Bad for Boys
Anything can trigger my mother’s mention of the incident. Usually she tells it at one of those family dinners she begs us to where she pretends my brother, sister, and I are kids again and that our spouses, children, and boyfriends are merely our new playmates. We try to keep the conversation fixed in the present. That’s what I was trying to do when I mentioned an article I’d clipped from the Times with the headline: Woman Stands By Man Who Leaves Her Blind.
My father said, “That makes sense.”
“If she can’t see, she’d have to stand next to someone, right?”
I probably should have quit while I was ahead. I was on my own. David was golfing. My daughter had not come in from New York City for this traditional Italian Sunday meal: bread, salad, pasta, bread, meatballs, bread, wine, sausage, bread, and too many desserts. I plunged on. I told them I was going to write a fictional version of the account since this guy had blinded his first wife with acid, gone to jail, was released, took up with another woman, attacked her with acid, and now while awaiting trial had been welcomed back into the arms of his first — and disfigured — wife.
“Love is blind,” my mother said.
“Love? Were you listening?”
She passed the bowl of meatballs to my brother. “Well,” she said, “you tried to strangle your brother with a stocking.”
I looked across the table to my brother, Joe.
“Yeah, you tried to kill me, Den.” And he smiled.
It never fails to surprise me how much he seems to like this story. He always looks proud, oddly comforted. How was it they took such pleasure seeing me as a pint-sized Medea in bad bangs wrapping a stocking around a baby’s neck?
“ I really don’t think I did that.”
“You did,” my mother chimed in.
“You did,” my brother echoed.
He has been labeled the genius in our family, but even a genius wouldn’t remember what happened to him at six months. Why hadn’t he found a way to repress it like a normal person? Anyway, in his baby pictures he was always smiling, pretty much the same smile he has as an adult — broad, unreserved. He doesn’t look like someone who might have been the victim of assault with a nylon stocking. I turned to my father for support. “Daddy?”
“ I wasn’t there,” he said.
By this time my nephews were snorting and giggling. “Aunt Denise is crazzeee!”
My brother-in-law tried to turn the conversation around. Golf handicaps. I had no handicap. They each had one. He asked me what David’s was. “Twelve,” I said.
“Is he going to teach you to golf?” my sister asked.
“As a baby-strangler I keep my hands off all potentially life-threatening clubs, bats, rackets, and sticks.”
“It’s okay, Den,” Joe said. “I forgive you. I know you love me.”
The bowl of meatballs had made its rounds and was back in my mother’s hands. “See?” she said. “Love is blind.”
That night driving back to my apartment in Philadelphia, I wondered why hearing the rotten story this time had rankled me so much. I’d heard it a million times before, and had always laughed it off. I didn’t even believe it because it is also an accepted family fact that my mother is a terrible storyteller. She mispronounces words, veers off course at the climax, and loops in and out until the original point is forever lost. Yet this one anecdote was gospel. Thing is, my mother never says where baby Joe was during the attack. Was I to believe she left an infant lying about like a pair of old shoes? In one version she said he was on the bed. In another he was in his crib. Well, where — exactly — was he really? Wherever he was how had she failed to notice the less than four foot high, three-year-old baby killer hovering somewhere around her kneecaps? And what about that stocking?
My head hurt. Divorced (twice), city-dweller, visiting gypsy professor, writer intrigued by acid-throwing men — and now that David was in the picture — fornicator. Were these my real sins, the reason they were so eager to saddle me with murderous impulses, to bring the story up at the most benign times, and believe it, and keep telling it? I was the oddball, the square peg, the messy one. They lived in the suburbs of New Jersey, in houses with expansive decks. I didn’t have a deck. But I pretended I did. I filled the living room with ferns because they’re leafy; they flap. On a windy day, I could open all the windows in my eleventh floor, corner apartment and let the cross breeze ruffle the plants and papers. Their cars were shiny, sleek, and new. Mine was an ’85 Honda with a dented grille. I had no handicap. No titanium driver. No fat savings account. No husband. No investment portfolio. “Dramatic,” my grandfather had called me. “Emotional,” my Aunt Eileen had said. “Crazeee,” my nephew had giggled.
