“My Apt Got Kinda Flooded” Club

My plan was to take my kids to The Museum of the City of New York using the free pass I got at the library. It was the last installment of Family Camp. Instead, the doorman woke me up with a phone call asking if there was a leak in my apartment; there was a leak in the gym and they were searching for the source. I was disoriented, roused from a dream I don’t remember and told him I would call him back after I check.

My husband went to the living room to check and reported back, “Yes, there was some water.” When I went to gauge his assessment of “some water,” I was overwhelmed. I imagined a fine trickle, like a crying wall. Instead, it was a two-foot bubble going the entire height of the wall; it damaged the entire wall behind our TV and bookshelves.

This wasn’t the worst part.

I looked down at the floor. MY Canadian Maple, four-inch hardwood plank floors we installed when we moved in less than five years ago. I love this floor as it accommodates my weight. It is soft underfoot and silky smooth. I wipe down every one of these planks when I have a panic attack and they soothe me. These floors are my happy place. I know every scratch and they are few and far between.

I looked down to see dark marks surrounding many planks closest to the wall. I gasped. I saw many starting to buckle around the edges, but I was in denial. I imagined paper towels and a blow dryer. I stepped on some of the more damaged planks and little water fountains erupted at the seams of the boards. I would push down, as if I was checking a cut to see if it was bleeding, and water would ooze out. I didn’t have enough Costco size paper towels for this mess.

My husband was shaking his head and that’s when the workmen arrived. The super and his crew assessed the damage. They told us the culprit was a refrigerator water line which exploded two stories above us. 

Accidents happen.

“This floors this whole floor is going to have to come up,” the water cleanup and restoration guy tells us. He checked the moisture levels by using a stud finder type tool, pressing it onto our floors and walls, shaking his head, moving further and further from where I thought it was even wet.

“Mold is a bitch,” the ex-Marine explained.

I thought we could replace just a few planks, but with a seamless floor, it’s all connected, you damage one plank, the lot is contaminated. Incidentally, the model of my ideal blonde wooden floor is now discontinued.

“This kitchen cabinet is shot,” the other water clean up guy says. “The whole wall will have to come down.”

“Are you saying I’m going to have to replace all of my kitchen cabinets from a little leak in the wall?” I was in shock. The weather was tempting me outside and yet my husband is pulling out flour and sugar and cornstarch from the kitchen cabinets soaking wet and tossing them into the trash.

“I think so, yeah,” and he continues to check for water.

Eventually, we call the insurance company, we get a claim number, they set up ten industrialized size dehumidifiers to try to dry out the walls and floor. Tomorrow the adjuster comes, the formal assessment continues and we await the insurance’s decision on what we’re entitled to repair.

My kids spent the day watching TV, playing video games, reading, and watching my husband and I move books and records into boxes and into our bedroom, the dry zone. They raise the volume on the video games as the fans turn my living room into an airplane hangar. I feel bad the day went to shit and apologize to them.

My teenager waves me away. “What can you have done. It’s not your fault!”

My six-year-old looks up, mid game, and says, “It’s life mom, what can you do?”

I’m plagued by the thoughts of what I could have done to prevent this? Nothing. I wonder why this couldn’t have happened to the bathroom we still haven’t renovated, but life doesn’t happen that way. Life Clubs choose us as often as we choose them. For example, I would’ve much rather join the “I’m Renovating My Kitchen Club” rather than the “Our Apartment Had a Little Leak So We Had to Redo Our Entire Floors and Kitchen Club.” Woody Allen said, “I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” Some days he’s right.

“Flavors Trigger Memories” Club

My default vanilla was established in a subterranean ice cream shop in the former Soviet Union, where my parents took me after I had my ears pierced. I was three years old and while I don’t recall the actual needle stabbing in my ear, the intense sweet vanilla lodged itself as the standard by which all future vanillas will have to measure against. Maybe in the wake of a traumatic event, your taste buds become hyper sensitive and tastes become saturated. Or else maybe your brain just remembers them that way.

It’s my only sensorial memory from the Soviet Union. Where did the others go? I was almost five years old when we landed at JFK Airport and the only stories I can recount are those which were told to me, using photographs as triggers, convincing me of the life I had. Like an amnesiac I grip faded photographs trying hard to recall a memory frozen in time. How is it possible to loose all of your childhood memories without any biological trauma?

That Russian vanilla feels nostalgic even though I can’t close my eyes tight enough to create a visual of the actual ear piercing that happened before the ice cream. I only remember the sweet reward and its lasting connection to childhood.

As an immigrant, American foods don’t often trigger a sense of wistfulness withing me. I don’t salivate as soon as I smell the smoke of a grill, reminiscing about childhood 4th of July BBQs.

When I was a teenager, more social experiences occurred around food and those memories seem to float up with certain flavors. Platters of nachos covered in a brick of cheddar cheese invoke comforting memories at my best friend’s house, a welcome reprieve from a shitty high school experience I’ve otherwise forgotten.

My father bought a donut shop in Staten Island and on the four occasions we visited it before we moved, I got an egg bagel with cream cheese and a Hershey’s chocolate milk. In those visits, I sat around a horseshoe counter imagining how successful my father will be, how different our lives will become. That breakfast combination tasted like American dreams and after we moved to Staten Island and I began working at the donut shop regularly, much to my chagrin, I never had this breakfast combination again. We replaced egg bagels with egg-everything ones and switched from Hershey’s to Nestle’s chocolate milk. I could never replicate that taste of original promise; only a fake replica.

