Author: Pearlman, Edith
Date published: October 1, 2011
I got my first taste of raw flesh when I was nine years old. I had been taken to an adult party. My father was out of town at an investors' conference and my brother was spending the night at a friend's; and my babysitter got sick at the last minute, or said she did. What was my mother to do- stay home? So she brought me along. The affair was cocktails-and-buffet featuring beef tartare on pumpernickel rounds and a bowl of icy seviche- this was thirty years ago, before such delicacies had been declared lethal. The party was given by the Plunkets, family therapists: two fatties who dressed in similar sloppy clothing as if to demonstrate that glamour was not a prerequisite for rambunctious sex.
My mother and I and Milo walked over to the party in the glowing September afternoon. Our house and Milo's and the Plunkets' all lay within a mile of each other in Godolphin, a leafy wedge of Boston, as did the homes of most of the other guests- the psychiatrists and clinical psychologists and social workers who made up this crowd. They were all friends, they referred patients to one another, they distributed themselves into peer-supervision subsets- a collégial, talkative crew, their envy vigorously tamped down. Their kids were friends, toosome as close as cousins. I already hated groups, but I was willy-nilly part of the bunch.
Among the adults Milo was first among peers. He produced paper after acclaimed paper: case histories of children with symptoms like elective mutism and terror of automobiles and willful constipation lasting ten days. I longed to become one of Milo 's fascinating patients, but I knew to my sadness that therapists rarely treated their friends' children no matter how sick and I knew also that I wasn't sick anyway, just ornery and self-centered. In his published work Milo gave the young sufferers false first names and surname initials. "What would you call meV I asked him once, still hoping for immortality.
"Well, Susan, what would you like to be called?"
He warmed me with his brown gaze. ("The eyes," Dr. Lenore once remarked to my mother, "thoroughly compensate for the absence of chin.")
Milo said: "Catamarina is your name forever."
So I had an appellation if not symptoms. All I had to do was stop talking or moving my bowels. Alas, nature proved too strong for me.
Milo's colleagues respected his peaceable bachelordom: they recognized asexuality as an unpathological human preference, also as a boon to society. He had been born in cosmopolitan Budapest, which gave him further cachet. His liberal parents, who were in the bibelot business, got out just before World War II. So Milo was brought up in New York by a pair of Hungarians, penniless at first, soon rich again. He inherited a notable collection of ancient Chinese figurines.
On the day of that party Milo was wearing his standard costume: flannel slacks, turtieneck sweater, tweed jacket. He was then almost fifty, a bit older than my parents and their friends. His hair, prematurely gray, rose high and thick from a narrow forehead. It swung at his nape like a soft broom. He was very tall and very thin.
Dr. Will Plunket gave me beef tartare in a hamburger bun. But the Plunket boys wouldn't let me join their game of Dungeons and Dragons. So, munching my feral sandwich, I wandered in the fall garden still brightened by a glossy sun. On a chaise on the flagstone terrace sat a woman I didn't know. She looked sulky and bored. Dr. Judah joined me for a while and wondered aloud if fairies nested under the chrysanthemums. I frowned at him; but when he went inside I knelt and peered under the mums. Nothing. After a while Milo found me. In his soft voice he talked about the greenery near the stone wallbasil was rumored to cure melancholy, marjoram headaches, ground ivy conjunctivitis. He bent, picked up a handful of the ivy, stood, and crushed a few leaves into my palm. "Not to be taken internally." Then he, too, went in.'
I drifted toward the terrace. "How lucky you are," drawled the woman on the chaise, and she drank some of her cocktail.
"To have such an attentive aunt," she said, and drank some more.
"My aunt lives in Michigan."
"She's here on a visit?"
"She's in Europe this month."
"I mean the aunt you were just talking to."
"Her name is Milo?"
