“I don’t know, guys… I don’t think this virus is just gonna go away,” Seth said as we sat down to lunch at Stuyvesant High School.
“What, you don’t believe the president when he says it’s under control?” I jokingly replied to our friends.
“Not when he’s more concerned with how well the stock market is doing, Freck,” Kyle chimed in.
“It won’t be doing well much longer,” I responded. “Not when the numbers start piling up.”
“They’re already piling up,” Asher agreed. “If you look at what they’re doing in China and how extreme it is… you can’t do that here. But the virus doesn’t know any boundaries and even though the president implemented a ban on travel to and from China, the Coronavirus is already here.”
“On Saturday, February 29, there were 24 confirmed cases in the U.S.,” Kyle joined in. “By Sunday, it had nearly doubled to 42 cases. “By Monday it was up to 57 cases and yesterday it was up to 85. That’s exponential growth, and it’s probably the tip of the iceberg. For every confirmed case, there are probably at least ten people that have the virus but either don’t have symptoms yet, or their symptoms are mild. And who knows how many we don’t know about because they haven’t been tested. Maybe there are a hundred cases for every known case.”
“The president doesn’t understand exponential growth,” I added. “He thinks it’s gonna just disappear. Mark my words, this is just the beginning and before long, New York City will be an epicenter of what will clearly be a global pandemic.” Then with an involuntary shiver, I added, “What’s it gonna do to the restaurant business?” Asher’s family owned two restaurants on the Lower East Side.
Shrugging his shoulders, Asher replied, “It’s a bit early to say. I can’t picture New York taking such draconian measures that they shut down the restaurants and if anything, our Asian takeout restaurant should see business increase as people go out less often. If they do shut the restaurants or if people just get spooked, the Ragin’ Cajun could be in trouble. An all-you-can-eat buffet isn’t exactly the best restaurant venue when people are trying to avoid catching a virus.”
“The takeout business there would also suffer, Ashe,” his boyfriend, Seth, pointed out. “It’s a self-serve food bar, after all. We might have to rethink things.”
“Maybe you guys should be proactive rather than reactive,” Kyle suggested.
“What do you mean, Kyle?” Asher asked.
“Why wait until it’s a full-on global pandemic before taking action?” he responded. “Get ahead of the game with food you can certify to be 100% virus-free.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” Asher asked.
“The virus is highly susceptible to heat,” Kyle pointed out, “so use thermometers to verify an adequate cooking temperature in every dish. Have kitchen staff wear those N95 masks if you can get them, or make your own face shields if you can’t. Serve everything in single-use, single-serving containers. Provide hand sanitizer on each table. Stop taking cash… take only contactless payments like Apple or Google Pay.”
“I guess we could keep the buffet going for now putting out trays of food in single-use containers rather than having customers dish out their own portions.” Asher replied. “That’s a good idea, Kyle.
“I hate to turn away customers who want to pay cash,” Seth added, “but it would probably be for the best. We don’t get many customers who pay with cash anyway —”
“We do on Grand Street, at the Asian takeout,” Asher interrupted. “A lot of the older folks, who’ve been our most loyal customers, don’t even have a smart phone, so contactless payments aren’t an option for them.”
“Surely they must have credit or debit cards,” I suggested.
“Probably,” Seth agreed.
“Then let them use those,” I recommended. “Put a sign in the window to the effect that you’ve stopped taking cash for their own protection. Also, you can encourage ordering online. That way you can have takeout orders ready for pickup, certified virus-free. Your delivery people should wear masks and gloves too, and maybe disposable hazmat suits”
“That sounds like overkill,” Asher responded, “But maybe they could wear scrubs, and leave all deliveries on the doorstep. The gratuity would be added when the order is made. I hear PPE items are in short supply in general though, partly because they’re in short supply from China, but also because people are hoarding them. I sure don’t wanna be part of the problem.”
“What the fuck is PPE?” Carl asked.
“I guess I’ve been watching too much CNN,” Asher responded. “It stands for personal protective equipment, and it means, gowns, gloves, masks and the like.”
“My dad has maybe ten boxes of N95 masks that he keeps for international travel when he has to go among crowds where TB is endemic,” Seth informed us. “He has a defective gene that prevents him from metabolizing one of the main drugs they use to treat TB. If he takes it, his liver’s toast, so he has good reason to have the masks, but they’re reusable and he certainly doesn’t need a hundred of them. With his current legal problems, though, and especially with a possible global pandemic, he’s not going anywhere, so the masks are there and you might as well use them.”
“That’s fuckin’ fantastic,” Kyle responded. “You should order the scrubs right away, however.”
“But don’t the hospitals need the masks even more?” I asked.
“How about we give half the masks to the NYU Langone clinic at Essex Crossing, and keep the other half for the restaurant?” Seth suggested. “We can always give them more if the need arises.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Asher agreed.
“I wonder what’s gonna happen with the holidays coming up,” Josh asked, speaking up for the first time. “I know that Passover and Easter are a month away, but at the rate this thing’s spreading, by next week we’ll be into the thousands of cases in the U.S. The week after that, it’ll be over ten thousand cases and by the time we get to April first, there could be a million cases if we go on living life as usual. By the night of the first Seder, there could be ten million cases in the U.S., with thousands of deaths.”
“Well that’s a cheery thought,” I responded, “but that’s if we continue to do nothing. Not even this president would be so stupid as to do nothing —”
“Knowing him, he’ll just double down on that stupid wall of his,” Clarke interjected, “thinking he can keep the virus out, even though it’s already here. He’ll probably ban international travel, even though it’s spreading like crazy already. Look at what’s happening Italy.”
“Something tells me there’ll be no Holy Week in Rome,” Carl interjected.
“If nothing else, the governor will intervene,” Seth countered. “He has the authority to close the schools, close the bars and restaurants and impose a curfew if it becomes necessary, and knowing New Yorkers, it might. Hell, he could call out the National Guard to maintain order.”
“You really think it could come down to closing the schools?” Kyle asked. “How the fuck will we finish the semester?”
“We might not,” I answered. “More likely, we’ll have to finish our classes at home over the Internet.”
“What about kids who don’t have broadband?” Carl asked. “Up until I moved in with Clarke’s family, I didn’t. I used to do my homework in the school library.”
“Maybe there’ll be alternative sites for the students who don’t have it, or maybe Verizon or RCN or Spectrum will donate broadband to those who need it,” Clarke chimed in, “and maybe Apple and Microsoft will donate tablets to students who don’t have them.”
“But what about meals?” Carl asked. “I woulda starved without school breakfast and lunch.”
“The city will have to do something,” I responded.
“But if they bring the students together for meals, wouldn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of closing the schools?” Seth asked.
“It would be better than keeping the schools open and having the students together all day,” Kyle suggested, “but kids are social and they’ll probably stay together after eating anyway. We’re all fucked.”
“Maybe that’s one way we can help,” Asher suggested. “We could prepare simple meals for kids and deliver them to the projects for anyone that needs them.”
“And who’s gonna pay for them?” Seth countered. “I don’t mind dipping into our profits for a worthy cause, but we may need our savings to weather the storm if they shut us down altogether, so let’s see what the city does before being so generous.”
“Your point’s well-taken, Seth,” Asher responded.
“But getting back to the holidays,” Josh continued, “my family was really looking forward to celebrating our first Passover Seder with Kyle’s family, but if the virus has spread to infect hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., let alone millions, there’s no way you’ll be able to hold a Seder. We’ll all be locked down by then.”
“Fuck, I hadn’t thought of that,” I responded. “I was really looking forward to my first Passover Seder with my boyfriend’s family too.”
“You know, our synagogue has a Seder every year,” Kyle brought up. “It’s for families that are, well, too lazy to hold their own, or that are just learning how or are too small. The thing is, they usually hold it before Passover, I guess so people can then go home and still hold their own if they want to. But maybe that’s what we should do. Maybe we should celebrate Passover early this year, before the Coronavirus has time to spread any further.”
“We’d have to do it pretty soon, Ky,” I responded. “At the rate things are going, we might not be able to leave our homes before long.”
“It might not be safe for us to leave our homes before long, or to get together with friends,” Seth added.
“How do you guys feel about maybe holding it this Saturday?” I asked.
“Are you fuckin’ crazy?” Kyle exclaimed. “Planning for a Seder takes time.”
“But you don’t have time,” Asher countered. “The fucking virus saw to that. You know, I’ve always wanted to go to a Passover Seder and this would be my chance to prepare an authentic Passover meal. Seth could help me in the kitchen. If I take care of preparing the meal, Kyle, could you and Freck organize the Seder itself. Do you think you can do that?”
“We’ll sure,” I replied. “If I have any questions, I’ll call our rabbi. I’ll ask her if she can recommend a Haggadah. There’s probably something we can download from the internet.”
“Robin was supposed to go to the Seder held by her boyfriend’s extended family up in Peekskill, but now I doubt that it’ll happen,” Josh noted. “She’ll need to be included too. Maybe we should invite Larry and his parents, just as I’ll invite Dave and his mom.”
“Robin is your sister, Josh?” Clarke asked. I’d forgotten they hadn’t met.
“The youngest of three sisters,” Josh answered.
“It sounds like you have a typical Catholic family, like mine,” Clarke responded. “And who are Dave and Larry?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Josh explained, “A lot of Orthodox Jews have large families. Dave is my boyfriend, and Larry is Robin’s. They both go to Robin’s school, the Salk School for Science.”
Clarke asked, “Isn’t that a middle school?” When Josh nodded his head, he asked in surprise, “You’re dating a middle schooler?”
“Yeah, but we’re only a few days apart in age,” Josh explained. “I was born on December 30 and Dave was born two days later, on New Year’s Day. Dave missed the cutoff for starting school the year before by one fuckin’ day.”
“That blows,” Clarke responded.
“Yeah, it sure does,” I agreed, “but playing Devil’s advocate, they have to set the cutoff date sometime and New York’s is one of the latest. In some school districts I hear the cutoff’s as early as Labor Day.”
“Fuck, that woulda screwed a lot of us,” Clarke replied.
“It woulda screwed both Kyle and me, ’cause our birthdays are in December. So anyway,” I continued, “We invited Kyle’s mom ’cause they’re close, and so we invited my mom as a courtesy, and believe it or not, she accepted.”
“What’s with that?” Clarke asked. “I thought you were estranged from your birth parents.”
“It’s… complicated,” I replied. “She and my dad never showed me any love, and from the time I could understand it, I realized I was nothing more than a trophy child. But she is my flesh and blood and she’s half-Jewish herself, and my dads thought it would be nice to invite her. You can imagine how surprised I was when she accepted the invite, but in retrospect, I suppose it’s understandable.”
“How so?” Clarke asked.
“According to Wikipedia, it isn’t clear how her family survived the Holocaust and there’s a lot of talk that her family may have collaborated with the Nazis,” I explained.
“Ouch,” Josh responded.
“Yeah, but as much as I blame my mom for a lot of things, that’s not one of them,” I countered. “If her grandparents betrayed our people, that’s horrible, but it hardly is my mom’s fault.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Clarke agreed. “Still, it’s gotta be awkward having her there under the circumstances.”
“For sure, but you know, I think she’d be the first to admit that living with Kyle’s family is the best thing for me.”
“Interesting —” Clarke responded. “So how many does that make for your Seder?”
“I guess if everyone can come, we’re up to nineteen participants, which kinda defeats the purpose of holding an early Seder to avoid spreading the virus, doesn’t it?” Seth asked.
“Well how about we make it a kids-only Seder?” Asher suggested.”
“That’s a great idea,” Josh agreed.
“There’d still be eleven of us kids,” I noted. “And we couldn’t exactly exclude our dads, since they’d be hosting it at their house.”