Through those years at the donut shop, where I was also the short order cook for the 3pm-11pm shift, I helped combine many flavors to define my adolescence. Ham sandwiches on kaiser rolls with pickles on them, bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, raw cookie dough, chocolate-covered donuts with sprinkles on them. It was a shit show of unhealthy, quick comfort foods which I made with love for our customers and then happily devoured myself. I was 40 pounds overweight in high school and before I left for college, I made sure to leave the donut shop with its artery-blocking grub, and those extra pounds behind on Staten Island.

In college, frozen yogurt was the hip diet trend craze. There was a small cafe we frequented on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. There I created a custom-blended frozen yogurt masterpiece. For freshman year only, thanks to my college roommate who convinced me of its deliciousness, my combination was “chocolate base with mint chip and grape nuts.” I had never had the gritty cereal before but somehow the sand-like crunch became addictive but when I transferred away from Boston, I left the pseudo-healthy gravel ice cream with it.

I moved to NYU where veggie burgers and carrot-ginger dressing were all the rage at DoJo Restaurant. In New York dozens of cuisines serve as the backdrop for my flavor memories, but to this day when I drive by West 4th Street, I think about that DoJo dressing.

I realize this is why I go back to familiar restaurants. We live in a city with about 24,000 restaurants; I can go to a different restaurant every day FOR OVER 65 YEARS without trying the same one twice. My husband and I laugh at ourselves; how ridiculous of us to continue to go to the same places over and over when there are literally thousands of other choices. We go for the flavor memories, for the nostalgia, for the same reason listening to a favorite song over and over elicits joy and excitement. Flavors are the spice to our lives, unlocking time capsules even photographs cannot unleash.

“Co-Parenting” Club

“I would never be able to do that,” she says to me and shakes her head insistently. “There is no way I would give up my child for half the week. I cannot live without her. I would rather exist in my sexless, loveless marriage fueled by anger and resentment than give up my child. What kind of mother does that?!”

“Well, me, actually,” I remind her. She doesn’t realize she put her foot in her mouth and doesn’t really care. She is all knowing and stands on a soapbox with a megaphone overcompensating for a terrified heart trapped in a cage of hopelessness. She exists on a diet of working overtime, Xanax, and wine. Drunk is her happy place. Her daughter is her best friend, companion, and confidante and she is only seven years old. The daughter mimics the mother in harassing the father on his laziness, on his drinking, on his unemployment. She has made a mockery out of marriage, yet she callously and judgmentally threw daggers at my life.

I left my husband when my son just turned three years old. He wasn’t a bad man, just the wrong husband for me. Towards the end of our marriage, he said, “I’m happy to sleep in separate bedrooms the rest of our life.” Leaving my husband was the hardest, yet best decision I ever made. I knew I had made a poor marriage choice, but I didn’t feel like I deserved lifelong punishment without parole.

He wasn’t the right husband for me, but he was the perfect father for my son and I didn’t have any intention of punishing my son for my choices. I wanted to be fair and equitable, not spiteful or vindictive. We arranged a perfectly split co-parenting schedule. I had my son Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and I would bring him to school on Wednesday; his father picked him Wednesday afternoon and he would keep him, Thursday, Friday. We alternated Saturdays. Three and a half days down the middle. We alternate birthday years but both parents get to see him on the day. We split up holidays; he gets Memorial Day, I get Labor Day, he gets Father’s Day and I get Mother’s Day. We each get him on our birthdays.

During divorce mediation, splitting up the calendar was painful, a paper cut on every finger every time I flipped over a new month. Each month we divvied up, I felt guiltier and guiltier. What was I doing to our son? I was a person accountable for my actions; I understood I made this bed and yet instead of sleeping in it anymore, I flipped the whole thing over and said, “No more!” I was miserable for three years and finally taking steps towards creating the happiness which was vacant for so long.

Successful co-parenting requires a diligent and dedicated commitment from both parents. We both agreed to put the ever-present burning cauldron of anger, resentment, and disgust on the back-burner, because while we were ironing out the wrinkles of life, our kid was watching and listening closely. We took a divorce oath, which I hoped I’d be able to uphold better than my marriage vows: let’s never put our son in the middle. I wasn’t always successful and there were times my son blatantly said, “Can you just ask daddy directly?” These are the days I regret the most; where I put my feelings over his for a brief moment; made him feel like his heart is literally being ripped in two parts.

Being a co-parent doesn’t mean I’m half a parent. It doesn’t mean I love my son any less. Co-parenting turned out to be a solution for an unfortunate situation and it ultimately allowed me to flourish as a parent as it gave me a much-needed mental and physical break. When I was with my son I was 100% present, not pulled away by my phone, by an alternate life, by multitasking to fit everything in at once. When I was with him, I was more alert, more attentive, more focused on his needs. I’m not advocating divorce to get a break from your kids; a babysitter would be a much cheaper solution but this was a lifestyle where my son could continue to be nurtured and primarily cared for by his parents even though we no longer wanted to live together anymore.

Co-parenting isn’t about taking something away from your kids (the notion of a “normal nuclear family”) or crippling them with a lifetime of unresolved therapy. It’s about putting your children first in a life restructured to accommodate everyone’s needs. Coparenting is a key to unlocking the cage of many unhappy marriages.

