Amy Cohen had a plan: to be happily married by the age of 30 while juggling two adorable children and a lucrative career. Then life happened. At age 35, she found herself jobless, dumped, and mourning her mother’s early death by cancer. Needless to say, the adorable children were nowhere in sight. The only thought that kept Amy sane was the belief that there was hope. Everything would happen for her, she kept telling herself; she was simply a late bloomer. An excerpt.
Chapter one: The fixer-upper
I grew up thinking my mother had the answer to everything. Watch any black-and-white film and she always knew some obscure fact about an actor with one line. “See the fishmonger behind the ox, the one who’s yelling, ‘Slay the hunchback!’ ” she’d say. “His name was Skids Monroe. He came out of the Yiddish theater and was tragically maimed in a Ferris wheel accident.”
She knew about words.
“The term ‘steatopygous’ means characterized by fat about the hips and buttocks,” she explained. She grabbed a pillowy section of her thigh just below her tennis skirt, adding, “All of this, right here, is steatopygia, and once it was considered not cellulite, but a highly desirable benchmark of fertility!” She pointed at me. “Remember that next time you say you look hideous in a bathing suit.”
And she knew about men.
For my mother there were only two answers to any question involving love: he’d be back, or I was better off without him.
At sixteen, when my first boyfriend, Cliff Green, said we should see other people, I was crushed, despairing in a way I’d never experienced. “My life is over!” I wept.
“Sweetheart, I know you’re upset, but give me the knife,” my mother said, when I took to eating whole pound cakes in one sitting.
She began her pep talk, as she often did, by free-associating. “We all liked Cliff, and it’s probably time I told you that although you and your father thought it was your little secret, I knew Cliff snuck out of the house every morning. I could hear him tromping through the living room, then slamming the kitchen door.”
I was sitting on a low stepladder, my elbows resting on my knees, scraping the cream filling out of a pile of soggy Oreos I planned to put back in the cookie jar. My mother was standing behind me, wearing a flowered navy and yellow kimono we had picked out together on our trip to Japan. Her hair stopped just below her chin. It was entirely gray by this point, a crisp platinum, but her face remained almost without a wrinkle. Her wide, soft cheeks, modest nose, and lively hazel eyes looked much the way they had a decade before.
“I’m glad that you confided in me about being depressed about your relationship. At first I was afraid you and Cliff were smoking pot and that’s why you had the munchies,” she said, using a new bit of slang she’d learned at the “Just Say No to Drugs” sisterhood luncheon at the synagogue. She tossed out an empty quart of butter pecan ice cream I’d eaten and another of mint chip from which I’d systematically picked out all the chips. “But now that I know you’re depressed, the long afternoon naps make sense.” She stood behind me tenderly picking cookie crumbs out of my hair.
“Pussycat, trust me. I’m positive. He’ll be back.”
“You really think so?”
“Mark my words,” she said. “I promise.”
Two months later, Cliff came back.
When I fell in love with a boy named Ian, freshman year of college, who told me he loved me in a way he had never loved anyone before, enough to admit to me and only me that he was gay, his mascara smearing as he wept, my mother consoled me with “Better now than in thirty years.” She put her arm around me. “Could you really get serious with a man who wore a bustier?” Adding finally, “You’re better off without him.”
At twenty-four, Jay McPhee ended our relationship of two years explaining that, while his preferred model of love was “The Dog Bone” — namely two separate, independent entities bound by a long, sturdy bridge (he said “long” twice, as in “long, long sturdy bridge”) — my ideal was what he called “The Pretzel,” where two people are twisted together, fused in several places, preventing any opportunity for individuality. Or escape.
“I’m not a pretzel,” I said, desperately.
“Oh, but you are,” he said.
“I can be a dog bone!” I pleaded. “I can! Give me a chance!”
I didn’t think Jay and I were right for each other, but I had always hoped it would be my choice, not his, whether to suffer a life of regret and stifling mediocrity.
“He said you weren’t independent? That’s ridiculous,” my mother said, reaching for the overnight bag I’d brought to stay at my parents’ apartment until I felt better. She led me into my old bedroom, still decorated with the many cat posters I collected before we found out I was allergic.
“Not independent.” She scoffed. “Mark my words. He’ll be back.” And when that never happened, she assured me, “You’re better off without him.”
