I Was a Failed Trophy Wife-In-Training
My mother seemed to think you could catch being upper class, like it was a cold
When I was 12, my mother and I were in this ongoing argument. She wanted me to grow up to become a trophy wife; I wanted to grow up to write one really cool novel and then die while I was still hot.
I mean, she wasn’t that explicit about it. Whenever the topic of my future came up, she’d begin by naming the only two rich person professions lower-middle-class parents know (doctor and lawyer). It was plain for anyone to see that I had neither the interest nor aptitude to become a member of any of the life-saving professions; I was a former gifted child who was now flunking out of junior high because I stayed up until 2 a.m. every night reading true crime books with names like Fatal Innocence and Blind Doubt and Cruel Faith. But really, the “doctor/ lawyer” stuff was fake, a caveat so no one could accuse her of not being a feminist when she finally said what she really wanted for me: to find a wealthy orthodontist who would sweep me away to his magical kingdom in the far-away land of Long Island.
“I just want you to have an easy life,” my mother told me, while packing my miserable ass off to yet another humiliating tennis lesson. She believed, fervently, that all it took to become a trophy wife was knowing how to play tennis. If I became passable at it, I’d get rich tennis friends, who would eventually introduce me to a rich tennis man, who would eventually take me (and my mother) away to his rich tennis mansion. My mother always thought you could catch being upper class, like it was a cold.
And then once I was rich, my life would be set. It would kind of be over, but hey, at least it would be over with money! “Writing can be your hobby, once you meet your rich husband!” she told me, while I made yet another face about yet another tennis lesson. “I meet a lot of women like that in my art classes, they have these great husbands who just take care of them, and they just get to take art classes when they want. And it’s just such an easy life.”
My mother didn’t think of herself as someone who lived in Trumbull, Connecticut. She also didn’t consider herself a teacher, although she taught elementary school one town over. Her view of herself was closer to an unlucky fairy tale heroine, who had used the wrong spinning wheel or antagonized the wrong anthropomorphized wolf and, suddenly, she was here: living out a baroque curse while all these little birds and chipmunks and shit kept coming out and singing songs and acting like everything was okay.
My mother hadn’t planned on being a teacher. She had aspired to some vague bohemian shit in the ’70s — you know, Carlos Castaneda books, beaded vests, dudes with fake-Welsh Renaissance Faire names. She spent a while living illegally in Spain under Franco, though she didn’t seem to have any particularly vivid memories of fascism; she mostly just worked at a shoe store.
But even then, even though she owned a copy of Whole Earth Catalog and knew what EST was, she just wanted to get married and have kids. She’d thought her career would be being married to my dad. She thought he would take her around the world, but the farthest they got was six months in El Centro, California, a desert town whose great claim to fame was being “the largest American city to lie entirely below sea level.”
“Another LIE from the world’s biggest liar, your father,” she’d inform me as I sat on the edge of her bed, where she sometimes held court but mostly spent her non-workday hours in fitful sleep, surrounded by piles of orthopedic body pillows.
My parents had divorced in 1989 — a fact you could have easily missed, because it changed literally nothing about any of our lives. He still lived with us sometimes, other times he didn’t but would still come around on weekends to take me for Skee-Ball and to argue and have sex with my mother. It didn’t seem to affect my mother’s thoughts about him, or our family, or her future, or her ideas about whether an orthodontist-prince would materialize and ferry us away to a nice five-bedroom in Manhasset.
“My life is over,” she told me, “Now, the only chance is you.”
I sucked at tennis, the same way I sucked at horseback riding, sailing, remembering not to pick my boogers in public, and other fancy rich-person pursuits. I found my tennis lessons — which took place in one of those weird enormous airplane hangar-type buildings where people play tennis — humiliating. There were a few reasons for this. The first was that these lessons were for children 10 and under, and even though I was 12, with the vicious acne and enormous, misshapen boobs to prove it, my mother had signed me up anyway, because they were cheaper than the teen tennis lessons. I sulked behind her, making various preteen faces while she filled out the forms, daring the woman behind the registration desk to say a word about any of it. “If anyone asks, you were born in 1984,” she told me. “And wear a baggy top to cover…those.”
The good news, my mother told me, was that my being older than all of the other kids meant that I would be better at tennis.
But that brought me to the second humiliation: I wasn’t. I was worse than everyone else in class, even the skinny second grade boy who could only really lift the racket with two hands. It was obvious to me what the problem was: My boobs were getting in the way. But it was also obvious to me what the problem really was: Everyone else wanted to be there. They chose to spend their Saturdays here, doing this, instead of eating Rold Gold pretzels and reading water-logged paperbacks about the Green River Killer. It was impossible to be good at something you hated.
