Wednesday, November 30, 2011



The headache that Robert gives Nancy by just his being there in the driver’s seat, oblivious, is almost deadly. Robert and the diesel fumes bring on searing migraines that make her nauseous, that blind her with pain, and that simply make her want to cry; that’s what it boils down to. She wants to cry. It’s Robert and the fumes.

Because ultimately the diesel revving, the Rn-rn-Rn-rn-Rn-rn-Rn-rn that echoes in her head for hours after a tour, that reverbs in her sleep, becomes soothing, by the third or fourth hour; it actually helps. She stretches out on the gurney most tours, at some point, for maybe ten minutes, sometimes half an hour, and opens her ears, allowing the revving to massage her brain. Because it’s not the sound that makes her sick, no, it’s the smell, like smoke and metal, the filth of gas stations, the sweat and menthol of Colby in the engine shop, God! He’s another asshole, with his attitude and his dark laugh, his knotted, greased-up knuckles and dangling silver combination wrenches. Nancy burns when she sees him, through and through, the core of her body immolates on sight of him and she would go, she would run for one chance, one hour with him, if only he’d cease and desist the bullshit go-rounds with the wife he says he doesn’t have, if he’d stem the flow of children through the shop whom he claims don’t belong to him. What the… fine. This also adds to her migraines.  

The worst of it though is the smell, the smell… the fumes circling her skull and invading her nose so redolently that she can’t stand to hang out near the bus, she can not just stand there outside it; she has to stay in, with the AC on, or, stand inside a Dunkin’s or a McD’s or an ER, looking out the window at the bus, as if it was a gigantic dog tied to a meter, waiting, the rig, the am-bo-lance as Keelah calls it, because she can so truly feel the engine poisons entering her lungs that what it is, this obliterating ambulance life, makes everything else seem pointless. 

If that takes root then she is fucked. Ambulance as God is a Hannibal Lecter you don’t want inside your head. Nancy loves to lay on the cool gurney between two and four a.m. and imagine herself as Clarice Starling, as better than Jodi Foster in ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ the diesel rumble shaping her into a brilliant candidate for the FBI, catching a killer on her sinewy instincts, alone. Keelah kicks her awake on the gurney and hands her a pint of fried rice soaked in duck sauce, “Lightin’ it up, lady.” 

What beauty will they see? What heartbreak? What systemic abuse of persons, what chronic despair? Why not smoke? Why not fuck the mechanics? 

Why NOT?

But it’s Robert tonight, not Keelah, and everything is worse. His blubbery jowls covered in sparse reddish beard look hopelessly pubic to her, like the mystical body part of an overweight hermaphrodite, bulbous and private, and she wishes up high in the keening of her brain that she never thought of the phrase because now it will stick; she’ll see it every time she looks at his face, which she tries not to do.

Bulbous privates.


How she hates him; it’s too much. His greasy glasses. His plastered down hair. His gut. That he’s thirty-five and looks fifty and likes it. His high-water uniform pants that bunch up his ass and his too-tight belt, that he actually wears all his bars on his shirt and all his pins and that the shirt is shiny from ironing, that he wears a white dickey underneath with his initials embroidered on the collar. What an ASS. His tool belt. His Nextel. His Swiss army knife. His badge.

Get a LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFFFFFFFE! She screams in her mind at him. You’re embarrassing yourself. You’re embarrassing ME!

His speech impediment, the salivacious L’s, the swallowed words; that she must ask him to repeat himself because she is half deaf in her left ear and he sits on her left because he drives, he always drives, contributes to Robert’s gratifying conviction that Nancy is a moron.   

Robert has worked for St. Agnes Medical for thirteen years; it’s a nearly unheard of record, the distinction of which he is welcome to; you don’t sit on your ass at St. Ag’s for years and years, even as a medic, unless you can’t get into nursing or medical or PA school or just can’t be bothered to do anything else with your life, and there are guys like that. They’re all obese with self-loathing and married to nurses who despise them. All women leave Ag’s and only return as nurses. Five years at St. Ag’s on a rig should be the most or there’s something radically wrong with you. Nancy is rounding the corner into year two and killing herself ready for her medic in a month. Many say it’s too soon; fuck ‘em. 

But good medics agree; you should work as an EMT for three years before medic school. You should be able to run certain codes in your sleep. And it’s true that Nancy is short on experience. She hasn’t had a birth in the field or a gunshot wound. And because it’s the city, where hospitals are both as frequent and as excellent as dog shit, she has not had to use her BCLS, her Basic Cardiac Life Support skills, at all. She hasn’t had to ride in on compressions, clear an airway or make a splint. It’s just scoop and run, scoop and run; take a history and vitals and roll them on in.

Nancy is the magic number, she has learned; she is 33. That’s very old for a woman in EMS, Keelah has explained, “That’s why nobody likes you,” while Nancy’s face burned. And Nancy is not wild about adding another two years of living with her father to the drive-by devastations of her life. She wants to be a medic. She needs the money. She studies hard. But she’s afraid, and on rotations for skills practice, she’s way behind.  She hasn’t had to run deuce IVs. She hasn’t had a burn or a cardiac crash. She hasn’t had to use the paddles. And it feels like nobody wants to help her. 

“Why aren’t you a nurse by now?” 

Mind your own business, ass.

