Elizabeth Bidwell Goetz

Circle Game


ISSUE 12 | HOME AND PAIN | JAN 2012

Walking in circles. When Zoe forgot that she believed in bring-a-stranger parties, she sometimes told herself that she was the sort of person who didn’t like to talk to people, especially not on the phone. But maybe if she walked in circles the conversation would go forward, as if a calculus, constructing delicate graphs mapped onto two-dimensional graph paper.

And if she was going to be talking on the phone at all, and if her parents were going to call her the way they liked to, she certainly wanted to get worthwhile stories out of them, stories to surround her, like vines on trellises, as she stumbled around the city’s latticed streets, pressing the phone to her ear.

This morning Zoe dreamed that she was living in California again and that her dad had forgotten he was supposed to give her a ride to the airport. He was supposed to pick her up from somewhere that looked like the outdoor cascading brick stairwells at UCLA and send her to some horrific Middle Eastern country she was embarrassed even in her sleep to be confusing with somewhere nearby but politically fraught in entirely disparate ways: Pakistan vs. Afghanistan. When Zoe told this to David hours later as they dawdled past shop windows filled with visual novelties, she thought he was listening because he was asking questions—was Zoe’s dad supposed to pick her up at the airport or drop her off there? which country?—and had given her permission to do something as banally egregious as report a dream in the first place. David and Zoe entered a bookstore and he asked her if she’d read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and she said no and he told her Carson McCullers was a woman when Zoe referred to the author using masculine pronouns. Carson McCullers’s photograph adorned the cover of the book David had picked off the shelf and asserted her as an interesting person, he claimed. Zoe could only agree. She still believed that all beautiful people are interesting. David wandered off to pee and came back to Zoe fingering the covers of books she’d never read. “Wait, so what was your dream again? That actually sounded interesting.”

Ring around the rosies. Pockets full of posies. Zoe learned the word sexy when her family was having dinner at the Petersons’ old apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills. Her mother was drinking wine and complaining about phone solicitors, explaining that she always inevitably answered in her sexy voice, expecting her father to be phoning home to announce his arrival for dinner, only to be asked by political interns whether she had voted for Barbara Boxer in the most recent election cycle.

There is a loss of agency in being called: you don’t get as much freedom in deciding where the call will take place unless you awkwardly break the conversation with a request to call the caller back. So when David called this morning, for example, Zoe was reading Joyce in bed, but it would have been better if she’d been sitting on her fire escape or standing in the autumn sun outside. When her dad called last Wednesday, Zoe would rather have called him while walking down Fifth Avenue in the twilight than while ambling down the corridors of a former department store in Midtown. When Todd texted this evening, she would have preferred not to have answered rather than calling him back, but this last doesn’t belong to this category.

When Zoe’s mother realized that she bore no personal acquaintance with the person calling, she’d claim to be not interested, thank you. When her mother was out and Zoe answered phone calls for her father, he’d try to dictate her script. “Are you my special friend?” he’d have her ask the guy trying to sell mutual funds. When Zoe couldn’t take it anymore, her dad would take the phone from my hands shaking with laughter. “Are you my long-lost brother?” he’d ask the solicitor, stone-faced, measuring coffee grounds with his free hand.

*              *              *

Ben and Zoe went to check out the apartment they were going to maybe move into. The super hadn’t shown, so the broker left them to their own devices, but they stared in windows and wandered around the block and checked the prices of beer and beans at the bodega on the corner and clambered about the grownup-sized playground at the park across the street. They ordered tacos from the window under the train tracks, but Zoe needed Ben to pronounce both chorizo and gracias for her because she couldn’t make her voice bend to anything resembling the right accent. Then they headed to Little Skip’s for coffee and Ben showed her the sketches that he proposed could hang tacked to the walls of the place where they might eventually live. She thought she’d probably go for it; she decided she wanted to live with these boys even though she hadn’t seen the apartment from the inside. The cashier at the bodega was just so friendly, and Ben and Zoe had already decided that their whole apartment could practice Spanish together, in hopes that someday even Zoe might be able to order a torta with lengua on her own. “I’m feeling good about this,” Zoe said to Ben slowly as she stirred cream in her mug. Ben looked up. He had been rummaging through the backpack he always wore, carrying his home on his back like a turtle. “Wait, can I tell you a story?” Zoe asked. Ben was always very patient with letting her tell stories, even if he sometimes admitted afterward that he didn’t know what the punchline had been or understand some farfetched comparison she had manufactured for the occasion. “When my mom was little, her family often had cats, because her mom had grown up on a farm. And my grandmother taught them always to rub butter on the paws of a new cat, because then the cat would grow used to its new home while it licked the butter off its paws, and it would know where to come home to at night and not run away.” “Oh,” Ben’s face shifted to yellow as his mouth changed shape. “That’s sort of clever.” “And I kind of feel like a cat licking the butter off its paws now,” Zoe told him, sipping her coffee, almost but not quite spilling. “We’ll live so well together.”