No matter how angry we were at one another, we ALWAYS put our son first. We flexed our schedules to accommodate school events and always attended school functions together. We met with every teacher at the beginning of the school year and told her about our son’s two homes, both 100% equal. We assured them he was very used to this arrangement and does not even remember a time before this. His school even had a “Banana Splits” program for divorced kids once every two weeks during lunch time. My son flourished in the arrangement, enjoying different benefits in both apartments; a dog at his house, central park at mine. We worked overtime to provide him with a comfortable life, flooded with attention and love.

The irony of co-parenting for me is I spent more quality one on one time with my son than any other mom I knew. Aside from the times he was at school, my son was either with me or his father 100% of the time. HE’S NEVER HAD A BABYSITTER. Every weekend he and I were buddies on adventures around New York City. At least three days a week, we had dinner together – really together because I knew when he was with me, I needed to value every second. I didn’t want to plug him into the TV to get a break; I had the break on the three nights he wasn’t with me.

I was able to pack in so much personal healing and growth in those post-divorce early co-parenting days. I reclaimed control over my life as an adult without having to answer to a controlling husband. I thrived at my career (employee of the year, yay) and rediscovered what I enjoyed (rollerblading in central park and sitting on a fire escape listening to latin music blaring from the cars going across town) and most importantly, I slowly strengthened the muscles of my heart to find love again.

I was lucky to meet my current husband early after my split, but we progressed our relationship slowly, filtering his integration into my son’s life slowly. We didn’t move in together until four years later. Now he is blessed with TWO active, loving, and present fathers. Instead of coming out of the divorce scarred, my son came away with three parents who work overtime to make sure he would never find any reason to doubt our love.

“I Don’t Like Cartoons” Club

I didn’t grow up watching cartoons, even though I came to America at the prime cartoon watching age of five. In the Soviet Union I had watched Cheburashka (according to my parents) and even though I can still hum along to the theme song as intuitively as to a lifelong lullaby, I don’t have a sense of nostalgia towards the animated show.

In America, Tom & Jerry lacked dialog and its excessive senseless silliness bored me. I was mildly entertained by the dramatic familial antics of The Flintstones but that’s about it. While I missed many of the American and pop culture references, I strongly connected to Fred’s yelling, “Wilma!” because it sounded just like my father screaming for “Bella!”

My brain did not seem to stretch to accommodate the cartoon medium. It didn’t want to bend to imagine fantasy or the unbelievable. Under preferences, my brain checks “chatting with the grownups with coffee and cigarettes” over “cartoons.” I much preferred the sugary cereal addictiveness of 1980s TV sitcoms: Facts of Life, Three’s Company, Different Strokes, Family Ties, Growing Pains, Who’s the Boss … and of course there was the primetime genius of Aaron Spelling’s Dynasty and The Love Boat.

My first in-theater animated movie was Bambi seen in the Forest Hills movie theater which still stands on Queens Boulevard. I was a new immigrant child at her first matinee. All I remember of the experience is the buttery popcorn and the mother deer gets killed, abandoning her orphaned doe. Tragic for anyone, ESPECIALLY A FIVE YEAR OLD!

How about Cinderella? Evil stepmother, evil step-sisters, bullying, mild slavery, and the lesson is: your goal in life is to marry a prince so you can live happily ever after. (They try to disguise this by calling it “ A wish your heart makes…” Cinderella is a melancholic disaster.

Disney movies were never my thing until Alladin, which was the first animated movie I watched by choice as an adult. It was 1992; the year I graduated from high school. Part of what captivated me towards the movie was Robin Williams’ role as the Genie. Being a huge fan of his, it was his hilarious nonstop ad-libbing which lured me in.

My son instantly took to the cartoons and animated movies. He didn’t discriminate much; Thomas the Tank Engine, Tom & Jerry, or Bob the Builder were all fair game when he was a toddler. By the time he was born in 2002, Finding Nemo hit the theaters with amazing realistic under-ocean animation and more sadness – another murdered mother plus a lost child.

Today, on the one-year anniversary of Robin Williams’ death I rewatched Aladdin 24 years after the first time, this time with my six-year-old daughter. My goals were different from hers; she wanted to see Princess Jasmine’s beautiful dresses and hear the melodic songs and I wanted an encore of Robin Williams’ brilliant improvisational explosion.

After 14 years of motherhood and dozens of forced animated movies under my belt, I’ve loosened up a bit, but partially it’s because Disney/Pixar has met me part way, in terms of realistic content, which apparently connects more with me – and my heart. Up, Toy Story 3, Inside Out: all successful at achieving cry baby results.

All Disney animated movies are formulaic: a hero, an animal sidekick, overcoming a villain to arrive at ultimate utopia, Happily Ever After. The movies showcase a character’s journey, unrealistically portraying how despite tragedy and turmoil, the main character will persevere and enjoy a happy ending.

You have to hand it to them, what’s not to like about that?

“I Didn’t Like Poetry” Club

I don’t like poetry.

Strike that; I didn’t like poetry.

My tastes have evolved (or matured) and similarly to how I can now tolerate a spicier kimchee, I can now appreciate poetry without zoning out, rolling my eyes, and declaring it pretentious [READ: me, insecure].

The first poetry I learned was formulaic, haikus and such, taught in grade school. The writing process for a poem felt forced and constricting and I preferred the long winded approach. Why tell a story on one page when you could use two? Journalism school [before the internet, replete with unlimited characters] instilled in me much-needed lessons on word selection and constriction.

