Mom married often. Noah I actually liked. Liked him a little too much. On their wedding day he and I got to the park early to paint over penises sprayed on the base of the St. John’s Bridge. In pursuit of PG-rated family photos we’d been censoring graffiti for days – feeling like good Samaritans, or prudes – each time congratulating ourselves on a job well done, but the phalluses proliferated overnight. They were important to someone. So there we were, day of, sweating into our finery. Couple of Mom’s ex-husbands were hanging Party City paper lanterns from a tree. Noah said, ‘Speak now or forever hold your purse.’
His accent wasn’t particular to a state or even quadrant of North America but to a frame of mind. Habitually he cluttered his speech with errant r’s. Then again, Noah was radiantly straightforward and may have considered a man holding a woman’s items the primary function of romance. I didn’t need romance so much as I needed a job.
‘You mean peace,’ I said.
He threw back his head to study the green underbelly of the bridge. ‘Peace, purse. You’ll be holding on to something.’
In a year the invention of Instagram would increase demand for the park as a wedding venue. If your goal was to obscure the day’s turbulent specificity with a beautiful symbol, you couldn’t beat the stanchions arching like a cathedral over the river, framing the west side’s forested hills. In real life, the cars on the bridge roared thunderously, a hobo teetered at the edge of the community boat ramp, cyclists removed their shoes to compare diseased toenails – plus all the phalluses. Mom had reserved the park for the third Saturday in July, no problem.
Her plan was to walk to the ceremony when she was done with her makeup. I’d begged her to call a limo or even a regular cab, but she was clinically cheap. In this season of my life we lived together – not still but again. My marriage was over. David had been wealthy and polite, an orthopedic surgeon. For three and a half years I bought whatever I wanted from Whole Foods and raised my stepchildren, ages six and eleven. Then David’s weirdly small head was turned by a similarly small-headed med student who never stopped smiling. In the divorce I got nothing. It’s more common than you think.
Part of me was relieved to return to my native tax bracket. Cellophaned cheeses and small glass jars of things had gotten old. A person wants Stove Top stuffing from time to time, or to crush a handful of Fritos into an open tin of tuna fish. David I’d get over, but being separated from my stepchildren was the heartbreak of my life. Losing stepchildren wasn’t the same as drifting apart from a friend or leaving a lover, because children don’t stay the same for more than a few months. Only way to truly know a child is to take care of one. I’d helped the six-year-old type up his dictionary of fake words. Robumpfunk was a verb meaning to fall from the roof. Ensizzled was an adjective meaning left in the microwave too long. Taught the eleven-year-old to lie to her friends. First kiss? Had it. Miley Cyrus? VIP tickets. Biological mother? Building a hospital in Peru. After the divorce neither stepchild trusted me. They shouldn’t have.
In a lot of ways Noah was the opposite of David, but I was a sucker for Noah’s kind, which was ex-Mormon. Portland was crawling with exmos in those days; I’d learned to identify the Temple-inflicted trauma in the gray eyes of a bearded man. Couldn’t think of anything sexier than enduring the whole ceremony with the greasy rag, pretending to cut out your tongue and palm your own entrails, getting the secret name, learning about multi-level marketing schemes and the all-male celestial kingdom, and saying no thanks. Type of man I favored climbed directly into his Jeep Cherokee, ditched his sacred undergarments in a truck stop south of Ogden, and spent the rest of his days repairing commercial espresso machines in the Portland metropolitan area. Such was the situation with Noah, Mom’s groom.
Now he dropped his paintbrush and touched my hip. ‘I love your mother, but I love you more.’
‘When I reject you, which will be momentarily, are you still planning on marrying my mom today? After saying this shit to me?’
‘Think so,’ he said. ‘In a sense, I get both of you either way.’
I want to make clear the age gap was nothing to worry about, not in either direction. Noah was exactly between Mom’s age and mine, and she’d had me when she was seventeen.
I said, ‘I wouldn’t count on her sticking around after I steal her husband.’
‘Fiancé,’ he said, ‘and give me a break.’
