Dani Shapiro
August 28, 2013

There is No Me Without You

Dani Shapiro spared no effort or expense in her quest to find the perfect egg donor – one with her intellect, her looks, even her feelings. But then they met, and she realized that even the finest reproductions still aren’t the real thing.

eggshot1-620x259-1

The palm-filled lobby of Shutters on the Beach, an upscale hotel perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, is a good spot for a blind date. With overstuffed chairs and sofas grouped around low coffee tables, and fireplaces blazing in the middle of a hot California afternoon, Shutters is a place where you can sit and talk, and no one will notice you or care. I’ve chosen a table near some drinking Europeans, with a clear view across the lobby to the front doors. I’m early, anxious. A Fred Segal shopping bag containing a gaily wrapped gift is at my feet. Only a few people in the world know I’m here. It feels as if I’m waiting to do something illicit-something involving sex or drugs. Which, in a way, I suppose I am.

A tall blond in a white pantsuit walks in, preceded by two chihuahuas straining on their leashes. Not her. A trio of young women in jeans and tailored jackets-Hollywood development girl types-scan the room for a table. Not her, not her, not her.

Finally — at exactly three-thirty, our appointed time — a slight woman in jeans, a pink T-shirt, and a blazer walks into the lobby. I recognize her instantly. She’s looking for me, too, though I have the advantage. She hasn’t seen my photograph. She has no idea what I look like, though she’d be correct in assuming that I am probably similar to her in build and coloring – an older version.

She notices me, and I give her a small half-wave. She approaches my table with what appears to be confidence, but who knows? I have a lot of information about her: where she goes to school (UCLA Law), her age when she lost her virginity (15), the causes of her grandparents’ deaths (lung cancer, heart disease). But now I’m suddenly aware that she is a perfect stranger.

“Carly?” I shake her hand, noticing everything. The size of her palm, the length of her fingers, the strength of her grip. “Dani?” she responds.

I’d wondered whether to give her my real name. We’re on a first name-only basis to begin with, but still my name is unusual. As a writer, I’m easily identifiable-traceable, if someone is so inclined.

She settles into a chair, orders a Diet Coke, then looks at me. I’m the one who asked for this meeting. I have a list of questions, scribbled on one of the back pages of my Filofax: How do you and your sisters get along? Who in your family do you most remind yourself of? Would you describe your parents as happy people? I’ve written them down because I’m afraid that I’ll forget to ask something important, something I’ll want to know down the line.

“So how did it go yesterday? Are you okay?”
She gives a little shrug. Her eyes are very blue, much bigger than in the photos. Beneath her left eye, a small muscle twitches. I wonder if she has a thyroid condition. Do they test for that?

“It was fine,” she says. “No big deal, really.”

The day before, a catheter was guided by ultrasound through Carly’s cervix, and eggs, 16 of them, were extracted from her follicles, made artificially mature by fertility hormones. These eggs were meant for me–I had purchased them. She was going to be the genetic mother of my child.

I was 43 when I reached the painful but inescapable conclusion that I wasn’t going to be able to give birth to another child. My husband and I had a six-year-old son and had been trying for several years to add to our family, despite the fact that I’d had a terrifying emergency cesarean the first time around and several doctors had urged us to use a surrogate rather than risk my health or a future baby’s. By the time we agreed to try IVF, the likelihood of success (referred to in the fertility world as the “take home baby rate”) for a woman my age using her own eggs was less than 5 percent.

We’re not going to do anything crazy, my husband and I kept reminding each other. We’re not desperate, we already have a wonderful kid. We thought about people we knew who had spent tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in an unsuccessful quest for a child. We knew couples whose marriages had been wrecked by the physical, emotional, and financial strain of multiple IVF cycles. But each insemination, each near-miss made us feel as if there was an empty chair at our table. We had considered adoption, but ultimately our desire for our son to have a biological connection to his sibling was simply too great. And so, we tentatively began to explore egg donation and surrogacy.

In recent years, gestational surrogacy with an egg donor–in which an egg is taken from a donor, fertilized, then implanted as an embryo in the uterus of another woman, who serves as the surrogate for the woman who can’t conceive–has virtually replaced traditional surrogacy, in which the surrogate uses her own eggs and is simply artificially inseminated. The beginnings of this shift can be dated to 1986, when a New Jersey couple, William and Elizabeth Stern, paid Mary Beth Whitehead $10,000 (plus $5,000 in expenses) to bear a child for them. Whitehead had a change of heart after giving birth to Baby M, and though the court eventually awarded custody to the Sterns, it decreed that a relationship with Whitehead was “in the best interests of the child,” and she was granted visitation rights. Splitting up the reproductive work–such that one woman contributes the egg, another the womb–is the best way to avoid this nightmare.

I did my best to tamp down feelings of queasiness at the mad science of it all. I kept reminding myself to keep my eyes on the prize. The prize! Our family would end up with a baby. I was giddy, euphoric at what I saw, at the time, as the removal of all impediment and doubt. Youthful eggs. An experienced, faultless womb. My own exhaustion, and a gnawing sense of being defective–to blame–made me relieved to take myself out of the equation.

Finding a surrogate had been fairly straightforward. Type surrogacy into Google and you immediately get a long list of agencies. My husband and I, both journalists who reach for the Internet at the slightest provocation, quickly learned that we needed an agency in a state with liberal laws about the subject. California is known for its tendency to uphold surrogacy contracts. Through a Los Angeles agency, Growing Generations, we were matched with Sandra, a third-time surrogate who’d given birth for two gay male couples and wanted a straight couple this time. She was the mother of two young children herself–a homemaker who lived in Fresno. She loved being pregnant and was clearly very good at it. I trusted her to do her job.

Smooth sailing, or so I thought. All it would take was , money and commitment. My mother had recently died and left me an inheritance, and what better way to spend it than to create a new life? After the baby was born, we could forget all about the strange circumstances of the conception and gestation. I pictured myself rocking a baby in the same chair in which I’d nursed my son, Jacob. I pictured him holding his new baby sister or brother in his arms. These images kept me marching.

Sitting across the table from Carly, I examined her carefully, though, I hoped, surreptitiously. I wondered if our meeting was as weird for her as it was for me. At the very moment we sipped our drinks, Carly’s eggs were in a petri dish being fertilized by my husband’s sperm. I felt jealous, as if she were the other woman in our marriage. Michael’s genetic material–his DNA–was cheating on me with the DNA of this blond, blue-eyed UCLA Law student. I imagined his millions of sperm swimming, tails wagging madly, toward her lovely, ripe eggs.

It had taken us months to choose Carly. We sat for hours each night, Michael and I, my laptop glowing in the darkness, scrolling though hundreds of postage-stamp-size photographs of prospective donors, like reading the profiles on a dating website. We were looking for something, though we couldn’t have articulated what it was, to capture us. One face, one bio that clearly shouted, That’s the one! Essentially, we hoped to fall in love.

Carly’s eggs were in a petri dish being fertilized by my husband’s sperm. I felt jealous, as if she were the other woman.

I’d point to a particular young woman, attracted by her prettiness, a high SAT score, or more often than not, just a feeling. And Michael would shake his head no. The reasons ranged from her nose is too big to she’s six feet tall to she just doesn’t look smart. I’d point to another one, and then another. I was looking to stay, however remotely, in the land of natural selection. Would this donor be someone Michael ever would have asked out on a date? How about a one-night stand? In other words, would there ever have been any way whatsoever that Michael’s sperm might have met her egg in a place other than a petri dish? We were so freaked out to be playing God that we wanted to feel, nonsensical as it may sound, that it would have been possible for this baby to have been created in the old fashioned way.

Sometimes it seemed important that the donor be Jewish. I come from an observant background myself. But I am blond and blue-eyed, with unusually–I’ve been told countless times—non-Jewish features. I had always been amused at the comments (“So, did your mother have an affair with the Swedish milkman?”), but now I was up against it, examining the specialized lists of Jewish donors, considering one dark-haired, dark-eyed girl after another. Which was more important to me? A Jewish egg? Or the chance for a baby who looked something like me and my little blond, blue-eyed son? (Though according to some Orthodox rabbis who debate such things, “she who gives birth” is considered the mother by Jewish law–which would make our baby, born of our Latina surrogate in Fresno, a non-Jew.)

Searching for the mother of my future child brought me face-to-face with my values, yet those values were in constant, roiling flux. Certain traits would rise to the top, then others. I became aware that I never would have chosen myself as a donor. My family history (depression, anxiety, drug addiction, heart disease, cancer… need I go on?) would have completely ruled me out. So what was I trying to accomplish here? Did I want to improve upon myself, or match myself? The one constant, and the one indisputably hereditary trait, was intelligence. But how could that be measured? Some agencies listed SAT and ACT scores, even the results of IQ tests. But what did it mean? A young woman might be “book smart,” a good test taker, but a thick, literal thinker. How would Michael and I–two neurotic writers, two misfits who live largely in our imaginations– know what to do with a nice, uncomplicated baby?

I found a donor I loved. She looked nothing like me, but I didn’t care. She had gone to Bard College and lived in Berkeley. She was adorable, with a mass of curls and freckles. She happened to be Jewish. She wrote long, thoughtful answers to the questions on the profile. She was an excellent writer. She had never donated before. I called her agency to inquire about her–my heart set–and was told that she had changed her mind about donating. She was worried about the long-term repercussions, psychologically and physically. And I could hardly blame her. I had chosen her precisely because she reminded me of myself: ruminative, always thinking five steps ahead, or 50.

