The Daily

First Person

Pimped for a Part

January 11, 2016 | by

My mother makes a match.

Image via New York Public Library.

My mother was open-minded about the boys I brought home. She was, in fact, oblivious to any of their flaws. In high school, in Philadelphia, my platinum-haired boyfriend, Billy, who walked with a strut and stole cars, OD’d in our basement under my black-light poster of Jimi Hendrix; Mom was fine about my visits to him in the locked ward in the Quaker mental hospital across the street from us on Roosevelt Boulevard. My next boyfriend, Randy, a whimsical outpatient with a genius IQ at the same hospital—we met on the bus; he was coming from prep school—got permission to have dinner with us one evening and afterward played with my gerbil. Randy blurted that he hallucinated perpetually because of all the LSD he’d taken and that now he was on Thorazine, Elavil, and a third prescription I can’t recall. My mother’s only comment: he should trim his nails.

She did seem to cotton on to my Mormon suitor in college (my only vice was tea) but criticized his piano playing as “stiff.” She did not seem disturbed when four years later I had a “dancer/artist” boyfriend in sex therapy (“You’re sexually repulsive to me,” he’d confided, “but don’t take it personally, all women are”), and she said nothing disparaging about his successor, an alcoholic Columbia University student/construction worker who accidentally burned, hoping to keep warm during a cold snap, all the savings he’d hidden in his never-used oven. He once showed up drunk at four A.M. with a lipstick-swished cheek and confessed he’d kissed another woman who’d bought him a cabbage, but it was me he really loved, he said, and then punched a hole in my door. Mom remained mute when I confided I’d met, in Egypt, a much younger French Algerian paratrooper named Karim, even when I revealed that he would call me long distance from Marseilles and never talk—simply whisper my name and breathe for twenty minutes, or play a tape of music he’d written. My bass-player roommate at that time, Sara, once quipped, “Karim’s mother’s not going to be very happy when she sees that phone bill.” 

My mom was unfazed by it all. My parents were bohemians. And how could my mother know normal behavior having married Vic, my stepfather, who exposed us to the underbelly, fanfare, and hayrides of mental institutions and halfway houses in all his therapy “jobs” from Baltimore to Chicago to Philadelphia to D.C.?

Vic held group-therapy sessions on our sun porch in Philadelphia, and I, fifteen at the time, was designated to serve beverages during breaks. Balancing a tray unsteadily in one hand, I’d knock and slide open the sunporch doors, feeling all the eyes scanning my lithe silhouette, from my permed-out Botticelli hair to my narrow hips to my too-long, too-skinny legs, semi-camouflaged in lavender bell-bottoms. It was always traumatic; for a shy teenager, this was tantamount to stepping out onto a stage … and I didn’t even have a speaking part. (Did I even smile?) Vic’s male clients, all ten to fifteen years older, hit on me. The tall, marvelously beak-nosed Capricorn, Alan, volunteered to be my algebra tutor—I’d already failed geometry twice—and took me to concerts in Rittenhouse Square and said he fantasized about what I’d look like dancing. Even the dashing homosexual, George van Horn, sought out my company, giving me his archaic silverpoint pens and unfurling his haunting self-portrait canvas, half man, half skeleton, to show me, as if proximity to his therapist’s stepdaughter would accelerate his healing and spiritual illumination.

Most persistent was Robert, the med student, who invited me on nature hikes with a magnifying loop to scrutinize lichen; these hikes included sleepovers—me in the guest room—at his place. He was my only true friend: we exchanged romantic nineteenth-century-style illustrated letters. When I started college, Robert, now a pathologist looking for a lichen-loving virgin bride, proposed to me in one such letter. I replied that I couldn’t marry him because I was too young—that I didn’t even know how to make lasagna. Being Italian, he understood.

Throughout all this, Mom made no judgments whatsoever. She trusted Vic to guard my virtue. “Not one finger on my daughter, capisce?” he admonished Robert each time he’d ferry me away in his VW bug.

*

For years I thought my mother was cultivating a cavalier attitude, but now that I think on it, I realize she had, and still has, a gift for overlooking the glaring flaws of both her husbands. She chose to see their merits. My biological father was bipolar, and she found the roller-coaster range of his emotions more riveting than troublesome. She saw creativity, passion, drama, and humanity in Vic, a former trumpet player who’d pursued Billie Holiday and lost his lip, even though he had anger-control issues and never earned more than fifteen thousand dollars a year—he saw patients for free if they were broke. If she could overlook, forgive, or, even more amazing, enjoy her husbands, it made sense that she would see halos, however banged up and dented, over my young suitors.

*

It wasn’t until Vic and Mom moved to San Diego, and her career as an actor started to blossom, that my mother set me up, for the very first time, on a date. Let’s call him Z.

Z, a success in the San Diego theatre, had directed my mother in John Patrick Shanley’s Italian American Reconciliation. “Bowery Sparkles with Shanley Play,” “It’s Zesty and Italian,” and “Slice of Moon,” gushed the reviews. The actors got raves, too. “They all radiate under Z’s direction.” The reviews featured photos of the cast, and my mother—sporting an adorable, comic, sort of Lucille Ball expression—was in most of them. She talked about this director with reverence and admiration in nearly every phone conversation; she longed to be in the next play he was directing, there was a part she desperately wanted, but she was having trouble reading the way he felt about her work. When I finally flew out to San Diego for a visit—she insisted that I meet Z for a drink.

