The Absent Goddess
One day when you were in kindergarten, your mother made a surprise visit. She appeared at the edge of the playground in a blue suit, with a suitcase in her hand. You ran to her call and she caught you up in such a fierce hug, enveloping you in perfume and scented makeup, that to this day you can pick that fragrance out in a crowd and for a moment have your mother back again.
Over a banana split at a lunch counter, she explained she was leaving your father — and you as well. She began to cry, which made you cry. Then she smoothed back your hair and kept saying she loved you, that you were such a smart little boy and so sensitive, the only one who understood her.
And so you were raised by your father. Though you saw your mother now and then in summer and sometimes on your birthday, when she would pull into town laden with spectacular gifts, the strongest image you have of her — an imaged burned into your mind like a brand — is the way she looked that day she left, in her shapely blue suit, dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex that had a lipstick smear on it.
Your father told people your mother was dead: Being left with a son was an embarrassment to him. Still, no matter how often he cursed her, you put her on a pedestal. She seemed in memory prettier, smarter, kinder than even the mothers on TV.
In your child mind, it was up to you to win back this impossible beauty. So it was for her that you excelled in art class, spending much of your boyhood drawing picture after picture until you got the lines perfect. Then you’d send the pretty thing to her.
“What a talented artist your are!” How you treasured those words at the bottom of her Christmas cards … at least, at first.
In your mid-teens, a gloominess came over you that only sex with strangers could dispel. By then, everyone was making allowances for what they called your “artistic temperament.”
Now, decades later, some observers think your absent mother took no part in shaping the man you have become. You know otherwise.
More than your talent, it is your finely honed technique that has bought you money and some fame. The price of this perfectionism is that while you have brief, strictly sexual affairs, you shun men who stir you too deeply. Love is not a word you trust — and anyway, love gets sticky with emotions.
Life is easier when the object of your desire stands elevated at a cool distance and you observe in silence — both of you classic in your way, frozen in place, supplicant and god — two statues unflawed by time or experience.
The Fantasy Wife
Your father drove Mom into your arms when you were a teenager. She said she wanted nothing more to do with the brute even as she bickered with him constantly.
“He’s so stupid and low-class and …” On and on your mother complained when you began taking her out to museums on Saturday afternoons .
“This marriage was a mistake, a total …” she whispered throughout the jazz ensemble you wanted her to hear.
“That man ruins every single Sunday with his …” she huffed while some French-language actress coughed sorrowfully on screen, and moviegoers turned around with shrill, overeducated “shhhs.”
You were escorting her into a world you had just discovered, a magnificent beehive of culture, fashion, and snobbish disdain. A honey-gold world at the polar opposite of the beer-and-hockey Antartica your father tooled around in. On this higher plane, your mother was to leave behind her Wal-mart shopping cart and join you in what you imagined somehow was her true calling: that of brittle, beautiful showpiece, your bejeweled partner in avant-fashion.
You urged her to divorce the old man, to flee with you to some bohemian walk-up far away. Your mother played with this idea for a while, but only as a new way to talk about your father.
Too late you learned that while you wanted a soulmate, she only wanted a girlfriend.
Today, Mom and Dad bicker on in happy wedlock. So do you and your lover. Friends keep laying odds on when you two will break up, but that isn’t really in the cards. The give-and take, the jab and spar are survival arts you leaned at your mother’s knee.