BY BARBARA STRAUSS
I’m haunted. Every night when I get up to use the bathroom, I float through the blackness of my apartment with my arms out, and before sitting down, with a flourish draw back the shower curtain. My mother’s best friend Rita is lurking. She died short of her 50th birthday, twenty years ago this month. Every year around this time, I feel her following me.
I realize the self-absorption of my fantasy. Were she to hover, wouldn’t it be over her own daughter or son?
Maybe she’ll stop by her grandchildren’s birthday parties, watch them make a mess of the cake, flash her wry smile and depart. With me, though, she lingers, and she’s probably pissed off. I must have done something she didn’t approve of. I’m having a hard time remembering what it was. I mean, it wasn’t hard to get on the bad side of any of the moms in their friend group. All of them were sarcastic, bored, slouched in patio chairs as we kids splashed in the town pool. We’d approach for towels and snacks, and they’d sigh. Rita, their leader, the one who picked out their seats every day, close enough to the water that she could get our attention by whistling over two fingers and yelling to us to quit horsing around, seemed particularly stretched to her limit, her eyes rimmed by dark circles. She always wore the same brown bathing suit, and you could see it pooch out at her low belly, you could spot an accidental stretch of pubic hair peeking out on one side. My own mother wore a floral coverup to hide her stockier frame. Her heels were cracked and required bag balm, but she always had her toenails painted pink or red. People thought she was the nice one. She’d listen with a fixed smile to everybody’s stories. She was only four foot ten. People thought that was cute and patted her on the head. When she and Rita stood side by side on the steps in the shallow end, cooling off and watching us stand on our hands, Rita called her a shrimp.
They drank cans of Tab. They were too smart to be housewives, Rita especially, my mother said after she died. She had a master’s degree in English but left the workforce when her son Kevin, my classmate, was born. “She had nothing to do with herself,” my mother says, when I bring up the phone calls.
My sister or I would hand over the receiver, and for the next several hours the line would be tied up. My mother would peel potatoes with the phone pinned between her ear and shoulder. Eventually my father bought her a rubber headrest, which he glued on for better neck support. She’d grow tired of talking after an hour and try to get off, but Rita would plow right through.
“She talked about everything, anything. Mostly she complained.” About the principal, Dr. Dimpson, for failing to prevent Kevin from being taunted for his disheveled state, his desk in our third-grade classroom overflowing with papers and open bottles of glue. “Dr. Dimwit,” she dubbed him, even to his secretary’s face. The PTA, the school administration, the fire department, came to know her as the town nag. She called the police department about a light at a cross street that paused too long on red. “She had a name for everybody,” my mother recalls. One of our classmate’s mothers, who showed up to parents' night in leopard print and a wide plastic belt and defended the teachers when Rita questioned the curriculum, was christened “Madame Lovely.” A neighbor who handed out king-sized Crunch bars on Halloween was “Moneybags.” She was willing to say out loud what no one
else would say. Things that people didn’t want to recognize in
“Marty?” our mother shouted, tipping the receiver away from her ear. My sister and I watched her from our counter stools, where we did our homework. “What did you say, Marty? You need me?” She was calling to our father knowing he wasn’t home. To escape the sound of our giggling, she stretched the cord around the corner into the dining room, where, when Rita continued, she picked up a duster and worked at the chandelier.
This is what I mean about all of them having attitudes, not only Rita: when finally, our mother was set free, she would stomp across the kitchen tile in her cracked bare feet and flop onto the living room sofa. When our father did come home, she’d roll her eyes at his kiss. All night she’d snap at everyone.
How come we never asked why she was so ineffectual that she couldn’t stand up for herself, raise her voice over Rita’s or simply hang up? We were afraid of her. She did plenty of laughing – it’s not like those phone calls were devoid of pleasure. She must have gotten something from her friend that the rest of us couldn’t offer. An enticing edginess. Ugly truth.
By high school, Kevin had climbed out of his hole. Despite Rita’s disregard for the upkeep of the home – her habit of screwing the top off a tuna fish can and dumping it on a plate for her family’s dinners – Kevin learned to bathe and dress and slap on cologne, and he made friends, while I sunk lower in the social rankings.