It’s very late in the game. She’s down to the wire. She has a month to get her skills signed off on and has only now realized that it’s best to ride with the same medics over and over, and to stick to the old guys, who don’t want to do it any more and are delighted to allow you to fuck it up. They laugh at her, out loud, but they willingly sign her reports. It’s not that she’s bad looking; it’s that she’s desperate, and everybody knows it, except, apparently, Colby, who they all call The Cheese, or he likes her that way, panicked and sweaty when he flashes her his black-brown eyes and offers up a slick carburetor or a limp, flapping fan belt she can stick her needle in, if that helps, smirking like a dare, when he’s not on his cell or ignoring her. 

So here’s the choice. 

She’s on till 8 a.m., and can sneak in with Circus Mike and Little Eddie from eight to twelve, which can be good, as in busy, on a Saturday morning, and possibly get three or four of the 8 needle sticks she’s missing, and, seeing as it’s not a real rotation, because you’re not allowed to ride along back to back after working, Circus Mike will line up the carbon copies of her last report and fill in the missing sticks; no one will go back and count how many IVs wheeled into the St. Ag’s ER or who did them; QC can only go so far without imploding. And then she can hang out at Woodhull all day Sunday by the FDNY rigs, breathing in the diesel, studying for the medic, waiting for a fire, and if she gets a burn the jolly vollies will sign her report and back-time her a shift which she can make up to them next month, after the medic. Which means that, if she hangs on till twelve today, she’ll have to ask Robert to bring the bus back to the garage without her, and which also means she’ll miss Colby, and then she’ll have to run to be in class by one, stay awake in there till four, stay on for skills practice till maybe six, run home to her dad, eat, take the dog out, and then try, try, to study protocols till ten or eleven, and be in class for skills super early on Sunday in order to be out in time to make the most of waiting for a fire.


She can ask Robert to let her try all the sticks tonight and even, if they get one, a tube; that’s a tube in a throat to reinflate a lung. This is allowed, to get your skills at work, as long as you’re riding with a senior medic, which Robert never, ever tires of announcing that he is. Either way, Nancy needs something from Robert, and he sits in the driver’s seat even though he’s not supposed to, all strained shirt buttons and self satisfaction in spite of the fact that Nancy is supposed to drive, the EMT drives the medic, that’s how it’s done, but Robert rolls his buttocks with delight when she asks to drive and he consistently responds, “Don’t be personal about it; I’m not crazy about women drivers, that’s all.”

If Robert gives her the sticks, she’ll be changing in the garage bathroom at 8:05 because Robert never ends a tour late, and Colby will come into the bathroom and kiss her and leave grease on her breast which she will not wash off in the shower. If Robert gives her the sticks, she’ll get the hell out of work in time for three precious hours of sleep before class.

If Robert gives her the sticks, she’ll get the sticks; she won’t miss, because he won’t get in the way. He won’t help her with sticks, or tubes, unless she asks. Robert loves to breathe on Nancy, he loves to lay his meaty palm on her back during anything mundane; she could be putting a band-aid on a nine-year-old and he’d look over her shoulder and direct, his French-fry breath hot on her. The skills, however, when she’s learning, when she must fly solo and do it right and once, are when Robert stands back, breathes easy, and lets Nancy live. Because Robert loves EMS so much that he can’t bear even to allow his own stout, righteous self to get in the way of anyone else ascending to medic and bringing the gospel of emergency medical transport to those in need. For Robert, collecting needle sticks on your report is a sacred right. They are not his to obfuscate with misogyny and mind-fuck. 

Nancy clears her throat. 

Robert says, “You wanna try sticks tonight?”

Nancy lets out a long unintentional whistle of relief. “That would be great, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” says Robert, “if you – I think it’s good. Because I looked in your book and you’re behind. If you don’t mind my saying. Because otherwise you’ll be here till noon tomorrow and frankly, I don’t sanction that. Especially because I’ve heard of Circus Mike signing off on good efforts, which as far as I’m concerned amounts to manslaughter. So no I don’t mind. Let’s try you out. Let’s get you up to speed. Would you like me to do flashcards with you in between?”

Nancy is aghast, as stupid as she knows it is. Robert has looked into her backpack before and found sanitary napkins and asked her throughout a tour if she would like to stop in the ladies room for a hygiene check. 

“Thank you,” she says in a low growl. “But no, no flashcards. Just the sticks.”

“All righty,” says Robert, turning the key in the ignition. “Buckle up.”

And off they go.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pissed Off

Defensive? Confrontational? Wonder where he gets it...

As Thanksgiving approaches, I feel I have a lot to be irritated about. The writer who accused me of being ungracious and elitist because I’m not including her agenda in my book, that was one. The mysterious bus strike is another, which’ll be announced, or not, probably around 6:55 a.m., which is about when my son actually gets ON the bus, which may or may not be here for him to board, thanks a bunch, because kids with Asperger’s Syndrome love it when their routine dissolves and their mother stares at them in blank dismay.

But staring in blank dismay seems to be the order of the evening; staring at my laptop screen, actually, and not at any real person, which just underscores the volatility (as in fleeting, flying away, particulate, rather than unstable or dangerous) of the interchanges rendering me so… pissed off. And there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just pissed off. For no good reason.

What is a good reason to be pissed off? Somebody crashed into our parked car once, our old car, cracked the radiator, and didn’t leave their number; that pissed me off. We used to have a neighbor who lived under us and would pray and sing and speak in tongues as loud as she could at 2 a.m. then slam the door in my face and call me a bloody-handed Jew (whatever that is) when I asked her to stop; that pissed me off a lot. This is the concrete stuff of life in New York; there’s plenty of meat and potatoes piss-off to go around. Shit happens all the time.

