The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater
a continuing fiction
© S. Moss-Ward, 2010
All rights reserved. This may not be reproduced, except with permission.
Mother and I were knitting, as usual, after dinner, and as usual I was thinking about what I’d rather be doing than sitting here with her, needling away, but as my existence is completely stinko at this particular moment as it has been for an amazingly long time, there was no better option. Face it, Bee, I told myself, you have no life, except what happens in-between your ears. If you go to your room and read or do homework or both (and who admits to doing that kind of crap on a weekend?) or call Ben for a marathon chat (impossible, since he is in Boston this weekend for his cousin’s bar mitzvah and has told me not to try; he will be very occupied), she’d flip into Hurt and Injured Mode, where she goes all silent/looming depressed and makes me feel that there is this Brewing Problem that must be addressed or else it will become a Big Fucking Deal, and when you ask her what’s the matter she says “Nothing” in a tiny quiet voice.
Instead I decided to take the bull (cow, actually) by the horns, so I said, “Max” (because ever since I turned sixteen she has insisted I call her by her first name, Maxine, just to add another factoid to the list of her irritating quirks and mannerisms), “was your wedding dress the biggest project you ever knitted, or have you ever done anything bigger than that?”
“O-o-h,” she said wonderingly, kind of singing the sound, as if she had to dredge up the information from some deeply buried memory bank. This was not the case, actually, since there is nothing that Maxine thinks about more than herself, and she is an expert on her life, although I might be the next-most-expert person on her life, since I have been hearing about it forever. Or maybe my father. “I think so. Because by the time I was your age, I’d already knitted a couple of queen-sized bedspreads—in crochet cotton, on…hmm…number two needles, I think. Maybe number ones, I’m not sure. A kind of lace-sampler pattern—must have been twenty or thirty different squares, all cleverly grafted together so that the joins were practically invisible. The lace samples were edged by strips of embossed patterns, and then they fell straight to the floor in an overall, very open lace that looked something like a fishnet. So light and airy. Lots of yarn-overs. That took the better part of the summer, I think. I’d do a couple of hours in the morning before I went to the day camp where I was a counselor from eight to six, and then I’d work on it after I had dinner and practiced the cello for an hour or so. It took a long time, if I recall correctly. I think maybe from early June to the middle of September.”
I noticed my hands were clenched tightly around the wooden needles, and I was slipping stitches from left to right rather forcefully.
“How long did the wedding dress take?” I like to raise this topic whenever we need a “time out.” It brings her to a pleasant era, when she was just beginning her rise to glory, already showing so much promise that people were in, like, total awe. I have heard the wedding dress story in many different forms, at many different times. I have often wondered if she was subtly trying to influence me to knit one myself. (Barf.)
“You know, Barbara dear, it’s hard to remember, it’s been so long…plus, I started it years before I married, just for the fun of it, and it was made in pieces over time.”
Just to fill you in: my mother, Maxine Goodman, was practically born knitting. Our house is covered, literally, with demonstrations of her skill, ranging from recent afghans and pillow-covers, to stuff dating back to her preschool years. (Really. There is a framed pair of moth-eaten red mittens in a shadow box thingy hanging in the back hall of our house. She made these when she was three or four, if we are to believe her. Do we believe her?)
There are photos of Maxine and my father, Guy, on their wedding day, displayed on a wall in their bedroom, and one in a heavy-duty silver frame placed smack in the middle of the lid of the piano. They both look like the hippies they still are, deep down, except more blatantly so because that was the style then. Maxine’s hand-knitted wedding dress has leg-of-mutton sleeves and a square neckline; it is empire- waisted and cascades to her ankles in drapey folds, where the bottom meets a thick lace border. The lace on the border, the bodice, the skirt, and the sleeves, is heavy and beautiful. Her feet are bare and she has a circle of daisies on her head. She’s gazing up at Guy, who’s wearing a striped, open-necked shirt, Jesus hair and beard, bell-bottom paisley slacks, and a big-buckled belt. He’s barefoot, too.
I always find it helpful to look at these photos when I am really angry with them both. (Often.) It reminds me that Pride Goeth Before a Fall and all that crap. Sort of like what T.S. Eliot says in (the world’s greatest poem, I’d argue) The Waste Land, about “O you who turn the wheel and look windward,/ Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
Guy, for one, has quite a gut now that he’s in middle age, and even though he tries to suck it in and stand tall, nothing except maybe a million crunches a day plus bariatric surgery would repair the damage. I know their little delusion, their little folie à deux, cannot last all that long, and eventually they will be unmasked, perhaps by me, perhaps by someone else. Maxine will morph from domestic goddess and super-talented-at-everything person to Madame Defarge hunkered over her crappy stocking next to the guillotine, and Guy will be revealed for the Wizard of Oz he is, the world’s biggest fake, whose jollies now are porn on the Internet (like he thinks no one knows about this!) and the admiration of a few pathetic graduate students who have the bad luck to be his advisees.
Maxine’s hair is graying. I told her she should have it colored and she said she wouldn’t pay anyone to do something she could do herself, and besides it was natural and why should she make it unnatural? I said, “Because you would look twenty years younger.” This was an exaggeration, but I deliberately exaggerated to make a point.
“My body is very young, and my mind is ageless,” she said softly, but with great conviction.
This reminded me of how last week, when I was trying to get into the upstairs bathroom, she burst out after a shower in a cloud of steam and flung off her towel like a streaker, and ran past me, her boobs wobbling in a totally disgusting manner, laughing wildly, saying “Does this look like the body of a forty-six-year-old woman?”
“No,” I called. “It looks like the body of an eighty-six-year-old woman who’s in really good shape.”
“You know, Barbie,” she said, knowing how much I hate that nickname, but that is part of her passive aggression, “you have no perspective on the human body.”
“That’s because I’m fat,” I said. “Fat people think they’re normal, just like thin people think they’re fat.”
“You said it, not I.”
“It’s a fact. Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I don’t mind. It’s reality.”
“You should mind. It’s very distressing to see how much you eat.”
“So,” I said, “did you ever hear of this legend or whatever, called The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater?”
“Don’t change the subject, Barbie.”
“I have nothing to add to your observation. Did you ever hear of this legend?”
“Yes. Why? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you going to knit him a sweater?”