I set my mind on getting good grades. Each year I finished in the top ten percent, and my family was invited to the academic dinner in the function room at the Radisson on Route 17. Kevin never made the cut, and that was when Rita began to say that I “walked on water.”
“That was a dig at me,” my mother assures me now, when I alert her to Rita’s irate midnight appearances. My mother has become even shorter in her old age. She’s short-term forgetful, and it’s harder to stay angry with her. “She’d say something like, ‘Mrs. Lapidus has it out for Kevin, she gave him a C,’ and I’d say that you had no problem with Mrs. Lapidus.”
I remember the competition growing fiercer. The phone wouldn’t ring for days. Or after an abbreviated call my mother would hang up and mutter, “She’s such an asshole,” and then flip through her TV Guide.
But that was generally how their friend group talked. Even the men
got in on it. At their annual New Year’s Eve party, where my parents
served cold cuts and littered the den with tiaras and plastic horns,
they’d all get into pissing contests.
“Where have you been, Mitch?” my father asked Rita’s husband. “Working late, or found someone who makes something better than tuna?”
“Hey, Rita!” shouted Mark, the bespectacled father of my sister’s best friend. “Slow down on the potato salad, wouldya? Your ass is about as wide as my shed.”
“Yeah?” Rita threw her arm out to stop Mitch from lunging. “You insecure about something? What’s happening in that shed of yours, anyway, Arvid?” I recognized the name from the sitcom Head of the Class. Arvid was the ugly nerd.
We kids steered clear of the frenzy. By my junior year the number of us had dwindled. Kevin was at a party where I knew they were serving beer. Rita asked me as I took her coat why I wasn’t someplace else.
“I thought I’d help out here.”
“Oh, she walks on water!” she gibed, and my mother didn’t stick up for me.
I took my sister and her friends and Rita’s eighth grade daughter Sam up to my room to play board games. I heard Rita quip, “Look, we’re disturbing the children.” All our parents had grown up in the Bronx, had it rough, moved out to the suburbs for our sakes. We were disappointing them, it seemed, with our softness.
There were good times, too, times when they enjoyed us. We were younger then. Mitch and Rita, Kevin and Sam, and us, at July 4th fireworks shows, spread on a pair of beach blankets on the crowded lawn of the community college. Rita leaning back on her hands, my mother saying “Woo!” at each starburst. And meals at the Blauvelt Diner, where we ordered off the kids' menu until we were twelve, the elephant burger, the crocodile chicken fingers, the monkey spaghetti. We took over the place, running wild across the carpeted bridge between the smoking section and the non, stealing quarters from our mothers’ purses for making wishes in the shallow pool that snaked under the bridge, bubbling and lit with colored lamps. The owner eventually secluded us in a back corner, separated by a screen, and our parents
threw their hands up at our wildness, there was nothing more they
could do, laughing into their wine glasses as Kevin crashed into the
divider. The owner cursing in Greek as he righted the screen, and Rita
calling Kevin over to sit on her lap. “My little terror.”
The last time I spoke to Rita was the summer after my freshman year at Brandeis. Kevin had applied there, too – Rita and Mitch were hoping he’d get in, his math SATs were amazing, and they wanted him to settle down, join Hillel – but he wasn’t accepted. He ended up at Syracuse. I figured Rita’s anxiety about all of this had to have ended by now. I’d heard on Instant Messenger from high school acquaintances also at Syracuse that Kevin was doing great. Pledging and whatever.
And I’d loosened up a bit in my first year away. Took up intramural fencing on a whim. Went with my roommate to a cappella shows on Saturday nights. I felt confident ringing Rita’s bell one morning in July. I’d called in sick for my unpaid internship at the local library. Stood in Rita’s entryway and asked her to secretly hand over the directions to my sister’s sleepaway camp, where Sam went, too. I was going to borrow my mom’s car without telling her, drive two hours up to the Catskills and surprise my sister with a bucket of junk food. “Do not tell my parents,” I begged as she drew me a map, leaning on her outdated kitchen counter. “They still don’t like me on highways, and especially not for this long a trip.” I peered into her baggy eyes, my heart racing to be forming this co-conspiracy.