But on the internet, nothing actually happens, so when I get pissed off here, I feel like an idiot. My tirade about Tina Fey was like this; she’ll never read it, she’ll never care, and some people who DID read it thought I was certifiable.

Yet here I am.
I can’t identify the sources of any of this, which pisses me off, because I don’t want to piss anyone off. So I’ll just say that I encountered someone who came to the conclusion that they would medicate their child with behavior problems, because their doctor said that if they did not, special ed would be their only option, the last resort!

Oh! did that piss me OFF! 

From the top... I’ve been an outsider all my life. I got that message, you’re different, you don’t belong, early on. It was said to me by, and about, my lefty Jewish family in a gentile, conservative neighborhood, and it developed as an identity by association, to my Autistic sister, who was the only local disabled person I knew, other than the one boy with Downs Syndrome, who was the town pet.

I’m sure I suffered from undiagnosed anxiety as a child because I was afraid of everyone, and I probably had some Aspie-like traits; I always felt much safer with adults, who would affirm me for my intelligence and vocabulary, than with kids who thought I was a pudgy weirdo and told me so to my face all day long at school, and who wouldn’t let me play with them in the cul de sac on the weekend, not least because I was afraid to ride my bike fast and didn’t think running, screaming, punching, and falling was a good game. 

By the time I was in college, all I’d figured out was that to some degree I could fit in by copying what I thought other people were doing, which seemed to me to mostly be partying. And I may even have had undiscovered learning disabilities, because as far back as elementary school, words have swam on pages, I could not comprehend even the simplest math, and science and history eluded me. In fact an adulthood friend who knows all this about me once pointed out that maybe the reason I haven’t graduated college yet is that I’m afraid to leave the luxury and welcome of writing and literature classes, where I revel, excel, and am free. 

But up till college, my entire experience of school, a good quality, mainstream school in a well-appointed suburb, was one of constant terror. I was aware of kids who performed poorly or had “emotional problems,” (didn’t I?) and were moved to private schools; in fact I begged my mother to do the same for me. I didn’t know what really went on in the private schools, but I had a fantasy that it involved not being made fun of by peers or criticized all day by teachers for not applying myself. Adults’ disappointment made an unbearable impression on me, and I struggled with depression and shit self-esteem well into my adulthood.

So it was in my 30s, that I began to pull myself together; it really started with my dog walking business. I’d hopped from one waitressing or retail job to another over the years, but finally, working at something that belonged only to me, that was the outcome of just my own efforts, skills, and decisions, I started to experience confidence for the first time. My discomfort in the world, my overall self-loathing, just began to abate, bit by bit. I was outside all day. I was in shape. I was with dogs. I didn’t even mind working seven days a week. I got an idea of what it meant to be happy. 

Fast forward ten years, to when I would find out that my son has autism; at first I experienced a bizarre hurtling backward through time, as if my whole emergence from an unhappy childhood had been a dream, as if I’d learned nothing, accomplished nothing, was back at square one. Over the ensuing months I would get my head around the fact that my son is not me, nor is he my sister, nor am I my mother, and we have our own path to forge, and honestly, so far, it’s going good.

But one of the reasons it’s going good is because I’m an outsider, I’m used to this shit, and, I’m not actually that impressed anymore with what the regular people are doing. I’ve gotten liberated over the years from the approval of others (for the most part,) and I’m prepared to walk away. So from that perspective, I’m able to see my children's places here not as what will be allowed to them, but as what I help them take for themselves. 

New York City, specifically Queens, is not, in fact, a well-appointed suburb with a (as in one) solid school system. In terms of public education, this boro is an out-of-control hodge-podge of kids from all over the world and from every economic strata, going to decent schools in somebody else’s neighborhood, not getting into the good schools in their own neighborhoods, making the best of it in crappy schools, elbowing their way into G&T, sitting tight for charter school seats, and about 20 thousand sets of parents annually having nervous breakdowns.

But where Bud and his needs are concerned, I am reasonably well equipped to say to all that, Fuck it.

What happened to Bud when he tried regular kindergarden was every bit as concrete as the ululating Jesus freak who lived under us in the last building. There was no denying that this boy wouldn’t survive in a mainstream school, despite his nice, solidly high-ish IQ; he has no cognitive problems, in fact he has some strengths. His verbal skills and his gift for nuance, symbolism, and complex narrative are nauseatingly familiar, but that and a metrocard’ll get you on the subway. The behavioral crisis this kid had served a true purpose; it was proof. He’s different. It’s not amorphous, it’s not debatable. He needs a special school, where people are quiet, and there are no bells, and adults don’t shout, and there are no crowds, and where all day long, he reckons, gently, with himself. 

And he has that school, and I’m so grateful. I’m mad about Bud, I’m crazy about him, and he deserves to be safe and happy. There is this place, this school, that is like a magical wonderland where smartness and brightness do not rule; his teachers take him as he is, as a whole kid, and they give him what he needs, not just to survive, not in order to get some municipal or federal stamp of approval, but to learn, and to grow as a person. 

