Eating Habits

I am a creature of habit when it comes to food. I try to convince myself that I like variety, new tastes, but who am I fooling? I am the person who eats a scrambled egg sandwich on toast for lunch daily in the fifth grade. I am the person who eats a cream cheese sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off every day in Junior High School. I am the person who right this moment in my life eats a mixing bowl full of popcorn every day including Sundays. Each bowlful is delicious, I savor a mouthful and lick my chops.

One summer when I am married to Peter but still in college I drink tall glasses of iced coffee with milk and four spoons of sugar all day long for two months. Solid food does not appeal to me, that summer, I am too busy to eat because I am having an affair with a married PhD student. He is tall and spindly, an intellectual. We go to a motel on the other side of the George Washington bridge in Fort Lee to fuck, he turns out to have a long spindly penis which I pump up and down on so vigorously that he cries out in pain. I’ve had too much caffeine I think.

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Becoming a Scaredy-Cat

One day on vacation we go on a snorkeling boat tour, Karl and me and the two children, plus ten or so other tourists from all around the island. The sound is choppy and the weather looks mean and stormy. We aren’t sure until the last minute if the boat will actually sail.  Everyone mills around at the jetty waiting and conjecturing, but the Captain finally announces that it will be fine, so we get on board with our equipment. In  fifteen minutes we arrive at the destination, out of sight of any land, surrounded by water and the endless curve of horizon. You wonder how the Captain can find this spot, with no landmarks that our eyes recognize.

We gear up, tugging fins onto our feet, shrugging into bright yellow life vests, the kind you blow up if you get into trouble, and adjust our masks and snorkels. Aaron and Jason are deft and expert, spitting on the lenses of the masks to prevent them clouding up, and slipping into the water. But because of the chop, the waves are much larger than we have ever experienced, and after a carefree time exploring farther and farther from the boat, with a jolt I realize I can’t see Aaron. The four of us always stick together when snorkeling but somehow today we become separated.

I churn water and shout his name. I can’t see anything in the distance because waves get in the way and nobody can  hear me yell over the sound of wind and water, I can hardly even hear myself. I grab Karl and Jason and tell them to help me find Aaron.  They swim back toward the boat and Jason climbs aboard, jumps onto the top of the cabin, and runs in circles on the cabin roof looking into the water. My husband and I swim around the boat, but all we can see are anonymous heads bobbing in the chop. Then Aaron appears in front of me, dog paddling a few feet from the prow, unaware that we are frantic and terrified or that he has been missing. He thinks he is just snorkeling like usual.

Before that day, I swam fearlessly deep in the ocean,  way out beyond reefs,  the children diving down willy-nilly to snatch something interesting off the ocean floor or work their way around a forest of coral, all of us enveloped in a bubble of adventure. But afterward, my courage is gone and I keep thinking, and think until this very day, that it could have been true, Aaron could have drowned, and I remember the feeling I had as we searched the waves, my luck has run out, all the bad things that have somehow passed me by until then, the accidents barely avoided, the hairsbreadth escapes from disaster. I thought, the odds have caught up with me finally.

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Travels

When our son is born Karl and I start taking vacations in the Bahamas, in remote, barren islands a million miles from any grand hotel. On this trip Aaron is 10 years old and his friend Jason who lives across the street from us is a few years older. The four of us have gone on a dozen similar vacations, to Cat Island, Guyana Key, Tobago, Green Turtle Cay, the harder to get to, the more isolated and pristine the destination, the happier we are.

We have become seasoned travelers.  On each trip we pull matching suitcases packed with food and bathing suits and gear, well prepared for delays and malfunctions and discomfort. To get to this particular island we have to take three planes and then a small boat. A travel agent booked the flights in these pre-Internet days, and left too little time for a connection, so even before we disembark from our second plane we can see our next flight take off down the runway and soar up into the cloudless sky leaving us far behind. We park the children with the luggage and talk to the airline representative, too bad she sympathizes, no more planes today, she says, this week everything is full because it is Festival.

While we are wandering the terminal the children fall asleep on top of the suitcases.  Finally Karl and I get together with some other stranded voyagers and charter a Piper Cub.  Everyone crowds into the small plane and the children take turns sitting next to the pilot. We fly low enough to see our shadow rippling on the water.

