a seat belt. It’s your mother you should be worried about.”
I don’t stop to wonder why, if my father is fine, he isn’t the one calling me in Southern California. My brain has gone numb, my instincts taking over. I will find out what has happened to my parents one small, manageable blow at a time.
“I’ll get the next flight home,” I say, calculating how long it will take to get to the San Diego airport.
“Good idea, Dan,” says Roz.
* * *
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, a home where Sabbath was observed, my father wore a yarmulke, and we kept meat and dairy separate, according to religious dietary laws. Though I’ve strayed far from that home, in moments of pain, or shock, Hebrew words fly into my mind like a flock of blackbirds, foreign and unintelligible. They ride the crest of memory-these words and prayers-a whole other language I once spoke so fluently I even thought in it, and now no longer understand. Sometimes I think I have locked it deep inside myself and thrown away the key. Other times, I think it’s accessible if only I know where to look: a language within my language, a heart within my heart.
So when I get off the phone and dial my half sister’s office number in New York, there is a tune drifting through my head, a prayer sung at the beginning of Sabbath services. Avinu Malkenu, Harenu v’anenu … I have not attended shul since leaving for college six years ago, at seventeen, but no matter. I can identify the song, sing every syllable the way, as a teenager in the 1970s, I knew every Springsteen lyric.
Susie, a psychoanalyst, is in session. Her machine picks up, and for a split second I almost blurt it out-Dad and Irene were in a car crash-but then I think of my half sister sitting in her office in Greenwich Village, surrounded by the accoutrements of her life: volumes of Freud, Oriental rugs, framed Ferenczi letter, burgundy velvet analytic couch. I picture her wearing her granny glasses and ethnic jewelry, her long wavy blond hair almost to her waist, a patient lying on that couch. I say it’s urgent, to call back the minute her session ends.
If I am twenty-three, Susie is thirty-eight. She is a grown woman, certainly more grown than I am. She is an esteemed shrink, author of a book on schizophrenia, exotic traveler, and recently divorced from her psychiatrist husband. Her life, at least compared with mine, is sane and stable. Still, I somehow feel protective of her. I want to hold back the tide. She would say it is projection-that it is myself I am trying to protect here, flinging up my arms, shielding my face from the shards of a life swirling around me like broken glass.
I try to imagine my parents, but have virtually no information to go on. Which car were they in? My father’s little sporty Subaru? My mother’s Audi 5000? Where did it happen? What, exactly, happened? How is it possible that I don’t know, at this very moment, whether my parents are alive or dead, in critical condition or just a bit banged up? Was it the weather? Did their car skid off the highway? Were there other cars involved? I squeeze my eyes tightly against it all, but the images churn, they don’t stop. I want a drink, a pill, anything. I methodically dig my nail into the palm of my hand. I want to move the hurt. I don’t know how long I sit there-a minute? an hour?-before the phone rings again.
It’s my uncle Hy. Talking to Roz made me numb and talking into Susie’s answering machine made me mute. But hearing Hy’s voice, filled with love, and with something else-something I can’t yet identify-makes me weep.
“God, Hy, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” he says quietly, this man I have always counted on to know. I decide to take it a parent at a time. “How’s my mother? Roz said she has broken-” “Dani, your mother may never walk again.”
A door slams shut inside me, then another, then another. “And my father?”
“We don’t know what’s wrong with your father.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s in a coma, Dani.”
“What happened?” I whisper.
“He passed out at the wheel. It may have been a stroke-we just don’t know.”
I finally recognize the unfamiliar note in Hy’s voice: he’s treating me like an adult, telling it to me straight. “Get home,” he says. “Get home now.”
I fold myself into the back of the limo, my single piece of luggage in the trunk. In the back of the limo there are assorted tapes, a sound system, and a telephone. What there is not what I had been secretly hoping for-is a crystal decanter filled with something amber: scotch, brandy. I need to sedate myself for the three-hour drive from San Diego to Los Angeles. My body has not stopped shaking. I think about my mother and shudder at the degree of impact it must have taken to snap a thigh bone in two. Try as I might to imagine her with shattered bones-Hy mentioned both legs, pelvis, ribs, nose-I have always seen her as indestructible. A therapist once told me my mother reminded her of Mary Tyler Moore in the film Ordinary People. She is angular, energetic, fiercely private, imperious. How is she handling being flat on her back, in traction, at the mercy of doctors, nurses, and orderlies? Is she telling them what to do? My mind zings back and forth between my mother and my father-the words coma, femur, critical, stroke forming, dissolving, then forming again as we pull away from the Golden Door and head north to Los Angeles.
I summon up my nerve. “Is there any scotch back here?” I ask the driver. The bright morning sun is muted by the tinted windows.
“No, ma’am,” he answers, then pauses. “Would you like me to stop at a liquor store?”