Right around the time I turned twenty-six, when I reluctantly broke up with David Orlean because he complained I was too independent and career minded, my mother added a new saying to her repertoire.
“People who want to be married are married,” she said, thrilled to have coined a phrase that could be so deep and yet so simple.
“Huh?” I said. “I don’t get it.”
“People who want to be married are married,” she repeated. “Look at that woman, the one I showed you in the paper, who’s blind now because her husband threw acid in her eyes. Even though she knew he had mistresses, even though he maimed her, she stayed married to him.”
She nodded and folded her arms, as if to say, “Am I a genius or what?”
I was confused. “Okay. And?”
“So if you really wanted to be married, you would be!” She clapped her hands in a single loud strike. “That’s the answer. When you really want it, it will happen.”
A year later it still hadn’t happened and I was really starting to want it. There had been another David. This time it was David Soloway, a man I’d met in Los Angeles, where I’d just graduated from film school. He was dedicated to me and talked often about marriage, but we had problems. He always wanted me to wear short shorts, the kind I thought should only be worn by women who referred to their boss as “my pimp,” and he mentioned often that he didn’t judge women who got breast jobs. Or liposuction. At any age. He could also be very critical.
I was sad after we broke up. I knew it was the right thing, but still I found myself wondering how many chances you get in life to find the right person. Did you get three? Five? Less? Had I already blown it and just didn’t know it yet? Should I have held on to him because I might not find anything better? I had also recently weathered the unanimous rejection of the first screenplay I’d ever written. It was called “Pleased to Meet Me,” about a chronically depressed thirty-year-old single woman who hates her life and goes back in time to prevent her teenage self from growing up to be a thirty-year-old single woman who hates her life. My hope was that it would be a feel-good comedy for the Zoloft set, proof that overwhelming psychological issues, immune to both therapy and medication, could be easily reversed with the aid of a time machine. While I got a few studio meetings out of it, in the end there was no sale. I was a big, pacing, jittery loser in work and love, and once again there was my mother, eager to put me back together.
“What you need is a trip to Prague in May with me!” she announced.
In the past the two of us had traveled together to places like China, Japan, and Holland. We went to Beijing and Shanghai in the late seventies, where we sampled jellyfish, sliced webbed duck’s feet, and something we were later told was braised snake. When we were in Amsterdam, we rented a car to explore the countryside, and my mother accidentally drove the wrong way down a single bicycle path, where angry riders threw apples at our windshield. “I thought the Dutch were supposed to be so peaceful,” my mother said as we scraped applesauce off the front hood.
And now she wanted us to visit Prague, a city she felt promised both exciting architecture and the possibility of more adventures. She told my father he’d have to fend for himself for ten days, and off we went. The flight was easy, and everything was proceeding smoothly until we went through immigration. Everyone else moved promptly through the line, and then they got to us. The official looked confused as he examined my mother’s form.
“What this mean?” he said, his heavily lidded eyes narrowing.
I looked at her form. “Mom, did you have to write that?”
She smiled when she realized what he was pointing at.
“I’m a career volunteer,” she explained. “That’s my profession. I raise money for charities that support communities becoming self-sufficient. We build hospitals and schools, but I don’t receive a salary.”
He shrugged and stamped her passport.
In the cab to the hotel, my mother repeated her delight at the wonderful rate we’d gotten.
“The hotel is right in the heart of the city,” she said. “I done good.”
That’s what we thought until we got to the hotel and found out it was under renovation. My first thought upon seeing our room was that it had been designed by an architect who specialized in third world prisons. The bed seemed like something a monk would sleep on after he’d forsaken his worldly possessions. As if that wasn’t bad enough, our window was boarded up with a splintery piece of wood to keep out the dust from the construction site outside. When the bellboy tried to tell us what time breakfast was served, he had to yell over the sound of wrecking balls and heavy machinery. We tried to switch hotels, but it was May, and the only thing available was forty minutes outside the city.
“Okay,” my mother said. “So we won’t spend any time in the hotel. Who wants to anyway?”
Apparently, workers start very early in Prague. We were up at six. When I looked outside, I saw a bunch of mustached men, smoking and drinking black coffee, listening to fast-paced accordion music.
