Bitter Lemons by Anita Naughton
At the start of the summer I came home and my Greek husband said. ’Someone call you…I no know who but someone dying.’
‘Dying? Who’s dying?’
‘I no know. I no understand… someone’s mother?’
I check the machine and there’s a message from an old Polish friend. My ex-husband called her to get my number because his mother’s dying and she wants to see me.
I walk around my apartment in a daze as the past rushes before me. I explain to my two young kids that I used to be married to this man called Johnny. They name him X-man. My husband looks put out. I try and figure out what I’m going to do. Should I take the train to Middletown the following day?
I can still see my ex mother-in-law, Gladys very clearly. Sitting in the same kitchen chair, shaking her head saying, ‘what you gonna do.’ She’d always take off her glasses to wipe her eyes after she’d been laughing. She loved it if you told her a funny story about something that happened, especially if you mimicked someone. She had a gusty laugh and a compact chest, as if her rib cage was bursting with energy.
How was she now, though? I pictured her lying in her bedroom, which I don’t think I ever went into or maybe I did because I can imagine it, clean and neat with an eiderdown and a picture of Jesus on the wall. We spent most of the time in the kitchen and dining room, and only once in six years I went into the living room. They were watching television, she and Johnny’s father, TaTa. It had looked so strange to see her using the remote control.
So she’s lying in her bed, and I imagine that if I come to her, she’ll grasp my hand and tell me that I was the only daughter-in-law that she loved- possibly true as it’s likely I’m the only woman Johnny ever lived with let alone married. He once mentioned a Korean girlfriend he had when he was in the army who uninhibitedly crouched in front of him and “ did caca”.
As I hold Gladys’s hand the years will close up as I remember my life with her son. Her house, provoking memories that I’d never thought of since. I’m flattered and pleased. She’s been thinking about me over all these years just like I have her.
I call Johnny. After seventeen years I still remember the number. His phone’s in the kitchen, and when it rings, he’s probably down in the basement, in his studio. It’s summer and he’ll be wearing a white t-shirt and army pants. The day I went there for him to sign the divorce papers, he’d put a desk and swivel chair in the kitchen and was calling it the office. He had Butternut squash baking in the toaster oven. Johnny was a vegan; he didn’t have dairy, meat, sugar, alcohol, or any stimulants. He was also a macrobiotic.
He answers, his voice soothing and isolated. I can suddenly smell the house.
“Johnny? It’s Rachael,"
‘How are you?’
‘I can’t complain, the painting’s going well. I’m producing an incredible body of work. It’s really mind blowing.”
“I’m doing a new series…. I’m calling it the yin and yang of the penis”.
‘That sounds interesting. How’s your mum?’
‘My mother is actually very sick… she’d really like to see you.’
‘I’d love to see her too.’
‘We were thinking of coming into the city next weekend, maybe we could meet up?’
‘I’d love to… she’s really coming to the city?’
‘I plan on taking her to early mass at St. John’s the Divine, then she wants to visit the America Girl store. We’ll probably see some art at the Met, grab lunch, then we were thinking of catching a cab down to Ground Zero.’
I never did see them. The weekend they were coming she had to have some skin cancer removed, and didn’t like the way she looked, I never called back.
Johnny was an artist I met when I first moved to Middletown and got involved with a theatre company as an actress. He was painting the sets. Towards the end of the show I noticed my visa was running out so I said aloud,’ ‘Would anyone marry me?’
He was eating his food from a plastic container. He had a strange roundish Slavic face with his hair in a bit of a bouffant.
‘Sure. I’ll marry you.’
“Yeah. Just treat me a to a falafel.”
I arranged the marriage for June 25th. A week after we married, he invited me to see his art. His studio was in his parent’s attic. It was very organized with lots of file drawers packed with paintings. Every series had fifty-five paintings because it was the year he was born. His work was abstract and colorful and it was all made up of dots.
I remember how inadequate I felt. I didn’t know what to say about his paintings except that I liked them. He was the first artist I’d met. Before I left he put his arms around me and held me awkwardly. His heart was beating and everything about him was so raw and unprotected and also absurd. I was dying to use the toilet but I had to wait until he let go of me. I didn’t want him to think I was superficial. He finally did, telling me that my aura felt “real good”.
