Once Mom began her chemotherapy, her efforts to get me to come home and spend time with her intensified. Though I had mentioned the possibility of taking a sabbatical, the longer I lived outside the country, the less inclined I was to return. When I went back on rare visits, I felt increasingly out of place and inconsequential, or as my cousin Sonny would say, “like just another swinging dick,” in part because I had no base of operations there, no place where my family and friends were concentrated. They (what was left of them, for they kept fading in my memory like an over-washed t-shirt) were spread out all over the map, living their fortress-like lives with their sprawling homes and all-terrain vehicles and battalions of kids. And since I had never sought to acquire these things, I was like an underdressed gate-crasher at the ball. Oh, you’re living in Colombia? people would ask as their eyes glazed over. Making the rounds was exhausting. At first, it was good to see people, but as with drinking eggnog, you soon felt surfeited. Then you got this gnawing, unsettling feeling that one of you had made the grave mistake of living the wrong life.
On each visit, from the moment Mom picked us up at the airport, Marci and I felt obliged (partly because we had succumbed to letting Mom pay our plane fare) to follow the schedule she established: visit her friends, attend family reunions, and even, the ultimate sacrifice, accompany her to church. Any requests to deviate from her itinerary had to be kept to an absolute minimum in order to maintain the peace. The prospect of living a whole year under those conditions didn’t seem all that appealing.
But Mom was dying. So out of some stubborn sense of duty combined with the fear of facing a monumental guilt trip, I began to seriously consider the sabbatical. I made a list of all the pros and cons of going (just as Mom advised) and I talked with my director about the dates and procedures for application.
But then, as the time for a decision approached, Mom called with some news. She had just returned from a three-day trip to Orlando with a man.
For the last few years, Mom had subscribed to an on-line dating service called Senior Mates. She had nearly stopped using it, she claimed, because as her age crept up, the men who responded grew older and older. “I mean old old,” Mom said. One grizzled old fellow invited her to a restaurant and proceeded to ingest twelve different kinds of pills. Another old codger sporting a bow tie and porkpie hat told her the same drawn-out anecdote three times the same night. But then out of the blue up popped this:
68 yrs., 6 ft. tall, divorced. Interests: biking, reading, business, stock market. Likes to cook, travel, and polish silver. Princeton, 1954.
On my palm-shaded balcony, I rocked in my wicker chair. A garbage truck rumbled past, smelling of oranges. Though I’d never felt comfortable hearing the details of Mom’s romantic exploits—it was impossible to conceive of her as a sexual creature—I saw this as just the thing that might let me off the hook. The more interested she became in her Internet guy, the less she might press me to take the sabbatical. So I listened.
“When we made contact,” Mom said, “I learned that he had owned a radio station in Cincinnati and an energy company in Chicago. Now he’s a developer in Daytona Beach. He took his daughters all over the world and he’d like to travel with me to Colombia.”
Oh, great, I thought.
“This will be perfect for my memoir, don’t you think?”
“Whatever Marlene decides.”
“I told you, Marlene is unreliable. You need to write it.”
“Mom, I never said I would... ”
“I just need you to collaborate, is all. I can give you the information and help you organize the chapters. How about if we call this chapter Last Love? Howard is my partner for my Last Tango in Paris.”
I recoiled at the image. A church-going, tee-totaling grandmother, Mom seemed miscast as leading lady. But neither was she someone who considered her life insignificant. She demanded and, okay, deserved, the right to be the heroine of her drama.
“Of course I didn’t tell Howard about my treatments,” Mom continued. “I didn’t think cancer would be much of a come on.”
“You’re the writer.”
“No, I’m... ”
“I feel so lucky that Howard arrived in my life just when I needed him. After my treatments I would go back to my room in the Valley Inn and lie there topless, all red and raw from the radiation, and think of Howard.”
“Anyway, I told Howard I had this promotional brochure lying around that offered a free three-day trip to Orlando (with the obligatory sales pitch included), and suggested that he drive up from Daytona. At first he said yes and then he seemed to get cold feet. I told him, If you don’t like me you can just drop me off at the hotel, no hard feelings. But I think I can warm up those feet.”
I shifted in my chair. Above my head, a hummingbird and a canary jockeyed for a perch at the bird feeder.
“The two nights and three days in Orlando were fantastic,” Mom continued. “Howard picked me up at the airport: this big, robust man with a mane of gray hair. And what a charmer! Fortunately, the red, painful marks on my chest had nearly disappeared... ”
I moved the phone away from my ear.
“But something seemed strange. This man who said he didn't drink had a martini with dinner. He got several cell phone calls and seemed to be wealthy, yet his Olds was ancient. I was determined to get the straight scope.”
“Scoop,” I said.
