“I was already woman. That’s what I remember,” Lenore said. “…I was never a girl.”
“How does that work?” I replied, looking directly into her face.
Lenore’s eyes lit up, glowed hazel. She clenched her fist raised in the air, then released it, as if she had the universe in her hands and had decided it was time for the Big Crunch. She paused, looked back at the kettle of coffee. It was piping hot. She grabbed a chess-board patterned mitt, embraced the kettle, then began to pour.
“I’ll explain in a minute. Do you take lemon in your coffee?”
I laughed. “Do you take charcoal on your toast?”
“Kind sir, I’ll bring some goodies,” she said. “From Kenya. I’ll be right back. Just wait.”
The mission was to break the news to the Queen of Pentacles.
My brain was fried from Classics; Latin and Greek. This Spring semester I had been reading Plautus, and Cicero, so I wondered why I was having difficulty breaking the news to Lenore that her firstborn son had committed suicide.
I rarely recoil from directness, especially when talking about death. When I thought of death I thought of plagues, fallen civilizations, fallen empires, but rarely fallen people, that is, dead people. For some reason it was nearly impossible to break the news. I had to repeat it my mind… Michael, your firstborn son shuffled off this mortal coil by his own hand. He’s gone. But I couldn’t just flat out say it. The only reason I sat there, stupefied, I think, was because I was offered Kenyan coffee with lemon and did not want to be rude. Undoubtedly, this breaking the news to Lenore was nothing short of a mission. Her son had joined the IDF, then went AWOL then came back to the U.S. And did it. Looking at Lenore I was reminded of my own grandmother for a moment. I paused. Not now. Not like this. Let her talk, I thought.
The last time I spoke with her son he and I talked about Hegel after our Saturday support group meeting, about the philosopher’s aesthetics in fact. How Hegel’s triadic structures forced an impasse in respect to abstraction, representation and the hermeneutic dynamis of art, how his notion of the concrete was both spiritual, actual, yet still suspect to epistemic consequences. Michael had pointed out to me that the failure in Hegel’s aesthetic theory was the interpellation in the triadic structure itself, for, if consciousness assumed physical form and was trans-mutated into art—all art failed completely unless it existed in Greek or Roman statues, where the idea of man was coeval with a man himself, that is, where the universal is wholly instantiated in the particular.
I was waiting for a story. And while I recalled the last time I saw her son, Lenore had disappeared and went into the kitchen. I waited in her living room.
My grandmother was a partisan soldier who killed Nazis at the age of seventeen. If she was born in America she would have probably had been someone like Lenore.
Maybe not. Maybe, I was projecting things onto her. I was asking a lot of questions, seeking things, the Truth. Questions about the nature of men and women, questions about the nature of our species, whether or not we were all fucked or not, or whether there was something nobler in us that made it all worth fighting for. I suppose I was looking for an oracle and that was precisely how I came quickly to see Lenore as a woman made of iron with a will of lightning.
A living oracle… the Queen of Pentacles. She needed help with a few errands, but the true errand was to talk.
And sure enough, Lenore returned and sat down on the divan, wearing a black and golden-rimmed robe and tiny black and silver slippers. Her face was the color of Cream-O-Wheat, crinkled. See that gleaming smile too was impossible to forget, for her face seemed as if it was having a war with itself … part beauty, part trauma. She wore sundresses and large garden hats. She reminded me of what was ancient in womankind. She was in tune with Nature and referred to it as a “You,” not an “It.”
As she held a kettle of Kenyan coffee in her hands, smiling, I anticipated ancient music – snaking scales from flutes unfurling in the room, as the room transformed into a full blown epithalamium written in Greek for Lenore, uttered by Zeus for Lenore, so Zeus himself might climb Lenore’s trellis up the balcony to see her.