It’s a special ed school. It’s what’s called a New York State Approved school, which means that, based on evaluations, (which are necessary evils at any specialized school, even if you have all the money it takes to send your child wherever you’d like,) if the DOE’s Committee For Special Education can offer no fit setting for a child with high cognitive function and intensive behavioral support needs, your child can attend, and the DOE will pay.

My son has therapy of one kind or another five days a week. He has gym every day. Do NYC general ed schools have gym every day? My son swims in the school pool once a week and has karate once a week. He brings art home all the time. He’s asked to take responsibility for his poor behaviors and is expected to improve, with counseling, and for his good behavior, he’s rewarded. He has all the help he needs to get all his work done. In a gen.ed. school, he’d be in first grade; in his special ed school, he’s doing first and second grade work, with 7 other kids in his classroom, and as many aides as are needed.

Is every special ed school so ideal? Probably not. Do doctors or other professionals ever represent special ed to parents this way? Definitely not. Which is the one sort of out I can grant to the abject revulsion that flashes on parents’ faces when the option of special ed rears its funky head. Okay; they didn’t know, they didn’t grow up with it, nobody told them. But is that the way it’s done these days, especially here in the city? We just wait around to be told? We don’t research all night into our child’s options, into what choices we may have? We just let the doctor decide? Really?

When I read that someone chooses behavior and mood modifying medications for a child because the doctor said there’s no other way, I get really pissed off. The child in this instance hadn’t tried special ed, they weren’t given a chance. I’ll bet that the parents never even looked into a special needs school, but I don’t know that; I have, however, heard other parents reject the very idea of special ed, saying, “I can’t even go there.” I guess they're afraid they'll never come back.

Or maybe it's something more. I participated in a research study recently, helping therapists help special needs families more effectively. I said that therapists should support parents' autonomy, no matter what, that parents shouldn't be afraid; if they don't like the way their child is being treated at school, if it's not the right place, they should yank the kid right out, and that therapists should support that. People at the study audibly gasped.

"What," I said.

"That's really hard to do," somebody said. "That's a big decision."

Of course it's a big decision! I had to drop out of school when I did it for my kid. But isn't medication a big decision, too?

Or is there some siren call to it, is there some secret wish involved, that the right pill will...

                    make all the problems go away...


I don’t think I have all the answers about myself. I don’t think I have fully parsed what it means to me, why it hurts me, that some parents so desperately want their kids to fit in. Maybe it touches some forever-raw nerve, some off-limits zone where love is conditional, and therefore lost. Maybe I re-experience my parents’ disappointment in me, when I could not bend my narrative imagination into a knack for numbers, when I couldn’t get off my training wheels, or stop being afraid of a ball. Maybe in some ways, Bud’s special needs vindicate or affirm me, and if that’s so, I’m very sorry toward him; I don’t want to get strong on my own son. 

At the same time, I really get it that there’s enough about Bud that’s manageable and delightful so that my life with him is relatively easy, now. His chatterboxy style and sense of the absurd is just plain fun to be around, and when I’m fried, he can operate reasonably well on his own; he plays PBS Kids on the computer, and is no longer afraid to write and draw, in fact he loves to (thanks to intensive OT.) Most days he’ll play with his little sister for significant chunks of time before he wants to whack her with a Barbie doll; in fact he’s become able to come to me and say, “She’s annoying me; can you help us please?” which is music. Call all of that pretty normal, but he wasn’t always this way; he is this way now, because of special ed.

When he had his crisis, he was violent. He eloped from the school and ran into traffic, desperate to come home. He lost the power of speech and could only communicate in a rasping, wordless growl. He bit people and had insomnia. He had jolting spasms of Tourette Syndrome. His eyes bulged and he scratched at his skin and sweated and spoke tangentially at times, about things that are not real, and we were not sure he knew it. He beat up the dog, kicked my husband in the balls, was hitting his sister. He was, frankly, out of control.

And of course, of course, I considered putting him on medication at the time; every where we went people told us to do it. I considered it, but deep down, I just felt sure that it wasn’t the answer. I had no evidence that I’d be right, it was my maternal gut instinct. But the educators and therapists, the principle, at the special ed school, agreed with me.

Let’s give him a chance, they said. And, It could be a tough transition, but we’ll handle it. 

And they did. 

A year later, that school is Bud's second home. His social, coping, and academic skills have come such a long way, because of special ed, and the pace, dimensions, and therapies that go along with it; and it’s free. We didn’t sue anybody, we didn’t go into mediation, we didn’t lay out tens of thousands of dollars, and we also didn’t try to force him to be not himself, to do or live with more than he could bear.

I talk to parents around me all the time, and I read; that’s what parents of young kids in NYC do. We obsess about schools, we compare and compete, we look for ways in, for edges, for leads. I hear about ‘good schools’ in the mainstream that have 25 children in a room with one teacher, where it takes 20 minutes to describe the weather and put the appropriate icon on the board for that day; I hear that the teacher says “Quiet down!” more than she says anything else. I hear that kids who score well on standardized test sit in the back of the room and are ignored or given worksheet after worksheet to keep them busy, that some classes have lunch at 9:30 a.m., that there is no recess because the school can’t afford insurance for their yards, that the children watch “Spongebob” to be kept from running around in the overcrowded lunchroom, that they have no gym, no art, that they spend 10 – 20 minutes of every 45 standing on line.

And I want to ask parents of kids with special needs, have you even considered what this normalcy dream is really about? Is this what is ‘best’ for your struggling child?

