November 27, 2013
… was a red dress.
I was aiming for festive.
A week before the wedding my cousin emailed me. She was still in Arkansas, I was still in England, both of us about to fly to New Jersey for the ceremony. Her email said, “What are you going to wear,” followed by an orgy of exclamation points. It was the kind of punctuation normally reserved for the tweets of 14-year-old girls but for once it was totally appropriate to a communication between two grown women. We were, after all, discussing something remarkable, the marriage of a man and woman well into their ninth decades — my father’s about to tip into his tenth.
It’s wonderful to think at that stage of life intense happiness is still an option.
Of course, wonderful often goes hand in hand with a margin of weirdness, an element that did in fact creep into the proceedings like an uninvited guest. My father used to be married to my mother, who died two years ago. His new wife lost her spouse as well. The children of these two previous unions –delighted and relieved as we were — couldn’t help but see the shadows. We didn’t want to, but there they were, parental spectres, appearing at intervals over the shoulders of the happy couple. Along with the red dress, I was wearing some of my mother’s jewellery: two of her necklaces, her bracelet and a cameo ring I kept twisting around on my finger until I realized what I was doing, why I was doing it, and made myself stop.
My new stepsister and I were the official witnesses. (I now have a stepsister and two stepbrothers. They’re very nice.) Our job as witnesses was to sign the marriage license. I think it was the marriage license I signed. It could just as well have been a fishing permit, I was feeling that spacey by the time a secretary handed it to me in the marble gloom of Hoboken City Hall. That’s where the ceremony took place, in the courtroom of Hoboken City Hall, a Victorian wedding cake of a building located, ironically enough, right across the street from Carlo’s Bakery, home of Cake Boss, the reality TV show with a cult following here in Britain.
The mayor of Hoboken officiated, a woman named Dawn Zimmer. It took me a while to work out who she was. We were standing around the lobby in our wedding clothes for what seemed like a very long time, waiting for a trial to wind down so we could take over the courtroom. I was talking to someone’s p.a., a bare faced girl with long bangs and a gauzy Indian-print top. The girl p.a. kept apologizing for the delay and it was only when she told me not to worry about the time, she’d cancelled all her other appointments, I realized I was making chitchat with Mayor Dawn herself.
She’s something of a heroine in Hoboken’s Hudson County, a district of New Jersey notorious for vote rigging, dirty deals and shady politicians. Four years ago she was narrowly defeated in the Hoboken mayoral election. Six weeks after her victorious opponent took office he was hauled away by the FBI on charges of international money laundering and corruption. The FBI called it Operation Big Rig, and it was pretty exciting stuff, even by Hudson County standards. A special election was called, which Dawn Zimmer won (not a foregone conclusion in New Jersey; a few years ago the mayor of Lodi was re-elected from his jail cell), making her available to stand in front of all of us in a courtroom bright with fluorescent tubing to unite my father and stepmother in wedlock. (I now have a stepmother. Exclamation point.)
Halfway through the ceremony, the mayor started crying. She had stood up to the bad boys, turned down the bribes that subsequently tripped up her disgraced opponent, but the marriage of two octogenarians had gotten to her. It was getting to me as well, for all the obvious bittersweet reasons, but there was, for me, an added component. The day before I’d gone to a memorial service for someone who had died way before her time, someone I loved very much. That was the real purpose of my trip to America. This wedding was a bonus, a balm, which my father and his lovely bride-to-be had kindly organized around my visit.
I talked to my daughter before I flew over. The person who’d died had mattered to her, had been a major part of her life. My daughter is not sentimental. I like that about her, the fact she’s never in danger of violating what I call the Two Jews Rule. The essence of the Two Jews Rule is you cannot have two Jews crying at the same time because once they – okay, we – start, there’ll never be an end to it. I told my daughter what I’d be doing in New York, the memorial service for the person we both loved and had now lost, the wedding the next day in Hoboken. There was a long silence on the other end of the phone and then she said, “Well, you can’t wear the same outfit for both occasions.” She sounded angry.
June 4, 2013
… was red. Red trousers, Capri style. I was wearing other items as well, including a black linen coat that suggested the kind of outerwear you’d see on a Yeshiva boy, which was kind of ironic given the setting, but the key item was the pair of red trousers.