“No, that’s all right, thanks.”
It is the first time in my life I have been called “ma’am.”
The limo speeds north on the San Diego Freeway, and the fact of motion itself is a relief. We are going somewhere-moving fast in the wrong direction. I should be heading east on a plane right now, circling above Newark airport, waiting for a break in the sky, a small ripped-open seam that would allow us to land. I snap a Carly Simon tape into the cassette deck, lean my cheek against the cool dark leather as the car fills with the opening drumbeats of “You’re So Vain.”
The car phone rings. It’s Susie. I had given her the number when she called me back at the spa.
“Dan, it’s me.”
Months sometimes go by without any communication with my half sister. I have no idea what she thinks of me-if she thinks of me at all. I always feel small around her; small, and stupid. I have looked up to her all my life. On top of being a shrink, she’s a serious classical pianist who has studied for many years. I have listened to her play Liszt etudes and Chopin nocturnes, watched her graceful fingers flying over the keys, her brow furrowed in concentration as she transformed notes on a page into something that moved me. I have also studied piano since I was a child. I wanted to be like Susie. I have perfect pitch, and the music always came easily to me, but by the time I was in high school the last thing I wanted to do was spend long hours practicing alone, and so I tried out for the cheerleading team instead.
“Where are you?” she asks.
I look out the window at the arid landscape of Southern California. Heat waves rise up from the blacktop of the freeway. Billboards advertise condominium developments with names like Hacienda del Mar.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “Where are you?”
“I just got to Jersey.”
“What’s going on?”
“Well, Irene’s going to be okay. She looks awful-like a caricature of someone who has been in a car crash-but Dad’s in pretty bad shape.”
Susie’s voice is harsh and flat. As usual, my half sister minces no words. She’s furious that no one thought to call her until I did-that my mother’s family seems to have forgotten that she exists. The trouble between Susie and my mother goes back nearly thirty years to the time my parents first started dating each other. She’s a phony, nine-year-old Susie told my father. Don’t marry her. They have barely tolerated each other over the years each has wished the other would disappear; my mother could be at death’s door and Susie would probably perceive her as all right.
“I called Shirl and Harvey,” says Susie, referring to my father’s younger sister and brother. “I think they’d better get here.”
I squeeze my eyes shut.
“Do you think-?”
I can’t bear to say the words. Since I’ve been old enough to contemplate loss, I have imagined losing my father. Whenever we have been together and said good-bye, I have wondered if that good-bye would be the last. Though he is a bear of a man, an imposing figure, really, I have seen him as physically fragile, vulnerable, picturing a fatal heart attack, an embolism, a stroke-my father falling like an old heavy tree to the pavement on Wall Street, where he works, or while walking to temple on a Shabbos morning.
“The doctors are asking me what medication Dad’s on,” says Susie.
I think of the possibilities: Valium, Percodan, Codeine, Empirin. My father pops painkillers like Tic Tacs; he has suffered from chronic back pain for as long as I can remember. In the center of our breakfast table back home, on a lazy Susan where most people might keep cereals he has collected -an impressive array of plastic bottles, each prescription written by a different doctor.
“I don’t know what he’s taking,” I say. “Why don’t you ask Irene?”
It is a function of my relationship with my half sister that I call my own mother Irene in her presence. I am trying to ally myself with her, to let her know that I understand.
“Irene’s stoned,” says Susie. “They have her on painkillers up the wazoo.”
My head feels as if it’s going to explode. My mother stoned is another in a series of impossible images. My father, comatose. My psychoanalyst half sister, my father’s sister and brother, and my mother’s suburban New Jersey relatives convening in a hospital corridor, pretending to get along. The rifts between my mother and my father’s side of the family are deep. They go back at least ten years, to the time my father’s sister, Shirl, had the flu and didn’t attend my Bat Mitzvah. My mother was certain Shirl didn’t have the flu and wasn’t coming because she didn’t think the service would be religious enough. The night before my Bat Mitzvah, my mother called Shirl psychotic and hung up on her.
“What’s the weather like?” I ask Susie.
“Am I going to be able to get home?”
I close my eyes and count to ten. I want to scream at her, tell her to stop answering me in monosyllables, that I’m her sister, not her patient. I want to cry out for help-to let her know that I’m only pretending to be a grown-up, that in fact I’m a complete and total mess. But perhaps she knows this already.
“I’d better go,” she says. “The doctor just came out of the ICU.”
We are both quiet for a moment.
“I love you.”
We are two only children, raised by different mothers, fifteen years apart. Half sisters, connected to each other by half promises and half lies. But today we are all each other has in the world-and the man who connects us is fighting for his life.
I think she says “I love you too,” but there is static, and we are disconnected.