I want to ask them, what if special ed school was great, and your kid missed it?

Wouldn’t you be pissed off?


Wednesday, November 9, 2011



Early on, when Bud and Moopy were very little, we had tried them at a regular pre-school, by which I mean a school that was chaotic, disorganized, loud, but the only game in town, or so I thought. 

It was in a church, a few blocks from our apartment building, and was almost affordable, but Bud and Moopy hated it; 40 children in a pen, divided by collapsible walls for two-, three-, and four-year-old areas, with a gang of disinterested teachers to go around. Bud wanted to stay with the two-year-olds although he was three, because their teacher was the soft-spoken, forgiving one, and he wanted to be near Moopy, but the directors wouldn’t allow it. They advised me to drop him, kiss him, and run, and I tried, but for almost two months, he cried every day until he threw up. 

He wouldn’t sit down for art, his teacher told me, he ran around during circle time, refused the potty, was hitting other children and getting hit.  Moopy did somewhat better, because she was two and had the kindly teacher, but not much.

I knew I was in trouble when the directors took me out to breakfast and told me, “We think Bud is stuck. We think he needs an evaluation.”

Stuck? I thought. What the fuck? What kind of word is that? 

You people are assholes.

I said, “Thank you. I will certainly look into it.”

I grew up with a schizophrenic Autistic sister. NOBODY in MY HOUSEHOLD is getting evaluated for shit.



What is personal history? What is the point? What is part of the trajectory? What is random? What does it mean to be conscious? What is supposed to resonate with a person? With me? 

Where was I?

I wrote a bunch of short stories in 2002, before Bud was anything but a ticking egg, and I was between marriages, between lives. One was about myself and my x-husband, Jimmy, while we were married. My character had a mentally ill sibling, and a clubfoot. His had other ailments. The couple chose not to have children. I wrote, for my character to say: 

“There’s a darkness of what you don’t know about yourself, that we’d rather stay away from.”

And after that, in my paramedic training, I had lectures in Anatomy and Physiology with a philosophically-minded bio professor who got the class into discussions about whether inaccurate DNA makes people inaccurately human, and I dared him to say that about my sister, (whom I rarely went to visit but played like a high card.) He liked me for it, the professor, and said I was in the wrong business. 

I was aggressively anti-children those years. I used to sit in front of a café on Smith Street in Brooklyn with my friend Kelly, smoking, glaring at three-year-olds that passed by with their organic-only-eating, neatly coupled-up parents, and muttering about how much I hated them. My marriage to Jimmy was based on that.

I would think of my mother then, as I do constantly now, and of my sister, and of myself in my early life with them, my father hovering protectively near, and then I would think of sacrifice, how unwanted it was, how un-noble. 

I yearn for my mother now, who was both street smart and innocent, who wrote in her autobiography, when she returned to college in her 50’s, that she had once dreamed of “ease for my husband, and bows on my girls.” She didn’t aspire; she wasn’t ambitious; she was more straightforward than that. First generation American, she was just trying for a simple, middle class life her own parents could be proud of; a China cabinet, Pocono vacations, and a couple of nice, normal kids. 

I think of her in the 1960’s, with what she actually got; a tiny, fawn-skinned, wild-eyed, screaming pixie, a child unable to speak, unwilling to eat, fragile, terrified, a creature received by others as if never before seen on earth, shunned by all but my 25-year-old mother, herself barely more than a child, with sickly, un-Western parents of her own to care for, and a half-feral husband straining at the yoke of it all. 

I think of my sister, who for all her lessness, her disparities, incapacities, knew.

And I think of myself, at five, six, seven years old, coming to consciousness, surrounded by unhappiness, emotionally arrested. It was at that time that I began to announce to any adult who would listen that I was a feminist, and a writer, and would live my life peacefully alone. Yes. I said that when I was seven.

And I stuck to my guns for years. I smoked, wrote, drank, job- and man-hopped my way through an early adulthood driven by avoidance. After the death of a drug-addicted boyfriend, I greedily married Jimmy, and instantly, he and I both felt like trapped wild animals. We paced around his big brownstone house snarling at each other like Nick Nolte and James Coburn in the movie Affliction, two revenge-hungry alcoholics. I didn’t drink like Jimmy, but I could seethe him eye to eye.

Then, my friend Hannah had a baby, and I freaked out

At thirty-two, I became apoplectic with jealousy and panic, but it was too late for my marriage with Jimmy. I felt as if the ground I stood on was shaking with my need to be pregnant, and he would not help me. Something cellular had kicked me into overdrive. I didn’t even know myself anymore. I wanted a baby much more than I wanted to go on living without one. Jimmy and I divorced. 

My mother died just after Thanksgiving that year, of a massive, but not entirely unexpected, heart attack.

I moved in with my father. I was a terrible roommate; irritable, depressed. I worked for a gritty ambulance company making crap pay and borrowed money from him I’d never pay back. I was like, junk-sick for a good man, strung out to get knocked up. I began hatching plans to become a single mother through plotted encounters. I had one guy-friend who would do it. I mean I was really…

Often, now, I recall feeling at the time like Bud was already inside me, chomping at the bit. But I never, ever allowed myself to entertain the possibility that DNA, that something evident and historical in my family, might resurface through my own body. 

I had loved my mother, and continued to love my father, and be grateful to him, but all the years of my growing up in that family felt severed, by the many upsets of my stumbling, smacked-up adult life. I would like to say that I love my sister, but it’s more complicated than that. Regardless, in my mind, I and these three people were not, really, blood-related.

