I told my mother long-distance a while back. “He’s Jewish and terrific and just my type!’
“Your type is neurotic, self-destructive and not interested in you’,’ she said. “What’s wrong with this one?”
“Nothing’,’ I answered. “I mean, well, he’s not quite divorced yet!’
My mother hung up.
Her impatience with my relationships is understandable, given the circumstances. For seven years she’s accompanied me though the frenzied and frustrating 1980’s New York City Jewish dating scene, a scene she never had to contend with.
In a way, my mother had it easy. At 19, she married a New York Jewish doctor. This was in the 1950’s, when that sort of thing was still fashionable. She quit her job, moved to the Midwest suburbs and had children. I’m eight years older than she was at her wedding, and she can’t understand why I’d rather be making poems than babies.
When I moved to New York I rebelled against her chauvinist, suburban-married mentality, in which the men work and play God and the women stay home, do the laundry and change diapers. I still liked Jewish men. But I rejected doctors, MBA’s, accountants, attorneys and basically, any man in a business suit who made money, seemed closed-minded and wanted a wife to stay home and raise children. I wrote passionately, and between pages I dated Jewish poets, professors, painters and documentary filmmakers. Any attraction to Hollywood signalled the beginning of the end.
Lucky for me I was best friends at the time with Leah, whose father was a poor but critically acclaimed fiction writer. Having grown up in the city with a bunch of bohemians, Leah had rebelled, too. She sneered at the sight of a man in jeans reading the New York Review of Books. Leah and I were the perfect man-hunting team. Any male in a suit was hers. Any schlepp with indications of a tormented soul was my territory.
Then Leah married a lawyer and moved to the suburbs. I was still alone in the city, tied only to my typewriter.
During those years, I struggled constantly with my editors, my muse and my mother. She couldn’t understand why therapy a degree in poetry and a freelance writing career were essential to my existence.
“It’s Saturday night!” my mother yelled into the receiver. “Why aren’t you out?”
“I’m on deadline!’ I said.
“You work too much. It’s not healthy!’
“The last two journals haven’t paid me yet’,’ I told her. “It’s been four months!’
“I’ll send money” she promised. “Just go out and have fun while you’re still young!’
“How do they expect someone to stay in business if they never pay on time?” I asked.
“Who cares? For God sakes, go get yourself a man!”
I tried, and I did find a few. They were usually artsy intellectuals who politically professed a penchant for feminism but at the same time expected dinner on the table and the creation of their clones. Their woman’s work always took a back seat to their own. Finally, I met Ira, a true feminist and freethinker.
“Mom! I met a new man. Ira Cohen! Really smart!’ I told her. “And Jewish!” (As if she thought Ira Cohen was Irish.)
“What’s this Ira of yours do?” she skeptically asked.
“He’s a poet. He wrote a brilliant book called Nightmare of Pain.”
“That and a token will get you on the subway!’ she said. “Which by the way you shouldn’t take alone at night… So, how old is this manic depressive of yours, anyway?”
“Forty-seven!’ I said.
She hung up again.
Ira and I had a great time going to book parties, doing The New York Times crossword puzzle together on Saturday nights and reading Sylvia Plath in bed. But soon I was paying all the bills, editing through Nightmares of Pain, Volume II, and playing Ira’s confidante, mother and shrink. He would do the cooking and cleaning, but I had to listen for hours on end to his self-obsessed, repetitious Freudian tirades. When Knopf rejected his manuscript, Ira had a nervous breakdown and moved to Tibet. I gave up on men.
My writing career was satisfying enough. I published poetry, book reviews and essays in several magazines and journals.
“Do you have to win a Pulitzer Prize before you get yourself a husband?” my mother asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous’,’ I said. But when I broke into The New York Times Book Review, I started dating again.
At 27, I was getting cynical. Most of my friends were married, and the others were dropping like flies. To my Michigan cronies, who had two and three kids by now, I was known as “Aunt Susie!’
I met a lot of creeps, all of whom wanted to move in with me, immediately. The good ones were either taken or called back three months later, saying “Hey, how’s it going?” as if we’d last spoken yesterday.
Finally a friend fixed me up with David, a musician and partner in a successful record company, who had picked up an MBA and made money along the way to our blind date.
“You’re sweet!’ I told David. “But I can’t sleep with someone who wears a business suit!’
He offered to take off the suit. I politely declined.
A week later he barged into my apartment unshaven, wearing Levis and cowboy boots and quoting Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks!’
Now we’re in love. We go out to eat a lot and then divide our time between readings and jazz clubs. He tells people he’s a businessman, I say he’s a musician. For some reason, it’s working.
In the meantime, my mother got bored waiting to plan my wedding and gave up on me. When my youngest brother went away to college, she decided to start her own business. Though I’d been telling her to go back to work for years, I was suddenly upset when she didn’t have the time to phone me every day. I assumed she no longer cared.
“Hey mom, I’m seeing a great guy named David’,’ I told her. “I want you to meet him. Can I bring him home for Passover?”
“Bad time’,’ my mother said. “I’m not making it this year. Too busy. … Oh, by the way, I liked that last essay of yours. Nice twist at the end. Good use of quotes!’
“Thanks. But mom, listen. This is serious!’
“You want to know what’s serious?” she said. “My main client owes me $3,000. It’s been four months and the jerk still hasn’t paid!’
“Send him a second invoice and mail one to his accounting department with a ‘Past Due’ notice on it|’ I told her. “… So anyway, mom, David’s smart, 30, Jewish and together…”
“How do they expect someone to stay in business if they don’t pay their bills on time?” she went on.
“Mother! Please hear what I’m saying. I’m in love with a fantastic guy! You would approve of this one! I might even marry him!”
“So what’s the big hurry?” she said.
Susan Shapiro is a New York-based freelance writer whose reviews and humor pieces have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, New York Newsday and New Woman.