The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater
a continuing fiction
a continuing fiction
© S. Moss-Ward, 2010
All rights reserved. This may not be reproduced, except with permission.
I didn’t want to tell Maxine my suspicion that the Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater was playing itself out belatedly in her and Guy’s relationship. If the Curse applied to them, it was so delayed that it was beside the point. Although maybe the thing about curses is that they can endure for, like, eons.
My parents had had plenty of time to live in their relationship. They were, after all, middle-aged, which means basically at the tipping point into decline, and Guy was always hammily bemoaning the fact that his life was half over. Maxine called him The Gloomy Guy when he got like this, and she tiptoed around him, trying to make everything better, which was decent of her but futile, not to mention pointless. I know she was worried, because she started telling me during a knitting session, after a really quiet dinner, when we all just sat there shoveling in the food and listening to our silverware scrape the plates, about how when Guy was in one of his gloomy spells he curled up into a metaphorical ball and was unreachable.
“Maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about him, Max, and just concentrate on what’s important to you,” I said. This was a piece of advice that my therapist, Dr. Burger had offered a few times when I was kvetching about Maxine, and while I understood what she meant, I hadn’t actually put her advice into practice. I was curious to see if it was something that might make more sense to a much older person, like my mother.
“Well, that’s easy for you to say,” Maxine replied.
I shrugged. “Just a thought.”
I wondered if Guy had been so withdrawn during dinner because he was preoccupied with work, or with something else. Like Chantal Remercier, par exemple. He had looked so incredibly guilty at Starbucks. I guess that having an affair in your mind is almost as powerful as the real thing. Maybe even more powerful.
But honestly, what would a woman like cosmopolitan Chantal Remercier see in my tubby old dad, beyond his professional credentials? In the academic realm he had a lot of clout, apparently—he held an endowed chair, and was always going to conferences or giving guest lectures, and he’d published a lot about Balzac and Henry James, both of whom, to be totally honest, he sort of resembled. Then there I was, suddenly, barging in on the meeting of the minds (ha!) in all my chunky, shapeless glory, daddy’s not-so-little girl. How’s that for a wake-up call, Chantal? This man comes with Baggage!
I sighed. I felt sorry for Maxine, and for Guy, who was verging on pathetic. Maxine was a lot of things, but she was never pathetic, I’ll grant her that. She is genuinely talented in many ways, not just knitting. She has a degree in Library Science and used to work in Rare Books before I was born. She can read five languages and speak three. She plays the cello well. She’s pretty in a natural kind of way, and hasn’t gained more than a few pounds since the day she got married. Next to me she looks so petite and trim. I just wish that 99% of the time I didn’t detest her.
That’s what I tell Dr. Burger: I wish I could like my mother. Why can’t she just be decent to me?
I see Dr. Burger on Thursdays after school; she has an office on Waterman Street in a building that used to be someone’s house. I observed this casually, once, at the start of a session. I said, “Maybe before this building was turned into offices, the room we’re in was the living room” (it has a fancy marble fireplace), and she said, “Perhaps we should explore that,” and I said “Why?” and she said, “Why do you think?”
That was when I’d just started therapy and didn’t yet know that therapists will grab onto a random comment and try to make it into a big deal. Now I don’t waste time with chitchat when I come in for my session; I go straight to the point. Mostly we have been discussing why my mother is the way she is. Dr. Burger says she is probably conflicted.
“About what?” I asked.
“From what you’ve said,” she said, “your mother wants to be both your mother and your friend. That’s why she wants you to call her Maxine, instead of Mom, for example.”
I pondered this for a bit. “Well, if she’s trying to be my friend, she isn’t doing such a great job—you know, constantly making remarks about my weight, my schoolwork, about Ben. It hardly makes me feel friendly.”
“Well, what does that remind you of?”
“I don’t know.”
“How about the way girls behave in school?” she suggested. “Cliques, competition, that sort of thing.”
I thought this was totally ridiculous. “No way,” I said, “Maxine is not like girls at school, she’s my mother, for crying out loud. I can’t compete with her, she’s in a whole different place from me. She’s way better than me at a lot of things, like knitting just to mention one, because she’s had so much more practice. It wouldn’t even occur to me to compete.”
“Maybe not to you,” said Dr. Burger. “And you’re right, you don’t want to compete with her. But maybe she competes with you.”
“For what?” I asked.
“You tell me,” said Dr. Burger.
I started to laugh uncontrollably, so hard that tears leaked from the corners of my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I gasped out, “but that is just so …not true. I don’t know why I think it’s so hilarious….I just can’t see it…as…anything…. anything…but…ridiculous.”
Then my time was up.