Z’s eyes were penetrating. Relentless. You were his captive when he asked you a question. I sensed he could have handled the psychodramas of my family. He could have directed the clients in Vic’s most “hopeless” wards. He was intense, charming, powerful, and, I remember asking, a Leo. He took me to one of those subterranean places with candles in amber-colored cut-glass containers; the furniture was robust, dark wood and you felt obliged to order red wine. I don’t know whether it was theatrical training, but he really knew how to make eye contact.

I remember thinking, early in the evening, that he seemed more mature than most of the men I knew. Even his hair looked mature—it radiated success, like a movie star from the forties. He had a thickly waved, grown-up haircut—nothing scraggly, no ponytail, no buzz cut, no hipster shag, no goatee, no soul patch, no looming sideburns—and a twist of gray.

It was strange, after all these years, that my mother had set me up on a date. Had she finally stepped up to the matchmaking plate and chosen a man she considered my ideal mate? She knew about Paul, my young, green-eyed (looming sideburns) bass-player-with-a-temp-job back home. Maybe she figured he wasn’t marriage material. My friend Julie, a serial dater of vintage married men who lived abroad, was always administering relationship advice, telling me she saw me with an “older man, someone to take care of me.” Maybe she had a point. Did I really want to get serious with a skinny guy living off liquor-soaked Bundt cakes sent to clients at the holidays at his low-level paralegal job where he xeroxed band flyers on the sly?

Lots of my friends had overbearing mothers. They bossed them around about fashion, food, where they’d go to school, what they’d study, and, most of all, boys. These mothers analyzed the entire resumé, forensically scrutinized the genealogy. None of them seemed concerned with matters of the heart; they were, in effect, trying to amputate the heart. I was pretty sure my mother had not asked any questions about my date’s parents, let alone his ancestors. I thought back to Billy, my OD’d-in-the-basement boyfriend: the night his father, wearing working-class dungarees, rang our bell, wringing his red-knuckled hands. He didn’t want my parents to think badly of his son, who was detoxing in the hospital right across the street. My mother didn’t invite Billy’s father in. He stood under the bug-glazed lantern outside our front door, flanked by cypress trees, twitching as though he were in the presence of royalty. I was vaguely aware of the class distinction between our families but we, the DiMeo family into which I’d been tossed, never considered ourselves elite. We were egalitarian. Vic, in fact, to his credit, subscribed to the controversial idea put forth by British psychologist R. D. Laing, that schizophrenic patients and their doctors should not be distinguished from each other by dress. So how did my mother become so … unconcerned with civility?

Now, here I was, looking into the deep brown candlelit depths of a director my mother admired. He was tall, polite, didn’t smoke. Revered in his field. Was this a perfect match? Had my mother found me someone who’d be intellectually and artistically compatible? Someone not on drugs, not crazy, not poor, not gay? Was she hoping I’d move to San Diego? Was she hoping we’d fall in love? Was his halo unblemished, searingly golden?

As the conversation buzzed along, I came to see that there was an amazing talent there, or so he thought. His talent soared larger than life. Being with him had the sort of frisson you experience with a celebrity. Those eyes! The intensity! The feeling of absolute connection and intimacy! He brushed my knee with his. Was it an accident? Nothing about him was accidental. So what if he didn’t ask what sign I was. Lots of great men were not into astrology. He was curious, at least, about my work. It’s true I had interviewed John Patrick Shanley for my magazine, and I began to suspect, even under the fuzzifying influence of red wine, that the director was looking for coverage in our Face to Face section as well. Although my magazine was not as haute-profile as Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, I was always amazed to see that people were much more intrigued with me when they knew I was an executive editor and not a waitress or librarian.

I imagined Z would look as dashing in a doublet (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) or in a tuxedo (any Cole Porter play)—but the main thing I remember about him, the thing that Mom left out of his biography, was that he was married. I don’t remember at what point this was revealed; red wine was blurring the edge of my consciousness and although I was not feeling any sort of chemical attraction, I felt deceived. A wife. He had a wife like a stick of old furniture. The furniture was home while he was out with me. What was my mother thinking? That I’d be charming? That I’d be intriguing? Was her next thespian gig hinging on the outcome of our social intercourse? Did this guy, this date, have children, too? I don’t think I asked. I decided that my mother simply didn’t know. Z, however, did know.

I got up to use the pay phone. I called Paul, the young bass player back in New York. It wasn’t terribly serious. Or so I thought. But there was chemistry. He read fairy tales to me on Saturday afternoons and had held my coat as we walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’d sent me otherworldly flowers after our first kiss and shared my affection for ferrets. And he was single. The singleness of him was suddenly dazzling. His affection, untarnished, unshared and pure. My date with Z was just the catalyst I needed to fall in love with Paul. When I flew back home, he met me at the airport. A few years later we got married. My mother adores him. She says he’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

As for Z, he didn’t cast her in his new play, though she was, as I’ve demonstrated, more than willing to let bygones be bygones. My mother never worked with him again.

Laren Stover is the author of Pluto, Animal LoverBohemian Manifesto, A Field Guide to Living on the Edge, and The Bombshell Manual of Style. She writes for the New York Times and the New York Observer and is the editor-at-large of Faerie Magazine.