All right. I could accept dramatic, emotional — even crazeee — but if I accepted the attack story wouldn’t it mean I was untrustworthy? Un-Trust-Worthy. Not capable of being left alone “for two seconds.” Anything would be possible: bank robbery, pathological lying, why even a personality suitable for True Stories biopics.: Woman taunted by family for years succumbs to a baby-choking spree in local hospital. Staff pediatric nurses discover fleecy blue and pink blankets strewn like de-headed flowers on the nursery room floor. The murder weapon? Teds circulation stockings.
At home, my cat was happy to see me. My. Black. Cat. Okay, add witch to the list. I sat down at my desk and played with the acid-thrower story for a while. What had made him so violent? Maybe when he was very, very small, say six months or so, his older sister tried to suffocate him with a blanket. Or, maybe she threw hot pureed baby peas at him. Even more difficult was trying to figure out why his damaged wife took him back. Then I heard my father’s voice: she needed someone to stand next to.
Weeks later, nearing mid-semester at the university where I teach fiction workshop (approved lying), personal essay (truth but “tell it slant”), and Women in Literature (history and hysteria), I did a strange thing. I don’t know. Could have been too much discussion about Alice James scribbling in her journals while William and Henry pondered pragmatism and long sentences. Maybe it was Mary Wollenstoncraft and her polemic on the rights of women. Or Jane Austen slyly curling her lip while her characters minded their manners. From the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century (where we were presently stationed) the best of the female writers, sources of shame, outrage, or befuddlement to their families, had fled to cells, donned hair shirts, or entered a decline. In attics, convents, kitchens, and beds they wrote. Then they died.
That day we were embarking upon the Brontes. I was furnishing some background on Emily Bronte who often beat the family dog around the head and eyes at night to prevent it from disturbing her brother, Branwell, the designated genius in her family, one who amounted to nothing more than a blight on the family name. I got to thinking that maybe what she really wanted to do was beat Branwell about the head and eyes instead of the dog. But look! I told my students. Would we have Wuthering Heights if she had? Maybe somewhere along the line she’d been told she tried to kill Branwell. What the heck? Whatever works. Save the brother, beat the dog and you get — Heathcliff.
Thirty-two pairs of eyes stared back at me as if I’d just shot up heroin in front of them. “It’s this sibling thing,” I whispered. And then, for the first time, I told on myself.
“Oh my God!” my student Laura said. “Oh my God! All my life my relatives have been telling me I tried to kill one of the twins. Oh my God!” Laura too is Italian.
“How old were you?”
Here we go, I thought. “And the twins were?”
“Three months old.”
The class was laughing. Someone else piped up with the idea that these kinds of stories were “ethnic” in origin.
Well, Italians are operatic. Intense and passionate they are given to uttering phrases such as, “I love him so much I could eat him.” When new babies are born into the family, all dutiful Italian grandmothers and aunts will severely reprimand anyone who coos too much over the new infant. “Don’t keep saying how beautiful she is,” they warn. “You’ll give her the overlooks.”
The overlooks are the evil equivalents of the Three Graces. Since childhood they’ve appeared in my mind as ravens wearing sunglasses. As an adult the only thing about them that’s changed are the sunglasses; now they wear Ray Bans. Not as deadly as that other Italian superstition, the malloichio, the overlooks are nevertheless unpleasant. A baby suffering from their flight might a) grow up vain, b) turn ugly, or c) become a criminal.
Laura was intrigued. She said she was going to call her mother. “Forty-eight years I’ve lived with this.”
When I got home that night I decided to call my firstborn Italian girlfriends, to see if there were any other baby injurers among us.