“The next day he accompanied me to hear the sales pitch. To my surprise, I ended up buying a time-share.”
To her surprise? Mom wasn’t one to get dragged into anything against her will. On the contrary, her every move was carefully calculated. Number one, buying the property would allow her more access to Howard, and two, it was a way of impressing him, not only with her pocketbook, but also with her spontaneity, her adventurousness. A bold move to show how much she was willing to wager.
Nonetheless, I caught a whiff of desperation in her gambit. Something uncharacteristic in Mom. Maybe it was because she was older than Howard and less adept at courting, and also because her time was running out. She must have decided it was time for the Hail Mary.
“It’s a great deal!” Mom insisted. “A three-bedroom condo at the gates of Disney, with the opportunity to visit thousands of resorts all over the world for only $199 a week! It is deeded and will soon be yours.”
But she needn’t have appealed to my self-interest since I already had my reasons for wanting the romance to succeed. “Sounds like you’ve hit the jackpot,” I said.
“We’ll see!” Mom chirped in a giddy, school-girlish voice. “I want you to meet him!’
One of Mom’s cancer markers was up, she wrote. Her blood thinner dosage was being increased. Meanwhile, the deadline for the sabbatical application was fast approaching. My director stopped me in the hall and asked if I’d made a decision. Though her face contorted to show concern for Mom’s health, I knew she needed an office for the new professor. Mine was more like a closet full of books, which worked to my advantage since it was too small to share with a colleague, and I didn’t want to lose it.
Luckily Marci, unlike a lot of Colombian women, wasn’t eager to live in the States. Things were going well for us. I had my gig at the university and she was landing more acting jobs than ever. Now, with Howard in the picture, maybe I could get on with my life and not spend so much time thinking about taking a sabbatical I didn’t want to take. After all, you were only allowed one in your entire career and it would be better to save it, as a kind of mental health insurance, in case I ever suffered a breakdown from the tedium. But these were personal considerations and admittedly egocentric ones. After all, this was my mother, and she was dying.
“After the Orlando trip,” Mom informed me the next time she called, “I didn’t hear from Howard for four days. Later he told me that he’d been very busy. That busy word is a bad sign. I decided to wait him out. I was determined, the next time I saw him, to ask some very direct questions. There is nothing worse than being led on by a man and kept in the dark about what is happening in his mind.”
A few days later I received this.
I’ve been so full of emotions lately, I decided to try to put them on paper. I hope you can think of a way to work this into the memoir:
She found herself in her last season of romance. Winter was in her hair but love was in her heart. It was as though she were discovering everything for the first time: every kiss, every caress, every sigh.
While Mom had always been so rational about her relationships, this time she seemed to be letting her emotions prevail. It was as if she had suddenly reverted back to the romantic mindset of her youth. She began to make references to her old school friends—the guys who pre-dated my dad—and sift through her pictures and yearbooks, devising ways to reestablish contact. She was approaching this affair with Howard like a schoolgirl. As one nears death, one regresses physically, losing hair and teeth, growing smaller and weaker. Maybe the same was happening to Mom emotionally.
Mom called me one night, euphoric. “Hi, I’m here with Howard. We’re having a ball. I’ve been showing him pictures of you guys. He says Marci is a knockout. I let him read that story you wrote in high school... ”
“Mom,” I said, “that story is so juvenile. I can’t believe you let him read it.”
“What do you mean? He loved it. We’ve been planning our trip to Colombia. He’s real excited. Here, I’ll put him on.”
“No, that’s OK... ”
“Hello there, old chap,” boomed a pretentious, George Plimpton-like voice. George Plimpton after a couple of jiggers of Seagram’s. Mom said something in the background, and they snickered conspiratorially.
“One of my daughters traveled to Ecuador,” Howard said. “Is Colombia safe?”
“I don’t feel afraid.”
“Oh, but you’re an adventurous one, just like your mom.”
Another flutter of laughter and animated murmuring. I got off the phone as soon as I could.
A few days later this message arrived:
It was like a dream. He was actually in her house. Showering in her bathroom, sleeping in her bed. They listened to old Broadway tunes, gave each other back rubs, reveled in their sensuality. She longed to plumb the depths of who he really was and who they were together.
“I think Mom’s setting herself up for a big let-down,” I told Marci as she raced through her caffeine-fueled Jane Fonda workout in her bra and thong panties.
Gripping an aluminum pole, she twisted from side to side. “Don’t be so hard on her, Carl. Maybe it will work out.”
“Has it ever worked out?”
“You said yourself she had softened up with you lately.”
“Yeah. It’s easier when we’re a continent away.”
Marci lay on her stomach and began doing leg lifts. “I hope things work out for her.”
“I hope so too. Maybe I can get out of taking that sabbatical.”
