THE FIRST KIND
Sarah Terez Rosenblum
"You nabbed the last apple pie," the man on the phone told me. "While you were on hold, another guy phoned to order one. He woulda got it if you hadn't called when you did."
This pie isn't an emblem of privilege. No Instagrammer is rushing to hashtag it. Speciality of a local health-food place, the wheat crust is dry at the edges, the whole thing honey sweetened and dense. I'm not sure I'd like it if I hadn't grown up eating it, but on the eve of my forty-first birthday, I'd texted my boyfriend. ("I know this is last minute but…") I'd avoided his offers of dinner reservations and weekend getaways for weeks. Then, in the night, I'd strategized. Someone needed to call right when the restaurant opened. Perhaps there was a pie already made they could set aside. But Fridays, my boyfriend stays up streaming a show to his Youtube channel. He'd promised to get the pie, but I couldn't expect him to wake early or think all that through.
Now, I ended the call to the restaurant and I set my phone on the windowsill. Overnight, the yard had swollen with snow.
My mom says if you want something done right you must do it. She doesn't actually say that, but it's a conveniently packaged mom phrase, boiled down and emblematic. Still, if I'm honest, neither of my parents is conveniently packaged or succinct. In high school, a drama club friend said my family reminded her of a colony of artists. None of us was drinking absinthe, so probably it was a matter of context. My friend's mother chaired the booster club, while mine resisted the suburbs. We only lived there because my dad taught at the university a quarter mile away. We attended no block parties, nor Men's Club barbecues. Meanwhile, when a group of seniors died driving drunk, and prominent community members went to trial for providing the alcohol, my friend and her mom grew tearful. "It's like the fall of Camelot," one or the other said.
The comic Marc Maron describes his parents as ‘just these people I grew up with.' My mom would be disheartened to learn I feel this too. If she identifies as anything, it's a mother: someone nurturing, adult and protective. She read me whole books in one sitting. She twirled me around in the backyard singing ‘Fly Me to the Moon.'
It's my dad who I grew up with. Tortured artist in a book-cramped belfry, maniac in the attic, the keys of his typewriter clacking before the family awoke.
But even that is too convenient a package. My dad was a poet and songwriter who sublimated his art into commerce. After cult success in the 70's, and another minor grasp at fame in the 90's, he worked as Harley Davidson's first historian, while founding the Certificate in Rock and Roll History program at UWM. Everybody loved him. His students. The mailman. Kids I grew up with envied my rides on his motorcycle. "He's so gregarious," my fourth grade teacher said, when my dad was guest speaker for our poetry unit. But I knew that when his students or colleagues called our landline, my dad made his voice fake and bright. At the end, he was a ghost stalking our home's periphery, all his energy channeled into a museum for which he hardly got credit, and an academic program which fell to pieces without the motor of his ambition to power it along. He believed everything he did was for our family. When he died suddenly at sixty-five, he left my mom set.
My dad once told me there are two kinds of people. He said a woman I was dating was the second: the kind who "expects a meal at the end of the trail." He might not have been a Dad dad but he really did say that. He meant the woman's love came with expectations. All I could think at the time was, Dad so does yours. He believed his devotion earned him a certain leeway. He provided for the family and my mother provided for him. Therapist and Translator. Retaining Wall for his emotions. He thought love meant when you had a bad day, that bad day became your family's. If Triple A put him on hold after the car wouldn't start, he'd hurl the phone across the room. He was always crashing around in the attic. My first sentence was Daddy make big noise upstairs.
As my mom ages, she repeats things. Ten times a day, she'll remind me to check the porch for an Amazon package. She gives painstaking, step by step directions. "The big chicken soup pot is on the third shelf on the West wall in the root cellar. Don't forget, the light switch is in the corner by the door." My much younger sister thinks she does this because she's disabled, a control freak deprived of control. "Mom wants what she wants when she wants it," is in the spirit of my sister's attitude, not a literal statement my sister has made.
But I wonder if another thing my dad left my mother is the sense that she can't trust others to support her. Thanks to him, she can buy any sweater from Eileen Fisher, but she also believes no one will anticipate her needs.