We were interrupted by the sobs of a grown man, not uncommon in that part of town. We looked around with mild concern. Tommy, Mom’s first husband, lay broken beneath the tree he’d been decorating. His cries were high-pitched and haunting. He held on to his knees and shuddered like a child.
‘Tommy fell,’ said Beau, Mom’s second, a soft-spoken salesman who flew helicopters recreationally. ‘Hit his head.’ Treebumpfunk.
Noah asked, ‘Did he fall because he hit his head or hit his head because he fell?’
Beau rocked backward on his heels. ‘That I can’t say.’
Tommy was a high-class drug dealer who grew marijuana in the basement of his Mt. Tabor bungalow. Was ugly and vain, an early adopter of Botox for men. Had the Gatsby line about beautiful shirts tattooed on his forearm. He was also concussed.
Noah got Tommy into the back of the Jeep. It was Noah’s vehicle, so he drove, and Tommy was my dad, so I rode shotgun. ‘Wish I had my chopper,’ Beau said softly, seeing us off. I texted Mom explaining the head injury, promising to meet her for the ceremony ASAP. The judge wasn’t due for an hour. Seemed possible we’d be back in time.
Regarding the judge: all my life I’ve been stunned when I remember my mother received no religious upbringing. The virtues she holds dearest are fidelity and thrift – and what good are those if there’s no heaven? But Mom prided herself on having never been to church, claimed her mother and her mother’s mother had felt the same. None of this made any sense or was plausible. Our family had been in Oregon since covered wagons. Grandma’s driver’s license number was four digits long. I’ll admit Mom’s commitment to generational heathenism was endearing and made her perfect for Noah the exiled, Noah the eternally-damned.
Also regarding the judge: he was Mom’s fourth and most recent husband. He’d discounted his services. Say what you will about my mother, but not one of her marriages ended in acrimony.
Tommy lay moaning across the backseat, hands over his eyes. ‘This is a top-five worst life event,’ he said.
Noah was determined to keep Tommy verbal. I wasn’t sure if this was an old concussion trick or if Noah was a little bored.
‘Hey bud? When was your daughter born?’
‘What song was on the radio when you drove to the hospital?’
Tommy whimpered and went quiet. I was forced to say, ‘He wasn’t there. Mom drove herself. Song was ‘The Boys Are Back in Town.’’ This wasn’t a guess; she and I discussed that sort of thing. If Noah thought he could disarm me by showcasing Tommy’s paternal ignorance – if he thought coaxing my daddy issues to the surface would inspire me to hook up with my mother’s fiancé on their wedding day – he was probably mistaken.
‘Tommy, my man.’ There was a tremor of anxiety in Noah’s voice. We’d gotten off I-5 and stuck at a long light. ‘Stay with us, brother. Make and model of your first car?’
‘Sixty-nine.’ Tommy took a breath. ‘Oldsmobile.’ Another. ‘Cutlass.’
‘Last time Blazers played in the finals.’
Tommy whispered, ‘Ninety.’
Tommy held up two fingers.
I took my dad inside the ER while Noah found parking. A trick I learned during my divorce was to check in with myself. Like, hey, Stephanie, what do you need right now? Often the answer was Diet Coke, or to pee, or a job, and often while raising two children to whom I didn’t give birth and whose real mother had gone to Joshua Tree to read tarot cards, none of these were available to me. Such was the case as I got Tommy registered and discovered he had no health insurance, had splurged on an eyebrow lift but opted out of Obamacare. We were directed to sit in vinyl chairs already damp with other people’s sweat. Tommy slumped, splayed his knees, wept gently, and I finally had a minute to think. What did I need? I needed to kiss Noah. At least once on the mouth.
I was thirty-three and under no delusions. If I married Noah he’d delight in me for a time. Maybe years. A woman watching TV on the couch! Hand soap in the bathroom! We’d embrace in the kitchen. He’d tell me about pheasant hunting with his brothers who no longer took his calls but sent Mormon missionaries to his apartment. I’d tell him about Jenny, my best friend from ages eight to eighteen, only other person I’d ever considered my soulmate. To fill the ensuing silence we’d have a baby. Purity of our love for the baby would reveal tender irritation was all we’d ever had for one another. Soon each utterance of Noah’s would send a hot surge of adrenaline through my veins. Fight or flight? Slam door or shatter dish? Feral scream? Not saying these were my thoughts on marriage or men as concepts; I’m saying what I guessed to be true of cohabitation with this particular man. Still wanted to kiss him before coming to any firm conclusions.