“If you take it, when would it be?”
“At the end of this semester.”
“That soon? What would we do there?”
“I’d work on a project and you could study.”
Marci’s stared off dreamily—too dreamily.
“But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I said.
The next week was a real roller coaster, Mom wrote, I got everything ready for Howard's five-day visit. I made dinner reservations and got tickets to Life as a House. Then Howard called to say he couldn’t make it. He was involved in a business deal in Miami. He apologized for disappointing me and said he was disappointed also.
I knew something was going on with him. He sounded depressed. He hadn't looked at his email in days and we hadn’t had a long conversation in weeks. I was determined to get to the bottom of this. I had a hunch his financial problems were getting him down.
I went to Life as a House by myself. It was a real tear jerker—just what I needed. There were only four other people in the theater so I had a good cry. The only problem was I was still crying in Food Town and when I got home. So, all in all, it was good that Howard wasn’t here. I couldn’t handle any more feelings. He left a message saying ‘Sorry I missed you. I feel real good about a lot of things.’
I’ve decided that the problem with our relationship is that Howard has never really been loved, either by his parents or by his family. He has always been too busy to spend time getting to know those closest to him. Consequently, he has no clue about what loving someone really means. I told him our communication is truncated, superficial, and factual. I also pointed out that we have spent about thirty minutes on the phone in the last month, and he has sent few emails. My hope is that now that his business is back on track he can once again focus his attention on me.
“How did his business get back on track?” I asked in my next email. “Did you give him any money?”
Mom didn’t respond.
Mom was scheduled for an MRI to determine the cause of her leg pain, she wrote. Dr. McCloud would continue her current chemo treatment for another month and then decide what to do.
Less than two weeks remained before the application date for the sabbatical. Mom hadn’t brought up the subject in a while, but I was sure that if things broke off with Howard, the subject would immediately reemerge. But why should it be this way? Did being the primogenitor mean that I was the designated replacement husband? Not sexually of course, and not even in terms of practical support—my sister did most of that—but maybe in terms of being her mainstay for solidarity and approval. She seemed to feel that with my history of erratic relationships and childlessness, I was the one who could most appreciate her solitude. Also, after having been extremely strict about not accepting money from her, I had lapsed into occasionally accepting a plane ticket or a computer, which left me compromised when it came time for her to request reciprocity.
Further complicating matters, the sabbatical application required a ten-page proposal and I had no topic in mind. So I began brainstorming to try to put something together just in case. That way, I could continue to delay my decision.
But to my alarm, Marci started looking into study programs and began to warm to the idea of going. While I needed her with me if it came to that (I couldn’t imagine going alone), I worried that she might end up liking it there and wanting to stay.
On Friday, Mom wrote, I dropped in on Howard in Daytona. I asked if he’d gotten me a Valentine. He said he’d never bought one in his life. I told him he was getting me one even if I had to pay for it. We went to Walgreen’s and he chose a card while I was wandering around. He said that without his reading glasses he didn't know what it said, but he thought it had enough mushy words. Well, it was the best card I ever received and he admitted that he had read it. He recognized that he wasn’t romantic and had trouble expressing his feelings. I think I can change that.
Seizing on this positive note, I decided to ask Mom point blank about the sabbatical. After inquiring about her health, I broached the subject with a slightly halting voice:
“Mom, I’ve been thinking about the sabbatical and talking it over with Marci. For a number of reasons, this is not really the best time to go. My work and her acting; if you want more details I can give them to you. But I want to make it clear... I’m going to put it like this... if you really want us to go, we’ll go. It’s up to you. “
“No, Carl,” Mom said. “It’s up to you. You have to recognize all the benefits you would have here. In terms of professional opportunities for both of you, in terms of safety, in terms of health care. Many things, not the least of which is the opportunity to be with your family.”
There it was: she dropped the f-bomb.
“Mom, as I said, we’ve considered all that and what it comes down to is not wanting to go against your wishes.”
“It doesn’t matter what I want. You need to think about what’s in your best interest. I told you, you’ll have my house and my car, and you’ll have money because I’m going to pay you to help with my memoir.”
“Speaking of which, I’ve jotted down a few notes. Things I want you to stress about my relationship with Howard. One is, you must get across how interesting he is. How fascinating, with all his contradictions. So sweet and at the same time so... insular. So confident and yet so fragile.”
“Did you tell him about your cancer?”
“Yes, a few weeks ago. Right after he told me about his prostate surgery.”
The next time I saw my director, she broached the subject of my office. I said I’d have an answer for her soon. I was continuing to work on the proposal, an exploration of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, as well as make contingency plans for renting the house and selling the car and so forth. Sometimes the stress of it all made me want to go out and get drunk with my friends. Which I often did.
