It was always the same dream: I was swimming along in calm waters near the shoreline, doing the crawl, kicking evenly, my arms pulling me along. Gradually, I found I was swimming against the tide. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had to kick harder, increase the power of my stroke. Soon even that wouldn’t be enough, and I’d be swept out to sea.
I woke up in a cold sweat. Again. The clock said 4:13 a.m.
I stayed under the covers, steadying my breathing until sunrise. Then I stumbled to the kitchen and made myself a cup of coffee that I would sip, as I did every morning, in one of the comfortable bedroom chairs. From there I could gaze out the window. If I focused on a tiny space between two tall buildings that otherwise blocked my view, I could make out the smallest snippet of the Hudson River, and that calmed me.
I told myself again how fortunate I was. After all, I had what others believed was a satisfying life. At 37, I had abs that were just this side of washboard. I had the comfort of some good friends. Although struggling as an actress, I had my own place in Manhattan, which is no small thing.
Nevertheless, like my semi-view window, something in my life was blocked.
Every day was the same, right down to what I ate, and how I ate it. I measured it out—one glass of white wine and two cigarettes at 6:00 p.m. One spoonful of low-fat Ben & Jerry’s at night before bed. I had become a careful eater ever since my short-lived career as a flight attendant, where I lived in fear of the monthly weigh-ins: One cup of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk for breakfast, along with one and a half cups of super-strong coffee. Chicken salad on whole wheat with lettuce, tomato, and pickle for lunch.
I went to the gym five times a week in a short spandex top to show off my abs and form-fitted sweatpants to disguise my thighs, and always did the same routine: stationary bike for half an hour, strength training with five-pound weights, and a series of stretches. For a short time after those workouts, I was at peace until the endorphins subsided and I was once again adrift in a life that looked great from the outside, but felt lonely on the inside.
That morning as I nursed my one-and-a-half coffees, Denise called as she always did, at 9:30 a.m. like clockwork. “Hey, honey,” she said. “How was the date?” Denise, a Pat Benatar lookalike with a small, perfect nose and large almond-shaped brown eyes, worked in finance and was always
buzzing with energy.
“The same, kind of boring,” I said with a sigh.
“Hold on. I’ve got another call.” A minute later, she was back. “Sorry, business,” she apologized. “Honey, you sound so sad. What can I do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s like I’m programmed to go through specific motions every day but without any purpose. I feel like a Stepford Wife. And I’m not even married!”
“How can you say that? You’ve got a body to die for, and you lead a glamorous life, surrounded by interesting people. I wish I had your life. I mean, look at you! You’re an actress!”
“I audition,” I corrected her. “That’s different from having steady acting work.”
I’d been the girl on the box and in the infomercial for Perfect Smile, a tooth-whitening paste. The producers praised me for my work on the TV ad for The Patch, a weight-control product that was being marketed across Europe. Whenever I was chosen for a commercial out of a field of 100 contend- ers, I felt special, singled out. It gave me a rush and made me feelthink I had been right to choose a career in acting. I wasn’t aiming to be Meryl Streep, just hoping for a chance for a fulfilling career. I didn’t know what I was in for when I chose it.
No matter how hard I tried, I was never able to break into the Screen Actors Guild. Without being a union member, my pay scale was lower, and I wasn’t eligible for health-insurance benefits. Also, SAG actors looked down on their non-union counterparts. I never felt as if I belonged.
I kept trying, but it was a catch-22: Only SAG actors were sent on SAG auditions, even though various agents I’d had promised to “slip me in” when they could.
To outsiders, these union distinctions were meaningless. Even Denise, my closest friend, thought of me as “an actress”— which, to many people, automatically means glamour, fun, and living the high life. She pointed out that even if the previous night’s date wasn’t so thrilling, I was never at a loss for men who took me to dinner.
“The men have different names, but really, it’s like I’m dating the same person over and over,” I said. “I’m not feeling a connection. I’m not feeling connected anywhere. Except for you, I don’t feel close to anyone, not even my other friends. I was born in this city, but it all feels so transient.”
Maybe I had no real ties at all, anywhere. Maybe I never did. Even though I was very close with my mother and still relied on her almost daily opinions about my life, she and my stepfather were now living in Florida. The room I stayed in when I visited them there was a generic guest room, not “my” room. It was wallpapered in a mosaic of dizzying, dispiriting brownish colors. It was not even my own room while I was there, because it was also home to my stepfather’s computer, which he used every day. He and my mother did their best to make me feel like a welcomed guest, but that’s all I was—a guest. That’s how I felt everywhere I went, even sometimes in my own home.