I ended up at Auschwitz – and isn’t that a phrase to give one pause – because I sing with a choir in Cambridge. Every other year our choir goes to a different European city and performs a series of concerts. Two years ago it was Seville, where it rained every day and my espadrilles disintegrated. Before that, it was Bruges, which was very pleasant although strangely reminiscent of Disneyland. This time, we were in Krakow, with six recitals in three days, including the mini-concert in Auschwitz, where we stood on a grassy knoll between the public toilets and Crematorium One and sang a Hebrew song.
That’s a lot of information to take in.
I think I’ll go back to the beginning.
When the Krakow trip was first mooted, I decided not to participate in the Auschwitz bit of the tour. It was enough of a challenge for me to go to Poland in the first place. It’s a country my family put a lot of effort into trying to leave, and by 1939, the ones who hadn’t left seemed to disappear – the telegrams and anxious letters they’d been sending to New York just stopped coming. It turned out they’d all been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. That’s where they died, at places like Auschwitz and Treblinka and Majdanek, gassed or shot or starved to death. The only one who didn’t disappear, who survived Auschwitz in fact, was cousin Regina, who had the luck/misfortune of being young, blonde and pretty.
Family lore has it Mengele himself picked her out of the line up during the selection process and kept her on to ‘help out’ in the unspeakable hospital he ran in the Auschwitz barracks. I’m hazy on the details, but somehow Regina managed to stay alive until the camp was liberated. She emigrated to America and there she was at all the weddings and bar mitzvahs of my childhood, still pretty, with a charming accent and a chiffon scarf nicely draped over the numbers tattooed in blue on her arm. I’m not claiming a distinction here. Barring certain specifics, this is a common story, a shared history among most Jews and the only point I’m making is that with one thing and another, I figured I could give Auschwitz a miss.
In the weeks leading up to the Krakow trip we rehearsed the program we’d be presenting –Stanford, Thomas Ford, some very catchy Handel and Enosh, the Hebrew song the choir planned for Auschwitz. When we practice, we move from piece to piece, no particular order and with Enosh all mixed in with the rest of the repertoire I ended up singing along. What was I going to do – stand there with my mouth clamped shut?
The word Enosh means a man or humanity in general – Hebrew has some give when it comes to translation — and the song is about goodness and mercy and the frailty of life. As we became more confident with the pronunciation, the strength of the melody began to emerge.
It’s plaintive, not surprisingly, but it’s also very powerful and one night, at a point in the song when the altos get to soar – I’m an alto — elated by that pure sound and a little high from all the oxygen you take in when you sing, I experienced an epiphany:
I realized I had to go to Auschwitz after all, because singing at that death camp was the best fuck you I could imagine. I’d stand there and warble about loving kindness and man’s days are as grass, and what I’d really be saying was, Hey! Nazi thugs! I’m here. You didn’t get all of us.
That’s also when I decided to wear the red trousers. I saw it as a small act of provocation, a red capote to taunt the bull.
I guess I was feeling a little thug-like myself.
We flew to Krakow on the first Bank Holiday in May and the next morning we piled onto a bus and took the highway due west to Auschwitz.
There wasn’t much to see along the way: blank countryside with scattered Soviet-era housing and the occasional farm. Some trees. As we neared Auschwitz, the landscape became more industrial — coal mines, factories, a confluence of railway lines. This reminded me that Auschwitz had functioned as more than just a death camp; it was a work camp as well — high profit, low overhead. Very low overhead. Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free – that’s the insidious motto that greets you when you arrive.
What also greets you are fast food stands and the meaty smell of grilled sausage. This afforded a communal sense of relief, as in, Look at all those people buying kielbasa and Coke Zero! Why, this isn’t so bad, it’s Auschwitz as excursion.
But of course, it was bad.
There were a lot of layers to Auschwitz. The chemist Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived his year there, called it a complete totalitarian state, no brakes, no accountability. It was the most exacting of bureaucracies: think OCD coupled with sadism.
As a complex, it contained three core sites: Auschwitz I, the main camp, administration and prisoners’ barracks; Auschwitz-Birkenau II, extermination; and Auschwitz III, the work camp – slave labor.
Each camp had its layers of authority, starting with the commandant and his senior personnel –SS and Gestapo, the SS in their sharp Hugo Boss uniforms – continuing on down to the guard battalions, the filing clerks and the guys in the motor pool.