I asked for the bathroom, and he said that there wasn’t one. I was a little perplexed because when I’d asked him if he slept in the attic, he replied,’ This is where I eat, sleep and shit.’
So he explained.
“I do it in that corner over there, on a sheet of newspaper. My diet’s pretty pure so most of the time I can get away with using just one square of toilet paper. Oftentimes I don’t need any.’
He showed me a large plastic bucket in which he put his dry, non-toxic turds.
“They don’t even smell,’ he said lifting the lid. ‘Wow! It’s time for a log run. I’ve got to find some place to dump them.’ His eyes lit up, ‘Hey, you wanna come with me? I could really do with the company.’
A few days later Johnny invited me to do ‘Hands Across America’. We went to New York on a bus along with the kids from a school in the projects that he was subbing for. I wasn’t familiar with New York then, but I think we held hands somewhere around Brooklyn. There was a powerful charge between us and I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of love.
That night after we got back to Middletown he drove me to a reservoir. It was dusk and we had to avoid the ranger. He took me to a little stream, said to be haunted by Indian spirits. As I stood on a rock near the water, I heard this loud moan. Johnny was leaning against the trunk of a large tree, his face contorted.
‘”Johnny? Are you okay?’
He didn’t answer. Then the moan turned to groaning and got louder and louder… ahhhhhhhhh culminating into a final Arrhhhhhhhhhhhh!
The sound resounded all around the woods like the baying of some terrifying animal. It was followed by a surreal silence.
‘Wow!’ Johnny got up from the tree. ‘Wow!
‘What on earth was that?’
“Man!’ Johnny said shaking his head slowly. ‘I just had the most incredible orgasm!’
An orgasm? But he hadn’t touched himself?
Johnny explained that he’d given himself a Tantric orgasm. Much healthier, than a regular one apparently, because there was no actual sperm released, so no vital energy was squandered. It had taken years to master.
Johnny’s parents were Polish Catholics who’d spent four years in German labor camps. TaTa always sat in the kitchen, wearing an old blue anorak. He used a cane, which he held between his legs. He was from the Ukraine and had seen his sisters murdered by the Russians. He never learnt English and spoke to me in Polish. He’d point his cane to the fridge or table, encouraging me to take more of whatever was on offer. Whenever I looked at him directly or said thank you he began to cry. Sometimes we’d all be talking and he’d raise himself up with his cane, shaking, as he cried out:
Gladys, red faced and furious, would shush him with a violent flick of her hand. “Putting out the trash that’s all he ever thinks of!’
Gladys and Stanley Vovchok arrived in Virginia and got jobs in a fancy house as a maid and butler. Late at night, after Gladys’s had finished work, she took out a small notebook and phonetically wrote down every American word that she’d heard that day. She repeated it until it was memorized. They moved to Middletown six years later. Gladys cleaned houses during the day and the offices of an electric company on week-nights. TaTa got a job in an abattoir. Each evening before he entered the house he’d hose the blood off his pants and boots.
While I was with Johnny, Gladys retired from the electric company. They gave her a watch, a cheap one, with stretchy fake gold links and her name engraved on the back of the face. She offered it to me, insisting when I refused.
“I wasn’t expecting much,’ Gladys told me, ‘but an envelope with a few dollars would have been nice!’
She’d never been late and only twice in thirty-five years had she missed a night of work.
A week later I was standing in the very same stream by the tree against which Johnny had experienced his dry orgasm. The Unitarian minister read our vows as we stood on a rock in the water. Johnny’s family and a few mutual friends stood along the mossy bank.
Every Sunday we went to his mother’s for lunch. I was now a macrobiotic vegan, though when Johnny wasn’t looking, Gladys fed me fat rounds of Kielbasa. His sister Basia came with her husband, Bob, a large over-bearing man who sold burglar alarms and was obsessed with antique cars. He couldn’t see properly but refused to wear glasses. Later when they eventually had a baby, Bob accidentally stepped on her. There was another sister, Katya, who worked as a secretary and rarely smiled. She’d done something mean to Johnny when he was seven and he didn’t speak to her for three years.
