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The Body Never Forgets

It was July, the summer before my junior year of high school, and I was staying up late one night, waiting to binge. Howard and I were the only two kids home for the summer. Robert and Rachel were away at camp, and Janet was driving across the country with her friends, as everyone was doing at the time.

Even though it was just Howard and me, we didn’t spend much time together. He was working at Uncle Buddy’s junkyard, wearing a hard hat, operating a crane, and coming home filthy dirty, which he loved. In his spare time, he lifted weights in his friends’ dank, smelly basements and ate as many of his meals as he could get away with at Mickey D.’s, which was what he called McDonald’s.

The previous year, when a new franchise opened up at the Turnpike interchange in New Stanton, he’d walked in, dropped to all fours like a dog, waddled to the counter, and barked out his order, just because he’d told his friends he would.

I was taking intensive German at a small liberal arts college in a nearby town because I had to do something. But I knew, and everyone else knew, that my true purpose in life was to lose twenty pounds. Almost two years had gone by, and I hadn’t managed to do it.

I’d picked German to study because German sounded like Yiddish, and I wanted to be steeped in the culture of Eastern European ghetto Jews like Dad was. When I was still in junior high, he’d given me a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer called “Gimpel the Fool,” about a schlemiel of a baker who’s tricked into marrying the town prostitute, then pees into the village bread dough to get revenge. I hated the story. I found it strange and upsetting. My idea of shtetl life was straight out of Marc Chagall, colorful and charming, with dancing cows and fiddlers on the roof. But I didn’t say so to Dad because if he thought I.B. Singer was great, then as far as I was concerned, I.B. Singer was great.

In fact, my Jewish identity was such that I took perverse pride in the fact that three of us were named for relatives on Dad’s side who died in the Holocaust. Ma didn’t have that intense connection, so it made me think of her as less authentic. Besides, she didn’t speak or understand Yiddish, except for the few words that even the gentiles knew.

That night Ma and Dad had gathered up the newspapers around 10:30 and announced that they were going to bed. “Don’t forget to turn the lights off,” Dad said, worrying, as usual, about wasting electricity.

“And leave the back door open for Howard,” Ma said. She was always looking out for him, even when he was fucking up spectacularly, although at that point, they were less mad at him than usual because he was going to Harvard in the fall.

“I’ll be up soon,” I said, which wasn’t true. Bingers have to stay up late to binge.

Every day that summer had followed pretty much the same pattern: I’d get up, skip breakfast, and drive fifteen miles to the picturesque campus of red brick Gothic buildings in our big boat of a station wagon with fake wooden siding, making sure to have plenty of chewable vitamin C tablets and Teaberry gum on the front seat to stave off the hunger pangs that set in around ten. If I got to campus early, I killed time in the cafeteria, drinking Tab and conjugating verbs. In life, I might have been a failure, but in German, I was terrific, the best in my class.

I was crazy about our teacher, Mr. Yenser, one of the lay instructors at the college, which was founded by Benedictine monks. With his stocky build, bristling flat-top haircut, and green nylon windbreaker, he looked like a football coach. But he was passionate about opera and loaned me his copy of Tristan and Isolde, which I played obsessively when I wasn’t listening to Let It Bleed.

I thought Dad would be impressed that I was listening to opera because he considered himself a classical music connoisseur, able to identify a composer within a few bars of a piece coming on the radio. But he wasn’t. He called Mr. Yenser “Yenser the Maladjusted,” like Tevye the Milkman, although he never said why. I thought it might have had something to do with the fact that he was single, middle-aged, and still lived with his mother, but Dad would just shake his head sorrowfully and say, “He’s a mudneh little man,” using the Yiddish word for strange. Since Dad knew everyone in Mount Pleasant and could tell you, besides the finish on their furniture, what kind of mattress they slept on, and whether they were deadbeats or paid their bills on time, I tended to believe him.

After class, I would drive straight home because I had nowhere else to go. In midafternoon the house was cool and quiet and best of all, empty. Betty was gone for the day. I’d change into cut-offs, a baggy T-shirt, and Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals, which Ma’s holistic podiatrist had told me were good for your feet.

Since I’d be starving by then, I’d bake. Baking was an acceptable pastime in our family, like embroidery in Jane Austen. If you could pull off something difficult, Ma and Dad were impressed, especially if you didn’t eat it.

Janet had established herself as the No. 1 cook in the family a couple Christmases back when she’d mastered the impossible croissant recipe in Larousse Gastronomique. It called for working a pound of butter into the flour while barely handling the dough in order to keep the pastry flaky.