My mother and I started the day with what I had heard called the “Jewish Quarter,” but which the concierge referred to as “Jew Town,” which sounded to me like a theme park that would be filled with rides such as “The Emotional Roller Coaster.”
“Do you think he was anti-Semitic?” I asked as we left the hotel.
“Oh, you and your paranoia,” she said. “No, I don’t think he was an anti-Semite. And I don’t think the cabdriver was either,” she said, referring to our ride from the airport. “I think it was an unfortunate translation when he called us ‘Jew People.’ ”
We proceeded to Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. My mother read the guidebook out loud as we walked.
“The area was named in honor of Emperor Joseph II of the Austrian Empire, which ruled the Czech Republic in the eighteenth century. Emperor Joseph issued the Tolerance Edict in 1781, which revoked the old law that required Jews to wear distinctive caps and Stars of David on their clothing.” She put the book back in her bag. “Well, thank God for that. See, this city was very progressive when it came to Jews.” She snapped a photo of the Hebrew clock, which had numbers in Hebrew and ran backward. It sat at the top of a mauve building with an elaborate baroque facade. It was early, and the streets were empty as we walked toward the “Old-New” synagogue next door.
That’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The young man was probably twenty-five and sublimely handsome. He had shoulder-length black hair, blue eyes, and was dressed in an oatmeal V-neck sweater and jeans. He had an ethereal beauty that said, “You can look, but you can’t touch.” Poets would write about beauty like his. Which made me think of the Shakespeare sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Then I thought of what Shakespeare might have said about me. “And this one to a humid night in Newark.”
“Are you Jewish?” the young man asked.
I clenched my teeth and looked at him. “Why?”
My mother interrupted, placing a hand on each hip.
“Yes, we are Jewish. And deeply proud of it.”
“Me too,” he said, cheerfully. He held out his hand. “My name is Miguel. I am from Argentina.”
“Hello, Miguel.” My mother held out her hand. “I’m Joyce Arnoff-Cohen.” She always used the hyphenate. It was a throwback to her interest in feminism in the early seventies, when, for a short time, she went bra-less and paraded around in a neon maxicoat trimmed in knotty yak fur. “And this is my daughter, Amy Cohen.”
Miguel smiled. “Very nice to meet you, Amy and Joyce. May I join you?”
“We’d be delighted,” my mother said.
At lunch, we found out Miguel had planned to come with his brother, but he’d gotten into a soccer accident which had resulted in a minor head injury.
“I’m studying to become a pediatrician,” Miguel told us.
“Bravo!” my mother said.
“Amy, do you like children?” he asked.
“Not like, love,” I said, laying on my best earth mother shtick. “I can’t wait to have my own.”
“Me too,” he said, winking. “My mother would like me to have them tomorrow. I think I will be ready soon.” He pushed his plate toward me. “Amy, would you like the rest of my salad? It’s very nice.”
“No, thank you,” I said, but what I really wanted to say was “I’ll have your children.”
A Jewish Argentinean doctor. And as if Miguel weren’t perfect enough already, when we went to the Jewish cemetery, he cried. Not sobbed, just a single elegant tear gliding down one of his perfectly molded cheeks. I gave him a napkin I’d taken from the restaurant, and he tapped the corner of his eye.
He took my hand and held it for a moment. “Thank you,” he said. “I just have so much feeling being here. All we have endured and fought for. All the people who were lost.”
We stood amid the headstones — some fat, some tall, all clustered together. My mother was crying too, but she’d started crying as we entered the front gate.
“Miguel, that’s beautiful,” she said, blowing her nose.
I was very moved being there myself, and yet all I could think was “How can I get rid of my mother?”
“Miguel, I hope you’ll join us for dinner,” my mother said.
“Yes,” he said. “I was hoping you would ask, Joyce.”
Then he kissed us each on both cheeks and said, “Until later.”
We watched him walk away, and when we were sure he was out of sight, my mother said, “He’s a devastatingly attractive young man. For him, I’ll come visit you in Argentina.”
“Slow down there, partner,” I said, as much to myself as to her.
“Sweetheart, a mother can dream, can’t she? I saw him staring at you not once, not twice, but several times today.”
She folded her arms and nodded. “Yes, really. The only reason I invited him to join us in the first place was for you. Sometimes you need your mother to push things along.”
Okay, I thought. I’ll ditch her after dinner.