Deciphering poems always felt so labor intensive and often required a dictionary. I love metaphors as much as the next guy but if I have to dissect every couplet, my brain tires.

I had a cousin living in Russia who would send me poetry every year I was in elementary school for my birthday. Written using complicated Russian words outside my rudimentary Russian proficiency, I stared at my dad as stood up to read it, because this caliber of art commanded the respect of being vertical.

The first poem which convinced me I could like poetry was Charles Bukowski’s I am a Writer. It resonated with me intensely, transcended the writing genre. Bukowski was like my gateway drug to poetry; I inhaled everything he wrote, completely antithetical to every poem I read up until this point. I couldn’t say I didn’t like poetry anymore. Bukowski was the anti-pretension; he was raw, potent, gripping, and easy to digest.

My husband, the artist, has notebooks filled with poems. He used to write one a day. In our early dating days, he’d shift the romance into overdrive by whipping out the poetry books late at night as I was drifting off to sleep in his bed. He’d read through his old notebooks, or maybe they were famous Keats or Cummings poems, but I didn’t know the difference; they could have been Italian. He read them quickly, reciting to an imaginary melody or rhythm in his head. I wanted to fall in love with him even more as he professed his love through poetic verse after verse and instead I rolled my eyes as far back as they went and fell asleep.

That is until he started writing poems about me. This caught my attention, my gaze, and my heart.

“I’m a Divorce Inspiration” Club

I’ve never thought of myself as a trailblazer for anything (see Late Bloomer Club) but lately my small group of friends has me feeling like a pseudo-expert on divorce and co-parenting. With  four friends in various stages of marriage collapse, I find myself serving as a circumstantial beacon of inspiration; an unelected trendsetter in marriage disillusionment.

I was married in 2001 and separated in April 2005; my son had just turned three years old. At 30 years old, I was the first among my group to get divorced. I had a dozen friends who hadn’t even gotten married yet, but I was dissolving mine. In those early conversations, where I would break the news about our split, friends feigned superhero powers, donning imaginary marriage-saving cloaks, offering up counselor recommendations or babysitting services so we can have a date night.

I’m now over eleven years into my post-divorce relationship, and recounting the idiosyncrasies of my divorce has gotten easier. I find myself sitting opposite too many friends fidgeting in their chair, twirling their wedding bands, begging me to bestow upon them a secret nugget of wisdom which will magically eradicate their mess, but I have no such secrets; only experiences.

My friends are starving for these divorce details which were superfluous chatter a decade ago. Did I use a mediator or a lawyer? (Mediator.) How many sessions did it take? (10 and then I still had to file my own paperwork.) How much did it cost? (Too much. Always too much.) How long did it take? (Too long. Always too long.) How did you split custody? (Exactly 50/50.) Who gets Christmas? (He does, I’m Jewish). Do you get alimony or child support? (Neither.) Who is responsible for buying the kids’ clothes or providing the health insurance? What happens if you both die – who gets the kid now? It’s an endless list of hypotheticals.

Occasionally I am on the receiving end of jealousy with comments like, “how lucky for you to have found love a second time” or “you’re a success story. I want what you have.”

I didn’t wake up brave one morning; the courage snowballed over time until I felt empowered to take control of my happiness and began honestly valuing what I wanted. I had become disgusted by my reflection in the mirror; the daily tears seemed to tattoo my eyes red and deposited permanent dark circles under them.

Divorce wasn’t my default solution. It was high up on my list of “I’ll never’s” that I’ve crossed off one by one through life. I didn’t want to be a failure in my marriage; I swore I would “make it work.” Until I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, I didn’t want to anymore. I had squeezed as much juice out of my heart as I possibly could and it was drained. I was no longer in love with my husband and I didn’t like myself very much either. I wanted another chance at love, but more importantly, I wanted to get away from him. Away from his control, away from his misery, away from his condescension, away from his trap. I yearned for freedom to become myself again and grow comfortable in my new skin.

My friends tell me I make it seem easy, and I remind them 12 years will do that; time dulls the edges of pain. At first, I drowned in it, splitting up my son’s toy cars, one by one, separating half for my house, half of his and buying identical children’s furniture and bedding so my son felt comfortable in his duplicated room. I bawled a dozen times a day. I cried when I saw his name on my caller ID, when I had to pick up my son from his house, or when he picked him up from mine. I cried on my son’s birthday or whenever I found myself folding clothing I didn’t recognize. I cried at holidays and at school functions and at the bathroom at work after a mediation session.

After I was divorced, I didn’t flaunt it as an accomplishment like a master’s thesis (although it took years longer), but I felt a pride similar to a recovering addict. I landed in a dark place and I was slowly able to climb out and find the light. I reconstructed my life to be one brimming with the love and companionship for which I so desperately longed.

One friend confessed she was scared to leave her husband for years; her husband threatened he would take the kids. I encouraged her with words I remembered from my mediator: “Don’t be scared. He will try to scare you. In a divorce situation usually, it is 80% one person wants it more. This is a rough road but millions of people do it and get over the hurdle. You are still plenty young to find love and have a whole second chance at life and love 2.0. Your happiness is important.”

I told her woman-to-woman: “You are worth adoring; you are not his sex slave. You deserve to feel loved and beautiful. Don’t linger in a state of regret about why not sooner; it’s not too late. 99% of the battle is knowing you are doing the right thing.”

It’s strange to be in a position where I find myself encouraging my friends to break apart the life they’ve worked so hard to build. They’ve just completed building their ten-thousand-piece Millennium Falcon out of Legos and I come along as the cheerleader with sledgehammer pom-poms.

