Excerpt 25

“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke

My mother’s wedding night was a threesome:  My mother, father, and Joe,  an Episcopal priest, who was my father’s favorite lover. They were in Fairhope, Alabama, an artsy town on the Gulf.

No family members attended.

It was 1949.

My mother told me this when I was twelve years old. We were having dinner at Britling’s, the local cafeteria, in Memphis. I really liked their shredded carrots with raisins.

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Excerpt 24

My parents never even had medical insurance, which they considered an extravagance, until they were eligible for Medicare. They gambled…and won the health lottery, despite their decades of heavy smoking and drinking.

And when my father died, my mother gave his body to a medical school so that she wouldn’t have to pay for cremation. Afterward, she refused to accept his ashes; she told the hospital to dump them in a public veterans’ grave.

 

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[music: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana]

November 1977

          Lovers and Other Strangers

Poor Maurice, the surgeon. He was so depressed last night because of a terrible fight that he had with his wife. She and their sixteen-year-old daughter ganged up against him.

He said his wife had lost her emotional softness ever since she published her first novel. Now she lacks compassion and patience, according to him.

What he—and, unfortunately, many men–want in marriage: cook, lover, mother, servant, nursemaid.

God forbid his wife would seek accomplishments of her own! And he was furious when he discovered that she had a lover, too. Of course, the scrofulous physician had been unfaithful to his wife on their honeymoon!

What do I remember most about him? His underwear. He always bought it in Switzerland—the softest briefs I ever touched.

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The married English WASP who actually used a cigarette holder! He was an executive with a large advertising agency, but always an aspiring writer. His novel, The Girl Watcher, was published while we were dating.

He liked to have sex with me in sleazy motels in Westchester. His wife was an entomologist, who spent 12 hours daily studying the social organziation  of ant groups.

The handsome, charismatic art student who worked part-time as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art. We had sex on a couch in a bedroom, while a wild party was going  on in the host’s living room.

The skinny, Australian investment banker who said that my birth control foam smelled like Pabulum.

The much older advertising executive who liked for me to hold his penis when he peed.

The mustached Hungarian who liked for me to sit on his face.

My strict Southern upbringing held me back from so many fascinating opportunities, because the culture in which I was raised hammered [sledge hammer] in the importance of being a soft-spoken, gentle, self-effacing, well-mannered lady. And I always flourished at following the rules.

Rebellion was only possible later on in my secret life of men and questionable sexual mores.

The perfect Southern female of the ’60s and ’70s was a reserved lady in the living room and an enthusiastic  whore in the bedroom; I managed the duality pretty well.

 

more…

The married French radiologist, Pierre, with the severe features of a Christian Schad portrait, whose patients included many celebrities and Manhattan socialites.

Our first date was in the King Cole bar of the St. Regis Hotel. We drank champagne and kir. A very attractive young woman sat alone nearby. He invited her to join us for dinner at Gino’s restaurant on Lexington. She accepted. The dinner was just dinner. She was an actress from Los Angeles and had come to New York to work on a film. Pierre wanted a ménage à trois; but it didn’t happen. (I think she was just an expensive hooker looking for customers.)

He came over to my apartment once a week with a cheap bottle of Beaujolais, some smelly French cheese, purple grapes, and Carr’s crackers.

We met in an elevator in the office building where both of us worked, when he complimented my black fedora with the wide brim. He liked to spank me, lightly and playfully, and talk dirty simultaneously.

______________________________________________________________

 

The South African psychiatrist whose fingernails were always dirty because he rode his bicycle everywhere and kept it well oiled. He thought I desperately needed him because of my unsavory childhood. We met on the street when he almost ran over me.

 

The Italian who always giggled before and after sex. He gargled his snot and rinsed his teeth at meals with coffee. That was a very short-term relationship.

 

The loquacious Jewish art director who airbrushed photos for multinational cosmetic companies. He liked for me to wear a black garter belt and long silk stockings. We met in front of Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” at the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street.

 

The Jewish-Russian taxi driver who became a wealthy sportswear manufacturer. One night he invited his best friend to join us in bed. I dated both of them, and several times the three of us went to bed together. We practiced sixty-nine as though we were characters in Fellini’s Satyricon (which had been produced in 1969).

 

The Irish man whose immense fingers looked like Polish sausage—large Kielbasa.

 

The Swiss doctor whose wife had died from breast cancer when she was in her 30s. He sent their three children to live with the grandparents in Geneva. His favorite companion was his adorable black Labrador, Othello, who sat at the dinner table with us. Othello loved bread and cheese.

 

The  Israeli who was also in the clothing business. A garmento as we call them in New York. Every summer, he  sent his wife and children to Israel for an extended vacation, so that he could chase women.  On Monday nights, he always played poker with some friends, except when I was available.

