As she was walking across the stage, her confident stride reflecting the greatest moment of her young life, she knew graduating from Yale made her dad the proudest father in the crowd.
She glanced over to where her parents were seated, but there was a commotion. She heard her mom scream. She changed her route and dashed to the short stairway at the front left of the stage. As she ran up the aisle, her mortarboard flying off behind her, she saw a crowd gathered around where her parents sat.
When she’d pushed through to see what had happened, she came upon her dad’s body splayed over three or four collapsed metal folding chairs, as if he’d been dropped from the sky. Her mom knelt next to him, holding his head.
She never did get to hold her diploma in her hand. When it came in the mail two weeks later, she didn’t even open it.
Rachel’s fathers’ heart attack proved almost as fatal for the two Jennings women now forced to continue on with their lives without him. Her mom had never worked a day in her life, and though she was going to be financially solvent as long as she lived, her main focus was gone. Her husband had been the landscape upon which her sun had set each evening, and now nightfall brought only the urge to drink and to forget.
Rachel, upon moving out of her apartment in New Haven, faced head-on the worst nightmare of a graduating college senior, as she chose to return home to the large 4 bedroom house in Boston that she grew up in, and that now was home to a lonely woman rattling around in a cavernous 10,000 square foot mansion, surrounded by 3 acres of unused, well-tended land.
Rachel’s sudden front row seat at her mother’s deterioration was like watching a second death, yet she had to be there. If anyone could pull her mother out of the throes of giving up, it would be her.
Each night, they would begin their cocktail hour at four, the one remaining servant now with increased duties that included cooking, cleaning and bartending. Esmeralda was herself distraught over the death of her boss. Mr. Jennings had been a good, fair man who paid well, had helped her acquire her green card, and then pulled some strings to fast track her way to American citizenship. She owed him everything. Mrs. Jennings had merely tolerated her. She was a snob, an elitist, who fashioned herself a Boston aristocrat, and she had established a clear line of demarcation between herself and the help. Mr. Jennings had always strove to blur that line, asking Esmeralda about her husband and kids from time to time, even inviting them for Easter dinner one year.
Now, without the wealthy investment banker to run interference for her, she was forced to deal much more directly with Mrs. Jennings, and the tension was high. Rachel tried to keep her mom occupied, but her grief spilled out in sarcasm and ridicule aimed at the kind 45 year old portly housekeeper.
It had been almost four years since Rachel had spent any concentrated time with her mother, and she noticed several disturbing trends, in addition to the increased drinking. At least she hoped her mom’s drinking represented an increase.
Alice Jennings politics had always mirrored those of her liberal husband. Roland’s political leanings had been influenced by his life lived in the upper crust of Boston’s elite, where he hobnobbed with such disparate power brokers as the Kennedy’s and the Bulger’s. Rachel’s dad had eschewed O’Reilly for Rachel Maddow, and he had contributed to many a left leaning candidate’s coffers, intent on keeping the great state of Massachusetts one of the countries last bastions of liberalism.
With Roland gone, Rachel saw an uglier side to her mom; a racist, homophobic, nose-in-the-air toward the lesser fortunate that would have made her dad cringe. It was a side her mom had clearly chosen to keep hidden, until now, and Rachel grew increasingly depressed at her mom’s apparent burgeoning lack of empathy toward the lower classes.
Rachel’s expensive education and subsequent degree in psychology had not prepared her for this up-close view of her mother, who’d apparently been disguising her uglier side from her family, cloaking her fear and hatred in a glassy smile, and hiding behind top shelf vodka, canapés and cliches.
How had her father not seen this?
One afternoon, in the huge quiet house, Rachel sat at her father’s computer, feeling compelled to write, but unsure as to what to say.
She clicked on an icon labeled “stuff”.
An entire world opened up before her innocent eyes.
She knew her mother was computer illiterate, so she’d surmised that her father had no reason for subterfuge on his desktop.
