One blessedly cool day near the end of August, I ran into Mickey Wasserman at the Starbucks on 102nd Street and Broadway where I used to go to do my freelance copyediting before Starbucks came to Washington Heights. It must have been at least thirty years since I had last seen Mickey, who lived up the block from me when I was a child. I remembered him being on the scrawny side, with thick glasses and pimples and a funny lopsided walk, and I was surprised to find him looming over me now, a big sloppy Saint Bernard of a man. I never would have recognized him if he hadn’t recognized me. He told me he came down from Westchester every Tuesday for a guitar lesson; his teacher lived two blocks away and he always gave himself an extra half hour to stop off at Starbucks beforehand.
“I need my four shots,” he said, explaining that mainlining (his word) four shots of espresso was the only thing to get him going in the morning. He spoke in a heavy Long Island accent, the kind that people outside of New York love to make fun of. It was a manner of speaking that Ruth and I had studiously avoided. We had modeled our speech after that of our first cousins Ronnie and Marcia, who had modeled theirs after their mother, who had modeled hers after the movie stars of the 1940s; so, like Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn, Ruth and I spoke in the accent of a country that did not exist.
“A blast from the past!” Mickey exclaimed, wrapping me in a massive hug. “I swear to God I was just telling my wife the other day how you and your twin sister used to terrorize me when I was little. Just the other day I was telling her that! I swear to God! Just the other day! I’m freaked! I’m totally freaked! Our stars must have crossed or something! I’m gonna call my astrologist when I get home.”
Click Here to make a tax-deductible contribution.
“You have your own astrologist? We terrorized you?” I couldn’t imagine Ruth and me terrorizing anyone. I also had no recollection of ever having had anything to do with Mickey Wasserman. But then I remembered very little about my childhood.
Mickey gave me a dumbfounded look. “Are you kidding? You and Ruth used to wrestle me down to the sidewalk and pin me down and sit on me. You were both so strong and wild and I was so weak and timid. It took me years of therapy to get over it! I mean, I’m not saying it was the only reason I was in therapy, but honest to God I talked to my therapist about you and your sister.” Mickey was such an affable guy and so full of himself that I didn’t feel the usual discomfort I feel in the presence of most humans.
It made me feel happy to think of Ruth and me wrestling with Mickey Wasserman. It seemed like such a healthy, normal thing to do—horsing around with a kid from the neighborhood.
“You were so big, and there were two of you. And you looked exactly alike! That was so freaky! I mean I’m fine about it now! I’ve forgiven you! It’s great to see you!”
“It’s great to see you too,” I said.
“So how is that genius sister of yours?” Mickey asked.
“She’s fine,” I said, overcome with the furtive feelings of sadness and regret that any inquiry about Ruth inevitably evokes.
Mickey asked if I lived around here and I told him about my routine.
“So I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of each other,” he said, engulfing me in another hug.
I liked being pressed against the bigness of him; I liked his effusiveness. I wished I could reciprocate his feelings of nostalgia. But nothing associated with Oceanside ever made me feel nostalgic.
“A blast from the past,” he said again and then he left carrying his venti cup with its four shots of espresso.
I saw Mickey the following Tuesday. When he stopped at my table, I was in the middle of copyediting a book about two lesbian lovers who killed people for kicks. It was part of a series of true crime books I was working on. Reading those gruesome stories gave me a perverse pleasure, although every now and then it would occur to me that I should be doing something more productive with my life.
I would occasionally pick up an interesting fact from one of those books—such as a good way to keep your dishwasher clean is running it with half a cup of vinegar, that brushing your teeth with baking soda is a cheap and easy way to keep them white, and scrubbing your face with honey and sugar is good for your skin.
Mickey picked right up where we had left off in our conversation last week. He had been telling me that his parents hated him and that the first thing his mother would say to his father as soon as he got home from work was: “Kill him,” when, looking at his watch, he said he had to rush out—he was already ten minutes late for his guitar lesson.
Now Mickey was reporting that his mother left his father years ago for a short, fat Jewish podiatrist. She had her own art gallery in Soho. I remembered Barbara Wasserman well. She was a beautiful, friendly woman with long blond hair she always wore done up in a bun like the one Tippi Hedren had in The Birds. She did abstract oil paintings. Every house on our block had a painting by her. One of them, which she called “The Sudden Singing of a Swan,” had hung above the tool chest in my parents’ garage for years.
Mickey made his living playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and teaching guitar, but his ambition had always been to make it as a rock musician. On the advice of a record producer he had cornered at a musicians’ conference in Beverly Hills, he had spent fifty thousand dollars on a demo CD featuring songs he had written. He had converted to Christianity about ten years ago and some of the songs were Christian Rock, a genre I previously had not known existed.
“It’s going to be big! It’s going to be really, really big!” he exclaimed.
Mickey talked a little bit more about how wild my sister and I were, and that in addition to being afraid of us, he was jealous of us too. We had so much energy and were always up for having fun and we had each other, whereas he had always suffered the loneliness of being an only child.