Still, I get exasperated: I'm being micromanaged. I get insulted: I'm being infantilized. I am a forty year old woman. I know how to locate a light switch. But I have to recognize not only the origins of my mother's insistent supervision, but also the benefits. My mother is her own best advocate. Never strident—she romances receptionists and nurses. No workman has entered her house without leaving some of his life story behind. Yet, she accepts nothing at face value. By second guessing dosages and questioning protocols, she's saved her own life countless times.
A student of mine once complemented my boundaries. What she really said doesn't translate to writing. She spoke in half sentences ("The distance you teach from—you're present, but I never feel it's personal.") and undulated her arms in a fluid ebb and flow. I accepted her praise the same way I'd earned it. Warm yet distant. Yes, I told her, if it would please her, of course she could write a letter for my file. In truth, my professionalism is born of existential panic. When I'm answering a student's questions, the great motor of my anxiety shudders and dies. Like my dad, I can build a career through creativity. I can navigate academia, but for years, the face I showed to strangers was a mask I peeled off when I got home.
Over time and serial longterm relationships, I made my emotions whatever partner's problem—I kicked through walls. I once threw an artichoke that refused to soften out a fourth story window—because your partner is conscripted to love you no matter how many household items you destroy. In my family, my dad's tantrums set catharsis into motion. He raged upstairs, and my mom held me when I confronted him: "You can't yell like that. I wish you would get a divorce." After release came reunion, and then the cycle started again. Still, my dad's outsize emotions had been unacceptable, and thus mine must be too.
So I chose stunted people who represented safety. The men made passionate promises from within the safety of drawn out divorces. They self-medicated with alcohol, and the kind of feverish polyamory that gives conscious non-monogamy a bad name. The women drove stick shift and had pilots licenses. They were cowboy types who reduced my complexity. They didn't discriminate: all feelings were drama. My last longterm girlfriend was silent when I called from the hospital. After losing feeling in her lower body, my mom had been diagnosed with the disease that stole her mobility. My girlfriend had just pulled a Hungry Man dinner from the microwave. "Calm down," she said. "let me call you when I'm through."
If you'd asked me then, I would have said I was my own vocal advocate. I don't remember questioning whether I should have to argue people who loved me into supporting me.
I knew the size of my needs. I knew no one could safely meet them, so I kept choosing men and women who left me grasping, because I'd learned from my mom that a your partner will provide the trappings of safety, but if you accept them, it's a pact and it's binding. Along that road, they'll expect to be fed.
This isn't where you'll find the epiphany. Two people in one small city had requested a pie twelve minutes before one restaurant opened. I'd understood the other caller was my boyfriend before I hung up the phone.
Now, I plucked it from the windowsill.
"If you're the guy who called for the pie, I'm sorry."
Outside, my parents' yard held all its old versions. Beneath the snow, the bare patch made by our old picnic table; the place where the cherry tree bloomed before it succumbed to blight.
Once, I'd waited beside the now vanished lilac bush.
She was absorbed in her garden, but I wanted her attention. When she closed the gate, she turned, poised to smile. "What's wrong?" She said when she saw me. I couldn't make myself cry actual tears, but I hunched over whimpering.
"I was pretending." Now I let my face go blank.
"Why would you do that?" She looked hurt, I thought, or puzzled. I'd wanted to punch holes in her expectations. How could she smile before she knew what I had to say?
Maybe that was the summer when my dad was still trying to live as an artist. He was on tour with his band in Phoenix. Without him, moments stretched, dreamy and calm. In the yard, my mother sang "Fly me to the Moon" while she swung me in circles. Later, the day's humidity cracked into thunder. Through the kitchen window, I watched the rain slant towards us, crossing the alley beyond the yard.
At my dad's funeral, seven hundred mourners filled a lecture hall he'd once taught in. Students and fans and poets; motorcyclists who called him brother— each with a piece of my father they thought was theirs to share. One apprehended my mom on her way to the bathroom. Teetering, she held my sister's arm.
"He loved you so much—he always talked about you—everything he did he did for you."