“I Caught My Father in an Affair” Club

I imagine flavors connect to memories in my brains like an old fashioned phone switchboard. Maybe in the wake of a traumatic event, taste buds become hyper sensitive and tastes become saturated.

Eggs, sunny side up, bring me back to that fateful conversation with my father 28 years ago.

I worked at my family’s donut shop from the time I was 12-18 years old, transitioning through puberty on parade for the morning shift waitresses, the workers at the ShopRite, and anyone getting their driver’s license at the DMV, located in the same strip mall. I was a trophy child, well behaved, with good grades, no boyfriend, diligently working at the family donut shop. I was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the Russian Jewish version; instead of mastering Souvlaki, I perfected cooking eggs on a bacon-greased grill.

My father owned the donut shop where he functioned as the manager, accountant, donut maker and cook on the occasions when the alcoholic weekend short-order cook called out. He never trusted anyone to take on a managerial role nor did he ever find a baker worthy enough to satisfy his taste. After years of unending work, no vacation, seldom a day off, his hopelessness, insecurity, and exhaustion made him ripe for a midlife crisis, which is how I’ve always justified his actions. It was the summer of 1988; I had just turned 14 and my father was 40.

I don’t remember a time when I thought my parents had a happy marriage; communication meant screaming arguments. Insults flew like daggers through the air piercing the cigarette smoke; their only camaraderie found over their nightly shots of vodka around the dinner table. My father projected a large personality, confident, charismatic, charming, and conceited. I’ve always thought these traits were a red herring for his insecurities as a short bald man. My mother, disinterested in analyzing my father or reading his mind, only saw a man who put her down, elevating himself. At dinner, he would often lose his train of thought mid-conversation because his reflection in the glass door caught his eye. My mother desperately needed someone to tell her how beautiful she was and instead, she had a man who told her how beautiful he was. I perceived my mother to be an otherwise strong woman before this summer arrived. She worked a professional job, she cooked, she cleaned, she did the food shopping – for the house – and the donut shop. But my mother wouldn’t do what my father needed most: fluff his feathers, tell him how good he was, how smart, or how handsome.

So he found someone who would.

Her name was Donna but my sister, mother and I call her the whore from the donut shop. At first, we didn’t realize she was my father’s mistress; we met her as the donut finisher. We thought my father was helping her out like a charity case. She had fallen on rough times, my father explained; he eluded to a boyfriend beating her up. My mother, the perpetual do-gooder even allowed Donna to live in our basement for two weeks. She slept on the beige corduroy couch, lined with the soft sheets they brought from their old life in the Soviet Union. My mother had me bring her cold green grapes in a stainless steel bowl.

The surprising thing to me was how ugly Donna was. This is not just a biased opinion; she was empirically hideous, like a female emaciated version of Sloth from Goonies. She had stringy, unwashed frosted blonde hair in a mullet, her face was covered in cystic adult acne, her eyes were too far apart and different sizes in a vacant shade of pale blue, and her body resembled a skinny 11-year-old boy with no tits or ass, as my mother pointed out. I always thought if you cheated on your wife, it would be with a hot secretary type, not the strung out on heroine type.

Ultimately my observation led to my mother to the affair, catching my father with his pants down, literally. She walked in on them fucking – or else she was giving him a blowjob – I’ve never let her give me the exact details.

I don’t recall the exact events leading up to my mother’s heightened suspicions, but I suspect the whore in the basement was a trigger. It didn’t matter, ignited with my inner sense of justice and a teenager’s dramatics, I happily slid into a co-pilot role, not thinking about consequences of her mother catching my father with his dick in Donna. I was riding my bike two blocks away when I spotted my father’s cherry red pickup truck in her driveway. I knew she lived there; he had helped her find this apartment (2 blocks away). I came home and tattle-tales to my mother that I saw daddy’s truck parked at her house. She grabbed her keys, slipped on her flip flops, and walked the two blocks to find them mid-crime.

It felt like our family was hit by a tornado, our house was destroyed to splinters and yet we pretended we could tape it seamlessly back together as though it could still stand. In most families, I imagine the children shielded from the ugly truths of a marriage gone sour.

My parents didn’t keep secrets from me; I was the third leg they needed to keep the family standing. My father knew I was the one who discovered his car there and he knew he needed to talk to me about it, adult to adult. (I was 14.)

This conversation happened over a plate of sunny side up eggs I made for myself. I ate them with dry rye toast, cracking the perfectly formed dome of the egg. My face connected to my plate like a magnet. I refused to make eye contact with him. I didn’t want to cry or break. I wanted to remain cool and strong and to appear mature, understanding, and sympathetic. I loved my father deeply; I was the typical daddy’s girl and secretly thought him and my mother were never well matched. Somewhere in my subconscious, I thought the affair would be their way out. They could take this chance to start over; he was only 40; she was just 35!

I don’t remember the look on his face, but I’ll never forget the taste of those eggs. I was looking from above at my life, telling myself “you’ll never forget this moment” and instead of memorizing any of his words, his apology (was there one?), or his excuses, I memorized those eggs. The quintessential texture of the yolk, the vivid yellow explosion all over my white plate. I shoveled pieces of the egg-soaked, cardboard-like bread into my mouth as if t would take me out of this situation. I nodded along to everything he said. The whites of the eggs seemed fluffier than normal, thicker, elegantly congealed. I piled pieces of them on top of the leftover bread. I looked up at him when my plate was clean. It couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes.

