DURING THE KIRSCHENBAUM SEDER OF ’84,
Hopped up on hormones and Manischewitz, I kissed then-thirteen-year-old Tana Kirschenbaum while we were supposed to be hunting the afikomen. I even made a run at fondling her breasts – marvelous then, nothing but improvement since – until, to my great dismay, she shut me down. It wasn’t that Tana didn’t like me: She just already knew better than to trust me. And while I lost a potential conquest, I found a sister. In the years since, Tana had been chief strategist to my romantic entanglements. She helped me make sense of my feelings when love was in bloom and, when it wasn’t, listened patiently to my sins. In return, I offered sage advice regarding her own affairs of the heart, which tended to be long on deep, meaningful embraces but short on the down-and-dirty. “He’s definitely gay” was my most frequent observation.
With the exception of last Thanks giving – it’s hard
to believe that a year has passed since my Long Weekend of Glorious Ingratitude – the Kirschenbaums have provided the setting for most major holidays. My own parents are short on family ties: Mom’s clan of nononsense Protestants reside mainly in her native Indiana, while Dad’s relations – to call them lapsed Catholics doesn’t quite capture the length of the fall – always seem to be engaged in some blood feud precluding any possibility of face-to-face contact. Larry Kirschenbaum, who’s thrice defended my father on charges of driving under the influence, is the closest thing Dad has to a friend. Still, my father harbors an abiding suspicion, repeated each time we pile into the car to go, that the invitation allows Larry to write off the cost of the meal.
This year’s table seats thirteen, which for the Kirschenbaums is an intimate affair. No one is sober enough to retrieve dessert. I’m fairly certain that Dottie, Tana’s heavily mascaraed but otherwise remarkably preserved mother, is flirting with me. There really isn’t any other way to make sense of her so far unquenchable interest in my current job, slinging soft-serve at the Carvel on Jerusalem Avenue.
Dottie’s stocking foot, now tracing a line up my leg, confirms my theory. Awkward, as I’m sitting next to her husband. Doubly awkward, as I’m pretty sure Dottie and my father have engaged in carnal gymnastics on more than one occasion. Sure enough, Dad – who’s spent most of the night fixated on Tana’s glorious rack – is glaring at me with a look that might be intimidating if not drowned in scotch. I’m relieved to see that Mom’s too dead-eyed to notice, thanks to Dr. Marty Edelman, an orthodontist whose recent vacation to Napa Valley apparently produced no detail too small or insignificant.
While I can imagine worse fates than sinking my Fudgie the Whale into Dottie’s Cookie-Puss, the idea of going where my father’s been strikes me as a little too Oedipal for comfort. I excuse myself and step outside for a cigarette.
Uncle Marvin has beaten me to the stoop. He isn’t my uncle – avuncularly speaking, he belongs to Tana – but he’s as much a fixture at these things as the cloth place mats. A year or two north of sixty, he still sports a full mane of shiny gray hair, less a sign of virility than a cruel reminder. He was one of New York’s Finest during the seventies, until six bullets to the legs and groin led to an early retirement, a permanent limp, and a urinary tract fucked up enough to require a permanent piss bag.