 

The West Point jock who remained unhappily married for 30 years until his neighbors in Greenwich, Connecticut, started getting divorced; he then believed divorce was socially acceptable. A very sweet man and wonderful lover. He loved to go to piano bars and dance.

I hated piano bars and dancing, but if I drank enough vodka stingers  and cognac, I had dancing feet that wouldn’t quit, and the following day I would have the  blisters to prove it.

Excerpt 23

I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted-living facility.
When I entered her house– with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!—and I was afraid that she would sue me)– I was horrified.
The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned. Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied. The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.

My relationship with my mother had always been strained; I was terrified of her. There had never been any kind of emotional intimacy between us: no affectionate caresses, no bedtime stories, no nicknames, no birthday parties, no Santa Claus, no tooth fairy, no hugs and kisses, no cuddling, no appearances at the camp horse show or water ballet or school spelling bee, no phone calls, no care packages…nothing–even when I was very young.
Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”
I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never came.

Children’s Book: Fantasy Friends on Furlough

 

SAOLA
Saola, shmayala…hard to pronounce.

When he jumped on the scale, he was more than an ounce.

Nevertheless, he remained quite rare,

Almost as much as cities with clean air.

He lived in hot Vietnam

With his long, pointy horns,

He avoided all thorns.
Some called him a saola.

But his dream was to be an adorable koala.
So furry and cute,

Wrapped around a tree branch,

Almost a glove.
Ready for a bear hug

And oodles of love.

 

MR. FLUKE FISH

It wasn’t a fluke or kind of rebuke

When Mr. Fluke Fish

Fell in the blackstrap molasses

‘Cause of the stress in

Shopping for his 3D glasses.

You see his eyes are up here

And across over there….

 

YOGA FROG
The yoga frog stuck out his tongue

In order to eat tasty morsels of young…Quail eggs!

No legs, he begs!

Just meat juicy and sweet

To make my parts so flexible and neat.
And please remove this spaghetti!

He cried to the dragonfly, who

Was hoping for calm

But instead got confetti

When he flew through the shredder

On the desk with the teddy.

Oh my! What a mess! Bear hair!

What a pair: The frog and the dragonfly

Searching the sky

Looking for, hoping for yum-yum pumpkin pie.

But instead in their eyes

Fell rays of moonlight.

They said it felt good.

Then bid all a good night.
PEGASUS
It was raining cats and dogs (but no icky, sticky frogs)

[literal drawing/puppies and kittens]…(Ostrich and worm are covering their heads)

As Ollie and Winton cuddle together

And say with relief, Oh, what a bother!

Could have been falling on us those fat hogs

With a whine and a holler !

And a snoutful of fodder…
Pegasus was showing off his shiny shoes to Norse, the horse, and

PlumPie, the horsefly, and

MaggieMead, the centipede (who really needed lots of shoes!).

Oyvay!

To polish all those shoes took three hours and a half!

Enough time for a cow to give birth to a calf!

 

 

 

TEA TIME

The Germanic gerbil [wearing little Valkyrie  hat w/upturned horns]

And the Balkan bat

Met together for tea

In their nondescript flat.

Too sweet, said the gerbil

With a throaty, loud gurgle!

Too hot, said the bat

With a big, bad splat!

So they went out together

In worrisome weather

To search for a drink,

The color of ink….

 

Bad Boy Bear

 

Bad boy bear had really pretty hair.

He lured shiny new things

Into his glamorous lair.

Where sometimes he robbed them

Or used them as objects

And sometimes as subjects for his

Contemporary art,

Which was not smart

Because the slick lawyers

Were hiding in rooms

With cell phones and videos to

Ensnare the bad boy bear

With really pretty hair.

 

Gulo, the Wolverine

Gulo so sleek and furry

With pearly whites…

The predatory wolverine

Can be quite scary and oh so mean!

He prowls Alaska on long-nailed paws

With agility and grace.

He kills and hunts

At his very own pace.

Pity the poor rabbit

Who was wearing the lace!

 

Celestial Cat and Dutiful Dog

Celestial cat and dutiful dog

Live with the morose Mrs. Bog

At the edge of a clearing

Not within hearing

Of the fire station

Whose bells and alarms keep the

Neighbors free from flickering harms.

Celestial cat loves Dutiful Dog.

You should see him put his puddy-cat

Paws on Dutiful’s jaws.

Looks like happy dog

Is getting a massage on his maws!

 

Touchy Toucan

 

Touchy toucan was quick to give you a peck with her beak.

“Think before you speak,” she squawked,

“Or you might dread the consequences.

The words you spout

That all come out

Can cause unnecessary harm

And will alarm those who don’t understand

And are too shy to take a stand.”

So be polite.

Avoid a fight.

Try to cultivate wisdom

Instead of a schism.

 

Doughty Dodo Bird

Doughty dodo bird was so determined.

The ermine looked up at him and asked,

“You never give up…what’s up with that?”

