Johnny America


He Said, She Said


Illustration of a graveyard

I want it clear that I’m not your pa­tient, though I un­der­stand why you need to see me. So, let’s skip the tod­dler trau­mas and ado­les­cent an­guish and get right to how I came to mar­ry Alma.

The truth is she se­duced me at her father’s fu­ner­al. No, I wasn’t imag­in­ing things and I cer­tain­ly wasn’t ex­pect­ing it. And I wasn’t putting the move on a vul­ner­a­ble, grief-strick­en girl, be­cause Al­ma was nei­ther grief-strick­en nor vul­ner­a­ble. There wasn’t any­thing am­bigu­ous about it, the se­duc­tion: it was straight up, di­rect. And yes, I know it’s not ex­act­ly seem­ly to be se­duced at a fu­ner­al, even if it’s not your idea and even if it was Al­ma. It’s un­gentle­man­ly to talk about it, but if I aim to un­der­stand things, I’m not sup­posed to con­ceal any­thing. Right?

Okay, so here’s how it hap­pened. I went to the ceme­tery, stood at the grave­side. As things were wind­ing up Al­ma left her moth­er and walked over to me. She put her hand on my arm and in­vit­ed me to the re­cep­tion at the fam­i­ly man­sion. I was sur­prised and flat­tered and, of course, I went, though at the church the priest an­nounced the re­cep­tion would be just for fam­i­ly and her par­ents’ clos­est friends, peo­ple of their own sort. Not my sort. I stood around by my­self un­til Al­ma asked me to help her in the kitchen. That’s where it be­gan, in the kitchen and, well, it wound up twen­ty min­utes lat­er in the bed­room, the one Al­ma slept in when she was lit­tle, be­fore she went to Ab­bot Acad­e­my and then Bryn Mawr. 

Her fa­ther had been my boss, the CEO, the Big Tu­na. He looked the part — over six feet of high WASP with cropped steely hair, sharp blue eyes, and a thin hard-dri­ving mouth. He had a face that prob­a­bly looked re­fined on week­ends but ruth­less on week­days. He shout­ed a lot at work, was al­ways bawl­ing some­body out. Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty was his ob­ses­sion — pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and the Japan­ese. Some­times I thought he want­ed to be Japan­ese. “You know, they hard­ly ever sleep,” he’d say ad­mir­ing­ly, though it sound­ed men­ac­ing. Every­body feared him, but we were in awe too. We all griped sot­to voce and swore about him, but I guess ad­mi­ra­tion and fear add up to re­spect. No mat­ter what they said in pri­vate, every­body want­ed his good opin­ion, feared a tongue-lash­ing, and longed for a nod of ap­proval. He was not one of those de­mor­al­iz­ing but easy-go­ing boss­es with low stan­dards. He was a mi­cro-man­ag­er who chewed peo­ple up and spit a lot of them out. Some of us hat­ed him but every­one was sure he was, you know, the re­al thing, and his tem­per tantrums came with the job. It was like work­ing for Zeus. As for me, I idol­ized him even though I thought he was mad — not clin­i­cal­ly mad but mad in the sense of un­pre­dictable. I once saw him fire an as­sis­tant man­ag­er be­cause the poor guy’s socks clashed with his neck­tie. With me, though, he was al­ways po­lite. But it nev­er felt like the cour­tesy was sin­cere. It’s hard to ex­plain. It felt like he was sup­press­ing some feel­ing he didn’t want to come out in pub­lic — aver­sion, dis­gust, maybe ha­tred. He didn’t yell at me, and he didn’t fire me, but I was passed over for pro­mo­tion three times. It all made more sense af­ter Al­ma told me about her father’s views. I was a to­ken, but a to­ken not to de­ceive the out­side world but himself.

So, Al­ma was the daugh­ter of Zeus, the gold­en girl you dream about and would nev­er dare ap­proach, an in­tim­i­dat­ing prize from a high­er world, one that might kill you for just star­ing at her too long. You know what she looks like, how she talks. I was stunned the first time I saw her. It was dur­ing her spring break. She was home from col­lege and came by the of­fice. She was so beau­ti­ful. I mean it was like be­ing pushed back­ward by a wind. And she threw her­self at me af­ter the fu­ner­al, right there in the kitchen. I was too breath­less to won­der why. 

