This is true: I never once saw my mother interact with a man who was not my father. And, because my parents were separated before I took my first wobbly step, what that came down to, practically, was that I never once saw my mother interact with any man. Now and then, my parents fought via telephone, but as all I could hear was my mother’s voice, her increasingly clipped tones, that, too, didn’t count for much. I know that when I was really young my mother dated, a little, but she never brought a man home to meet my brother and me. Later on, when I was old enough to retain consolidated memories, she stopped dating altogether. I think that by then her mental state was increasingly fragile, and it was all she could do to maintain her hold on sanity. More and more she looked inward, not out, and, likely terrified of what she found inside, mostly she slept and ate the days away.
Her sleepwear was as prim as an eighty-year-old’s when she was not quite half that age. She favored high-necked Victorian nightgowns, always cotton, always white. She was, to my child’s mind, an entirely asexual person. I didn’t even bother trying to come up with visuals to accompany the facts of my brother’s and my conceptions, so utterly removed from my experience of my mother would they have been.
It was against this backdrop that a male stranger inserted himself into our lives, in the early part of my fourteenth year. Lacking any model of adult sexuality, I was, predictably, not yet interested in boys; that wouldn’t come until college, when I was out of my mother’s house. At fourteen I was a gymnast who practiced long hours, and my body was still small and girlish, no hint of woman yet.
One night that fall, the phone rang. My mother picked it up. She said nothing after “Hello” and yet hung on the phone for a minute, only to slam it down so violently that it fell off its cradle and clattered noisily onto the kitchen linoleum.
“Who was that?,” I asked, curious, and eager to find a distraction from outlining my Social Studies chapter.
“That,” she hissed, “was a sick man. A prank caller. Sarah, don’t pick up the phone tonight, in case he calls back.”
“What do you mean?,” I pressed her. “What did he say?”
“He BREATHED, that’s what he did,” she snapped, “and then he said some disgusting things.” She shook her head as if to dislodge the unbearableness of it, of him, and I understood that she was done talking.
I was not done — far from it. I was wildly intrigued, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to answer the phone, when my mother was sleeping (three-quarters of the time) or shopping (the fourth quarter). I, too, got to know the heavy breathing, and the lewd patter that preceded and followed it. I’d allow myself to listen for thirty seconds before hanging up. Meanwhile, my mother was repeatedly calling the phone company and the police requesting, then demanding, that this man’s calls be traced, that charges be brought, something, anything. But the caller wasn’t threatening (except insofar as he was threatening to an unstable woman’s sanity and to a fourteen-year-old girl’s nascent sexuality), so everyone official just shrugged, and advised, “Buy a whistle.” My mother did finally buy a whistle, and one night she blew it as hard as she could right into the phone’s receiver. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the sound she made was sufficient to rupture this man’s eardrum. Whatever the state of his ears, he never did call back.
And I remember feeling vaguely disappointed, because without this fellow and his perversions I was left with nothing at all, just my sad mother in her buttoned-up nightgowns, and my imagination, which contained one room with four white walls and nothing in it, not even a bed, and another room, dark and dank and filled up with lust, shame, and loneliness, but no room with two healthy people together, loving each other generously and well.
written in 2011