And then Lenore began to speak: “I let it all out,” she said, motioning for me to sample from the plate of ladyfingers and the kettle of coffee. “I don’t worry about what others think of me.” She smiled. “Trying to monitor my thoughts puts a lot of stress on me. I like people and colour. These are the two things I like most. The combination of color—there is never an end to that. I use to play with color, but I don’t do that now. I like to garden.” She smiled. “It does something to the way my brain functions. Ever since I was young. People… people I find interesting. I like them.” She took a sip of coffee, smiling, beaming. I smiled back at her and sipped my coffee. I categorically ignored the generation gap between us. The congealing of both of our respective consciousness appeared to me as if we transcended time and space.
We sat together in one occurrence that had no beginning, end, or structure.I scooted up in my seat on the couch. “So how did you see yourself when you were young?”
“How do you think? I was an artist. I didn’t know I was, I just said it when I was a kid. When people asked what I wanted to be, I just said it… artist.’ As far as first memories go, I don’t really remember ever being a baby. I just remember that I was always a woman. I was not born a baby, I just wasn’t. Why? Because of God Almighty! I think I was hurt by my father and brother. And then I got up to my husband. And I married him because I thought he wasn’t going to hurt me. It was about trust. I did not trust my father. I did not want to have the satisfaction of him buying me things. It was not a happy place, my childhood. I felt…my mother was not an honest person to herself. I felt like she didn’t really love me, but we were so enmeshed. I felt I was the one that had to love them, not the reverse. I hurt now. I hurt now for my childhood. I have a picture of my mother’s condo that we were to sell in Florida. I didn’t want to see the picture. At 10 years old, you could see in my eyes in the picture… that I was depressed.
Lenore’s mother let things happen and let Lenore’s brother beat her up.
“Everyone was always fighting. I didn’t do what I was told. My mother was kind of an artist—liked to design clothes. More like a craftswoman, I suppose. And she wanted me home, not with the neighborhood kids. She’d say, ‘go to your room!’ And I wouldn’t do that. I would say, ‘Leave me alone,’
“So there was a lot of bullshit in my life. With me resisting— getting pulled up three flights of stairs. My brother was seven years older, he wanted to kill me. I think he was jealous…I was listening to my brother all the time. I became his mother. I started hating science because he was talking about that all the time. He was in his own head in a different way than me. It was my survival to listen to him, but I was a hostage.”
I stared at her as she wept lightly. “And my father – deep down I don’t really like my father…” Her tears became stronger, “I didn’t trust him. I didn’t want him to touch me.”
Lenore told me that she had her first manic episode at twenty-eight, after she gave birth to her firstborn son. She had met her husband in college. He was pre-Med, ambitious, she had gone into Psychology. And yet with her mood disorder, circumnavigated her, devastated her life.
Between the age of thirty and fifty, she got into of a lot trouble with the police.
One judge helped her and told her that if she did not drive, he would drop such-and-such a charge. Right then, Lenore gave up the driving. “But my cousin, Max, he was important to me,” she said.
“I was three years old. And he used to say I was his woman. He would say, ‘Lenore, I can’t kiss you anymore, because Ruthie is my wife. You are my woman, but she is my wife’. So we could talk, but he couldn’t touch me. His wife was really jealous. He was very affectionate, she did not like it. Max helped me out a lot in life. He wasn’t my birth cousin, he was my cousin by marriage.
“I had a house in Rancho Mirage. They had a condo next to the hotel. There was a beautiful golf course. I wanted to plant rose bushes, so I planted the rose bushes. And the gardeners loved me because I worked with my hands. Then the Marriot Hotel took me to court for I was in a manic episode. I understand that now.
“I didn’t go to court. Somehow my cousin Max found out I had to come to court. And he had to get an attorney for me and a conservator to keep me out of jail. That’s how I stopped driving. Because they were taking all my money. They took $11,000 dollars…all of my money!
I have to get rid of these people, I thought. I want to tell the court! To take them to court! The Judge asked me ‘would you consider not driving a car?’ I nodded.
I had to flee from the cops sometimes. I resisted arrest sometimes. But I don’t really like talking about that.”
In the 50’s, she, a Jew, dated a Puerto Rican. She never polished her nails, she took limited showers. She told me all of this in a whirlwind, between sips and tears.
She felt smarter than everyone else in her classes and everything seemed stupid to her. She said her mother was a conformist trying to fit in from Lithuania. She told me how her father’s father was from Russia. She said in many ways, her whole life was a reaction to her mother. I didn’t say a word.