But what she found was astounding.
The pornography was tame enough, though shocking. It was adult heterosexual in nature, and she quickly clicked out of the link.
She opened a folder slugged simply “A”.
The term ‘can of worms’ is often used to convey something that houses slime, or filth, or disappointment.
This folder held all three.
Apparently the “A” stood for Alice.
In the folder were pictures of Rachel’s mom with other men. Naked. Some of the men she recognized. Others she did not. Two of the men were black. One of the men Rachel knew to be gay.
She closed the window, got up from her father’s desk and went and locked the door to his study. Her mom was in the den, nursing her noon-time Vodka Gimlet and watching soap operas.
Returning to his desk, she passed a large wall mirror. She stopped and studied herself.
Long brown hair, straight and lifeless, hung Mona Lisa-like, as if framing her face. Her eyebrows were expressive, but still faint. Her nose was small, which was good, as she preferred her big brown oval eyes to be the focal point on her face. Her lips were naturally plump and her teeth gleamed white. With a proper hair stylist, she could easily be classified as pretty. At present, she looked almost non-descript, and she realized that had been her subconscious goal for all her years at Yale. To downplay what was a natural beauty, to desexualize herself in a misguided effort to better focus on her studies.
She’d gone four years at probably the best college in America without ever having a boyfriend. There had been offers, of course. But her mind was on her education, and when she was singularly focused like that, there was no distracting her.
She reached up and pulled her hair back to show her full face. No ear rings. In fact, she wore no jewelry at all. No tattoos, no piercings. None of the physical accoutrements that dotted the many bodies of her peers. She’d avoided the more obvious, ostentatious modes with which her generation had cried, “Notice ME!”
Disgusted, she dropped her hair and returned to her father’s expansive oak desk, now adorned with only a telephone and a computer monitor. She pulled out the rolling ledge that housed the keyboard and continued her sordid search.
She re-opened the folder where her mom was depicted having sex with men who were not her father.
Why would dad have these pictures? Was he in on this tawdry infidelity?
Duh, she thought. When she considered the repressive nature of much of her mom’s personality, she knew instinctively that Alice had subverted her sexuality only to allow it out of its cage in ways that were anything but a healthy release.
The Yale psychology department had some award winning professors. She had listened well.
One photo showed her mother having sex with a semi-famous state senator and his wife. Rachel had trouble looking away. It was train wreck time for this 22 year old woman, and her rubbernecking was such a strong instinct it overpowered her physical and emotional need to run into her dad’s private bathroom and throw up.
It was afternoons like these that changed lives permanently, fundamentally, and often tragically.
About an hour later, she turned off the computer and left the study.
She found her mom asleep in the den, the TV blaring an infomercial at her slumped body, the recliner in full recline position.
Rachel used the remote and turned the TV off and sat on the couch. She eyed the ornate two-level glass cart that served as their mobile mini-bar, and got up and fixed herself a cocktail. The crystal decanter alone must have cost $500.
Her mother’s head lolled back, with her mouth open and she began to snore.
The phone rang. She waited to see if the noise would rouse her mom. The snoring continued. Rachel got up and walked across the room to the desk on the wall to the right of the door, and picked up the phone before the second ring had completed.
It was her only living Uncle. He was in town, and had been unable to make it to the service or funeral, but now wanted to pay respects.
Rachel didn’t tell him that ‘respect’ had gone the same way as her father in this house.
He promised to come by in an hour.
Her Uncle Brian had been only a sporadic presence in her first 18 years. He was a writer and semi-local celebrity in New York. Her father’s only brother had made, however, a much more concerted effort to stay in touch with her during her four years at Yale, even coming to visit her on campus a half dozen times.
She liked him. He reminded her of her father. At least, of the good traits of her father.
She could never have predicted her use of that last qualifying statement, until today.
