Why I Hate Mad Men

Like most, I understood my birth to be

the occasion of my mother’s pain,

the anniversary an opportunity for her

to bake cake, light candles, melt

wax. Five decades later, she tells me

the story casually, detached, as if there were nothing

unusual about it, the way you might

light a cigarette, drink a few martinis, some cock-

tails. I know the preamble by heart: she was

a nurse, my father a doctor. They collided

on the ward and he left her—

on her knees, a waitress

picking up a tray. And if she’d had time

to read the scattered clamps, the sutures

and the specula–like tea leaves,

she might have walked away—

the way she taught me to perfection—tactless,

voice in tact. But she was listening

to the voices in her head—Bizet’s,

and her mother’s, that plain plaid brogue

that shook like her Scotch hand, a divining

rod bent on excising delusions of grandeur

with surgical precision. Before my father’s

sperm ever adjusted his rigging, hoisted his jib,

and set sail, debonair as David Niven,

drink in hand, toward my mother’s alluring

ovum, she worked nights, emptied

bedpans, gave enemas, dressed wounds.

But in the day, she could break glass

with her voice, a mezzo-soprano, complete

with a scholarship to the conservatory.

In her favorite photo, she wears red

lipstick, a dead-ringer for a dead

opera star–Maria Callas in a racy red

bathing suit, beside the red convertible

she called “Gypsy.” When we were small,

she was like a bright flash of red

feathers, a bird that fluttered

about the kitchen banging pots and pans,

singing–the “Toreador’s Song,” while she boiled

water, let us shake in the packet of

powdered cheese. It was “Habanera”

over the dishes—occasionally she broke one

when the maestro worked late and she’d had a few. But before all that, for years she worked

on the ward. She knew what she could expect

when it came time to deliver. She knew,

after all, all there was to know

about preeclampsia, toxemia, episiotomies,

things that lapsed and fell, about doctors,

their gloved hands in up to their elbows,

about incisions, the different ways

a pregnant body could be rendered unto Caesar. Me, I was already overweight—an unusual

specimen– a sluggish watermelon taking

my own sweet time. Together, we were

mismatched—my head and her pelvis—

in some medically novel way.

Details elude her, documented perhaps

in one of my father’s textbooks,

black bar across her eyes a courtesy,

designed to preserve her

anonymity. Decades later, we talk

on the phone. I see her sitting there, glass in hand, beside that carved, that gilt

frame that holds his painted portrait,

drop cloths on the furniture, dogs at her

feet, holding their decades-long Irish wake. As always,

she wants me to tell her story,

but she never likes it when I do. It’s my story too–like her

I was born to the theater.

There they are now, wheeling her in:

the main attraction, dressed and shaved

for the occasion. Questions of consent are

muddied— if she gave it, if he did, or if it was

necessary. Mostly, anyway, it was medical

students—mostly not exactly his colleagues,

those men in their starched white

coats she handed scalpels and clamps,

then, later, canapés and dry martinis.

I imagine them there in the balcony,

high above us. I see them–hands gripping

their stethoscopes, pressing their faces up

against the glass, straining for a better view.

She screams, looks for my father

frantically—dead now for decades,

he is unavailable for comment or

correction. Bleeding, she pushes me out

into the world to be slapped and banded.

Afterwards, the doctors are cordial, she says.

At the party, they raise their high balls,

their boilermakers, their Bloody Marys, and

they toast her. They tell her I am fat

enough to walk home from the hospital. Sometimes, I dream about it. Sometimes

in my dreams, the scene ends with blood

spraying, glass breaking, men falling,

with my mother looking radiant.

Last night, I dreamt the operating

room was an aquarium, and all night I thought

I smelled chlorine. In my dream, my mother is

in labor again–she cries out, but makes no sound.

She gasps for air, swallows water, and I swim

out of her, a blood red wake behind me.

And when I turn to look back at her,

I don’t know if I’m a dolphin or a shark.

When I open my mouth to speak to her,

my voice is loud and shrill, then it softens

into a series of high-pitched whistles and clicks,

a language neither one of us understands.

Then all at once, over-head, I see my father

looking down at us. Suddenly sympathetic,

he is Jacques Cousteau. He looks

concerned. He dons his scuba gear,

his oxygen tank and his mask

methodically. He is

lowering himself

purposefully,

into the tank,

as my mother

drowns.

2020-10-16 | articles 2015 | English |