Illustration by Claire Bidwell

*              *              *

Here we go round the mulberry bush on a cold and frosty morning. “And I don’t know, like, will it be weird?” Zoe asked her mother. She paced up and down Lexington Ave., cupping the phone to her ear to obscure the roar of passing cabs. Her mother was good at giving advice on apartments but not on social situations and now Zoe was making what was possibly the mistake of asking her to do both. Zoe was pretty sure she was probably about to move into this new apartment with four boys, friends convinced they could constitute a platonic family if they so chose. “I did that once, you know, back when we were in Boston,” her mother was telling her now. Zoe knew this. But her mother rattled on.

Once, when Zoe’s mother was not yet her mother but already in love with Zoe’s father, they and all their friends were moving, the same way everyone did every summer until they grew old and cold and settled in their ways. Mark and Cece were out, because a big enough house was too hard to find and they were growing impatient. Isaac was in, and Robert was in even though his girlfriend wasn’t (“Robert was never on the food plan at Priscilla Road,” her father would recall years later.) Bill Sorrel was in. Peter was in. Jack was out—there were cheaper places to live if he did his own thing. Scott Wasserstein, who had given Zoe’s mother a Neil Young album and a pair of undies for her birthday a few months prior, was in, maybe, if he could get a loan from his parents before any lease began.

“Wait, but I already know who you lived with then, and I know who I’d be living with next month if I do this, Mom,” Zoe said. “I just want to know, I don’t know, whether there’s a reason to be worried about this.” A passing bus sprayed exhaust on her coat. “I know it’s going to be Ben and David and Todd and Drew.” Zoe couldn’t figure out why her mother was focusing on the boys; boys as such weren’t what she was worried about. Not that her worry fitted the shape of any words & phrases. “Well, make sure you check out the neighborhood,” her mother pressed forth.

The summer Zoe’s mother moved in with her father and five other boys, there was nowhere on the Green Line with enough bedrooms and sufficiently low rent, but they finally found an enormous house only a bus ride from the train, and it did have seven bedrooms, two kitchens, and two fridges. Zoe’s mother was almost a foot shorter than the man who was not yet her father, but if she stood on one side of his bedroom and he stood up straight, kittycorner on the side by the window, she could look him in the eye, so slanted were the floors.

“That’s not really answering my question.” Zoe drew out her words, but her mother was unstoppable now. After her mom and dad and Isaac and Robert and Sorrel and Peter and Scott Wasserstein moved into Priscilla Road, they sometimes stayed up all night and ate two-dollar omelets at the diner across the street when it opened at 4 a.m. and the only other customers were factory workers swirling cups of black coffee.

Zoe’s dad and Jack, his best friend in those days, pushed Zoe’s mother down Comm. Ave. in a shopping cart one afternoon, the only time anyone ever called any of the three of them a hippie. Her dad would spend hours after bars closed talking to Jack, sitting on other people’s doorsteps. Everyone but Robert, who wasn’t on the food plan because his girlfriend still lived somewhere else, took turns cooking. Zoe’s mom often baked pies when it was her turn, but most nights there were seven of them for dinner—Mark or Jack would be over or Robert would be home and everyone did love Robert, and everyone on the food plan knew that coming home for dinner was where their bread was buttered. Circles don’t divide evenly into sevens, but Zoe’s mother solved this problem by giving everyone a butter knife, having each person position his or her knife above the pie and shift his or her blade until no one complained that they were unevenly spaced and someone else’s piece looked unfairly large.

“Wait, and did having a communal food plan work for you guys? Like, is dinner-making turns-taking a thing that actually works?” Zoe was waiting for an unhappy story, a betrayal, a heartbreak, a disaster, a disappointment, anything. There had to be a reason why the Priscilla crew wasn’t still living together, a reason more logical than the fast race to their mid-twenties. “Well, Scott Wasserstein never ponied up for the beer fund and so we were always short,” Zoe’s mother said, her tone brusque; Zoe could tell she still hadn’t forgiven Scott this crime, no matter how good her mother thought Harvest was. She wondered idly if her mom could ever have been in love with Scott—what was this story about him giving her undies? She was pretty sure she’d even heard this story before, but it seemed weird that either of her parents would repeat it. Zoe gave up pacing and started trekking south; meanwhile, her mother answered only the less interesting question, the one Zoe had spoken aloud.

