It was always the same dream: I was swimming along in calm waters near the shoreline, doing the crawl, kicking evenly, my arms pulling me along. Gradually, I found I was swimming against the tide. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had to kick harder, increase the power of my stroke. Soon even that wouldn’t be enough, and I’d be swept out to sea.
I woke up in a cold sweat. Again. The clock said 4:13 a.m.
I stayed under the covers, steadying my breathing until sunrise. Then I stumbled to the kitchen and made myself a cup of coffee that I would sip, as I did every morning, in one of the comfortable bedroom chairs. From there I could gaze out the window. If I focused on a tiny space between two tall buildings that otherwise blocked my view, I could make out the smallest snippet of the Hudson River, and that calmed me.
I told myself again how fortunate I was. After all, I had what others believed was a satisfying life. At 37, I had abs that were just this side of washboard. I had the comfort of some good friends. Although struggling as an actress, I had my own place in Manhattan, which is no small thing.
Nevertheless, like my semi-view window, something in my life was blocked.
Every day was the same, right down to what I ate, and how I ate it. I measured it out—one glass of white wine and two cigarettes at 6:00 p.m. One spoonful of low-fat Ben & Jerry’s at night before bed. I had become a careful eater ever since my short-lived career as a flight attendant, where I lived in fear of the monthly weigh-ins: One cup of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk for breakfast, along with one and a half cups of super-strong coffee. Chicken salad on whole wheat with lettuce, tomato, and pickle for lunch.
I went to the gym five times a week in a short spandex top to show off my abs and form-fitted sweatpants to disguise my thighs, and always did the same routine: stationary bike for half an hour, strength training with five-pound weights, and a series of stretches. For a short time after those workouts, I was at peace until the endorphins subsided and I was once again adrift in a life that looked great from the outside, but felt lonely on the inside.
That morning as I nursed my one-and-a-half coffees, Denise called as she always did, at 9:30 a.m. like clockwork. “Hey, honey,” she said. “How was the date?” Denise, a Pat Benatar lookalike with a small, perfect nose and large almond-shaped brown eyes, worked in finance and was always
buzzing with energy.
“The same, kind of boring,” I said with a sigh.
“Hold on. I’ve got another call.” A minute later, she was back. “Sorry, business,” she apologized. “Honey, you sound so sad. What can I do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s like I’m programmed to go through specific motions every day but without any purpose. I feel like a Stepford Wife. And I’m not even married!”
“How can you say that? You’ve got a body to die for, and you lead a glamorous life, surrounded by interesting people. I wish I had your life. I mean, look at you! You’re an actress!”
“I audition,” I corrected her. “That’s different from having steady acting work.”
I’d been the girl on the box and in the infomercial for Perfect Smile, a tooth-whitening paste. The producers praised me for my work on the TV ad for The Patch, a weight-control product that was being marketed across Europe. Whenever I was chosen for a commercial out of a field of 100 contend- ers, I felt special, singled out. It gave me a rush and made me feelthink I had been right to choose a career in acting. I wasn’t aiming to be Meryl Streep, just hoping for a chance for a fulfilling career. I didn’t know what I was in for when I chose it.
No matter how hard I tried, I was never able to break into the Screen Actors Guild. Without being a union member, my pay scale was lower, and I wasn’t eligible for health-insurance benefits. Also, SAG actors looked down on their non-union counterparts. I never felt as if I belonged.
I kept trying, but it was a catch-22: Only SAG actors were sent on SAG auditions, even though various agents I’d had promised to “slip me in” when they could.
To outsiders, these union distinctions were meaningless. Even Denise, my closest friend, thought of me as “an actress”— which, to many people, automatically means glamour, fun, and living the high life. She pointed out that even if the previous night’s date wasn’t so thrilling, I was never at a loss for men who took me to dinner.