It nev­er crossed my mind that it was to spite her fa­ther. Who’d have fig­ured she’d wait un­til he was dead to do that? Just dead, too. I didn’t sus­pect she was as mad as he was, twice as mad — re­al­ly mad. We were mar­ried three months lat­er. Her idea. The crazi­ness didn’t show up for al­most a year af­ter that, or maybe I was just too be­witched to notice. 

Please un­der­stand, Doc, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion isn’t what I’m af­ter here. I want to escape.

— Okay, it’s true. I slept with my hus­band-to-be right af­ter the fu­ner­al of dad­dy-that-was. I could say he looked to me like a Perseus or Bellerophon but I’m not that in­to mythol­o­gy. I al­so wouldn’t call my­self a ro­man­tic. Aren’t you go­ing to say something?

— Both slay­ers of mon­sters, weren’t they?

— You know your myths. What do you want me to say? Some­thing about be­ing saved? But the mon­ster was al­ready dead, wasn’t he? Fresh­ly. Think I was all bro­ken up by grief, that I had a damsel-in-dis­tress fantasy? 

— You want from me maybe a banality?

— You and your pho­ny Yid­dish ac­cent. He worked for Dad­dy. I liked that.

— A thou­sand men worked for your fa­ther. What did you like about this one? His hu­mor? His per­son­al­i­ty? Good hair? Good digestion?

— I liked that he was there. I liked that he was Jew­ish. Like you.

— Re­al­ly. You liked that he was Jewish?

— Ha! You’re blush­ing, Doc­tor. Look, my fa­ther was a ter­ri­ble an­ti-Semi­te, but he tried to keep it se­cret. He was ashamed of hat­ing Jews the way al­co­holics are ashamed of lov­ing booze, but he hid it about as well as they do the gin bot­tles. At home, I mean. He man­aged bet­ter in public.

— So, it was — what? Some kind of re­venge, this post-fu­ner­al coupling?

— Cou­pling? My, you are tact­ful. Re­venge? Doc­tor, you’re al­most al­ways wrong; but that’s just what I like most about you. No, not re­venge — al­lure. I want­ed to mar­ry a Jew be­cause Dad­dy hat­ed Jews, not be­cause I hat­ed Dad­dy, which, as a mat­ter of his­tor­i­cal fact, I didn’t. Dad­dy just made Jews at­trac­tive. You know: hands off that av­o­ca­do, Eve? Be­sides, Jews are ter­rif­ic at guilt, the men in par­tic­u­lar. My fresh­man roommate’s moth­er, Mrs. Schwartz, had a good take on that. Jew­ish hus­bands make the best slaves, she told her daugh­ter. Jeez, I said to my­self: Yes, please. 

— So, you want­ed a slave?     

— I want­ed a slav­ish hus­band. Or, you could say I was be­ing spite­ful. Or maybe I want­ed some­thing to take away the taste of the pre­pos­ter­ous eu­lo­gy. Maybe I want­ed cou­pling, as you call it, fol­lowed by ab­ject grat­i­tude on his part and re­morse­less­ness on mine. Da-da-da-da-da. Jew rhymes with screw, al­so rue. Et tu? Ros­es are red, vi­o­lets are blue. My father’s dead, so what else is new? 

— Calm down, please. 

— Calm down? Is that your pre­scrip­tion, Doc­tor? Keep calm and don’t car­ry on? I’ll tell you some­thing. Electra’s the on­ly char­ac­ter all the Greek drama­tists took a crack at, one af­ter the other.

— Is that so? Elec­tra, who loved her fa­ther. And you find that significant?

— You ought to know, be­ing a mytho­log­i­cal­ly in­formed shrink and all.

— What is it you think I should know?

— That too many di­ag­noses are as good as none. Off your rock­er? Keep calm. We’ve a pill for it.

— Some dis­or­ders are like sym­bol­ic po­ems, Al­ma. They can sus­tain any num­ber of interpretations.

— Fine! So, I have a case of sym­bol­ic poetry.

— I on­ly meant — 

— What I think, Doc­tor, what I think is that life’s what goes on be­tween fu­ner­als. Doesn’t every­body al­ways say — soon­er or lat­er doesn’t ab­solute­ly everybody say, even if, like you, they prac­ti­cal­ly choke on clichés — doesn’t every­body al­ways end up say­ing life goes on? Un­til it doesn’t, of course.

— Do you love him?

— Who?

— Your husband. 

— Yes. No.

— Your father?

— No. Yes.

Filed under Fiction on July 1st, 2022

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