I found another donor–going completely in another direction. A blond, blue-eyed triathlete and former model from the Egg Donor Program, an operation run by a marriage and family therapist and former Ford model, Shelley Smith. On a visit to Los Angeles, Michael and I met Smith in her office on Colfax Avenue, a suite decorated in an angel theme. Smith refers to her donors as “angels,” and her website describes each young woman in terms that evoke Playboy’s Playmate of the Month, like “perky, affectionate, with a megawatt smile.” We gave Smith a deposit and were days away from beginning a cycle, but I became terrified of the triathlete. Her smile was the same in every photo. She was unknowable to me, and I thought her child would be also.

Going back to the drawing board, I found myself discounting donors for embarrassingly elitist reasons. One was in beauty school; another listed her hobby as scrapbooking, her favorite author as Danielle Steel. Rationally, of course, I knew that these interests weren’t necessarily signs of dullness, but still I pictured my baby being born with a copy of Season of Passion clutched in her fist.

A woman looking for an egg donor yearns for someone who reminds her of herself, only younger, and the industry has learned that she’s willing to pay pretty much anything for that perceived similarity. Perusing websites, my husband and I noticed three factors that dramatically increased a donor’s proposed fee: an Ivy League pedigree, physical beauty, and proven donor success. As for the rare donor who possessed the trifecta, the sky, it seemed, was the limit. A lovely, dark-haired, Harvard-educated Vanderbilt Medical School student was listed as price upon request, like a couture dress. Ditto for a Natalie Portman look-alike Stanford student whose photo showed her playing the violin. One donor in particular comes to mind: a Harvard educated, half-Singaporean, half-Dutch, previously successful donor who wrote– in what amounts to a mission statement — that her desire to donate stemmed from “a Darwinian perspective on life,” her manifest destiny to spread her genetic material far and wide. Her asking price: $50,000.

I found the disparity between the going rate for donor eggs and for a surrogate disturbing. Though $35,000, our surrogate’s fee, seemed small recompense to take on all the physical wear and tear and risk of bearing a child, the greater value was in the genetics. Meanwhile, the amount of money we were laying out was starting to make me nervous–there were so many people suddenly on the payroll. We didn’t have endless stores of cash to spend but were treated by every professional we encountered as if we did. Team Baby! To navigate this baffiing universe of the most assisted of all assisted reproduction, a burgeoning new industry exists to help IPs (industry lingo for intended parents): psychologists, attorneys, insurance brokers, financial managers, egg donor and surrogate agencies, and reproductive endocrinologists.

It is in the interest of all parties to normalize the brave new world of assisted reproduction–a world, it must be said, that is many things, but normal is not one of them–as quickly and seamlesslyas possible. Just as my prospective donor found that the more she thought about donating, the harder it was for her to commit to it, so it is true with IPs. The best–or perhaps the only–way to go through the process is to keep blinders on and run maniacally toward the finish line. Stop, and you may stop forever.

Social worker Patricia Mendell, one of a handful of mental health professionals who specialize in infertility, was the first person in the industry to whom I spoke when Michael and I decided to go forward. I hoped to learn about the psychological pitfalls of the process, for Michael, myself, and for our future child, and, in fact, Mendell was knowledgeable and helpful about such matters. But before I knew what was happening, she also became my de facto egg broker.

A phone call from her to Darlene Pinkerton at A Perfect Match or to Marna Gatlin at Exceptional Donors meant that we might be able to snag a donor who wasn’t yet posted on the Internet, someone special–like a particularly fine wine not displayed on the list of a four-star restaurant. Getting an inside track was important because the best donors, meaning the beautiful Ivy League-educated ones, usually have long waiting lists before their photos even appear online. Those Dartmouth darlings and Princeton lovelies are only posted as bait for clueless IPs.

At Mendell’s suggestion, I started trying to charm the heads of several donor agencies. I sent letters, .along with photos of Michael, Jacob, and me smiling against the backdrop of our classic colonial on top of a hill. See? We were educated and good-looking ourselves. We were in the media, and I shamelessly used this as currency, aware that the agencies like bragging about their fancy clients, despite not being able to use their names. I even sent copies of my latest novel. Anything to let them know that we were serious and special. I had the distinct feeling of being a supplicant, grateful to the agencies and their donors for considering us.

I spoke to Mendell several times a week; she told me she’d called the heads of all the agencies and explained the kind of donor we were looking for. Since I wasn’t sure myself, I asked her to elaborate: a donor of depth, she said. I wondered if depth was hereditary.

She also let us know that she could screen prospective donors for us over the phone, catch red flags that novices like us might miss. I was disconcerted about Mendell’s expanding role. Was she my broker? An (unpaid) agent for the agencies? Wasn’t this unfair to infertile couples who didn’t have the resources or social cachet to have an insider working the phones for them? But I wasn’t about to rein her in. She was like a powerful literary agent, or a coach to help my kid get into the best private school. Mendell and I never once discussed her fee. Like every infertility professional we encountered, she seemed to assume that both our resources and our desire were endless. I remember being afraid before I opened Mendell’s first bill, as I was each time I received an e-mail from the financial department of Growing Generations. It felt as if we were hemorrhaging cash, without a baby in sight.

My universe got very small during the time I was trying to choose a donor. I typically share the details of my life with friends-but as I careened through the process, there were few people outside the industry who knew what we were up to. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I also found myself feeling increasingly old and vulnerable as I tried to replace myself with a bright, young thing. Whether they’re trained to communicate this way or not, the employees of Growing Generations, the donor agencies, and the reproductive endocrinologist’s office all seemed to speak slowly, carefully, as if talking someone off a cliff.

Carly was presented to us by Growing Generations as one of those “special” donors who hadn’t yet been put online; once that happened, we were told, a “feeding frenzy” would ensue. We were given a day to make a decision; I quickly found myself saying yes. She seemed–and this was now at the top of my list of what mattered–normal. She was smart, as indicated by her high SAT and LSAT scores. Her younger sister, also a donor, was equally academically gifted. She was cute and petite, about my height and weight. What more did I want, really? Depth? Humor? Jewishness? Neurosis? What I wanted was myself. Not because I was any great shakes, but because I was all I had. I wanted myself to be the mother of my second child, but that was too much to ask for.

Within a few days of choosing Carly, the bulletin board above my desk was taken up with charts as the countdown to her ovulation cycle got underway; I received phone calls from the clinic, letting me know that Carly had gotten her period and was soon to begin ovulation stimulation injections. A stranger across the country, and I knew when she was menstruating. We made plans to spend a week in L.A.–long enough for Carly’s eggs to be retrieved and fertilized with Michael’s sperm, and then a three-day wait to see whether any of the embryos were in good enough shape to be transferred into our surrogate, who was also getting hormone shots to prepare her uterus.

Carly and I had been together in the bar at Shutters on the Beach for about a half hour when I saw her checking her watch. “I don’t want to keep you,” I said. “Is there anything about me that you want to know?” I was worried that she might someday wonder about her genetic child, being raised far, far away from her. How could she possibly know how she would feel as a grown woman, possibly with children of her own? She thought for a moment.

“No,” she said. “Nothing I can think of”

I reached under my chair for the Fred Segal shopping bag. Inside was a box filled with bath salts, body cream, scrubs, and lotions. Was that too intimate a gift? I had been stumped, walking around the department store earlier that day. What do you buy your egg donor? Jewelry? A scarf?

“This is for you.” I handed her the box.
“Oh, you didn’t need to do that,” she said. Oh yes I did, I thought but didn’t say. In fact, it had been suggested to me by Growing Generations that I bring Carly a gift. She looked at the box for a moment. “Do you want me to open it now?” she asked. Her question made me flinch. The nature of our relationship was brought into its sharpest possible relief: It was transactional. And the transaction between us was coming to an end.

“No, that’s all right,” I said. Carly shook my hand goodbye and walked back through the lobby of the hotel–back into her life as a young, single law student.

Twelve hours later, at four o’clock in the morning, Michael and I picked up our surrogate at her hotel off Sunset Strip. In the dark, we drove through Beverly Hills to the Pacific Fertility Center, where our reproductive endocrinologist, Vicken Sahakian, MD, was meeting us. (He was flying to a conference later in the morning, hence the crack-of-dawn appointment.) We sat, Michael, Sandra, and I, in a brightly lit waiting room. The tables were covered with parenting magazines, alongside which were thick, loose-leaf binders bulging with mostly handwritten letters of thanks to Dr. Sahakian, accompanied by photographs of babies, frequently twins. Sahakian, personable, handsome, emerged from the elevator a few minutes after we arrived. He waved to us, then disappeared into his office, presumably to check the results of the fertilization. After what seemed a long time, he emerged. His expression was grim.

“These embryos are not good,” he said.
I looked at Michael. His face sagged.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“This is a poor donor,” Sahakian said. “The eggs were poor quality.” He was certain, he said, that Carly would be dropped from the program.

I had the sudden thought that I wanted my Fred Segal shopping bag back.”What do we do now?” Michael asked.
“We transfer as many as we can,” Sahakian said.There seemed to be no question as to whether we should move foward. “I think we’ll put four in.”

By in, he meant into Sandra’s womb. “Poor embryos” transferred into a stranger’s uterus. Embryos that were half my beloved husband’s. I felt nauseated as I accompanied Sahakian into the room where Sandra was lying, her lower body covered by a white sheet, her feet in stirrups. All I wanted to do was shout, “No!” But I couldn’t say a thing. I kept remembering Carly’s cool grip, the way she couldn’t think of any questions to ask me. I was acutely aware that I was watching something happen that I could never take back. I watched on a monitor as the microscopic embryos slid, one after the other, into Sandra’s uterus.