“True, but we’re together much of the day at school anyway, so the Seder wouldn’t really expose us to any more risk than we’re already facing every day when we eat lunch together at school.” Josh responded. “It’d be fun.”
“So you’ll have a Coronavirus extravaganza,” Clarke added with a grin. “But Hell, Freck, you’re not even Jewish.”
“Technically I am,” I countered. “I was raised Roman Catholic, but my mother’s mother was Jewish and hence my mother and I are too, by ancestry if not in practice. ’Course I wouldn’t count toward a minyan, the minimum of ten required for a Jewish prayer service… not until I complete my bar mitzvah next December.”
“That’s another thing I don’t get, Freck,” Clarke continued. “You don’t even believe in God —”
“I didn’t say I don’t believe in God,” I corrected my friend. “I’m an agnostic… a radical agnostic. I believe in moral righteousness, advancing knowledge and a future for humankind beyond earth, but I believe that if one seeks to do what’s right, the existence or nature of God is irrelevant. Kyle, by contrast, believes that everything has a scientific explanation.”
“Which of course it does,” Kyle interjected.
Laughing, I added, “You might say he has ‘absolute faith’ in science. The problem is that science is based on testing hypotheses. Some things can’t be tested and some things may never be known. You can’t disprove the existence of God. The one thing I’m sure of is that no organized religion has a monopoly on the truth, nor do any of them lack major flaws.”
“So if you don’t believe in any organized religion, why go though getting your bar mitzvah at all?” Clarke asked.
“I’m doing it because I’m marrying into a Jewish family —”
“You’re thirteen, Freck, and Kyle’s eleven,” Clarke pointed out. “Most eighteen-year-old seniors don’t end up marrying the ones they’re with when they graduate. Look at what happened with you last summer in Paris.”
“Even when I freaked and ran, it wasn’t because I didn’t love Kyle,” I explained. “When I ran, it was because of my own insecurity. It was my feelings toward myself that changed. And now I’m in counseling to help me to better deal with stress. I love Kyle and I wouldn’t want to think of life without him.” Kyle grinned at that.
“Clarke and I love each other every bit as much as you and Kyle do,” Carl responded, “but I’m also a realist. We’ve even talked about what’s gonna happen next year, when I graduate and Clarke still has a year to go. We won’t have the option of choosing to go to college together. I hope to go to an NCAA division one school, hopefully on a basketball scholarship.”
“I don’t want him to choose a local school because of me,” Clarke chimed in. “I want him to choose the school that gives him the best scholarship offer and that can give him the best education. If that’s Columbia or Fordham or even Seaton Hall, great, but if it’s Penn or UCLA, then that’s where I want him to go. It would ruin the relationship if either of us thought he gave up what he wanted.
“Next year, when I choose my college, even if I can get into the same school, I won’t be able to afford it. Unless I can get an academic scholarship, chances are we won’t even end up in the same state, let alone at the same school.”
“Fuck, that’s depressing. At least I know that Freck and I will both be going to MIT. Although we’ll be in different curricula, we’ll be together outside of class and share the same bed at night,” Kyle added as he blushed a deep shade of red. From the heat in my face, I guessed I did too.
“Even though our careers will take us all over the globe, we’re not about to let that destroy what we have,” I agreed. “As an architect, I can live anywhere and do my design work anywhere. No matter what, we’re gonna make the time to be together. Absolutely, we’re gonna get married so, yes, I’m marrying into the faith.”
“The Seder begins at sunset?” Asher asked.
“Technically,” Josh replied, “but that’s not ’til around 7:30 this time of year, and 8:30 after this Sunday, ’cause of the switch to Daylight Saving’s Time, so we’d better start a bit earlier. After all, we’d like to finish it before midnight.”
“There’s a story of the famous Rabbi Hillel getting so engrossed in a discussion during the Passover Seder,” Kyle threw in, “that their students had to interrupt them to tell them it was time for the morning prayers. We should probably ask everyone to arrive by 4:30, so the Seder can get underway by 5:00.”
“You expect the Seder to last seven hours?” Clarke asked.
“I’m told that four to five hours is typical, including the meal,” I related.
“I can’t imagine doing anything that takes that long,” Clarke replied.
“There are some operas that last longer,” I pointed out.
“And you wonder why most kids don’t like opera,” Clarke responded, and we all laughed.
We’d planned to talk to Jake and Ken, the ‘dads’, that evening when they got home, but Kyle and his brother, Roger, and I got texts from Jake in the middle of the afternoon telling us they’d be working late at the hospital every night the rest of the week, as well as the entire weekend. I texted him back to ask if we could have the Seder on our own that weekend, but he responded that in no way could we hold it at our house without either him or Ken being there. Unfortunately, they were gonna be tied up at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where they both worked, for the foreseeable future, preparing for the Coronavirus pandemic, so any possibility of holding a Seder at our house this year seemed to be out of the question.
I sent a quick text to Seth, asking him if we could hold the Seder at his apartment. I figured it might actually work out better there, since Josh’s entire family lived in the same cooperative, but Seth texted back that it wouldn’t be a good idea. Although his father was out on bail, pending the resolution of the bogus corruption charges against him, the governor still valued his input, particularly with the emerging coronavirus cases in the city. Between the governor and the mayor, his father was constantly on the phone and government officials could be expected drop by at any time.
I was just about to text everyone to let them know we’d have to call the Seder off, when I remembered that I’d originally invited my mother and that my parents’ penthouse apartment would be ideal. Up until last year, I’d lived there, just a few blocks from our high school. I therefore sent her a quick text explaining the change in plans and asking if it would be possible to hold the Seder in the penthouse. She texted me back right away, but rather than giving me a direct answer, asked me if I could meet her there after school. That she was home in the middle of the day was strange enough, but her wanting to talk to me, face-to-face, was unprecedented. In my thirteen years she’d hardly ever spoken to me at all. WTF!
Kyle and I walked the short distance to the penthouse after our last class. Because the apartment took up the entire top floor, the elevator opened directly into the apartment, where my mother and my twin sisters were waiting.
As always, Mom was impeccably dressed, but there was something different about her too. Not that there was anything I could put my finger on per se. She strode purposefully toward me with the same demeanor as always, yet she looked different. My sisters, Debbie and Lisa, walked beside and slightly behind her as was expected of them in their roles as trophy children, yet they seemed more purposeful somehow. More confident and maybe more loved. I wasn’t sure why, but I could see it on their faces.
“You’re looking well, Freck,” my mother said as she approached me, and that was different enough, but then she did something so unexpected that I might well have fallen over had I not been held in my mother’s arms. She never ever called me Freck – she called me Francis. She never ever hugged me – she kissed me on the cheek, and even then, only if it was in public.
I was stunned. “Mom?” I asked.
“Don’t you think it’s time I made some changes in my life? In our lives?” she asked.
“Well yeah,” I responded, “but you’ve never done anything unless it benefitted your image. Forgive me for being skeptical, but it’s hard for me to picture you doing anything else. Is there a hidden camera somewhere?”
“I suppose I had that coming,” was her response, “but I’ve come to realize that if my image is hollow, my legacy will be hollow. It took some problems I had, to put things in perspective. Don’t get me wrong… I’m proud of what I’ve built, but when I was confronted with my own mortality, I realized that someday history would judge me for what I didn’t do with my life. Suddenly it all clicked and it brought home the fact that the the bright lights and glitter won’t last. I suppose I always knew that, but to say I was in denial would have been a gross understatement. Shouldn’t my legacy include philanthropy? And not just my name on a hospital wing, but real life-changing activities? Shouldn’t it include my children?”
“Mom, are you okay?” I asked, suddenly concerned there was something wrong with her health.
“I’m fine, dear,” she replied. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with me.”
“Not that I don’t appreciate the change,” I responded, “But life-changing philanthropy? I can’t picture Dad going along with anything like that.”
“He went nuclear,” Debbie reported.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Lisa agreed.
“And you brought him around?” I asked. “That’s impossible to believe.”
“Not that we see each other very much anyway,” Mom replied, “but we’ve decided on a trial separation.”
“Woah!” I exclaimed.
“Actually I’m pretty sure we’ll get a divorce,” she continued. “In fact, I’ve hired an attorney and I bought a brownstone, just off of Central Park West.”
“You should see it, Freck” Debbie chimed in. “It’s on 88th Street, just down the street from Central Park.”
Laughing – laughing – my mother never laughed, she asked, “You boys must be starving. Please, come inside? René and I have some snacks available in the kitchen.” This was not the mother who treated us as trophy kids. I was gonna reserve judgement though. It was hard to reconcile the woman in front of me with the mother I knew.
We all headed into the apartment, which was based on an open design with a very modern kitchen around which were arranged a home theater, the living room, a formal dining room and a playroom. A row of stools with chairbacks was arrayed along a counter that ran the full width of the kitchen, and it was to the stools that we headed. We all sat down at the counter, with Kyle and me on one side of my mother and with my sisters on her other side. My sisters’ nanny, René, placed a plate with what appeared to be crab cakes and coleslaw in front of each of us. To that she added a cup of what appeared to be a seafood bisque, and a glass of Coke. There was something different about the way René looked today, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. She did seem more relaxed though.
My sisters each drank some coke and proceeded eat their crab cakes, as did Kyle and I. I expected that Mom would eat the crab cakes and bisque, but leave the coke untouched, but she took only the coke and proceeded to sip it. It was so unlike her. I responded by saying, “If you pull a cigarette out of your purse and ask for a light, I’m gonna call the FBI and report you as an imposter.” We both laughed at that.
“So you and Dad are separated, and you bought a brownstone,” I continued. “It’s hard for me to picture.”
“Have you seen my Wikipedia entry?” she asked and I responded by nodding my head. “It put into perspective some of the things I heard growing up. I’d never even given thought before as to how my mother’s family survived the Holocaust. However, what really got to me were the references to my being aloof. It made me realize that while I want to be remembered for my sense of style and image, I don’t want it to end there. I’ve left my mark, but styles always pass. Fashion is fleeting. I want my legacy to live on in my children and in what I do with the rest of my life.
“I’m in a unique position to put my stature and my image to good use. I could give generously and give my name to public works around the globe, but any billionaire could do that. I have an opportunity to use my social status to influence hundreds more. I can leverage my wealth and magnify it a hundred-fold. When I’m long gone, I want to be remembered for making a difference. I want to be remembered as the woman who raised over a trillion dollars and virtually put an end to homelessness in this country. I want to be remembered as the one to finally address mental health and drug dependence on the street and to ensure that everyone has access to the services they need. I want to ensure that every child has a roof over their head and people who give a shit about their future. The Coronavirus pandemic only demonstrates the urgency of doing so,” she concluded.
“Dad would never go along with it,” I responded.
“Which is why a divorce is inevitable,” Mom replied. “Your father sees the homeless as lazy, crazy detritus to be left to rot on the streets. I guess you could say I’ve picked a cause that couldn’t be further from his interests. This penthouse atop a glass tower suits him perfectly, but it’s not the right place for me anymore. It’s not the kind of place I want to raise my children.”
“Do you want me to live with you in the brownstone too?” I asked as I swallowed hard.
Shaking her head, she replied, “You’re welcome to if you want to… you and Kyle, but I don’t expect you to. You’re happy where you are and you love your boyfriend’s dads, who’ve given you far more love than your own father ever did. His idea of love is writing you a check whenever you ask for it. It’s no wonder you took advantage of the pot your father always kept in the house. Thank God he listened to me about keeping the cocaine under lock and key.” My jaw dropped when I heard that. “What, you think a man like that would stop at marijuana? I drew the line there. Social pot was one thing. Cocaine is social on a whole different level. It’s about being above the law… about being special… about living a life where social norms don’t apply.
