The Book of Ezra
Back in Allentown, my dad got steady work and moved us into an apartment a few blocks away from our aunt and uncle’s house. It was the first time my brother and I got to play in the snow and experience a real winter, which was great fun, but I was still thoroughly depressed that I’d may never live in Los Angeles, or see my mom, again. Not that I wanted to separate from my brother. We were very close and being away from him was painful, but I missed my mom and I secretly wished she’d come back and swoop me up again.
And school just sucked. It always sucked. The constant moving and trying to make new friends. It seemed pointless. At the school in Allentown, I was introduced as “the new student from Los Angeles.” I became a thing of interest. When word somehow got out that I was a Jew, one student asked to see my horns. Dumbfounded, I couldn’t be sure if he was kidding. Whether he was or not, it made me very self-conscious. As if no one there had ever met a Jewish person before. Like I was a freakish anomaly. It gave me a complex for sure.
My dad’s family already disliked Jews, or seemed to, and made plans to baptize Mike and me. The public display was such a big to-do, it was in the local newspaper. Later my mom said to my dad, “You can dunk ’em in all the holy water you want—they’ll still be Jewish!”
Mike and I bonded like war buddies. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t kept me constantly laughing. I’ve always loved his sense of humor. Still, as connected as we were, the bond I had with my mom was sacred and I waited for her to come back.
Meanwhile, she started to pull herself together—sort of? At least well enough to hold down a part-time job. She was also attending synagogue regularly, which is where she met her new boyfriend, Ezra.
I guess I should have been more surprised to hear that she’d been going to synagogue. We hadn’t really gone since my Great-Grandma Rose died. Being in a synagogue brings back comforting memories of her and probably the only good memories I have from childhood, as Rose represented my safe place: a strong woman who loved me.
Grandma Rose and Grandpa Lloyd used to take care of me sometimes, but they both died before I turned seven, so these are early recollections. Mom would dump me off with them and they would babysit me over the weekends. They’d take me along to synagogue, and though most of the service was recited in Hebrew, all gobbledygook to me, the rabbi made jokes in English. I mostly remember the dancing and the food afterward. Grandpa Lloyd would lift me high over his head and put me on his shoulders. All the people in the temple made big circles and held hands. We’d dance to peculiar accordion music that I’d never heard on the radio. People I didn’t even know would pull me off the ground and swing me back and forth. “It’s so much fun to be Jewish!” I’d tell my Grandma. She’d laugh until her eyes turned into little upside-down crescent moons, and her crow’s feet deepened into the sides of her face. I always knew I was loved and enjoyed when I was with her. I never felt like a burden like I did with my mom.
Mom’s boyfriend, Ezra, was an older man, but not just older, I’m talking ancient. Old, like he was the original Ezra. He became my mom’s fast fling. It seemed fast. It felt creepy. I don’t know what she was thinking when she said I would like him. And now that she’d sent for me to come and live with them, I had to like him.
When I got my first look at him, I did an apple juice spit-take. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He was tall like Lurch, lanky, and damn near bald with a super-long comb-over. He looked older than any relative I’d ever had, even older than the ones in their graves. Why is Mom so into him? I kept asking myself. Why?
Because Ezra was rich.
Mom moved into his big mansion on Highland Avenue, just below Beverly. I got my own room, and he promised me furniture, but no furniture ever came. I slept on a rollaway bed and lived out of my suitcase for the few months we were there. Mom enrolled me at Third Street Elementary, even though I begged her not to. Every new school was sheer torture. She understood how incredibly shy I was and how much I hated meeting new people. I got her to postpone school for a few weeks. She did her best to pep-talk me before the inevitable first day.
The girl I sat next to in class tried to befriend me right away by telling me how pretty my eyes were, which only made me uncomfortable. I hung out with the girl at recess and even started to like her. Then all the boys started playing the “grabbing game.” My new friend was totally down with it. I didn’t want any part of it and I walked off toward the far end of the playground to be alone. When the bell rang, it occurred to me that I never wanted to go back into the classroom again and, when my mother dropped me off the next morning, I didn’t. I planted my ass on the curb outside of the entrance and waited. I waited there until she came back to pick me up at 2:00 p.m. She asked how school was and I said it was fine. I did the same thing the following day, and the day after that. I just sat there, thinking. Most days, I thought I about how much I missed my brother.
