“It’s one thing to dream of castles in the air. It’s another to ask me to live in them. – Ma
“Your father never wanted a second child.” I can’t remember the first time Ma said those words, but she said them a lot, in a New York, Jewish mother, “if-it–wasn’t-for-me-you-wouldn’t-be-sitting-there” kind of way. Then she’d turn to my older brother Chris and say, “Your sister is a gift. I didn’t want you to be an only child like me. I was so lonely.”
Chris said, “I don’t want her. Let’s return her.”
My big brother resented me from the day I was born. I know because Mom still loves to tell the story about the time three-year-old Chris tried to kill me. She walked into our shared bedroom and found him sitting on the floor in his Super Man Underoos, removing all the screws from my crib.
Knowing that half the family rejected the very idea of me proved productive. Childhood became a full-time job of justifying my raison d’etre and repaying Ma for sneaking me into the world. My little fingers worked tirelessly to untangle the necklaces in her messy jewelry box and straighten out the bunched up cord attached to our mustard yellow rotary phone. I said, “Please,” and “Thank you” and plotted new ways to be extra helpful.
Because Ma and Pops took the express train to Divorceville before I reached the wise old age of two, I have no recollection of them ever being married. Most of my impressions of their “happier” times are from photos. I spent hours searching albums for evidence to debunk Ma’s claim that Pops didn’t want me. But no photos existed of the four of us as a family. And there were barely any baby pictures of me at all yet hundreds of my brother. I’d show Ma a photo of an infant and say, “Is this me?”
“That’s your brother.”
“Why are there no pictures of me?’
“When your father left, he took the camera.”
Pop’s name was Anthony, but everyone called him “Tony.” He was a fantastic dancer, played Latin percussion, and spoke six languages but making a living and paying child support wasn’t really his forte. According to Ma, he fled to Haiti for the first 5 years of my life to run away from his responsibilities and visit his mother who ran a beach resort there. But when I was six, he returned to LA and moved in to a studio apartment in West Hollywood with a tiny, blue parakeet named Little Tony.
The bachelor pad was located on the second floor of a ten-story modern, brown concrete structure. One day, Mom dropped us off in her green Datsun hatchback for a visit. Chris and I rode the elevator up to his place and walked past a series of identical doors until we found his wide open. We knew we were in the right place because of the fog of cigarette smoke hanging in the air. The place was pretty spare but on this visit, I was surprised to discover a gigantic projection screen TV covering three-quarters of the living-room wall. I had no idea where he got the money to pay for it but it’s possible someone sold it to him out of the back of a truck on a street corner for an “unbelievable price.” Pops never met a bargain he didn’t love. I figured we probably shouldn’t mention it to Ma.
I stared at the giant screen, mesmerized.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” Pops stood in front of the screen in a silky peach shirt that struggled to stay buttoned over his growing belly. He punched at the buttons on the remote control, his pointer finger adorned with a gold ring in the shape of an Indian chief. The TV snapped on but because there was too much sunlight pouring through the sliding glass door of the balcony, it was hard to see anything from the glare. “We’ll watch it later,” he said and lit a Benson and Hedges cigarette. Little Tony flew out of his open cage in the kitchen and zipped across the apartment, perching himself on Pop’s shoulder. The wee bird rubbed his beak against his yellow breast and fluttered a blue wing.
Chris and I played with Pop’s wind-up toys collection on the coffee table and pitted them against each other. Fire-breathing Godzilla battled Chattering Teeth. Pecking Chicken faced off with Green Robot. Whichever toy fell off the table first was the loser. Every time, without fail, Chris knocked over my toy and victoriously shouted, “I win!”
Pops chain-smoked and held up an album with a wizard’s hat on the cover. “Hey Kids, check out this new band I’m managing called ‘MAGIC’.” Suddenly, loud rock music blared from the speakers. He nodded his balding head, which forced his coke-bottle glasses down his nose and banged his gold ringed fingers on the counter. “What do you think? Terrific, right?” But I didn’t think they were that terrific. They were no Bee Gees. And I didn’t even know he was a band manager. I thought he was importing Haitian coffee or working as a headhunter. It seemed like every week he had a different gig.
Six months later Ma would say, “Remember what happened to Magic? Abracadabra. They disappeared.”
Little Tony flew around the apartment while Pops beat on his bongo drums to the rhythm of the music. With knees slightly bent, my dad leaned forward and smacked the top of the drums, a huge grin on his face. His hands hit the leather so fast it made my vision blur. The parakeet landed on his shoulder. Pops nuzzled him and put his mouth against the bird’s beak. Little Tony’s tiny blue tongue grazed my dad’s lips and they kissed. He loved that bird more than anything in the world. He wanted that bird.