Instead of looking for Esmeralda, she wheeled the drink cart back to the more permanent dark oak bar that lined the wall to the right of the door, and replenished the fruit garnishes and ice and booze. She checked behind the bar in the small refrigerator to make sure there were a few cold beers available for her Uncle, and then filled a crystal bowl with cashews and placed it on the cart, wheeling it back to the center of the room, stopping just to the left of her snoring mother.
She took her mom’s half filled glass of vodka and emptied it in the sink behind the bar, and retrieved three clean glasses and put them on the tray as well.
She sat back on the couch. She was a good girl. A good hostess. Trained well.
And still a virgin.
Did anyone know that?
Was she going to deal with her own version of sexual repression like her mom did?
She shuddered at the thought.
She got up and walked out of the den, down the long marble tiled, very wide hallway, lined with at least one Picasso and a handful of the Dutchman Vermeer’s more obscure work depicting, ironically, middle class life from the 17th century.
She opened the huge, elaborately carved front door and took a seat on the small wrought iron bench on the little stone front porch under a portico, and waited for Uncle Brian.
The front garden was, as usual, immaculately groomed. You could putt on the front lawn, and the flowers were in full bloom. Cherry trees with their brilliant white blossoms made even whiter when viewed from underneath against the startling azure sky, lined the long driveway that, about a quarter mile from the house, turned suddenly to the left down toward the huge electric gate on the street.
In about ten minutes, up over her right shoulder, a buzz emitted from a small speaker. She twisted and pushed the button next to it and rose and smoothed her long skirt over the fronts of her thighs.
Uncle Brian was coming to the rescue. Even if he didn’t know it.
Within moments, she saw his convertible British sports car, a 1975 Triumph TR6 painted a rich forest green with slanted black stripes on the two front fenders, make the right hand turn and come quickly up the drive, the white cherry petals floating up behind him like confetti flung from above honoring his entrance.
His longish blond hair trailed behind him in the breeze; his ubiquitous dark sunglasses firmly in place. Upon reaching the oval, he circled to the right and screeched to a halt exactly perpendicular to where Rachel stood.
Uncle Brian did most things with a flourish, which was always a pleasant counter to her father’s more staid, understated, conservative approach to behavior.
He got out of the car and slammed the door. Standing opposite her on the far side of the car, he spread his arms out as if to say, “Well, whaddaya think?”
She giggled and ran around to him and hugged him.
The embraced for over a minute. They had not seen each other since two months before her graduation. He’d been in London on a book tour for the event and couldn’t get back in time for his brother’s funeral. The brothers were not very close. In fact, they were as different as Boston and New York.
Rachel hooked her arm through his and walked with him into the house. She took his London Fog raincoat and hung it on the steel coat rack in the lobby, re-hooked her arm and led him past the famous paintings to the den. As she approached, she once again heard the TV.
Her mom, fresh drink on the small table beside her chair, was watching a cooking show.
Her eyes widened at the sight of Brian. They were confirmed enemies who had never actually fought a war, though dirty little skirmishes, often played out across the 30 foot long dining table with various assembled guests as audience, had become commonplace.
He walked to her and as she rose to greet him, their awkward hug was like the crossing of swords. Rachel had confessed once to Brian how much she loved that he took no shit from her mom.
“Alice, so good to see you. I trust Rachel told you I was coming over.”
”Actually, she didn’t. I was napping.”
“Sorry mom, you looked so comfortable, I didn’t want to wake you. Who would like a drink? I know I would.”
She offered Brian a beer, but he chose instead two fingers of single malt scotch, while she made herself a dry vodka martini, two olives, a twist of lemon.
As she directed Brian to the couch, she picked the remote off the arm of her mother’s chair and clicked the TV set off.
“Will you be staying for dinner?”
Only her mother could frame an invitation with enough sardonic tone to make Dorothy Parker appear sincere.
“That depends,” Brian said, sipping his drink, and nodding his approval to Rachel.
Rachel decided to settle the impending vitriol before it really got going.