“I just want you to be happy,” I said to him, reciting a line from a romantic comedy or a soap opera. Where else do you rehearse a scene like this? What experiences from my past was I supposed to draw from to come up with the perfect line?

All I wanted was for my parents to be happy; whatever it was going to take. I wanted to be supportive. I felt my parents’ misery exude from every action. In their drinking to pass out every night, in their yelling at each other, in their snide comments, in the resentment which surrounded and calloused their hearts. It wasn’t about revisiting roads which brought them there; it was about deciding what direction to take at the crossroads of past and future.

They say cheaters sometimes want to get caught to get out of a situation. I thought this would be my father’s chance to flee, but he didn’t. He begged my mother to let him stay and she feigned forgiveness. In reality, she felt decapitated and stabbed in the heart. Instead of confronting her rage, she confronted the bottle, and sloppily professed forgiveness. She said she was too afraid to start over or live without him.

So he stayed and they celebrated their 15 year anniversary. For ten more years, he walked on eggshells while she got more and more drunk, in an effort to erase the memory of the affair. Instead of resigning it to a hazy forgotten flashback, it grew into a brighter, angrier, fiercer, and obsessive vision haunting her into paralysis. She lived in a purgatory between the sanctified memories of the life they once had and the future they would never have.

By their 25th anniversary, my father had relapsed into his midlife crisis and this time, instead of Donna from the donut shop in Staten Island, it was Natasha from the donut shop in Kiev. His life sent him in an ironic circle BACK to Kiev to open a donut shop for an investor and there he met his second wife.

What effect did my father cheating on my mother have on me? I saw my first love betray me and undervalue our family unit. I would never trust another man again; confident every man had the potential, and would likely cheat on me. I would never let my guard down completely in any relationship and no matter how trustworthy the men in my life have been, they have eventually had to fall under spells of suspicion and jealousy. I would forever feel like I have to over-satisfy my men with enough sex, good enough sex, to make them stay. More than anything, I vowed to control my life so I never end up a victim, like my mother.

My father couldn’t foresee the trajectory the affair would have on his life, my mother’s life, my life, or my sister’s life. He didn’t consider consequence, as many don’t when making questionable choices. His impulsive decision to satiate an itch and his entitlement to have that itch scratched trumped potential repercussions. He didn’t know my mother would spiral into alcoholism like a little girl in quicksand. He didn’t care that her depression would land her like a casualty of war in which she never enlisted. She continued to live under a veil of sadness so thick she didn’t realize she was counting on me as her support line. I was thrust into the unwelcome role of her confidante, her therapist, her best friend, her secret keeper, and a life saver.

Only now, in my year of unraveling my tightly-wound history, do I realize how desperately I needed a mommy during those days. I needed someone to tell me this was OK; someone to assure when the rug is swept from underneath me, I will land on my feet. I needed someone to reassure me that shit happens to everyone in life and every relationship has flaws. I needed someone to hold my hand, rub my head, kiss me on the forehead and quote Maya Angelou:

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still, I’ll rise.

Instead, I sucked it up, rose up, and became a woman, sweeping those secrets neatly back under the rug.

“Mosquitos Love Me” Club

Do you want a secret mosquito repellant? It’s Me! Keep me within two-three feet of you and the mosquitos will instinctively swarm to me, my skin emitting invisible pulses like morse code, summoning them to feast.

I’m part of the 20% scientists refer to as “highly attractor types,” an unlucky group who is a mecca for the insidious insects. It’s a combination of factors, or so “they” assume; a combination of sights and smells which lure them in. I’ll continue to use my “sweet blood” as an excuse but see validation that people with O blood type are twice as attractive to mosquitoes than those with Type A blood.

On our “babymoon” to St. Martin, I got 60 mosquito bites. (Obviously, I counted them.) Turns out pregnancy makes you more appealing. As if my thrice daily puking wasn’t enough, now I was covered in unbearably itchy hives. During this trip, I thought back to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love:

The itch was maddening at first but eventually melted into a general heat of pure sensation, neither good nor bad, just intense. And that intensity lifted me out of myself and into perfect meditation where I sat in real stillness for the first time in my life.

Two hours later I stood up and assessed the damage.I counted 20 mosquito bites, but not much later all the bites had diminished because truly it all does pass away in the end, and truly there is peace to be learned from that.

I couldn’t meditate myself out of puking or the bites.

My husband swears before he met me he would get bit a dozen times, even by one little mosquito who snuck in through a tiny hole in a screen, while others around him got nothing. Now, he doesn’t get any. Apparently, my blood is satiating enough to keep those around me safe. So no Zika, West Nile, or Malaria worries for him anymore.

Last year we went to see a band in a small venue in the middle of the winter in Rhode Island. As we danced to the music, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it flying through the air. Could a mosquito live in February in Providence? It had to have been a paranoia and I was seeing a mosquito ghost? I swatted as I saw the bug approach me, convinced it must have been a beer gnat or fruit fly.

“There couldn’t possibly be a mosquito in this bar?” I ask my husband as if I saw a pig fly through the air.

“No, impossible!” my husband reassured me.

In the car ride home, I found four bites.