I personally loved my mother. I had listened to my own mother’s problems since the age of five. All of her problems. Problems with herself. Problems with the country. Problems with the world. I was told about the Great Patriotic War. How 20 million died – that I was fortunate to be alive, that I was fortunate for even having a mother.
“Sad?” Lenore asked herself rhetorically. “I got to be a kid when? When?”
She answered herself. “When my parents got their first home,” she said. “When we were more financially well off.” Lenore looked at me. “Money changes everything,” she said. “It does, I tell you. It’s true.”
Lenore was sixteen years old when they got a house in Queens, and Lenore’s mother had changed then. She actually became a mother. Lenore was the kid for once. She liked high school and lived in a Jewish neighborhood, though she didn’t feel particularly Jewish. She recalled roller skating on the streets of Queens on Yom Kippur. She didn’t care for a thing in the world on those skates. She was free on the streets… free to draw on the streets where her family lived. Free to be. As her family were not observant Jews, belief in God did not come to Lenore until later in life, not until after meeting her husband and having her two children, the youngest of which was her daughter who was murdered…
After her son lived with her ex-husband and his girlfriend for a while, he grew out his pinkie nail, colored it black and joined the Israeli Defense Forces.
I said nothing, the idea of revelation without letting her speak herself, bred a violence in my heart that pounded, echoic. I could hear the inside of my body. Truly, it was if I was in utero. Lenore was married to a husband for twenty years and divorced him for unfaithfulness.
I continued to listen because I wanted to say “I love you.” She was running out of time. We were all running out of time, us mental invalids, us almost going on T-cons, becoming wards of the state, unable to work for being so mentally unstable.
Lenore told me of her many psychiatric emergencies since her first episode at the age of twenty-eight. Somewhere during those times in the hospital, her husband cheated on her.
“He didn’t want to be with a mentally ill woman, she said. “Should I have blamed him? Damn, right, I should have,” she said. She glared at me, but seemed to seek no reaction. I nodded.
How many girlfriends had left me because of my condition? Because of not understanding my condition, for dismissing my very essence because of my condition. ‘Feeling bad’ for doing so, for wanting not to do it, but doing it anyway. And every time it happened, I felt pure violation. Because I knew my essence was truly good and those who had rejected me were ignorant – ignorant like those who were ignorant toward Lenore.
I realized while sipping my coffee and seeing the balcony there and the parrot cage in the corner, that Lenore had a fractured psychic life. I thought she was literally fighting herself all her life. And her mother. I myself would have been nothing without my father…
Suddenly I paled as if I’d seen snake eyes. I coughed and covered it with a fist. Time dilated as if God fist-fucked the Origin of Time. I was on the verge of having an episode myself. So I was silent about her son.
I didn’t know my father long, but he was a kindred spirit. An intellectual and visionary. A man who drew the attention of nine cops to arrest him because of the way he spoke. Of this I could relate, for I too had smashed a guitar and said cruel things to people in a café, and got ratted on, and cornered by cops, about eight or nine of them to be sure, while my father got a speeding ticket by California Highway Patrol for coming to my rescue.
But then Lenore began to talk about the happy times and I lit up a cigarette on her balcony, listening to how she was a teacher in her early 20’s. She said she worked at a Black grade school in the 1950’s.
“I took student teaching. I could teach elementary school, so I got a job in Bedford, a Black neighborhood, and I understood right there that those kids—I loved them. Because they were just like me. In what sense was I like these black kids? I’ll tell you how.”
By empathizing with the Black students while she was trying to show them “how to speak white”. Their sad eagerness to learn to do so… she saw her own marginalization, her own abusive family. She could finally relate.
“I taught before the civil rights movement. We were talking two languages. Some kids could talk white, but some couldn’t. It was the happiest experience of my life. I couldn’t sit in the classroom all day. I use to tell them we are going to tiptoe around through the halls. Because I had to move, you see.” She took her classroom for walks through the school, the courtyards, through the cafeteria, sometimes. Teachers would see her, stop her and ask what it was she thought she was doing. Lenore would say, “What?! I’m teaching.”