“It’s a miracle that you aren’t like that at all, Freck,” she continued. “It scares me how close we came to losing you last summer and the summer before that. We very nearly did. Riverdale I think is much better suited to you than a brownstone on the Upper West Side and being raised by a nanny. Speaking of which, I’m going to do right by René. I’m going to sponsor her visa so she can be here legally and eventually become a citizen. I’ll pay her a fair wage too… above minimum, and I’ll make sure your father pays the back wages he owes her. Otherwise he’ll have to deal with the IRS and he’ll still be on the hook for minimum wage plus benefits over the last ten years.
No wonder René looked more relaxed!
“What about my request to hold the Seder here this Saturday?” I asked.
“With the separation, I don’t think that would be a good idea, Freck,” Mom responded and my face fell. “I only met you here today because I knew how convenient it would be for you to come here after school. Your sisters and I now live in the brownstone. However, I’d be delighted if you’d consider holding the Seder in the brownstone.
“Is it large enough?” I asked. I knew that a lot of the brownstones on the Upper West Side had been divided up into apartments and I worried that her’s might be one of those, but when my sisters giggled, I realized it was absurd to think my mother would settle for anything that small.
“We have over five thousand square feet, Freck,” Mom answered. “I can’t picture you needing more than that. Why don’t you and Kyle come over on Friday night? You can invite your friends for brunch on Saturday and spend the day in the park.”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I like the sound of that. It’s just that you and Dad never seemed to care about me or about what I wanted before. It was always about what made you guys look good. It’s hard to wrap my head around the idea that your request is nothing more than that, all over again.”
“I suppose I deserve that too,” Mom, responded. “Your father and I were two career-focused people whose social status demanded we maintain certain appearances. It took a terrible toll on you and although I can’t make up for what I did to you, I can try to be a better mom from now on. What’s more is that I have two wonderful girls who are just as exceptional and I hope and pray it’s not too late to be a good mother to them. Please give me a chance to be a mother to you now. I’m not going to try to take you away from your boyfriend, nor from the wonderful life you’ve made for yourself with his family. I promise you that much and the rest we’ll have to fill in as we go.”
My sisters! How could I have neglected to include my sisters? “Would Debbie and Lisa like to attend the Seder?” I asked.
“Of course we would, Freck,” Debbie answered me directly.”
“We’re both interested in learning about our Jewish roots,” Lisa chimed in.
“It’s too bad we won’t have a chance to attend services for Good Friday and Easter, but they’ll almost certainly be cancelled too, I think,” Mom added.
“I’m not sure that would be a good idea anyway,” I replied. “Saint Patrick’s is just so formal, and I wouldn’t exactly feel welcome there.”
“Oh honey,” Mom responded, “I’m not talking about going back to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, regardless of whether or not you go with me to services.” I was shocked. “Frankly, the Center for Humanistic Judaism would probably be a much better fit now, particularly since you and the girls have taken an interest in Judaism, but I’m not ready to leave the Church behind, even though I’m not at all religious. I could never belong to a church that wasn’t accepting of LGBT members and that pretty much excludes the Catholic church. Otherwise I might have tried Holy Trinity, which is nearby on the Upper West Side.
“There are a couple of liberal churches near the brownstone that are listed in online LGBT resources guides. One is the Second Presbyterian Church, which is right on Central Park West at 96th Street, and the other is the Advent Lutheran Church, on Broadway at West 93rd. Perhaps you’d consider going to services with your sisters and me on Sunday.”
“If Kyle and I were to stay over, what would be the sleeping arrangements?” I asked.
Laughing, she responded, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you’d ask that. You’re a healthy teenager, after all, and I’ve seen how the two of you interact. I’ll admit that at first, I was skeptical that boys your ages could experience true romantic love, but seeing you together has laid that notion to rest. No one can say for certain that it will last, but I hope it does. You and Kyle seem far better suited to each other than your father and I ever were.
“I know that you and Kyle each have your own bedrooms, but I have it on good faith that you almost never spend the night apart. I’m fine with that and Kyle is welcome to share your bed, and how you spend your time in bed together is your business and yours alone.”
After a pause, I asked my mother what was really on my mind. “The guardianship arrangement was between Dad and Jake Goldstein. Are you gonna honor it too, or will you try to get me to live with you permanently?”
“Oh Freck,” Mom answered as she placed her hand on my arm. “You have the intellect of an adult but the insecurity of a child. I thought I already answered that. You know, you could if you wanted go away to MIT next year and I’d never stop you. You might find it’s easier for you and Kyle to live in Manhattan, particularly when you go to City College next year, but I leave that to you and Kyle, and to Kyle’s dads. Just know that you and Kyle will always be welcome in our home and that it’ll always be your home too. Sadly, I doubt your father will even seek visitation rights, let alone custody if we do divorce, but if he tries, I’ll not hesitate to call his bluff regarding his treatment of René. If you spend any time with him, it’ll be on your terms.”
I was surprised when everyone responded that they could make the Seder on Saturday, and everyone with the exception of Asher and Seth was interested in Saturday brunch and spending the day in Central Park. Asher and Seth, of course, would be busy preparing the Passover meal. Hence on Friday afternoon, with a change of clothes and our personal items in our book bags, Kyle and I took a number one train up to 86th street. In spite of the latest news on the emerging pandemic, the train was as packed as always. It was an easy ten-minute walk from the subway station at 86th street to Mom’s brownstone on 88th Street, near Central Park West.
Brownstones were originally built as middle-class housing for the masses and were named for the use of a cheaper grade of limestone, which contained a heavy concentration of iron that gave it a reddish-brown appearance. Land was still expensive, however and so they were built with a first floor that was traditionally rented out as a separate apartment, with its own entrance. Many if not most brownstones are still used that way today, although as they became more and more unaffordable except to those with money, the ground-floor apartments are gradually being incorporated into the houses above them. Quite a few residents have made use of the ground floor, with its separate entrance, for a home business as, for example, with a solo practitioner attorney, doctor or accountant.
Although it was very narrow, as are most brownstones, from the front it appeared to be a castle with a sweeping curved stairway leading up from the sidewalk to a wide double door that was obviously the main entrance to the house. A smaller door was tucked away under the stairway, right at street level. The middle three floors had bow windows in front that curved outward. The top floor instead had three smaller windows across the front, whereas the ground floor had two windows and a door.
Kyle and I walked up the stairway and I pushed the doorbell. A moment later, one of the door panels swung open to reveal both of my sisters standing there, wearing matching shorts… and nothing else. At the age of nine – nearly ten, there was nothing much to see. They were still flat-chested and other than being quite a bit taller, they appeared much as they had the last time I’d seen them shirtless. Kyle, however, was clearly embarrassed and blushing.
Coming up behind them, Mom said, “Girls, it’s okay to go shirtless when it’s just the three of us, but we have guests and it’s not appropriate to greet them as such.”
“But it’s just Freck and Kyle,” Debbie complained. “Freck’s seen us without shirts all our lives, and Kyle’s his boyfriend and obviously has no interest in seeing our tits.”
“Lisa!” Mom exclaimed, but for some reason I felt compelled to correct her and so I said, “It’s Debbie, Mom.”
“You can tell the difference?” Mom exclaimed.
Realizing I’d let my secret out, I responded, “I’ve always been able to tell. They sound different to me. It’s probably similar to the way I can pick up languages so easily.”
“That’s pretty amazing,” Mom replied. “Does it work over the telephone?”
“Just as well as in person,” I confirmed.
“There have been times I could swear they played tricks on me by changing places,” Mom continued. “Now I have a way to tell.” Damn, my sisters did that quite often. I’d blown their cover to hell.
“Why don’t we head to the top floor and work our way down, and I’ll show you my new home. We can drop your things on the top floor, in your bedroom while we’re at it,” she suggested.
“You’re in the entry foyer, which is original to the house, and as you can see, there’s a front parlor, which is original to the design and was restored by the previous owner. He was an attorney and used the parlor as his office, which is why the walls are lined with built-in bookshelves.
I was shocked when I saw a box stairway with an old-fashioned elevator in the center. There was a skylight overhead on the top floor that allowed light to filter all the way down to the ground floor. Brownstones usually had a long narrow stairway that hugged one of the side walls. The box stairway was actually more compact, and it allowed for the addition of a small elevator. “This stairway is wicked cool,” I commented. “Obviously, it’s not original to the house, which was probably built in the late nineteenth century, but I’m really impressed by how the builders who added it managed to match the style of the house,” I commented.
“This house has a very interesting history,” Mom responded. “It was built just after the Civil War along with the other houses in this block. Then in the mid-1920s a clothing merchant named Alfred Pierce bought it for his wife and five children, including a young girl, Wilmette, who was paralyzed and couldn’t walk. Most likely it was spina bifida and most children with it didn’t survive back then. She was a beautiful child and he bought the house, intending for Wilmette and her nanny to live in the ground floor apartment while the rest of the family occupied the upper floors.
“When little Wilmette turned six and all her brothers and sisters were off at school, she became despondent. Her father took her to see several doctors who could find nothing wrong with her. Finally, a young pediatrician realized that she felt isolated and suggested moving to a large apartment on one floor, but Alfred insisted that children needed to grow up with trees. The solution, he reasoned, was to add an elevator, but there simply wasn’t enough room for an elevator that could accommodate Wilmette in her wheelchair.
“They interviewed several architects before a young architect named Lloyd Franklin came up with a workable plan. Instead of adding an addition to the house, he replaced the existing stairway with one built around an elevator. Unfortunately, the mechanics for elevators back then were always overhead and the resulting modifications to the rooftop resulted in frequent leaks whenever it rained. In any case, when the stock market crashed in 1929, Alfred was forced to declare bankruptcy. The largest creditor took the house and it was divided into five apartments… one on each floor.
“The house might well have remained that way but in 2008, the landlord was overextended and had to sell. The house was bought by an attorney who was quadriplegic and needed a house for himself, his wife and their eight adopted children. The attorney bought it, gutted it and modernized it to the appearance you see today. He replaced the elevator with a new one with the mechanicals in the basement and added the skylight above, putting an end to the frequent leaks that had plagued the place since the elevator was first put in.
“Sadly, he got a kidney infection and passed away about a year ago,” Mom continued. “In the meantime, the kids had all graduated high school and were away at college. It had been a struggle to fund their education as it was, but by selling the house… a large house she no longer needed… the widow was able to continue paying for her children to attend Ivy League schools.
“Let’s head upstairs,” Mom suggested, then asked, “Does anyone want to take the elevator?
“I’d like to try it out,” I replied and Kyle nodded his head as well.
“It may look old-fashioned, but it works like any modern elevator,” Mom responded. “The girls and I will meet you at the top.”
Pressing the ‘up’ button, Kyle and I opened the door and entered the elevator, which looked like a gilded cage, and the inner door slid closed behind us. I pushed the button for the fourth floor – the first floor was labeled ‘G’ rather than one – and we watched Mom and my sisters easily outpace us on the stairs as Ky and I slowly ascended. They were waiting on us by the time we arrived on the fourth floor.
“You boys will be staying in the front bedroom on this floor, if you’d like to drop your things here,” Mom announced. We all entered the front bedroom and Kyle and I dropped our bookbags on the desk. Mom referred to it as a small bedroom, but although it was narrow, it was spacious and filled with antique furniture, including what appeared to be a king-size four-poster bed. Two windows with elegant draperies faced the street. Through an open door, I noticed that there was an en-suite bathroom and most likely, a walk-in closet next to it.
Returning to the hallway outside the bedroom, Mom showed us there was another bathroom on the floor, which she told us we were free to use as well, and then she showed us the back bedroom, which was even larger than the one in front. There were three large windows facing a courtyard and garden in back and there were skylights as well. The effect was stunning. The room was bright and airy and contained a drafting table and a substantial computer workstation that was not unlike the one I had in my room in Kyle’s house. A large worktable dominated the center of the room. Bookshelves with an extensive collection of fashion books and magazines lined the walls.