Mike, still in Pennsylvania with Dad, was no good at writing, so he recorded cassette tapes and sent them to me in the mail. They were so funny, I never laughed harder in my childhood. Nobody could make me laugh like he could. He invented comedy skits and performed all the character’s voices himself. I loved it.
I played alone most of the time. I’d listen to Mike’s tapes on my Panasonic tape recorder in my empty room. I also found some mysterious tapes in a trunk in the closet. Most of them were klezmer music, but one was Donovan’s Catch a Fire, which only had four songs. I’d sit in that room for hours listening to it over and over until I knew “Why Do You Treat Me Like You Do” like the back of my hand. I’d sing along and apply the words to my parents while crying through a box of tissues. No one ever checked on me in that room to see how I was doing. No one ever checked on me in any of the rooms I lived in.
Friday evenings, I’d have a good time at shul and forget about my problems for a while. I got into it. I liked how Hebrew would be recited in unison during certain prayers, people bowing during special passages, and really meaning it. All the traditions and rituals felt precious and familiar, like I was connecting to an ancient me. This was all of the good stuff my dad’s side of the family tried to keep me away from. They were only interested in pushing Jesus on me, who no doubt sounded like a nice guy, but I didn’t need to have his teachings crammed down my throat. I had to go to Sunday school when I lived in Allentown. I had no choice. The family was so religious. I had to go to Bible camp too. But I wanted to go to temple, where after the service the chocolate challah bread connected the congregation as one big happy family. I’d wonder if I were related to more than one person there. It sure felt that way, like the place was my home where I could find my authentic self.
Up to that point, my parents hadn’t raised my brother and me with any religion. Except when they were separated. When they were together, we may or may not have “celebrated” Christmas. I only remember a few, but our Christmases were not like any other families I’ve known.
First of all, no Santa. Never heard of him. We’d just do a Toys “R” Us Day.
About a week before Christmas, we would go to Toys “R” Us, like a family outing. We’d shop up and down the aisles for a couple hours. Mike and I had budgets and my dad would keep a tally on a paper pad as he pushed the shopping basket. I would sit inside the cart, point at toys, and Mom or Dad would pull them off the shelves and throw them into the basket.
When we returned home, we’d help my parents wrap everything in holiday paper. We used the self-stick bows, so they’d be easier to open later. And “later” would be Christmas morning. By then, we’d forget what we had picked out. Ripping the packages open under the tree was still fun, that is, if we had a tree, but instead of having the feeling of surprise, it was a feeling of recollection. “Oh yeah . . . I remember picking this out. Cool!” I think kids are generally happy, so we were still excited to play with our toys. They were the toys we wanted, after all.
But now we weren’t even a family engaging in our normal dysfunctional activities. Here I was with a man so old he could disintegrate into dust at any time, and my mom was having sex with him. I tried not to think about it, but it was impossible. I heard them doing it all the time. Every day I grew more fidgety. I remember thinking, I’m too young for this shit!
Mom had zero boundaries. She told me everything about her beeswax, like what went on in her relationship with Dad. In detail. That started when I was really young. I’m talking six or seven. She burdened me with keeping her dark secrets, family secrets, and sexual affairs in the family. I had to swear never to tell anyone. I knew everything about her horrendous childhood. It was so sad. If I ever thought my relationship with my mom was unhealthy, I should’ve kept Post-it notes around to remind myself how good I had it. Mom confided in me as a best friend would. Through her endless tears, I listened. I held her and reassured her. I silently carried her mental baggage. But my mom was also very strong. A headstrong, yet extremely fragile soul. If you reacted even remotely negatively to anything she did, she would fall apart. Then there was the stubborn part. Her frequent suicide attempts were never half-assed—they were not simply “cries for help.” She meant business. She’d go all in with huge drug overdoses, taking several bottles of barbiturates.
I mostly hated when she saw herself in me. She’d tell me, “You’re just like me.” She’d say it when I was upset about something. She’d use it as a blanket dismissal of what was happening in the moment with me, when I really needed to be heard. She seemingly used it as a tactic to make me feel as though crying was a symptom of being mentally ill.
