In his new memoir Lot Six, playwright David Adjmi (Stunning, Marie Antoinette, 3C) recalls his formation as a mostly neglected child in a downwardly Syrian Jewish (“SY” for short) family in Brooklyn in the 1970s and ’80s , his education and coming out, and the influence of these experiences on his writing. The book opens with his mother taking him to see Sweeney Todd on Broadway at the age of eight; this excerpt is from somewhat later in the book, though he is still under the dark spell of Sweeney.
With no one around to look after me I learned to care for myself. I bathed infrequently, checked my own homework. I taught myself to cook using whatever ingredients I found in the cabinet; I made my odd decoctions with Wesson oil and garbanzo beans and red wine vinegar. I’d watch television for hours on end, locating myself in identifiable fragments from various shows, forging a sentient life in the kiln of popular culture. I mainly watched sitcoms, many of which involved omnipotent children who were cleverer than all the adults. There was a power in their not needing things, not needing explanations or intimacy or attention. Power could compensate you for the anguish of feeling unloved. I wanted that power and autonomy.
But then I wanted the opposite. I wanted to saturate myself with anguish and loss and powerlessness—and these cravings, too, could be satisfied by television. I’d watch the movies of the week and act out scenes that mirrored my own sadness back to me.
For weeks, I replayed and relived Ricky Schroder’s climactic scene in The Champ, in which his father, played by Jon Voight, lies on a gurney after having been brutally pummeled in a boxing match. The father is a washed-up prizefighter who devolves into an inveterate gambler and raging alcoholic. In a low point, he gambles away his son’s beloved racing horse but, as an act of redemption, attempts to win back the horse with the prize money from a fight. Voight wins the fight, but in winning he is beaten so badly it kills him. In the last scene of the film Voight is moribund, barely conscious. “Where’s my boy?” he mutters. “Wake up, Champ,” Ricky cries, stuttering in a panic. “W-w-wake up.” He shakes the Champ to resurrect him, but the Champ is gone, leaving Ricky alone, neglected and orphaned. Ricky’s face is stained with pink splotches, snot running down his chin in clear gouts—and as I acted it all out in the den for the first time I found I too could cry real tears spontaneously, I too could produce snot in clear gouts! “Wake up, Champ!” I cried, again and again. When I was finished I ran to the mirror in the bathroom to see my red, tearstained face: was it sufficiently imprinted with trauma? It was. The depth of my pain carried a tremulous power that surprised even me. By imitating the feeling inside the film—using it almost as a kind of stencil—I was able to give expression to feelings inside me I’d buried, that had no other outlet. Unlike the pretending and imitating I had to do in other parts of my life, this didn’t feel false—it felt truer than life, a distillate of what it felt like to be alive. The movie transformed Ricky Schroder’s pain into something beautiful, like the weeping angels in quattrocento paintings at the museum. And because it showed the beauty in the human experience, I was able to see something beautiful about my own pain, my own life. Like Sweeney embracing his cache of lost razors, I embraced my hidden anguish and held it to my breast like an old friend: I know you, I see you. I didn’t need to pretend to be indestructible, the way I did with my sister. I could feel my broken feelings. And I was not alone: millions of other people were watching the movie that night. I imagined myself fused together with them, as if a circuit hummed between us. The TV movie of the week was a way for us to be together. We were in life together. We shared a common humanity. I felt like those people at concerts when a singer sings their favorite song, and they light their cigarette lighters as if to announce to one another that this song is the Song of Myself, and the galaxy of tiny lights sways in the firmament of a darkened stadium, lit with communion.
I’d have moments where I felt connected in this way to some pulse, some essential part of life, but then all at once the feeling of wholeness and communion would vanish and I’d be paralyzed by fits of acute terror and worry—anxiety I couldn’t numb or expel. There had been a spate of robberies in the neighborhood: Our house was robbed the previous year in the middle of the night, we were all asleep. I’d predicted it in a sort of vision I had one night just before falling asleep: a cheesy premonition from a B movie, replete with smoky fog and bad lighting. In the vision two faceless men held axes and peered into my room. The next morning the doors and windows of the house were wide open; the television was gone, they’d taken some expensive crystal vase. My mother asked my father to install an alarm but he didn’t want to spend the money. And once he left, it happened twice more in swift succession. What would deter them from coming back? What would stop them from coming to murder a nine-year-old boy home alone? What would stop them from coming with an ax to murder me in my sleep?