We drove her back to her hotel, and I helped her get ready for the 24 hours of bed rest. I presented her with a gift of creams and lotions, as well as every magazine I could find. I settled her into the king-size bed in her purple satin pajamas and left the TV remote in her hand.

“Well, you never know,” she said cheerfully as I prepared to leave. She was a kind, decent woman, trying to make me feel better.

Ten days later, back in New York, I found myself at the Museum of Modern Art. I knew my cell phone was going to ring, and I was as terrified as I have ever been. I wanted to be alone among people, in a place of beauty and history, a place that would somehow ground me as I received the news–whatever the news might be. I wandered through the cavernous second floor, trying to gather strength from the CyTwombly paintings depicting the four seasons. I was looking out at the sculpture garden when my phone rang.

“Dani? This is Christine from Dr. Sahakian’s office,” a voice said.
“Hi,” I responded, girding myself.
“I’m really sorry,” Christine said. “Sandra’s pregnancy test came back negative.”
I stared at the Rodin in the garden.
“Dani?” Christine asked. ”Are you okay?”
I couldn’t speak.
“I already called Sandra,” Christine said. “Please call us if there’s anything we can do.”

My mind had been racing so hard that, for a moment, I didn’t realize it had stopped. The constant, sick whirl I’d been carrying with me flew swiftly away. As my breath slowed, I tried to figure out what was going on. After all the trips, the money, the middle-of-the-night run through L.A., what I felt, finally, was relief. I’d been desperate, I realized, for the answer I’d just received. Desperate for the embryos to disintegrate into nothing.

I think I knew it was over then. I didn’t want any more phone calls from agencies telling me about fabulous new donors who hadn’t yet been posted. I didn’t want my weekly “check-in” calls from the Growing Generations psychologist, who had met me once, for five minutes.

I was pretty sure I wanted out, but I continued to explore donor websites, just to be sure. I found another donor I liked. She was a book editor (a book editor!) who on her agency video was articulate, thoughtful, funny. One other couple was waiting for her, but we could be second in line.

Since she was a first-time donor, she was flown to New York by the couple, who were having her medically and psychologically screened (the latter by Mendell); they were obviously going to great expense to have her checked out.

After Mendell interviewed the woman, I called to ask her how it had gone. This was a donor I thought I could go one more round with–she felt familiar. “I told her she shouldn’t be a donor,” Mendell said. “This couple is really pissed at me, but I had no choice.”

What did she mean? What had happened? ”

She had too many questions,” Mendell said. “She kept wondering about the future. About how she’d feel if she ever met the child–or if she didn’t. If she had kids of her own, or if she didn’t. She couldn’t get comfortable with the whole thing.”

On the other end of the phone, I was nodding. That’s my girl, I thought. She couldn’t go through with it either. Just like me.

August 28, 2013

The Secret Wife

Picture-1-620x461

In 1953, nine years before I was born, my father fell in love with a young woman named Dorothy Gribetz. She was a beautiful Orthodox Jewish girl who was, at twenty-seven, startlingly old to still be single in the moneyed religious urban world of my father and his family. My father was fresh out of a miserable marriage, stinging from a custody battle for his six-year-old daughter, Susie.

He married Dorothy in the living room of her parents’ modest Brooklyn apartment on April 11, 1954. She wore ivory satin, and carried a bouquet of pale flowers streaming with ribbons. Her enormous blue-green eyes were hidden beneath her veil and a tiara rested on her dark, wavy hair. My father was handsome in a morning coat and silk ascot. His best friend and best man, Danny Schacter, stood behind him. The rabbi placed a glass wrapped in a cloth napkin on the floor, and my father raised his foot to perform the ritual that ends every Jewish wedding. He stamped hard and smashed the glass. The guests shouted “Mazel tov!” and applauded as he and Dorothy kissed.

My father was beginning his marriage with a secret that only a few people shared. At the end of the evening, after the dancing, cigars, and toasts-when he and Dorothy ran laughing out of the building and into the brand-new Oldsmobile coupe her father had given them as a wedding gift-Dorothy was bundled up in her sealskin coat and jaunty hat. A bit of black netting drifted over her pretty eyes. She looked the way any bride might, embarking on a life filled with plans and expectations.

Dorothy was my father’s second wife. My mother was his third. I was seventeen before I ever knew Dorothy had existed. My half sister, Susie, let it slip one day. “Once, when Dad, Dorothy, and I were upstate,” she began, and I interrupted her: “Who’s Dorothy?” The few details I learned that day of this marriage of my father’s, a marriage so painful he never spoke of it, were all I knew for a long time. But, still, it made deep, emotional sense to me. My father had been missing for most of my childhood. He had retreated behind a wall of pills and prayer. Occasionally, playing ball with him in the back yard on a beautiful summer morning, I would catch a glimpse of the young man he must once have been – a deep belly laugh, a crushing hug, a sudden sparkle in his eyes – and I would want to reach out and hold onto him and to make things better for him, without ever knowing what had gone wrong.

In a photograph snapped seconds before I was married last year, I am standing next to my husband-to-be under a canopy draped with my late father’s ivory-and-white-striped tallis. In front of us, the rabbi recites a blessing. My heart is racing. I know this isn’t a case of premarital jitters. I have no second thoughts, no doubts about the man I’m about to marry. Before we leave for Paris, I call my doctor and ask for a prescription for tranquilizers. I have never taken pills before. Pills make me think of my father. He was addicted to Valium, Percodan, and Empirin for most of his life. I have a childhood memory of him sitting at the kitchen table in front of a lazy Susan filled with prescription bottles, checking his pulse, two fingers pressed against the side of his neck, his face contorted with fear. I spend my honeymoon certain that I’m about to die. I feel this not in an abstract, intellectual way but in my bones. And I take the first tranquilizer of my life in order to get on the plane home.

I have been married three times – once at nineteen, then at twenty-eight, and now, for the third time, at thirty-five. My first husband was a shop owner, a boyish free spirit. He took off on buying trips for months at a time. I was a teen-ager, unprepared for marriage or solitude. I threw dinner parties, cooked the one dish I knew, and pretended to be a grownup. Less than a year after the wedding, I left. I don’t think either of us was surprised, but I was a divorcee at twenty, and ashamed of it. My second husband was an investment banker. He was exactly the man I’d been brought up to marry: Jewish, stable, financially secure, with a life planned down to the last millisecond. I felt numb. I was giving up at the age of twenty-eight. The marriages had just this in common: they marked the only times in my life when I have been governed by severe, crippling anxiety.

As soon as I met Michael, I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with him. The insanity of those earlier alliances became even starker when for the first time I realized what love actually felt like. Yet the panic persisted. Why did I equate being a wife with being destroyed?

My father’s first wedding, to Susie’s mother, had been a gala, candlelit affair in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, marking the union of two powerful Orthodox clans. Elaine Brody was from a textile and real-estate dynasty whose properties included the Essex House and the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Her great-grandfather had been the chief Orthodox rabbi of New York. My father never even proposed to Elaine; his parents proposed to hers. After the wedding, he began to work at his father’s silk mill, in Blackstone, Virginia, and would travel there for two weeks of each month. My grandfather was a self-made millionaire, and my father was firmly under his control. He didn’t even receive a salary. Whatever he needed in the way of money he had to petition for. When Susie was a toddler, my father and Elaine moved into an apartment on Park Avenue. But Elaine never accepted the role of traditional Jewish wife. She had been a serious pianist before getting married and wanted to continue to perform and even, perhaps, to pursue a doctorate. Nine years into their marriage, my father returned home from a trip to Blackstone to find the apartment empty. His wife and child were gone. The furniture was gone. Only his clothes remained, folded neatly on the top shelves of the closets. Divorce was unheard of in their circle, a rarefied community of Eastern European Jews who had brought their Old World values with them to America. Everyone pitied my father, but also backed away from him. What had he done to deserve such bad luck? Everyone knew something about it: Elaine had always been too ambitious for her own good, people gossiped over ice-cream sodas at Schrafft’s or lunches at the Tip Toe Inn, on Broadway and Eighty-seventh. She had left my father without even a bed to sleep in. And then there was talk that she had been having an affair with Susie’s pediatrician.

My father first met Dorothy Gribetz at the Brunswick Hotel, in Lakewood, New Jersey. Since his separation, he had been trying to meet eligible Orthodox women, going to Kosher resorts like Grossinger’s or the Concord, in the Catskills, or the Brunswick, where Dorothy was staying with her parents. She was devout, educated (with a degree from Cornell and a master’s from Columbia), and warm. She was kind to Susie. Orthodox Jews in the nineteen-fifties weren’t as strictly observant as they’ve since become, and my father and Dorothy had a courtship typical of its time. She saved the orchids he sent her each week and pinned them to her bedroom wall. On their Saturday-night dates, after Shabbos, they’d stop into a cocktail lounge for Cuba libres. They’d go ballroom dancing at the Plaza or the Pierre. For a nice kosher dinner they’d go to Lou G. Siegel’s, on Thirty-eighth Street. My father presented Dorothy with an emerald-cut diamond engagement ring–and this time he proposed himself.

The summer before she met my father, Dorothy had a cough she couldn’t shake. Her doctor told her it was whooping cough, and he hospitalized her briefly. While Dorothy was having tea at the Waldorf-Astoria, the winter before her wedding, my father’s younger sister, Shirley, noticed her carefully examining her cup before taking a sip. Dorothy explained that she had caught a virus in Nantucket the summer before, and she believed it was from drinking tea out of a cracked cup. My father’s family became concerned. Dorothy would grow suddenly pale, and unnaturally dark circles would appear under her eyes. On the advice of his parents, my father called Dorothy’s internist. The doctor assured him that Dorothy was fine.