My parents had three previous marriages between them. My father married Susie’s mother when he was in his early twenties. It was a marriage that worked on paper. Early photographs of the two of them show a young, happy if slightly baffled-looking couple on the beach in Miami or playing shuffleboard at resorts like Kutchers and Grossinger’s. But underneath her proper Orthodox surface, my father’s first wife was a rebellious, intellectual spirit, and he had no idea what to do with her. Where he came from, women didn’t aspire to more than a comfortable family life and perhaps some volunteer work at the temple sisterhood.
After Susie was born, the couple stayed very involved with both sets of in-laws, spending Shabbos dinners either at my father’s parents’ house on Central Park West or at his in-laws on Fifth Avenue. My father was on the road half the time, traveling to a small town in Virginia, where he was overseeing the family silk mill. Years later, my grandfather would shut down the mill for good, and lend my father the money to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. But back then, my father’s traveling must have taken its toll. When he was home, he and his wife fought viciously, or lapsed into tense silences. Still, my father may not have grasped or understood her growing frustration and disenchantment.
When Susie was six, my father returned from a business trip to find an empty apartment, with only his clothes left hanging in the closet. His wife, daughter, and all their belongings were gone. There were rumors, of course, that she had run off with Susie’s pediatrician. This kind of thing just didn’t happen. In Susie’s class at Ramaz, an Upper East Side yeshiva for girls, she was the only child of divorced parents.
My father waged a custody battle for Susie, and won ample visitation rights: Wednesday nights, every other weekend, and Jewish holidays. In the meantime, he was probably being fixed up on blind dates all over town. He was already becoming a tragic figure of sorts, ditched abruptly by his flighty, good-for-nothing wife. On the weekends he had Susie he sometimes took her to resorts in the Catskills, where they’d play a game: he’d go out on dates with young women, and Susie would narrow her little six-year-old’s eyes and give him her opinion.
For his second wife, he chose another daughter of a privileged Orthodox clan. Dorothy Gribetz was a lovely, sweet-natured girl, and according to everything I’ve ever heard, my father was crazy about her. So was Susie. He proposed, she accepted, and plans for a wedding were set in motion. It wasn’t until a short time before their wedding that my father’s best friend told him a rumor that had been whispered throughout the Orthodox community: Dorothy had Hodgkin’s disease, which in those days was a terminal illness. She didn’t know it-her parents had kept it secret from her, and from my father as well.
A few nights before their wedding my father paid a visit to Dorothy’s father. Was it true? Was she dying? Yes, he told him, Dorothy’s prognosis was that she had a year to live. He had kept it from my father because he saw how happy he made Dorothy, and he wanted her to have that happiness, even if only for a short time-even at the expense of my father’s, and of Susie’s.
I picture my father now, standing beneath the chuppah on his wedding day. He is not the father of my memory, but of my imagination: he is a young man-perhaps he is thirty-two-but his eyes are already old. He turns to watch his bride walk down the aisle. She is a vision of innocence in her simple white gown. This should be the happiest day of his life. His eyes sting as she moves toward him, flanked on either side by her parents, and his heart is hollow. He is watching himself become a widower. He looks around the shul at the assembled guests and blinks hard against the thought that they will all be gathered here again in the not too distant future, that he and his bride will be together one last time in this sanctuary: he in the torn black clothes of mourning, she in a plain pine box.
I grew up absorbing my father’s sadness without knowing where it came from. Sometimes he just disappeared. Not like other fathers-fathers I heard about, who drove off in their cars and never came home again-but just faded, as if he couldn’t really be there, not all of him. He would be sitting in a lawn chair smoking a Camel, and all of a sudden his eyes would grow vacant, his mouth would crumble, and he would stare off into the distance. I would follow his gaze to see what he was looking at, but I never saw what was making him so sad. I couldn’t make out the faint shadow of his first wife against the forsythia hedge in the backyard, holding a little-girl version of Susie’s hand. I couldn’t see Dorothy huddled in a blanket by the seashore, weak and pale in the final months of her life.
There was defeat in the stoop of my father’s shoulders, or in the way he shook a few pills into the palm of his hand, then downed them in one gulp when he thought no one was looking. I thought that perhaps this was what it meant to be a grown-up; that along with growing big and tall, the pinprick of sadness that was inside me too would spread until it covered my insides like a stain.
I was sixteen years old before I heard about Dorothy. Susie let it slip when Dad, Dorothy, and I were upstate one time, she said-and when I looked puzzled, she stopped and stared at me. You don’t know about Dorothy? Susie was by then a thirty-one-year-old psychoanalyst, and on some level, she must have known what she was doing. Perhaps she felt I needed to know. There were already danger signs-signs that I was fading fast myself.
And then there was my mother. Over the years, the story of my parents’ courtship and marriage has acquired a delicacy that has kept me at a distance, like an ancient hand-blown piece of glass that might disintegrate if I got too close.