I raced into the house. I found my mother standing with Dr. Margaret and Dr. Judah. "You'll never believe it, that patient on the terrace, she thought Milo was my aunt!" My mother gave me a ferocious stare. "My aunt," I heedlessly repeated to Dr. Margaret, and then turned to Dr. Judah. "My-" but I couldn't finish because my mother was yanking me out of the room.
"Stop talking, Susan, stop right now, do not say that again. It would hurt Milo's feelings dreadfully." She let go of me and folded her arms. "There's dirt on your knees," she said, though dirt was not usually denigrated in this circle. "Filth."
"Garden soil," I corrected.
My mother sighed. "The woman on the terrace is Dr. Will's sister."
"I wish Milo was my aunt."
"Condition contrary to fact." As our conversation slid into the safe area of grammar, we returned to the party. Milo was now listening to Dr. Will. It didn't seem to me that Milo's longish hair was more feminine than Dr. Will's black smock. But this once I would obey my mother- I would not again relate the error of the woman on the terrace. I hoped that Milo hadn't heard my earlier exclamation. Not for the world would I hurt his feelings; or so I thought.
Milo celebrated Thanksgiving here, Passover there, Christmas twice in one day, first at the Collinses and then at the Shapiros. He smoked his after-dinner cigar in everybody's back yard. He came to our annual New Year's Day open house, which I was required to attend for fifteen minutes. I spent that quarter hour behind a lamp. My parents, shoulder to shoulder, greeted their guests. Sometimes my mother slipped her hand into my father's pocket, like a horse nuzzling for sugar.
Milo went to piano recitals and bar mitzvahs and graduations. In August he visited four different families, one each week. He was an aunt, my aunt, aunt to many children bora into our therapeutic set, if an aunt is someone always ready to talk on the telephone to worried parents- especially to mothers, who do most of the worrying. Those mothers of ours, full of understanding for their patients, were helpless when their own offspring gave them trouble. Then they became frantic kid sisters, reaching for the phone. Bad report cards, primitive behavior on the playground, sass; lying, staying out all night, playing hooky- for all such troubles Milo was ready with advice and consolation. He knew also when a child needed outside help- strangling the cat was a sure indication. Usually, though, it was the parent who required an interpretation and also a recommendation to back off. "No, a joint today is not a crack pipe tomorrow," he memorably assured Dr. Lenore. Dr. Lenore's daughter was, of course, listening on the extension. We were all masters of domestic wiretapping- slipping a forefinger between receiver and the button on which it rested, lifting the receiver to our ear, releasing the button with the caution of a surgeon until a connection was soundlessly established.
The July I was twelve I ran away from overnight camp. The day after I arrived home, surly and triumphant, I eavesdropped on Milo and my mother. Milo was suggesting that my mother praise me for taking the bus rather than hitch-hiking on the highway.
"She stole the bus money from her counselor," my mother said.
"Borrowed, I think. Encourage her to return the money by mail."
"Shouldn't she be encouraged to return herself to camp?"
Milo said: "To the hated place?" There was a talcum pause as he drew on his cigar. "To the place she had the resourcefulness to escape from?"
"It's difficult to have her home," said my mother with a little sob.
"Yes, Ann, I can imagine," said Milo. And then: "It is her home, too."
There was a silence- Milo 's the silence of someone who has delivered a truth and my mother's the silence of someone who has received it. And a third silence, a silence within a silence: mine. "It is her home, too," I heard. The gentle living room; the kitchen whose window looked out on birds and squirrels and sometimes a pheasant who'd strayed from the more suburban part of Godolphin. The attached office where my mother saw patients during the day. The bedroom where in the evenings she received those patients' panicky calls and where she herself called Milo. My brother's room with his construction projects in various stages of completion- though a year younger than I, he was already an adept mechanic. My own room: posters, books, toys outgrown but not discarded, clothing pooled on the floor and draped on lamps. A long window led from my room onto a little balcony. My mother had once planted impatiens in boxes on the balcony but I let the flowers die. Without recrimination she had watched me neglect, desecrate even, a generous space in the house. The house that was hers, too.