The prison population had its own hierarchy. Inmate trustees –non-Jews – acted as overseers, maintaining watch and control over the other prisoners, typically with great brutality. Below that was a sub-division of trustees called Sonderkommando, a forced-labor unit of male prisoners, almost all Jews, all of them strong and able-bodied. Strength was a job requirement because, as one of the few survivors of the unit put it, “We did the dirty work of the Holocaust.” The role of a Sonderkommando was to escort new arrivals to the gas chambers, cut the hair off the dead and yank out any gold teeth and then haul the bodies to the crematoriums for burning. The members of this division lived in relative comfort or at least marginally less squalor, with more food and better housing, access to contraband liquor and medicine. But there was a time limit to these amenities: after a few months of service the existing Sonderkommando division was routinely eliminated, every member killed. It was considered they knew too much to live.
After Auschwitz was liberated a notebook was found under a pile of human ash in one of the crematoriums. It was a step by step account of the camp and the life of a Sonderkommando. The author was a Polish Jew named Zalman Gradowski, and he was a singularly brave man. Not only had he risked severe punishment by writing the account, but he also organized the only prisoner uprising at Auschwitz. It took place in October 1944 and when it was over 70 SS guards were dead. So were 200 Sonderkommando, including Gradowski, but it’s not hard to imagine that by this point his death was of small consequence to him; his notebook makes it clear his time as a human ended when he became a Sonderkommando. To do this job, to be a member of this division, he wrote, “One must be transformed into a robot, become unseeing, unfeeling and uncomprehending.”
To a small degree that may be what some people do when they visit Auschwitz, even now in its stripped down, repentant state; they assume a suspended, robotic frame of mind. It’s what I did, put myself on autopilot and kept away from certain exhibits. The hair room, with its mounds of brittle, faded matter, barely identifiable as anything human — I didn’t go in there, and I gave the hospital barracks a wide berth as well.
So why visit Auschwitz if your objective is to emerge untouched and unscathed, if you don’t want to be chilled to the bone, mourning the likes of Zalman Gradowski and cousin Regina and all the other relatives whose names I don’t even know? I did ask myself that. I came up with a few answers, a few tags: respect, reclamation — the two R’s of Auschwitz. That was part of it, along with a sense of defiance, two fingers up to those Nazis. Mainly though, I came because the idea of being there scared me, and it seemed important to face that down.
I thought I had succeeded. I had kept myself intact, wilfully unmoved and un-scared, but I had forgotten something: I had forgotten we were going to sing.
When you sing, you need to put your whole self into it. You have to open up, give in to the process of creating this sound, conveying the passion of sound. You have to see, feel and understand. In other words, you have to do the exact opposite of everything Zalman Gradowski forced himself to do.
We stood on a small rise next to Crematorium One –the same crematorium where the ‘44 revolt began — and we took out our music. I couldn’t see the notes or the words. My throat had closed up. I was not thinking about thugs, Nazi or otherwise. The slope threw us off-balance and tilting precariously, we sang Enosh to all the innocents who had come to Auschwitz, then and now.
May 10, 2013
… were khakis from J. Crew, loafers and a grey sweater — a muted, non-assertive look. I wanted the examiner to trust me, to assess me as reliable and calm, maybe even a little dull, because my goal was to be granted free rein on the road with a 220 hp weapon of destruction at my disposal. I’d been driving for years, but that was on my American license and the English insurance company was starting to get huffy about my lack of proper credentials. As a result, decades after my first test in a New Jersey parking lot, I found myself taking a second exam under the flat wide skies of East Anglia. East Anglia! The Texas of the British Isles!
There was an enforced intimacy to the situation. I was alone in a car with the examiner, a paunchy male smelling of man sweat and breath mints. Our knees kept meeting across the phallic gear stick. It was like a very bad date, the kind you want to be over as soon as possible.
As it turned out, it was over quickly and the only reason I mention it now, eight years later, is because of a remark the examiner made at the end. We’d been out on the road for less than five minutes when he suddenly flicked his pen against his clipboard and said, We’re done. You passed.
Given I’d just reversed up over the curb, making the most tremendous grinding noise with the undercarriage, this surprised me. Really? I said.
Yes, really, he said. I’m not worried about you. You’re not what my job is about. My job’s about keeping as many 19 year-old boys off the road as I can.