“Oh no,” my friend, another Laura, said. “But then again, my mother’s not Italian. That’s my father’s side, but you know what? He was a sickly kid and the story goes my aunts dropped him on the floor — a couple of times.”
Next I spoke to my friend, Dyanne, a firstborn who had, not one, but two stories. “I hit my brother over the head with a shovel,” she said.
“Yep. That one is true.”
I asked how old she was. “Four. We were outside on the avenue in the snow.”
Dyanne said she probably resorted to real violence because she’d already been falsely accused of trying to kill him the year before that. Her mother was in the “other” room. Joey, one year old, was in the bathroom. According to Dyanne’s mother, Elaine, Dyanne undressed Joey while he was on the toilet, then she dumped an entire cannister of Johnson&Johnson’s baby powder on him. His choking drew Elaine’s attention — that and the “sudden uneasy feeling” that swept over her. (The Italian mothers report these feelings as “chills,” “headaches in one eye,” “a too quiet sound,” and “angelic music”). Elaine rushed in to find Joey gagging and blinded by powder. The more she tried to clean it off, the whiter he got. White, white, white.
“You tried to kill him,” Elaine shouted. Dyanne said, “She’s held onto it ever since.”
More odd than the stories is the fact that my other Italian friend (who lives in my apartment building) is also named Diane. How is it that mothers capable of concocting such tales of violence are so limited in choosing names for their daughters? Diane isn’t a firstborn, but she was all too eager to chat with me about her brother: a former Harvard professor, designated genius, and manic-depressive who has quit his job and his sixteen-year- marriage to begin taking female hormones. Presently, he’s dressing as a woman. “You never liked him very much,” was her mother’s explanation for the change. “I think that really bothered him. You should have been kinder. You put him over the edge.”
Diane said that her mother suggested now that he was a badly dressed woman-in-progress, the least Diane could do for him was teach him how to apply make-up.
After our next Women in Lit class, Laura stops me in the hall to tell me she called her mother to get the details of her “childhood indiscretion.” The twins weighed in at four and half pounds and were “lousy eaters”. She, on the other hand, even at nineteen months was “strong as an ox.” Laura’s mother was in the proverbial “other room” when she got that feeling. Laura was in the kitchen playing house and dolls — except this doll was alive. “Mom said both of my sister’s feet were on the window sill. This, by the way, differs greatly from my Italian Calabrese grandmother’s insistence that they found me dangling my sister by the ankles out the sixth floor window! You know,” she said, “this is the first time I’ve asked for details which clearly exonerate me from serious criminal intent. Ha! Thanks,” she said, “it’s never been the subject of one my therapies but it’s definitely been a source of consternation.”
Like Laura, I realized I had never bothered to ask. When I returned home that evening, I decided to call my mother. I wanted the facts.
“Where was Joey?” I barked.
“He was in his high chair!” she said, a defensive ping chiming in her throat, “in the kitchen!” she added, her voice pinging more loudly. “You were supposed to be playing with him, not choking him!”
“Where were you?” Although I already knew the answer to the second question: the “other” room.
“Was he gasping for air? Turning purple?”
“What on earth made you assume I was trying to kill him? Maybe I just put it on him.”
A long pause followed, so long I wondered whether she’d fainted — or worse — had had a heart attack. If my pitiless interrogation had provoked a stroke now I’d have to add matricide to my list of crimes.
Her voice was soft. “Dr. Spock.”
“What, Denise? What else?”
“Did you say Dr. Spock?”
A tiny defeated “Yes,” came out. “Not just him — your grandmothers. Both of them. You had everything. You were first. We nicknamed you The Queen. They thought you might be jealous. They told me it’s what a firstborn will do.”
“You believed them?”
“Your grand-mo-thers, Den – ise,” she said. “Think about it,” she snapped.