We chose what we had been told was the best restaurant in Prague. It was actually a large apartment, which had been divided into several intimate, formal dining rooms, each with only a few tables.
When Miguel arrived, he looked even more handsome than I’d remembered. He was wearing a slim, navy wool, single-button suit with a rich blue V-neck sweater underneath. He was so continental, and I was so local. He was the Riviera. I was the East River. This was the early nineties, when granny boots and T shirts worn under loose apron dresses were big. I had worn this, my favorite outfit, specially for the occasion. I also had on earrings, big hoops. I rarely wore earrings, because I thought they made me look like a gypsy, and true to my fear, I now felt as if I should be banging a tambourine and pickpocketing tourists in a crowded marketplace.
“You two look very beautiful,” he said.
I imagined kissing him. Standing under one of the dramatic arches we’d seen that day, on a cobblestone street in my long apron and granny boots. I’d press that gorgeous Argentinean face into mine. He’d whisper something in my ear like “I couldn’t wait for dinner to be over. I couldn’t wait to be alone with you.” I just had to be careful not to drink too much since I was very nervous.
“Joyce, your necklace is so unusual,” Miguel said.
My mother was wearing a thin red sweater and a heavy silver necklace that my brother, sister, and I thought looked like an enlarged, diseased organ.
“I got this from a sculptor in Tel Aviv,” she said. “He usually does large installations using scrap metal from cans. My children hate this necklace, don’t you?”
“We call it ‘The Liver,’ ” I said, smiling at Miguel. I kept smiling, then smiled some more, but he didn’t look at me. Instead, he stared at my mother.
“Oh, no. It’s very artistic,” Miguel said. “Besides, calling it ‘The Liver’ is actually a compliment because of all that the liver does.”
“I didn’t do so well in biology,” I said. “Our biology teacher turned out to be making extra money doing porn and he got fired midyear.”
“That’s nice.” He turned to my mother. “The liver is our filter. It keeps us alive. It’s the most important organ in the body,” Miguel said, moving so close to my mother that his face was inches from hers. “Next to the heart.” He held out his hand. “Joyce, may I touch it?”
“Why, of course,” my mother said.
I watched as he lifted the heavy, pear-shaped bulb in the center of her chest. “Fantastic,” he said, staring not at the necklace but deep into my mother’s eyes, the way I imagined he had looked at me when I offered him the tissue at the cemetery, the brief moment I’d been replaying in my head all day. This was before I began imagining how he would spend his next vacation visiting me in Los Angeles.
I pictured us spending the entire time holed up in my dark, slightly depressing apartment. When we could manage to tear ourselves away from each other, I’d take him to one of those parties that feel so quintessentially L.A., the kind where you’re waiting for the keg and realize John Stamos and Dave Grohl are standing behind you. Then, at the end of the evening, I’d wave good-bye to my friends, all successful screenwriters, and think that, despite my being a total failure with a career in the crapper, at least I had a hot Argentinean boyfriend who might one day love me.
When the waiter came, Miguel was still holding on to my mother’s necklace as if it were glued to his fingers. “Joyce. It’s clear you have a very stylish eye,” Miguel said.
The waiter, a thin man with a bold black mustache that carpeted his lip, stood at the table holding two bottles of wine, waiting for my mother to notice him. I kicked my mother’s foot under the table, trying to tell her that the waiter had been standing there, but Miguel looked at me and frowned. “That’s my foot,” he said, releasing her necklace.
“Mom, that one looks good,” I said, pointing to the more expensive of the two.
Taking my suggestion, my mother looked up at the waiter. “We’ll take that one.”
“Excellent choice, Joyce,” Miguel said. “Clearly, you know wine.”
“I know I like it,” my mother said. “But I’d hardly call myself an expert. I’ve been an expat, when I lived in England after the war, but never an expert.”
Miguel laughed. An expansive, rollicking belly laugh. I wasn’t even convinced he understood what she’d said. “Joyce, you’re very funny,” he said. Then he turned to me. “Does everyone tell her how funny she is?”
“Not really,” I said. I downed my glass of wine and filled another one.
“Lying will get you everywhere,” my mother said. “But Amy’s the funny one. Miguel, guess what Amy does. Actually, sweetheart, you tell him. It’s very exciting.”