I’d call my sister and tell her I was afraid, and she’d call my father to lash out against him, against both my parents—but then I would defend my mother: It was my fault, I was the one who said I didn’t want a babysitter. My sister just wept and said, “It’s all screwed up! They’re screwing you up!” I’d begun to latch every door once my mother was gone for the night. I patrolled the house with my brother Richie’s baseball bat, the one he kept under his bed. I manned all the windows, the doors—always latching, always checking, reinforcing the house like it was a bunker. As I sat watching television, eating my impromptu meals of garbanzo beans and Wesson oil, I could feel the paper thinness of the walls; it was like a foldout house in a child’s book. There was still the crumbling lathe in the kitchen wall from the hole my brother punched in it. The whole house was like that—people could punch their way in, punch it down with their fists. At midnight or one in the morning, like a torpedo on radar, I’d instinctively feel my mother’s car pull up to the curb. Through the tiny window in the front door I’d see her emerge, the gleam of all her jewelry set off by the flare of acid-red brake lights. I’d hurriedly unlatch all the doors, quickly bound up the stairs, jump into bed and, when she’d check in on me, fake sleep. Eventually I’d drift off into real sleep where my fears carried over unaltered, and in my dreams, men attacked me with axes and thick knives.
Sometimes the family would come together. My brothers would from time to time take me to the odd (and mercifully infrequent) baseball game and try to make me jingoistic about sports. On weekends in the summer my sister would drive me to the Golden Gate Inn in Bay Ridge (which I discovered years later was a hotbed of prostitution) and pay the five dollars admission so we could have access to the pool. She’d get us Sprites, slather herself with baby oil, and hold the giant reflector to her face until she was burnt to a crisp.
From time to time, my siblings would take me out for dinner, just us, without my parents. One night they took me for Italian food at Michael’s in Marine Park, and over dinner conversation turned to the robberies. Stevie’s wife, Debbie, mentioned that when she was small her house had been robbed too. She was playing with her brothers in her living room when there was a knock on the door. When she opened it, three men with ski masks entered wielding baseball bats. The men locked Debbie and her two small brothers in a closet. They found her mother, forced her into a large sack, tied it shut, and proceeded to beat Debbie’s mother with the baseball bats. My stomach wound in tight knots as Debbie sipped her Lancers and replayed the horrifying scene in excruciating detail. My brothers and sister peppered her excitedly with questions—they were titillated by the story, just as they’d been titillated by the graphic scenes from Maniac and I Spit on Your Grave, but I felt each detail as a series of piercing incisions. I was shaking uncontrollably. I tried to carry my usual desensitized air as I picked around my stuffed shells—I didn’t want them to know I was childish and weak—but later that night I lay sleepless in bed, plagued by vicarious physical horrors, thoughts of men beating women with baseball bats. I tried to imagine Debbie’s mother stepping into a sack, and what the men with masks looked like, and how it must have felt stepping into the dark burlap chasm of the sack. Why would people want to beat women in sacks with baseball bats? The perversity of it was unfathomable to me—particularly when I imagined all this happening to Debbie’s mother, who was like a wonderful, old, doddering woman in a screwball comedy. She was impossibly thin, and wore long, drapey rayon shirts and stirrup pants. She’d talk about cheesecake recipes and Pebble Beach and Wheel of Fortune. Debbie was horrified by almost everything that came out of her mother’s mouth: “No one wants to hear about that, Ma!” she’d declaim, again and again.
For weeks after hearing the story about her mother I had fantasies of masked men carrying truncheons and bats. I would imagine being trapped in darkness, forced to listen to my own mother’s helpless screams as she was beaten mercilessly by a bunch of sadistic thugs. Like a needle tracking the spinning groove of a record, the images and scenarios would play endlessly in my mind. I worked myself up deliberately; I made myself sicker and sicker. I had to master this anxiety and conquer it—but I kept snagging on the details: How was this sort of cruelty possible? Why would these men do something this awful? I knew there was cruelty in the world, I knew there was injustice. But couldn’t the masked men have just as easily thrown Debbie’s mother in the closet with her kids and robbed the house? I could understand moral evil when the cause and effect were clearer, but the cruelty in this case felt so out of measure, so senseless. And if I extrapolated from this act of senseless cruelty, what did it mean about the rest of life? How would I ever learn to cope with a reality so awful, so grotesque?
