hen it came to the opposite sex – as far as I was concerned – my parents always believed it was best that I keep my distance. They were constantly telling me that: “Keep your distance!” I remember once mentioning to my mother that a pretty young intern at work had invited me to go see Willie Nelson at Roseland, her response was an emphatic: “Keep your distance!” Another time it was a tawny stunner I’d met one whimsical afternoon in Central Park: “Keep your distance!” Of course, they’re the absolute last people to give relationship advice. Growing up, they were the Ali and Frazier of the suburbs except rather than boxing gloves, they used brass knuckles. My father was never a big fan of marriage and would often tell me to stay single as long as I could. Back in the day, he was something to behold; his slicked back hair, bomber jacket and dark sunglasses made him look like a character out of Easy Rider. He was a desperate loner aching for a freedom he would never have, and my mother and I were just side show freaks, out of place, out of step, and out of time, only able to unwittingly pull on the chains that he imagined hung from his neck like prison irons.
I learned a good deal from my father, despite the fact that he wasn’t around much during my formative years. He’d always be busy at work doing God knows what, and would often come home at all hours– sometimes not at all. I spent many a long night waiting up for him with my mother, sitting with her in quiet solidarity at the Formica table in our kitchen while she chain-smoked her Kents ‘til she was blue in the face. I was just a kid, but I understood what the situation was; she needed me, and I was there for her.
Something funny happened around that period. When I was seven years old, I thought I fell in love. It was during an assembly in the main atrium of my elementary school when I first saw her. I had just bent my knees to get into the ubiquitous Indian-style sitting position, when our separate glances met. She was sporting one of those Dorothy Hamill wedge-cuts that were so popular back then and wore a simple flowered blouse with navy blue Toughskins. What killed me, though, were those eyes of hers, peaceful as a doe’s and the color of topaz. Swooning, I leaned over to my classmate Mickey Viggiani – we used to call him Mickey “Big Nose” – and asked him who she was.
“Oh, that’s Mara, she’s new.”
When my mother picked me up from school that day, my head was in a cloud. I just kept repeating, “I love Mara, I love Mara,” under my breath, like some goddamned incantation. It’s strange to think back on it now, the emotions were so pure, so present, there was no equivocation – I was sure.
For the rest of the school week I was out of it. I kept bumping into things and coloring outside the lines. My mind was not on my work. All I could think about was Mara, and that I had to find some way of showing her how much she meant to me.
That Saturday, I was in the backyard kicking up sullen clumps of earthworm dirt, when all at once I realized what I needed to do. Galloping up the stairs to my room, I cracked open the art supplies and set about creating a masterpiece that would express the all-consuming passion raging through my pliant sinew like a rainbow aflame. My magic markers flew across the paper, almost as if they had a life of their own. I drew boldly, festooning the landscape with giant crimson hearts and lemon-yellow wildflowers. In the foreground, I placed the two of us holding hands and written in giant bubble letters on top were those simple words I’d been repeating to myself in a constant loop since I’d seen her: “I LOVE MARA.” It was done and it was perfect. The last task remaining was presenting it to her. That’s where my logic got spotty. In my addled condition, I thought it might be a good idea to leave it out on my front porch with the hope that she would walk by and find it.
Okay, in some ways I was a very slow child.
Still, that’s what I did. It never occurred to me at the time that my method of delivery was not especially well-thought-out. After all, she most likely wasn’t the type of kid that would wander around the neighborhood, trespassing on random strangers’ stoops in search of art. Later that afternoon, sweaty from the day’s activities, I checked back to see if my plan had worked, and to my astonishment the drawing was gone! My heart palpitated with a delight normally reserved for Chanukah or maybe a CBS Special Presentation; I was ecstatic, bouncing up and down like a kangaroo as if my sneakers had tightly wound springs in their soles.
“I love Mara, I love Mara!”
Dinner that night was a mad blur. My mind overflowed with images of Mara and I running through fields together with abandon. I couldn’t even taste the Shake’n Bake pork chops my mother had prepared for supper. I was besotted, distracted, a million miles away, which is why I never noticed that my father had crept away from the dinner table. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I heard him holler: “Who is this Mara? It says here that you love someone named Mara! Tell me, is your dear old dad invited to the wedding?”
There he was, looming over the table, waving my drawing around. My mother did her best not to laugh, but she couldn’t help herself. Soon, they had both broken down into a cacophony of raucous guffaws. I laughed along too, in embarrassment, but I was dead inside. I had been ridiculed by my own flesh and blood for daring to love. It was a pretty good lesson though, and one I’d never forget. Like I said, my father taught me a lot and I appreciated him for it. All I’d ever wanted as a child was to look like him, be cool like him, be tough like him, be detached like him, but in the end, I realized that I’d never be anything more than a pale imitation of him, so eventually I stopped trying and “…kept my distance.”