By the time Noah located me in the waiting room, a triage nurse had taken Tommy away. Noah chose a chair across from mine. Folded his big hands in his lap.
‘Want to see my vows?’ he asked.
‘Why not,’ I said.
From his pocket he withdrew a folded scrap of paper. In male handwriting:
I will not take you for granted.
I will offer only positive feedback on haircuts.
I don’t care if you get fat.
I will always be curious about you.
I will try to get smarter.
I hope you can stand me.
I passed the paper back to him and said, ‘Consider cutting that last one.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘Makes the one above it seem unlikely.’
‘Fuck you,’ he said, but I could tell there wasn’t much he took personally.
The night I met Noah I already knew he’d be my mother’s fifth husband. Mom didn’t introduce me to anyone she wasn’t planning to marry. Three of us went out for pizza and when Mom confessed she preferred anchovies to sausage, Noah closed his gray eyes and nodded with such solemn appreciation, I liked him immediately. Liked him so much I commenced flirting without realizing it – a common side effect of divorce. After Noah paid the bill he had to use the bathroom. Mom and I walked out together.
‘Enjoy your date?’ she asked.
I’ve been cruel to my mother all my life. Relentlessly hitting on her new boyfriend was barely remarkable. You want an all-timer, consider prom night, senior year. Jenny and another Jenny wanted to get a hotel room downtown, had telephoned with their proposal of splitting the cost three-ways. Mom said absolutely not. One third of a hotel room downtown wasn’t in the budget. Whatever we wanted to do in a hotel room – order takeout, watch VH1, get pregnant – we could accomplish under her roof. She was with Leon at the time. Her third and favorite husband. Leon reheated meatloaf and appeared distressed while I behaved abusively. I wore a strapless pink gown, tiara from the mall.
‘What is wrong with you?’ I wailed like a Trojan woman. ‘You say you don’t believe in God, but you worship your goddamn budget. What are you so afraid of? If you spend too much money you won’t have enough for your next divorce?’
Wasn’t what I said, which was close to the truth, but that I said it in front of Leon. He abandoned his dinner and went upstairs. The microwave beeped pitifully. Their marriage didn’t last the year, and Mom never forgave me for leaving before she got to take pictures.
Tommy was diagnosed with a concussion sustained falling from a tree. He was to rest in a dark room, avoid thinking and trees. We drove him to Noah’s apartment, which was closest to the hospital. Until we got Tommy up to the bedroom I hadn’t realized Mom and Noah planned to spend the night there, not at the house. Noah’s green duvet was covered in rose petals. There were chocolates and champagne in a bucket on the dresser. We eased Tommy onto the mattress. He thanked us and Noah reminded him to silence his thoughts.
In the living room, a window overlooked traffic on I-405. On the wall buzzed several vintage beer signs my ex-husband would’ve hated.
‘Why would you bring Mom back here?’ I asked. ‘No offense, but our house is nicer.’
‘She figured we should be on our own tonight. Didn’t want her daughter sleeping on the streets.’
‘Don’t worry about me. I’m moving out as soon as I get a job.’ In the years I’d spent as a doctor’s wife, I’d aged out of my chosen profession of Sexually Intriguing Receptionist. Was still brainstorming alternatives.
Noah said, ‘Would she – would your mom have liked all that? The flowers and everything?’
One thing I struggled to stomach about men in general was how readily they trusted their assessments of others. One thing I loved about Noah was his fundamental uncertainty. Did his fiancé like rose petals? Had he proposed to the correct woman? Who could say? All he wanted was someone who could stand him.
‘No,’ I said. ‘She hates that stuff.’