“The men have different names, but really, it’s like I’m dating the same person over and over,” I said. “I’m not feeling a connection. I’m not feeling connected anywhere. Except for you, I don’t feel close to anyone, not even my other friends. I was born in this city, but it all feels so transient.”
Maybe I had no real ties at all, anywhere. Maybe I never did. Even though I was very close with my mother and still relied on her almost daily opinions about my life, she and my stepfather were now living in Florida. The room I stayed in when I visited them there was a generic guest room, not “my” room. It was wallpapered in a mosaic of dizzying, dispiriting brownish colors. It was not even my own room while I was there, because it was also home to my stepfather’s computer, which he used every day. He and my mother did their best to make me feel like a welcomed guest, but that’s all I was—a guest. That’s how I felt everywhere I went, even sometimes in my own home.
I’m sure that this feeling stemmed in large part from when my parents separated and split the siblings up when I was six years old. It wasn’t as if life was idyllic even before then, like when my father would demand a “fifteen-minute silent period” at every meal while my brother and sister and I tried not to further inflame whatever was going on between our parents. “Your father is tired and stressed,” my mother would explain.
It wasn’t so much the divorce that unseated me as for how my father took my two older siblings to live with him, leaving me with my mother. I felt as if he had divorced me, and separated me from my brother and sister, who were 15 and 12 at the time.
I don’t remember how or even if this was ever really explained to me. My mother and I—along with our black mini poodle, Remmington—stayed at a nearby hotel for a few days, and when we returned, my father, brother, and sister were gone, along with all their belongings. The apartment felt vacant, although the furniture was still there. Even David’s football and special coin collection were gone. It was as if they had never existed. I was scared and confused. I felt as if I’d been stripped clean of my entire family. Was it my fault? Had I done something wrong?
“Dad needs us, little one,” David later told me. “He said he would die without us.” Which left unanswered the ques- tion of how my father was fine living without me, and why neither parent balked at cutting me off especially from my brother David, with whom I was particularly close.
From then on, David and Deane were a pair. They had each other. They grew up together. They came over on weekends for “visits.” They arrived together and left together, sometimes leaving early when my father called and said he “needed” them, including one time on my birthday. I felt like an only child. I wasn’t sorry to be with my mother. I loved her. I revered her. When she dressed for an event, she looked like a movie star in her pearl necklace and her V-neck, sleeveless, pleated dresses that cinched at her tiny waist. She always smelled of Joy perfume. She was regal in manner and taught me at an early age to send out thank-you notes the same day as receiving any gift. But the entire dynamics of the family changed overnight, and I found myself utterly dependent on her and her good will, with no one else to turn to when her ever-shifting mood changed.
I spent my childhood—and perhaps much of my adulthood—trying desperately to please or at least placate my mother. When I did manage to please her, I felt momentarily wanted and important. I felt safe.
“Your cousin Kiki is so smart. Brilliant, really,” she said on more than one occasion.
“Yes, Mom,” I said, dutifully agreeing with her even though each compliment she doled out to anyone else in the world took just a little more oxygen away from me.
Along with my growing dependence came frustration and anger whenever I felt her focus on me had drifted. “ALISON,” she chastised me for my outbursts, drawing out every syllable, “you are being very rude.”
Within an hour I’d be tearful and contrite, trying to undo the harm I’d wrought, trying endlessly to atone. I couldn’t apologize enough. One time I went down the block and bought her a bouquet of daisies with baby’s breath, her favorite, using my allowance money. Then I searched the pantry for a box of Aunt Jemima and baked her a coffee cake. I served it to her in bed, the vase of daisies alongside it on the tray. I had to ensure that we were still connected, that she hadn’t given up on me. I clung to her like adhesive, followed her around like a puppy. She was all I had.
It was my mother, it turned out, who had asked for the divorce. My father refused to grant it. When I was nine, my mother pulled me out of the exclusive Dalton private school on the Upper East Side and moved the two of us for nine months to an apartment in Las Vegas so she could formally end the marriage. Now I was separated from my sister and brother and also in a new city and a new school, mid-year. I didn’t know a soul.