“The previous owner was an attorney, and his wife was an architect. As you can see, I’ve appropriated the space to use as my own studio,” my mother explained. “You’ve probably been wondering why I’m home so much of the time, and this is a good part of the reason. With a home studio, I can do a lot of my work from home and spend a lot more time with your sisters. It’s ironic that this virus thing is going on, as I now have the tools to work at home full-time, should the need arise. It’s not a substitute for my buying trips, but all the fashion people will be in the same boat if we can’t travel for a time.”
Walking down a flight of stairs, we entered the front bedroom on the third floor, which quite obviously was the room my sisters shared. Unlike my bedroom above it, it had a three-pane bow window that looked really cool. They had twin beds, twin dressers and twin desks, but otherwise the layout was similar to my room on the top floor, with a walk-in closet and an en-suite bath. Ever since they could talk, they let it be known they preferred to share a bedroom as identical twins often do, rather than to sleep in separate rooms.
“This is really nice,” I exclaimed, then asked, “René has the back bedroom?”
“She’s downstairs in the kitchen, getting a snack ready I think,” Lisa answered, “but yeah.” Then after a pause added, “I bet you’ve been studying the house, trying to reverse-engineer the architecture.”
“Of course,” I admitted with a smile. We entered the back bedroom, which was similar in size to the Mom’s studio but was jam packed with all the furniture that had been in her suite back in the condo. Now I could see that the back bedroom was bigger than the one in front, as space hadn’t been taken from it to add an en-suite bathroom.
Moving down a floor, the front bedroom was a guest room with its own closet and bathroom. The back bedroom, which was Mom’s, was considerably larger than the ones above it, with a large master bathroom and closet. The windows overlooked a lovely private garden and it was evident that an addition had been made in back to the lower floors. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, her bedroom in the brownstone was a thousand times more inviting than the one she shared with Dad in the condo. The one in the condo was larger and more lavishly appointed, and it had an incredible view but it looked more like a hotel room than a place people lived. There were little touches in Mom’s new bedroom that made all the difference in the world – things like a vase with cut flowers, a fashion magazine left out on the dresser and even the remote control for the TV being left out on the night table. Dad never would’ve tolerated such things.
“This is nice, Mom,” I told her.
“Thank you, Freck,” she responded.
We walked down to the main floor, with its double-wide front door and foyer that opened into a parlor. About the size of my bedroom upstairs and with a three-panel bow window that faced the street, the parlor was a cozy place to receive guests. Just past the stairs was a small half-bath and beyond that a formal dining room and then a much larger living room that spanned the full width of the house. I guessed it to be between sixteen and eighteen feet wide, with three French doors that were all open. They all had wrought iron railings that made each of them into a miniature balcony. It was a beautiful, unusually warm late-winter day and so I leaned out the center one to get a better look at the garden.
“Suddenly, I heard someone shout, “Freck?” but it wasn’t coming from inside the house. The shout was repeated, and it definitely sounded like a young adolescent boy’s voice. Looking around, I spotted a boy who appeared to be dressed only in shorts, waving his arms over his head in the back yard of a house on the next street, kitty-corner to ours. I didn’t have my glasses on, as I didn’t need them to see short distances and had left them in my bookbag upstairs, so the boy was little more than a blur. By now Kyle was leaning out one of the adjacent doors, and Lisa and Debbie, their curiosity piqued by hearing someone shouting my name, were leaning out of the other, so I asked Kyle, “Do you see a shirtless boy in the next yard over and behind us, waving at us?”
Before Kyle could answer, however, Lisa, who was leaning out the closer window, answered, “Yeah, it’s Larry Sanders. His mom’s a famous opera singer and his dad’s a famous conductor,” she added.
“Yeah, we know him,” Kyle replied. “His girlfriend’s the sister of one of our closest friends at school. Actually, she’s become our friend too.”
I called out from the balcony, “Larry, is that you?”
“Yes!” he shouted, and then asked, “What are you doing here?”
I answered back in a shout, “My mom recently bought this place. I take it you’ve met my twin sisters. I’m visiting for the weekend, and we’re having the Seder here tomorrow tonight. How about you?”
“I live here,” he shouted back. “Oh wow, what a coincidence, but I’m embarrassed that I didn’t notice the change in the location of the Seder.”
I asked, “Can you come over?”
“When?” he asked.
“Give me a sec,” I turned and asked my mom, “It’s one of the boys who’s coming to the Seder tomorrow night. He’s your neighbor! Could he come over now?”
“Honey, when you’re here, this is your home too,” she responded. “Of course you can have friends over. He can even stay for dinner.”
“Thanks Mom,” I replied as I kissed her on the cheek.
Leaning out the middle balcony, I shouted. “Can you come over right now? Mom said you can stay for dinner too if you want.”
“We already have plans for dinner, but give me about ten minutes,” he shouted back and then he disappeared into his house.
Stepping back inside, I said, “I better get my glasses,” as Lisa and Debbie both giggled.
Larry came over and spent much of the afternoon with us, enjoying a snack that René prepared consisting of grilled tuna melts with Swiss cheese on rye. I couldn’t help but be awestruck by what had been done on the ground floor. The entire front portion had been turned into a large state-of-the-art kitchen, which because of the windows in front, was incredibly bright and airy. A door from the kitchen led directly outside, making the house, with its elevator, entirely accessible. On the other side of the stairs was a small half-bath and a very large family room with an informal eating area, a state-of-the-art home theater, and glass doors opening directly into the garden. It was stunning, and given that it was all accessible, fuckin’ impressive.
Larry offered to show us his brownstone, which was located on the next block. Unlike ours, which had incorporated the ground floor into the living quarters, Larry’s parents had turned the ground floor into a music studio, with extensive soundproofing, a state-of-the-art sound system and a recording studio. A separate ground floor entrance provided access for their students.
The main floor made extensive use of wood paneling and built-ins, with a front parlor that was dominated by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a full-size grand piano. As was more common with a brownstone, the house had a long stairway along one of the side walls, but opposite it on the main floor was a completely open and modern kitchen. It was a really cool layout. The back half of the main floor consisted of a great room, similar to Mom’s living room and dining room combined. Although it had been opened up and modernized, it retained high ceilings and period-appropriate trim, making it perfect for both casual use and formal entertaining. A terrace off the great room overlooked the garden, with a separate outside stairway providing direct access to the garden.
Dave introduced us to his mom and dad, whose faces were very familiar to me, but with clear signs of middle age that weren’t so visible in their public appearances. Although Larry’s father seemed a bit aloof, perhaps because of his British heritage, Larry’s mother had a warm smile and firm handshake that immediately exuded warmth. I also took advantage of the opportunity to talk shop with her about the more memorable operas in which she’d performed and the chance to star opposite some of the greatest tenors of our time.
She totally blew me away when she asked if I’d be interested in working as an extra in one of her upcoming performances. I’d have to audition for it and I’d have to join the union, but it would be a chance to experience an opera from the inside, not to mention a chance to work with some of the top talent in the field. I’d hafta get permission from the dads, which I was sure I could get, but nothing was gonna stop me from doing this, except maybe the stupid Coronavirus.
“Are you sure you want to go to a diner?” I asked for about the tenth time as we walked down 98th Street. I’d been a bit surprised when Mom asked Larry if he could recommend a deli, dinner or family restaurant nearby that we could get in and out of without much fuss. Without hesitation, he recommended the City Diner. When I mentioned that Seth’s grandpas had taken Kyle and me there and it was excellent, our plans were set. I just couldn’t picture Mom eating at a diner.
Laughing, Mom replied, “If the director of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History and his boyfriend, a Nobel laureate, think it’s the best restaurant on the Upper West Side, then that’s where I want to go.”
“Being a world-famous astrophysicist doesn’t necessarily make you a culinary expert,” Kyle pointed out.
“Perhaps not,” Mom answered, “but being a prominent resident of the Upper West Side makes you a thousand times more qualified than dozens of anonymous idiots who write reviews on social websites like Yelp. I may be new to the whole social media thing, but it doesn’t take long to realize that most of it is utter bullshit.” I was shocked. I didn’t even know Mom knew about social media, let alone used it, and I’d never heard her say ‘bullshit’ when she was talking to us.
There are many fine restaurants on the Upper West Side, but Seth’s grandfather and his grandfather’s boyfriend considered the City Diner to be the best. It was their favorite restaurant in New York. Asher and Seth said the same thing about the Good Stuff Diner, and Kyle and I ate at the Riverdale Diner all the time. When I lived in Battery Park City, I often ate food from some of the finest restaurants in Lower Manhattan. Frankly I liked the food better at the diners. The atmosphere wasn’t as elegant nor the food as fancy, but to me there was no comparison.
The City Diner was at the corner of 90th and Broadway, which was only a few blocks away. I was shocked though when Mom suggested walking there. It was a cloudy late-winter evening with light rain and was a bit on the nippy side. Even for such a short distance, however, Mom always used to insist on being driven. She was steadily surprising me.
“Oh, this is nice,” Mom said the moment we stepped inside. Although the food at the Good Stuff Diner might have the edge over the City Diner or the Riverdale, the décor at the City Diner was by far the nicest of any of them. It had an authentic Art Deco theme with a table layout that was exceptionally cozy. Although it was a fairly large diner, it didn’t feel large.
The five of us were seated in a large booth, and we were each given a copy of the extensive menu. I decided on the chicken souvlaki sandwich, which came with a Greek salad and fries. I upgraded to sweet potato fries and ordered an unsweetened iced tea. Kyle ordered the Mexican Fiesta Salad, which consisted of a lime-marinated grilled chicken breast, tomatoes, cheese, avocado, corn, lettuce, red onions and ranch dressing. It sounded yummy, and he added an iced coffee. Both of my sisters ordered the City Diner burger deluxe, which came with coleslaw, a pickle, lettuce, tomato and fries, to which they each added a coke. Mom got the vegetarian frittata with egg whites and with whole wheat toast and coffee. Funny, but the idea of ordering breakfast never even occurred to me. The meal was so unlike her usual fare that it was surreal.
“Are you sure you’re my mother?” I asked and my sisters giggled.
“My life was a train wreck, Freck,” Mom began. “I told you I’d had some difficulties. What I didn’t tell you is that I collapsed during a public appearance and I ended up in the hospital.”
Gasping, I responded, “I never heard about that.”
“My publicist went to great lengths to keep it out of the press, just as he did with your apparent suicide attempt,” she explained.
“I never even thought about that,” I responded. “It wasn’t really a suicide attempt, by the way. I was completely stoned and thought I could fly. The sad thing was that I was so apathetic from all the weed I’d smoked that I didn’t even care if I fell to my death. I was so fucked up.”
“I’ll let that remark slide,” Mom interjected, “since I know how emotional this is for you. I know I used to use language like that around you kids all the time as I ignored you, particularly when I was speaking on the phone.”
“My friend Asher White’s mother once said that foul language has its place,” I interrupted, “but it loses its impact if used otherwise.”
“His mother’s very wise,” Mom continued. “So the reason I was hospitalized was that I have an eating disorder. I attend a lot of events and most involve eating a lot of unhealthy, rich foods. It made it very hard to maintain my figure, yet I had to in my line of work, so I spent a lot of time in the bathroom vomiting up what I ate. After doing that repeatedly for more than a decade, I collapsed and ended up in the hospital, where I found out that I came very close to ending up like Karen Carpenter.”
“Who is Karen Carpenter?” Debbie asked.
“She was a very popular singer back in the seventies.” Kyle explained. “She had a velvety voice that many consider unequalled before or since, but unknown to the public was how contentious her relationship was with her brother. Richard Carpenter sang background vocals with her and was her manager. She had a serious eating disorder and one day collapsed at home and never woke up.”
