I was recently driving home from the dry cleaners when I saw my first boyfriend’s number light up on my dashboard. It was the middle of the day. In the semi-annual calls he’s placed to me over the years, my ex hardly calls during daylight hours. I knew something was very wrong. We have been in touch intermittently since I wrote him a condolence note a decade ago. His mother had died too young at 62, and I was moved to tell him so. I loved her dearly when my ex and I were together.
My ex and I met when I was 16 and he was 18. He wore rugby shirts. I wore ribbons in my hair. Now we’re almost the same age that his mother was when she died.
My ex’s latest phone calls began like this: “I’ve got some bad news,” he said in his halting way. In the past, this one-size-fits all preamble signaled he was divorcing, his sister had stopped speaking to him, or his son had once been missing for a week. Through it all his radio voice hadn’t aged. It was a slow mellow voice, smooth and dreamy. If things were not so consistently sad for him, he could have been delivering a version of “Bedtime Magic,” a radio show local to me that plays easy-listening, chaste songs hovering on the edge of sexy.
I always wondered if he had inherited his voice from his father, whom he hadn’t seen since he was 12. My ex never talked about his father so I was left to conjure him in my imagination. But I had seen my ex a few times in our middle age, and his still youngish deep voice didn’t match his ever-balding head and stooped posture. Yet there were traces of his once handsome face, which made me sad.
“Like Rock Hudson,” my mother used to gush.
She and I and his mother were his adoring fans.
This phone call, however, began differently.
“I just bought a cemetery plot for my 31-year-old son,” he said.
No stammer. No emotion. Just raw fact.
“And I bought the plot next to his for me.”
I never met the son, but I knew from these phone calls that his son had been a troubled little boy who grew up into a troubled man.
“I keep a lawyer on retainer for him,” my ex once told me.
Another time he called me because there was no one else. He was exhausted trying to wrangle his son into the car to make a flight. He was sending the boy to an Outward Bound kind of psychiatric program. That time, the son flatly refused to go.
And then there was me who had not loved my ex in a very long time. But I always listened. His voice, still compelling put me back in his car when we were so sex-crazed we thought we might die. Death was theoretical back then. Our grandparents were alive and our parents were fierce. Everyone was strong until they weren’t. They died off with the exception of my mother who is in a nursing home.
My ex went on.
“The thing is, my son died of mental illness.”
And then he blurted out: “He killed himself. It looked like he aspirated on his vomit. I found the body.”
My ex was very clinical on this call. He is a physician who has spent most of his adulthood working in hospitals. Perhaps he had to create this façade to cope with the guilt of relief and the disorientation of shock. I pulled over on the side of the road. On the other end of the line my ex was still driving, and at one point swearing at someone who had cut him off. He listened to me cry. The silence that had settled between us was the kind that happens between two people who have known each other for a very long time.
And then he pierced the quiet. “We would have never had a son like him.”
He sings some version of this song of regret almost every time he calls.
“We’ll never know,” I said quietly.
My ex and I haven’t been together for over 30 years, and I don’t have one second of regret about that. After eight years of murky, messy co-dependence, he ghosted me to go on an extended sex romp at his mother’s urging.
“Everyone should sow their wild oats when they’re young,” she frequently said in her sunny yellow kitchen. In my mind’s eye she was always stirring something in a pot and I was setting the wavy glass outdoor table that stood in for the dinner table. She always fed my ex more food than she gave me. “Girls have to watch what they eat,” she said.
I should have been insulted on both counts, but I was too busy wondering when and where she sowed her wild oats. Years later it occurred to me that she, who had my ex when she was barely 20 and was married to my ex’s father for a time so short she was keen to say it didn’t count, had her own night-time, furtive romps in the backseat of a DeSoto.
Many years later when I finally figured it out, I asked my ex: “Do you realize your mother, who was always terrified that I would get pregnant with a kid of our own, conceived you out of wedlock?”