I slid my hand under his shirt and thumbed a southbound trail of hair. Kissed him. I’ll be honest with you: it was a good kiss. If his bed hadn’t contained my potentially brain-damaged father maybe I’d have gone to it with him. Important thing is I didn’t. Important thing is I pulled away and said, ‘Let’s make you my stepdad,’ and Noah groaned in lustful resignation. Ten years later and neither of us have mentioned that kiss. Can’t imagine we ever will.
Only frivolity my mother enjoyed in life was the artichoke. She liked to grow them in the yard, steam them on the stove, pull their hot stems from the pot with her bare hands, scrape the leaves against her bottom teeth and savor the hearts dipped in melted butter.
The summer I was nine our garden produced just one. Mom prepared the thistle as described. She was between marriages. As we plucked the leaves, there was no doubt in my mind she’d let me, her child, have the heart. Then the leaves were gone and she’d hacked off the hairy part. Watching her slice the heart in two, I felt acutely betrayed. Before she could transfer my half to my plate, I reached across the table and crammed both pieces in my mouth. I thought she’d laugh. Thought, at worst, she’d be affectionately annoyed. I was unprepared for how abruptly she left the kitchen, or for her disappointment to last through the next day.
For a long time this memory was the wellspring of my shame – a little parable to illustrate my selfishness and greed. Since my divorce, when I looked back on Mom’s overblown reaction, I thought, goddamn! Let the kid have a buttered vegetable!
The update from Mom was her guests had given up and gone home, but the judge had stuck around as a courtesy. All we needed was another witness, so I called Jenny, now a cop from whom I was firmly estranged, meaning we hung out twice a year desperate to impress each other and became furious when it didn’t work. As Noah and I drove back to the park, I imagined presenting my dilemma to my mother, names changed to protect the guilty. The key piece of info was a man had invited me to ruin his wedding. More or less relevant: he’d delivered a relative of mine to the ER and let me kiss him in his apartment. Must the show go on?
Mom would say absolutely not, I would have to inform the bride. But she was my soulmate; I knew not only what she’d say but what she’d actually do, which was keep her mouth shut and let the full moon of a marriage eclipse the day’s blindingly weird details.
Jenny showed up with her latest child strapped to her chest. She sucked her teeth at me and congratulated Mom. The judge, having shed his black robe to prevent heatstroke, slipped back inside its folds. I tried to remember his name and drew a blank. Beneath the stanchions arched like a cathedral over the river, Noah became my mother’s fifth husband. I told the newlyweds the house was theirs for the night. I was thirty-three years old and could find somewhere to sleep.
‘Stay with Jenny,’ said my mother, big-haired and sleeveless, temporarily svelte. ‘Promise you won’t pay for a hotel.’
I promised, but I lied. What else was I supposed to do? Couldn’t follow Jenny home; her husband had come between us in 1997. Returning to Noah’s apartment to see if Dad was watching baseball or had amnesia would’ve been sweet of me. Wasn’t feeling sweet. So I caught the bus downtown and checked into a hotel on Broadway. Might’ve been the same hotel where Jenny and Jenny spent prom night without me. Then again, might not have been. The room was clean, the sheets were white, and through the window a person could watch the streetcar gliding down Tenth Avenue, if a person found that amusing. I’d spent three and a half years growing accustomed to cleaner rooms, whiter sheets, more breathtaking views than this. The differences matter less than you think.
My ex-husband worked most Saturday nights. I doubted his girlfriend had taken over child-rearing; I doubted his first wife had crawled out of the desert. It was ten p.m.: shouldn’t I have known where my stepchildren were?
I called David to find out. At first he was annoyed I’d disturbed him at the hospital, though I clarified, ‘Let it go to voicemail if you’re halfway through a hip replacement, Jesus.’ When he learned why I was calling something in him softened or opened up – a pit of exhaustion, helplessness. He had a real need. I seized my opportunity.
‘You’re looking for – what? A nanny? Available after school, evenings and some weekends? Competitive salary plus benefits? I can do that. Hire me. Let me take care of them.’
All the air left David’s lungs. I would get what I wanted.
He was slightly hung up on the optics. ‘What am I supposed to say when people ask how my ex-wife became my babysitter?’
I said, ‘You tell them you always needed me. Just not in the way you thought.’
Image © Chris Barbalis