Note: I read the following story at the finals for The L Magazine’s Literary Upstart Competition. Out of more than 300 submissions, my piece was selected to compete against 2 others for the top prize. I read “Jews Will Eat When You Die” at Spike Hill in Brooklyn on June 4th.
Jews Will Eat When You Die
The A train. Anxiety. Adultery. Anarchy. Axiomatic. Alacrity. Alimony.
I sit down next to the window and watch blankly as the grimy station tiles change to whooshing blackness. The doors open at 14th Street. I continue staring out the window, my focus occasionally shifting to the handprints and initial scratches on the pane.
LM. Liza Minnelli. Lots More. Lucky Man. Low Moan. Lo Mein. Link Me.
I will have to talk to people when I get there. In between bites of an everything bagel from the napkin-lined basket, freshly baked that morning (probably Zabars or H&H), brought to the apartment by an uncle, a cousin or stranger. They’ll show me pictures of Nanny’s beach club youth, tinted with vintage coloring and fading ‘round the edges. Someone will ask me to say something. “She’s such a beautiful writer,” my mom will say. To be polite, they’ll say “yes. She is,” or “indeed.”
A man sits down next to me, pushing my bag against my black stockinged legs. Mid 40s, ringless, the hair on his knuckles more abundant than that on his head. He chews on a green Starbucks drink stopper, an urban Tom Sawyer, a piece of plastic instead of some straw, a wrinkled button down instead of overalls. Cuffed khakis reveal little cows on his socks and duct-taped Converses. A wannabe youth, a creative type sucumbing to the durdge of corporate life and being satisfied with only the occasional trip to a BYOB drawing session in Brooklyn. Art had been his everything, now it is only a monthly column, a sidebar to his unfulfilling existence.
How does he cope? Boozy evenings and one night stands. Leaving late after a breakfast of his making, over which he desired nothing more than for the half-clothed man on the other side of the table to admit that he too wanted a family, a pekingese, and a companion who listened to NPR while doing the dishes. But they never did. Instead, they would speak of a meeting with an editor, the need to get ready to pick up an old flame at the airport. So the man who struggled with mundanity and loneliness would be escorted out the door, if he were lucky, down the stairs of whichever Village walkup he had stumbled into and left alone on the stoop, worse off than before.
He gets off at Penn Station.
Perplexing. Perspicacity. Propensity. Parsimonious. Pandamonium. Pedagocical.
I haven’t prepared a speech. Haven’t found a reading to recite from Nanny’s favorite book. I don’t know her favorite book.
“Just say what you remember about her.”
Her telling me to take my feet off the the white wall unit. Her laying out a towel on my seat, a towel under my seat, a plastic tablecloth on the table, and a laminated United States of America placemat in front of me. Sheets covering the couch, the frigid white tile against my bare feet after I was obligated to take off my shoes before stepping on the white carpet. A childproofed apartment, prepared special for my visit.
Maybe I will start a sentence and then begin to cry, rather then admiting that I can’t think of anything worth sharing, that in fact, I have no positive memories of her at all.
My knee cap hits the bulging thigh of the woman sitting on the seat perpendicular to mine. The folds of her stomach are visible under the too-tight Giants t-shirt.
Georgia. Genius. Gallivant. Galvanize. Gargantuan. Gastropub.
What looks like mustard freckles her jeans. She is toying with the Livestrong bracelet on her wrist, imagining the type of diet she will need to stick to if she ever wants to be able to take it off without breaking it. She wants the bracelet off more than anything. But dealing with her boyfriend’s constant abuse, the bipolar behavior he has sworn he had under control before they started dating, will lead her to another late night binge and she will eat fifteen more Oreos and a full box of Kraft Mac and Cheese. She will decide that cutting the bracelet open will not be the worst thing in the world. She does not want to be buried with the yellow rubber still attached to her flesh. On her list of things to buy at Duane Reade, under whichever over the counter medication would work the fastest, she writes a note to buy scissors.
Maybe Nanny has jewels locked away in a bank vault. Some antique that can be sold and used to pay my tuition. Maybe there are letters from a lover, revealing an affair carried on during her husband’s Alzheimer years.
It would have been good for her.
As the woman stands up, the train’s unexpected bump pitches her towards the silver pole in front of her. With her gone, I can see other faces along the left side of the train.
A middle aged couple sit at the end. She is leaning against him, and his arm is around her. They aren’t talking, but every so often, she looks up at him, smiling and rubbing her nose with his. He looks bashfully around. Although he no longer believes touching in public is sinful, he still shies away from her more demonstrative displays of affection.
His wife hadn’t converted along with him. Only 27, she had already worn out all cultural relevancy and struggled to regain her celebrity status. But after being turned down for a cameo on a daytime soap, she knew she had no choice but to resign. Their son came a year later, and then twin girls a year after that. She had imagined that they would fill the void that was once occupied by curtain calls and waking up after cast parties with a naked chorus boy or two beside her. They hadn’t, but she enjoys their existence regardless.
She looks over at her husband and decides it would be best to tell him about her doctor’s diagnosis after they get home from the Met.
Melancholy. Melanoma. Maneuver. Magnesium. Mortician. Moribund.
Someone will ask me if she ever gave me presents. A Kellogg’s time capsule kit. A Campbell’s soup mug with autographs of ice skaters on it. Generic kid gifts, never something I wanted.
I’ll answer that she had taken me shopping, bought me my first real perfume. Welcome to womanhood she had said, handing over the delicate glass bottle. Whoever it was will smile and walk away, haunted by the ghost of his stupid question.
I could lie all I wanted; no one would know, no one would bother to find out. I’m dating my TA. We’re spending the summer in India. He’s going to be staying at an ashram while I study midwifery with women in a nearby village. They’ll let me assist in childbirth and then teach me how to cook the placenta so it tastes like chicken. I’ll admit to auditioning for The Bachelor just as a backup plan. Promise me you won’t tell anyone, I’ll say, and they’ll nod their head, pretending not to judge.
My audience will move on, piecing the family puzzle together, looking for two curly haired adults who could have spawned such a curly haired child. And I’ll continue noisily chewing sliced up vegetables and crackers, occasionally putting down my plate to brush crumbs off my sweater and glaring at everyone else, just because there will be nothing else to do.
I prop my feet up on the edge of the empty seat and scrape my boot up and down, removing the mud that had built up in the treads from my walk to the West 4th Station.
Dear Grandma, I won’t bring dirt into the apartment.