“Mom, no, really.” I waved my hand back and forth along my throat, pantomiming for her to cut what she was saying.
Miguel kept his eyes fixed on my mother as he reluctantly turned toward me. “What do you do?” he asked.
“I just graduated from film school,” I said. “I wrote a screenplay, which didn’t get bought. End of story.”
I stared at my empty glass, waiting for Miguel to pour me another one, as he was doing for my mother.
“Oh, come on now,” my mother said. “It was much more exciting than that. Tell him what the film was about.”
“It’s about a woman who goes back in time to meet herself as a teenager,” I said, as if my words were on a forced death march. “She’s very unhappy as an adult, so she tries to prevent herself from growing up to be such an unhappy person. Etc. Etc.”
He didn’t say anything at first; it seemed as if he were ruminating about the cleverness of my script. But then he looked not at me, but somewhere off in the distance. “Why have Hollywood movies become so mindless?” he asked. “I don’t mean yours,” he finally added, which made it absolutely clear that he did. “Are people so desperate for money?”
“Well, it is Hollywood,” I said, feeling rather desperate myself. I reached across the table for the bottle of wine that was now in front of him. “I just wanted to make people laugh. This was my first script.”
“And is that a reason to do it?” he said. “The world needs ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘The Battle of Algiers.’ Not another mindless comedy.”
Before I could defend myself and mention that I was a huge fan of both of those movies, having seen each several times, Miguel turned to my mother. “Joyce, what do you do?”
She sat up very straight, and I knew what was coming. “I’m a career volunteer,” she said. “Which means that”
“I understand,” he interrupted. “You work for a charity. How excellent. Tell me all about that. I’m terribly interested because I was thinking for a time that I wanted to go into the Peace Corps. To devote my life to public service. And my parents approved. My father spent a short time working in Africa with Dr. Schweitzer.”
“But they had to settle for a doctor?” my mother said, proud of her joke.
He laughed keenly. “Yes, sad, isn’t it? No, no, I thought, and my father agreed, with a medical degree I’d be more help in an AIDS ward.” He smiled perfunctorily at me, as if to say, “See, not everybody is so desperate to make money.” Then he turned back to my mother. “I just see so many people doing such self-indulgent things with their lives.”
My glass was empty now and so was the bottle. I had no choice but to steal my mother’s wine.
“Miguel, when Amy was in high school she raised money for Oxfam,” my mother said. “She was always very involved.”
Miguel pointed dramatically in her direction. “That’s because you’re such a wonderful mother. You’ve impressed upon your children how important it is to think of others.” Then he turned to me. “Do you volunteer now? You probably want to get away from yourself sometimes.”
This was about the time I finished eating my pork neck in dill sauce and began eating the rest of my mother’s goulash.
“Last month I painted Christmas decorations at a home for juvenile delinquents,” I said, spearing several cubes of slick meat and shoving them into my mouth. “I painted snowflakes with a kid who robbed a Seven-Eleven.”
“Well, that’s something,” he said. “Joyce, does everyone tell you that you look very young? It’s amazing.”
“I think you were out in the sun too long,” she said. “But that’s lovely of you to say.”
“Are you two done?” I said.
Miguel looked at me, and I pointed to the waiter standing to my left.
“He wants to take our plates,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” my mother said.
“Thank you,” Miguel added.
“Miguel, I’ve been so good all day,” my mother said. “But I just can’t contain myself. Do you have a girlfriend?”
Miguel became very bashful and stared at his lap, and as he did, I mouthed to my mother, “Cut it out.” She batted her hand at me, as if to say, “Oh, shush.” This reminded me of the time I told my mother I’d met a witty, mildly famous Hollywood producer at a party and immediately developed an insatiable crush on him, and she said, “Call him up and ask him out for a Coke!” Just that feeling of “Mom, what planet are you on?” The Argentinean Jewish doctor didn’t like me. Better to forfeit the fight and go home with as little blood as possible.
“Joyce, I’m very available,” he said, smiling at her. “Tell me, where is your husband? Are you married?”
“My father had to stay in New York and work,” I said. “We called him before we came to dinner. He said he misses us. A lot. He really misses us. He’s insanely jealous.”
“Well, he’s a very lucky man, Joyce,” Miguel said. “You have a very special quality. In addition to being very beautiful, you seem like someone I’ve known a very long time. I imagine you’ve led a very interesting life.”