Teenage boys are crazy, he said. They should all be locked up until they’re 26.
Those words came back to me, clear as a banner, a few days after the bombs went off in Boston and details began to emerge about the two boys, the Chechnya immigrants who seem to have been responsible for it. It happens I’ve been writing about immigrants and alienation and it struck me those confused and disengaged young men – the angry older brother, the biddable younger one –brought a significant and not often discussed element to the mix, namely, the raging hormones of the young male.
A boy is a mini-explosives’ factory. By the time he’s 16, he’s manufacturing androgens –most notably testosterone– by the truck load, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, producing all the raw materials required to shape aggression, strength and sex drive. It’s one of the miracles of chemistry, but the end product is a stroppy creature with shocking physical power, a rampant libido – and no control mechanism. A male’s frontal lobe – the bit of the brain tied in with regulating impulsive behaviour – doesn’t develop before he’s in his mid- to late twenties. Until then, he’s all revved up … with nowhere to go with all that fuel. He’s the Incredible Hulk, expanding at a great rate, wanting to do something major and incapable of containing his rage.
Explosives’ factories have vents and outlets built into their design. Boys don’t.
Teenage girls are different. They don’t tend to act out. They act in. They stop eating. They start cutting. They shave their heads and pierce their bodies. In a sense, teenage girls are all about control — the result of the hormones they produce and the rate at which their brains develop.
But a young male – particularly a young male at a loss — is a self-generated bomb, and when I think of those two Chechnyan brothers and their pressure cookers from Target, I can’t help but remember an hysterical son in Newtown, Connecticut shooting first graders with his mother’s Bushmaster rifle, and a pair of Goth outcasts with pump-action shotguns in a Colorado high school. I can picture them all together in a Law & Order-style line up and the question I end up asking myself is: Are they terrorists or hormonal boys with a grudge?
April 24, 2013
…was a black tee and a red skirt from Loehmanns. High heels. Pearls. My mother-in-law was giving a lunch. This was at the top bit of Scotland, so far north that time of year, June, the sun’s up at 3 and hangs around til midnight. It’s the same latitude as Oslo and Gothenberg, places where summer is the crazy season – heavy drinking, hard partying, everyone a little wild after a winter of darkness. But not up in Scotland, not at my mother-in-law’s house. This was a decorous, formal affair, two damask-covered tables in the conservatory and a lot of silver flashing in the sun.
We would be starting with sherry, moving on to wine with the salmon and finishing with a sticky.
I say ‘we’ because at some point I understood I was meant to be acting as adjunct hostess. This information dawned on me gradually, by osmosis, which is the only way I ever pick up on anything in Britain; it’s not an explaining kind of nation, no one ever tells you anything outright. The fourth time the housekeeper asked me when she should start serving, the light bulb finally switched on above my head and I thought, I’m supposed to be doing something. Exactly what, I wasn’t sure because things were running smoothly without any effort on my part. People were sipping sherry and the housekeeper and her daughters had the food under control. I realized her questions about timing had been more in the way of a mild prod, as well as a means of getting me into the kitchen for a lowdown on the more colorful guests. (For example, one of the men, a gouty old boy, was a notorious letch, given to chasing his housekeeper around the dining room table.)
My mother-in-law had drawn up a placement, which was hanging on the kitchen wall. I was seated at the head of one table; she reigned over the other.
We took our places and ate our lunch.
The pudding plates were being cleared away when my father-in-law brought in two dusty looking bottles of port. This was a catalyst for a certain amount of genteel commotion; the men pushed their chairs back from the tables, unbuttoning their jackets and the women sat up a little straighter in their chairs, lifting their heads with bird-like pertness. Across the room, my mother-in-law nodded at me. I responded with a smile of collusion: Yes, my smile said, it’s been a successful lunch. Surprisingly, she did not smile back. Instead, she nodded again, more emphatically this time and made an impatient gesture with her hand – a sharp wave in the direction of the door.
I gave her my What? face and then the light bulb went on again over my head: she was telling me to lead the women – the ladies – out to the drawing room. It was time for us to withdraw, to let the men commune and drink their port. This was what my role as adjunct hostess came down to, this moment as lunch wrangler.
It made me oddly agitated.