One week Mickey showed up at Starbucks with a copy of his fifty-thousand-dollar CD. It had a psychedelic cover depicting dragons playing guitars surrounded by red and purple flames; even I, who know nothing about this sort of thing, recognized that it evoked a musical era as dead as the music of Perry Como was when Mickey was first learning to play guitar.
“I want you to hear the first cut! It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before! I swear to God!” he said excitedly. “You gotta hear it! Just listen to this one cut!”
Sitting in my chair with the headphone from his IPOD pressed against my ear, I felt sorry for Mickey. The music was so clearly derivative, the lyrics embarrassingly sentimental.
After listening to the song and doing my best to come up with praise I hoped would be worthy of the fifty-thousand dollars he had squandered, Mickey exclaimed, “And I have another surprise for you!” He handed me a VHS tape that looked even more ancient than his CD cover. “Guess what this is! You’ll never guess what it is! Can you guess?” he said, and then breathlessly answering his own question he told me that it was a videotape of his bar mitzvah and that there was some footage of Ruth and me in it.
“Do you still have VHS? I hope you still have VHS!”
After dinner, Nick reconnected our old VHS machine. We lay in bed watching the videotape, wading through frame after frame of the bar mitzvah boy mugging for the camera, waiting for Ruth and me to appear on the television screen. First, there was skinny little Mickey, swimming in his bar mitzvah suit, a lopsided yarmulke on his head, cushioned between his kvelling grandparents, his frumpy, white-haired, hump-backed grandfather leaning on a cane and his frumpy white-haired grandmother with her Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat. Nick pointed out that Mickey’s grandparents were probably around the age we were now.
It wasn’t the fact that we were so old that came as a surprise to either of us—this was something we think about all the time—it was the idea that we could be the same age as people who looked as though they belonged in a morgue.
The grandmother was wearing a royal blue dress, which happened to be the same color dress my mother had worn to my brother’s bar mitzvah. She had had her shoes dyed to match. Ruth and I wore matching yellow organdy dresses, black patent leather shoes and white ankle socks with lace around the cuffs. The pictures of us at my brother’s bar mitzvah album show us in various poses of delight—laughing together, hugging and kissing, twirling around in each other’s arms.
Next, there was Mickey standing between the parents who hated him gazing at their son with adoration. His mother looked very glamorous in her famous Tippi Hedren bun, and his father, a big man who I recalled just then owned a hardware store, looked very proud in his wide tie and double-breasted suit. Mickey’s father parked his truck in his driveway and that had caused quite a stir among the neighbors, who were afraid that Pete Wasserman’s working-class truck bearing the WASSERMAN’S HARDWARE emblazoned on both sides would bring down the property values on our fervently middle-class block.
Finally, I appeared on the screen, on the dance floor, happily flapping my arms up and down and wiggling my hips the frantic way I used to whenever I danced. Nick pressed the pause button, and we lay in bed, watching me, frozen on the screen, my arms lifted in the air, my face lit up with feral delight. The last time I danced I ended up putting my hip out of joint and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
“Pretty hot for a ten-year-old,” Nick said as he pressed the pause button.
The image of my little-girl self-dancing around like a maniac reminded me of another picture of me, striking the very same pose. I hadn’t looked at that photo in years, and I had no intention of looking at it now, although I did glance over to where it resided in the family album on the bottom shelf of the bookcase next to my side of the bed. I didn’t have to look at it, or any of the other photos containing the iconography of my life. The picture I was thinking of had been taken at a party my parents had given. For some reason, there had been dancing. I was in my early twenties, and whoever took the picture caught the sexy former lover-cum-second husband of my mother’s cousin Helene holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, leering at me.
Other photos from that album flashed through my mind. In one of them, I was standing in someone’s backyard, and, like something out of a painting by Chagall, Ruth was sitting on my shoulders. We were in our twenties in that photo, as well. What was striking about it wasn’t the pose, it was the expression on our faces, which were identical in two other photos, taken decades apart. One is a black-and-white three-by-three-inch photo of Ruth and me as little girls; the other was taken when we were in our early thirties. According to the boyfriend who had taken the later picture, the expressions on our faces would be a gold mine for a shrink. But it wouldn’t take a shrink to interpret what was going on in those photos. In all three of them, Ruth is grinning in wild delight while I smile tentatively, the same far-away look in my eyes.
I told Nick to rewind the tape. I wanted to see myself dancing again. I burst into tears.
“I used to be happy. It was in my nature to be happy, wasn’t it? You think I’m a happy person, don’t you? What’s wrong with me? I’m so confused!” Nick pulled me into his arms, prepared to comfort me and, if necessary, listen to me tell him, for the ten millionth time, the story of Ruth.
I started off by saying that Ruth hated my happiness. She resented it. Adding his usual caveat of not for a second doubting that my efforts to comfort Ruth were sincere, he said that he didn’t think it could have been very comforting for my sister to have me prancing around her singing “Put on a Happy Face” while she sat in a chair in the living room slumped over in despair.
Nick hit the play button. The cameraman was videotaping all the different tables. When Nick got to the table where Ruth and I were sitting, he hit the pause button again. I was deep in conversation with Ruth. For the next several minutes, whenever the camera flashed on us—and it flashed on us often because, along with the other children, we had been seated at the bar mitzvah boy’s dais—there we were, still deep in conversation, looking very serious and grim.