After everyone went home and it was only me and my mom and a smoked salmon the size of a a U-Boat, she said, "Thank god you were there. Remind me," she said, "when I start to idealize him. You're the only other person who knows what's true."
She doesn't remember saying that. Neither does she remember shouting after me the morning we found his body. I'd run to open the front door for the paramedics. "Bring down some toilet paper," she said. We're running low in the bathroom downstairs."
My phone buzzed.
"Why are you apologizing?"
Through the kitchen window now, familiar landmarks were cloaked shapes without clear purpose. Though my mother reminds him, her snow removal guy neglects the railings. He forgets my mother uses them to steady herself; they are not merely decorative, though she drapes them with holiday boughs.
That day in the yard, maybe I faked tears to ensure my mom's attention. Before my sister was born, my dad and I competed sometimes for my mom to notice us. Once when my dad had a migraine, I lay in bed, my stomach aching. He leaned in my doorway: "You're making that up."
I had to think about that. Did my stomach really hurt? In my family, you existed when you were a problem to solve.
Matt and I had been dating less than a month when he offered to pick up my mom from some lecture. I was suspicious; clearly, he was the kind whose self-worth depended on rescue, but I was no maiden in a tower, not anymore. Since my dad's death I'd decided I was tired of burying my sense of safety in unworthy partners. Cool customers whose impassiveness suggested bravery. Trapped people who made emotional appointments, then failed to appear. Alone, I'd grown self-sufficient. No pilot girlfriend reassured me when I hit turbulence. I hadn't ridden in a passenger seat for years.
If you'd asked me then, I would have said I broke up with Matt to protect myself. He would torpedo me, unleash all the needs I'd taught myself to meet on my own. But it was also Matt's needs and the strength of his emotions that scared me. People whose feelings run hot melt the resolve of those around them. My mom didn't marry my dad intending to minister to him. Matt was grasping and already too invested. He was anxious and idealistic and shatteringly smart and he gave to strangers when inside he felt alienated ("People break my heart, that's why I don't like to go places," he said.) What would it steal from me, all that depth, that heart-stopping empathy? Matt would never look at me struggling and tell me to calm down.
If there's an epiphany, it began the day I decided to tell Matt I loved him. I surprised everyone including my old friend from drama club.
"But you never said anything. Did you just figure it out?"
In fact, I'd lived with the knowledge for two years of foot-dragging. Two years during which Matt bought a house within a mile of my mother's. At first he was unswerving; he didn't want other women, but eventually he'd begun to date. I'd loved Matt so naturally I could pinpoint no origin, but I had no right to stop him. I figured it didn't matter how much you loved someone if you weren't willing to become the person they need.
"I'm apologizing cause I asked for your help," I texted Matt, "then did it myself."
I slid my feet into boots and hefted the garbage. Outside, I crossed the shoveled stretch of patio, grass bricked over beneath. On my way back to the house, I brushed snow from the railings. I mistook for the slump of the old lilac bush a great mound of snow.
Inside, my phone was lit up: "I don't mind! I want you to have pie by any means necessary!"
Matt really talks that way. Support, dramatically rendered. When we grocery shop, he's patient while I reckon with produce. He says, "You're so specific. Did you touch all the blueberries? What's the rationale behind that grapefruit choice, I want to know."
The day I told him I loved him, he stood blinking beneath a beanie I'd bought him in the first brief months we dated. We already had all these years of history. Despite my best efforts, I'd made his life anything but calm.
Now, sometimes Matt's frustration with his son's algebra lands him in bed with a migraine. Sometimes his dog's mouth noises make him so angry he needs to kick a door. Often, I can feel him stewing, sense the weight of his gloom. It's scary when he's anxious, fixing the radiator, and there's a big noise upstairs. But as I turn forty-one, I'm realizing having a partner who has needs doesn't mean my own will be forgotten. All love comes with expectations, and a guy like Matt might be more steadfast than the kind who seem to have none. I still don't know what freed me to tell Matt I loved him. Perhaps the slow-growing epiphany: I can be who I need.
Now, I set the phone on the windowsill, then picked it up again.
"Matt," I texted, "You won't forget to get the pie, right?"