Before our first vacation to Maine, people had warned me about their mosquitos. Off, Deet, natural repellant – none worked.  I’m convinced my two-week stay provided a lavish bloody meal for half the mosquito population in the state. I lost count of those bites, but in one spot on my arm, there was a large hive formed by a close constellation of three bites. It had swollen to be the size of a small apricot. I showcased my arm to a sales clerk at a souvenir shop, thinking I was funny. I wanted an insider tip on how to battle these flying parasites. His eyes widened as he stared at my arm in horror and said, “I really think you should go to the hospital to get that checked out.” Fortunately, it takes more than a swollen bite to send a New Yorker to the hospital.

Yesterday I accompanied my son on a short stroll through some mildly grassy area; I mostly stayed on the concrete path. It was in the middle of the day and I felt a false safety, assuming mosquitos only came out at dusk. But my blood must taste good any time of the day. I felt my first bite within five minutes and within fifteen minutes, I had counted ten and declared it was time to go home. The fiery mounds haunted me all night.

I’ve tried many of the at-home anti-itch solutions: Put an “x” in it, spit in it, lemon, garlic, onion, baking soda, salt, ice, heat, rubbing alcohol, toothpaste, and even anti-itch creams yield few results.

Nothing works better to end the itch than not scratching in the first place.

“Learning to Ask” Club

Can you please take out the trash? Can you please empty the dishwasher? Easy requests for most; not so for me. I have always had a hard time asking for things, having grown up being self-sufficient and self-reliant. Both my parents proudly claimed they “never had to ask for anything for anyone,” and I have mimicked their behaviors. Only life has often pounded me over the head with cliches and “no man is an island” is profoundly relevant.

My husband often watches me take a shower through the transparent glass doors. It’s not kinky or sexual (OK, maybe a little; he does say, “This is my teenage dreams come true” or else “My life is a porn” and I covet those sayings, storing each and every one of them in my arsenal for when I see imperfections in my body). He loves my body and studies it through an artist’s eye, and sees the ideal me, the one I wish I could magically see through his eyes. His eyes aren’t elevator eyes checking out the merchandise, imagining something to get a dick rise; he gazes at me as if I’m a sculpture brought to life. He appreciates my shape; I am a Picasso sculpture, he feels the softness of my skin with his eyes, he looks into my eyes as if I was an Oscar with his name on it. I love the conversations we have while in the shower; occasionally coming up with entire screenplays.

But the shower is also my Temple, my Brainstorming place, my dance studio, my meditation corner. Some days I need the time, the alone space, the brain space to do for me. (Not that him watching me isn’t also for me.) I crave attention and he gives it to me; show me a woman who doesn’t yearn to be wanted.

Today I needed that shower alone and I asked for it. My husband smiled slowly and happily walked away. He completely understood, and didn’t feel any resentment about it. Furthermore, I realized his smile meant something else. He was proud of me for being honest and choosing me. Because it’s hard to choose me. I do it in my writing every day, so I feel even more guilty doing it in “real life”. I want to make everyone happy because I’m one of those people. This too comes from a selfish place because it comes from wanting people to like me. I am a quintessential Leo, after all. Please like me, want me, appreciate me, and shower me with love because us lions are secretly very insecure.

Growing up, my father always quoted his mother: “If you want something, you have to knock on the door.” This is translated from Russian and seems elementary and obvious but somehow I don’t abide by it.

It’s still hard for me to ask for things, even if I’m paying. If the manicurist is doing a shitty job, I’ll make a face, be passive aggressive and commit to never going back rather than telling her to do it over. At a restaurant, I’ll only send something back if it’s drenched in a sauce with mustard or meat (I’m a vegetarian) but otherwise, I’ll follow the same guidelines of never going back.

I’m a constant proponent for my friends to ask for what they want; at work or in relationships. Lately, I realized I don’t practice what I preach. So now I’m learning, I’m starting, baby steps.

Today I went to get a manicure and I felt indecisive about a color choice and made a rash decision on a shade of glittery magenta. When she began painting them, I told her I didn’t like them. She tried three other colors and I shook my head each time, saying, “I’m sorry I’m so picky” each time. Finally, she suggested layering two colors and I was sold. I thanked her profusely, feeling guilty I wasn’t a simpler person, one more easily satisfied. Knowing and asking for what I want won’t make me simpler, but easier to understand and hopefully a lot closer to satisfied.

From years of perceived rejection, I must have gotten conditioned, like a child who got her hand slapped, not to ask anymore. I no longer want to risk rejection, or even worse asking more than once, and seeming like a nag. The truth is sometimes I take for granted that maybe the person I’m asking ALSO wants to please me.

“It’s My Birthday” Club

It’s my birthday and I’m another year older and like every year before this one, I woke up exactly the same. It’s a sensation which didn’t change with age; the feeling of waking up on your birthday to absolutely nothing extraordinary. As a child I was convinced if I concentrated hard enough, I’d feel something; taller or heavier or smarter or wiser, but year after year, the birthday wake was ordinary. As I toast my 42nd year, I realize “ordinary” is extraordinary.

I have a love/hate relationship with my birthday. August birthdays sucked as a kid because we were always on summer break. The only parties I had were with Russian family members where the booze flowed freely to the grown ups and the kids were urged to go play and I was only summoned as an excuse to stand in front of a birthday cake (which I never liked) plugged up with candles.

As I got older, jumping from one monogamous relationship to the next, the pressure to satisfy me on my birthday fell on my significant other. He had to find a restaurant or a bar and think of a thoughtful, unique gift and ultimately I am too hard to please and make it known. Often this forced the kind men who loved me to throw their hands in the air, and me to plan my own parties and pick out my own gifts. I was OK with that. Until I got tired of planning for everyone else – and then having to do it for myself.