On our first day on the island we stay close to home, snorkeling off the white sand beach in front of our rented villa. I float face down in the turquoise sea, my body rising and falling weightless with each gentle swell, everything silent except for the sound of my own breath.  I am living in a world suspended by the tide among painted fish and spiny creatures and swaying coral, tiny squid in schools of darting poignancy, heavy jowled groupers, shiny barracuda behind me barely seen, once a glorious bug-eyed green eel, slowly opening and closing its mouth, clouds of striped little fish, buttery yellow fish, rainbow fish, a jungle of water images down here, below me.  I am an angel shadowing them. I don’t swim or scull, just drift at the whim of the waves. A small kick of my fins, a tiny undulation, sends me in a new direction.  I feel sinuous, a dolphin, my arms against my sides to make me streamlined.  I could  float forever watching my fish folk dance.

The island is scattered with cottages and goats, sad gardens scratched out in rock.  We drive to town in a dusty golf cart we rent for the week and as we bump down the potholed path the children shriek with laughter in the rear. We plan to use a pool in town set among palm trees next to a long jetty. Reggae music plays over loudspeakers.  The children dive in and out like otters and laugh while we lounge in aluminum chairs and drink Mexican beer.

I leave Karl by the pool to watch the children play, and walk to the pay phone outside the island store. I pull out the scrap of paper on which I scribbled my lover’s telephone number.  It is morning on our island but afternoon where he is, at work, and he is surprised to hear my voice, he did not expect me to call when I am on vacation in the middle of nowhere.

Back in the villa where we are staying, our bedroom has windows looking out to the sea on the east and the sound on the west and the sand in between.  Later,  after Karl and I make love I lie on the bed naked and sweaty and think about my lover.  If my husband wonders why I am silent, he doesn’t ask.

Hello, I say, when my lover answers the phone, it’s me, and he is surprised, my devotion is delicious to him, more than he is accustomed to but he is pleased. For myself, I love the sound of his voice and his accent. He wants  to talk dirty over the phone but I am self-conscious on the public street and can’t stay long anyway. We don’t have small talk. If I let him he would tell me about his day. I do not want to hear it.

I have to go, I say, I will talk to you when I get home, I adore you. He is cheerful, says he loves me too, and although he is disappointed that I won’t arouse him on the phone, it takes more than one missed opportunity to upset him. It isn’t until much later, when I have to choose between my husband and him and don’t choose him that he will be sad enough to cry. I adore you, I say again, and hang up the phone

Later, Karl and I walk on the beach, heads down, looking for shells.  Our bare footsteps weave between the shallows and the wet sand and the shifting dunes, sun warm. Aaron and Jason run in circles beside us until we all get so tired that we sit where the water laps at our feet and look into the endless glittering azure sea, skipped with wavelets. The sand is soft, pale, and the children are brown, happy with their handfuls of cowries and conchs, starfish and hermit crabs.

That evening, Aaron and Jason build a corral to keep the crabs in, piling up stones in a big circle outside on the terrace.  They name each crab and make plans to race them and smuggle them home in a suitcase.  Overnight the crabs escape.  The children consult with each other and agree that perhaps the corral was not quite tall enough.  They decide to find more crabs and build a higher fence.

Next day we take a rubber dinghy out into the bay so the children will have something to cling to when they get tired and I can float free in the salty water, arms outstretched, the children’s voices far away, looking at the sky. I feel saturated with sun; the children hold their breath and dive to the ocean floor to snatch up sea biscuits and sand dollars. The sea cucumber we remember too late has a diabolical defense; it expels its internal organs and disgusts any predator. I make a face, the children groan. We pour the cucumber back into the sea, guts and all, keeping our fingers crossed that it will regenerate once we leave and the children sit in the dinghy among their remaining treasures while Karl and I take turns towing them home.

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Law Man

It is pretty hard to scandalize me. Generally I’m skeptical of moralistic takes on the universe having seen even in my tiny corner of it the depths of human depravity and finally been disabused of the notion that there is a silver lining to every cloud, a lesson to be learned, a benefit to somehow be sieved from the detritus.  That’s not to say that I dismiss all absolutes, not at all.  To the contrary, sometimes absolutes are all you have.

But when it comes to infidelity I am up to my eyeballs in shadow and relativism and I admit that there comes a time when I toy with scandal and play with the chance of exposure, all in the name of lust and love and ambition, when I become an adoring acolyte to a man seemingly above reproach, who on closer inspection turns out to like sex at least as well as he likes the first amendment.  Probably better.

