The Iowa Review
Meet Miss Subways, Part 2
When Steve was born, eleven years after Bob, it soon became clear—I was later told—that he never wanted to eat anything. This, I'd later joked, may have had something to do with Mom's cooking. The only thing Steve would eat until he was about three were milkshakes that Dad made for him. And these would have eggs thrown in for extra protein. When Steve was twenty, he once complained to Mom about being only five foot eight. (Dad was over six feet tall, as are Ricky and Bob. I myself at the time was already five ten.) "Well," she told him, "you would be taller if you'd ever had anything other than milkshakes!"
I was born—when Mom was thirty-eight—just two years after Steve. He would eventually tell me that I had been an accident. When I reported this to Dad, he joked that we were all accidents. And when I reported Dad's joke to Mom, she said that I, at least, had been had on purpose, "to keep Steve company."
Mom spoke strangely, I noticed early on. She never really conversed with anyone; she had monologues. These monologues were stories about either her past life or her work as a teacher of emotionally disturbed children at a school in Queens called the Lifeline Center for Child Development. (She had gotten a master's degree in psychology shortly before Steve was born. Dad, I later learned, had had to write Mom's thesis for her. Those emotionally disturbed kids were either autistic or schizophrenic.) And most such stories were about either how someone allegedly evil—usually Dad's mom—did something terrible to her or how Mom herself did something great for someone great, like sing for Mayor LaGuardia or dance for Mitzi Gaynor. Mom tended, too, to fracture speech, much like the character Mrs. Malaprop in the 1775 play The Rivals. (Mom once said in all seriousness, "Mothers are the necessity of invention." She meant, of course, that necessity is the mother of invention.) Dad, in fact, used to call Mom "Mrs. Malaprop."
The Lifeline Center was just a few miles from our house. Mom, therefore, preferred riding her bicycle to work than driving there—even throughout winters. And when she did have to drive somewhere, she would avoid highways by taking the service roads next to them whenever possible. Highway traffic frightened Mom.
One time, when I was about twelve, Mom was driving me alone to the Hebrew School at Jamaica Jewish Center—Steve, you see, had already been bar mitzvahed—when she suddenly said, "You may have noticed that you've begun to develop secondary sex characteristics." I told her to knock it off, which she did. And then she never mentioned it again to me. But nor did Dad ever mention puberty—or even sex—to me.
Mom used to swim at Jamaica Jewish Center. Technically, I suppose, she should not have, as she was its only lifeguard. But she swam very, very slowly—frequently the backstroke—so she could see pretty well what was happening around her while swimming. Each day she swam, she'd swim the exact same number of laps and then cross off the next box on these fifty-mile swim cards she used to carry.
Mom, in general, was a creature of habit. During summers, she'd drive us every weekend to the Bronx Zoo. During winters, she'd take us every weekend—by subway—to either the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the east side of Central Park or the Museum of Natural History on its west side. She'd also take us every weekend throughout the year to our local library.
Mom—and Dad—would also take us to concerts. At these, Mom would always be the very first to stand up and shout bravo, brava, or perhaps bravi—depending on the gender of the instrumentalist or singer, as well as on the number of them. She always seemed, to me, determined to demonstrate her mastery of those distinctions. She also seemed to consider cheering a competitive sport, like basketball.
Dad became very depressed when I was about fourteen, and so began seeing a psychoanalyst. This guy—Dr. Train—determined that analysis alone wasn't working well enough, and that Dad should also have electroshock treatment. When, afterward, Mom visited Dad in the hospital, she told him—he later told me—that he would "have to get better soon" because she "can't take this anymore." He later told me, as well, that he found this very selfish of her.
They seemed, to me, to stop having sex after the electroshock. I once overheard an argument between Mom and Dad that confirmed this suspicion. But they were now arguing a lot in general. One time, Dad was in his study and talking on the telephone when Mom tried to go in there and vacuum. He more or less pushed her out of the room and shut the door. She then opened the door and threw the vacuum cleaner at him. He then didn't speak to her for a week. And so she more or less cried for a week. This made me very angry—only at Dad, whom I stupidly confronted about his silent treatment.
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Kevin Kopelson is a professor of English at the University of Iowa.
This essay originally appeared in Volume 45, Issue 1 of The Iowa Review (Spring 2015).
Meet Miss Subways is being published on The Daily Palette in three parts. Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 3.
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on October 12, 2016