“Damn,” Lisa exclaimed.
“So the public was told I’d merely passed out from a hectic schedule and while everyone thought I was taking a vacation at a private location, I checked myself into an eating disorders clinic.”
Our drinks arrived and we slowly sipped them as Mom continued her story. “The clinic focused on adopting a healthier lifestyle, with a balanced diet, light exercise and learning how to limit intake in the face of plenty. I can’t give up attending fancy dinners in my line of work, so quitting fine dining the way an alcoholic quits drinking was not an option for me, although I did have to face up to alcoholism and drug abuse as well. Instead I learned how use regular, healthy meals and snacks to suppress my appetite and to sample food without actually eating much of it. I can’t afford to skip meals as I often used to, because then I’d binge. And of course I started counseling and have been going ever since.”
Snorting, I said, “The counseling I got wasn’t enough, and it stopped altogether when I moved in with the Kyle’s family. We all figured that being in a ‘normal’ household would fix all my problems, but the first time I encountered stress, I freaked out and ran. It’s a miracle I didn’t wind up dead.”
“I feel terrible about how I handled it too, Freck,” Mom acknowledged. “I had recently been discharged from the eating disorders clinic and had yet to avail myself of the counseling. Even though I was right there in Paris, I was in no shape to help you then. I could only have done more harm than good. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but I was just coming to terms with my own problems and I cared enough to stay away from you. It wasn’t until I went through counseling that I turned the corner.”
“So you’ve changed the way you eat and sworn off all mind-altering substances,” I continued the conversation, “and you’re undergoing regular counseling. At the same time, you’re just as involved with work as before, you’ve made a commitment to spend more time with your children and on top of all of that, you’ve decided you’re gonna end homelessness, not just by giving away your money, but by convincing others to give away their money too. That means establishing a foundation —”
“Done,” Mom interrupted.
“Wow! Mom. It means hosting untoward number of fundraisers yourself,” I went on. “It seems to me that you’re just setting yourself up for another fall and believe me, that’s something with which I have my own experience. I’m just grateful that I have a wonderful boyfriend who realized that we would both be better off in postponing going to MIT. I think you need to step back too and rethink some of this.”
“That’s a good part of what the counseling’s about, Freck,” Mom acknowledged. “There’s no shortage of counselors in New York that specialize in my type of problems, and I’ve hired one of the best. She probably makes more money than I do,” she added with a bit of a laugh. When I looked at her askance, she added, “Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”
“Ya think?” I responded and we all laughed.
“Probably more than both of my dads, combined though,” Kyle interjected to much laughter.
“You’re absolutely right about my life though, and as I’ve heard more times than I care to, I have to prioritize and right now my priority is my children. Spending time with you guys takes precedence over everything else. That’s not to say that I can’t make commitments related to work or my charity, but that must come after I set aside time at home. That’s non-negotiable. We also need to do more things together, which means we’ll be going together more often to the symphony and the opera, going to theater and travelling on vacation together from now on. And before you ask, of course your invited to all of those too, Kyle.”
“But how will you manage that and run your business and host fundraisers?” I asked.
Mom answered, “Regarding the business, it’s just a label and I’m really little more than a figurehead when you get down to it —”
“That’s not true,” I interrupted. “You’re far more than a figurehead. You have a sense of style that has largely defined what women wear today. You have a knack for finding young new talent and bringing their designs to market, long before anyone else takes an interest in their work. You take chances that no one else would, and it nearly always pays off.”
Our server arrived with all of our meals. My chicken souvlaki sandwich smelled divine, but it was enough food for two people, and even Mom’s frittata was enormous. My sisters’ burgers were made with nine ounces of beef – I shoulda noticed that when they ordered. That was over a half-pound, and more than most adults could eat. How were two nine-year-old girls supposed to eat over a pound of beef between them? Kyle’s meal wasn’t small either, but it was probably the most sensible of any of ours. We all dug in. The desserts in the dessert case looked wonderful, but none of us had room. I was absolutely stuffed when I finished.
At first I felt disoriented – more than the usual sense of a fading dream that one gets the first thing in the morning. I reached out, expecting to find Kyle next to me, but I found only an empty mattress. Opening my eyes, I realized I wasn’t in my own bedroom in Riverdale, nor was I in Kyle’s. It was a strange room, yet inviting, with filtered light streaming in through a pair of windows that were covered with translucent draperies. Shifting patterns gave the impression of movement outside the windows, perhaps from trees rustling in a gentle breeze. The light was subdued, as if the windows faced into an alleyway. The walls were a very pleasant shade of pale green, but they were unadorned. Elegant antique furniture filled the room, yet it had a homey appearance – the sort of feeling one gets when staying in an expensive bed and breakfast.
Slowly I remembered that I was spending the weekend with my mother in the brownstone she’d recently purchased on the Upper West Side. She and my dad had separated, and she was trying to make amends with me, or so she said. However, I was gonna be cautious, given the way she’d treated me before. It was still hard to imagine her doing all of this unless there were a primary benefit to her and her alone.
Pulling back the covers, it was obvious I needed to relieve my bladder. Through an open door I could see that my bedroom had an en-suite bathroom and I remembered having used it last night, so made my way there. It was a rather tiny bathroom compared to what one might find in modern construction, with only a toilet under a window, a small pedestal sink and a shower stall. The architect in me surmised that it and an adjacent closet were carved out of what had originally been a very large bedroom that spanned the full width of the brownstone. The tilework, although appearing to be from the turn of the last century, was much more modern in construction.
Smiling as I lifted the lid on the toilet and let loose my stream, I realized that it was the same model as the one I’d recommended for my friend Seth’s grandparents place. It looked like a vintage toilet, but it was clearly modern and used only 1.3 gallons per flush. Looking between the gauzy drapes and out the window, I saw that I was in the front of the house, looking down on the street, and on the top of five floors.
I’d gotten to bed very late last night, thanks to my boyfriend. Speaking of which, where was my boyfriend? As rested as I felt, I knew it had to be after 9:00, but otherwise I had no idea of the time. I definitely needed a shower and the bathroom had a modern glass-enclosed shower taking up an entire end. Looking around, I noted there was shampoo and soap already in the shower and a bath towel hung nearby, so I turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, and stepped in. There was a rain shower overhead and there were body jets in the wall, and the combination felt heavenly against my skin. Lathering and soaping up, I let the water cascade over me and then I switched to the handheld shower to rinse myself off. After drying myself with the towel, I realized the deodorant I’d brought with me was in my bookbag, which was back in the bedroom. I headed back there intending to grab it, but then the doorbell rang.
Vaguely I remembered that we’d invited our friends for a 10:00 brunch, but I’d just stepped out of the shower moments before and had barely had time to dry myself, let alone get dressed. I hadn’t even applied my deodorant yet and wasn’t about to put on a shirt until I did so. Someone else would have to get the door, but then the doorbell chimed again. Fuck. Certainly that would get someone else off their tush to get the door, but there was only silence.
“Could someone get that!” I shouted out. “I just got outta the shower,” I added, “and I’m not wearing anything,” but still there was only silence.
Cursing under my breath, I slipped on a pair of boxers and quickly donned the pair of chinos I’d planned to wear and rushed to the door. Still, no one else was in sight. Where were Kyle, or my mom, or my sisters?
Running down the stairs and opening the door, I found Larry waiting along with Robin and her sisters. Larry had bemused smirk on his face, but Robin’s eyes in particular were wide as saucers. Her older sisters seemed no less surprised. “Sorry about the delay and about my state of undress,” I responded. “I just got out of the shower and I have no idea where anyone else is. Please come in.”
“No worries,” Robin replied. “We’re early, but the MTA reported there were significant delays on the A Train, and we didn’t realize the B, C, and E trains were unaffected by the construction. We left extra time and didn’t need it, but better to be early than to keep everyone waiting for brunch. We grabbed Larry and came right here.”
“It’s not a problem, although we won’t start the brunch until closer to 10:00. We would have waited for you in any case. Please come in and unless I can find someone else about, we can chat while I finish getting ready.”
I led the four of them up to my bedroom via the elevator, and I quickly grabbed my deodorant. “Sorry about not being ready, but you caught me off-guard,” I added as I quickly applied it.
Strangely, it was Larry who seemed to be more embarrassed by it, and then Robin said, “Hey, I live with two sisters and a brother, and modesty is not an option in our household. Believe me, I’ve seen my brother at his worst, and vice versa.”
“Where are Josh and Dave?” I asked.
“Dave’s mother has a small car, with barely enough room for two passengers,” Sarah explained. “She’s dropping the two of them off, so they should be here soon.”
It was at that moment that Kyle joined us in my bedroom, but he clearly wasn’t expecting to see any guests. He’d obviously taken advantage of the other bathroom on the floor and had just gotten out of the shower himself, and he wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. When he saw that we weren’t alone, he mumbled, “Oh shit, why didn’t you tell me we had guests?” He grabbed his bookbag and ran back out.
I couldn’t help but laugh at my boyfriend as our guests laughed along with me. “Why didn’t I tell him, he asks. Oh I guess the doorbell ringing twice and me yelling out that I was naked and needed someone else to get the door wasn’t enough.”
“Well in his defense,” Robin began, “He must’ve been in the shower and didn’t hear us or your yelling. Talk about déjà vu! First Larry accidentally barged in on me in the bathroom when I was about to get into the shower, and now this?”
His face turning a brilliant shade of red, Larry responded, “I can’t believe you brought that up, Robin.”
“And they say girls are the sensitive ones,” Robin started to explain. “Larry, it wasn’t your fault.” Then turning to me, she continued, “His mom had just spoken to me through the door and so when I heard a knock, naturally I assumed it was her, but it wasn’t.”
Ky returned right then, wearing khaki chinos and a pink polo shirt that contrasted nicely with his long black hair, which was still damp from the shower. Like me, he was still barefoot, but the fact that he had on a shirt reminded me that I had yet to get mine out, let alone put it on. However, he didn’t need to use deodorant yet and therefore didn’t need to wait for it to dry.
With a hint of pink not only in his cheeks but also in his face and neck, Kyle apologized, saying, “Sorry about that, guys… I didn’t mean to flash you. I guess I didn’t hear the doorbell ring.”
“Twice, I might add,” I pointed out, “nor did you hear me shout out that I was naked and someone else would have to get the door. Speaking of which, where is everyone else?”
“I think I heard your sisters say something about going for a run this morning,” Kyle related. “I presume René went with them to watch over them. Perhaps your mother went with them as well, or maybe she or René went to get the food for brunch.”
“So anyway,” Robin resumed, “Larry just stood there, totally frozen and embarrassed at the sight of my naked body, not that there’s much to see —”
“Compared to other girls our age, you have plenty,” Larry interrupted.
“Obviously you musta thought so,” Robin continued.
“Robin!” Larry interrupted, but she just kept going.
“I knew I needed to diffuse the tension in the room,” she continued, “so I pulled his boxers down and told him that we were even. It worked too.”
“Actually, it was your mentioning that my mom could come check on us that got me moving,” Larry corrected.
“What the fuck did I just miss?” Kyle asked of no one in particular.
“I was just telling Freck how Larry accidentally barged in on me when I was about to get in the shower,” Robin answered.
“Do you have to tell everyone?” Larry asked his girlfriend.
At that moment the doorbell rang, and Kyle grinned and said, “I better go get that. It’s probably my brother.” Kyle was already running down the stairs by the time I remembered that Roger had plans for the day and wouldn’t arrive until later.
“And I’d better finish getting dressed,” I added. I quickly donned, the emerald green polo shirt that everyone said complemented my red hair and coppery eyes. I tucked it in and added a brown leather belt with a copper buckle, which went nicely with the rose gold bezel of my watch. Lastly, I donned a pair of Nikes with ankle socks.