On this dusky night, still chilly, the sun bleeding into the sky, David says it’s time I learn to golf. I’ve come to his place in a dress, and make dozens of excuses, but he’s not taking no for an answer. He hunts down a pair of sweat pants, a pair of his daughter’s sneakers, and a sweatshirt for me. We, it seems, are going to the driving range. I will be armed with irons.
At the range, David talks me through the mind-spinning particulars of the address. He stands behind me, his hands covering mine, and tells me to hold the club as if it’s “a baby bird.” I’m not to squeeze or strangle the shaft. Gently, he moves me through the swing.
I nod. “Okay. Try without me.” But as soon as I take hold of the seven iron, he stops me. “No, you’re choking the shaft. Like this,” he says, showing me again. “Baby bird,” he repeats. Then he steps away, far enough away so that should the club suddenly spring from my hands he will be out of danger range. He props his club grip end down and leans on it.
Once again, I address the ball. I keep my head down, my eye on it, and swing. The ball takes flight. Well, if you can call lurching forward about thirty yards, skimming the ground, flight. I try again with the same results. And again. Nothing changes. Is this golf or croquet David wants to know.
This time as I address the ball, he says, “Your grip. Loosen up.”
I feel perspiration under my armpits. My grip? Choking? Strangling? My head swims with images of nylons. He hasn’t heard the family folklore yet.
I readdress, glance out toward the one hundred yard marker, then turn my eyes back to the tee.
“Kill it,” he says.
I freeze. “Kill it?”
“Yeah, baby. Kill it.”
In that split second he must see something strange happen in my eyes. “Don’t worry,” he says. “There’s no one inside the ball.”
I’m sure he’s expecting me to whack the ball and not drop the club, rush over to him, and kiss him.
“Yum. What for?”
“Knowing I’m afraid to hurt it.”
David laughs. “You? You don’t have it in you to hurt anything.”
Perhaps, since we are still new to each other, his version of me is merely a fiction. I like to think it is the truth.
On the ride home, David is yakking about how proud of me he is for “ripping” the ball. On my fifth attempt it sailed — high, straight, fast. I killed it.
“Think about it,” my mother had said. I do. Maybe the stories my friends and I had lived with about ourselves and our violent tendencies were not so much about ourselves, but about our mothers, about their split second of common human distraction.
I imagine my mother, young: black pedal pushers, white sleeveless blouse, her thick black hair cropped short. Easier, less time consuming now that there are two of us. In the other room she’s sweating. There’s no air conditioning in the Jackie Gleason apartment where the floors shift under her feet and the windows stick when she tries to open them to clean off the city soot. She’s gathering laundry. A stocking flutters to the floor. Even then, I’m fascinated with anything that belongs to her. I pick it up. “Denise, go watch your brother,” she says. That’s when I discover him, fat baby, always laughing, strapped into his high chair. Like Laura’s sister, he’s my new plaything. And somehow the stocking is draped around his neck. Minutes pass. Too quiet. She feels it, a chill. Not possible on this humid day. Something must be happening in the kitchen, so she begins a sprint, stubs her toe on the bed frame, yelps, yet keeps moving. She has been warned and didn’t listen. There will be hell to pay. Overlooks. Ravens in Ray Bans. When she sees us, she obeys the racket in her heart, the banging that signaled danger. What else can she do except begin inventing the myth? Love being what it is: so blind.
Denise Gess is the author of two critically-acclaimed novels, Good Deeds (Crown, 1984) and Red Whiskey Blues (Crown, 1989), and the nonfiction book Firestorm At Peshtigo: A Town, Its People and The Deadliest Fire in American History (Holt, 2002). Her short fiction has appeared in the North American Review and anthologized in The Horizon Reader. Her personal essays have appeared in Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading (Norton 2004), Philadelphia Stories, Philadelphia Magazine, and Writer’s Digest. She received honorable mention in creative nonfiction in the New Millennium Writing Awards Contest (2002). She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rowan University.
“Bad For Boys” is the lead essay in a collection of the same title.
Works by Denise Gess
Essay: Bad for Boys