Mom & Mom Mom

I am an emotional eater. Not in that I eat when I’m emotional. It’s that the act of eating itself tends to trigger strong emotion in me. Sometimes, when I eat, I’ll get a little misty. On rare occasion, I’ll outright weep. It took a number of years to figure out the pattern in this neat, socially awkward party trick: at first, I thought it strictly had to do with being hungry, but then I’d find myself in the middle of dessert after a large meal- past the point of full- with a tightening in my chest and a hot face, and so I scratched that from the list. I thought then that perhaps it had to do solely with the quality of food. Like, maybe it’s the level of the chef’s skill or the quality of the ingredients, but then one night I started weeping over a fried egg sandwich.  At store-bought white bread and an industrial-farm egg and Duke’s mayonnaise and salt and pepper. And it wasn’t just that delicate sort of lash-in-your-eye crying, either. It was ugly crying. Bawling. I was alone in my apartment at two a.m., [mostly] sober, standing over the sink in my underwear, eating a fried egg sandwich and practically choking on sobs between bites.

It dawned on me after washing the salt and the grease off of my face what the actual trigger could be, and extensive trial and error proved me right: It was a potent mixture of volatile but suppressed emotions and well-timed comfort food. A muffaletta after a hard day at work, for instance, or garlic mashed potatoes on a rainy Sunday afternoon in autumn. A waffle with syrup when I missed my grandmothers. Boiled peanuts in traffic. Just beneath my calm exterior, there was a roiling shitstorm, tightly bottled up, just waiting to be set loose by a danish, or something.

I’ll save you the trouble of psychoanalyzing me (which would be nasty and dull for all involved) and jump to my conclusions.

The vast bulk of my earliest memories take place in North Miami Beach. We had a small house on a quiet side street with a half-dozen mango trees in the back yard. They were very productive, these trees, and I am told that on a weekly basis my parents had to clear the ground of countless mangoes, which quickly fermented in the powerful South Florida Sun, stinking up the place with their sickly-sweet rot. You do not forget that smell. (Despite it, I am for real as I type this eating a cut-up mango with cayenne pepper, lime, and salt.)

You also do not forget the smell of my great-grandmother Rose Tecosky’s kitchen. We called her Mom Mom. She called me “Richard,” my father’s name. I favored him with my white-blond hair and blue eyes. Mom Mom was an endlessly sweet woman. Very slight of frame. You look at a picture of her and you’d swear she’d blow away at the faintest breeze. And, like any Jewish grandmother, she thought you looked too skinny. That you could use something to eat. Don’t argue, just eat, for the love of God, you’re breaking my heart.

Her cupboard always seemed bare. When she fed you, it seemed as though the food materialized out of thin air. And then there was chicken soup or pot roast or snickerdoodles or these incredibly delicate poppyseed cookies she used to make, barely brown around the edges. There was an endless supply of Andes mints on the coffee table. If all else failed and the adults had their heads turned, there was that small statue of the Bagel Peddler with his payess and long skewer of lacquered Cheerios masquerading as bagels. Technically they were “inedible,” and I was not allowed to put them in my mouth. But I was very young, and life finds a way, no?

Mom Mom died when I was ten or twelve. She was the first person who I ever loved who did that. But while she lived she shined very brightly, and she loved very fiercely, and those qualities have a way of sticking with those left behind long after a soul departs. I can still very clearly recall her voice. I have a couple of her recipes, too, that I squirrel away for when things get desperate.

Mom Mom loved you, so she fed you.

It seems easy enough, I guess, to equate food with love, pure and simple. But also, it’s kind of bullshit. Because there’s no such thing as simplicity. Especially not when it comes to love. Yes, of course, my love for my great-grandmother was pure and honest as I’m sure was hers for me. But I was also three or four in these earliest memories so I didn’t really do nuance at the time. The very young are very lucky in that way. Complexity comes with age and experience.

Anyway.

Adolescence sucked. It sucks for everyone. Being an adolescent is fucking horrid. And you yourself are horrid. All elbows and knees and hormones and oily bits and funk and dirty socks used for nefarious Deeds Which Must Not Be Named. (Frequent and sometimes violent masturbation, is what I’m getting at.)