Isn’t that amazing? And insane?

So when I did meet Bruce, and I did get pregnant, and I was 34 years old, of advanced maternal age, sibling to an Autistic person with psychoses and a one-in-ten-thousand DNA snafu called Turner’s Syndrome, and my midwife, 25 years in the birthing trenches and ardently anti-interventionist, urged me to go for amniocentesis, I refused.

I refused.

“Look,” she said to me, not a little threatening. “Do you need this information, or do you not need it?”

I stared at her. I waited for her to stop talking about it. She did. I made no appointment for any genetic testing. Because what would I do with information?

The baby was mine.

And anyway he was not going to have any fucking thing wrong with him, whatever that means.

There are some moments in time from which there is simply no turning back. That moment is where I was, when I first heard the word, over breakfast with the preschool directors, the word evaluation.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


A Vessel

   North strained his neck craning it upward, tilting his neat head back toward the high ceiling of the library. 

   “It’s like Tarot cards,” he said, with a slow smile at the pleasing revelations of his own electricky brain. He loved himself in certain moments.

   North could feel what he was; the merging of worlds in a vessel. He could feel that 19th century paintings were placed purposefully to exalt books and make libraries look like cathedrals, higher-arching than churches, and were reflecting holographically through him, bouncing like light beams off the faces of people, off the walls, little comets of understanding, all around him in the library.

 He could feel a cathedral in his heart. He could remember his friend Peter’s mother remarking that Peter could only fit one thing in his heart at a time, and North knew that wasn’t true. He could feel the whirling of connected objects in Peter’s heart and in his own heart and could feel the memory of the wish that Peter would explain himself to adults.

North could feel the painter’s arrogance, making everyone look like a David statue or a Roman statue, making tableaux messages, although he understood the reason for it; that people did not usually know what messengers were talking about; it was true in North’s own life. At these times, a symbol, a David, a tarot card, was useful; times like this, with his mother, in the library.

“It is like Tarot cards,” said his mother. There was a lot his mother didn’t know, but she understood about symbols. She always tried.

 And she was learning to say less, which helped. And North was learning to affirm her. This interaction, North’s mother saying less, North looking at her and grinning in affirmation, represented a language, and more; a speed of comprehension his mother did not previously know she possessed, a trust North had lost and reclaimed. The language was both the result and the act of repair, of the damage the two of them had sustained during North’s crisis a year ago; it was evidence, this language, that the crisis was over, that they were getting better, moving on. During the crisis, neither one of them could speak. North had roared and hissed and rocked. His mother had been silent.

Then for some months, right afterward, North’s mother talked without ceasing, to doctors, teachers, therapists, and to baby sitters who would spin on their heels at the first opportunity. It took only the hurling of a chair, one fingernail gouge to the face, and they’d leave. It seemed silly of them, to North’s mother; he’d been only seven. But you can’t coerce people.

Once a school was found, however, North began to meander back, asking for noodles and chocolate milk. He stepped up onto the bus without trepidation, as if he’d always taken a little bus, and waved good-bye. He began reporting about his days at the school, about a project involving glue and plastic prisms, about meeting Peter, who miraculously moved into the building just weeks later. North continued reporting, about kickball, about consequences, about speech therapy, about a hermit crab named Pinchy, who was the class pet.

 And now his mother could say, “Ready for dinner?” And North might say back, “What will it involve?” And his mother might say, “Spaghetti, and an apple, and sitting at the table.” And North might say, “I am absolutely prepared for that, as long as there are cookie bears for desert; that’s conditional.” His mother would say, “There are,” and hold back more.

In the library, North reached into his backpack for his Ziploc bag of cookie bears. Without looking down, he snuck the bag up to his chin, carefully opened it, and began tucking inch-tall bear-shaped graham crackers into his mouth.

His mother stared, distractedly, at his defined, feline face; bow lips beneath a perky nose, symmetrical cheekbones and broadly placed, green eyes, a smattering of freckles, ash blonde hair cut close. He was a big boy, for eight, barrel-chested like both his grandfathers but with his dad’s lanky legs. In swim trunks you could see his pectoral muscles already announcing themselves. He had an assertive little stomach, and insistent, gripping feet.

Nothing about his appearance, at first, gave him away. You would have to watch him, or listen. If you saw him in the Morgan Library with his mother, perched birdlike on the red velvet bench, looking up at the ceiling mosaics, you might flash on the fact that he was squatting, feet on the velvet, inappropriately; you might wonder why the security guard had not asked him to put his feet on the floor. But you would leave it at that, until you heard the security guard say;

 “Ma’am, I said, no eating in the library.”

 “Right,” said North’s mother, her wide, distant eyes thrown out of focus. What? Hadn’t everything been fine? She looked at the security guard then back again at North, who froze, the tiny brown cookie in his hand between the dangling bag and his slightly open mouth, caught. “Quick,” she said to him, starting to laugh, side-eying the security guard, adding, “Sorry…” as she stood, taking the Ziploc bag from North, zipping it, tucking it into the Transformer’s backpack, taking North by the wrist, North standing up. She said to North, “You had enough?”