But a distant cousin of my father’s who was an intern at the same hospital had interpreted Dorothy’s pattern of symptoms, and he didn’t think she was fine. He stole a peek at her medical records, and saw page after page of scrawled blood-test results: she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at the time a uniformly fatal illness. Once diagnosed, most patients could be expected to live about a year. Not knowing what to do with this information, the cousin called my father’s best friend, Danny, and told him what he had learned. Danny was married to the daughter of the renowned rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, and he immediately went to his father-in-law for advice. The rabbi was emphatic: Danny had to tell my father what he knew.

The wedding was two weeks away. That night, Danny went to see my father, who was camping out in his parents’ study, a black-and-gold book-lined room twenty-seven floors above Central Park West. Oil portraits of the Shapiro ancestors – men with white double beards and black skullcaps — hung on the walls. There he broke the news to him. Dorothy was dying. She didn’t know. Only the doctors and her father knew the truth, and a decision had been made to protect her. Danny advised him not to marry Dorothy, for the sake of his future–his reputation was already tarnished as a divorced Orthodox man in 1954–and for the sake of his six-year-old daughter, who had already lost enough.

The morning after Danny’s visit, my father took a Checker cab to Brooklyn to see Dorothy’s father. Louis Gribetz was a short, wiry man, a respected attorney who had written a book about Mayor Jimmy Walker and made an unsuccessful run for City Council. He had studied for the rabbinate. He would have known the Talmud generally prohibits telling a terminally ill patient the truth about her condition. Dorothy was the oldest of his three children. Eleven years earlier, the youngest, a son named Stanley, had died at the age of seven, of rheumatic fever. Louis, in his living room high above Grand Army Plaza that night, explained to my father that he hadn’t told him because he wanted his daughter to know happiness in the last months of her life.

My father postponed his wedding to Dorothy for ten days. He had a boil on his stomach, and he checked into Beth Israel Hospital on Friday morning to have it removed, and to buy some time. He didn’t get in touch with Dorothy to let her know, and once it was sundown on Friday, the Sabbath, he wouldn’t be able to call her until at least sundown on Saturday. In the meantime, his sister Shirley made arrangements to come down on the overnight train from Boston. My father was determined that his parents shouldn’t be told about Dorothy’s illness. He had been under his father’s thumb his whole life. This time, he was going to make his own decision. But he needed advice. The next day, through a series of favors and connections, Shirley reached and made an appointment to see the Grand Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. In 1954, decades before he was thought of as the Messiah by many in the Lubavitcher community, Rabbi Schneerson was already a mythic figure. While my family were considered Orthodox by most standards, Hasidim would have considered them assimilated. The Shapiros and their crowd kept their religious practices private. They didn’t wear yarmulkes on the street; they ate dairy or fish in regular, non-kosher restaurants; men and women danced together cheek-to-cheek. Shirley and my father knew that their parents had met Schneerson and respected him, but in turning to him they were moving outside their social circle.

Shirley is now seventy-four, and the grandmother of twenty. Her oldest son is an Orthodox rabbi, and most of her male grandchildren wear payess and dark clothes. I haven’t visited her often. By the time I was born, my father had moved–or perhaps was pushed–away from the Orthodox fold as Shirley and her family became even more deeply involved in it. My father had been divorced, then widowed, and had then married a woman–my mother–who wasn’t religious. With each move he drifted further away from the Manhattan shuls of his youth and the community that went along with them. “That day, I took a taxi to Crown Heights,” Shirley told me. “I was wearing my suit from Saks, but I was worried that I didn’t look religious enough to meet the Rebbe. So I had the taxi stop at a store on Delancey, and I ran inside and bought a tichel, a black rag. I took off my fancy hat and tied the tichel under my chin. When I got to 770 Eastern Parkway, I was shown straight into the Rebbe’s study. He was such a handsome man, with clear, clear eyes and a snap-brim fedora. His desk was absolutely clean. He sat quietly while I told him the whole story. And when I finished he was quiet for a few minutes. And then he said, ‘Tell your brother to postpone and postpone.’ ”

When Shirley got back to Beth Israel, prepared to convey the Rabbi’s advice to my father, there was Dorothy, sitting on my father’s bed, holding his hand, looking incandescent in a coral colored dress that set off her dark hair, and a black velvet hat. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes shone. “Shirl, can you imagine? I was trying on my wedding veil when I heard Paul was in the hospital!” My father was ashen, propped up in bed, still weak from his surgery. His head was bowed, and he was stroking the inside of Dorothy’s wrist, tracing the map of pale-blue veins. Later, when Dorothy left, Shirley told my father about Schneerson’s advice. “I can’t do that to Dorothy,” he said.

After the wedding, Dorothy said she wanted to start a family as soon as she felt better, but late that summer she was hospitalized. She had a lymph node removed from under her arm, and she was treated with mustard gas. When she came home, she had weakened considerably. She was no longer able to get up in the morning on Shabbos to set the table, so she did it with Susie’s help the night before. She never complained, but my father told Susie to be especially gentle with Dorothy. She wasn’t feeling well. Just before the High Holidays, my father and Dorothy moved into an apartment at 50 Plaza Street, on the same floor as Dorothy’s parents. It was an apartment big enough for a family, and it had views of Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Museum. For Dorothy, it was an exciting new beginning. She began to furnish the apartment lovingly, ordering curtains, sofas, rolls of wall-to wall carpeting. But, for my father, being near Dorothy’s parents probably meant that he’d have more help with Dorothy when the time came.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, Dorothy and her sister, Grace, were dressing for shul in their old girlhood bedroom. Dorothy was wearing an ivory silk blouse with silk-covered buttons. Suddenly she sat down on the bed, her face white, the black circles appearing. “I’m too sick to go to shul,” she whispered. Then she unbuttoned her blouse with shaking fingers. “Grace, will you wear this to shul for me? That way, at least a part of me will be there.” As Grace was putting on Dorothy’s blouse, Susie came bouncing into the room in a new dress, excited about going to temple, wanting to see what was taking so long. “Susie, I can’t go to shul,” Dorothy told her. “But will you say a prayer for me?” “You can’t say a prayer for another person,” Susie replied. “You have to pray for yourself.”

In October, on Sukkoth, the holiday that celebrates the autumn harvest, Dorothy was in bed reading a magazine when she began to have trouble breathing. My father sent Susie outside to roller-skate. He called an ambulance, and Dorothv was taken into Manhattan, to Memorial Hospital. My grandfather came up from Virginia when he heard the news. He stood in the doorway of the waiting room and looked at Shirley through his pince-nez. He was an imposing man, portly and bald, and most people’s first reaction to him was fear. “What’s wrong with Dorothy?” he asked. Shirley looked up at him, shaking her head slightly. The word “cancer” was never uttered. “She’s very, very sick, Dad.” My father led my grandfather into Dorothy’s room. She was propped up in bcd, and there were tubes and wires everywhere. Finally, she looked every bit as sick as she was. She was drawn and terribly thin, and her eyes were sunken. “I wanted to say this in front of you, Dad,” she said to my grandfather. “I wanted to thank Paul for giving me the happiest six months of my life.”

Afterward, when it was all over, my father returned to the apartment, stepped over the still rolled-up carpeting Dorothy had ordered only weeks before, and headed down the long corridor into their bedroom. There on the bed was the magazine she had been reading just before she was taken to the hospital. It was open to an article about Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“After the ambulance came and took Dorothy away, I didn’t see Dad for two weeks,” Susie says, as we sit in her East Village apartment. “He called me every night, and every night I’d ask him where he was. And he’d say, ‘Where do you think I am?’ And I’d say, ‘The hospital.’ And then I’d ask how Dorothy was, and he’d tell me she was resting. “He picked me up on a Wednesday night after those two weeks had gone by. He looked like hell, and he was quieter than usual. We were in a taxi going through Central Park on our way to Grammy and Grampy’s when I asked him how Dorothy was. And he told me that Dorothy had died. She had died a week before. They had the funeral, buried her, sat shivah-all without telling me.”

My parents kept secrets. Dorothy was only one of them. My mother’s first marriage, an aunt’s nervous breakdown, an uncle’s attempted suicide–all were kept secret. On the surface, everything seemed perfect, but why was my father so unhappy all the time? Why did my mother seem so constantly on edge? Some of the friction between my parents had to do with my father’s strict religious beliefs. My mother was funloving and glamorous, the head of her own small advertising agency when she met my father. She had no idea that becoming Orthodox meant more than keeping a kosher home and going to shul on holidays. Orthodoxy was its own universe-a universe as suspicious of her as she was of it. As the years went by, we rarely saw my father’s family, and when we did they seemed foreign to me, with their yarmulkes and thick glasses. They were pale and wan with something called “yeshiva pallor.” On our way home from visiting, my mother would make fun of them, and my father would become even quieter than usual.