George, a man my mother had been dating in New York, flew out to Vegas to visit us a few times. He brought me the new Polaroid camera that had just come out, and I secretly wanted to love it, but I pretended it was just an okay gift because I was so jealous of the time he spent with my mother. She lit up when she saw him. He had a Woody Allen type of humor that made her laugh and laugh. I could hear her lovey-dovey voice when she was on the phone with him. I didn’t want to share her with anyone.
My fears were well founded, in a sense. The minute the divorce came through, my mother announced that she would be marrying George. She called my new stepfather the love of her life, which I, of course, took as a way of disparaging me. I had failed to make it as the love of her life, while George made her happy. He was easily able to coax her from her bad moods, even on Sundays when they were at their worst. She was proud of my good grades, but to me, it didn’t compare to how George could make her light up in a smile. I felt I had to make an appointment to be alone with her.
After my recurring nightmare, after my morning call with Denise, I continued to go about my ordinary chores, doing everything the same way I had always done it. I finished in time for my customary lunch at The Broadway Diner.
“What’s it going to be, the usual?” the waitress asked me. “Chicken salad, whole wheat…”
“This time, no pickle,” I said. Maybe that was the beginning.
I went to bed with my first love on our first date.
“What’s wrong?” Jim asked me. “Why are you crying?” “Maybe we went too fast?” I said, or asked, hoping for
reassurance while worrying that I had already ruined every- thing. I was 23, but a young 23. Also, a proper enough young lady who sent out same-day thank-you notes, who didn’t want a man thinking she was something she wasn’t.
I called my mother, desperate for her advice, and hop- ing that she, too, would not think I was loose and immoral. “Don’t call him,” she said. “Let him come to you.” That had always been her advice, whether I had just met a cute guy in the library at school or someone from a party. “Let him come to you.”
I knew that my mother was right. I knew that succeeding at the dating game meant not jumping into bed with anyone too fast, but I was fully in love with Jim by our second date, when he held and comforted me for hours after my grandfather died. We were married two years later.
In another two years, we separated.
Sigmund Freud once said, “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” If that was the case and a girl’s first love is her father, I was in trouble.
I don’t remember having a rewarding relationship with my father, David, before my parents separated. It deteriorated further from there.
My father looked good on the outside, with an athletic build, close-cropped hair, and an engaging smile. He was in advertising and was very good at selling, but when it came to me, he wasn’t very good at delivering. Once he’d moved out with my brother and sister, he told me, “I’ll be there,” but then he wasn’t. It was as if the rest of my family had been carved out and was living with a total stranger.
Even his gifts made me feel like an afterthought. “This is what he gave you for your birthday?” my mother asked as she examined a necklace he’d given me as a teenager. “They’re just cultured pearls, and not very good ones.”
Right after the divorce, my father tried to get all three kids into a “family photo,” but the photographer couldn’t get me to smile. I didn’t feel like smiling. I always felt like crying. It was only my brother, David, who saw the real sadness in my eyes. “Hey, little one,” he whispered. “You can do it. Give us a smile.” For a brief moment, I was able to turn my lips upward just long enough to be memorialized in a photo that masked how deeply our family was fractured.
When I thought about my father or missed him, it was more like the idea of him that I missed. I longed for a fantasy, for an idea of a love that was enduring and unconditional. I daydreamed my way into happy, romantic movies, as if any photo of me smiling were on their mantels, not the one in my father’s new apartment.
It was a girlfriend from college who introduced me to Jim, someone she had met while in law school. His voice on the phone was soothing. “I want to hear all about you,” he said, music to my ears.
He was charming, intelligent, and we talked about our lives. He was flirtatious yet warm. I could almost hear him smiling at the thought of us meeting in a few months, once he had finished studying for the bar exam. I was smitten from that first phone call.