Though I normally wasn’t the one to initiate contact, when a week went by without a word, I called Mom to ask about Howard.
“Well, he’s gotten ‘real busy’ again. I told him the ball was in his court and I would be patient. That’s when I had a long conversation with his sister. She confirmed what I had suspected about Howard and his women. She said he’s been ‘in love’ for the past five months with a woman in Daytona. This ‘other woman’ is sixty, has been married five times, and works at AAA, which is where Howard called me from the lobby to tell me he was applying for a job.
“His sister admitted that Howard has never really loved anyone. And she had no idea that he’s been with me or that he is in deep, deep financial trouble. She said he is spending money like mad. As far as I know, he only receives Social Security, so his lover must be paying his bills. I have left messages over the last several days—Monday was his birthday—and have gotten no response.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you thinking of this as a kind of detective story?”
“No,” Mom snapped. “I’m thinking of it as a love story.”
It was looking more and more like I would have to take the sabbatical. What could I do to get out of it? Encourage Mom to not give up on Howard? But that wouldn’t be necessary; Mom was tenacious. (Poor Howard, in a way. I doubted that he’d ever locked horns with anyone like her.)
“Yesterday,” Mom said the next time we talked, “I broke down and called Howard. He was going into a store to get new glasses. I told him I’ve heard from three former male friends within the last week. I said, ‘I just wanted you to know. I didn't want to do anything behind your back.’”
“What did he say?”
“He thanked me.”
“Now what will you do?”
“I also told him to give me back your magazine, which he’s never returned.”
“Mom, that’s my only copy.”
“I thought you said that story was juvenile.”
“It is. But it’s my only copy.”
“I’ll get it back. Don’t worry.”
“I waited a few days,” Mom said the next time we talked, “and then I sent an anonymous letter to Senior Mates, describing myself as a fun-loving fifty-nine year-old who likes traveling, fine wines, and provocative conversations.’ And Howard responded to the ad! I caught him red handed!”
“How much money did you give him?” I asked.
“Did you give him any money?”
“I gave him a little, but I’ve been in contact with three women who gave him a lot. Yesterday I went to SouthTrust, the bank Howard used to write me a check for $4,500. The manager called Florida and found out that the account had no funds and hadn't been used in over a year. I filled Wendy, the manager, in on the story. She was furious. ‘What do your children think of this?’ she asked me. ‘I'm from a big Italian family and my brothers would have killed this man by now.’
Mom paused to let this sink in. “Wendy said I should run the check through, let it bounce, and then go to the police. I’m really conflicted. I know that Howard has a personality disorder and I don’t want to hurt him. On the other hand, if I blow the whistle and he has to pay the consequences, he might escape the fury of other women and stay out of jail.”
“I called him today,” Mom said several days later. “He sounded depressed. The good news is that he is seeing a psychologist. At last! He’s blaming everything on his obsession with the AAA woman he’s been denying even existed. I told him he needs to declare bankruptcy and get a job.”
“So what happens now?”
“I don’t know. But in spite of his shortcomings, I wouldn’t give anything for what we’ve had.”
“Take,” I said. “Take anything.”
“That’s right, clean up the wording. But make sure you get across the heartbreak I’m feeling right now.”
“Does that mean we’re going?” Marci said with an excitement I found disturbing.
“Not necessarily,” I said. “We’ve still got time.”
I didn’t say how much.
Those last five days were agonizing. I waited for Mom’s next move. I thought about calling and saying I wasn’t coming, just to get her reaction, and then, based on that, decide what to do.
But Mom didn’t call. Nor did I.
The application date arrived.
Then it passed.
There would be no other opportunity. She would be gone.
And what about Howard? A charming charlatan? Divorced, unemployed, and living off vulnerable, affection-starved old ladies?
The bastard didn’t even send his condolences when Mom died.
Nor did he return my magazine. The fucker! I always knew those guys existed, but I never thought that one would prey on my mom.
But there was another way to look at it.
Maybe Mom, always so clear-headed, had known quite well what she was getting into. Was there anything wrong with a lonely old woman, even a deeply ethical one like Mom, paying a less than honest man for his affections? Especially at a time she really needed them? At least she got some return on her investment. Perhaps that’s why, despite all her threats, she never turned him in.
Besides, one had to recognize her laudable generosity and capacity for forgiveness. The same qualities that influenced her to stop insisting on my sabbatical. After that day, she never mentioned it again.
It was an odd feeling to no longer be the recipient of Mom’s insistent persuasions. I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know how to feel. Then it occurred to me that, just as Mom had probably known, early on, the truth about Howard, she had also probably known that I would never take the sabbatical. Which suggested that everyone, even a hard-core realist like my mom, needs illusions to cling to in order to survive.