“Don’t get into an accident, or I’ll murder you,” she said, handing over the scrap of paper. Then she crossed her arms over her small saggy breasts and pursed her lips and shook her head at me. It was a good sign. The way she looked at me? It was like those exasperated but adoring mothers in the paper towel commercials, after their kids have a spill. It was important to me to be liked by Rita, and I’d finally found a way to make it happen. It was important to be esteemed by the one who barreled through, if I couldn’t get what I needed from the one who was trodden over.
My sister and I both remember feeling “off” the day of the accident. She was a sophomore in high school, working with a Bunsen burner in chemistry lab, when a vision came to her of our mother with her head on fire.
My premonition was subtler. I was fencing. It was late morning and rays of winter sun shot through the studio’s blinds, casting lines across the paste. A tremor ran through me as I pulled on a mask and breathed in the smell of sweat from a previous user. I shrugged off the feeling and waited for the club leader to call “On guard.” I like to believe everything is connected, but all of this happened well before 3:48, when the Toyota Corolla Rita was
riding passenger inside veered into the breakdown lane, plowing into
a flatbed trailer, and her head was disengaged from the rest of
I didn’t get the news until dinnertime. I was up in my sophomore suite, eating from a takeout box and chatting on AIM when a message popped up from a high school classmate I hadn’t spoken to since graduation. She was at Syracuse.
“Did you hear about Kevin Katz’s mom?” she wrote.
These powerful brains of ours, how they go to work when we’re in need of protection. I twirled cold lo mein around my plastic fork, asking casually, “No, what?”
“She was in a car accident.”
“Okay. Is she alright?” I remembered the fender bender Rita had gotten into when Kevin and I were in junior high. She’d talked my mother into oblivion, pondering whether to sue.
“No. I’m sorry. She passed away.”
My god, these brains! I don’t have a single memory of what happened next, my sister has to narrate for me. She says I called, and she put our father on while she listened from another phone. I asked him if it was true. My father said yes, and then I screamed. I screamed like a girl in a horror flick, and I didn’t stop until my suitemates returned from the cafeteria and pulled me out to the common room. I remember coming to on the drink-stained carpet. Our mother, I found out later, had been the one to meet Sam as she came off the school bus, and in the company of the state troopers, gave her the news. My sister and I joked cattily behind our mother’s back at the time about what a comfort she must have been. I also found later, frozen on my computer screen, several panicked lines from my acquaintance. “Are you okay???????”
And here’s the funny part. After all those years rotting on a lounge chair and wasting the day chatting on the phone, Rita had just that fall gone back to work. She’d gotten a job teaching English in a dangerous middle school in the Bronx, not far from where she’d grown up. I imagine her students appreciated her rough edges. Her husband and my parents and the rest of their friend group told her with sincere concern that she was going to be shot one of these days, she should get out of there. But the suburban schools didn’t want her.
And then the glare from the sun on the Tappan Zee Bridge did her in!
Her co-teacher fell asleep in the haze, skidded and awoke to find
her passenger decapitated. I didn’t go to the funeral. I was afraid
of something. I felt like it would be gloating to show up there, alive.
For Kevin to see me with my family, all alive.
Also, I didn’t want to miss class.
I should have gone. If not to pay my respects like a decent human, then at least for my own peace of mind. It would have been good, I suppose, to see her laid to rest. The casket would have been closed – that’s the custom at Jewish funerals, anyway, but I heard her face was so mutilated, Mitch refused to ID her at the morgue.
My not showing up isn’t why she haunts me, though. I don’t think the dead put much stock in human ceremony, and she must be past all those petty gripes.
Then what is she angry about? What did I do to make her hang around all these years? Why does her anniversary send her back to me?
“I don’t get it,” my psychologist sister says. “Does she knock things off tables or move things around?”
“No. She sends shivers up my spine. She whispers at me.”
“You’re a psychopath. What does she whisper?”
I can’t make out her words, that’s the problem.
Maybe I want her to stay.
Barbara Strauss’ work has appeared in The Ilanot Review, Rock & Sling, The Courtship of Winds, The Charles Carter Working Anthology at UNC Chapel Hill (forthcoming), and bioStories, among other publications. She lives outside Boston.