“Mom, Uncle Brian and I are going out to dinner later. You can negotiate with Esmeralda for your meal.”
Brian winked at her, as if to say, ‘nice save’.
“So, Brian, “ Alice began, as she sat back in her recliner and picked up her drink. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”
He paused. “You’re kidding, right? I haven’t seen you since my brother died. I was in London. I telegraphed you.”
She nodded. “Yes, how convenient that must have been for you.”
Brian ignored her. “And I missed my favorite niece’s Yale graduation.”
Rachel grinned. “Your ONLY niece.”
”Whatever. I wanted to say how sorry I am about Roland. The last time I saw him, he was vigorous and healthy. It came as a total shock.”
“For all of us,” Alice said, taking a long sip.
Esmeralda came through the door two seconds after her quiet knock had announced her impending entry.
“Snacks, or hors d'oeuvres?”
“Certainly,” Alice said. “Something warm, and something cold, please, Esmeralda.” Rachel often wondered who her mom thought she was fooling with her faux kindness and respect for the help in front of company.
Brian knew better. He’d heard enough of her out-of-earshot caustic barbs directed at the servants to not be fooled by her icy graciousness.
They made small chit chat until Esmeralda arrived with a large brass platter sprinkled with a variety of goodies. Rachel had missed lunch, while her mom had drunk hers. She made a small plate up and handed it to Brian, who squeezed her forearm in thanks. The tray was in reach for her mother, so Rachel left her to fend for herself. Her mom ignored the food.
The grandfather clock in the far corner, to the left of the hearth so big a cow could be roasted inside it, bonged it’s sonorous basso profundo, its copper innards, visible through the crystal doors, metronomically colliding to give an almost church organ-like sound. It was 6pm.
Rachel put her drink down and rose, extending her hand to Brian. “Dinner time. Shall we?”
He sipped the last swallow of his scotch and they were out the den door before Alice could make a sound.
The revamped and redecorated Locke-Ober was packed, and without reservations, they were ushered to the huge bar, also filled with Bostonians and those that wished they were from Boston.
Brian, ever the world traveler and experienced denizen of many a crowded English pub, expertly creased his body through a small opening and shortly came away with two Ketel One and tonics. They toasted and found a small patch of wall to lean on. Their number was 88, and they frowned at each other as they heard, “61” announced over the P.A. system’s speaker above their heads.
“So, how’s your mother taking it?” he asked, knowing the answer.
Rachel shook her head, wondering how much to dump on her Uncle before appetizers.
“She drinks. And watches daytime television.”
“Ahhh. In other words, she refuses to deal with it.”
”Basically, other than wallowing in self pity. Which, when a loved one dies, is a particularly unsavory, narcissistic road to go down. She’s trying to turn off all her emotions. She hasn’t even bugged me about looking for work.”
He nodded, extending his glass. They touched.
“More importantly, how are you doing?”
She thought about the question, letting it hang there like an eephus pitch, seemingly airborne beyond all realistic metaphysical expectations.
“69.” They grinned at each other and shrugged shoulders in unison.
“Well, it will be difficult for me to look back at my graduation with any feeling of accomplishment. It’s kind of like being born while your mom dies giving you life. A two sided coin that is permanent, unchangeable, and hurts no matter which way it flips.”
“Nice. I think I’ll steal that.”
She grinned broadly. “Mi prosista es su prosista.”
“And your dad?”
She sighed heavily and offered her now empty glass to her Uncle. “Gonna need a fresh one to go down that road, I think.”
”Be right back.”
And he was, handing her a new drink.
“How do you that? It’s three deep at the bar.”
He winked at her. “I tapped a lovely lass on the shoulder, asked her to order for me, handed her a twenty, and here I am.”
“Is life always that easy for you?”
”Just seems that way. Now, about your dad?”
“Ok, Uncle Brian. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being, shall we say, ‘very well’, 1 being ‘not at all’, how well do…did, you know your brother?”