One part of me was saying, yelling almost inside my head: I grew up in New Jersey! I was born in Hicksville, Long Island, for heavens’ sake! Women don’t slink out to the drawing room in New Jersey. Men don’t swig port in Hicksville. And what is a drawing room, anyway?
But another part of me was going, O, get over yourself. Stop being such a reverse snob. There were books in New Jersey. You’ve read your Jane Austen and your George Eliot. You’ve seen this on TV. And I’ll bet somewhere in New Jersey, maybe even in Hicksville, Long Island off Route 25A, ladies withdraw while men puff cigars and lie about golf.
These thoughts swirling around my head, I stood to attention in my red skirt from Loehmanns’ basement. My hands gripping the chair rail, I said in my throatiest voice to the room at large: Ladies. Shall we?
February 27, 2013
… were sweatpants and trainers – faux sportswear – and a really sour expression, the kind that connotes pain or disappointment.
I was experiencing both.
There’s nothing about the Pistorius case that isn’t horrible and what makes it even uglier on a personal level is the sense there’s something unclean about my response, a distorting element that reflects badly on me.
I suspect I’m not the only one to feel this way.
Last summer Pistorius was our darling. He proved himself spectacular. It wasn’t just the medals, the fact of winning, it was the way he managed to straddle the whole superman/everyman divide. Here was one of life’s unfortunates, a person born into bad luck, who by dint of effort — mind-boggling effort – transformed himself into a champion. It was rags to riches. It was stumps to riches.
We loved him. And we felt great about loving him. He was ballsy and butch and fleet on those metal pins. We got involved. We timed our day to catch his races. We were followers, cultists even … and weren’t we open minded? How cool were we, how evolved to have a Mt. Everest-sized crush … on a handicapped person. And how cool was the situation, this triumph of the disabled? It was right, it was moral, it was a window on a better world.
Nonetheless – and this is the unclean bit — somewhere in the recesses of my mind, was this strange and dispassionate awareness of myself, my able-bodied self, as one of the lucky ones, and the likes of Oscar P, as the opposite – the other. It made his victories, his blaze of glory, rather non-threatening. He could be admired from a lofty position.
It made it that much easier to dote and sympathize. Allowances could be made, his little post-race hissy fit justified and dismissed. It was the pressure… So he’s a little over the top, he has to be psyched up to win. If it struck us this was a telling glimpse of the real Pistorius, a symptom of ‘roid rage and a possible sign of things to come, we brushed it aside.
In other words, we patronized him.
So when everything went tits up (putting aside the desperate tragedy in the loss of a bright, lovely and according to all reports, kind young woman) I was furiously disappointed. Disgusted and horrified, yes, but also very let down. The people we condescend to are not meant to betray us by going off the rails. They are meant to be grateful.
December 23, 2012
…were my husband’s football socks, very cosy those, and a pima cotton nightgown from Peruvian Connection, the latter dovetailing very nicely with the whole South-American-Mayan doomsday theme. I could have chosen a more iconic, more pertinent getup — hiking boots and a diamond tiara sound about right — but the truth is I had forgotten the world was about to end. On the appointed hour of the appointed day I was preoccupied with trying to squeeze a few drops of goo out of a tube and into the pug’s eyes so she won’t go blind and start bashing into walls — she’s already walking into furniture. By the time I remembered I’d forgotten, it was noon and there I was, still alive, still in my nightie, chasing a visually impaired dog around the kitchen table.
Missing something that fails to happen is a real conundrum. If you’re the one doing the missing – in itself a confusing concept, like being the person who doesn’t hear the tree that didn’t fall in the forest – does it make you more, or less, a part of the Zeitgeist? Cool or sad? And how does one classify this particular phenomenon, the much-heralded weird event that, surprise, never occurs? Many would categorize it as sensationalist fluff that filled the gaps in the news media. Most would agree with the modern-day Mayans, the few thousand still kicking around who kept trying to tell anyone who’d listen that it wasn’t about the end of days, just the end of the calendar. The pages ran out! Time to nip out to the store and get a new one!
I think the whole business deserves a place in the special filing cabinet that is the source of all witty tee-shirt slogans: put the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy in a folder alongside Esperanto, Kohoutek’s Comet and the Sinclair C-5 and label it Great non-starters a lot of people spent a lot of time talking about.
Given there will be a 2013 after all I wish you all a wonderful new year.