Nick knew all about my long, torturous talks with Ruth. We wouldn’t stop talking until I had managed to find the right combination of words and phrases that would comfort her, and once I did, I would repeat them over and over again until I succeeded in driving away her feelings of terror, worthlessness, and nonexistence. For an indeterminate amount of time, she would go back to being the sister I loved so much; she would go back to being the Ruth she was meant to be. She was always so grateful to me for my help.
Nick asked me if I had any idea what we were talking about in that image of us frozen on the television screen. I had told him a thousand times that I couldn’t remember anything except the blurry outlines of things.
“All those hundreds of hours of conversations are mashed together into one gigantic ball of clay,” I said. “Except there is the tail end of one of them. I don’t think I ever told you about that one.”
I was saying good night to Ruth after a long talk. We had been sitting on the narrow bed in my brother’s room, where Ruth started sleeping after Steven went away to college. For years before Steven left home, I had dreamed of having my own room—I wanted it so badly that I can still remember exactly what my room looked like. I had converted the shed in our backyard into my bedroom. The entire interior—my bed, the curtains, the walls—were covered in the Indian fabric that was so popular in those days. I can still see the colors and the pattern of the fabric I had chosen for my room. And the colors. Red and green and yellow. I don’t remember whose idea it had been for us to stop sharing a room or why Ruth ended up in our brother’s room and I ended up staying in ours.
Before closing the door that evening, I turned around to say goodbye to Ruth one last time. First, she blew me a kiss and I blew her a kiss back. And then, just as I was about to leave Steven’s room, she sneered at me—a mean, ugly sneer.
I was in such a state of confusion and shock my head started spinning.
Why did you do that? I asked her. Why? Why? Why?
Because it’s the truth, she replied.
I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t necessarily understand it now, but it occurs to me that maybe Ruth didn’t like depending on me the way she did—the way she had to depend on me. I was, after all, only three minutes older than she was.
Then I recalled how Ruth and I happened to be invited to Mickey Wasserman’s bar mitzvah. We had never been friends with him. I was sitting on the front stoop of my house crying when Barbara Wasserman happened to be driving by. She stopped her car to ask me what was wrong. I made up some excuse or another. I didn’t dare tell her what I was really crying about.
Ruth and I were in the 6th grade. It was the last time we were in the same class together. It was morning, and I was crouched near the entrance of the classroom tying my shoelace. Ruth was a few feet away unbuttoning her coat. It was a blue coat, the collar of which our mother, in a fit of the maternal enthusiasm that characterized the early days of her motherhood, had adorned with lace. She had promised to attach a lace collar to my coat over the weekend and I was thinking how nice it was going to have a coat with a lace collar when I glanced back up at Ruth. She was working on the bottom button when I noticed through the gap between the two sides of her unbuttoned coat that she wasn’t wearing a skirt. All she had on was a pair of red tights.
The hall was very crowded and noisy and kids were streaming into our classroom. I knew it would be too risky to call out Ruth’s name, so I stood up and walked briskly past the class tyrant, Karen Mendelson (to this day still an amazing bitch). Fortunately, all Karen’s attention was focused on taunting the class outcast, Ira Schulman. I went over to Ruth and grabbing hold of her coat I quickly started buttoning it up.
“We have to go home,” I whispered. “You forgot your skirt.”
“Oh no!” she said with a gasp.
It was so noisy that no one seemed to have heard her.
“Shhhhh,” I whispered. “Don’t worry. Nobody noticed. Let’s go.”
If we cut through Iris Weissman’s backyard (which we always did, in defiance of Iris Weissman’s mother’s complaints about us trampling over her pachysandra), we could make it back and forth in less than ten minutes. So taking hold of Ruth’s hand, I whisked her out the door and we were back in the classroom seconds before the second bell.
All-day long I worried that someone had noticed, but apparently, we had escaped detection. And Ruth seemed fine. I kept careful watch over her all day and she seemed fine. I was proud of myself for having so bravely and efficiently averted disaster. I had cleared the whole thing up so quickly it was as though a good fairy had cast a magic spell on Ruthie, making her and her green tights invisible.
But later that afternoon, when we got home from school, she headed straight for the driveway and started banging her head on the cement. She would get furious at me for trying to make her stop.
The next day was Mickey Wasserman’s bar mitzvah.
Maxine Rosaler’s novel Queen for a Day was nominated for The Kirkus Prize. Her stories have been cited in Best
American Short Stories and Best American Essays. “The Story of Ruth” is adapted from a novel she is working on.
So I guess that’s what Ruthie and I were talking about as we sat huddled together in our places of honor at Mickey Wasserman’s dais. We were talking about the day before, the day Ruth went to school without her skirt, and then later that afternoon when I found her banging her head on the cement. She told me she was trying to fix her brain. There was something wrong with her brain, she said, and banging on the sidewalk was the only thing that could make it feel right again.
Click Here to make a tax-deductible contribution.