I grew up in a house full of fear. We were protected by three different kinds of alarm systems: pads on the floors under the rugs, a motion detector, and panic buttons that could be pressed in an emergency. I wasn’t allowed to run barefoot on the lawn; I was slathered with sun lotion year-round; if a bee buzzed near me, my mother would swoop down and rush me into the house. I never had chicken pox, measles, or mumps-any of the childhood diseases. I wasn’t around children enough to have them. But the real dangers were inside our house. What I remember is the silence. Most of the time it was as quiet as a wax museum, and my parents spoke to each other, at least in front of me, with brittle politeness. And then every once in a while there would be the booming sound of my father’s voice, or the loud slam of the back door as my mother went outside to sit on the cold aluminum of the milk can and smoke a cigarette. These fights didn’t seem to have beginnings or ends. But I knew my parents would never divorce. I couldn’t have articulated it back then, but my parents seemed to be holding their fragile world together with some sort of tacit agreement that their histories and secrets–the whole of their past lives–could be kept from each other, and from me. Once I knew about Dorothy, from time to time I would ask my mother about her. “They tricked your father into marrying her,” she’d say. “It was a terrible thing they did.” For my mother, it was as if my father’s second wife had barely existed. But Dorothy was very real for my father. The one time I asked him about her, I glimpsed pain in his eyes so intense I never asked again.

Grace Gribetz Glasser, Dorothy’s younger sister, wasn’t easy for me to track down. She’s married to I. Leo Glasser, the federal judge who presided over the John Gotti trial, and they lead a quiet, private life in a prosperous, protected section of Rockaway Park, facing the ocean. But when I visited her, almost a year into my new marriage, she seemed entirely unfazed that her late sister’s husband’s daughter would have come looking for her. “Hello, dear,” she said, as if she had been expecting me. I recognized her face from wedding photos, a wide-eyed young woman holding her sister’s bouquet. She is now sixty-nine, with silver hair. “You look like your father,” she said, ushering me in. It was a few days before Purim. Between us, on her kitchen table, was a shoebox full of photographs of Dorothy. Grace was twenty-five when Dorothy died. She has four children and nine grandchildren. Her oldest daughter is named Dorothy. Together we shuffled through the photographs. Dorothy on a picnic blanket with one boyfriend, on the beach with another. Dorothy and my father at their wedding. Grace handed me a photo of my father in a navy-blue suit, white shirt, and silver tie, his hands resting on the back of a chair as he turns to the camera, laughing. I had never seen this expression of pure, unadulterated joy on my father’s face. “I used to meet your father for lunch every once in a while,” Grace said. “I remember he called me when you were getting married. When was that?” I knew she was referring to my first marriage–the only one for which my father was alive. “He was worried,” she continued. “He wasn’t happy about it at all.” I wondered if my mother knew that my father stayed in touch with Dorothy’s sister. I doubt it.

Now I followed her down a hall and into her bedroom. The life she has: the children, the grandchildren, the hamantaschen in the oven–that was the life my father was supposed to have had with Dorothy. Dorothy and my father would have lived in Brooklyn, or on Central Park West, or on the beach at Rockaway Park. They would have been active in their local synagogue, had a bunch of children, and lived an observant life. Grace opened a walk-in closet, and I heard the scrape and rattle of hangers. She emerged from’the closet carrying a blouse. It was once ivory silk, with ivory silk-covered buttons. Now it was yellow and stained, and much too big for her small frame. “I’ve worn it to shul every Rosh Hashanah for forty-four years,” she said. Her voice was sweet and sorrowful. “It’s so stained now I can’t even take off my jacket. “I wish my sister were here to meet you,” she said. “But, if she were here, you wouldn’t be.”

After Dorothy died, my father looked for a new apartment. There was a building going up on East Ninth Street near Broadway, and he went with his sister to see it. They were sitting in the rental office when an impeccably dressed dark-haired woman in her early thirties walked in the door. Shirley noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, and nudged my father. A few months later, after my father had moved into that building, he saw the dark-haired woman on the street. It was Shabbos, and she was carrying a hammer, modern girl that she was, on her way home to install bookcases. Obviously, she wasn’t observant–a hammer? on Shabbos?–but he was pretty sure she was Jewish. They stopped and chatted, and he caught her first name, Irene. He knew she lived on the block, and the next day he spent his morning poring through the Manhattan phone book looking for Irenes on East Ninth Street. During my parents’ courtship, my father continued to spend weekends at Grossinger’s and the Concord, in search of an Orthodox woman. It was unheard of to marry outside Orthodoxy–it was almost like marrying out of the faith. But on September 4, 1957, he and Irene were married, at Young Israel on Sixteenth Street. A photograph of my parents at their wedding hangs over the desk where I write. They are walking up the aisle, and my mother is smiling triumphantly. My father’s hand is balled into a fist. Within a year, he had injured his back and became addicted to painkillers and tranquillizers. For all the years of my childhood, my father walked gingerly, as if constantly aware that collapse was possible, and as the tension in our home grew he became quieter and quieter. Sometimes I would try to catch his eye, to wink at him, to let him know I understood. But I didn’t understand. And he continued sliding away.

August 28, 2013

The Six Poisons

Download the PDF of The Six Poisons The Six Poisons

August 28, 2013
August 28, 2013
August 28, 2013
August 28, 2013

Lost and Found

Janet Hobhouse had published a few novels before The Furies, and she had something of a presence as a critic in the 1980’s art world, but she was more of a figure than a writer in those years. Ask anyone who knew her and they comment on her beauty, her almost scary charm, her incisive wit. Ahh, Janet. They grow misty eyed, and then stutter to a halt. If pressed, they mention her marriage, or the break-up of her marriage, or her affair with a very famous American man of letters. They talk about her loft, her skin, the color of her eyes. But what they don’t talk about is her work itself—they don’t mention the early novels because they aren’t really worth mentioning; and they don’t talk about The Furies, because it is the novel Hobouse wrote while she was dying, of ovarian cancer, at the age of forty-three. Ahh, Janet. Too painful to be read. But still, they’re curious. Is he in it? they’ll ask of the famous American man of letters. As if, to the end, Hobhouse’s outsized romantic life was more important, or more interesting, than the work she left behind.

As it happens, The Furies is a masterpiece. Billed as a novel when it was published, it reads more like memoir. One flips to the stamp-sized author photo on the back flap and searches the planes of the face there for clues. Reading the book, one falls into the branches of a family tree so complicated that it requires a map—and Hobhouse provides just that on the thirty-fifth page, a diagram in the shape of an egg, of all things. An egg-shaped guide to a matriarchy, the family tree of the author, who herself will be dead of cancer of the egg before the book is completed.

The Furies is written from a place of no fear. No fear, at least, of judgement, either from the people depicted within its pages, or from anonymous readers. Judge me if you can, the book seems to be saying. Judge me if you dare. It is the story of Hobhouse—her history, her impoverished New York City childhood with her crazy, beautiful mother, her years at Oxford, her life in London and New York, her marriage and its betrayals, and yes, of course the famous American man of letters. It is the story of her mother’s suicide, of a series of fateful accidents which would seem like just too much if they were piled onto the fragile arc of a novel, which, after all, can handle only so much tragedy—but because we are led to believe this is true, all of it, all we can do is shake our heads in sadness and disbelief. Bad things happen and keep happening. Suicide isn’t a hedge against fire. Fire doesn’t protect you from theft. And suicide, fire, theft, divorce, heartbreak do not stop you from dying far too young.

But it isn’t the crash-and-burn value of The Furies that makes it great. It’s the kinetic, intelligent prose that gallops across its pages as if the writer is writing for her life. “I finish my novel while the snow falls on the skylights. I am working day and night now in the artificial light, the daylight blocked by snowfall. I am in my own darkness, pushing like a mole, harder and harder as though something is hurrying me on. Never have I worked so fast. Something is chasing me. I feel it at my back and in the dark weight of snow overhead, and I’m so busy staying ahead and away from it I haven’t time to be curious what it is.” (258)

Read The Furies for the intricate, crumbling beauty of its prose. Read it for it’s excavation of a complex and damaged family. Read it for the courage of it’s author, who faced down her demons until the end. Read it for the ellipses inserted by the publisher where Hobhouse wasn’t quite finished. Never before have ellipses been so eloquent. Hell, even read it to figure out the identity of the famous American man of letters. (It’s not hard.) But more than any other reason, read it to see how, like Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a book itself can be the ultimate redemption of it’s author’s life.

August 28, 2013

Plane Crash Theory

These are the first words I’ve written since J. fell down the stairs, unless you count lists. I have lists in my pockets, lists tacked to the bulletin board above my desk. Small lists on Post-its ruffle like feathers against walls and bureaus. Chunky baby food, milk, Cheerios. Diaper Genie refills. Huggies overnight diapers. This is what I do now. I cross things off lists. The more items I cross off, the better I can breathe.

J. was just seven weeks old when we moved from Manhattan across the river to Brooklyn. We bought an old four-story brick townhouse with a dogwood out front. A green-painted front door with glass panels led into a foyer with a pale pink chandelier dangling overhead. An antique cherry banister curved in one fluid line up two steep flights of stairs. The staircase itself was polished, with creaky, uneven steps.

My husband and I looked at a lot of places before we decided to live in Brooklyn. Manhattan was out of the question-we needed four bedrooms-so we explored Montclair, South Orange, Hastings-on-Hudson. We considered the country. Litchfield, Sag Harbor. During a trip to Seattle, on a sunny day when we could see the mountains, we thought about moving out west. We kept reminding ourselves that we’re writers, and writers can work from anywhere. But Brooklyn won us over-so close to our friends, to everything we knew. And then, after a parade of realtors showed us dozens of narrow dark Victorians, we fell in love with the brick house. The night after I first walked through the house, it filled my dreams. I was in my eighth month of pregnancy, and my dreams had become colorful, baroque. I floated through each room, focusing on the wide-planked orange pine floors, the intricate, crumbling moldings.