I loved Sunday lunch at Blake Street. Everything was bright, clean and homely, the table laid with platskys, potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, perogies, borshct or sorrel soup.
After a month of being married, Gladys took some money out of the bank and gave us the down payment for a house. We found a little two family colonial style house in a dangerous part of Middletown.
It was number twenty-seven Orchard Street, and was owned by a brother and sister. They were second-generation Poles and coincidentally their names were also Gladys and Stanley. Johnny took it as a sign that we were meant to be there. They sold it to us for forty thousand dollars.
Soon I was an artist too, painting vaginas and phallic symbols made up of dots. I took the upstairs apartment and Johnny the basement. At the end of the night he’d come into my studio.
‘Wow! Wow! WOW! These are fucking incredible!”
‘Yes really! Man what an artist! These are the works of a genius!”
I lost a lot of weight on my new diet. It seemed like all we ate was squash and millet. We didn’t use condiments like salt and pepper as they aggravated one’s digestive tract.
I became involved in an improv group and after rehearsals we’d all go and drink in a bar called The Anchor. There was a wonderful camaraderie between us and I never wanted it to end. Eventually, someone brave would give me a ride-back home. Often I’d be drunk and Johnny would say something like, ‘Man, your energy’s kind of weird tonight.”
One time when I told him that no I hadn’t had too much caffeine but I’d had too much alcohol, to which he said he hoped it wasn’t going to be a problem. Of course not, I said.
‘My god,’ he said ‘Can you imagine? What an incredible waste of an artist’s life.’
‘Oh Johnny!’ I was moved that he considered my talent so valuable.
‘Just imagine? All my energy siphoned into taking care of an alcoholic!
His mother bought us a new fridge and had it delivered. A few days later when I came home it wasn’t there anymore. I asked Johnny and he nodded to the garden. I went outside and there it was, standing just beyond the Lemon tree.
‘It had too much negative energy,’ he explained.’ I can’t work with that kind of vibration.’
One Friday night, a passing car emptied a volley of gunfire into my studio adding some rather larger dots to my paintings.
Johnny decided to rent out the second floor apartment. Our living room became my new studio. Our tenant’s name was Pete. He was a tall overweight man who wore high-waisted jeans and then tucked his t-shirt inside. He always whistled when he came home from delivering pizzas. He was an expert in natural contraception and sometimes gave lectures to local women’s groups. He was desperately lonely and would hang out in my studio. He tried to teach me about the natural method and would bring his charts down, but I never quite grasped it. Pete had seen Gone with the Wind twenty-eight times, and he drank a liter of coke every night before going to bed.
Six months later, I was walking home when I saw a black cat lying on the sidewalk. It was dead and around its neck someone had attached a sign saying ‘Sold’. It left me with this strange sense of unease. In fact I’d had this feeling that something was wrong for a few days. It began when I’d come home and found that Johnny had chopped down the lemon tree. I couldn’t believe it. He said it took up too much space. I loved the lemon tree. The sight of it in our yard let me imagine I was in Greece. It was very thorny and the lemons looked just like regular lemons except they tasted bitter and left a strange dry taste on the tongue. Without the lemon tree the garden looked bare and exposed.
On the day I saw the dead black cat, I was going over my lines for a play I was in. I’d nearly reached home when I passed a pair of pants lying in the road. They’re the same as mine, I remember thinking. As I got to our house, I saw that the front porch and our scrap of lawn was scattered with clothes, my clothes. I stood staring at them, confused. There was even a pair of my shoes. I went to the front door and with a feeling of dread, turned the key.
The kitchen was dark and Johnny was sitting at the far end wearing his beige jacket; the one he’d wear to paint when it was cold. He lifted his head from his hands and stared, ‘Johnny?’
He shook his head slowly. ‘It’s over.’
‘Us. I can’t be with you.’
‘I don’t understand?’
‘You’re draining me, I have no energy for myself. I’m your mentor, your teacher… you’re not evolved enough.’
‘I can become evolved. Tell me! What do I need to do?’