“Not well,” he said immediately. “And very well.”
She looked at him, expecting a fleshing out.
“Which is to say, of him personally, I had so little actual meaningful contact, I could only guess what he was about. But, I can speculate, and I am an excellent guesser, as to what truly made Roland Jennings tick.”
“And that would be?”
“He was a man drowning in his own contradictions.”
“Sounds like a character in one of your books.”
Brian continued, “But this is supposed to be about you. ‘Brother’ is a role that is fluid, almost ever-changing, especially in our family. Father is a more sedentary position, at least one would hope.”
“Sedentary,” she said aloud. “One would hope,” she again spoke aloud.
“77” came booming over the speaker, under which they were directly situated.
“Eleven to go. Are you implying old Roland the father may have been a bit, ah, fluid?”
“I found some stuff on his computer today that sort of changes everything.”
“Like what?” Brian could guess, but knew she would need to talk about it. To say the words. To feel the emotions wash onto her shore, and hopefully, watch them recede back to where they came.
He laughed. “Porn? Why should that change ANYthing, let alone EVERYthing?”
“When the starring role is filled by your mom, and none of the male supporting actors are your father, it changes everything.”
Normally unflappable, Brian’s jaw dropped.
Rachel was surprised how unemotional she was in telling this to her Uncle. It had only been a few hours. Had she already desensitized herself to what she had seen?
She told her Uncle about the gay man, the two black men and the senator and his wife.
As a writer, Brian’s brain went into overdrive. Furiously scribbling mental notes, he closed his mouth long enough to raise his glass and then took a long drink. He knew his
sister-in-law was an uptight priss, but this was too rich.
“And you found this on your dad’s computer?”
She nodded. “In a folder labeled ‘A’.”
“The Scarlet Letter. Alice as Hester Prynne.”
“I think what I saw makes Hester look like an Amish spinster.”
He shook his head in disbelief.
“What do you do with all of that data?”
“Data? How about images so seared into my cerebellum that they’ll probably crop up every half hour for, oh, say, the rest of my life.”
They were silent as they nursed their drinks.
“We’re getting there,” he said, taking her empty glass and heading to the bar.
When he returned, he handed her a drink and asked, “So, the last time I saw you, those three big letters were in your plans for the future.”
“That was then. This is now.”
“Good title for a book or movie.”
“Already taken. S.E. Hinton.”
“Just checking. So, I don’t see what has changed as far as furthering your education. Can I assume you know that NYU has a wonderful Masters program in Psychology. And it’s right in the heart of Greenwich Village. You wouldn’t have to give up your faux Bohemian lifestyle.”
”Faux? Fuck you.”
“Once a bourgeois, always one.”
“To use your word, ‘whatever’. I’ve thought about that, or maybe a PhD at Columbia.”
“So, you have thought about my offer from last year?”
“Of course. I love New York. I really need an advanced degree to be able to do anything of note. Money is not an issue, thank God. And your generous offer of the third bedroom in your condo? Still stand?”
“Absolutely. We can even share my office if you need to.”
“Might be the right thing for me to do. I don’t think I can stay in that mausoleum much longer., Especially after today.”
“88”. The announcement was startling loud now that many of the diners had segued to the dining room, leaving the bar half full.
“You know,” she said, touching the sleeve of his grey and black Houndstooth sport coat, “I’ve hardly seen my folks since high school. Holidays, and the summer after freshman year. But since then, I interned every summer, remember? Oxford, Philadelphia and then Barcelona last year.”
“Of course. I’ve tracked your path through academia.”
“So, that’s a long time to spend apart from someone and still know them well. And obviously, I don’t know them very well. I can’t baby sit my mom. I think I’m in a New York state of mind.”
They went hand in hand to eat dinner.
“First thing we do,” Uncle Brian said, as they passed the hostess stand, “is get you an appointment with my hair stylist.”
They both laughed.