The dodo replied, “My dreams are big, and I

Don’t give a fig about those who tell me,

‘No, your aspirations are silly, and you will fail

Willy nilly.’

Don’t don’t tell me what I can do.

My plan is to fool you too!

I will succeed and

Fulfill my need to

Be the very best that I can be.”

 

Purple Pumpkin

 

Purple pumpkin was perplexed by the

Hex on the local barn.

“Why am I purple?” she purred like a kitten.

“Because you are special, the color of yarn.

One day in the future, the sweetest girl will

Twirl her horsehair paintbrush across a large canvas.

Then you will rise above ordinary lumpkin

And be transformed into an immortal pumpkin,”

Said the wise fairy who lived in the aerie.

 

Palomino Puma

Palomino puma was super sleek and fast.

Had the habit of chasing rude and rowdy Ruby the rabbit.

After too many races and both out of breath,

They agreed to stop hating and start contemplating what a

Peaceful life would be.

Just then, interrupted by a friendly, but fearsome, flea who said,

“Let’s all live together with Peace

As our goal…

So never again must we hide in a hole.

 

Flaky Flamino

Flaky flamingo was such a fussbudget

And so irresponsible.

Never did what he said he would do.

Never told quite the truth.

Was always late and appeared at the

Gate with another excuse.

Boo-hoo Boo-hoo, he cried.

Well, the other critters said, Enough is enough,

And old flaky flamingo ended up fried

In a dish of ointments ‘cause of all the delays

On his way to appointments.

 

 

                                 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt 20

I’ve always had an affinity for foreigners. When it comes to men, I’m the poster girl for cultural diversity. (After all, John Wayne had three Latino wives!)

Probably, because I know everything there is to know about Southern WASP culture, and much of it is not very pretty.

London

[music: Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise]

We met on Bayswater Road.

“Hello, are you English?” the handsome Greek young man asked with a seductive accent.

“I like your hairs.”  (Yes, he cutely said hairs.)

He looked exactly like Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago, and I instantly wanted to be his Lara.

(The people I grew up with in Memphis, Tennessee, would choke on their Corky’s barbecue if they knew how many men I dated who had picked me up on the street, at an airport, on a bus, or beside a swimming pool. But never ever in a bar; standards must be maintained!)

“No, American,” I answered.

 

Excerpt 19

When I was a counselor-in-training, it was my job to clean all the toilets in camp. It took hours. Lye, water, and mops were my weapons against an onslaught of urine, feces, and menstrual blood. Additionally, I was responsible for scrubbing the floors of the infirmary and the apartment where the Wagners lived. Mrs. Wagner, with wrinkled, sun-splotched hands on hips, supervised and critiqued my cleaning.

Also, it was my responsibility to shovel coal into the outdoor furnace several times a day to provide intermittent hot water for the group showers.

Today, I love luxury more than anything. I am a sybarite whose religion is hedonism.

“Rather than a tale of greed,” writes Alain de Botton, “the history of luxury goods may more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. The legacy of those who have felt pressured by the disdain of others is the perceived need to add an extraordinary amount to one’s bare self in order to signal that one also may lay a claim to love.”

Excerpt 18

The psychiatric male nurse rifled through my small canvas bag. With a black magic marker, he wrote “Smith” on the crotch of every pair of my white lace panties. Trembling, I stood silently beside him. Would I spend the rest of my life in this god-forsaken hellhole in the wilderness of New Jersey? Would a bored psychiatrist give me a shot, so that I would become just another inmate doing the Thorazine shuffle? Another Frances Farmer?

I have never been so scared in my whole life.

I got married six months ago.

Would my husband divorce me? Would I become a homeless woman sitting beside overflowing garbage bags on the streets of New York?

I felt like an astronaut floating in space whose umbilical cord to the spaceship that would return him to Earth had just been severed.

Excerpt 17

Once, I wrote to you, Father, informing you that I had signed up with an escort service.

I didn’t; it was a falsehood, but I really considered it.

Probably, I would have ended up like the seventeen-year-old Russian girl in the exceptional and tragic film, Lilya 4-Ever.

I wanted you to respond, to react.

I was  just trying to get your attention.

But I received the usual from you:

Nothing.

Thanksgiving 1966

My father and I went to the local Holiday Inn for our Thanksgiving dinner.

My mother was indisposed, once again, because of her drinking.

We ran into Anastasia at the restaurant; she was one of my father’s loyal,  female friends. If I had looked closely, I might have seen the Trojan condoms in her Lucite handbag; Anastasia was a wealthy divorcée who got her kicks by pimping for the secret society of artistic, homosexual men in the East Memphis neighborhood.

She threw raucous, extravagant parties where handsome young boys and older patrician men were introduced. Women were invited also, but they tended to be in their 50s and 60s and were oblivious to Anastasia’s lascivious machinations.