‘You need to leave,’ he said. ‘I need my space, I need to recover my spirit.’
I went out to the front yard in a daze and began picking up my clothes. Our new neighbors, Gladys and Stanley Jankowski, were staring suspiciously from their porch.
‘Them all your clothes?’ Gladys said.
I nodded. They’d turned out to be a strange pair. About two weeks after we moved into the house we found a well in the basement. It was about five feet wide and very deep. We found it because Johnny noticed the difference in sound when you walked over the floorboards. It was an exciting discovery. I saw them in the garden so I went out to tell them about the well. As it used to be their home, I thought they might know a little about its history.
‘There’s no well.’ Gladys said, shaking her head.
‘But we found it! Come over and have a look?’
But she wouldn’t hear of it. She just kept repeating that there was no well. Stanley nodded in agreement. ‘She’s right. There’s no well. We ought to know that.’
I gave up. Between that and the Lemon tree they now pretty well hated us. I finished picking up my clothes. Inside the house I found some bags to put them in.
‘Can I leave the rest of my things here until later?’ I asked Johnny.
‘I’d rather you didn’t.’ Johnny’s voice came from the dark. ‘I really need your vibration cleared out of here.”
I called a friend to pick me up. I was too shocked to cry. That night I called Ireland and told them my marriage was over.
Four days later Johnny called and told me he forgave me. I was ecstatic. We arranged to go to the museum of Modern art. In front of Picasso’s Girl before the Mirror, he took me aside and said he believed that unconsciously I had wanted him to end it. I nodded thinking he must be right. I told him that is was true what he’d said about me not being evolved. I was pathetic and never stuck to anything. I was a failure. I was even eating dairy again. He patted me on the back.
“It’s okay. You’re still young.”
I was twenty-four.
Six years later, a friend got me a summer job as an artist’s model for an American school in Tuscany, which meant we were apart for two months. The school was in a monastery. In the evening the school’s 76-year-old director, Don Carone, would bang on our doors and invite us into town. He was a short, very handsome Italian American, who’d been part of the abstract expressionist movement. He’d known many famous painters and all the students were in awe of him. For the first time in years, I felt free and alive. One day I’d finished posing and was walking up the stairs when I heard, ‘Hey! Rachael? Is that you?’
I stopped and looked down over the banisters. Looking up at me was Johnny. I’d completely forgotten that he was coming to join me. He’d had a basin haircut and looked like Oliver Hardy.
That night, after dinner, Johnny showed Don his new series. Fifty-five small drawings of a seagull colony.
“I think you’ll dig this, Don…a man eating a banana while a seagull takes a crap.’
As Johnny turned the pages, Don made mocking faces to the other students who were watching. I felt hurt for Johnny but he had no idea.
That night it was like making love to a stranger. I felt like an amnesiac and that my life in Middletown was so remote and unreal that I couldn’t remember having lived it.
The school ended in two days and we traveled together to Venice. Our first night in a restaurant I sat eating my pasta while Johnny, in a fit of frustration, marched into the kitchen, carrying his pasta con pomodori and asked the chef to give him what he’d asked for- a bowl of plain spaghetti with nothing on it, no cheese, no tomatoes sauce and no salt.
One of the students at the school had offered me a room to sublet in the East village. I told Johnny I was leaving for a few months. I was too cowardly to tell the truth, which was that I was going for good. A month later, just before he was coming to visit, I told him on the phone that it was over. He was silent for a while, and then suggested that we do the divorce ourselves to ‘save some bucks’.
I had to go to Middletown so he could sign the papers. While he was doing that I packed up the last of my stuff. Pete came down to say goodbye.
‘We’re going to miss you,’ he said. ‘It’s not going to be the same without you.’
I was sorting through a box of papers and pulled out an x-ray, I can’t remember if it was of my foot or chest.
‘Do you mind if I keep that?’ Pete asked.
‘If you want,” I said and handed him the X-ray.
‘I’ll take good care of this,’ he said.
In the kitchen, Johnny passed me the signed papers. I said goodbye. He had tears in his eyes. As I walked to the station I remember thinking, but did he love me?