Choice of Weapons
We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.
I feel like a real writer doing some back and forth e-mails with an award winning genuine published novelist on the topic of suicide. We both admit to yearning every so often to simply not be and agree that having children removes that option, at least for both of us, from the table. My father’s father committed suicide. I never got the straight story but I believe it had to do with financial pressure. Sometimes here the weight of payroll is crushing but the lights are on and employees come to work every day so even though I have signed in blood to slog through no matter what, the checking-out ideations are fleeting and infrequent and far less dangerous than a lot of the other crap I think about.
When I was in my early twenties I was trying to hang onto a boyfriend just for the sake of having a boyfriend, so fat there’d be no one else in line if he slipped away. I was working at a methadone clinic and moved in with another counselor there. She was a former heroin user several years sober and had a three year old son whose custody she shared with the father. It turned out she had only been sober very briefly when she lied to get the job. I had lied to get the job too by saying I was half Guatemalan in the salad days of affirmative action. Things fell apart, she started using, the landlord called us sluts and I moved out. She ended up in Orange County and got pregnant by a guy who seemed really respectable to me but turned out also to be an addict. I was asked to be the witness at their wedding and the boyfriend I was so desperate to keep in the picture agreed to accompany me. He was living by himself in a Culver City apartment and I was living at my mother’s in the valley. I went to pick him up and he wasn’t home and I might have had a key but more likely the door had been left unlocked. On his dresser there were snapshots of a cocktail waitress from some new wave club. She was about a decade older and had kids and was posed naked with sagging breasts on sheets that I had purchased. My recollection is that they were taken with my camera too but I would not swear to that.
I returned to my mother’s house. She‘d been a medical secretary for many years and wherever she was employed she compensated for the overwork and low wage by helping herself to samples and office supplies and small appliances. In a strong box in a cabinet behind the bar was a huge stash of Miltown, which probably wasn’t even being manufactured anymore. I took a couple of fistfuls, washed down by a fifth of vodka. I woke up the following week at Cedars under the assumed name of Sue Martin, protected, per my mother’s friend Tess who was director of public relations there. This was coincidentally the name of my friend to whose wedding I’d been AWOL, having overdosed on outré 60’s tranquilizers instead. I never saw Sue again but she’d call occasionally in dire straits over the years and I’d wire her money, guilty at having stood her up, even though the marriage lasted only a few months.
I was told there is a suicide note and I am sure it is filed with my mother’s papers which molder now in my garage and explains why I’ve yet to go through them. My mother held on particularly fiercely to stuff like this. Several years before the obvious brain erode, she gave me a fat envelope and incessantly pestered me to give it to my father. I kept forgetting and finally looked inside. My father had a big legal catastrophe in the 70s and I would be untruthful if I said it was undeserved. The envelope contained a thick stack of thirty year old newspaper articles she’d clipped about his trial and I threw it away.
I came to pretty addled and with a lousy sore throat on the private floor at Cedars. This was also arranged by Tess. I used to housesit for her frequently. She had three dogs that weren’t housebroken and because I was willing to clean up after them I was hired to stay repeatedly even though I’d ODed and even after her snoopy housekeeper found my pot. Tess was dying of cancer and had no dependents so she maxed out her credit cards travelling first class all over the world. I found this out after the fact but was always curious, given her high powered job, about the number of bill collectors leaving messages on her machine.
I was questioned after I woke up by a mean woman psychiatrist who asked me to count backwards from 100 by seven which I am unable to do in the best of circumstances. It was too humiliating to say I found naked pictures of the boyfriend I am petrified of losing’s slatternly new girlfriend so I made up some cockamamie story about being secretly addicted to pharmaceuticals, in cahoots with a gang of degenerate psychiatrists from the Thalian’s clinic right there at Cedars, which, in retrospect wasn’t all that shabby on the spot and after a week long coma. Of course my mother never bought into it and told everyone I had been dumped by my boyfriend.
I returned to Fulton Avenue and saw a couple of shrinks but grew bored with both the story I’d fabricated and the truth so I threw myself instead into an orgy of reinvention. I got a teaching job at a Compton middle school. I was completely unqualified but I would pick up a gaggle of kids on the weekend and take them to museums and movies and restaurants so maybe I did more good than harm. Afraid of empty time I also accepted a job teaching in Lincoln Heights at night. This was ESL for adults and I had no training but a good instinct for it and I met Bob, one of the greatest friends of my life. I took classes for my credential on Saturdays. Sunday mornings I would lie on the couch in the dark den on Fulton Avenue and grade papers. Then I would make a cup of strong tea and watch repeats on PBS of a Welsh series called When the Ship Comes In because I liked the accents. I’d fall asleep for a few hours on the ancient loveseat and that rest from pure exhaustion is one of my best memories of that house.