It was in my adolescence that the parents split (which, for all intents and purposes, was the very best thing they could do for themselves and their family). It was also when we were suddenly very poor. Dad worked a series of ill-paying jobs during those years. Mom owned a small and struggling business (a travel agency, remember those? Probably not, they started dying out in the ’90s, when this part of the story takes place! ) She worked 60 or 70 hours a week to keep it afloat. And so we didn’t see a lot of either parent during the three or four years immediately following the divorce, though it wasn’t for lack of want on the part of any involved party. At first, my siblings and I were too young to be left alone after school. At first we stayed with neighbors. But eventually, I turned (technically) old enough to watch my younger siblings until Mom got home from work, usually well after dinnertime.

In my memory, it always seemed to have been winter during those years. It is not by coincidence that it was during that time period that I felt recognized the little hard kernel of hopelessness in my core that would eventually blossom into a lifelong relationship with depression. But at the time, we were all dealing with our own shit. Mom most of all with her frequently struggling business and insurmountable pile of bills, my siblings and I with each other, and loneliness, and how quietly the light died in the living room every evening.

In her absence, Mom tried to keep the pantry stocked with affordable, semi-nutritious, easily accessible food for my siblings and I. Canned veggies and Rice-a-Roni and ramen and the like. But she was anxious about us eating well, and so one night, she pulled me aside, and informed me that I was going to learn how to cook something. At the age of 13, it seemed like a massive pain in the ass to have to take time out of my busy schedule to learn how to do something as pedestrian as cooking, but my mother persisted, and so I was taught how to make Tuna Noodle Casserole. Which I made at least once a week for the next four or five years, I think.

And it is that act- the act of my mother teaching me how to fend for myself and my siblings in some small way- that lies at the center of my strange emotional reaction to comfort foods. Because it wasn’t just “I love you so I feed you.” It was something much more complicated than that. My mother was making herself sick to keep us afloat. She came home late and exhausted and barely slept for the anxiety. She couldn’t be home for us because she was so busy trying to make sure a home existed for us. And so she taught me how to cook something nourishing. So at least we would remain fed. And so I could have one little thing that I could do so that I didn’t feel so useless. I got to help. I got to be a working part of the slapdash system that kept my family alive.

To this day, the act of cooking is one of the few things that relaxes me. Makes me feel useful. Allows me to show affection. I feed you because I love you, but also because I may not know how else to tell you that.

So yes, in a very real sense, food equals love. In that nuanced, messy way that love has about it. In that way that Cheerios in whole milk is actually the last time I saw Mom Mom, in her housecoat at the assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, touching my face, calling me one last time by my father’s name. Or that Salami wrapped around a piece of cheddar is the darkening kitchen in the house where I grew up, my little sister sitting at the table, her feet barely touching the ground.

And then sometimes, of course, a casserole is just a casserole.

In Which We Begin a Thing

It is five o’clock in the morning. I can’t sleep.

I usually can’t. I wake up. I am prone to panic attacks. I have been since I was a teenager. They’ve happened regularly for twenty years. Like clockwork. It’s comforting to be able to depend on something.

And I am very dependable in that way. I have been consistently anxious since I was very young. I am easily discouraged and frequently suffer from bouts of deep depression. I drink to excess, often and with verve. I am bad with money, when I have it. These things follow me around like a fluffy little rain cloud, and hover inches over my head in the middle of the night. They are a part of me. They will not be shaken. Managed, maybe. But never shaken.

Listen, I have good qualities, too, but it’s five o’clock in the morning, and there’s only so much my fevered brain can focus on. Besides, I’m getting at something, the long way around: My favorite character flaw. Which is different from the anxiety and depression and nascent addiction, because I chose this flaw. I carefully curated it throughout my life, and frequently celebrated it, dressing it up in the guise of a virtue.

It is this: I am a commitmentphobe. I have a very healthy dislike of commitment. You could say fear. If you like. I wouldn’t. But you could.

It extends into every facet of my life. For instance: In school, I never chose a major. I tell people that I studied theater and creative writing, and I’m not lying. I did. Just not in any official capacity. I went three-and-a-half years without declaring. What if I found something I liked better? (It should be noted here that I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t, but why risk it?)

Instead of going to class, I wrote. I sat down in the basement of Blue Sky Coffee every night well past midnight, chain smoking with the other Sullen Boys Who Wrote. We wrote in journals and legal pads in those days, and in the margins of dogeared copies of The Collected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. We drank black coffee and wore stupid sweaters and smoked entire packs of cigarettes in a single sitting and then asked the Sullen Boy who was writing next to us if he’d watch our stuff and he’d shrug noncommittally and we’d go into the cool autumn air and buy another pack, and then we’d smoke that too. We were young and Sullen and never finished anything, but oh the sorta-poems and almost-drafts we wrote! And how we felt it in our hearts and our guts and our lungs.

