Ellen says, “I was determined to make money. What about you?” I say, “What do you think?” She says, “But you like money.” I say, “People don’t pay much for what I do. A handful of good writers sell enough books to support them. Most writers I know teach at universities.” She says, “As soon as I got married, I wanted a baby. I can’t imagine anything more interesting than watching a brand new being develop, watch them discover their hands, play with their penis, watch their fingers become dextrous enough to pick up a Cherio and put it in their mouth, see them understand that, ‘Lay keppie’ means the same thing as, ‘Lay your head on me’. I really don’t know about your life. When you say, ‘I don’t like babies’, it feels like hitting me with a wet noodle.” I say, “I can see having an interest in their development, but I have no interest in the things you have to do for these tiny humans.” She says, “Does that mean you’re selfish?” I don’t answer. It’s okay she doesn’t understand my life. Who understand their life? My life looks like one of the long walks I take through the city every morning, arriving at a corner and deciding which way to turn, just to see what will happen along the route. Ellen says, “I have lived according to two things Daddy said: ‘Money is only good for one thing: To make your life easier’. And, ‘If money can fix it, it’s not that important’.”
Ellen and I are on her bed. She says, “Mom and I were fighting in Macy’s, and I got on the escalator up. I thought she was behind me, but she was still at the bottom, and we were shouting to each other, as she got smaller. She said, ‘I want to sit on a park bench talking to Sartre’. I said, ‘You cannot make a decision. “Should I buy a sock? Should I sell a stock?” Why would Sartre want to talk to you?” She said, “That is a good question.” I say, “When I’m walking, I often think of calling Mom. It’s like a phantom limb.” I walk by the Time Warner Center every morning, near where she lived. If I called her, she would say, “Do you think I’m smart?” I would say, “Yes.” She would say, “You don’t really think that.” I would say, “Yes, I do.” Ellen says, “Keep me in your pocket when you walk.” I say, “Okay.” She says, “When I was transferring from Boston University to NYU, Dad gave Mom a check. I got on the elevator, and the door closed before she could get in. I went to the fourth floor and waited. People streamed in and out. When she found me and looked at the check, she saw Dad had forgotten to sign it. She said, ‘Oh my god, what should we do’? I said, ‘Sign his name, Ma’. She said, ‘You can do that’? I said, ‘Sign his name’. A week later the bank called Daddy to let him know someone had forged his name. He said it was okay. It was his wife.” She says, “After Daddy died, I would drive to the city to see her once a month. She would cook my favorite foods to take home, flanken and lima beans.” I say, “That’s what Grandma would cook for Mom.” She says, “I would balance her checkbook. She would say, ‘I’m going to run out of money’. I would say, ‘If you live to be 400, you’ll run out of money’. She would say, ‘Are you sure’? I would show her the deposits the same way each time. We’d walk to the Lower East Side and go to the Second Avenue Deli. We’d share a bowl of matzoh ball soup and a tongue sandwich on club with fries. The fries had to be extra crispy. She would say, ‘Oy, this food is grabbing me’. I would say, ‘East slower and talk less’. She complained when the tongue sandwich went from $12 to $18, but she always paid.” She sits up a little taller and says, “She made me get out of the house and go to work. She said, ‘Ellen, take any job, work any hours, but get out of the house’. It changed my life completely.” She leans back. I massage her feet. Chemo has caused neuropathy. She says, “Mom would come out to help me when the kids were small. I once had three children with chicken pox. I called her, and she said, ‘I’ll be right there’.” She sips selzer. It helps with her cough. She says, “Mom had the weirdest color sense, greens and browns.” I say, “She always looked great.” Ellen says, “Yes, with her blond hair and coloring, everything looked good on her. If I wore green, I would turn green.”
Below Mom and Dad young.
Ellen says, “I wish we had been close all our lives.” She squeezes my hand and smooths my hair. We are on her bed. She is breathing okay if she doesn’t move much. She says, “It’s hard to get up from the toilet. My arms are weak or maybe it’s my quads.” I say, “Try using your abdominals.” She says, “Mom kept us apart.” I say, “She did and she didn’t.” Ellen says, “She needed to be the center.” Our mother talked to me about books and to Ellen about family. My sister got married at 21, moved to New Jersey, and had her first baby nine months later. I was 15. In the hospital, my father smiled as if she had invented fire. The year before the family shrink, André, had taken me into his bed and touched me. I had stopped him from going further and told no one. I remember looking through the window at Ellen’s baby, pretending to be happy. Ellen says, “I fought with Mom. You left.” Neither of us wishes we had had the other’s life.
Ellen says, “We are connected by strands of DNA. I can see them, squiggling in different colors, like electricity.” I worshipped her as a child. She was beautiful and slender. Everyone loved her. I can see how my mother found her easier to be with. In a recent interview I told the writer I was a wolf and gave this example: “If there is a pie with unequal pieces, I will take the biggest, even if I don’t want to eat it all.”
I say to Ellen, “You were interested in having children. I have given more thought to friendship than family, and I’m as confused as ever.” We joined forces 13 years ago when our mother became ill. Our mother needed the care of aides all the time, and Ellen and I never fell out. I say, “Maybe we needed to become friends before we could become family again.” She says, “You said something that still bothers me. You said, ‘If Mom leaves all her money to you, will you share it with me?’ How could you think I would take it all?” I say, “I thought I should put it out there. She was capable of anything.” Ellen says, “She was a shit, but she could laugh at herself.”
I say, “Richard says there are waves moving in all the time, and then there are tides. Tides are longer periods. You move out and away. The land and sea part but are still in touch. This is when our tide is coming in.”
She says, “The first six months I saw André, I didn’t say anything, and he didn’t say anything. It was a tug of war to see who would speak first.” She was 18, going to therapy five times a week at $50 a session. She was attending NYU and Parson’s School of Design, and she would see André after her classes. Four months later, our mother began seeing him, too. Two years later, I began. At the time, André was also treating my father’s brother, his wife, and their two daughters. It would turn out he was having sex with dozens of women and female children. On the phone, Richard says to me, “What did you think you were going for?” I say, “I was going to meet André. His name was on everyone’s lips, like the Wizard of Oz.” He says, “But it was therapy. You must have organized a problem.” I say, “I was going to enter the fold. It was bathed in a gold light. Or maybe a green light. The green light of money.”
Ellen says, “After I was married, André would call me. I had one or two kids by then. Someone had cancelled an appointment, and he would say, ’Don’t you have $50?’ I thought, ‘He doesn’t care about me. He cares about money.’” I say, “I think it was both.” I prop myself higher on a pillow and say, “Supposing everyone felt alone and trapped, and they were all carrying around this secret. Supposing they were all as secretly unhappy as André, and everyone was pretending things were fine. This thing they were doing. This man they were trusting they didn’t really trust. He was the manifestation of the way the world can be dark and chaotic and wish to destroy hope.” She says, “I did not cry when he died.” I say, “I wish I knew more about his life.” She says, “He was born in Russia and had nine sisters.” I say, “I wish I could ask what he was thinking.”