What I was told as a child was this: they first met on East Ninth Street in Manhattan, where they were across-the-street neighbors. It was a Saturday, the Shabbos, and my father was walking home from shul with nine-year-old Susie. My mother was returning from the hardware store, where she had just bought a hammer. Hammers and Shabbos are two things that don’t go together: for Orthodox Jews, the Sabbath is a day of rest, when no work is to be done, certainly not manual labor. So when my father met my mother, he must have known she wasn’t from his world.
It is a story my mother has often recounted feverishly, slam-dunking the metaphor of the hammer. He knew I wasn’t observant. He saw the hammer. He knew what he was getting himself into. She was a career girl with her own advertising agency, who had left her first husband when she was thirty. My father was so taken with my mother that, the following Sunday, he pored over the Manhattan phone directory, searching for her. He knew only her first name-Irene-and her address on East Ninth. I can only imagine what he was thinking, the way his heart must have been racing. Who was the dark-haired beauty from across the street? She looked to be in her early thirties. What had she been through? Why wasn’t she wearing a wedding ring? Why was he tracking her down despite his better judgment? He ran his finger down each column in the White Pages, looking for Irenes or the initial I on East Ninth Street until he finally found her in the F’s, under Fogel, a surname left over from her first marriage.
In a photograph of my parents I have hanging over my desk, they are walking down the aisle of Young Israel of Sixteenth Street on their wedding day. My father is dashing in a well-cut dark suit, and my mother is elegant in ankle-length ice-blue. Their arms are linked as they walk together toward the chuppah, and my mother is smiling triumphantly at whoever is taking the picture, a thin cloud of netting floating over her face. My father is smiling too, but now, if I look beyond the smile, I see that he is haunted. There are ghosts in his mind, ghosts swirling all around my father and my mother in the moment before they take their vows.
I am not yet born, and there is already a piece of my father that is dead.
I am drunk, halfway home.
Or rather, I should be drunk, but nothing seems to be working: not the two vodkas I had in the airport bar, not the bad airplane wine I have been drinking since takeoff. I’ve recently reached a point in my drinking where one drink can get me drunk or ten can have no effect. But it isn’t tipsiness I’m after. I’m looking to anesthetize myself from head to toe, which is why I’m mixing red wine and vodka-a very bad idea and I know it. All I want to do is stop feeling. I want the images of my parents in my mind to fade until there’s nothing but a warm, sickening haze, until I get just dizzy enough to pass out in my seat.
I always drink on airplanes-I consider them a sort of time-free zone, an endless cocktail hour. Besides, I’m terrified of flying, and after a few little bottles of Smirnoff and cans of Mrs. T.’s Bloody Mary mix, I can usually forget that I’m in the air, at least for a little while. Forgetting is what it’s all about-forgetting that I’m twenty-three years old and have nothing to show for it. Once I’ve had a few drinks I can convince myself that I have a lot to show for it. Who needs things like college degrees, nice hometown boyfriends, starter jobs at advertising agencies? My friends are all playing a game, and I have stepped to the sidelines. I have chosen to sit this one out.
The in-flight movie is Gorky Park-a film I auditioned for a couple of years back. I watch the tail end without headphones. The actress they cast looks a whole lot better as a Russian spy than I ever would have. I try to focus on the screen, but I’m seeing double, so I close my eyes. Beneath my lids, another film is taking place: My parents’ Audi collapses like an accordion against a concrete highway divider, my father’s head is flung in slow motion into the steering wheel. His eyes close, glasses crack, lenses pop out from the impact. My mother screams, an unearthly sound, as her legs are mangled beneath her. Steam pours from the hood. All around them, giant flakes of snow drift silently across the nearly empty highway.
I open my eyes, blink hard, and gasp for air.
“You all right?” my neighbor asks. He has moved from wine to Baileys Irish Cream, and his face is the color of sunset. ”
Yeah,” I lie. “I’m fine.”
I make my way down the aisle to the lavatory and splash cold water on my face, then examine myself in the mirror. The rash is getting worse. My cheeks are streaked with tears, and my lips and eyes are all puffy.
The captain’s voice pipes into the restore, announcing that we’re about to begin our final descent into the Newark area. The weather in Newark is a bracing eighteen degrees and we should be touching down at approximately six-fifty, local time. Before I return to my seat, I meet my own gaze evenly. The words of the Shema, a Hebrew prayer, tumble through my mind.
You are alone in the world, I whisper to the poor, pathetic girl in the mirror, preparing for the worst.
Dani Shapiro’s most recent books include the novel FAMILY HISTORY and the best-selling memoir SLOW MOTION. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Elle, Oprah, Ploughshares and many other magazines, and has been translated into nine languages. She is currently Visiting Writer at Wesleyan University. Her website is www.danishapiro.com
This piece excerpted from Slow Motion. Reprinted with permission.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.