I’m sure that this feeling stemmed in large part from when my parents separated and split the siblings up when I was six years old. It wasn’t as if life was idyllic even before then, like when my father would demand a “fifteen-minute silent period” at every meal while my brother and sister and I tried not to further inflame whatever was going on between our parents. “Your father is tired and stressed,” my mother would explain.
It wasn’t so much the divorce that unseated me as for how my father took my two older siblings to live with him, leaving me with my mother. I felt as if he had divorced me, and separated me from my brother and sister, who were 15 and 12 at the time.
I don’t remember how or even if this was ever really explained to me. My mother and I—along with our black mini poodle, Remmington—stayed at a nearby hotel for a few days, and when we returned, my father, brother, and sister were gone, along with all their belongings. The apartment felt vacant, although the furniture was still there. Even David’s football and special coin collection were gone. It was as if they had never existed. I was scared and confused. I felt as if I’d been stripped clean of my entire family. Was it my fault? Had I done something wrong?
“Dad needs us, little one,” David later told me. “He said he would die without us.” Which left unanswered the ques- tion of how my father was fine living without me, and why neither parent balked at cutting me off especially from my brother David, with whom I was particularly close.
From then on, David and Deane were a pair. They had each other. They grew up together. They came over on weekends for “visits.” They arrived together and left together, sometimes leaving early when my father called and said he “needed” them, including one time on my birthday. I felt like an only child. I wasn’t sorry to be with my mother. I loved her. I revered her. When she dressed for an event, she looked like a movie star in her pearl necklace and her V-neck, sleeveless, pleated dresses that cinched at her tiny waist. She always smelled of Joy perfume. She was regal in manner and taught me at an early age to send out thank-you notes the same day as receiving any gift. But the entire dynamics of the family changed overnight, and I found myself utterly dependent on her and her good will, with no one else to turn to when her ever-shifting mood changed.
I spent my childhood—and perhaps much of my adulthood—trying desperately to please or at least placate my mother. When I did manage to please her, I felt momentarily wanted and important. I felt safe.
“Your cousin Kiki is so smart. Brilliant, really,” she said on more than one occasion.
“Yes, Mom,” I said, dutifully agreeing with her even though each compliment she doled out to anyone else in the world took just a little more oxygen away from me.
Along with my growing dependence came frustration and anger whenever I felt her focus on me had drifted. “ALISON,” she chastised me for my outbursts, drawing out every syllable, “you are being very rude.”
Within an hour I’d be tearful and contrite, trying to undo the harm I’d wrought, trying endlessly to atone. I couldn’t apologize enough. One time I went down the block and bought her a bouquet of daisies with baby’s breath, her favorite, using my allowance money. Then I searched the pantry for a box of Aunt Jemima and baked her a coffee cake. I served it to her in bed, the vase of daisies alongside it on the tray. I had to ensure that we were still connected, that she hadn’t given up on me. I clung to her like adhesive, followed her around like a puppy. She was all I had.
It was my mother, it turned out, who had asked for the divorce. My father refused to grant it. When I was nine, my mother pulled me out of the exclusive Dalton private school on the Upper East Side and moved the two of us for nine months to an apartment in Las Vegas so she could formally end the marriage. Now I was separated from my sister and brother and also in a new city and a new school, mid-year. I didn’t know a soul.
George, a man my mother had been dating in New York, flew out to Vegas to visit us a few times. He brought me the new Polaroid camera that had just come out, and I secretly wanted to love it, but I pretended it was just an okay gift because I was so jealous of the time he spent with my mother. She lit up when she saw him. He had a Woody Allen type of humor that made her laugh and laugh. I could hear her lovey-dovey voice when she was on the phone with him. I didn’t want to share her with anyone.
My fears were well founded, in a sense. The minute the divorce came through, my mother announced that she would be marrying George. She called my new stepfather the love of her life, which I, of course, took as a way of disparaging me. I had failed to make it as the love of her life, while George made her happy. He was easily able to coax her from her bad moods, even on Sundays when they were at their worst. She was proud of my good grades, but to me, it didn’t compare to how George could make her light up in a smile. I felt I had to make an appointment to be alone with her.
After my recurring nightmare, after my morning call with Denise, I continued to go about my ordinary chores, doing everything the same way I had always done it. I finished in time for my customary lunch at The Broadway Diner.
“What’s it going to be, the usual?” the waitress asked me. “Chicken salad, whole wheat…”
“This time, no pickle,” I said. Maybe that was the beginning.