Upon being told all this, my mother informed me of the even better news: I didn’t have to actually be good at tennis to reap the rewards. “You just have to know how to play in general, so that when someone says, ‘Oh, let’s play tennis,’ you can.” My mother’s second-greatest regret was that she had never learned to play tennis. Her greatest regret was that she worked as a second grade teacher, which took her away from her passion for not being a second grade teacher. She thought the two were linked, that the tennis deficiency was why her life had turned out in a way that was so mysteriously disappointing to her. “Let my life be a lesson to you,” she told me, getting into bed at 5 p.m. to watch King of Queens re-runs in the dark until she got hungry for some Mallomars or it was the next day, whichever came first. “The only good thing I ever did was have you. But you can do so much more. You can have an easy life.”
I didn’t want an easy life. Wait, okay, actually, I should say, I knew I couldn’t have an easy life, and also, in addition to that, I didn’t want an easy life. Like, I knew the world was never going to just give me the things I wanted, the way it seemed to for girls with natural blonde hair and spots on the Pop-Warner Junior Cheerleading Squad. I knew I was going to have to grab anything I wanted and choke the life out of it.
But also, what was so fucking great about an easy life? The only rich person I knew was my elementary school best friend, Chelsea, whose dad got randomly rich when we were in third grade and moved her family to a mansion across the street from Keith Richards’ mansion.
And okay, it was cool that they had an in-ground pool and name-brand pudding in the fridge, but her family was still boring. I still ditched her in 8th grade for Michaela White, a semi-feral rocker chick who subsisted exclusively on frozen French bread pizza, shoplifted eyeliner, and her mother’s tears. Michaela’s life was glamorous, filled with expensive clothes of unknown origin and mysterious boys who would give us extra free samples at the Panda Express at the mall. How could an easy life possibly be better than that?
But the uneasy life I envied most was my mom’s — even though I didn’t want a husband, or kids, or huge, dyed red hair and enormous French manicured nails and a deep Queens accent. My mother, I thought, was an outlaw. Eileen Braverman was born in 1950, in Whitestone, New York, the latest and smartest in a long line of angry scammers. Her mother, Gladys, had died when she was five. Her father, Sam, a semi-literate retired diamond dealer who only put on a shirt for weddings and funerals, was into primitive scams — throwing a paper clip into a plate of mashed potatoes at a restaurant and asking for your money back, returning expired food to the Publix in Tamarac, Florida. He once dropped a dead duck on a city councilman’s desk to make some kind of point about local speed limits, an incident that got written up in the local police blotter, which he later had framed.
But Eileen was more than the sum of whatever her family lineage had blessed or cursed her with. She was sophisticated and vicious. She took me to Ingmar Bergman movies and sucked the meat from the bones of anyone who crossed her. She was a force of nature. She was a work of art. And she was my protector in a life that didn’t seem too interested in being easy to either of us.
My mother got the things she wanted just because she was so fucking scary. When my mother got angry, she physically transformed, like a werewolf suddenly hit by the full moon. Her entire face would turn bright pink, and she’d shake a little. Her hands would pull into little fists, her long nails pushing into her palms — except for her pointer finger, which she would wield in the direction of whoever had set off her wrath: my dad; a surly salesgirl at Stop N Shop; a Girl Scout who was trying to hard-sell us some Thin Mints. The targets changed, but the song remained the same. “How dare you, I have spent thousands — THOUSANDS — of dollars at this Stop N Shop, and to be treated this way! It’s unbelievable!” It would escalate from there. Usually, I’d read a magazine until it was over. But out of the corner of my eye, I had to admire it. There was a certain beauty to it. It was like watching a bald eagle fly across a mountain with a bunny in its claws, or when you find out that really beautiful sunsets are actually caused by industrial air pollution. It was a reminder of how nature was powerful and unhinged, and could destroy us all without even a moment’s thought.
I thought my mom was an idiot for not having a better plan for how I was going to become a rich trophy wife besides signing me up for children’s tennis lessons at the Town of Trumbull Rec Center. But I have to admit that I didn’t have a much better idea of how to achieve my own newfound goal of being a sexy, accomplished corpse. Every day after middle school, before my mother got home from work, I’d eat a little bowl of Rold Gold pretzels and draw obituaries for myself: “FAMOUS AND VERY COOL AUTHOR, DEAD AT 25.” Then I’d draw a little picture of myself as I imagined I’d look in my final, tortured, authorial days: sexy mini-skirt, long blonde hair with just enough root to be edgy, and the naturally button-like nose of a woman who’d never sung “Dayenu.”