We ran out of money shortly after J. was born. It was my fault. I was giddy, on a postnatal, hormonal high. I was a mother! I wanted everything to be just right for my little family. The parlor needed an armoire for Michael’s record collection. The baby’s nursery had navy-blue curtains hanging to the floor and a hand-loomed rag rug. We had thousands of books, so we found a carpenter to build in shelves. And as long as he was already there, we had him install library lights, extra electrical outlets. You never know when you’ll need them. I pored over “shelter magazines”: House & Garden, Metropolitan Home. I looked at photographs of other people’s shelters. A shelter with a small Mondrian above the mantel. A shelter with an eighteenth-century writing desk in a child’s room. We relined the fireplaces, built closets, installed an alarm system, and before I knew it, we were broke.

Eighteen steps lead from our front hall to the second floor, to J.’s nursery and our bedroom. They are steep and creaky. Along the curve of the wall, near the top of the staircase, there is an indentation in the wall shaped like a tablet, like half of the Ten Commandments. I am told it’s called a coffin.

Things don’t go wrong all at once. There are small things — invisible things — that constantly go wrong. Wires fray inside a wall. A van speeds through a yellow light. Someone leaves a Q- Tip in the baby’s crib. These small things almost always just scatter and disappear. Big wind comes along, and – poof! — they’re gone. But once in a while, they start sticking to each other. If this happens, you find yourself with a big thing on your hands.

Whenever we’re on an airplane taxiing down the runway, I ask Michael to explain this to me. He calls it Plane Crash Theory. I know he wonders why I need to hear it again and again. But I do. His theory is simple, scientific: in order for a commercial airliner to crash, many things have to go wrong in sequence. Many unlikely things. No single event causes an accident. It is the sheer coincidental accrual and velocity of these failures that sends two hundred people plummeting into the ocean. This makes Michael feel better. He finds comfort in these odds as he settles into his seat and cracks open a newspaper as the jet takes off. Me, I think it’s as likely as not that I’ll be on that particular plane.

Michael and I have always lived hand to mouth, though from the outside it doesn’t look that way. We occasionally get a big check, then go months-sometimes years-without any money to speak of coming in. We bought the house with the expectation that a big check was on its way from Hollywood. It was a done deal. What we didn’t realize was that done deal, in the language of Hollywood, does not, in fact, signify a deal that is done. The producers are on vacation in Hawaii. Larry (who’s Larry?) is on the golf course and can’t be reached.

Here are the things we didn’t do when we moved to Brooklyn, because the check didn’t come. I still have the list tacked to the refrigerator: fireplace screens, seed garden, repair roof hatch, basement beam. Last on the list was runner for staircase.

J.! He was perfect, with a burly little body. Late at night, while Brooklyn slept, he burrowed into my soft belly as he nursed, and I watched him with bewilderment and joy. Where had he come from? He seemed to have inherited a temperament that didn’t exist in either my husband’s family or my own. From a grumpy, depressed bunch of people comes this smiling boy. In the darkness of his nursery, I stared out the window at the glowing red face of a clock tower in the distance, and thought obsessive thoughts of all the things I had read about in the baby books. He could choke on a button, or the eye of a stuffed animal. He could suffocate in his own crib sheet. He could strangle himself with the cord of his purple elephant pull toy.

This is what I do with happiness. Kayn aynhoreh, my grandmother used to say, repeating this magical Yiddish phrase to ward off evil. Kayn aynhoreh. I need to think of the worst-case scenario. If I think about it hard enough, it won’t happen.

There is a cage in our basement. I’ve never gone down there. The stairs are dark and rickety; the third step from the top is loose. The cage is made of rotting wood poles and chicken wire. It was built earlier in the house’s history, a less affluent time. Maybe it was once a rooming house. When we moved in, Michael found an axe propped in a corner of the basement. He’s not in the least spooked by it. This is one of the reasons I married him. He’s been using the axe to tear the cage down. Sometimes, I hear the crash of metal, and he emerges, covered with dust.

We come from money, my husband and I. Not huge family fortunes, but from first- and second-generation Jewish parents who made good, who have more than one house and drive the cars they swore they would never drive (those Nazi-mobiles) and take first-class round-the-world trips. Parents who wish we had become doctors or lawyers instead of writers. I’m saying this because we could have put our pride aside and asked. We could have said, Mom, Dad, we’re short on cash. We need a couple of thousand. The staircase is slippery. We should do something about it. Put up a runner.

We settled into the new house over the long, hot summer. I rare left. I was captivated by J. and spent hours doing nothing but singing the Winnie-the-Pooh song to him. Saturdays, we had a routine: We walked with J. in his stroller to a farmer’s market at Grand Army Plaza; I circled the market buying goat cheese, banana muffin grape juice, while Michael and J. played in the shade. It was the first time in my adult life I had a full refrigerator. I kept the grapes in  a Provençal bowl we had brought back from our honeymoon.

One day during that summer, Michael and I were driving through the city, heading home after visiting friends who had just give birth to a premature baby. Michael turned right from 34th onto Broadway, and drove straight into a swarm of police officers. They had set up a trap and were pulling cars over for making an apparently illegal turn. Michael, usually a calm guy, lost his temper. He screeched to the curb, and got out of the car. Maybe it was sleep deprivation, or the heat, or visiting a three-and-a-half-pound baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. I saw him waving his hands at the traffic cop, who didn’t meet his eye, shrugged, and began to write a ticket. Michael opened the car door, grabbed a camera we happened to have handy, and began snapping photos. The corner of 34th with no sign. The traffic cop himself. He got back in the car. “I’m going to fight this,” he said. I wondered he’d bother, or just forget about it.

That coffin, that empty space, bothered me. Broke as we were, I decided that something belonged there. But what? Fresh flowers An empty vase? I gave it a lot of thought. Then, I bought an arrangement of dried sprigs of herbs, baby roses, big bulbous things that I didn’t know the name of that drooped from the edges of a cracked white urn. I placed it in the coffin, and it filled the space nicely, with some of the dried arrangement pushing out into the stairwell in a burst of color. A bit precarious, perhaps: but hell, it looked so good that way. I could picture it in one of those shelter magazines.

September. Back-to-school time for me. Leaving for my teaching job in the city was impossible. I would walk down the front steps of the house while Michael and J. waved bye-bye from the door. I could barely breathe, but I didn’t say anything. Just waved at them, blew kisses at J., and wondered if I would ever see them again.

On the subway, I would hang on to the pole and stare out the smudged window at the graffiti on the tunnel walls. I thought of J., of Michael, of anything safe and good, anything to pull me back, but thinking of them only made it worse. I was underground, with no way out. Moving farther away from them by the minute. Was this what having a family meant?

Of course, J. needed a babysitter. We interviewed fourteen women for the job. Who do you trust? We talked to cousins, sisters, best friends of babysitters of friends, and friends of friends. Finally we chose Marsha. She was young and pretty, with a Louise Brooks bob and big brown eyes. She was so gentle, so sweet, that her eyes seemed to be constantly brimming with tears. She had a little girl of her own. She pulled a photo from her wallet; I liked how proud she was of her child. Marsha would never be one of those babysitters I saw in the park, talking to her friends with her back turned to my baby.

One morning, when the train pulled into the station, I stood on the platform, paralyzed, watching as the doors opened, the rush-hour crowd pushed its way in, and the doors slid shut again. This had never happened to me before. I climbed back upstairs and stood on the street. I wondered if I should just walk the two blocks home. Call in sick. Give up for the rest of the semester. It was too hard. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. An off-duty cab was approaching, and, impulsively, I flagged it. The driver stopped for me. As we rolled down Flatbush, we got to talking. He said his name was Tony. He came from Nigeria. He lived nearby, and was on his way into the city to begin his shift. By the time he dropped me off at school, he had given me his number. I told him I’d call him the following week to pick me up on his way in. Maybe that would make it easier.

On her first morning working for us, Marsha put too much detergent in the wash while she was doing the baby’s laundry. The water flooded my office and dripped through the old floorboards to my bedroom closet below. As we frantically mopped up the mess, I tried to comfort her. I told her it was just an accident. Nothing was ruined. It could have happened to anybody.

That afternoon, Marsha and I pushed J. in his stroller to the park. I wanted to give her my guided tour of the neighborhood. The health food store, the pizza place, the Key Food. It was a warm day, just past Halloween, and the playground was full of moms and kids and babysitters. I lowered J. into the baby swing, and he laughed and laughed as I pushed him. He has the most unusual laugh I’ve ever heard in a baby. It’s like he cracks himself up. Everything was funny that day. The leaves falling off the trees were funny. The little girl with her orange plastic pumpkin was funny. Mommy making her silly faces was very, very funny. He was wearing a Red Sox baseball cap and a blue denim jacket. Already, at six months old, he wanted to go higher and higher.

On the morning of Marsha’s second day, we take a family nap together before she arrives. J. falls asleep between us, his little mouth open, his eyelashes blond and long. We hold hands across his sleeping body.

It is a teaching day. I dress in black cargo pants, a black turtleneck sweater, black boots. Tony will pick me up at nine o’clock. I feel pretty pleased with myself at this arrangement. Marsha arrives a few minutes late. Michael is going to catch a ride into the city with me; today is his court date to fight that traffic ticket, and he seems strangely energized by it. J. is in his high chair, being fed strained plums. I take the dog out for a quick walk, rounding the corner by the bodega. A truck honks. You look beautiful! the driver yells. I’m in such a good mood –I’ve figured out my life! — that I yell back, Thanks!