Just as I was finishing getting dressed and kibitzing with our guests, Debbie and Lisa walked in and Debbie said, “Brunch will be ready in five minutes.”
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Mom placed an order at Gristedes’s,” Lisa explained. “We went with her and René to pick it up.” Gristedes was a gourmet supermarket chain and there was a store nearby at Columbus and 84th Street. Frankly, I thought their prices were extraordinarily high and their food wasn’t even as good as that at any one of a number of local stores. In any case, I was surprised that Mom hadn’t elected to have the food delivered.
“Josh and Dave are downstairs, waiting for us,” Debbie added. “They arrived just as we did.”
“Shall we head downstairs?” I asked our guests, and then we headed down the four flights of stairs to join our other guests for brunch.
Since it was a cloudy but pleasant late-winter day, Larry suggested we go for a run around the reservoir. Leave it to Kyle to think to ask how far around it actually was and since none of us knew the answer, he looked it up and found that the circumference was 2.5 kilometers, which was about a mile-and-a-half. We set off for the Jackie O. Reservoir in Central Park, a short walk away. I wasn’t a runner per se, but I’d always enjoyed athletics and sports. It was one of the few things that allowed me to feel like a normal kid. It was unusually warm for early March and the three of us boys pulled off our shirts and tied them around our waists. It took us less than a half-hour to circle the reservoir. We ran fast enough to work up a light sweat, but not enough to need to shower.
We thought about making another lap around the reservoir but ended up running half-way around the ellipse of the Great Lawn, were several softball games were underway in spite of the growing worries about the Coronavirus. We stopped at the Delacorte Theater, where free Shakespeare is performed throughout the summer. We admired the statue of Romeo and Juliette in front of the theater, walked through the Shakespeare garden, which was just starting to bud, and walked up the stairs to the observation deck in Belvedere Castle, which none of us had been to before.
By then we were all hungry and since it would be a while until the Seder meal, we headed to the Loeb Boathouse, located right on the Central Park Lake. Taking a look at the menu before entering, I saw that a burger cost $26 and although I’d often spent that much on lunch when I lived in Battery Park City, living with Kyle and his dads had taught me to appreciate the value of money. Now, the thought of spending that much on a burger seemed obscene. Perhaps because of people’s concerns about the virus, we had no difficulty getting an outdoor table for six at the more casual Boathouse Express Café and the food was excellent. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, fries and an iced tea for less than half as much. After eating, we ended taking a leisurely stroll around the lake, stopping at the Bethesda Fountain, the Bow Bridge, the Ramble Stone Arch and the Oak Bridge at Bank Rock Bay, before heading back home.
We got back to Mom’s brownstone just in time to see Asher, Seth and Roger unloading food from Seth’s dad’s car and carrying it directly through the ground-floor door to the kitchen. Once inside, I counted nearly a dozen large aluminum foil containers and wondered where we’d put them all, much less how we were gonna eat that much food. There was essentially one container for each of us. Normally I hated single-use containers, but aluminum was recyclable and the containers could go right into the oven. Indeed, Asher was adjusting the shelves in Mom’s double convection ovens and loading the containers, six to each oven. He’d obviously planned the whole thing out in advance. As Asher got the food ready to heat in the ovens, Seth’s father drove off.
“Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol haleilot?” My sisters sang in unison, and then they alternated singing the verses of the Four Questions as if they’d been doing it all their lives. Literally translated, it asks, ‘Why is different the night the this of all the nights?’ Of course with proper English grammar, it becomes, ‘Why is this night different from all the other nights?’ Differences in language constructs fascinated me, but I digress… The Four Questions had been asked by millions of kids over the years, and they were the basis of the entire Seder service. Traditionally they were asked by the youngest boy at the table and indeed, Kyle had always sung them in the past and had been prepared to sing them tonight. But with my twin sisters present, it was appropriate that they be the ones to sing them and, obviously, they’d come prepared.
We were all seated at the dining room table on the main floor of Mom’s house. Roger occupied the head of the table and served as the leader of the Seder service, and Kyle occupied the other head of the table, what other people called the foot, and served as the co-leader. They were the only two participants with recent experience. We’d already lit the candles, had our first glass of wine, said the prayers over the spring season and the eating of the greens, symbolized by sprigs of parsley, and performed the ritual washing of hands. We’d broken the middle matzah in half and Mom had gone deep into the house to hide the afikomen, a half-piece of matzo that would be eaten as ‘dessert’ to symbolize the ending of the Passover meal.
Following the recitation of the Four Questions, we read about the four children, the wise child, the scornful child, the simple child and the child not yet able to inquire. It was for the last child that it was necessary to recite the entire Passover story, so that they might begin to learn the history of the Jewish people and of their rescue from slavery. But the photo that accompanied the recitation of the four children was of four African children, a reminder that the story of Passover is the story of liberation of the Jews from slavery, but that slavery continues to this day and it affects people all over the world.
The Passover Haggadah we were using was like nothing I’d ever seen in a prayer book of any kind from any religion, much less from what I was used to from my Roman Catholic upbringing. Published by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, it was called Invisible, The Story of Modern Day Slavery: A Social Justice Haggadah, and it mixed historic reference, traditional prayers and modern day references to ongoing slavery throughout the world. It was an affirmation that our commitment to God was a promise to relieve the oppression of our fellow human beings, whoever and wherever they were. I might not be certain of the existence of God, but there was no question that humans were suffering and that was something I could do something about.
The retelling of the story of the Passover was all new to me. Of course I’d been raised with the story of the Exodus of the Israelites as a part of my Catholic faith, but it was told as the story of another people in another time and as the backstory to the coming of the messiah. The telling of the story during the Seder harkened to a tradition of oral storytelling going back perhaps more than a hundred fifty generations. It was a story of my ancestors too.
When we got to the ten plagues that God supposedly vested on the Egyptians, I was surprised by the somber nature of the recitation, both in Hebrew and in English. It wasn’t joyful, gleeful or even vengeful at what happened to the Egyptians. It was sorrowful at what they’d endured because of the pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews. Then in the name of social justice, we recited the modern-day ten plagues, the plagues of war, hatred, despoliation, perversion, vice, neglect, oppression, corruption, subjugation of science and erosion of freedom. These weren’t plagues sent by God, but rather plagues inflected by humans against other humans. Was the Coronavirus a modern-day plague sent to punish us for destroying the environment?
Next came a song I knew well because of my studies and preparation for my bar mitzvah next December. Mi Chamocha ba-elim Adonai? ‘Who is like You, oh Lord?’ That was followed by perhaps the best-known song of the Seder, even among non-Jews, Dayenu, ‘It would have been enough’. We went around the table, taking turns singing each verse, joining together in singing the chorus. However, I couldn’t help but think that if God really had done only some of what he was reported to have done in helping the Jews to escape bondage, we might still be slaves in Egypt, and perhaps ancient Egypt never would have fallen. Then again, why did God allow the Jews to be enslaved in the first place? Certainly, it wasn’t to sell Haggadahs. At least as an agnostic, I could claim it didn’t matter.
Next came the Seder plate itself and the symbolism behind each item on the plate. There was the Pascal Lamb, which symbolized the lamb the Israelites ate the night before the Exodus, making use of the blood of the lamb to mark their houses so the Angel of Death wouldn’t take their first-born sons. In modern times, people often substituted a bone from whatever meat they ate at Passover, but from the looks of it, I guessed we were having lamb for dinner.
Then there was the Beitzah, a roasted egg that symbolized new life. Many believe it was the Beitzah that became the basis of the Easter Egg in Christianity, much as wine and matzo became the symbols of Jesus’ blood and body in Communion. There was little doubt that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder and many of the symbols were common to both. Next was the bitter herb, symbolic of the bitterness of slavery, and the charoset, a mixture of chopped apples, nuts and wine that represented the mortar used in the physical labor done by the Jews in the service of the pharaoh. Next there was the matzo, the unleavened bread that represented the speed with which the Jews had to flee the Egyptian army, and then there was an orange, which apparently was a recent addition to the Seder plate that was reported to have originated in the Chabad movement.
Upon turning the page, we came to a picture that looked so much like Dave Schuster that I asked what his picture was doing in the Haggadah. It turned out it was a picture of Zach Hunter at the age of fifteen, a boy who founded the student-run organization Loose Change to Loosen Chains, an anti-slavery organization, when he was only twelve years old. I used my phone to look him up in Wikipedia and found he’s about thirty now and has written four books. What an impressive young man!
After drinking the second cup of wine and the ritual hand washing before the meal, we proceeded to eat the matzo, the bitter herb, which really was bitter, and in the tradition of Rabbi Hillel, a sandwich made with charoset and bitter herb between two pieces of matzo, representing the combination of elements in our ancestors’ difficult lives. Of course, there were prayers said in both Hebrew and English for each of these. Finally, it was time to eat!
“I have never, ever tasted any food like this,” I exclaimed as we were finishing the Passover meal. “Believe me, I’ve eaten food from some of New York’s finest restaurants too.”
Smiling, Asher explained, “I wanted to create a meal as much like what the Israelites might have eaten in ancient Egypt, but that turned out to be far more challenging than I’d ever imagined. I knew that some foods are native to the Americas and although maize is prohibited in any case, potatoes, which are a staple at Passover, were not native to the Middle East and wouldn’t have been a part of their diet. Likewise, chickens were not available until around the fourth century B.C.E. Chickens are so much a part of Jewish cooking that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. The fowl eaten in ancient Egypt would’ve been limited to birds that can be found along the Nile and would have included duck, goose, quail and pigeon… lots of pigeon. Obviously without chickens, there were no chicken eggs, but I used them anyway as a substitute for the waterfowl eggs they would’ve had. Goose eggs are rather hard to come by.
“Oxen were for the rich and would not have been available to slaves. We know the Israelites feasted on lamb before leaving Egypt, and other meats would’ve included goats and gazelle. It’s not clear if the Egyptians ate swine, but most scholars agree that the prohibition against pork among the Jews predated the Torah and was likely related to the risk of trichinosis. The ban on mixing meat and dairy didn’t originate until Talmudic times and was because of a very strict interpretation of the ban on the Canaanite ritual of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. Although it didn’t apply to ancient Egypt, I saw no need to deviate form what is now standard practice for many of you.
“Fruits and vegetables were significantly more limited. Today we’re used to eating a wide variety of foods that have been cultivated from all over the world. Selective breeding over the millennia has results in crops that are nothing like they were in ancient Egypt. For example, ancient apples were more like crabapples today. However, the market was fresh outta crabapples and so I was forced to substitute modern apples,” he quipped.
“They ate a lot of squash, figs, grapes and dates and I incorporated all of those into today’s meal. Onion, garlic and coriander were commonly used seasonings in ancient Egypt, but many common spices came from the orient and weren’t available. Remember, it was spices and not just gold that served as the impetus for Columbus’ attempt to find a shorter route to the Far East. I had to be creative.
“The biggest question of what I could use was with regard to legumes. Lentils and chickpeas were staples in ancient Egypt, but Ashkenazi Jews do not eat them during Passover. Sephardic Jews, however, do, and I chose to include them. They undoubtedly sustained the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. They couldn’t have survived without them, mana notwithstanding.”
“So I guess this isn’t turkey?” Larry asked.
“That’s crispy roast duck with shallots and grape leaves,” Asher responded, “and this is lamb stew with lentils, figs, dates and squash.”
“Why not use eggplant?” I asked. “It’s obviously Middle Eastern since it’s the principal ingredient in boba ganoush.”
“Because It wasn’t domesticated until the Middle Ages, when Arabs imported it from India, where it still grows wild,” Asher explained.