She had a loving relationship with a Black man after she found out that her husband had been unfaithful.
She said, “I am such a stubborn bitch. I have a will of iron. I will bounce back.”
She clenched her fist. “I would sleep with someone else! That’s right. I went to the Bronx. Middle income housing. Most people there were Black. My neighbors were Black. I was looking for someone to sleep with. This man spoke with me after I saw him with a lady and thought perhaps he would like me. I was sitting on a washing machine. My work was all over the walls. He was an artist too, a jazz musician. We started to talk. He asked about art. Frames. It was really good shit. He made me feel it. We went to bed. That’s what I needed. It was right. The kids were sleeping in the house. It was survival.”
At this point Lenore stopped and said, “during childhood, I ate butter, tons of butter. I hate butter. I just ate it. I was in that much pain. I never ever dealt with that. It just came out of my gut.
Lenore went on to graduate school and got a degree in Counseling. She examined who she was in the present. She learned how to help people. She had to. She came full circle, the woman who walked right out of her mother’s womb.
Lenore’s youngest daughter was murdered after coming home from a movie. Mugged, then cut. Paralyzed by shock, denial, Lenore fell into a rage. Bargained with a God she had yet to believe in. “Who could do such a thing? Why would it happen that way?” Bed-ridden for months, not wanting to do anything but stay home and sleep… sleep… sleep… sleep. Never to be awakened. Never to talk to anyone. She only broke her vow of silence for her firstborn son.
I was the messenger to deliver the news about that son. I didn’t say a word.
All I could really do was listen. Listen to how years later it was during dinner, Lenore, sitting in her dining room, weeping for hours, finally accepted the death of her daughter. Knowing it could never be the same, never be explained rationally. That it was beyond her control, beyond anyone’s control except for the murderer who did it. And yet there was this shame she sometimes felt about not really loving her daughter as much as her son.
She was given electro-shock therapy. She had to bite down on a plastic denture. I could envision her writhing in my mind.
I could see the Queen part of her as a husk. I could see her nearly lobotomized! She began reading the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, the Art of War, John Milton, Ovid, Phillip K. Dick, even Phillip Roth.
Lunch, talks, coffee’s, drives, walks that went on, fortified the belief that meeting her happened for a reason. I never spent so much time talking with an elderly woman in my entire life. Not even with my own grandmother who fought Nazis.
After gathering the telling of her life, I watched as Lenore broke down and wept for the girl that she was never able to be. And even for her son who failed to connect because unbeknown to her, he had hung himself last Tuesday.
Lenore was alive and active, still worthy of feeling exhilaration in breathing in deeply, in breaking a sweat, in being ready to speak. She sat across the table from me never knowing a thing about her son. She talked to me so openly I believe because she admired my youth.
I would never forget her. Her way of summoning herself with the sudden presence of smile. Her lowered head as she later looked directly at me and told me she had never told anyone what she had just told me. How her tears were not merely tears of pain or sorrow, but tears of joy, that they came from suspecting there was another chance to see the day, a new way of looking at things from thereon out, from that day forward. And that I quite possibly was a part of her story. I sat there and caved inwardly, attempting not to weep, oscillating in the confines of my own skull, recoiling from the tentacles of Reason. Never could I be indifferent to her suffering. I thought of her firstborn son and could not say a word. I looked into her eyes as I was about to leave… Helium, I wanted to say. Helium killed your son. There was a bag…..
But I could never say it.
All I could say was, “Goodbye, Lenore, stay well.”
I left and someone else told her later in the week. And two days after that, Lenore Beckman had another episode.
Pavel Dimitriovich Rogov studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley and Social Work at USC. His work has appeared in Jumping Blue Gods, Danse Macabre, Exterminating Angel Press, Yareah Magazine, Cultural Weekly and Social Justice Solutions under the name Paul Rogov. “The Fallen Years,” his debut novella, about the Soviet-Afghan war, was released in October 2011. He emigrated to the United States as a political refugee from the former Soviet Union in 1979.