Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Practical

This was the thing with our family: we were always moving up, but we always stayed middle class. The cars changed from two-beat up old US sedans to a Datsun 510 and a Volvo, then a Volvo and a Saab, then a Saab and a fancier Saab and the Volvo eventually became my car. My father’s clothes changed from Izod and OP to Alexander Julian Colors and Polo; my clothes changed from Sears to Bloomingdale’s; my mother did most of her shopping at Lord & Taylor; my sister wore Benetton and Guess. We moved to a house with over an acre of land, a huge downstairs where my father had his second office, after the other one that was a condo he owned, and the other condo he owned in that same building, as an investment. My parents bought a beach condo at the place where we used to go and rent, the Sea Colony. My sister and I always went to private school. First we had a housekeeper one day a week, and then two. My father was saving enough to pay for college and grad school, without any assistance. So we were middle class.

My parents shared everything equally; that’s what they told us. So, even though my father was a psychiatrist in private practice, and my mother was going back to finish her undergraduate degree, they shared everything. That’s why, when they got in an argument, my father would scream at my mother: Karla, I’m taking away your credit cards! Or, when he felt like there was less money in his wallet than there should be: Karla, did you take money out of my wallet? My mother did all the cooking, washed the dishes. When she started grad school for social work, sometimes she would ask my father a question, maybe a question about Freud’s theories, something my father knew a lot about. Karla, he would yell -- how could you be so stupid?

Actually, we weren’t just middle class, we were struggling -- if my mother spent too much at Bloomingdale’s, or I got too many bottles of Evian, there might not be enough for college. That’s what my father said. He and my mother would get in screaming fights about everything, but especially about anything financial that didn’t directly involve his decision. One time we were at the dinner table with the whole extended family, in my mind it’s that same time I threw my plate of food to the floor, but it couldn’t have been the same time, could it? Anyway, we were all getting ready for dinner and my father said to my mother: Karla, let’s fuck. My mother looked slightly stunned -- Bill, you’ve got to be kidding! They went into their room and locked the door.

My father fetishized these types of habits -- burping at the table, farting and talking about it, pissing with the door open to the bathroom, eating with loud slurping sounds, smacking his lips -- manners were for others, others who weren’t struggling like he was, that’s what he wanted us to think. My sister and I would look at him like an animal, not the type of animal you wanted in your house. This is when I practiced looking through him, looking through him at the wall behind his head although on Sundays the TV was on and that helped.

I don’t know if I’m doing a good job of describing my father’s anger: sometimes there was nothing else. But let’s go back to the Daniels -- Dan was my father’s childhood friend, the only one we ever heard about. We would visit the Daniels in Baltimore, ever since I can remember, and probably before I can remember so it makes sense that they are here in this narrative; other than the grandparents, they were probably the only ones who knew us the whole time, or kind of knew us. We would see them about once a month -- my father and I would go down for baseball games, and then after a number of years of this we started going to indoor soccer in the fall and then my sister and mother came too but my mother didn’t like it so she didn’t come very often. The Daniels would visit us every year at the beach for a week of our two-week vacation, and then my father and I would go with Steve and Dan to New York once a year. They would come over our house for New Year’s too, when my parents would have parties. There was something that didn’t click between my mother and Anne, it might have been something about how my parents were raising us. Anne didn’t understand how we were allowed to talk back.

When we moved into the new house, we also switched schools. This wasn’t because of the move, it was because our old school was closing. There were three schools, three schools we had to choose from. My parents wanted me to go to St. Albans, the poshest of the three, part of the National Cathedral, an all-boys school. An all-boys school? I refused to even go there, I mean even go to visit. I did visit Sidwell Friends, the elite Quaker school, but the classrooms were too big for me, and that scared me. Georgetown Day was the one I chose, where they gave me a Rorschach inkblot test in the hallway and I thought that was fun.

What do they test for, when you’re in second grade? I’m just trying to show you that even though we had no power, sometimes we had power. I guess that’s what childhood means. Besides the end, the end of everything. This was around when I would hide my grandmother’s keys, my mother’s mother, the one who asked me: how come all of your friends are colored? I knew this meant she was racist, but it didn’t teach me anything else about racism. I would hide her keys under a heating vent or behind the pillows of the bed, and then she and my sister and I would look all over the house for them, until finally -- oh, there they are. I wanted to tell her something. That’s the other thing about childhood.

My parents were very suspicious of their parents, they didn’t want us to spend too much time with them. My mother’s mother, Florence, was a realtor and her husband a stockbroker -- Florence was always trying to get me to think about business school, but this was not one of my options, I mean not one of my options according to my parents, who presented only two: doctor, or lawyer. Florence was too materialistic, that’s what they said.

Rose, the other grandmother, was an artist -- she would take us to this store where they had huge bins of recycled buttons, and we could pick whatever we wanted. At her house, we would work on art projects -- that’s what I wanted to do. That’s not practical, my parents said -- you can’t be an artist.

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