“Although fish almost certainly was eaten by the slaves in Egypt,” he continued, “gefilte fish originated among Ashkenazi Jews in eastern Europe and in its earliest form, consisted of minced, deboned fish stuffed back into the fish skin. In modern times the fish is deboned and ground, mixed with eggs, matzo meal, salt, seasonings and vegetables, and then poached in fish broth. Gefilte fish was definitely not on the menu in ancient Egypt, but I’ve heard that no Seder is complete without this delicacy and so I endeavored to make my own gefilte fish using ingredients that would have been available back then.”
“It was delicious, Asher,” Josh commented. “Everything was delicious.”
“Okay kids,” Mom began, “while René and I take care of cleaning up from dinner, it’s time for the search for the afikomen. I’ll tell you right now, it’s not in the trash, so you can save yourselves the trouble of going through the garbage, but everywhere else is fair game. We’ll reconvene back here in one half hour, with or without the afikomen, for dessert. In the unlikely event that someone finds the afikomen, I have two tickets to the Yankees season opener on April second, courtesy of my husband. They’re for seats right behind home plate.”
“I wonder if there’ll even be a Yankees season opener,” Josh commented and we all mumbled our agreement.
“Just in case it’s postponed or cancelled, I also have a fifty-dollar gift card from Amazon,” Mom added.
Everyone else went either upstairs or downstairs, or into the parlor since Mom went to all of those places when hiding the afikomen. There didn’t seem to be much point in looking in the living room or dining room but wait, there was an open box of matzo hiding in plain sight, right next to a bottle of wine on the buffet. Was there ever a time when Mom could’ve slipped the afikomen into the box? Was the box even there when she went about hiding the afikomen? Truly I couldn’t remember, but then I remembered her helping to bring the food up from the kitchen at the start of the meal. Grabbing the box of matzah from where it sat, I looked inside and sure enough, sandwiched between whole pieces of matzo was a half-piece of matzo, wrapped in a napkin. It was the afikomen, so I removed it placed it on the table. Oh wow! It took me all of two minutes to find it. That left me 28 minutes to kill while everyone else searched for it, so I pitched in, helping my mom and René clean up after the meal. Mom asked me why I wasn’t searching for the afikomen, so I told her I’d already found it.
It surprised me that my mother was right in there helping to clean up – in the past she’d have considered such work beneath her. Perhaps she really had changed. With my help, the leftovers were put away and those dishes that could fit into the first load were loaded into the dishwasher. With the dishwasher running silently, we washed the finer china by hand with me drying it, and then put it away. By the time a half-hour had passed, dessert plates and cutlery were on the table, fresh napkins laid and wine glasses refilled.
Slowly the other kids filtered back to the table, a look of disappointment showing on their faces. In a way, I wished I coulda surreptitiously given the afikomen to any of them, but my dads woulda been the first to tell me they wouldn’t learn without a chance to fail. When everyone had returned to the table, Mom announced, “I didn’t think anyone would find this,” as she held the afikomen up for all to see, “but we have a winner, and it took him only a few minutes to figure it out. Freck is the winner of the tickets and gift card. Would you like to explain where the afikomen was hidden and how you found it so quickly?”
With a laugh, I responded, “The afikomen was hidden in plain sight, in an open box of matzo on the buffet —”
“That’s impossible!” Josh interrupted. “Your mom never stopped here before going both upstairs and downstairs, and around the parlor, making plenty of racket as she went. It was evident she was giving us ample clues as to where she might have hidden it along the way. When she returned, the afikomen was nowhere in sight.”
“Except that she helped to bring the food up for dinner, including that box of matzo,” Kyle interjected. “I don’t know how I coulda missed it. She coulda easily slipped the afikomen into that box when she went downstairs, and then brought it upstairs later.”
“And you deduced that in all of a few minutes?” Josh asked.
“There’s a reason Freck will finish his senior year at Stuyvesant at the age of thirteen,” Asher commented. “Seth and I realized when we first met Kyle and Freck that they were intellectually ahead of us, in spite of their ages.”
“And you treated us as your peers,” Kyle added, “rather than as the little kids we appeared to be. I’m not sure we’re intellectually superior to you, but the one thing I am sure of is that you’re lightyears ahead of most adults when it comes to how you don’t prejudge people. That’s a big part of why you’re our best friends, and why we love you.”
“For sure,” I agreed.
After eating a sickeningly sweet dessert made with dried figs, dates, raisins and nuts with honey, which Asher told us was traditional in ancient Egypt, we shared the matzo from the afikomen, supplemented with additional matzo, and then said and sang the traditional prayers that are said after a meal. It was a rather lengthy discourse of prayer in Hebrew and it seemed that I was the only one who knew the prayers without having to refer to the transliteration. I’d already memorized most of the prayers in conjunction with my Jewish studies, and the rest I could easily read in Hebrew directly.
After drinking the third cup of wine, we finally let the prophet Elijah have his share. Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the messiah – the first and only coming of the messiah as foretold in the old testament. As an inducement for Elijah to usher in the messianic age, the door is opened to allow him to enter and to drink a cup of wine that had been sitting on the table since the start of the Seder. I could have sworn that the wine actually did go down a little bit, but that was probably just the power of suggestion. No part of the Seder is complete without a prayer, usually expressed in song, and so we sung the prayer for Elijah, Eliyahu.
After singing some traditional psalms and drinking the fourth and final cup of wine, we said the concluding prayers, and then came the fun part. There are a number of songs that are traditional at the Passover Seder. Dayeinu is one of them, but there are three others that are technically not part of the service, however are no less important and are sung after the final prayers. There was a Steinway upright piano in the living room which Larry offered to play while we all sang. I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised that he could play the piano, given that his parents were such renowned musicians, but it still caught me off-guard. For his part, he was surprised the piano was in tune, particularly when Mom told him that none of us actually plays it. However, she had it tuned after the move, which was just a few months ago.
The first of song was Chad Gadya, which means An Only Kid and is the story of a poor innocent little goat, bought for a couple bucks, only to be eaten by a cat that was bitten by a dog, that was beaten with a stick that was burned by a fire, that was quenched by water that was drunk by an ox, that was slain by a butcher that was killed by the Angel of Death, who was destroyed by God. What any of that had to do with Passover or the Jewish people was a mystery to me, but singing it in Hebrew, with each person adding a line to each verse, and doing so in a single breath, was a staple of Passover Seders around the world. Next we sang Adir Hu, which means God of Might, Echad Mi Yode’ah, which means Who Knows One, and the old spiritual, Let My People Go.
“Do you have any plans for tomorrow?” Larry asked at the end of the Seder. Apparently, Robin was spending the night at Larry’s house so she wouldn’t have to travel home so late at night, and Roger was spending the night in Mom’s guest room. Asher, Seth, Dave, and Josh and his older sisters were gonna be picked up by Seth’s dad. Josh confided in me that he was spending the night with Dave, but I had the good sense not to ask Larry if Robin was sleeping in the guest room. They were young, but then Kyle and I were far younger when we first became intimate with each other.
“Well, Mom wants me to go to church with her and then we’ll probably head back home to Riverdale,” I responded.
“Listen, the weather tomorrow is supposed to be even nicer tomorrow than it was today, with a high in the sixties,”. Larry noted. “How about having lunch with us, and then maybe we can spend the afternoon in the park?”
“That sounds like a plan.” I replied.
Just then my mother breezed into the dining room and said, “I’ve been checking out websites and I made a few phone calls and here’s the deal. Second Presbyterian is a very small congregation with a more traditional liturgy that I think we might like, but the members tend to be older. Advent Lutheran is much larger and multicultural, with five pastors, two of them Latino, and services in both English and Spanish. They have a very active youth program and a formal LGBT program. Perhaps we can go there tomorrow for Sunday services. In the future we might want to check out the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism’s Shabbat Services. I spoke at length with the rabbi, who sounds like a lovely person. He was born in Israel and even served in the army.”
This was a whole different Mom I was seeing. In the past she would have had her personal assistant get the information for her and she’d have never made actual phone calls or spoken directly with a rabbi. I didn’t even know my mom knew how to use a computer, let alone look at websites.
“If I could make a suggestion,” Larry interrupted. “My family belongs to Rodeph Shalom, on 83rd Street. They’re one of oldest synagogues in America and recently celebrated their 175th anniversary. There are two services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings… a formal one in the sanctuary led by the rabbis and the cantor, and an informal minyan in the chapel, led by the congregants. If you’re interested, I’ll go with you some time. Maybe I’ll invite Robin.” The blush on his face reminded me how fond he was of my good friend’s sister.
“That’s an excellent suggestion, Larry,” Mom replied. “Assuming they’re still having them, perhaps we can go next week.”
I scarcely felt like I’d slept at all when the alarm went off on my phone at 8:30. Of course it didn’t help that we’d lost an hour due to the switch to daylight savings time. I told Kyle he could go back to sleep and we’d have lunch together when we returned from services, but Kyle wanted to go with us to church. I guess he was curious and wanted to be with me, so we both got up and got ready. The en-suite bathroom in my bedroom in the brownstone was tiny, but adequate for both of us to use at the same time, at least for now. Perhaps it would be different when we were both shaving, but that was at least a year or two in the future for me, and longer for Kyle. I stepped into the shower while Kyle brushed his teeth at the sink.
“Your mom actually seemed nice at dinner last night,” Kyle noted, just before sticking his toothbrush in his mouth.
“She’s not at all the mother I knew before I came to live with you,” I responded, “and my sisters confirm that this is the way she’s been since the separation. At first I was a bit worried that she’d try to get me to live with her now, but she vehemently denies it and I believe her. However, she did suggest we might both want to live here while going to City College.”
Spitting the toothpaste out of his mouth and rinsing, he replied, “I’ve been thinking about that and you know, that’s not a bad idea. It would cut the commuting time in half, and it’d be much more convenient to come home for lunch or when we have free time. It’s a straight shot on the A Train.”
“Actually, the B or the C train,” I pointed out. “The A Train doesn’t make any stops between Columbus Circle and 125th Street.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Kyle agreed, “but in Riverdale, we’d hafta take a bus or a Metro North train to the subway, or we’d face a decent walk to the One Train.”
“But Riverdale’s your home,” I pointed out.
“It’ll still be my home… our home… but there’s no reason your Mom’s place can’t be our home too,” Kyle countered. “It’s certainly something to think about.”
“I guess,” I replied as I turned off the water, dried myself and got out of the shower. Changing places with my boyfriend, I applied deodorant and brushed my teeth while Kyle took his shower.
Fresh and clean, we both donned clothes that were a bit dressier than usual. We wore button-up shirts with dressy sweaters and khaki pants with lace-up casual shoes. Since we’d be back home for lunch, breakfast was just a bowl of cereal, toast and coffee. We asked Roger if he’d like to go with us, but he opted to sleep in.
We arrived at the Adventist Lutheran Church nearly three-quarters of an hour early, yet families were already arriving for Sunday morning services. There were many young families with small children dropping their little ones off in day care, and there were families with young teens too.
A lot of the parishioners knew each other, and it wasn’t long before we all were engaged in conversation with members. While Mom was deeply involved talking to a woman of similar age, Debbie and Lisa started talking to their children and Kyle and I were approached by a couple of boys around my age.
“Hi, I’m Fernando,” one of the boys announced, “and this is Tyrone,” he added as we all bumped fists.
“My name’s Freck,” I responded, then quickly added, “which is short for Freckles. My given name’s Francis, which I hate, and I use the French version François for anything formal. This is my boyfriend, Kyle.”
“Cool, Tyrone responded. “Turns out were all family. Do you live near here?”
“My parents are separated, and my mom just bought a brownstone nearby,” I explained. “However, I spend most of my time living with my boyfriend and his dads up in Riverdale.”