For the remainder of July I babysat for the kids next door, treating them with a pretended affection I ended up feeling. ("Hypocrisy is the first step toward sincerity," Milo had written.) I made a small effort to straighten my room. ("A token is a cheap coin, but it is not counterfeit"- same source.) In August we went to Cape Cod.
Our determinedly modest bungalow faced the sea; there was no sandy beach, but we had become used to lying on our strip of shingle. The house had four small bedrooms. The walls were thin, providing perfect acoustics. There was a grille and an outdoor shower. Sometimes my father grilled fish; sometimes he and my mother prepared meals together in the inconvenient kitchen, where they bumped into each other and laughed.
As always Milo came for the third week. I could hear him, too, turning over in bed or splashing in the bathroom, just as I could hear my parents' soft conversations, my brother's indiscriminate farting. The small family -still too large a group for me. "I want to work in a private office," I said one morning.
"You could be a psychiatrist," said my unimaginative brother.
"Private! By myself! Nobody comes in."
"Ah. You could be a bank president," said Milo. "They are rarely interrupted."
"Or a hotel housekeeper," said my mother. "Just you and piles of linen."
"Or an astronomer, alone with her telescope," said my father. That was the best offer. "The work requires a bit of math," he said mildly.
Later that day Milo took my brother and me to Bosky's Wild Animal Preserve. We visited Bosky's once or twice each summer. The wildest animals there were a pair of foxes. Foxes are devoted parents while their offspring require care. Then they separate, and next season they find new partners. But Bosky's two downcast specimens were stuck with each other year after year. The male peacock didn't seem to have much fun, either. His occasional half-hearted display revealed gaps in his feathers. A pichi, a female rock snake, a few monkeys chattering nonsense - these were our Wild Animals. But beyond the pathetic cages was a large working farm, with chickens and turkeys and an apple orchard and a field of corn. A pony in a straw hat dragged a cart around the cornfield. Two other chapeauxed ponies could be ridden around a ring, though not independently: you had to endure, walking beside you, one of the local teen-agers who worked at Bosky's. These louts did not hide their contempt for nag and rider.
The rock snake was fed a live white mouse every two weeks. This public meal was unadvertised but word got around. So when we got to Bosky's that day there were a dozen small children already gathered in front of the snake's cage. Their parents, wearing doubtful expressions, milled at a distance. My brother went off to the ponies. Milo and I were tall enough to see over the children's heads, so we two and the kids viewed the entire performance- the lowering of the mouse into the cage by Mr. Bosky; the terrified paralysis of the rodent; the expert constriction by the snake; and then the mouse's slow incorporation into the snake's hinged mouth. She fed herself the mouse, whose bones were all broken but who still presumably breathed. In it went, further in, still further, until all we could see was its tiny rump and then only its thin white tail.
The little kids, bored once the tail had disappeared, drifted toward their pained parents. One skinny mother vomited into a beach bag. Milo looked at her with sympathy. Not I, though.
"A recovering bulimic," I told him as we moved away.
"Giving herself a thrill?" he wondered. "Could be," generously admitting me into the company of interpreters.
I love you, Milo, I might have said if we said that sort ofthing.
In the fall I began to attend school regularly, forcing myself to tolerate groups at least for a classroom hour. I had to choose a sport so I went out for track, the least interpersonal of activities. I did my homework in most subjects. I made up the math I had flunked the year before.
My mother needed to call Milo less often.
I even achieved a kind of intimacy. My best friend- almost my only one, really, unless you counted Dr. Judah 's daughter and Dr. Lenore's daughter and the younger Plunket boy, who were all in my grade -was an extra-tall girl with an extra- long neck. Her parents had been bom in India. They both practiced radiology. Their daughter planned a career in medicine, too, as casually as a child of other parents might look forward to taking over the family store. Anjali- such a beautiful name - was plain and dark, with drooping lids and wide nostrils. Her last name was Nezhukumatathil- "Where my father comes from, the equivalent of Smith."