I moved from there to an apartment adjacent to the Benton Way off ramp of the 101 and the freeway hum became like flowing water. This is where I mark the beginning of adult life, a not too unhappy blur of friends, music, movies, diets, pot and religion which culminated in my shacking up with Himself who married me and, although I never asked it of him, took on the onus and threw down the gauntlet that we should be Jews.
We are planning now a day late/dollar short bar mitzvah for fourteen year old Spuds. The seventeen year old had a more elaborate affair which was the last big social event for both of my parents and one they enjoyed. Himself’s father was invited and never acknowledged the event in any way. An unquestioning, devout Catholic we thought it best not to tell him about Himself’s conversion although we were clear that the kids were being reared in the Jewish faith. I reminded my own father prior to infrequent visits with my father-in-law that this was the case and that he should find other topics for conversation. I should have known this was folly because prior to his first meeting with my future in-laws I warned my dad off telling dirty jokes to the prim couple and of course he let loose with his filthiest. So it wasn’t a big shock that on one of Himself’s last visits with his father, a few days before his death, it was revealed that indeed my father had spilled the beans.
My father-in-law was probably wounded to learn second hand of his former seminarian son’s conversion and having raised him to believe what he believed I think he was entitled to these feelings. Himself’s birthmother, whose collection of framed snapshots suggests, unhindered by child, that she’s lived a glamorous and sophisticated life while Himself altarboyed and shoveled dog shit at a kennel in Temple City, also has an opinion, and not a good one, about this choice of religious affiliation. I take this personally and whine to him about it and then feel like an asshole for dissing the woman he waited his whole life to find and making it, like everything else, about me. But frequently she makes it clear that she doesn’t much like who we are. I get my hackles up although I know that having kept her secret from every soul in the universe for over forty years who it really is that she doesn’t much like.
Perhaps the longer we carry our secrets, the more punishment we expect them to exact. Maybe it is cruel and unrealistic for me to expect birthmother, despite her seemingly carefree life to ever cleanse her soul of what must seem to her a great mortal sin. I think about LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus who is accused of murdering Sherri Rasmussen 23 years ago and what it would be like to carry a secret for so long. As I write this I receive an e-mail from my friend Jayne, Sherri’s roommate, reporting that bail for Lazarus has been set at 10 million dollars cash. I am fascinated about how her defense will be conducted as incontrovertible DNA evidence makes it seem futile to even bother. I wonder, if despite being faced with inevitable life in prison, Lazarus doesn’t feel a kernel of relief at having been freed of this weight.
Birthmother wrestles with her oppressive inner regime and it seems perhaps she’ll never allow herself to feel proud or good about the two generations that through her have come to be. She will go to mass on Christmas Day and I hope she finds comfort and feels forgiven celebrating the birth of the savior she believes was sent by God to die for her sins. If there is no quarantine we will drive on Christmas to the men’s prison in Tehachapi and see our penpal Alan who hitchhiked cross the country by himself at age fourteen but has since had travels curtailed due to a draconian prison sentence.
Alan has disabused me of my romantic notions of prison as zen retreat and the more I learn about real life inside an institution crammed with twice as many men as it was built to house, the more in awe of him I become. Birthmother has traveled the world seemingly carefree but broken by her secrets; Alan, decades behind steel bars, has grown strong by mustering the strength and courage to break free of his own. He was elected to the prison advisory council and I am pleased but not surprised that he has been recognized for his intelligence and character, both of which he’s nurtured in tragically inauspicious surroundings.
This piece is winding down and it isn’t even three p.m. and it is Friday. My last two entries were hard. I returned home Friday night to make Shabbat without having completed or posted my weekly writing and was cranky and unsettled until I woke before sunrise on Saturday morning to complete and publish. This week I dodge bill collectors and know that neither suicide nor terminal illness will get me off the hook. I am devastated yet again by birthmother whose response to the bar mitzvah invitation Spuds requested we send is nasty and am afraid I am reacting out of ego and selfishly and that my posture poisons my marriage and then I get even more angry at her for threatening the greatest accomplishment of my life. I am afraid Himself will feel betrayed by my writing this here but hope he understands my desperation to make sense of it. It is a heavy week and Shabbat and the final night of Hanukah will be sweeter for having pushed the publish button and posted this. I have written today of things I’ve never told a living soul and while this writing here of late has been a struggle, today it flows, almost easy, propelled as I chew over the ruinousness of secrets and the blessing of freedom. A gift.