November 15, 2012
I’ve quit so many times I can’t remember what I had on when except for a look of smug righteousness. I know I was wearing that every time.
Followed, of course, by a look of shame when I lit up again within the week.
I have a clear memory of the second time I quit (the first time, I had the flu, so it doesn’t count). This second instance, I was 23 and my best friend was getting married. Her fiancé was a fabulously nice guy, a med student who doted on her. It looked great on paper but she had one reservation: he was chubby. Not big-boned, not baby-fat cuddly, just chubby. He ate too much. So I made a bet with him. If he went on a diet, I’d quit smoking. That way, when the wedding rolled round he’d be slim and I’d be healthy. Win-win.
This joint resolution lasted about as long as the marriage, which was not very long.
What I wore at the wedding was a gauzy bridesmaid dress and a big hat to hide very short hair. The short hair is why I started smoking again, and I dare anyone not to sympathize. My hairdresser had got it into his head that the gamine look would suit me. It was the kind of salon where they shoved a glass of wine into your hand the moment you walked in, and my hairdresser was cute and straight and I was a little tipsy, so when he said, ‘early Audrey Hepburn,’ I let him chop off all my curls. As soon as I saw myself in the mirror, looking like one of those collaborators who had her head shaved because she slept with a Nazi, I started crying and didn’t stop until I bought a pack of Camels and lit up outside the salon.
That was my first justification. I’ve got hundreds. The only justification I’ve ever had for not smoking, the only one that endured for any length of time, was pregnancy. I didn’t smoke the whole time I carried my daughter nor while I was nursing. It didn’t even occur to me until the night my husband got sick. I was in my second trimester and he suddenly came down with an infection. His temperature spiked to 105 degrees and in the three hours before the antibiotics took hold I found myself thinking: He’s going to die on me. He’s going to die, leaving me alone and pregnant and I can’t even smoke.
I can construct all sorts of amusing justifications for maintaining what we all know is a nasty and expensive habit, but the real reason is actually rather stark, less an excuse than a bald statement of fact: I get bored.
Not smoking is boring.
Every time I quit and am clear of the cravings, I start missing the scheduled high, the little landmarks that smoking provides. No matter how long I stay off it, I’m always aware something is gone, something powerful that used to inform my life. My mother told me that long after she quit, two decades on, she still dreamt about it. Fast asleep, she’d see herself fire up a True, take a drag on that trifurcated plastic filter and suck it in.
“How was it?” I said.
She died last spring, my mother, congestive heart failure brought on, in part, by years of smoking.
So there you go.
Yesterday I went to a place called Advance Performance and got myself fitted out for a pair of high-tech running shoes. The way it works, you try on lots of shoes and get filmed running on a treadmill. Then they send you outside to a kind of prison yard where you sprint around on gravel and clumps of grass. As you can imagine, none of this comes cheap. But it’s worth it because the shoes are really comfortable, like running on a cloud. They’re also blindingly ugly, which I kind of like, my justification being the more hideous they are the better they must be for me. I’m banking on that because running is my new scheduled high.
September 27, 2012
…was an LK Bennett trench coat over a pair of Gap chinos that toned nicely with the trench, and under that my favourite tee, black with an image of primitive mask from my friend Tom’s collection. All very cool and understated, but on the way to the theatre, which is where I ran into the Toucher, I got caught in a near monsoon. As I result, when she and I came face-to-face I was wet and straggly, like a spaniel that’s just climbed out of a pond. It didn’t matter: I could have been bone dry and styled by Karl Lagerfeld and I’d still be at a disadvantage with the Toucher. She’s one of those lanky, fine-boned blondes who takes the perfect honey-colored tan and who looks great in white jeans and a flowing muslin top – the kind of top the rest of us threw out when we were 28, along with the Daisy Dukes and the long feather earrings that never looked quite right. She’s also an expert in something men really like – duelling pistols or ’64 Porsches — and she’s very, very sharp, just like her cheekbones.
Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me, being around a woman who beats me in the looks or style stakes and who has a line on a subject I know nothing about. Normally, I like the company of polished females. They’re decorative. They’re educational. You can learn a lot from them – and not just make-up tips. But these were not normal circumstances.
You see, the Toucher and I have a bit of a history.