A few days later Ben and I were sitting outside the pastry café in De Pasquale Square, having cannolis and iced cappuccinos, a tasty after-school pick-me-up. We enjoy De Pasquale Square and surroundings for the cheese-ball “European” feel with the fountain and little café-ringed plaza, for its people-watching advantages, and the variety of food options—pastry, pizza, pasta, whatever. I told him what Dr. Burger had said about Maxine, and he said, “Well I don’t know about the competition thing, but she could be jealous.”
“How sick is that? Why the hell would she be jealous?” I found myself almost yelling these words.
“I really can’t say,” Ben said slowly. “It’s just that from what you tell me she’s kind of like my sisters; they’re always fighting about one of them having something the other doesn’t, and Lucy can’t keep away from Betsy and Betsy can’t keep away from Lucy, even though my parents tell them to back off; so they cool it for a while and then something incredibly petty happens and they’re at each other again.”
Because I respect Ben’s insights, I decided to meditate on this, though I didn’t admit it to him. Maybe I had been too fast to laugh at Dr. Burger’s words, which Ben’s observations somewhat supported.
Then we compared answers to our French homework for the next day, and began collaborating on the essay we had to write (independently) over the weekend: If I Could Be Any Character in Any One of La Fontaine’s Fables, I-X. We got extra points for translating it into French, but first we had to do the English version.
After we’d both had three cannolis and two coffees, and had written more than half the paper, it was starting to get dark and my cell phone rang. Maxine, wanting to know “where the hell” I was. Why was she so angry?
“In library hell,” I lied. “I have to research a term paper.”
“You could have called to tell me.”
“Sorry,” I said in my most unsorry tone of voice. "I’m leaving now.” I clicked off and started to stuff my backpack.
Ben asked, “Why didn’t you tell her the truth?”
“She doesn’t have to know everything I do.”
Ben said, “That’s her job, sort of. To know where you are.”
I said, “Oh. My. God. Whose side are you on?”
He said, “It’s not about sides.”
I said, “You’re right. It’s about…it’s about… respect. If she respected me more, she’d know I’d be home in time for dinner. That’s what I told her this morning before I left the house.”
Ben laughed and shook his head in an infuriating way, as if to suggest he was above it all, and said he was going to Venda Ravioli to get some olives to bring home, a surprise for his mom. Did I want to come?
I thought for a few seconds before saying no, I had to be going, and caught the bus to Kennedy Plaza without him. I felt upset with him, almost betrayed, and, at the same time, strangely isolated.
Of course, sitting on the bus you’re in that kind of twilight zone mode of isolation anyway, when you make no eye contact yet are highly aware of your fellow passengers—who smells boozey, who’s snoring, who’s talking on a cell, whose packages are jamming into your legs. I thought about Ben’s doing that nice thing for his mom, buying her the special olives she likes. Maxine never seemed impressed by what I gave her, not that I gave her a lot of stuff, but like on her birthday or Mother’s Day, she’d take whatever little thing I’d made or bought and say, “well isn’t this something,” and it would be displayed for a few days on the living room mantelpiece, and then it would somehow disappear.
I pulled my knitting from my backpack. Ben’s scarf was done and I was halfway through the cap. His birthday wasn’t for a few weeks, but I could hardly stand the suspense. As I worked the yarn over the circular needle, I wrote a story in my mind of how it would be when I finally gave him The Present. I’d do it casually so it would really be a surprise, like I’d phone him on a Friday night around ten and ask if he wanted to go with me the next day to the community garden where we did the service stuff our high school required. The “servitude,” as we called it, wasn’t so bad, really—at least you could be outside, and sometimes there were cute neighborhood kids who wanted to help you dig, or water, or plant seeds.
So Ben and I would go to Olneyville on the bus, and put in some hours, and at some point, maybe when we took a break, I’d pull a couple of Snapples out of my pack and give him a Kiwi-Strawberry (his favorite), and then I’d pretend I discovered something else and I’d hand him the neatly-wrapped package.
“What’s this?” he’d say.
“Oh, just something I made.”
“Open it.” I’d busy myself so he didn’t feel like I was watching him slyly.
“Oh, wow. You made these for me?”
Then I’d smile a little and say, “Well, duh,” but without sarcasm.
“These are incredible. I can’t believe you made these for me! And the color is just so great!”
“Happy birthday, Ben,” I’d say, and I’d hug him gently. And he’d hug me back, and…
The bus stopped and the doors whooshed open, and the driver cut the motor. We were at Kennedy Plaza. I stuffed everything into my pack and got up too fast, dropping my transfer on the floor. It floated under the seat. A lot of people were lined up behind me and they all seemed to be bearing down, impatient and in a hurry, as I clogged the aisle, down on my hands and knees, trying to retrieve that very flimsy little piece of paper.