We cross the Brooklyn Bridge, and for once I feel at peace on my way to school. Michael is in the back of the taxi next to me. Tony is an excellent driver. And Marsha is at home with J., feeding him strained plums in his safe, ergonomically designed high chair. It’s a perfect day. The city is a jagged, sparkling cliff along the East River and I notice things I don’t notice on the D train when it crosses the bridge. The small boats, the abandoned Brooklyn Navy Yard, the faint outline of the Statue of Liberty off to the left in the distance. I feel, for a moment, lucky.

We drop Michael off somewhere near the courthouse. He gets out of the taxi, a manila envelope containing proof of his innocence-photos of the corner of 34th and Broadway-in his hand. He has graying hair and a mostly gray goatee, and he’s put on some weight since the baby was born. He’s wearing his usual blue jeans, black T-shirt, green army jacket. We pull away from the corner, and, as I always do, I turn and watch as he walks away. In our marriage, I am the one who turns around and watches. He is the one who walks deliberately, in the direction of wherever it is he’s going.

This is the first morning since J. was born that we have both been out of the house at the same time.

As I speed farther and farther away from my neat and well-appointed house (the bookshelves, the sheer white bathroom curtains, the ficus thriving in the south-facing window, the dried flowers bursting forth from the coffin in the stairwell), up the West Side Highway past terrain more familiar to me than my Brooklyn neighborhood, where even the silence and the birds chirping and the car alarms in the middle of the night still feel strange and new, I close my eyes.

When my cell phone rings, it surprises me. It rings from deep inside my briefcase, which is a bag I use only once a week, when I teach. I unsnap the briefcase and pull the phone out from its own special little pocket inside. I’m thinking, It’s Michael. He’s forgotten something. We are speeding towards the 79th Street boat basin. The traffic is light. I flip the phone open.

Even when I hear the screams on the other end of the phone, I don’t get it. Marsha is screaming, J. is screaming. There’s static on the line, I can barely hear anything but the screaming, and I’m thinking, We just left twenty minutes ago. Nothing terrible could happen in twenty minutes. Her voice is shaking so hard all I can hear is, I fell, and stairs, and He hit his head, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

I notice that Tony has wordlessly turned off the West Side Highway and is heading downtown, back towards Brooklyn, pedal to the floor. I tell Marsha to call 911. She’s crying so hard, hyperventilating, that I have to keep my voice gentle, ask, Can you do that? Can you do that for me? I tell her I will call her back in three minutes.

I try to think. The world shrinks around me. I call J.’s pediatrician. I can practically see her office from where I am right now, in the back of Tony’s car. We haven’t switched to a local pediatrician, believing irrationally in Manhattan doctors over Brooklyn doctors. While I’m on hold, I try to catch my breath, because I can’t think clearly, and my heart is going to explode, I’m going to have a heart attack right here in the back of a taxi, and that won’t do anybody any good, will it?

Kids hit their heads all the time, J.’s doctor tells me in a professional, soothing tone, like she’s talking someone off a ledge. Tell the babysitter to put some ice on it. Is he crying? Well, that’s a good thing. It’s when they’re not crying that you worry.

I call Michael’s cell phone. He’s at a diner, just about to go into the courthouse. And I say there’s been an accident, that it’s going to be okay, but that it appears that Marsha has slipped and fallen down the stairs while holding J., and EMS is coming, and I’m on my way home. Michael is halfway out the diner door before I’ve finished the first sentence, and is sprinting in his green army jacket to the subway. And I am somewhere on lower Broadway. Tony is weaving in and out of traffic.

The stairs. There are eighteen. Have I mentioned eighteen? Maybe she fell near the bottom. If she fell near the bottom, on the last few steps, and landed on the small rug in the foyer, that wouldn’t be so bad. What part of his head? Babies have soft spots. All I can think about as we pass the Tower Records building and make a few quick turns and speed down the Bowery is, Please, not the curve at the top of the stairs, the place where it would be most likely to fall, the place where the steps are narrow and the dried flowers make the passage even narrower, and it’s a long, long way down. Please, not that.

He was screaming. Screaming is good. Screaming is the best thing. That’s what you want to hear. Big, loud, shrieking sounds.

I call my home, and a stranger answers the phone. A strange man. A strange police sergeant man. He asks me who I am. I say I am the mother. How’s my baby? He says, Ma’am, your baby has quite a bump on his head. I melt for this man, I want to collapse into his big, blue chest. His voice is not shaking, he is calm, he is imparting information to me, information I need. Quite a bump. We can deal with quite a bump.

I call the school. I won’t be able to teach my class. Baby fell down stairs. Baby fell down stairs trumps all. Trumps viruses and flus and the dog ate my student’s homework. I call back the doctor. They’re taking him to the hospital, I tell her. She seems annoyed. After all, she’s certain that I’m a hysterical mother, that this is only a minor bump. And it occurs to me, not for the first time, that this doctor is younger than I am. When I was in second grade, she was in kindergarten. What is she doing, taking care of my son?

I grew up in a home where prayer was where you turned in moments like these. But I have never been in a moment like this, and I do not know how to pray.

I catch Tony’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and then notice for the first time a yellow plastic taxi, dangling there. It looks like it’s flying, floating against the pale blue sky. I keep staring at the cheerful taxi, imbuing it with supernatural powers. Nothing bad will happen if I just don’t take my eyes off the taxi and keep repeating Please God over and over again.

We pull up to the emergency room of a hospital somewhere in downtown Brooklyn. All I have in my wallet is a twenty, and the meter is much more than that, but I hand Tony the twenty with an apology, and he turns around and looks at me like the father of four children that he is. He says, I’m not leaving until you come out and tell me about the baby.

There were eight of us, friends and acquaintances, who were pregnant at the same time with our first babies. Something about the age thirty-six. Thirty-six means, Get serious. Thirty-six, at least in New York City, means that you’re still young enough to do it, with any luck, without fertility doctors and injections and in vitro and all the stuff of middle-aged motherhood. Thirty-six is still normal. And so I would think, sometimes, about my pregnant friends, and then I would think about statistics. Most of us would be fine: a little morning sickness, indigestion, varicose veins. Half of us would end up with C-sections. One or two would have some serious complications during pregnancy: gestational diabetes, preeclampsia. The sort of thing our mothers didn’t even know about but that we, with our shelves of pregnancy books, our middle-of-the-night online surfing, know only too well. I would think about the odds. Then, the woman whose due date was just before mine developed severely high blood pressure during her birth, and she very nearly died. I felt, in a completely unscientific way, that she had taken the fall for all of us.

J. is on a tiny bed in a tiny curtained-off area in a tiny ER, and he is not crying. He is not shrieking. His eyes are closed, and he is just lying there. Why isn’t anybody doing anything? Marsha is sitting on a plastic chair by the window, a tissue pressed to her nose. Her eyes are red, and she looks like her life is over. Two police officers are standing near the door. Sit down, Mommy, one of the nurses tells me.

I pick up my baby. He is unconscious. But he was screaming just a little while ago! Screaming is good. What happened? I don’t want to shake him. Shaking is bad, I know. I clutch him to my chest, feel his breath, whisper in his ear, “Mommy’s here. It’s going to be all right. Mommy’s here.” His eyes flutter open slightly, and he lets out a pathetic little whimper. “Look at me,” I command him, my six-month-old whose entire vocabulary consists of “Ga.”

Michael rushes in. His face is white, his eyes are huge. He hugs me and J. together, he turns to the doctor, a Pakistani named Noah, and asks what’s going on. “We’ve ordered a CT scan.” says the doctor. “Does your baby have any allergies?”

While J. is sedated and taken in for his CT scan, two men in suits approach me. They introduce themselves as police detectives. They are lumbering, uncomfortable. Ma’am? Can we just ask you a few questions? Your babysitter. How long has she worked for you? Two days, I say. They exchange a glance. Ma’am? You don’t think. . . well, you don’t think she did anything.

Our pediatrician calls the Brooklyn hospital. She wants J. transferred to the Upper East Side hospital where she works, the hospital with the best neonatal intensive care unit in the city. Suddenly, she is no longer calling this a minor bump. She is no longer sounding annoyed. She says she’s sending an ambulance, a team.

I don’t want to hurt Dr. Noah’s feelings. I don’t want him to think that we believe his hospital to be inferior to the Manhattan hospital where we are about to transfer our baby. Our pediatrician wants to see him, I shrug apologetically, marveling at my own ability, even in a moment like this, to be polite at all costs. It’s my nature. I have a nice surface. Dinner party, emergency room, it really makes no difference. Can I get you something to drink? You look tired. Here, put your feet up.

Marsha gets up from her plastic chair by the window where she has been interrogated by two detectives from the 77th Precinct and walks towards me. Her whole face has crumbled, and she looks like a completely different woman. Not young. Not pretty. Her arms are outstretched, and I realize that she wants me to hug her. And so I do. I wrap my arms around this trembling woman who fell down the stairs, who doesn’t know how it happened, who was wearing socks on the slippery, slippery wood. Who let go of my baby so that he tumbled by himself from the sixteenth or seventeenth step down who knows how many steps before she grabbed onto his arm and caught him. Are you okay? I ask her.

Tony waits outside. At least an hour has gone by, and he’s sitting there in his taxi, meter turned off.

This is how they transport a baby in the back of an ambulance: I lie on a stretcher, and they tie me down. Then they hand me J., bundled up in the pajamas he was wearing this morning. Blue pajamas the color of the sky, printed with clouds shaped like white sheep. I cradle him in my arms, his head resting against my breast. His hair is tangled, his upper lip is rubbed raw from crying. The bump is getting bigger. The team-a driver, a paramedic, a nurse, and a doctor-lifts us into the back of the ambulance. I watch through the window as we are driven away from the Brooklyn hospital, siren going, through the congested streets of downtown Brooklyn, over the bridge once more, and up the East River Drive. The doctor, a lanky, dark-haired woman with a big diamond on her finger, keeps checking J.’s vitals, while I keep myself sane by asking her where she went to medical school, how long she’s been out, what she wants to specialize in.