She lived a few blocks from us. She and I walked home along the same streets every day, rarely bothering to talk. Our route took us past the stretch of row houses that included Milo's, past his small, low-maintenance garden: a dogwood tree, a cast iron white loveseat below it, pachysandra around it. Milo's front door had two bells, one for the living quarters, one for the office and playroom. He was always working in the late afternoon, and so I didn't tell Anjali that I knew the owner ofthat particular narrow house.
But one May at five o'clock there he was on the lacy bench, he and his cigar. A patient had cancelled, I immediately understood. There was an exchange of helios and an introduction; and then- after Milo had poked the cigar into a tin of sand beside the loveseat- we were inside; and Milo was telling Anjali the provenance of some of his figurines and showing her his needlepoint utensils. How had he guessed that this mute camel liked small things and delicate handiwork? If I'd been walking with Sarah- another girl I sometimes made myself pal around with, a very good runner- he'd have known to put "Hair" on the stereo and discuss stretching exercises. Ah, it was his business. I sipped a can of Coke. You might guess that it tasted like wormwood, that I was full of jealousy- but no: I was full of admiration for Milo, performing his familial role for this schoolgirl, comfortably limited by the imminent arrival of the next patient; within ten minutes he'd give us the gate. And he did, first looking with a rueful expression at his watch. "Good-bye, Anjali," he said at the door. "See you soon, Susan. Thank you for bringing your friend," as if I had done it on purpose to display my hard-won sociability.
A block or so later Anjali made a rare disclosure - she'd like to live like Milo.
"In what way?" I asked, expecting mention of the figurines, the needlepoint, even the dogwood.
Me, too! I wanted to confide. But the confidence would have been false. I already guessed that some day I would marry and produce annoying children. I was not as bold as Milo, as Anjali. Nature would again prove too strong for me.
August: just before senior year. I ran every morning; it was no longer an obligation but a pleasure. The third week Anjali came to the Cape to visit me, and one of my brother's friends came to visit him, and Milo came to visit the family. He swam and baked blueberry pies and treated us to impromptu lectures on this and that- the nature of hurricanes; stars, though I had already dismissed astronomy as a career; the town of Scheveningen, where, at the age of four, he had spent the summer. He liked to recall an ancient Dutch waiter who had brought him lemonade every afternoon and talked about his years as a circus acrobat. "Lies, beautiful lies, essential to amour propre."
"To the waiter's amour propre?'''' I asked.
"And to mine. Taking lies seriously, it's a necessary skill."
In bathing briefs, muscular and tanned, Milo could not be mistaken for a woman. But my brother's friend, whose schoolteacher parents were not part of our exalted circle, told my brother that Milo was so fucking helpful he was probably some cast-off queen. My brother didn't hesitate to repeat the evaluation to me. "A queen!"
"There's filth on your knees," I snapped; but of course he didn't get the reference. I was furious with all three of them: the unappreciative guest, my unfeeling brother, and Milo, who had brought the accusation on himself with his pies and his reminiscences. He'd encouraged the taciturn Anjali to talk about ancient artifacts, too. Apparently they were her prime interest nowadays. Apparently Anjali and Milo had run into each other at the museum during the spring- some dumb exhibition, pre-Columbian telephones, maybe. Afterwards he had treated her to tea.
On Thursday Milo and I drove Anjali through a light rain to the bus station- she had to get back to town for a family party. She jumped out of the back seat; she threw her traveling sack, studded with tiny mirrors, over her bony shoulder; she said "Thanks" in her toneless voice. (She had properly thanked my mother back in the bungalow.) She slammed the door and strode toward the bus.
Milo opened his window and stuck his head into the drizzle. 'There's a netsuke exhibition in October," he called.
She stopped, and turned, and smiled at him, a smile that lasted several seconds too long. Then she boarded the bus.