I still cringe when I think about how much I confided in my ex’s mother about my own mother. It turns out I was the wrong girl from the wrong family. To this day, I can’t shake the feeling that my ex’s mother used my ongoing heartache against me. My situation went beyond teenage angst or self-consciousness about my mercurial Cubana mother—so rabid were her reactions to me and my sister and my brother that at times of extreme strain she wished we were never born.
My ex’s mother had once kissed the spot where my mother had pulled out a clump of my hair. She was a bleached blonde—hair that was teased into the sticky submission of a starchy bouffant.
“Oh honey,” she sighed as she stroked my head.
In those days, my mother frequently staged suicide attempts and my ex’s mother often comforted me after it happened. My mother never wanted to die. She lived for the drama of those fake attempts. Only a tiny miscalculation would end her life. She grazed my father’s razor near her veiny, ropey, bluish wrist, and drew just enough red-rose blood to scare me to the brink of her death. “No quiero vivir,” she said breathlessly and tearlessly. “I don’t want to live.” My mother courted death casually, mockingly, almost always when the house went dark after a winter time sunset or the world was mangled in snow and ice.
My ex was obviously not the one. I know this because a few years later I fell in love with my husband who was so obviously the one that I married him a year after we met.
When a Jew first hears of a death it is customary to say in Hebrew, “Baruch Dayan Emet”—Blessed is the true judge.
The phrase is a placeholder, a way of avoiding an unhelpful conversation, particularly when the death has been tragic and inexplicable. I should have said Baruch Dayan Emet to my ex. But God has been Jobian enough to him. My ex, the son, the mother of the son—they are all suspended in high tragedy. Saying this death was God’s will would mock their grief.
For a young person’s death, I wanted a radically different alternative to Baruch Dayan Emet. In this instance, I so strongly disagreed that God was the true judge, a fair judge of anything. Some years ago when a friend of my daughter’s died, a rabbi friend suggested I adopt the phrase, “That which is hidden belongs to God; we have only that which is revealed.” She didn’t exactly know where the quote came from, but she thought it was buried somewhere in the Torah.
“In other words, God only knows why tragedy persists,” she said, “and we make no attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. All we can do is only know what is revealed. Consolation, deeds of kindness, and love; they belong to us to offer and to experience.”
There is so much stagnant time to fill in a nursing home. I told my mother what happened to my ex’s son as if it were more of a news item than a tragedy. Such insouciance on my part. She became uncharacteristically quiet. Sometimes she thinks that my ex is my husband and then panics when I tell her he never was. But on the day that we spoke of my ex’s son she was clear and asked in disbelief and sorrow, “Como se murió este niño?” How did this child die?
The reflexive verb in Spanish has always felt mysterious to me. Another example: Se rompió, which literally translates as “it broke itself.” This grammatical construction casts a spell on me. This tense is supernatural in the way it inexplicably moves objects.
“Se sucidió,” I said very aware of the reflexive verb again.
The question went beyond having to fill the time. My mother has always protested that she is a chismosa—a gossip. She was right this time. This was not chismeria. Her curiosity was steeped in loving, genuine concern.
“I didn’t want to ask,” I told her softly in Spanish. I had very purposely deflected her question. I could not bear conjuring the image of my ex’s son face down, dead in a puddle of his puke.
“Que Dio guarda tus hijos,” she said in Ladino. May God watch over your children.
And then she suddenly shouted, “Bendicho El,” Bless Him!” Who was my mother blessing? Was it my ex, my ex’s son, my son, my husband, God? All of them? Even me?
“Bendicho tu,” she then said quietly. Blessings on you. Blessings on what is gone. Blessings on these troubling events. Blessings on the passage of time. Blessings for my mother in this nursing home. Blessings on all of us.
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers including the New York Times and literary magazines such as McSweeney’s, Brevity, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, and the anthology, The Shell Game: Writers Play With Borrowed Forms (University of Nebraska Press). Judy also has an essay in the forthcoming anthology, (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Regal House Publishing). She is the recipient of the Alonzo G. Davis Fellowship for Latinx writers from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and has been the Erin Donovan Fellow in Non-Fiction at the Mineral School. Her memoir, Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets is forthcoming in the fall of 2021 from Mandel Vilar Press. She lives outside of Boston with her family.