“I had enough,” said North, unfolding his long legs and doing a few deep knee bends, arms outstretched as if leading a geriatric exercise class. He smiled, and looked up again. His mother walked out. He followed, looking at the ceiling, doing knee bends as he walked, singing, “Bumb buh da bump buh da bump bump bump…” softly, to the tune of the “Rocky” movie overtures.

North’s mother walked ahead because she knew that North would rather walk behind her, and keep track of her that way, until his mind was organized. Everything in the library surged and receded until each thing clicked into place; the sailing balsa sculpture of birds idealized as words which almost made North angry; why did that have to be pointed out? Birds and words? The flight of language? Did the artist think North was stupid? He nearly lost patience with his mother on that one. The people eating at their little tables. Why could they eat at little tables and he couldn’t eat his cookie bears? Also very stupid. The security guards staring at him. Why were they all black? Was that anything like the ice cream cart ladies all being Nicaraguan? Questions began to line themselves up. He would begin with the bus. His mother went down the steps onto the sidewalk of Madison Avenue and turned, waiting for him.

“I would quit with the knee bends, North,” she said. “It’ll be hard to do the stairs.”

 She was right. He stopped and took a moment. “I’m taking a moment,” he called down to her, squinting, “to adjust my rods and cones.”

 “Me, too,” she said, putting on her sunglasses. “Do you want your sunglasses?”

 “Hat,” he said, and he jumped down each step with both feet. His new sneakers were amazing. He felt taller and safer and springier in them, though they were hot. His mother handed him his hat. “Do you want me to leave?” he asked, grinning.

 “Goof,” she said; the language; the connections. Saying less. She wrapped her arm around his head, which was the height of her ribs, and pressed his face into her soft side. She held out water in a sports bottle and he drank it. She held out a wipe and he leaned in and blew his nose.

He put on the hat; a baseball hat that just said “New York” on the front. “Are we taking the bus?” They were. “Can we sit in the front? In the seats marked ‘disabled’?” They could, unless real disabled people came on and needed the seats. “You mean people traveling in wheelchairs?” Yes. “Is that why the front of the bus is wider than the back? For the wheelchairs?” Yes. “Is that a hydraulic lift the driver uses to raise the wheelchairs up onto the bus?” It is. “Do some people lie to the government to get free wheelchairs because they are lazy and don’t want to walk?”

“Is that what Uncle Mike says?” North’s mother asked.

 “It’s one thing he says,” said North. “Could you imagine if that’s all he said, all day?”

 “Actually,” said North’s mother, “I can.”

 The bus came and hissed to a stop. They got on. They sat in a deuce of seats up front. North began to take off his sneakers. “I plan to air out my feet,” he explained.

 “No,” said his mother.

 “Rrrrrrrrgggghhhh!” North growled at her, and reached for her neck.

 “No,” said his mother, “sit down.” She pushed him firmly on the chest, downward, into the seat, and gave him back the bag of cookie bears.

 He turned his back to her and leaned on her and began eating the cookie bears, looking out the window. She reached over his shoulder and took a few bears. She rested her chin on the top of his head and closed her eyes, listening to the grinding diesel engine of the bus, taking deep inhalations of the scent of North’s hair.


 Uncle Mike was in the apartment when North and his mother got home to Queens. The door was held open by the battered toolbox, also open, burnished and rusted tools tottering out of the raised trays, screws and nails, untouched new wrenches and tiny screwdrivers and threatening hammers fanned out across the dull hardwood floor. Every light in the place was on. The TV was on, blaring news. The coffee maker was on, a sandwich and beer were open on the counter. One cigarette sat burning quietly on the bathroom windowsill while Uncle Mike drilled into the gutted ceramic over the sink, installing new sockets, new lights, though North’s mother had not asked him to do it. His dog, a knotted old Lab named Razor, snored on the couch. North’s dog, Piggy, a short, fat, Beagle mix, lay on Uncle Mike’s coat, on the floor.

 North’s mother’s heart sank. It was already after five. North had homework which would now not get done. He’d need to examine every tool in Uncle Mike’s box and work the collapsible trays up and down, up and down. She’d spoon-feed North his dinner as he drew picture-lists of the tools and spoke at length of imaginary machines he could make while Uncle Mike tromped back and forth from the tools to the bathroom with drill bits and metal spatulas, suggesting supplemental materials North loved the sound of; sheet rock, Tyvek, plywood, lathing, Masonite, two-by-fours, glazing, sealant. And the cigarette smoke. And feeding the dogs off their plates. A late bath. He would have to sleep in her bed, farthest from the bathroom; in his room, the noise of Uncle Mike’s drill was too loud. All these adjustments flashed in front of her as she pushed on the door.

 “Oh,” North whispered, mouth and eyes wide open as he stepped inside slowly, as if his home had been transformed. “The tools,” he said, looking up at his mother. “Can I go get Peter?”

 “Go,” said his mother, and North took off at a smack-footed run down the hall toward the elevator then smacked the button with the flat of his hand and waited for it hopping, up and down up and down, and it came and he scuttled in, continued hopping, and went up to six to get Peter. In a moment the boys were back, attended by Gladys, Peter’s mother, who North’s mother was always relieved to see.

 “Tools, huh?” said Gladys as she trailed the boys in, looking around with only the mildest dismay, used to it.

 “Gladys!” Uncle Mike shouted over the drilling, in greeting, without turning around. He could not stand to look Gladys in the eye and Gladys knew it.

 North’s mother could not decide how to feel about it; no emotion registered itself with any force, regarding her brother’s helplessness around her friend. She couldn’t blame him, in ways. Gladys’s straight, jet hair that hung in an undisturbed curtain down her delicate back, her shocked, globe eyes and tiny mouth, her upturned hill of nose, even her mottled, acne-scarred skin, all taken together gave her the strangest, most adolescent, ethereal presence; no one could ignore Gladys; not police, firemen, neighbors, or strangers on the street as she and North’s mother walked out to get coffee or took the boys to the mall. It was vaguely repugnant to North’s mother that her brother would think of Gladys sexually; Gladys was so small, she seemed barely bigger than her own eight-year-old son; it was like pederasty, like Mike was doing something wrong just by thinking it. On the other hand, Gladys would have been perfect for him; gentle, undemanding, never flustered.

 “Oh-hey,” Gladys hollered back thinly, her head rotating around, her eyes unabashedly scanning the apartment, cataloguing the place. “Look at your dog,” she said to North, touching his head with tiny, two-fingered affection.

North glanced at lumpy Piggy, who adored him until Uncle Mike materialized and then she would switch devotions entirely. “Yeah,” said North, unconcerned, tucking into the tools, pulling Peter by the pale, skinny wrist to bring him down to the floor so they could dismantle the tool box in unison.

 “You think he really cares for that dog?” Gladys asked North’s mother.

“I do,” North’s mother responded. “He’s very private about it. Did you eat?”

“I know, it’s late, right?” said Gladys. “We should have eaten already.”

“I have lasagna,” said North’s mother. “Stay.”

“Okay,” said Gladys. “Let me leave him for a few minutes. I’ll make a little salad and get his cereal, and come back.”

“Good,” said North’s mother. She leaned down to Peter, and turned his head with her hands, toward his own mother.

 “Stay with North,” Gladys said to Peter forcefully, looking hard into his face. “I’m getting your cereal and coming back.”

Peter made eye contact with his mother, and wordlessly, always wordlessly, returned his attention to the tools.


By 11 North was finally asleep. Peter and Gladys left after nine. It had been particularly painful to separate Peter and North; they had clung to each other at the elevator. Tears welled up in North’s eyes as his mother pried his hands off Peter’s shoulders and Peter made guttural wanting sounds as the door slid between them. In her bed in the dark, his arm around his yielding, porcine little dog, North’s mother told him a long, wandering story about two boys named North and Peter who lived on an island in the middle of an enormous lake and who ate only fish and roots and leaves and spent their time combing the island for injured animals, then nursing them back to health in their hut. Eventually she felt his weight sink into her bed. She lifted Piggy out, and shut the door.

 Then she walked the Piggy and Razor slowly, and for a long time. She bought beer at Mr. Corey’s store on the way back, and also wine from Mr. Corey’s secret stash. “Mothers only want the wine,” Mr. Corey had said, disappearing down the dark stairwell into the store cellar, returning with a cold bottle of white zinfandel for which he charged an exorbitant $12. “The men want the beer.”

 “It’s for my brother,” she blurted to Mr. Corey.

“I know your brother,” Mr. Corey said. “He comes to my other store in Maspeth. He’s always buying the same beer. And Newport.”

“You have another store?” she asked. “Why didn’t I know that?” People’s lives outside of her own surprised her more than ever, since North’s crisis.

 “Why you gonna know that? You don’t go to Maspeth.”

“I used to,” she said. “Give me a pack of Newports, too.” She uncrumpled money from her pocket and smoothed it on the counter.

 “Now your brother visits you. Nice man. He helps you.” Mr. Corey rang up the beer and the wine and the cigarettes and handed North’s mother her change.

“He does,” she said, taking her bag, and making clicking sounds at the dogs who rested on the cool, dirty tile floor, then hauled themselves up. “Good night, Mr. Corey.”

“Say good night to your brother.”

“I will.”



In the apartment Mike sat on the couch in the dark, watching the news, smoking, his right leg jittering up and down at incredible speed. He rubbed his head repeatedly with one hand, and with the smoking hand, tapped an empty beer bottle on his stuttering knee. The tools were in a sort of pile, at least collected, on the floor. The smell of grout damply underscored the cigarette smoke and the food odors and the musty dogs. North’s mother unhooked the leashes and the dogs folded themselves down side by side on the rug. Then she dropped her coat on the floor and went into the kitchen and opened two beers and twisted the cap off the wine and poured a glass of that, too.

She brought the drinks into the living room and sat by her brother on the couch, handing him the beers. He set his empty bottle on the floor, one new beer on the crowded end table between the ashtray and the remote controls, and drank down half the other, then touched the cold bottle to his forehead.

“You short?” North’s mother asked him.

“Nah,” he said.

“You out of meds or you’re just off?” she asked him gently.

 “I’m off,” he said quietly. “I don’t like it. It’s embarrassing. You don’t understand.”

Saying less. She held her brother’s hand and watched TV with him. He finished the beer in his grip and she could see his face slacken. His leg stopped. He took one small sip off the remaining beer, then set it aside; he’d had enough.

 “Take off your shoes,” she said after a while, and he did. He stretched out on the couch. She shook the afghan as she stood up, to remind him that it was there, to cover himself as he dozed off. She drank up her wine and put the glass in the sink, turned out the kitchen light, and went to the bathroom, and changed to pajamas, and went to sleep in her son’s bed.

She could feel what she was; a merging of worlds in a vessel.