“I think you’ll find a diversity of kids who go here,” Fernando interjected. “They have a very active youth group and there are a lot of activities specific to LGBT teens. And while there’s adult supervision, most youth activities are planned and executed by the teens themselves.”
The sound of music playing indicated that the service was about to start, so Fernando suggested, “If it’s okay with your mom, there’s a group of us that usually sit together during the services, and then we get together afterwards for refreshments as a group while the adults do the same.” Seeing that Mom was now a bit of a distance away and still actively engaged with talking to other adults, I waved to get her attention, then pointed to the boys we were with and she nodded to indicate her permission to pray with them.
After the service, Mom and my sisters mingled with the other congregants while Kyle and I continued to talk to Fernando, Tyrone and the other kids. It turned out that one of the girls, Karen, was a student at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College. When I mentioned that Kyle and I would be going there next year, after finishing up at Stuyvesant, she responded, “I need to meet up with my family, but perhaps you can join us for lunch.” She led us out into the congregation and toward a distinguished, well-dressed couple with a kid who looked to be about our age.
“Mom, Dad,” she began, “These guys are students at Stuyvesant, and they’ll be going to HSMSE next year. I thought maybe we could have them over for lunch and I could discuss the school and the campus with them while we eat.”
“You’re certainly welcome to have lunch with us,” the father agreed, “If you have your parents’ permission.”
“I’ll have to ask my Mom if that’s OK,” I responded, “but I’m sure she’ll agree with it.”
“Anyway,” Karen continued, “these are Freck and Kyle, and guys, these are my parents and my brother, Kevin.”
“What kinda name is Freck?” Kevin asked with a snort.
“It’s a nickname and short for Freckles, obviously,” I replied. “My given name’s Francis, but I hate it.”
At that moment, Mom approached with my sisters and after another round of introductions, during which I learned that Karen’s parents were Cynthia and Geoffrey Granger, they asked her if she and her daughters would like to join them for lunch.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose,” Mom replied, “but I think I already know you. I’m almost certain we’ve met before.”
“You’re a fashion designer, aren’t you?” Cynthia asked.
“Well, I rarely do my own designs anymore, but you probably know of me from my label,” Mom responded.
Before Mom could even mention the name of her label, Cynthia responded, “Oh yes, I have a number of your outfits. Who doesn’t?”
“People who can’t afford expensive clothes,” Kevin interjected. Damn, this kid was as sassy as my Kyle.
“You’ll have to forgive our son,” Geoffrey added. “He just turned twelve and like many affluent middle schoolers, he’s discovered social consciousness.”
Instead of responding directly to Geoffrey, Mom looked right at Kevin and said, “Well young man, I think you’re right about my designs, and that’s why I’m working on plans for a line of affordable clothing for women who want to look stylish but can’t afford designer clothes. However, I think the effort would be hollow if I made those clothes in Chinese sweatshops, wouldn’t it?” The boy actually was nodding in agreement. “Unlike my competitors, everything that carries my label is made in the U.S.A., but labor costs here are sky high. I’m looking at building a factory in an underserved rural community, or perhaps in Mexico, where I can still keep an eye on things and maintain quality control. I’m also making a commitment to switching completely to renewable energy within five years.” That was all news to me. The mom of my past wouldn’t have cared about affordability or sustainability at all.
Turning back to the parents, Mom went on, “I’ve taken an interest in eliminating homelessness, particularly among our youth, and I’ve started a foundation to address homelessness, street drugs and mental illness. Geoffrey, I know you have a lot of influence with people of means in your position at the World Bank,” she added, “so you can count on me hitting you up for help in building a substantial endowment.”
“I’d be happy to help in any way I can,” Geoffrey replied. “There’s scarcely a day when I don’t pass a dozen or more young men sleeping on the sidewalks of New York. Most people just want them to go away, but that’ll never happen unless we address the underlying causes… drugs, mental illness and an utter lack of affordable housing.”
“Out of curiosity, I haven’t seen you here before. Do you live nearby?” Cynthia asked.
“I just bought a brownstone on 88th Street,” Mom responded. “My husband’s idea of a place to live is a penthouse in Battery Park City. It’s convenient to him as the CEO of one of the major brokerage firms, but he balked at the idea of helping the homeless and it was just the last straw in what had been a loveless marriage. My children deserve better. Freck had a particularly hard time of it,” she went on, “and ended up moving in with his boyfriend’s family up Riverdale.”
“You guys are gay?” Kevin asked.
“Well yeah,” I replied. “It wouldn’t make much sense to be boyfriends if we weren’t.”
“Aren’t you a bit young to know if you’re gay?” Geoffrey asked. “You both look like you’re about Kevin’s age, and he just turned twelve.”
“Freck’s thirteen,” Kyle responded, “but I’m only eleven and I came out when I was eight.”
“That’s cool,” Kevin responded. “My best friend’s gay, and he told me when he was ten. He tells me what guys he thinks are hot and I tell him about the girls.”
Laughing, Cynthia responded, “I didn’t know Chuck was gay, but attitudes are certainly changing. By the way, are you familiar with True Colors United?” she asked my Mom.
“Cincy Lauper’s organization for homeless gay youth?” I asked.
“It’s sad to think there are still parents who can’t accept their gay children and discard them like unwanted trash or make life so difficult for them that they run away,” Mom chimed in. “So many of those kids end up on the streets of New York, preyed upon by those with no qualms about sexual exploitation, they end up addicted to drugs and dependent on their pimps for their supply. Yes, I plan to reach out to organizations like True Colors United.”
“You definitely should come over for lunch,” Cynthia responded. “I’m on the board of True Colors United, and we definitely should talk.”
“There’s no way you could be seniors at Stuyvesant,” Kevin’s best friend, Chuck said as we enjoyed our lunch. It turned out the Grangers lived in a penthouse apartment on Central Park West, at Ninetieth Street, with a wrap-around terrace that afforded a phenomenal view of Central Park. It was a beautiful late winter day and we were taking advantage of the weather to sit outside. Cynthia had ordered chilled poached salmon from Zabars, a gourmet institution on the Upper West Side, known for its selection and quality foods. She served it with lemon dill mayonnaise and chilled asparagus, and it was delicious. Mom was off with Cynthia at a small table by themselves, talking about the homeless, and we kids were at a larger table talking about school, among other things. Geoffrey was inside watching college basketball, I think.
“Believe it, we are,” I responded to Chuck’s comment.
“At thirteen, Freck, you should be a freshman… maybe a sophomore,” Chuck continued, “but Kyle, you’re only eleven? What the fuck’s an eleven-year-old doing in high school?”
“How many eleven-year-olds do you know that can solve complex vector partial differential equations?” Kyle countered, “Or manipulate four-dimensional tensors.”
“What I don’t understand is why, if you’re seniors, you’re going to HSMSE next year,” Kevin interjected.
“Actually, we’ll still be registered at Stuyvesant,” I explained. “That way, we won’t be taking slots from the incoming freshmen. We’ve both already been accepted at MIT for the fall and we were preparing to go there until a good friend pointed out the obvious… that we’d be freaks there at our age.”
“You’d be freaks anywhere at your age,” Kevin countered, “but I think I see what you mean. You might both be geniuses, but you look like little kids. What professor would ever take you seriously.”
“Just remember that City College is the place to go for those who otherwise couldn’t afford college. It used to be free. It won’t be in the same league as MIT,” Karen pointed out.
“We’re well aware of that,” Kyle replied. “We run into much the same thing at Manhattan Community, where there’s a mix of kids who only want a two-year degree and kids taking advantage of the lower tuition and the chance to live at home another couple of years, but who plan to get a four-year degree somewhere else. Of course there are those whose grades in high school weren’t good enough to get into the college of their choice, so they go to community college first in the hope of proving themselves worthy of a better school.”
“Most kids who go to City College are in it for the full four years,” Karen continued. “It’s a decent school with a competitive math, science and engineering curriculum and courses taught by the professors themselves. I think you’ll find that the professors are just as good as those in a better-known four-year university, but they’re the kind of professors that prefer teaching to research and the grind of publish or perish. That’s actually s good thing. It’s not Ivy League, but it’s way better than community college.”
Changing the subject, Chuck asked, “So you two are boyfriends. Why can’t I get Kevin to be my boyfriend?”
“Crushing on your straight best friend can be tough,” I answered.
“It’s tough on the straight best friend too,” Kevin added. “I mean I really like fooling around with Chuck —”
“I’m outta here,” Karen interrupted as she got up and walked into the apartment. Curiously, my sisters stayed put.
“—but for me it kinda feels like I’m taking advantage of him when I know he’d like it to be something more,” Kevin continued. “We’re only twelve and I hope I’ll get a girlfriend in a year or two, or at least start dating girls, but what will that do to Chuck? I’m worried that he’ll take it hard.”
“Hey, I know what I’m getting into,” Chuck replied. “For now we’re just friends with benefits and that’s fine with me.”
“Sixth grade isn’t exactly the best time for finding a girlfriend, let alone a boyfriend,” I chimed in. “Maybe next year, but more likely eighth grade. I didn’t find Kyle until I was in tenth grade,” I related.
“Yeah, but you were what, eleven?” Chuck asked.
“I was within days of turning twelve,” I replied. “I was your age… and I was lucky. Very, very lucky.” The smile on Ky’s face told me he felt exactly the same way.
The feeling of my phone vibrating in my pocket reminded me of the friends who were waiting to meet up with us and sure enough, it was a text from Larry asking when we’d be available, and if we’d be interested in spending the afternoon at the Central Park Zoo. Turning back to Kevin and Chuck, I said, “A couple of our friends, who are seventh graders at the Salk School for Science, are going to meet up with us later. Would you be interested in going with us to the Central Park Zoo?”
Looking at each other and nodding, Kevin replied, “We’d love to, but we need to get going. The zoo closes at 4:30.”
“Great,” I responded. “I’ll text them back and see if they could meet us in fifteen minutes by the reservoir.”
The rapidity with which events unfolded took us all by surprise. The Coronavirus pandemic, dubbed Covid-19, spread around the globe like wildfire and it quickly became evident that the United States was destined to follow the course of Italy, with a healthcare system overwhelmed and perhaps millions of Americans succumbing to viral pneumonia. The President implemented a travel ban on Europe, which only caused the stock market to suffer some of its worst losses in history. Eventually he came around to the need to use his emergency powers to deal with the crises as the medical issue it already was, rather than only as an external threat, but much of what he did was too little, far too late. He never did seem to get that the virus wasn’t interested in making a deal.
In the meantime, the governor of New York implemented sweeping changes to our lives, banning public gatherings, closing restaurants, hair salons and just ahead of Saint Patrick’s Day, closing all public schools throughout the state. The New York City school system moved very slowly to implement online education as a city-wide program, which of course resulted in substantial delays. Many of our teachers, however, chose not to wait and contacted all of us by email, implementing self-study programs and virtual classrooms using existing free videoconferencing software and websites. Asher’s family was busier than ever, though, getting meals out to the community from both their Asian takeout restaurant and the Ragin’ Cajun.
Unfortunately, the case against Seth’s father on Federal corruption charges was essentially put on hold, which would have resulted in it being delayed indefinitely. The governor, who was a personal friend, however, needed Frank Moore to help deal with the crisis and so he applied pressure on the Justice Department. They didn’t drop the case but the deal they tried to strike with Seth’s dad was so contrived that the judge ultimately threw the whole thing out.
Life fundamentally changed with the onset of Covid-19. We learned what we should have known all along – that human life is vulnerable and we can take nothing for granted. Whether or not people will learn from the experience and finally take the threat of climate change seriously has yet to be seen.
In any case, we lived in a new normal and although we weathered the Passover Panic of 2020, our lives would never be the same.
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay preteen and teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. The author retains full copyright.