When we finally met in person, he did not disappoint. I felt an immediate comfort with him, not to mention the hypnotic pull of his aquamarine eyes. Those eyes never left my face, no matter which one of us was speaking. No one else in the room mattered.
There was no way to tell how much of my attraction was to Jim, the passionate Italian-American with the big family I wanted to be a part of, and how much of it was to the feeling he gave me, that feeling I had dreamed of since childhood, of someone making me the center of their universe. It didn’t matter, because the feeling was mutual, or so it seemed.
After a year together, Jim moved in with me in my tiny first New York City apartment. I lay on top of him on the bed when we watched TV together, my head against his neck, totally at one with this man. He made me feel connected and important.
Still, the cracks began to show. He devoted himself to me … but he also devoted himself to his family, and I found myself once again in an emotional tug-of-war, trying to com- pete with all the competing claims on his attention. On his birthday one time we had big romantic plans. While he was still upstate visiting his parents, I tried on everything in my closet until I found just the right form-fitted sweater that hugged me in all the right places. I did a last-minute spritz of eau de parfum. Then he called to say he couldn’t get away.
“But it’s your birthday,” I said. “We have reservations at 8. You should have been on the road by now.”
“I know, hon, but my mom is making her special eggplant parmesan.”
“But we have reservations at Plaza España,” I repeated, not comprehending.
On the one hand, I was dating a man who cared about his mother, and that was certainly a good thing. On the other hand, we didn’t speak for weeks after that.
We got through it. We had been together two years, includ- ing one year of living together, when he handed me a card that read, “To my love, will you marry me?”
“Yes, yes!” I cried. I wrapped him in a hug and kissed him with passion.
“Whoa,” he said. “You don’t have to give me your answer this minute. Take a few weeks.”
“I don’t need a few weeks,” I said. “I’ve known since the beginning that you’re the one for me.”
We broke the news to my mother and stepfather first. “Oh honey,” my mom said. “We’re so happy! Although we’re not surprised, I knew this would work out.”
Then we called Jim’s parents, all four of us on different extensions. When we told his parents, there was silence. “Are you there?” Jim asked.
“Yes,” his mother said. “We’re just … we’re shocked.”
My heart had been racing with excitement, and now it felt like something else. Dread, maybe.
“It’s just that we’ll have to adjust to our lives changing,” his father tried to explain.
I was on the phone extension in the living room. Jim was in the bedroom. I couldn’t see him from where I was standing, and I felt utterly abandoned. Why wasn’t he speaking up? Why wasn’t he telling them how much he loved me, how much he wanted to marry me? I wanted him to set the record straight right up front. But he didn’t, and I dropped the receiver and ran to the bathroom, choking on my tears.
When we went to visit his parents upstate the following weekend, things were no better. They greeted me politely but spent a lot of the weekend walking aimlessly around their modest house in Hyde Park, looking miserable and forlorn, or like zombies after the apocalypse. They acted as if they
were in mourning, on their way to a funeral. The funeral of their son, who had so sorely disappointed them in his choice of a bride, probably because I wasn’t Italian like they were.
I was young. I didn’t know how to handle it. I looked to Jim for reassurance, for guidance, but he didn’t say anything and left me floundering. He couldn’t even smile unless he felt sure that his parents were happy about our news, and that’s when I knew that we had at least one thing in common—an inviolate need to please others, especially our mothers.
“Can’t you just be happy for us?” I asked him.
“I need them to be happy,” he said.
I had enough presence of mind to call off the engagement, although I was sick about it. I couldn’t sign up to live for life in a household where I would never be my husband’s top priority.
I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I didn’t know what else to do so I went to stay with my mother and George in Florida, hoping that Jim would see that his life without me was empty.
He kept insisting he wanted me back, but somehow never managed to set a wedding date. When he finally did, I came home.
Jim’s family never warmed toward me, except for his grand- mother, who wrapped me in love from the moment I met her until the day she died. For her 80th birthday, I knitted her a stylish white wool and cashmere sweater, full of twisty cables, and with five fancy buttons. When she opened the box, she cried tears of real joy, and she wore that sweater constantly.
