When my dad, Charles, was on a business trip, I slept in the master bedroom with my mother. She cries when she tells me about an earlier time when she was in love with a man named Paul.
She met Paul when she was twenty-two and working at American Can Company. Every day she drove an hour-and-a-half in her yellow Plymouth Duster, from Wappinger Falls to Greenwich, Connecticut, where she worked as the executive secretary. Paul was a lawyer.
He asked her to help put together an office party. She says she wasn’t attracted to him at first, but from the way she's painted, I picture him as a young George Peppard—handsome, always dressed up in business suits, his light-brown hair parted to one side. She tells me he was quiet-natured, French-Canadian, a vegetarian, and spoke through a cracked tooth—a mark from playing football at Brandice University. My mother says he had a gorgeous body, and she could kiss him for hours. I told her I thought that was disgusting. Aly, when you love someone..., she says.
I'd never seen her kiss my dad.
I have a black-and-white photograph of my mother at age twenty-two; I hang and re-hang it each time I switch college apartments. It was taken of her before she met my dad. I think I like it because it proves that she once had a time when her future was untouched and happy. In it, she has black-brown hair past her waist and is carrying a breakfast tray. Her high cheekbones synch in her thin face; she tells me that she’d cure her hunger with cigarettes and an occasional PB&J on an unsalted Matzo cracker.
From listening to her stories, I've developed this image of my mother in a red, 1960's Volkswagen with her bare feet on the dashboard of the passenger seat. Paul is in the driver's seat, and the car is parked at the beach. The Moody Blues—their favorite group—is singing everyone is looking for the answer/well look again/come on my friend/love will find them in the end. Her hair falls from both sides of her head in long braids, and she's wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt, Daisy Dukes, large circle-framed sunglasses, and a straw hat that she keeps from blowing away by holding it to the top of her head. It's a hot day and all of the windows of the car are rolled down. Paul has said something, and my mother has the same smile and look on her face as she does in that old black-and-white photo.
I imagine her at lunch with Paul. My mother hovers over her half-eaten turkey sandwich. “What age group should we keep the party in?” She holds her pen between her then smooth and un-aged fingers, scribbling on a white, rectangle napkin.
“How about ages twenty to thirty-two?” Paul’s body is angled over the table, towards her.
“Are you crazy?” She looks up from her napkin and raises her eyebrows. “That’s so old.”
“You think thirty-two is old?” He smiles, “I’m thirty-two.”
I imagine her looking back down at her napkin.
When my mother was a child—somewhere between five and eight—she would walk through the halls of her house in Yorktown Heights, with a black veil draped over her head, singing Catholic hymns. She would say her Hail Mary, her Our Father, and The Act of Contrition nights and mornings, and I suspect many times in between. I wanted to be a nun from the time I was a little girl, she says. She tells me that she pratically has lived like a nun since she married my dad; he hasn’t touched her in twenty-three years. Her pale-pink rosary beads still hang in her Tiffany jewelry box, and she lets me take them out to try them on, because she knows I honor them. Bury me with those beads, Aly, she says, even though she has been a pious Mormon for thirty-something years. And I will bury her with them; they are a part of her.
I imagine the lunch conversation somehow transitioning.
“You’ve been married?” Paul was surprised; she was only twenty-two. I imagine him leaning in closer to the lunch table, his eyes fastened to her.
“Yeah, but it was annulled by the Catholic Church after two-and-a-half years.” My mother married a man named Bob when she was eighteen.
“Have you ever been married?” She asked Paul.
“Never,” he leaned back, “I don’t believe in marriage.”
She and Paul shopped for the party together; she had never shopped with a man—not even her father or Bob. Paul juggled oranges for her in the produce section, and they laughed when she said she had been “fishing for fish.” He made fun of her for being from Wappinger Falls—a funny name, he said—for smoking, and for eating meat. I stayed a vegetarian for two years because of Paul, she tells me. I told her once, around age fifteen, while shuffling through a salad bar line, that I liked banana chips. "Paul loved banana chips," she said. Even after thirty-something years, she's remembered.
At Paul’s beach house in Stamford, Connecticut, during the party, he asked her to dance. When we moved together, Aly, it felt like we were one. I get chills when my mother tells me this. I feel something for her and Paul—maybe anxiety, maybe pain, maybe frustration.
I wish I could’ve seen her with him. I wish Paul could have been my father. Sunday night dinners might’ve been different; we might have had family vacations or family reunions. My mother would have wanted to grocery shop with him, and they would’ve decided on what style couches to buy together, without a fight. Paul would have hung the mirrors and pictures up on the walls for my mother without her asking. He would have known that she wouldn’t like a five-dollar Poncho from the Mexican border for Christmas. He would have set up a good retirement fund for her; he would have taken her to Italy like she’s always wished. He would have taken her to the hospital when she was hemorrhaging during her pregnancy with the twins. Paul never would have locked her up in her room for a day to discipline her; he wouldn’t have told her to just cool it Honey and drag her by her arm. He wouldn’t have ignored me as a child or said that my paintings were just interesting. Paul would have been different. I love Paul. I love my dreams about Paul being my father. I love him for giving my mother what he did.
My mother dated Paul for two years. They were both members of the 1970’s Servants of Awareness cult, and smoked pot to channel their Christ consciousness in love, mercy, gratitude, and satisfaction. I was constantly in search of truth, she tells me. And to me, it feels like she was free back then.
“If I moved in with you, Paul, Dad would be down here with a shotgun.” My mother wanted to marry Paul after their two years of dating. She wanted purity and family with the man she loved.
“I just don’t believe in marriage, Barbara.” Paul wrote away to the Servants of Awareness leaders, asking if they thought marriage was necessary. The leaders replied with a no.
“You’re going to let me go?” My mother cried. Paul cried. “You’re so stupid, Paul. You’re so stupid.” And they broke up in an underground garage parking lot at American Can Company.
The next day, my mother met my dad in an elevator, and he invited her to have dinner with him at a Steak ‘N Stein in Wappinger Falls. She ate two bites of steak—her first time in two years—and she says it made her sick.
Four months later, two hours before my parents were married, Paul called my mother. "I'm coming to get you, Barbara. Are you married yet? Are you married?” My mother said it's too late, got drunk on tequila shots, and married my dad.
The idea of Paul follows both my mother and me. I wonder if he regrets what happened, or if he knows that her smile has changed. I wonder if he would have saved her from her life. I wonder if Paul tells his children about a time when he was in love with a woman named Barbara.
My mother cries when she tells me these things, and I touch her shoulder. The next morning my dad, Charles, will pull into the driveway.