“Yup,” she’d say, “you’re just like your old mom, kiddo.”
“I hate it when you say that!” I told her once.
“Why?” She asked. As if all her behaviors were perfectly normal. Like she was a fucking breeze to live with and I should strive to be like her.
“Because I don’t want to be this way!”
She looked at me with a twisted face and well up with multicolored tears mixed with make-up and eyeshadow. Seeing her like that, I knew what was coming. I always felt instant regret for opening my mouth, because what came next would be an emotional crapshoot. She would say, “No one knows you like I do. And no one ever will,” and those words continue to resonate with me to this day.
Ezra’s mansion was scary. A Spanish-style house with cathedral ceilings and a sweeping staircase, like something you’d see in the movies. It was far too big, mostly empty, with only a few pieces of furniture. It desperately needed lamps. I hated how dark it was. The kitchen alone was bigger than some apartments I’ve lived in, and spooky noises came out of there at night. I was too afraid to fully investigate. Sometimes I’d make my way halfway down the staircase at night. I once thought I saw Ezra’s ugly face through the small stained-glass window in the front door. I got so freaked out, I ran back to my room screaming, but no one came to help me. What the hell? Hello?
I don’t know how long I lived there (days? weeks?) before I discovered that Ezra’s mother lived in a room off the kitchen! She must have been a hundred years old—at least. She was so old and wrinkled that she scared me half to death. When I first caught a glimpse of her, I ran the fuck away to my mom’s lap. Mom laughed and told me not to be scared. You’d think they would have told me about her. I avoided the white-haired fossil as much as possible. I was terrified of her face, her crouched posture, her old age. Then, one afternoon when I saw her near the kitchen counter, she spoke to me. She had a crackly voice with a thick Russian accent. She asked if I would like some cookies. I did. I did want cookies.
She talked me into going inside her spooky room off the kitchen, which turned out to be big, sunlit, and airy. It wasn’t the dark grave with spiderwebs I thought it would be. On one side was an area with a nice bed, couch, and TV. The rest of the room was an artist’s studio with paintings and drawings everywhere. They were all in different stages of completion. Some of them were in nice frames—portraits of people and animals, landscapes, and still lifes. As it turned out, the old woman had been a prolific artist. A very talented one. She asked me if I liked art, and I told her that I loved to draw and color. She gave me a blank sketchpad and some pencils. They were mine to keep. I didn’t have art supplies with me, so my heart soared a little. She told me she’d been an art teacher and sent me away to draw a cat, an assignment that I never completed. Instead I drew cartoons and colored them in with crayons. I did what I wanted to do and kept to myself, but at least I was no longer afraid of her.
It didn’t take long for Mom to find out I hadn’t been attending school. The school informed her that I was sitting outside on the curb. She told them to keep an eye on me and make sure I didn’t wander off. That’s what she told me, anyway. I once tried to make my way from school back to the house and got lost on Wilshire Boulevard. Maybe she didn’t do anything about my skipping school because she knew we wouldn’t be staying long because Mom got positively sick of Ezra.
She woke me up one morning and whispered that today was the day we were going to “escape.” When Ezra left for work, we packed our suitcases and headed to the airport. I don’t know why, but she disguised herself with a dark wig and black sunglasses and made me wear a floppy hat. She constantly looked over her shoulder, thinking Ezra was following us. Everything had urgency: “Hurry up!” she said, in and out of the taxi, and every couple of minutes.
Once at the airport, she began to unravel, seeing his face around every corner. Her paranoia was out of control. She cried and frightened me by saying we wouldn’t make it out alive. She believed it, and I did too. Or maybe I wasn’t quite sure, but I worried she would make a scene on the plane. Thankfully she calmed down once we got into our seats. Then she was only worried that my dad wouldn’t welcome her back and talked about how much his family despised her. That, I knew was true. And we were both right about that one: Dad did not take her back. She wound up staying in a motel outside of Allentown.
Dad re-enrolled me in the same Allentown elementary school and soon I was distracted by snowy days and being reunited with my brother. I tried not to think so much about my mom. But not even two weeks later, Mike and I came home from school one day and saw something we thought we’d never see again: Mom and Dad sitting on the couch together holding hands. We knew what this meant…