When I first meet this man, my judge, I am fresh out of law school, thirty years younger than he is and star struck.   He stands tall, over six feet, portly tending to fat, hawk-nosed and bespectacled, not handsome so much as monumental in a dignified, statesmanlike kind of way, all intellect so I  imagine, when he hangs his black silk robes around him and walks to the worn leather chair in the courtroom, how I admire him, his calm, his wit, the depth of his knowledge and compassion.  He is no ordinary judge, he is magnificent in my eyes, another Louis Brandeis.  “Counsel”, he admonishes from the bench, with wry insight, “Move on, we’ve spent an hour on this point and I think we understand”, winking at the jury.   I am awed by his knowledge of precedent and human nature.

In our private moments, when his robe is hanging on the back of the door and his sleeves are rolled up and he smokes a cigarette very sophisticatedly, I sit at the library table across from his desk in the oak paneled chambers where he writes his decisions and eats his lunch.  “Karen”, he calls out “can I have a cup of coffee?”, and I hastily put down my research notes and push the heavy law books to one side and run down the hall to fill his mug, two sugars, no milk, and bring it to him, honored to be of service but feeling like his intellectual match too, reading cases, scrutinizing legal arguments, sitting on the sidelines in the courtroom as he reigns, scratching out first drafts of his opinions.  I am paramount his student, yes, but also his peer I imagine, discussing the law over egg salad sandwiches.

Being a judge is lonely because the code of ethics limits freedom to socialize with someone whose fate you may determine.  Years ago, it used to be more relaxed, old boy network and all that, but modern times are stricter and as a result a judge and his law clerk often have only each other to talk to. So when I work with the judge, we are together almost every day from morning until closing time, four thirty or so when I drive home and he, that term of court, walks to his motel to watch television and read case files.  We finish countless hearings and jury trials during our year together, divorces, personal injury lawsuits, and one shocking murder that takes three weeks to get to verdict and is attended by flocks of national press.  And I swear, as close as we are, as mutually dependent as we become, it never occurs to me that the judge is a sexual being.

It isn’t until years later, when I am an associate in a big firm, with my own office and a secretary I share with only two other junior lawyers, that I fall in love with my judge, and look back at my clerkship year with him and wonder how I could have failed to notice that this intellectual giant is actually quite ordinary when it comes to sex and conclude that if a man is not one’s father he does not inevitably qualify as a father figure.

The judge is now presiding in the very city where I have just begun to practice, home to a small legal community where he and I meet often, sometimes have lunch together, sit next to one other at bar meetings, resume our friendship. Other lawyers never look askance because it is common knowledge that he is my old mentor.   But somewhere, somehow, we move with the tiniest increments from colleagues to lovers, and one day I lean against him as we drive to a meeting and am startled into arousal at this casual touch, then find myself kissing him as if we were on a first date, and I although still cannot really associate him with sweaty sex, we find ourselves in his hotel room, me still his acolyte but this time serving a naked god.

Our affair is short, it is difficult to find places and times to meet, and then a new term begins and he moves back to his home city for the next court assignment, no more motels and restaurants in out of the way villages for us.   Honestly, it is a relief because I am confused and bewildered by the complicated logistics and emotions of the affair.  I am scared of being found out but don’t have the courage to tell him that I want to stop.  And when I attend my judge’s funeral some years later, I  am distracted, hating his mourning wife and sorry I came.

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Ashes

We stand on the pier together, Karl and I, having carried these four cartons filled with the crematorium ashes of our parents around for years, once lined them up on the shelf in the garage, then shunted them to the basement in a banker’s box, found a hundred reasons why we couldn’t dispose of them yet, finally the need to be done with them outweighs our refusal to face facts. So on this trip, a decade after our first mourning, we bring these receptacles to an appropriate dumping ground and are determined that if we accomplish nothing else we will not carry these cartons back home.  We look down into the murky water and see vague forms of fish swimming, fat muddy mullets circling the dock, we peer around all guilty, we’re pretty sure we are not allowed to throw crematorium ashes into the bay but are determined to do it anyway, we just don’t want to get caught. We open the cartons, they are shaped like giant Chinese restaurant takeout boxes, each full to the brim and  five pounds worth, and look inside, trying not to breathe in case we mistakenly inhale a fragment.  I am immediately repelled by the lumpiness of the contents, I thought the ashes would be sifted and clean but instead there are chunks of matter that make me look to one side and think about anything except this unpleasant reality.

