You Poor Thing

by | Jun 7, 2022 | CNF, Issue Twenty Seven

Miriam means bitter. My mother is as unknowable in this as she is in everything. And it was my mother, no doubt, who did the choosing, just as she did the everything: the dinner and the plunger and the vacuum and the pets and the children, my mother who surely rolled the name on her tongue to see how it tasted. My father: quiet, sweet, remote behind his New Yorker, caught in a heart and a heat he could not and would not say for 31 more years, and then ingloriously over a long-distance phone call, when phones still had long distance and wall sockets and warm plastic I held to my ear and my mouth, as my father said from 2000 miles away, “I am a gay man” which was a funny way of saying it and my sister, Rebecca, and I would laugh later, Rebecca, meaning “to tie or to bind,” this my mother’s choice for her first child, during her second year of marriage, the imprint of her husband’s head on the pillow beside hers, the imprint of his backside on the corner couch cushion. Impossible to know what hardened or loosened or grew or shrank or drifted entirely away between them in the three years from Rebecca to then Miriam.
“I am a gay man,” Rebecca and I would repeat to each other and giggle. “Oh, you’re not a gay rabbit?” we would joke. “You’re not a gay pickle?” It was funny to us the way our family was flying apart. We were grown. We’d already flown ourselves apart. Big whoop.
But I was not bitter. I was proud of my father. Proud of how he was finally saying no to the long stretches of quiet, to dust motes swirling over heat registers, to politeness that passed for intimacy, to walls of modern art that passed for home. Proud of him for being less afraid than unafraid. Proud of him for having insides roiling like I had insides roiling, though not with bitterness. My insides roiled with ache. With insatiable want though with no good excuse like my father, no rainbow-colored happy ending.
My mother said to me once on a sidewalk, when I was in college: “You look more and more like me each day, you poor thing” and I wanted to die right there. Later I hated her for it, hated her for how much she hated herself. No, hated her for how much she remembered she hated herself when she looked at me.
She moved an hour from the town I grew up in so that no one would know why her husband had left her. Her new friends – all women of a certain age – would ask about the divorce, these sort of stories (husbands who left, husbands who died, children who up and moved away) the currency of their friendships. “That’s none of your business,” my mother would tell them.
She hung a magnet on her new refrigerator: “Do I miss my ex-husband? Yes, but I am trying to improve my aim” with a picture of woman holding a shotgun. I yelled at her about the magnet as I stood in her kitchen on a rare visit. I had picked my side. I had always picked my side. My father had deep sadness and a story to go with it. My mother had a refrigerator magnet.
“You poor thing,” she’d said on the sidewalk, but not nicely. She hadn’t meant it. Or maybe she had. My mother is unknowable in this as she is in everything.
Maybe what she meant was Miriam. I rolled you on my tongue and you were bitter so I spat you out. Maybe what she meant was I did and I did and I did what I could. Maybe what she meant was family is what we fish out from the wreckage of our impulses. Maybe what she meant was: Miriam, having spat you out, I can’t bear to see.

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