Rachel was no slouch either. In grade school she’d already been written up in the Mount Pleasant Journal for baking organic whole wheat bread.

And then, of course, there was Ma, who had hundreds of cookbooks and books about food by authors like M.F.K. Fisher, Robert Farrar Capon, and Elizabeth David, plus stacks of Gourmet and Bon Appetit, and binders bulging with recipes clipped out of the papers. She read it all voraciously, for instruction and pleasure, and also for one-upmanship, to maintain her status as the most adventurous cook in town. Her menus were the stuff of gossip. “The Levins are eating duck!” one of our cousins reported to her son with awe.

I, on the other hand, cooked to binge. And my repertoire was simple: Tollhouse cookies, quick breads, and the applesauce cake with caramel icing in The Joy of Cooking. I especially liked making banana or cranberry nut bread because it was easy and arguably healthy, especially if you used whole wheat flour and sprinkled in a little wheat germ. And there was nothing like an undercooked loaf right out of the oven, when the insides were still gooey.

That day, though, I decided to make Tollhouse cookies, so I headed downtown to buy two packages of Nestle chocolate chips. On the way home, I stopped at my cousin Suzanne’s. We smoked a few cigarettes and complained about our mothers, but she didn’t hate Aunt Norma as much as I hated Ma. There was no doubt, I was Queen of the Fuck-ups.

I told her I was going home to make cookies and would bring some by for her later, thinking that if I did so, I could stop what was coming. But I couldn’t. I still snacked on the chocolate chips while I assembled the ingredients and ate the raw dough while the cookies were in the oven.

By dinnertime, I wasn’t hungry at all because I’d eaten so much raw cookie dough. I sat sullenly at the table, with a conspicuously empty plate, while Ma, who didn’t know what had transpired but might have guessed anyway, suggested I’d have more success losing weight if I didn’t starve myself all day.

“You should eat three meals a day, but only three meals, and at regular times,” she said sternly. “And you should never skip breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day.”

Dad gestured to the sautéed vegetables and garden salad. “If you only ate what your mother put on the table, you’d lose the weight in no time. There’s not a single thing here with saturated fat.”

The main course was broiled salmon, which we had every Monday night because that was the day when one of the men from the store drove into Pittsburgh for parts for appliances and, while he was there, picked up Ma’s weekly order from Julius the Fish Man.

When we were through eating, Dad poured himself and Ma another glass of wine, leaned back in his chair and declared that the fish was the finest Ma had ever made. “The secret is not overcooking it and letting it rest,” he proclaimed.

Howard had skipped dinner again, which really pissed me off. He spent a lot of evenings with our cousin Jack, playing ping-pong in his basement and listening to albums. He’d ad lib lyrics while Jack played the guitar and write terrible poetry inspired by Jim Morrison and his beloved Frank Zappa.

He’d also been loitering in Jack’s mother’s kitchen, learning how to bake her famous cheesecake. All the Jewish women in Mount Pleasant had tried, without success, to match the recipe, but Howard figured it out. “That son of a gun,” Vera had said to Jack. “He’s done it, he’s cracked the code.”

While I did the dishes, Ma and Dad settled into two brown leather bucket chairs in front of the fireplace to read for the next three hours. I actually liked doing the dishes because it made me feel useful, and I got to furtively lick the serving spoons and eat the fatty salmon skin they’d left on their plates, which I thought was the best part.

A few years earlier, they’d remodeled the kitchen, ripping up the old linoleum and knocking down the wall to the dilapidated playroom—not that we ever had enough toys to stock a proper children’s playroom. Ma and Dad didn’t believe in toys unless they were Swedish and made of wood. The new, combined space featured an L-shaped island in the middle, a rustic drop leaf table, and a chimney covered in cheerful orange, yellow, and blue Spanish tile. Ma matched the blue in the tile with the area rug, kitchen countertops, and refrigerator/freezer, and it had caused a brief sensation in town when the fridge had to be taken to a local auto body shop to be spray-painted royal blue.

Once the dishwasher was running and everything was put away, I sat down at the table to do my homework. But it was hard to concentrate because every few minutes, either Ma or Dad would look up from their newspaper or magazine and read aloud to the other one.

Dad had always told us that reading every word of the Times was essential, and he did, even on vacation. When they rented a house in St. Bart’s for a few weeks in the winter, he arranged to have the daily paper flown in on a little plane.

After he was through with the Times, he plowed through the Journal and moved on to the New York Review or New Yorker or one of the other magazines we subscribed to. He had a big crush on Pauline Kael, quoting her opinion every time they went to the movies.