We first met at a lunch party outside of London. I say ‘met’ but she didn’t register with me until the hostess called us in to the table. It was boy-girl seating and she – I didn’t think of her as the Toucher yet — was one away. A man I didn’t know was on my right, then her and, on her right, my husband. If I hadn’t noticed her when we were introduced, I did now, because as soon as she sat down she turned 90 degrees to face my husband and curved her upper body into a ‘C’ shape.
She was making the bubble.
You’ve probably seen the bubble without realising what it was or maybe even done it yourself. It’s when you lean into someone, close but no touching (not at first), with your back rounded so the two of you are encased in a dome of your own making. The rest of the room gets the cold shoulder, literally the cold shoulder, and the message is unmistakable: No one else exists; it’s just you and me.
In case you’ve ever wondered when flirtation becomes ASP – Attempted Sexual Poaching – here’s your answer: it’s when someone makes the bubble.
I thought: Well, this is interesting. On one level it was kind of flattering. She had singled out my husband, which could be interpreted as a tribute to my good taste in having married the guy. But on another level it was slightly insulting, the implication being I was so insignificant she could make the moves on my spouse, in my face, with impunity.
Rappers have killed for less.
As I was pondering this, she put her fingers on my husband’s hand where it lay on the table and made little dance-y motions on his wrist.
That’s when I started thinking of her as the Toucher.
An old friend of my husband’s was seated on my left. I turned to him and said, what’s the deal with the Toucher over there?
Her fingers were on his upper arm now.
I said, is she always like this?
He smiled. Only when there’s a man she’s interested in.
I didn’t have a game plan for this. Not at a lunch party. Not at a lunch party in England. In New York, given the same situation – blatant public ASP — I might have said something like, Hey. Get a room, and it would have been all right. But the Brits don’t tend to handle things that way. The way they handle it is by not handling it. It’s the elephant in the middle of the floor. You don’t talk about it, you don’t look at it. You pretend it’s not there and maybe it will go away.
Sometimes that works. Plus it’s the classy way to go, the idea being you’re so cool you can just take it in your stride. Then I heard her say: Why don’t you write your number on my hand?
Her hand was hovering around my husband’s chest. On my palm, she said. I promise not to wash it off.
She might as well have asked him to autograph her breasts, at least that’s how it struck me.
I guess I was jealous.
Let’s be clear: my husband did not seem to be colluding in this. His expression, as far as I could tell, was determinedly neutral, like someone listening to a marginally tempting sales pitch. Nonetheless, the situation was starting to rankle.
In my opinion, there’s a category of touching that’s a step too far. I don’t mean social touching — the pat on the shoulder, the nudge in the ribs. I’m talking about TWI, Touching With Intent: skin on skin or skin on cloth, deliberate contact that signals purpose and leaves one’s scent.
It’s what dogs do to stake a claim.
I have a pen, the Toucher said to my husband.
I have paper, I said to her.
O, my hand will do, she said airily, not turning around.
No, I said. I have paper.
She faced me.
Your husband’s been giving me wonderful advice about university applications, she said. He has a number I can ring.
I held out my card.
My husband made a peevish I-was-handling-it face.
You want information, I said, it’s probably best to go through me.
She looked at me for a few seconds and then she took the card.
There was no follow-up, of course. And when I ran into her that rainy night a few months later, she stared at me quizzically for a moment or so, trying to place me. Then her face cleared and she threw her arms around me with glad cries. I said something in return and when I stepped back I saw my wet coat had dampened her muslin top, making it clingy and see-through. I have to admit, she looked great.
July 18, 2012
…was, appropriately enough, a black turtleneck and black leggings: black for mourning, the absence of color the symbol of loss and a mark of respect. Appropriate also, because Ms Ephron herself said — this was in her essay, ‘What I Wish I’d Known’ – You can’t own too many black turtlenecks. They hide the crepey thing that starts happening under your chin.
Sadly, the turtleneck I had on when I read about her deathwould not have passed muster with Ms Ephron, who was, despite a neat line in self-deprecation, really rather chic. I’m willing to bet her turtlenecks were nicely fitted, with a couple of tucks here and there and just the right amount of fold to the collar. Mine is a baggy old thing from Lands’ End. It belongs to my mother-in-law and is now in my possession due to a complicated series of events involving boats, laundry, rain and the Caledonian Canal. My mother-in-law is six feet tall. On her, the shirt was crisp and jaunty: the matriarch as preppy. On me, it looks like a maternity dress that shrank in the wash and when I run – it’s my jogging top – it flaps around like a loose sail, undermining my wind resistance.