I spent way more time drawing this picture, in fact, than I did writing the obituary itself, which would just kind of scratch the surface about how I was this very sexy and hip author, found dead from sexy and hip drugs in my glamorously derelict New York City apartment, which I was living in while estranged from my husband, Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor.
Then, satisfied that I had outlined the perfect life and the perfect death, I would tear my obituary into teeny, tiny pieces so my mother wouldn’t find it and freak out because she misunderstood it. It wasn’t about how I wanted to die — though I mean, I was a toxically unpopular 12-year-old living in the Connecticut suburbs before the advent of the internet; I absolutely wanted to die. But this wasn’t about that. This was me agreeing with her. I had absorbed all of her lessons, except one—I didn’t see why she thought that my life was going to be any different than hers. She never really communicated why it would be, just that it would. She didn’t tell me I was smarter, or better, or hotter, or whatever the X-factor was that stood between a charmed life and going to bed at 5 p.m. every night. She’d told me my life would be different than hers, but she’d also told me I’d be good at tennis. It had become clear that my mother was a liar.
So this was my own plan for an easy life, the only one I could come up with that made any sense to me: to drop dead before the cursed life I had clearly inherited could develop.
When I think back now on my mother telling me her life was over, I realize she was 44 years old — only a few years older than I am now. I, somehow, have come to believe the opposite — that my life still has bottomless untapped potential, that despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m essentially a teenager, and could still become a screenwriter or a millionaire or Jack Black’s second wife any day now.
Some of this is hopeful idiocy (a specialty of mine). But some of it is because I really have seen my life make sudden, wild turns, long past the age when I’d expected them. I became a writer in my 30s, after decades of believing that all writers were rich people who went to Ivy League colleges and had dads who just so happened to be married to Anna Wintour.
I also stopped drinking myself to death in my 30s, after a decade of thinking that I wasn’t in charge, that some magical ghost was making me drink nine beers in a row and then try to shove my hands down a bartender’s pants while asking, sotto voce, if “ANYONE KNEW WHERE TO BUY SOME COCAINE.”
For a long time before that I’d thought change was impossible, that if life were not literally a caste system, it was at least something close to it, where your hand was dealt incredibly early, and it hinged on tiny things like playing tennis (good) or having one boob that was bigger than the other (bad?), instead of pursuing whatever you actually wanted out of life.
I also now know that “easy” lives are fake, too. It’s just one of the weird lies we tell ourselves about other people, like that they have “thick skin” and we’re losers for not having thicker skin — instead of just admitting that life is across the board a painful mess, and some people are just better at lying about it than others. I’ve even met a few trophy wives, living in New York City for 15 years, it’s kind of an occupational hazard — and while I would describe their lives as “luxurious” or “involving an irresponsibly large carbon footprint,” I wouldn’t call them “easy.” Too much Pilates, plus rich people now have to each have 17 kids, as some kind of flex on the very nature of consciousness or something.
So I wonder: What the hell was my mom thinking? Almost all of her thoughts and feelings and beliefs clash so intensely, to the point where attempting to make sense of them has a disorienting, “Willy Wonka’s tunnel”-type quality to it. But this one makes the least sense to me. Right now, I understand her rages and freak-outs; I even kind of understand her later semi-shut-in period, where she would only emerge from our rapidly decaying suburban homestead to play blackjack at Mohegan Sun or illegally dump her trash into the dumpsters behind Stop N Shop. But I can’t understand why my mother thought there were easy lives out there. And why she thought they were both easy to acquire, and available to everyone but her.
My mom never found those fake obituaries, but she freaked out anyway when she saw me reading The Bell Jar, a book she was convinced would “teach me how to kill myself.” As if! The only edgy thing reading The Bell Jar in 1994 taught me was that you used to have to use something called a “diaphragm” to have sex. But when she found it in my backpack, she acted like she had discovered a gun made out of heroin; she thought it was diseased, horrific, destructive. This was the opposite of tennis lessons; even in the best case scenario of this cursed book’s influence on me, no Gold Coast dental professional wants a wife who talks about suicidal poetesses at the dinner table. She snatched it away and informed me that she would be returning it to my school library the next morning, and would tell (i.e., yell) at the librarian that I was never allowed to take it out again.
So I went back to the library two days later and just stole it. This time around, I was smart enough to keep it in my locker instead of bringing it home. I couldn’t read it in there, but I didn’t really need to. It had transformed from a book into a totem — a symbol that my life didn’t have to be about trying to be cute and learning to play tennis and letting God or some orthodontist decide the rest. Maybe I could do something even cooler than dying young: maybe I could have my own life.