We watched the vehicle pull out. "Shall we take a run to Bosky's?" Milo said.
'The place is swarming with ants," I said. "Bosky's formicates," I showed off.
Milo was silent. "Sure," I relented. It was his vacation, too.
On that damp day Milo paid his usual serious attention to the wild animals: the foxes forced into monogamy, the impotent peacock, the dislocated monkeys. He glanced at the languid snake, still digesting last week's meal. He stopped for an irritatingly long while at the cage of an animal new to the Preserve- an agouti from Belize who was (an ill-painted sign mentioned) a species of rodent. "Among Belizeans he's considered a tasty meal," Milo told me; he knew more than the sign-painter. "The agouti himself is herbivorous. A sociable little fellow. He shares a common burrow system with others of his kind."
"Does he. Like you."
He gave me his interested stare. "I eat meat-"
"I shouldn't have said that," I muttered.
"-though it's true that I have lost my taste for beef tartare. It wasn't a terrible thing to say, Catamarina M. We all do live, your parents and I and our friends, in a kind of mutual burrow, and the telephone makes it even more intimate, especially when one of you children sneaks onto the line- it's like a hiccup, I listen for it. In what way did you insult me?"
"I suggested you were a rat," I said, confessing to the lesser sin. What I had suggested, as I feared he knew, was that he was an inquisitive dependent animal, exchanging advice for friendship; that for all his intuition and clinical wisdom he did not know first-hand the rage that flared between individuals, the urge to eat each other up. Strong emotions were not part of his repertoire. But they had become part of mine during Anjali's visit as I watched her unfold under his radiant friendship- Envy, Hatred, Fury . . . Once I saved you from ridicule, you ridiculous man.
"A rat," he echoed. "Nevertheless, you are my favorite . . . niece."
"I'm supposed to take that lie seriously? Up your goulash, Milo."
"Go home." I took several steps away from him and his friend the agouti. Then I whirled and began to run. I ran past the pichi and the monkeys and into the farm area, scattering hens and chickens and little kids. "Hey!" yelled Mr. Bosky. I vaulted the railing of the ponies' riding ring and ran around it and vaulted back. "She's crazy," remarked one of the local boys, in surprised admiration. Perhaps I could sneak out one night and meet him in a haystack. I ran straight into the corn, between staglines of stalks.
Past the corn was another field where lettuce grew close to the ground. I skirted it- I had no wish to do damage to Bosky's. I ran, faster still, enjoying one of those spurts our track coach taught us to take advantage of- a coach who, without concern for feelings or individuality, made us into athletes. I slowed down when I reached the woods, and padded through it like a fox free of his partner; I slithered, like a snake who has to catch her own mouse. On the other side of the woods was the highway. I crossed it carefully- I had no wish to grieve my parents, either. Another narrow road led to the rocky beach, a couple of miles from our house. I walked the rest of the way. My brother and his friend were sitting on the porch, amiably talking with Milo - Aunt Milo, Queen Milo, Dr. Milo, who so evenly distributed his favors. He and I waved to each other; and I went around to the outside shower and turned it on and stood under it, with all my clothes on.
As I had noticed, my mother was calling Milo less frequently. By that last year in high school, it seemed, she didn't call him at all except to remind him of the New Year's party.
And later, talking with children of the other therapists when we were home from college, or, still later, when we ran into each other in New York or San Francisco, I learned that all our mothers eventually stopped consulting Milo. Partly, I think, they had less need for his advice. We kids were at last growing up. And our parents had incorporated and so no longer needed to hear Milo's primary rule about offspring- "They owe you and society a minimal courtesy. Everything else is their business"- just as they had incorporated his earlier observation about physical punishment: "It's addictive. Rather than strike your child, light up a cigar."
And perhaps, too, they had to flee their older sibling, the one who had seen their wounds.