Looking at the last paragraph, I see I wrote the phrase, when I read about her death, as if it were just another piece of news, one more predictably bleak item on the net. But it wasn’t like that; it was certainly bleak but it was also a total surprise, at least for me. I did not know Nora Ephron had been battling leukemia for years. That it had rendered her susceptible to an opportunistic infection. She developed pneumonia and, in her vulnerable state, couldn’t fight it off, couldn’t recover.
My immediate response to this information was a kind of Spock-like irritation: the situation struck me as highly illogical. Chemo is supposed to cure cancer. Antibiotics are supposed to kill bacteria. Nora Ephron is supposed to keep writing.
She is also supposed to continue maintaining our imaginary close personal friendship.
It’s interesting how quickly mourning reveals its true nature, which is essentially selfish. In an instant, She’s gone transmutes into I can’t believe what’s been taken from me.
And what’s been taken from me with the death of Ms Ephron is the prospect of more: more of her essays, maybe a second novel. Quoting from the Ephron oeuvre is one of my party tricks and people are tired of hearing me recount her diagnosis of a little known but all-pervasive masculine disorder called Refrigerator Blindness. It’s a classic, but I need to refresh my routine. She’s meant to be helping me with that. I want more of her recipes as well. For example, I love her vinaigrette. It is, as she claimed, perfect; I mainlined it throughout my pregnancy. It’s time she supplied me with a new culinary obsession.
As you can see, Ms Ephron was, is – I ‘m not ready to embrace the past tense yet – what I’d call a familiar.
Of course, we’ve never actually met. Nonetheless, we’ve enjoyed an on-going dialogue for some time now. Our conversations are absorbing and intricate, full of detail and revelations and set entirely in my head. They’re the grown-up version of what I had with my Barbie doll. At various times, she — Ms Ephron, not Barbie — and I have discussed books, shoes, the extent to which Barack Obama has disappointed us, the significance of his wife’s arms and the British class system. The last topic is one of the few where I have had more to say than Ms Ephron, and a degree more authority. Every now and then, when I’m feeling brave, I read her something I’ve written.
Which brings me to the most detailed imaginary exchange I’ve ever conducted with Ms Ephron. It concerns the co-incidental (co-incidental being the key word here) similarities between my blog and a play she wrote. I’ve never seen this play. In fact, given I’ve lived in England for a number of years, it’s very existence pretty much passed me by. Ms Ephron’s play is called, ‘Love, Loss and What I wore’. My blog, for those of you whose attention might have wandered, is called ‘What I was wearing’.
This particular conversation usually starts with her saying something like: Hmm. This is odd. Here you have this blog where you use clothing as a device to start a story about something that happened to you. And here I have this play, on Broadway no less, about the events in my life and what I was wearing at the time.
(I’m guessing that’s what her play is about; as I can’t emphasize enough, I’ve never seen it.)
She continues in this vein: You say you love my work and you’ve read pretty much everything I’ve written. Do you really think it’s a coincidence we both came up with basically the same idea?
She goes on to accuse me, very amusingly of course, of plagiarism. Things get a tad heated. Then — this is the high point of the fantasy – I pull out the dusty stack of journals I’ve been writing for the past 20 years. (The conversation is imaginary but the journals are real.) I open up one of them at random and proceed to show her What I was wearing, January 1994, What I was wearing, March 1996, entry after entry, each with its little drawing. There is a certain amount of gasping, in awe, I believe.
We flip through the journals, reading choice bits aloud.
Then we braid each other’s hair.
We don’t really braid each other’s hair. I just threw that in for fun.
I haven’t quite sorted out how the scenario resolves itself, whether Nora – we’re on a first name basis by now – says, bit of a snippy edge to her voice, All right. It’s clear we’ve been operating in parallel universes, or, admittedly this is stretching it a bit, she looks up from the page she’s reading and says, simply: Yours is so much better than mine.
It’ll come to me eventually.
The funny thing is, I can hear the dialogue, our words and inflections but I can’t, for once, remember what I am wearing.
Nora Ephron. R.I.P.