As my mother told him about her years in postwar England, when she met Anna Freud and ate lentil soup with Alec Guinness, I ate her entire portion of apple strudel and then the generous platter of crepes drizzled in heavy chocolate and cream that was meant to serve three. And then I ordered a plate of fluffy peach dumplings.
“Tomorrow we’re going to visit the Kafka sights,” my mother said. “I’m salivating. I love Kafka.”
Miguel got a dreamy look on his face. “He’s my favorite writer,” he said. “What are your favorite works?”
I interrupted. “Which is the Kafka story that describes the torturing and killing of prisoners?” I looked at Miguel. “The one that’s very brutal with the instrument they called the ‘apparatus’?”
“‘In the Penal Colony’!” my mother said, brightly. “Oh, I love that story too. But I still think ‘Metamorphosis’ is my favorite.”
“Me too,” Miguel said. “Excellent taste, Joyce.”
My mother blushed and then looked over at me. “Oh, sweetheart, you look like you’re about to plotz. Let’s get you to sleep.”
And there it was. There would be no midnight walk. No kissing under any arches, just wrecking balls at six A.M.
As we left the restaurant, Miguel said, “I hope to see you tomorrow,” adding clumsily, “both of you.”
My mother smiled as she waved good-bye.
“He’s in love with you,” I said.
“Oh, please. That’s ridiculous. That’s just the wine talking.”
“Yours or mine?” I said. “And I’m not spending the day with him tomorrow.”
“Fine. We’ll leave the hotel before he calls. Besides, you know those Latins. They’re like Italians. They’re all crazy about their mothers, and I’m sure he just wanted me to fill in. It’s actually very insulting if you ask me.”
The next morning, on our way up to the Prague Castle, we walked along Golden Lane, a row of tiny, colorful cottages built into the castle wall in the sixteenth century to house the castle guard. I was wearing my apron dress again, a painful reminder of our dinner the night before, while my mother was wearing a cheerful plaid blouse, a twill skirt, and coarse, ropy espadrilles that made her heels turn a painful shade of pink.
It was a warm, windless spring day, and we stopped to stand outside of a squat, light blue building where Franz Kafka had lived briefly with his sister.
“I hope you have a kosher wedding,” my mother said, reaching deep into her public television tote bag and patting around for her camera. “With Kafka, I just keep wondering what influenced his work. Did he see a cockroach in the kitchen and imagine ‘The Metamorphosis’? I know he had TB, and I think he was starving to death when he wrote ‘A Hunger Artist.’ ” She regarded the small building, looking up at the second-story window. “Was he in love when he lived here? Was he depressed?” She smiled. “It’s fun to imagine, isn’t it?”
I looked at her, not exactly sure how to react.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “My wedding? I don’t even have a boyfriend.”
“I know,” she said, framing a shot of the house, careful to include the heavy shingled roof. “I’m just saying when. When you have your wedding, I hope it’s kosher. I wouldn’t want my kosher friends to have to eat from paper plates.”
Why I chose to argue about this, I still don’t know.
“How many kosher friends do you have?” I asked.
She began to count.
“Well, there’s Rabbi Hershkowitz and his wife, Tsipora — that’s two. And Sam and Audrey Bloom — so four. I’d like to invite the Yarones from Israel, which makes six, but I doubt they’d come.”
I’ve read that nothing travels faster than the speed of light, but I think a close second might be the rate at which I went from age twenty-seven to thirteen.
“No, I don’t want a kosher wedding,” I said, my arms now tightly crossed. “What if I want to serve shrimp?”
“You don’t love shrimp,” my mother said. “Why do you need shrimp?”
“Because maybe my guests will want it. Or my fiancé.”
“You could have mock shrimp,” she said.
“I’m not having mock shrimp. If we’re having mock shrimp, we might as well have mock ham. Or why don’t we just have a mock wedding?”
“You really feel that strongly?” she said.
“I’m thinking very seriously of eloping.”
“Why not make it completely vegetarian?” she said, a reference to the ten years I’d gone without meat. “When I took that class on the history of Judaism, we learned that the basis of kashrut is, in fact, vegetarianism, which seems right up your alley. We could have an Indian theme with curries and papadams. There are still Jews in India.”