A few of them may have even believed the rumor about Milo: that he was paying so much attention to Anjali N., a high school girl, that her parents had to warn him off. That fable had been astonishingly easy to launch. I merely related it to Dr. Margaret's daughter - two years younger than I, grateful for my attention. Then I swore her to secrecy.
At any rate, we grown offspring discovered from each other that Milo himself began to initiate the telephone calls, eager to know the progress of the patients, the anecdotes from the latest trips, the news of the children- especially the news of the children.
"Nosy," said Dr. Lenore's daughter.
"Avaricious," said Benjy Plunket, who had practically lived at Milo's house during his parents' divorce. "When I was in college he wanted to study everything I was studying- he even bought himself a copy of my molecular biology textbook, stuff new since his time."
"He managed to tag along on the Apfels' Las Vegas trip," said Dr. Lenore's daughter.
"People outlive their usefulness," summed up Dr. Judah's daughter.
"It's sad," we all agreed, with offhand malice.
My mother still answered when Milo called (machines allowed other old friends to screen him out) and she tolerated his increasingly discursive monologues. And she kept inviting him to our Cape Cod house, and when he joined our family on a cruise to Scandinavia it was because she and my father enthusiastically insisted. Others were less generous. The Apfels, who had lost heavily in Las Vegas, broke with him entirely.
We are adults now. We prefer e-mail to the telephone. Many of us still live in Godolphin. None of us has entered the mental health professions. Even Anjali failed to follow her parents into medicine. She teaches art history in Chicago, and has three daughters. Nature proved too strong for her, too.
Some of our children have problems. But though the aged Milo is still working- is esteemed adviser to an inner-city child guidance center, has done pioneering work with juvenile offenders- we don't consult him. He reminds us too much of our collective childhood in that all-knowing burrow; and of our anxious mothers; and of the unnerving power of empathy. We're a different generation: the tough love crowd. And there's always Ritalin.
I do keep in touch with Milo. It's not a burden: my husband and I are both linguists, and Milo is interested in language. "There is a striving for design in the utterances even of the schizophrenic," he has written.
I inherited the Cape Cod house, and Milo comes to visit every summer. He and I and my two sons always pay a visit to Bosky's. The Wild Animal Preserve has dwindled to one desperate moose, one raccoon, and those poor foxes, or some other pair. The snake has retired and the agouti is gone, too. But the farm in back continues to flourish, and the ponies get new straw hats every season. My kids have outgrown the place but they understand that old Milo is to be indulged.
A white mustache coats Milo's upper lip. His hair, also white, is still long. His hairline has receded considerably, and he's subject to squamous carcinomas on the exposed brow. So, advised by his dermatologist, he covers his head. In the winter he sports a beret, in the summer a cloth hat with a soft brim.
Today, wearing the summer hat and a pair of oversized cargo pants that look like a split skirt, he is riding one of the ponies. That saddle must be punishing his elderly bones. Maybe he's trying to amuse my sons. Certainly they are entertained. When he reaches the far side of the ring they release unseemly snickers. "Granny Wild West," snorts one. "Madame Cowpoke," returns the other. Meanwhile Milo is bending toward the kid who's leading his pony - eliciting a wretched story, no doubt; offering a suggestion that may change the boy's life or at least make his afternoon a little better.
I'd like to smack both my sons and also smoke a cigar. Instead I inform them that Milo represents an evolved form of human life that they might some day emulate or even adopt. That sobers them. So I don't mention that he was once valued and then exploited and then betrayed and finally discarded; that, like his displaced parents, he adjusted gracefully to new circumstances.
We stand there, elbows on the railing, as Milo on his pony plods toward us. We smile at him. Within the rim of his bonnet his face creases; below the soapy mustache his lips part to reveal brown teeth; he is grinning back at us as if he shared our mild mockery of his performance: as if it were his joke, too.
Edith Pearlman's stories have been in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize, and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. Awards include the Antioch Review's distinguished writing award in 2000 and the PEN Malamud award in 2011.