I don’t want to be a writer anymore. I want to be her.

Hellooooo! coos the pediatrician as she parts the curtain in the ICU. Her face is scrunched into her practiced, good-with-babies grin. Let’s see that bump. Oooh, that’s a nasty bump. J. is in a hospital crib, and I have lowered the rail and crawled in there with him. If I tuck myself into the fetal position, it’s not such a bad fit. The pediatrician opens her wallet and passes around a photo of her own six-month-old daughter. The nurses coo, then hand me the photo. She’s not a cute baby, not cute at all, and she’s sitting up against one of those department-store backdrops of lollipops and balloons. I keep looking at the doctor, J.’s doctor, wishing I were the kind of person who would say, Excuse me, but what the fuck are you thinking?

At night, friends bring bagels and lox. Chocolate bread. Cheeses, a cheese board, a knife. We have a party in J.’s room. He’s coming to, coming out of that gray place he went to. He gives everybody a weak little smile.

The phone rings. It’s Tony, checking on the baby.

The pediatric step-down ICU is festooned with photos of its long-term patients. Birthday parties, staged plays, tired-looking nurses wearing clowns hats. In some of the rooms there are special video monitors, so that parents and children can hook up to say goodnight. I sleep curled up with J., waking every hour as a nurse comes in to lift his lids, check his pupils, take his blood pressure and pulse. Michael wanders the corridors, talking to the children. An eleven-year-old who has lived in the hospital for nearly the past year, waiting for a heart and a liver, tells him about her seven-year-old friend down the hall, who she feels sorry for, because she’s only seven, and she hasn’t had a chance to live yet.

J. has had a normal CT scan, but they decide to do an MRI as well. That’s why we’re here, with the big guns, isn’t it? My husband goes in with J., into the noisy, noisy room where we get three-dimensional color pictures of his brain. My husband is instructed to remove all metal from his body: watch, coins, belt buckle, wedding band. I put his ring on my thumb, twirling it around and around as I wait.

The MRI shows a contusion on J.’s brain, just below the nasty, nasty bump. Wait a minute. Contusion is a fancy word for bruise, right? And bruises bleed. Bruise on his brain?

We’re talking fractions, here. I was never good at math. We’re talking an infinitesimal distance between healthy baby and dead baby. That’s what we’re talking.

Kayn aynhoreh.

In the morning, we check out of the hospital. We are wheeled, J. and I, down the long white corridor. I’ve pulled a striped knit cap over his misshapen head, and he’s grinning, flirting with the nurses who wave and call out, There he goes! There goes our boy! like he’s on a float and this is a parade. The two transplant girls wave goodbye, too, in their robes and slippers. The head nurse gives him a kiss. They are all so happy, so happy to see him go.

When we pull up to our house and bring the baby inside, I feel as though I’m walking into a crime scene. The police officer left his card on the kitchen table; under that jar of strained plums with a plastic spoon still stuck inside. The kitchen tap is dripping. Yesterday’s newspaper is open to the metro news. I carry J. upstairs. The steps are so old, so creaky and uneven. And the dried flowers look like tumors, like malignant growths on an x-ray, egg-shaped and prickly. I watch J.’s eyes for any flicker of fear, but he’s focused on the ceiling.

Marsha called that night to ask how J. was doing. Michael said he was fine. He didn’t want her to worry. Then he fired her. It wasn’t easy. We felt bad about it. When she asked why, her voice gentle and resigned, the only answer-you almost killed our baby seemed like more than could be said.

The socks, the stairs, the dried flowers, Michael’s traffic ticket, our empty bank account, the strained plums, my subway panic. It all adds up to something. Doesn’t it? It adds up to almost died.

Kayn aynhoreh.

The Hollywood check finally arrived. The first thing we did was buy a very nice runner for the staircase. It’s a pale brown the shelter magazines might call “sand” or “birch,” and there are pastel stripes running up the sides. I yanked out the brown, bulbous things that hung over the edge of the cracked white urn, and pulled out some of the roses until there was nothing pushing its way out of the coffin.

I stay pretty close to home these days. Downstairs, J. is laughing. Have I mentioned that he has the most unusual laugh? The sun is streaming through the tall parlor windows. It’s early afternoon, almost time for his nap. I can picture his sleepy eyes, the way he bangs on his plastic butterfly when he gets tired. I can’t write anyway, so I go downstairs to see him.

I rock my baby while he sucks down his bottle. The bump is gone. Sometimes, I think I can still see a bluish stain on his forehead. This is what I do, every single time I put him to sleep: I sing him three rounds of “Hush Little Baby,” four rounds of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Then I count backwards from fifty. When I get to one, I finish by saying, Thank you, God. Please keep this baby safe. Please watch over him and keep him safe. I repeat it over and over again while I rock. I can’t alter the routine, and if it’s interrupted, I have to start all over again. I imagine an invisible hand cupping my baby’s head, softening the blow by a fraction as he smashed into the corner of a stair. Whose hand? What grace?

The house is quiet. Outside, birds are chirping, pecking at the grass seeds we’ve scattered in the backyard. I’m not sure where Michael is. He’s around here somewhere. He’s always doing something practical around the house. Maybe he’s in the basement, taking down the last of the cage I have never seen.

August 28, 2013

Adult Ahoy! A Floating Prom

Talk of the Town

At seven on a recent Thursday evening, white stretch limos began arriving at a pier at Twenty-third Street and the F.D.R. Drive, where a rented yacht called Mystique was docked and waiting for the senior class of Landmark High School. It was prom night. The young men wore tuxedos in various pastel hues, and a few had on bowler hats. The young women, lithe as tulip stalks, were in long shiny dresses, backless and sideless save for a thin string running underneath their shoulder blades where a bra strap might be. The principal of the high school, Sylvia Rabiner, had come to see them off. “They’re so cute, and so half naked,” Rabiner said.

Landmark is a small, progressive public high school on West Fifty-eighth Street, with a graduating class of sixty, almost all of whom are going on to college. For the first time in the school’s seven-year history, the seniors were to be allowed to choose a prom king and queen. The tradition defies Landmark’s egalitarian philosophy, but a small group of girls had campaigned until the teachers relented—on one condition. The winner’s names would be pulled from a hat. Even with this compromise, Vivian Orlen, the school’s assistant principal, was nervous. “There’s one particular girl, Elizabeth. If she doesn’t get it, I swear she’ll jump off the boat,” she said.

Melissa, a round-faced, very pregnant senior in an ornate black-and-gray dress, sidled up to Orlen, who is very pregnant herself. Their bellies bumped as they kissed hello.

As Melissa walked away, Orlen shook her head. “It depresses me,” she said. “Because she’s brilliant. Why do they need to make their lives more complicated?”

A gaggle of girls were lined up on the pier, their hair piled high. One girl had meticulously pressed into her hairdo hundreds of tiny rhinestones of the sort usually glued onto fingernails. When she moved, it was like watching a human disco ball.

Elizabeth—the girl who was desperate to be prom queen—stood in the center of the lineup. Her dress—black, strapless, with a sheer mesh midriff—was not her first choice. She had worked all year at Balducci’s, saving her money for a five-hundred dollar custom-made dress, but it hadn’t turned out to her liking. In math class, the day before, Elizabeth had drawn a diagram of the failed dress on the blackboard.

As the Mystique pulled away from the dock, “mocktail hour” began, and a d.j. spun a Jennifer Lopez tune under a tent on the upper deck. The girls kicked off their heels and put on terry-cloth bedroom slippers that they had brought so they could dance more comfortably.

“Oh, my God, I want to be prom queen so bad,” Elizabeth said. Her face was sweet and stony at the same time. “I’ve worked so hard, spent so much money on my appearance—and now it’s a raffle.” Did she still care, then? “Oh,” she said. “Even more. Because now if I win it means I’m lucky.”

At eleven o’clock, after a buffet of pasta and salad, the seniors gathered on the upper deck for the coronation of the prom king and queen.

“And the king is—Greg!” a math teacher announced.

A cheer went up as an athletic young man in a pale-green satin dinner jacket loped to the front of the group and sheepishly accepted a plastic crown. Now the girls huddled together, hands on their hearts. Elizabeth stood at the back. Her eyes were fixed on the queen’s tiara, which a physics teacher was holding aloft.

“And the queen is—Melissa!”

Elizabeth blinked hard. Melissa looked stunned as she made her way through the crowd. The tiara was placed on her head, and a satin sash was draped over her pregnant belly. In blue glitter, it read “Prom Queen 2000.”

The king didn’t want to keep his crown on, and he certainly didn’t want to slow-dance with Melissa to “I Wanna Love You Forever.” But he had no choice. The d.j. cajoled the couple onto the dance floor. Greg’s girlfriend stood off to the side, looking peeved.

Elizabeth, in tears, had run down the steep stairs to the cabin below. Her classmates were philosophical about her defeat. “Nobody told her to act like that,” one girl said. “A lot of people show their true colors on prom night.”

Up on deck, the d.j. played the last song of the evening. He urged the students to link arms as Vitamin C sang “And as our lives change, come whatever, we will still be friends forever.” The Landmark Class of 2000 hugged and laughed and cried. Elizabeth stayed below, hiding out in the ladies’ room.