With Jim’s grandmother, I had that familial feeling I had longed for and cherished, with the rest of the family, not so much. During our two years of marriage, Jim and I had increasingly nasty fights about the stranglehold I felt his par- ents exerted on our lives.
“I can’t stand the way they control us,” I would say. “They just want to see us more often,” Jim said.
“But I don’t want to be put on a visitation schedule.” It reminded of how my brother and sister had been scheduled to visit me dutifully on weekends.
After two years married and another two separated, we were divorced. I felt shattered that it hadn’t worked out, and ever farther from my goal of a feeling of stability and belong- ing. I had been so sure of him at the beginning. How would I know how to choose better next time?
Soon after the divorce was final, a homeless man saw me moping along down the sidewalk. “Miss, you looking so sad,” he said. “There is pain inside. There’s no smile with you.”
I gave him a few dollars and tried to fake a smile, but it felt foreign on my mouth. Even strangers on the street could see there was something wrong with me. Even a homeless man on a blanket on the pavement felt sorry for me.
I had to do something. I had to shake myself out of this funk.
I deliberately began flirting with guys again, in a kind of fake-it-till-you-make-it move. Flirting had always come easily to me. As children, my sister had been known as the smart one, while I was the pretty one—which made both of us unhappy and feel lacking. I went through life often setting my sights low to avoid the pain of finding out that it was true, that I wasn’t smart enough. I only finished two years of college, leav- ing to become a flight attendant, not even considering some scholarly field because I feared I’d never make it.
Nevertheless, I’d never had trouble meeting men. Cute guys were everywhere. All I had to do was give one of them a wide-eyed look and he’d be right over to chat, whether I was on the shuttle to Boston to visit a friend, or at the neighborhood gym where, with the help of a bit of blush and mascara, I’d ask for help with one of the machines. It was as simple as that.
But still I was lonely.
Finally, a few years after my divorce, I met a man who made me feel safe and wanted. Larry was an art director ten years my senior who felt like a father figure. He was balding and had a deep bass voice that made me laugh. After a few months of casual dating, we became more intimate.
By now I was in my mid-thirties, and my hormones were in crave mode for a baby. But we had different long-term views of our relationship.
I lowered the volume on the TV; it was a commercial dur- ing “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. “Larry, we’ve been together two years,” I said. “It’s time to look, to think about, you know, having a baby.”
Larry breathed out a fog of the pot smoke he’d been hold- ing in. “I don’t know if that’s what I want,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ready.”
“Okay,” I said, wanting to be reasonable. A reasonable, understanding girlfriend. “When do you think you’ll be ready?”
“Can’t really say.”
He lumbered to the kitchen and came back with another Eskimo Pie from the freezer.
I tried again. “Do you think you’d be willing to talk to someone about this?” I asked.
He reluctantly agreed to see a therapist to help him sort out his feelings on the topic. “Give me a year,” he said.
I circled the date in red a year from then on my calendar and practically counted down the days. When that day rolled around, I broached the topic again.
“So what do you think, Larry? Is it time for a baby?” I asked.
“Huh?” he said.
“It’s been a year. You said to give you a year!”
“Well, I’ve decided it’s not right for me.”
“What? But I gave you a year … does this mean you’re breaking up with me?”
“No, baby, not at all!” he protested. “Of course I still want to see you. Let’s just keep it casual. It’s fine the way it is.”
Fortunately, my mother refrained from saying anything about why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, but she didn’t have to. I already knew that I came off as too needy—because I wastoo needy.
I had to change that. I needed to become someone I was not: independent. I had to get my brain to refresh so I could alter myself into that other kind of woman, the one who was too independent to worry about what a man thought of her.
That’s what I would do. I would become the kind of independent woman that men wanted. I would start by going hiking in the Dolomites.