At any rate, three-and-a-half years of this, and I dropped out of school. Or was disinvited from returning for what should have been my last semester. I forget which (not really). It isn’t important from this vantage point anyway.

I left school and I got a job. It was a pretty neat job for a drop out. It was for a company that owned and managed theme parks all across our great nation. At first, it did not feel corporate at all. At first, I just got to dress up like an old timey lawman and sing bluegrass songs to tourists. After a few months, they asked if I wanted to stay on and write children’s plays. And so I was a Professional Writer! It was very good until it started to feel terrible, and then it was terrible for a very, very long time. Ten years! I had a number of opportunities for advancement during that time, and declined each one. Because this was a job that I was doing while I “pursued” my career. Which eventually worked out! Sort of.

See, I told people that I was a Serious Writer. It turns out that if you do that long enough, and are regularly seen carrying a notebook and maybe a copy of The Collected Works of Rainer Maria Rilke, people will ask you to maybe write stuff for them. And (here’s the tricky part) if you occasionally actually write, like, just long enough to hit a deadline once or twice, they fucking believe you! THEY FUCKING BELIEVE YOU. So eventually I was asked by someone who commits to this sort of thing if I’d write screenplays with him, and I quit my job, and we (eventually) wrote a movie, and it did okay, and blah blah blah etc. Now I have a CV.

I’m veering off point. Point is: I have never been fully committed. My writing partner’s off making movies right now, and I’m sitting on my couch at five o’clock in the morning writing a blog post in boxers and a t-shirt that I cut into a muscle shirt as a joke but secretly like to wear because it makes me look like the kind of dude who wears muscle shirts. Because he is fully committed to making movies whereas I didn’t want so much to be nailed down to it. Because that makes sense, yeah?

Here’s the thing about commitmentphobia: it looks an awful lot like freedom for a long time. Not committing to school allowed me all the time in the world to write. Not committing to my job did the same. It didn’t make me productive, or happy, it just allowed me to believe in a future where I was capable of attaining happiness and productivity because I hadn’t been chained to a shit career.

I was the same way in love. A series of relationships that were filled with passion and excitement and that eventually ended in terrible disappointment. Because I had a foot out the door. Always. It was miserable. And yet, I was willing to continue with this lifestyle ad nauseum. Because it meant I never had to be responsible- truly responsible- for another person’s happiness. And because there might always be something else.

And then, of course, I met Amy.

Which is why we are here, really.

Amy was smart, and confident, and funny. And she knew what she wanted, and made plans to get those things. She was resourceful. If she found something lacking, she’d fix it. She was tough, but it was tempered with kindness. I mean, she was basically all of the things that I wished I was.

Also she was beautiful.

Also she liked me.

Also she had very little patience for commitmentphobia, and told me so. And yet I found myself sticking around. And then moving into her apartment, which was kinky and cluttered but felt like home. And each day that we spent together I felt a sort of unwinding of a singular tension. The steadfast commitment to not committing. So close to her heat, it sort of melted off. To mix metaphors.

And then, after a couple of years of this, one night we were walking around Charleston (very much more on Charleston later) and we got to the Harbor, where the moon fell across the water and the summer wind was warm and everything felt perfect. She pulled out a letter to read to me. It was beautifully written, and though at first I thought it was the opening salvo to an intervention, as it continued it became very clear that she was asking me to marry her.

And though my brain was a raging maelstrom, my mouth (which despite myself I have learned to trust) said yes, and when it did, I became very calm. Because yes. Of course, yes. Yes, this person whom I admire and wish to be more like. This person who knows how to throw a left hook. This person who is skilled and decent and full of life. How could I not commit to more of her?

At any rate. I’m shaking at least this one character flaw dressed up like a virtue. The rest I’ll manage to the best of my ability. At the very least, when I wake in a panic at five o’clock in the morning, I have her beside me, gently snoring.

Here, I am going to talk to you quite a bit about weddings, but also about existential dread and depression, but also about love and how good it is to be in love. Also how scary. But mostly how good. Because it is very, very good.