“I” I started to say something, but instead exhaled, thickly.
“You what?” she said. “You what? Tell me, sweetheart.”
“I don’t want to have this conversation,” I said. “This is crazy.”
“Well, I hope you change your mind,” she said.
I could tell she was upset by the hasty way she began marching up the hill.
“Are you coming?” she called.
I didn’t answer.
She started back. “I asked if you were coming.” She got closer to me. “Sweetheart, are you crying?”
I couldn’t quite catch my breath, and when I finally spoke, I took long gasps every few words.
“I just feel like men don’t like me. Or they like me for a little while and then I screw it up.”
“What are you talking about? Everyone loves you.”
“No, they don’t. Mom. They don’t. Not even close.”
“Oh, rubbish. Yes, they do.”
“I didn’t tell you, but before I left, I started seeing this really cute screenwriter who I’d had a crush on for a long time and who just broke up with his girlfriend, and I’m such an idiot, because he just broke up with her, and it was a recipe for masochism, but we fooled around a lot, we didn’t sleep together but” I stopped long enough to catch my breath — “but we saw each other a lot and then I offered to make him dinner. That fettucine recipe that I made you”
“Which I loved,” she said. “It’s your best dish.”
That was so my mother. To say it was my best dish, when I only had one. “And I spent over fifty dollars. And I also baked him a Duncan Hines cake, like an idiot, and”
My mother put her arm around me. “And he broke up with you.”
“No! Worse. He never showed up. I called him like five times that night and left these pathetic messages, like ‘Oh, hey, did you forget?’ Like a f------ loser. If I had any self-respect, I would have called and said, ‘F--- you! You lying piece of sh--! Go to hell!’ But I didn’t. Instead I ate the entire cake, and then he didn’t call me back for over a week. When he did finally call, he said he’d forgotten about dinner and that he had gone to Wisconsin for a week, and I knew he was lying, and I didn’t even let him have it then. I said, ‘That’s okay, I understand,’ because I’m a sheep. I just felt like such a stupid, stupid piece of stupid sh-- because I should have known. Which is how I feel a lot these days, Mom. Like sh--. I do.”
She was silent.
I had often said I felt like a house men were happy to rent, but when it came time to buy, they balked. Several boyfriends had told me that being in a relationship with me required work. A lot of extensive work. I was not the brand-new house with central air and freshly polished hardwood floors, the one that was ready to move into immediately. I was the fixer-upper with plenty of room for improvement, one the real estate agent says “could be a gem if you’re willing to do an enormous, exhausting amount of work.” I was the house in desperate need of renovation. And if I kept eating the way I was on this trip, I’d be the biggest house on the block.
“Let me tell you something,” my mother said. “You are the furthest thing from sh--. You are beautiful and wonderful and so creative, and by the way, that’s my daughter you’re talking about and I might have to punch you in the nose if you say you’re sh-- again.”
“Mom, I’m serious.”
“After I got divorced, I got knocked around myself all the time before I met your father,” she said.
My mother had married a psychiatrist at twenty-one, who, she said, loved baseball, Freud, Groucho Marx, and her — in that order.
“I was a divorcée in the days when it was still considered shocking, and I think maybe that’s why I had low self-esteem and chose such terrible men. I went out with an alcoholic who worked for the Associated Press, when he wasn’t having blackouts and canceling dates with me, and then that Broadway producer I told you about, the one who knew Esther Williams and Jimmy Durante, who I know was scheduling our dinners between hopping into bed with showgirls. I got dumped all the time. Constantly. And then I met your father. And he was sweet and honest, and I was ready for a good man because I’d had such first-class sh-- before him. I married the wrong man the first time, and I almost made the same mistake again, until I realized what was really important to me. And it was all very roundabout the way it happened. Do you get my drift?”
“Uh huh,” I said, wiping my nose.
“If you want to know the truth,” she said, “I wasn’t so impressed with our friend Miguel. He was a little unctuous, if you ask me. Kissing my hand good night? I was half expecting him to click his heels. It was too much. You need someone more original. And I, for one, am really looking forward to meeting him.”
“Yeah, well, you and me both,” I said.
Excerpted from "The Late Bloomer's Revolution" by Amy Cohen. Copyright 2007 Amy Cohen. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion.