rebecca schiff

 

UNTITLED

 

 

Like most people, and especially most people, I hate going to readings. A reading is an empty concert, the improv comedy you see because your boyfriend is in an improv comedy troupe, the phallo-phobic bachelorette party (no strippers, no penis stuff!). No penis stuff? When there’s no penis stuff, and the bride-to-be is doing her best to sing karaoke with the vaginas around her, and nobody is eating from the plates piled high with tempura, except you, who eats quite a bit of tempura and tries to do a comic rendition of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon”, that’s a reading. A reading has no penis stuff.

A reading is the man who makes “music” every five minutes by turning on a tiny bit of static. Everyone waits for the static, claps. The reading is the clapping. The reading is the static, or the waiting for the static, I also hate metaphors, and having to wait for them. I have hosted readings at a place called The Lucky Cat. I have read in readings at a bar called The Ding Dong Lounge. The names alone let you know you’ll be waiting, know you’ll be clapping, that you won’t be lucky, that you’ll have to get emails with the words “ding dong” in them. We are at Happy Ending, but we are not happy. And we will not be happy, happy in our bodies or in our minds or in our hearts, until this reading has ended. We may be bemused, grateful for the little bits of life or joy that a writer forgets to remove from his work. We are here because we are writers or dating writers or friends of writers who want to guilt their writer friends into some future birthday requirement. Thanks, martyr friends. We will be at your thirtieth birthday parties. We may even bowl. Without you, there would be no electronic music, no experimental theater, no readings.

The best reading I went to, I missed. I missed seeing one of the only people I enjoy seeing read, one of the only people in the city who can read. I caught the other guy, the guy who had the reading series named after him. I caught his final attempt at levity, the audience’s final attempt to laugh, a self-deprecating vow to quit smoking, him thanking everyone for coming. I walked into everyone’s relief.

“I missed it!” I shouted. I was not drunk. I confessed missing the reading to the readers themselves, the editor of the anthology (I was in the anthology), the guy the anthology was named after. I helped the host blow out the candles. The writer I’d meant to see and a few of his groupies went downstairs, got drinks on the house. I bought a bourbon and ginger ale (my signature reading drink, not on the house), and settled into some literary gossip. Had everyone seen how Lorrie Moore had screwed over a hot Jewish Brazilian writer in The New York Review of Books? They had. Did everyone know that the writer who had committed suicide a year ago had once slept with my friend? They did not. A groupie tried to explain that So and So had gone to Brown.

“Going to Brown is not gossip,” said my favorite writer. He’d gone there. We compared George Saunders and Sherman Alexie. I called someone “overlauded”.

“Overlauded,” I said again. I liked the sound of it. I hadn’t had to sit through two hours of readings about the quirkiness of the inhabitants of the city of New York, but here I was, drinking bourbon, dismissing people who’d managed to get their short stories published. One of the groupies produced the controversial review (did he carry around The New York Review of Books?) and I studied the photo of the hot Brazilian Jew Moore had destroyed. Was I hotter? I was half Brazilian and all Jewish and on a barstool surrounded by men. Penis stuff. Happy Ending.

 

 

  

ANOTHER CAKE

 

 

After the fake boyfriend left, the guests kept coming. They came every day, with their prayer books and coconut candies, careful not to slip on the driveway—it’s icy—offering cold cheeks for a kiss. My aunts took their coats, their cakes. I went down to take their sorries, then hid in my old room. There wasn’t much to look at—mirror shrouded in a bath towel, a poster of the Beatles crossing the street, bits of funtak where sunflowers and revolutionaries had been, blue bits like mold on the white wall. The bookshelf was half empty, just a French-English dictionary and some young adult paperbacks. I reread the one about the gawky girl who loses her virginity to the paraplegic genius, the one about the southern toughie who’s beaten by her step-dad and rubs herself against a pillow imagining she’s on fire. The southern one was listed as a finalist for a major award, but I had dog-eared the rubbing pages and forgotten the rest of the story. This was not the South. This was New Jersey and there were people downstairs, clustered around fruit baskets.

The people didn’t beat anyone, but they made noises. Doorbell noises. Flushing noises.

“Sloan Kettering,” they whispered, the way they whispered “Harvard.” “Major?” they asked. I had one. “Beautiful service,” they patted me, as thought that made someone less gone. I slipped my father’s old LP’s onto the turntable, Let It Be, Desire. I made weeping noises. The guests chomped cheddar cheese. On day three, I took a shovel to the driveway. My mother had sent me down there to break up the ice—someone, she said, could fracture a hip and sue us. Gripping the shovel with my father’s enormous gloves, I swung it in circles over my head before bringing it down on what could become litigation. Those driving by might have mistaken me for a midget dad gone berserk. He’d had it with mortgage installments and the Temple Brotherhood. Take that, frozen water. Only my father hadn’t joined the Brotherhood. We weren’t big on joining. He refused to sign me up for Brownies, though I wanted more than anything to march through the cafeteria with those brown shirts. I wanted a badge.

Maybe if he had been a Temple Brother, we wouldn’t have had such a hard time finding a rabbi to officiate the funeral. Years before, on one of my parents’ evening walks, my father had mentioned to my mother that he wanted to be cremated when he died. He didn’t like the idea of his body rotting underground.

My mother listened, though she had assumed they would be laid to rest alongside each other, in the final conjugal bed.

“I worry about being cold,” she said.

“You won’t feel it.”

“You know me, I’m always cold.”

Nights passed. Plates were scraped, tomato sauce slid into garbage bags. I inserted the quadratic formula while my parents circled the subdivision on foot. Where did they go? What did people in cars think? We didn’t even have the pretense of a dog. Then off to college—Nietzsche, penetration.

“Daddy said he wanted cremation. What do you think?”

Suddenly, my mother and I were married. Husband’s dead? Meet your new husband. Standing tall at five foot two, your new husband is majoring in Cultural Studies and has recently become sexually active. What did I think?

We had him cremated, against Jewish law, and somehow I was put in charge of convincing a rabbi to not bury him. I made phone calls. I hoisted the Bergen County Yellow Pages onto the kitchen counter. I argued that I had been Bat Mitzvahed at Temple Beth Fill-In-the-Blank, that I had danced with my father at Fill-In, that my father had taken my bony wrists and spun me out and back in front of laughing, clapping friends of the family.

No rabbi found this story moving. No rabbi would touch it. They were all too afraid of The Board, the unseen power behind the temple throne, just waiting for a cremation scandal or an opportunity to give out pens. Finally, we imported a guy from Westchester County, and at this point I don’t know why we bothered, because he was obviously some kind of third-rate rabbi, and he smiled waxily when he met me, grateful to have the gig.

 

The funeral home director told my mother, my aunts and me to wait in the back office of Diforio Memorial. We would be called out when everyone was seated. Rows of brown metal chairs stood stacked against one wall, and behind them someone had hung a sheet over a giant cross. The outline of the cross was still visible, the hiding perfunctory, as though the funeral home director had applied the “If the Deceased is Jewish” section from the mortician’s instruction manual. I stared at my father’s sisters as they asked the rabbi pointless logistical questions, a frenzy in black suits. How did they know to own them? Nothing could stop them from putting on pantyhose or a gold bracelet, not even death.

That morning, Aunt Susan had reached into the bottom of her divorcée suitcase, past balls of stockings and cream-colored underwear, and tossed me a pair of tights. Sternly, like she was trying to teach me a lesson. The underwear chilled me, with its connotations of the aunt’s lonely crotch, underserved by the male divorcés in her area. I wondered if the rabbi was single. Maybe she could date him. The rabbi had thick lips, and a tie the color of lox. All morning, I kept thinking about eating the tie. Maybe we would get to have lox after we had returned to the house, where everything would smell like onions and cleaning fluid. Oh, there would be lox. Some woman would make it appear, and then she would disappear, so the lox would appear to have appeared on its own.

“The best thing about being Jewish,” the rabbi kidded us, “is that we keep our funerals short.”

Aunt Susan laughed conspiratorially, like you wouldn’t believe what her Taoist friends had put her through.

I turned to eye roll with my mother, who had always complained that Susan was a flirt.

But my mother was staring at me.

“What?” I said.

I knew what. My nipples were poking at my dress. There’s not much to do about poky nipples, to be honest, except try to warm them so they flatten. But if you rub them, they might get pokier.

“Do you want my jacket?” she said. She started to take it off.

“I don’t want it, it’s ugly.”

“Are you sure? It’s freezing in there.”

“Ma, okay, it’s about to start.”

My mother, my aunts and I marched past the other mourners like we were getting our diplomas. All eyes pitied me, the only child. Well, I pitied them—the couples inching their minivans through frozen streets, the husbands grim at the wheel, the wives gym-thin and pissed, with a casserole sliding around in the back seat. The same guests would probably watch me walk down the aisle at my wedding, except they would be transformed, yamulkes white instead of black, wrinkles powdered over, earrings stretching earlobes scrotal, lipstick which they would reapply publicly and often—whipping out compacts, holding the mirror level with their teeth.

Now my aunts were mouthing “Thank you for coming” to the guests, who were mouthing “I’m sorry” back to them. Coral mouths in motion. Hands rubbing the slack skin beneath chins. The room was a chorus of “tsks”. I wanted to announce that my father hated it when people spoke without sound, hated the gentle clicks of tongues, the almost imperceptible suction of lips coming apart.

“Dr. Alan Jacobs was a gentle man who loved to cook,” the rabbi boomed.

The other aunt, Sharon, had bragged to the rabbi that my father had been a doctor, not realizing that the rabbi was going to use my father’s full title throughout the eulogy.

“Dr. Alan Jacobs valued family and life’s simple pleasures.”

“Dr. Alan Jacobs worked to strengthen his community.”

“Dr. Alan Jacobs was good at his work, but he knew that the real work began when he came home from the hospital.”

“I never met Dr. Alan Jacobs, but I can feel his warmth in the room on this cold, snowy day.”

My mother pulled tissue after tissue out of her pocketbook like a magician. She handed the damp ones to me, until I hissed “stop.” My aunts sat with their hands clasped for Dr. Alan Jacobs, while the rabbi broke his own rule about brevity. Clearly, they all preferred the capitalized version of the man, Brother, Husband, Reader of Newspapers. But my father had undermined their efforts by refusing to leave behind solid evidence. There was no coffin at the front of the chapel, no lacquered death box with a tallis draped over it. The rabbi was lecturing about the air.

As I sat on the brown cushioned bench in Diforio Memorial, clutching my mother’s soggy tissues, I started to miss college. At college, there were joints to roll and a part-time bisexual with an encyclopedic mind who came over to roll the joints and fuck. He had taken my virginity. He had memorized my mother’s maiden name; he had memorized the maiden names of the mothers of the two boys he had deflowered, in addition to me. Schatz and Ducille. My mother was Tieman. Harriet Tieman, rhymes with semen.

“Are you going to tell Harriet Tieman I’m your boyfriend?” he would ask.

“You’re my fake boyfriend,” I said. I tried not to feel proprietary. He wasn’t even in the closet. Someone had nicknamed him “Big Gay Rob”. But sitting on the brown bench in Diforio Memorial, my mind wandered. Maybe the fake boyfriend was fucking someone else while I was away at my father’s funeral. Maybe the fake boyfriend was fucking a boy. Without a condom.

Except, after the service, I saw him standing in the lobby with the other mourners. He was wearing a suit, and he didn’t look sad enough.

“I made amazing time,” he said “Just under three hours.” He named a series of highways I hadn’t heard of. He handed me a sympathy card from a group of girls who lived with me. The card was actually a picture of the girls themselves, with me photoshopped into it, and “We miss you!” scrawled over all of us.

“Are you surprised I came?” he said.

“No, I had a feeling you’d be here,” I said, pretending to be psychic. I had no feeling.

Later, at the shiva, the aunts shoved sponge cake at the fake boyfriend.

“We have too much cake,” they said. “Eat it, eat it. There’s too much.”

They liked that he was a large man. They needed another man around, with their only brother now a box of ashes next to the stereo.

“What’s your name again?” Aunt Sharon clawed his shoulder. He tried to shrug it off, but she held her grip.

“Robert,” he conceded.

“Like Robert Redford.” Sharon smirked like she had figured us out, then offered the fake boyfriend a macaroon.

“Aunt Shar, I didn’t know you were a fan.”

“Oh, I had it bad. Your father used to tease me.”

Robert, unaccustomed to the chewy sweets, took a bite, then spit it into his napkin. “We have fruit salad,” Sharon said. She pivoted and sped toward melon.

“I want to meet Harriet Tieman.” Robert blockaded my ear with his hand. “Not these amateurs.”

Where was Harriet Tieman? She was surrounded by people reading transliterations of the mourner’s kaddish. It was hard to see her in there, five foot nothing, holding a xeroxed prayer.

I pushed through the throngs of fruit salad makers, fruit basket givers. One woman had brought a fruit platter inside an old Scrabble box, and everyone kept saying “It’s not Scrabble! It’s not Scrabble!” Was fruit better?

“Ma, this is my friend Robert.” He stood above her, tall and blond and mostly gay, her new husband’s fake boyfriend. My mother looked up, clutching a lone kiwi, mourner’s kaddished out.

“Mrs. Jacobs.” He shook her hand and tried to make eye contact they’d taught him at the if-you-want-to-go-to-law-school orientation. She looked at his suit. It would have been too big on my father.

“Robert knows your maiden name, too,” I said. “He memorized it.”

“Very nice,” said my mother.

Would she respond if I told her he’d put it in me? That when it was in me the third time, and no longer hurt at all, I understood everything for a second? That it could go back to its life outside me—get blow jobs in Oaxaca, intern at the ACLU—but I’d never go back to not understanding?

This maybe wasn’t the right time.

“He’s thinking about law school,” I said.

“Don’t sue us,” said my mother. Robert laughed like he was looking for a laugh. She tried to give him her kiwi. It wasn’t nice, just a way for her not to be holding that fuzzy thing anymore. She told him she’d never be happy again, then offered to let him borrow my father’s ties for interviews.

“Who will he give them back to?” I said.

“You.”

He laughed again, declined the ties, squeezed the kiwi. Harriet Tieman was a riot. Harriet Tieman needed to lie down.

“She hates me,” he said. He seemed excited.

I led him by his middle finger to one of the sofas in our living room. Now that the worst was over, everything had gotten festive. The house was snowy bright and swarming with people holding plastic cups, fizzy with ginger ale. The rabbi was in the corner by himself, eating a sandwich. The men had taken off their jackets, leaving a sun-warmed pile, and I nudged it over so that Robert and I would have room to sit. I crossed my legs, then wrapped one ankle around the other calf. I wanted the rabbi to think Robert was my boyfriend.

“Where’s the booze?” asked my boyfriend, an undergrad who has been away from home just long enough to realize that everything can be made into a joke.

“Ask the rabbi,” I panned. I was also an undergrad. I had poky nipples and there was no such thing as bisexual.

“Rabbi Irwin says we can’t get drunk,” said Robert, when he got back to the softa. “It’s not the custom.”

“Irwin? I don’t think that’s his name.” But I felt drunk. I shut my eyes, leaned into some jacket scratch, slid my fist through a silky sleeve.

“Hey Robert, do you want to watch a video from when I was a kid? Do you want to watch my Bat Mitzvah?”

“You know that I would pay money to see that, but my French section meets at the buttcrack of dawn.”

“I can show you my dirty paperbacks,” I said. “I think some of them were just meant to be educational about puberty.”

“That sounds hot.”

Robert led himself out the front door. He got into his car, turned on the ignition, and, after waiting a few seconds for the engine to warm, backed out of my family’s driveway in one smooth motion, his face already frozen into the terrible mask he wore when he thought nobody was looking.

 

Then everyone was gone. Susan dustbusted the crumbs. She shook the tablecloth. She wedged herself between sofa legs, sucked away remains. She said “I’m cleaning up to help your mother.”

The big theme now was helping my mother. All the aunts were saying it. “I’m staying until Wednesday to help your mother.” “I’ll put coffee on to help your mother.” “It’s good that you’re here to help your mother.”

Did reading on the couch count as helping?

Dr. Alan Jacobs loved to lie on couches and read and ignore his family sometimes. He loved to mop the floor vigorously and ask “Could you please hang up the phone? I’m on call.” But the man could be gentle. Cooking was something he liked to do.

Someone had mashed cake into the carpet and Susan plowed into it. Her legs stuck out behind her, stiff shins in poofed jeans. At some point she had changed—clamped her skirt to a hanger, flogged her jacket with a lint brush. I avoided her with a book about nocturnal emissions at tennis camp. I couldn’t watch her struggle with a suitcase zipper, or sink-wash her underwear, any of the ways she kept staying.

“I wish you could stay longer, for your mother’s sake,” she bellowed over the buster. “But your father wouldn’t want you to miss too much class.”

“I’m not sure he cares anymore,” I shouted.

She frowned. Of course he still cared. A father is a father. She went deeper with the little vacuum, pressing her divorced torso into its vrooms, back over the sofa cushions, near my legs, through the cracks. Had she ever considered a fake boyfriend? I glanced at the stereo, at the white box parked in front of it. It looked like another cake.

“Lift your feet,” she said.

 

I watched the Bat Mitzvah video late at night, sans Robert. If he had been in my French class in Junior High, the teacher would have pronounced his name “Ro-bear.” I had been, for no reason, “Rosalie”.

Bonjour, Rosalie. Comment allez vous?

Mal. Trés mal. Mon père est mort.

Oui? Quel dommage.

That’s all the French I could remember. Not the girl in the video. The girl in the video knew French, and apparently, Hebrew. Enough Hebrew to bleat out a passage about cleansing your house of leprosy, after a leper has lived in your house. First, you scraped the afflicted stones. If that didn’t work, you had to take the whole house apart. My parents and I met with the rabbi the week before to discuss my passage—poof, he was a rebbe and I was a scholar, not a flat-chested, staticky-haired midget. We were in the Talmud. My parents, in their work clothes, didn’t seem to fit.

The rabbi stood behind a giant mahogany desk. He lit a pipe and explained that cleansing the house of disease was really a metaphor for cleansing the self of moral decay.

“That plague does sound pretty nasty,” said my father, with a wink to remind me or anyone that he may have been in temple, but loved knowing that religion was irrational. He had a beeper, a teenage daughter, a wife batting pipe smoke away from her own face.

“Then someone from the Board will say a few words,” the rabbi said.

“Don’t be heartbroken, but I think we’re going to quit the temple after your Bat Mitzvah,” said my father. He was driving. I had the backseat to myself and was frantically trying to memorize the opening prayers.

“It’s very expensive,” said my mother.

“Why am I doing this then?”

“That guy is so pompous,” said my father. “People kept getting sick, and someone had to tell them how to clean and quarantine so they would stop transmitting disease. It’s not moral decay, it’s common sense!”

My father snorted, and I sort of understood, but only enough to wish I had gotten a passage about miracles. The garage door rolled open. He dragged the garbage to the curb. She boiled water. I trudged up to my room, where I conjugated, masturbated. It wasn’t hard. The young adult books were crisper then, their pages unbent, promising girls reflected in mirrors, girls with scoliosis, girls looking forward to the kind of loss that only hurt a little