I eye Karl, he’s not smiling either, he looks a little pale under his tan, now we really understand why we shuffled these boxes upstairs and downstairs and outside for years, dealing with them is not much fun at all, and we are having difficulty remembering anything nice about our parents when faced with these clotted packages of dust.  Our plan was to say a few words, spiritual or something, toss the ashes into the air in memory of the folks, a gesture to the memorials we never organized. We are not funeral kind of people and my parents hated funerals too. For years we pretend that everyone is immortal.

I thought you got a handful of ashes when someone died, not that they actually shoveled up great masses and clumps of burnt bone, enough potash to  fertilize your peas.  I am horrified really, you can’t possibly scatter all this material, you have to just turn the cartons upside down using both hands and shake them and let the contents plummet into the water. We do that, one carton at a time, wanting to go faster but noticing that the ashes unfortunately do not sink immediately but float for a time on the surface, dusty and oily all at once, attracting the attention of the mullets.

For a few minutes we watch the water, looking down between the boards of the dock as the waves gradually break up the scutwork of ashes, as the sun shines down on our bare heads and bare arms and bare legs and bare feet, as the cormorants and pelicans dive in the distance, as the mullet splash, and then we gather up the empty cartons, weightless as air.

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Great Books I Have Read

Just about every famous author or politician or historian has a list of books which made them the person they are today. I have such a list even though I am not a famous person: The Magus by John Fowler, The Alexandrian Quartet by Durrell, Metamorphosis by Kafka, Alice Through the Looking Glass, all books that made me question the nature of reality, the world, taught me the overwhelming importance of perspective and forever transformed the way I relate to the universe. And then there is this other book, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, which schooled me in the notion of the zipless fuck, not an intellectual concept but nevertheless important in my development.

A zipless fuck is very pure, has no baggage, no first date, no foreplay, no aftermath or recriminations, just lust untainted by virtue or sin. Once I read about it I was enchanted, my eyes opened to heretofore hidden possibilities. I was a sluttish kind of girl anyway but this did away with even the perfunctory preambles and courtship I might have insisted on earlier.

So I am on the train from Baltimore to Penn Station, going home for Christmas. College is already a disaster but hasn’t yet hit its nadir, luckily that is a few more months away. I am cheerful, it is nice to be traveling the rails independent like, I am feeling pretty wearing a camel’s hair coat and cherry red scarf, the train car is full of other young people, all happy like me. And here I am, a zipless fuck enthusiast, and there he is, he is an enthusiast too without even having read the book.

The boy is blond and handsome, a merchant marine cadet he tells me. Our interest in fucking is mutual, instantly communicated, here is the bathroom, here is my skirt pulled up around my waist and my coat on the floor, here are my legs wrapped around him, here we cry our passion for one another and it is exactly as delicious as expected.

Pull clothes together, exit the bathroom discreetly as the train roars into the station with grinding gears and screeching wheels. I am home, on the platform looking for my parents, still a little flushed with excitement, scarf nonchalantly around my neck, I never look over my shoulder to see him.

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Cocktail Time

When a doctor asks me how much I drink I lie and make up a number, I’m afraid to say never because he might think I am a recovering alcoholic.  It’s just that I grow up when cool people don’t drink.  Drinking is for the bourgeoisie, for my parents, gin and tonics and Manhattans and martinis, scotch on the rocks, decanters and shakers set catty-cornered next to polished glasses on the bar, cocktails to be served with canapes, chopped chicken liver on crackers maybe, and the news on Channel 3.

My father comes home from work every night at 6:00 pm on the dot, a homely man made handsome in his felt fedora, overcoat, wingtip shoes, suit and tie, carrying a leather lawyer’s briefcase bulging with important files and the New York Times and the Post, letting himself in the door, I can hear the key turning in the lock, calling out, glad to be home. He is hungry for drinks and then dinner, hello dear he says to my mother smiling. He changes clothes, and he and my mother and I sit in the living room, we can smell dinner cooking.

I don’t say much, I read a book while they talk, but I like to watch them, my mother is so beautiful and my father looks at her with admiring eyes.  Alcohol blurs their voices, my father jokey with a five o’clock shadow, my mother laughing one minute and complaining the next, she smokes her cigarette like a movie star.

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