Communal food was tricky to navigate because people were always coming to hang out. (Zoe’s mother uttered the words hang out dismissively, not quite derisively.) One night, when Jack was coming over for dinner and pie, he appeared with an orange cat he’d found on the street. He couldn’t keep it in his own building, so he offloaded it on the Priscilla Road crew. They named him Juicy after the color of his fur and took turns looking after him. Everyone who came over to hang out was entranced by his lightfootedness. This cat could jump on top of the phonograph without making Joni Mitchell’s voice skip on the record. “And, eventually, Juicy ran away, you know.” “Oh, no,” Zoe said, even though she had walked past the station at 59th and was now going to miss yet another train. Maybe she could convince the four boys they should get a cat. If they survived however many months without a bitter explosion over money or who was sleeping with whom or who wasn’t ever doing dishes. (Maybe avoiding bitter explosions just meant storing up passive aggression, though, like a bear storing up berries in its cave for winter hibernation, but with more poisonous results. Probably undue amounts of passive aggression risked the side effect of causing birth defects, irrevocable deformities in any eventual children she might have.)

“Well, it was probably because Isaac and Bill didn’t clean his litterbox often enough,” Zoe’s mother was now claiming. “Yeah, that’s what Dad always says,” Zoe said, distracted. She really wanted to go home, but all her favorite sweaters were now in boxes, waiting to move somewhere, and so there wasn’t really much reason to head to the apartment for which she was currently paying rent, even if she does still live there. “But, you know, Dad and I used to tell each other that Juicy was headed to California with a backpack on his back and that we would follow him someday,” her mother proceeded to tell her. Zoe had already heard this, and the saccharine was never helpful. She knew full well that the summer following that year at Priscilla Road, Zoe’s parents and Jack fulfilled that promise and roadtripped across the country, first south, then west, their tent and backpacks in the trunk. A cowboy flirted with Zoe’s mom in Colorado and her parents got married in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, because Isaac had moved home to Albuquerque for the summer, and so he and Jack could serve as witnesses at the courthouse.

*              *              *

And the painted ponies go up and down. When Zoe moved into the new apartment with the four blond-haired boys, it was in Brooklyn, because that was where all their friends had been living ever since the first wave of them emigrated from Providence. (Drew taught them the word landsmanschaften, explaining it referred to immigrant communities whose constituents had all relocated from the same tiny town in the old country to the same neighborhood in America.) The day they moved in, they set someone’s camera on auto timer and shot a portrait of themselves collapsed on their secondhand, free-for-the-taking couch on the sidewalk, halfway between their moving truck and their new apartment, and they talked about it like it was their family portrait. When they joked in December that it should serve as their Christmas card, that someone should print it out surrounded with clipart candy canes, they were actually pretty serious; it was just that no one had bought ink for Zoe’s printer.

Coming home was so nice that they made a rule that whenever any of them came home, the rest had to tell their returning friend, welcome home! When Zoe was welcomed home, she usually collapsed in the kitchen, because that was where Drew was roasting eggplant for his signature dish. Sometimes Zoe got buzzed off the beer their friends and roommates brought over in expectation of eggplant parm. When that happened, sprawled over a folding chair and glad that every Negro Modelo to enter their fridge was communal, she would tell Drew that it was lucky animal shelters were only open during the daytime. If shelters had been open during the hours when Drew and she were sometimes both drunk, it was much more likely they would forget their better logic and adopt a cat, one who’d take turns sleeping in each of their bedrooms and purr to the rhythm of Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool.

*              *              *

Back when Zoe’s parents drove out toward New Mexico, everyone else eventually left Priscilla Road, too. Isaac moved from Albuquerque to Los Gatos. Jack went to Indianapolis for a job, then to San Mateo. Mark and Cece moved to Santa Cruz. Scott Wasserstein moved to Omaha for a girl, but after that, most people lost track of him. Zoe’s parents moved from Back Bay to Ann Arbor to Iowa City and then finally to Los Angeles, hundreds of miles further west each time they stuck the old camping tent in the back of a moving truck. They were following that cat with his backpack, and all their friends, too, not realizing how far LA was from the Bay Area, not knowing whether the cat had headed for the redwoods or the ocean.