As seen in Skirt! Magazine, November 2011
My parents had dragged me to a Bar Mitzvah in San Francisco — the kid was the son of a family friend and I was not given a choice about attending. As a sophisticate of seventeen, I had no interest whatsoever in being there. When the ceremony ended, I separated myself from my parents as soon as I could, dodging past the bejeweled and well-coiffed women, the balding middle-aged men, and the packs of thirteen-year olds who jockeyed for position in front of the mounds of chopped liver and towering platters of cookies. I piled a few items on my plate and headed toward the far-reaches of the room so I could sit alone and wallow in my adolescent angst.
An elderly lady, balancing a cane and a plate of goodies, had the same idea, and sought a chair next to mine. Great, I thought; now I am stuck talking to a total stranger who is also older than God. Maybe she won’t bother me.
But no, she struck up a conversation, beginning with all the usual questions about school and my interests. There is never a good answer to the “How’s school?” question when you are a teenager. Which day do you mean? Which hour? Whatever I said seemed to satisfy her, so I turned my attention to my plate, trying to decide whether to eat the little bagel first or start with the lemon bar.
I stuffed the lemon bar in my mouth and braced myself for the next inevitable question from the old busybody. “Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked.
Oh boy. Did I ever. And he was part of my misery. For some reason, I opened up to her about this guy who either made me swoon with desire or infuriated me, with not too much middle ground. So I told her about this boy I thought I was in love with. I told her about the movie dates where he would buy his ticket and then wait, avoiding eye contact, while I fished around in my purse for money to buy my own. I told her about the way he would pull up in his car and sit there in the street with the engine running and wait for me to come out. I told her about the other girls I knew he was seeing behind my back. I told her that he could be very romantic, but that he usually needed a couple of drinks first. I told her that he was tender and sweet in private, but totally ignored me in public, especially around his friends. I told her how he called me a million times while I was babysitting once and the kids must have told their mother because she never asked me to babysit again. I felt bad about that. I told her that he made me laugh, when he wasn’t making me cry.
And I also told her that there was this other guy, a friend. He was a good listener, laughed at my jokes, and he had good manners. He and I went to a movie together, just as friends, I pointed out, and he came to the door when he picked me up and he paid for my ticket even though he didn’t have to really, and he didn’t mind when I cried through the whole thing, including the credits.
And then I talked about my boyfriend’s eyes and his hair and his life story and maybe I tried to explain what was so irresistible about him, leaving out the part about how I loved the way he kissed but how he wouldn’t hold my hand. I didn’t talk to her about things we did in the dark, how his hands traced my body’s curves, exploring every inch. She wouldn’t have understood anything about it. Probably never felt that way herself, or was too old to remember if she had.
“He wrote poetry for me,” I explained. I was helpless to resist him when he was around. Romantic, poetic, Irish, exuberant, quick with quips and snappy rejoinders.
“Sounds like he’s got the gift of gab,” she said, like it wasn’t such a great thing.
After listening as I chattered some more about the boy I thought I loved, she held up her hand, leaned over and looked right into my eyes. Her mouth was tight and her lips formed a thin line.
“You should never take a back seat to anyone,” she said. “You don’t let people treat you that way. Not a boy, not anyone.” Her index finger pointed at me. “You know what I mean?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said. My family wasn’t too big on fostering self-esteem per se. I had never thought about how I might deserve to be treated.
She leaned back in her chair and took a thoughtful bite of rugeleh. “That other boy, the one who took you to the movie, he sounds like a better bet. Stick with him.”
* * *
I broke up with my boyfriend soon after my conversation with the wise old woman. The breakup was painful, dramatic, and final. We went our separate ways. There was one awkward encounter some years later. It just made me sad to see him.
As for me, I got over feeling like chopped liver.
And I decided to stick with that other boy.