Sometimes it feels like pressure to celebrate. “What do you have planned? Doing anything special?”

Truth is, every day I do something special: I LIVE. I find joy in as much as I can and try to fill my days with pleasure to balance out the laundry, toilet cleaning, dishes, and ungratefulness, the constant cloud hovering over motherhood.

Also, I don’t want to plan anything; I don’t need another chore, another dozen things added to my endless list of things to do. I’m a perpetually planning machine; dinners, birthday parties, holiday gatherings, class events, taxes, gifts for everyone…there’s no end; when you reach the end of the year, you start all over again. For my birthday all I want is a break; from planning, from cleaning, from jumping up to get the phone, from making breakfast (and lunch and dinner), and mostly from feeling guilty. I won’t feel guilty for sleeping late or eating ice cream twice a day. I won’t feel guilty for not calling someone back or clicking “like” on the Facebook post. On my birthday, I won’t feel guilty for putting myself first – and that’s a gift worth acknowledging, and celebrating.

Two years ago my husband was responsible for creating my favorite birthday memory: a proposal on the Brooklyn Bridge. Now today has added value: not only a day to celebrate my birth, it’s also the day we got engaged.

Other birthday memories:

On my 16th birthday, my parents knocked it out of the park with their gift. I desperately wanted a camcorder but they were very expensive; about $800-$1,000 in 1990. My grandparents chipped in for half and not only did they buy it for me, they presented it to me via a scavenger hunt around the house. It started with a wrapped cardboard box presented in my room. Inside was a clue, written on looseleaf paper with several spelling errors on it, which I politely, and for the first time, didn’t point out. I couldn’t follow the clues so my parents helped me figure them out and led me to the kitchen where there was another wrapped box with another clue with more spelling errors. There was a total of four boxes, the last of which I tore apart rapidly as soon as I saw the Sony logo. That morning delivered a lifetime of Christmas and birthday mornings in one potent dose; I had never felt more loved.

My 18th birthday was the first and the only birthday I had at a Russian restaurant in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. I had just returned from what had been the best summer of my life up until that point. I spent 2 months in California taking one photography class at UCLA and living in the dorms. I learned about sex, drugs, and rock and roll and what it finally meant to live like an American teenager. (OK maybe more a privileged college student in a wealthy California suburb.) There were more pools on campus than photo labs and when I returned to Staten Island, I was the most tan I had ever been; everyone spoke Spanish to me. Even my dark brown hair developed blonde highlights as I walked on an invisible trampoline of hearts saying things like, “it’s been kissed by the sun,” because it felt like I finally had been. I danced sober all night and didn’t care when the adults started acting inappropriately or when my cousin (one of the only other people my age) took one vodka shot too many and threw up on his plate (later to pass out in it). At the end of the night, the sides of my face were sore and my mouth and jaw ached, and before the hypochondriac in me could come up with why I reminded myself it was from smiling so hard.

My 21st birthday wasn’t memorable. I went to Atlantic City just because I could. The allure of gambling didn’t appeal to me as much as my permission to do it. I had been drinking for six years, driving for five years, voting for three years and pulling the arm of a slot machine felt anticlimactic. I showed my ID and they happily took my money like the shredding machine a casino really is.

My 25th birthday came two weeks after I moved back in with my boyfriend after we broke up for two weeks. I thought I wanted us to get back together more than anything, but this was because I was young and insecure and would do anything not to get rejected. We got back together and I threw a brunch at the Blue Water Grill. They printed menu cards with my name on it. My boss was there and a weird assortment of people and the whole time my back itched because it was also right after I got my first tattoo; a tribal sun on my lower back, with the Chinese symbol for ‘big sister’ in the middle. My sister got an identical one, only her center had the symbol for ‘little sister.’ Nine months after that brunch we got engaged, eight months later we were married. A year after that we had our son and three years later we were divorced. It’s only now in retrospect I see at my quarter century mark, I physically bonded myself with my sister and falsely bonded myself to a man I should never have gotten back together with. When I was 25 years old, I was still many years from learning to love myself and to value what I wanted out of life. I was still many years away from asking for it – and then going for it.

Sixteen years ago I had a discussion with a reform Rabbi about Shabbas. Typically after sunset on Friday night, a person observing Shabbat will not “work,” use electricity or drive. [There are many other rules and restrictions; if you’re interested, Wikipedia has an overview.] Every Friday evening, this particular rabbi would have Shabbos dinner with his wife and two teenage children. They ceremoniously lit the candles, ate the challah, and drank the wine, saying the proper blessings before each ritual. After dinner both children went out with friends, driving and otherwise ignoring all the other rules of Shabbat. I asked him why this wasn’t hypocritical and he explained that he thought the important part was coming together as a family once a week and taking a few minutes to acknowledge their faith, remember their culture, honor their traditions, and then move on with their life.

Maybe I can look at my birthday like a personal Shabbat: a declared date on the calendar assigned solely to me, a day to reflect my entrance into the world, the butterfly effect which came in my wake, which lives I’ve touched, or hearts I’ve inspired. I reflect daily on the lives I’ve created, seeds I not only got to plant but get to witness blossom. A birthday is a chance to PAUSE, an imaginary spotlight on me, but the day keeps ticking, and as it turns from 11:59 to 12:00, it’s a new day and it’s someone else’s turn.