Compounded with all my other problems, the scope of potential awfulness that lay in wait for me sickened me to my very bones, and just prior to my tenth birthday I plummeted into depression. I became like my grandmother, sitting indoors for hours on end, gazing blankly out windows. Tears involuntarily leaked down my face as I ate lunch or read books. Crying was like breathing. The crying infuriated my mother, who took my depression as a sort of indictment: if she didn’t like life that was her private aberration, she resolved not to make it mine. But my mother had no persuasive tactics to coax people out of their moods. As she folded laundry or mopped the floors she’d bellow accusations in the form of questions: “What is wrong with you!?!?” “Don’t you want to go play?” as if by bellowing things she could maybe rewire the circuits in my brain and make me happy. I tried to highlight the specialness of my emotions, to distinguish my grief from ordinary unhappiness, to make it feel more dramatic and worthwhile by accenting it in subtle nonverbal ways—but these attempts didn’t faze her and often made her angrier. I resented my mother for her coldness, for I knew I wasn’t being disciplined, I was scolded to calm her anxiety— but I also felt guilt for burdening her, for being so enervated and depressed when I should have been happy, the way people wanted me to be. And they were right to want it, but I couldn’t manufacture the feelings I needed to have. Since I couldn’t manufacture the feelings, I suffered consequences. I was socially isolated. And the bond with my mother—the one thing keeping me held to the social order, tethering me to life—was dissolving before my eyes.
One night, after watching some bank-heist movie on television, I went up to her bedroom and snuggled up next to her as she did her needlepoint. “If I robbed a bank would you still love me?” I asked. “No,” replied my mother unblinkingly, “I would rip my clothes and mourn you as if you were dead.”
This sudden, sharply critical matter-of-factness in response to a hypothetical and extremely unlikely infraction on my part was chilling to me, but I pretended she hadn’t meant what she said. I tried falling asleep on her knee, following some rote notion I latched onto in the moment, one of mothers and gentleness.
After that night I was scared to show my mother I loved her. I couldn’t stop feeling love or needing my mother to love me, though I had ample evidence that love was damaging and made you weak. Every so often the love would erupt inside me like a volcano, and I would feel possessed by a need to hug my mother, but I learned to tamp these impulses. When I did hug her, I sensed her flinching discomfort. When she felt possessed with love for me, the expression wasn’t soft or intimate; she’d tickle and poke at me with her finger. Her darts and messy lunges made me anxious and I started to dread her affection. The terror of closeness and the terror of complete isolation tugged and pulled at each other, leaving me in a permanently suspended state.
I made no friends at the yeshiva. Whatever strangeness I possessed innately was set in blunt relief against the straitlaced normalcy of the other students who debated hotly the kosherness of Funyuns and Snickers bars and got into heated arguments about mitzvahs. During recess I sat by myself and watched the girls jump rope, their long skirts billowing like parachutes. I watched boys run around with hot pink faces, yarmulkes flying aloft like saucers. I watched from the sidelines as children galloped in unscarred oblivion, kicking around flesh-pink rubber balls, insouciant and a little blank—but happily blank, the way children should be—or at least that was what I thought, for that was the kind of child I’d been encouraged to imitate. I was relieved not to have to socialize, but at the same time I felt eaten by loneliness. Seeing the happiness of these children opened up an insensate longing in me. I felt their happiness like a wound.
My mother’s worry about my friendlessness curdled into an irrational antagonism: Why didn’t I feel enjoyment? Why was I a vortex of ennui? Children loved to play! It wasn’t mistaken of her to want me to play—it was normal!
In response to the worried admonitions of my English teacher, my mother tried to force me to behave like a normal boy. She tried rousing me with pro forma sermons about socializing and fun; she rolled her eyes and made brusque comments; she asked rhetorical questions that battered me with my own strangeness. Wasn’t I bored? Did I want to just sit there and rot? But the tone of the comments quickly curdled from bemusement to rank impatience and hostility, until she was shouting things at me like, “WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM?” and “DON’T YOU WANT TO HAVE FUN?” I didn’t know how to explain to my mother that fun, as it was presented to me by the world, seemed a concrete oppression. That the kind of fun other people sought actively was a concept for which I had no referent. My mother’s worry about my friendlessness curdled into an irrational antagonism: Why didn’t I feel enjoyment? Why was I a vortex of ennui? Children loved to play! It wasn’t mistaken of her to want me to play—it was normal!
To break me out of my funk she began dragging me around with her on weekends. She dragged me to the grocery store, the cleaners, the nail salon. She took me to card games hosted by any one of her loose confederation of friends from the old neighborhood, women with whom she might say she was “friendly” in an equivocal tone—they all bought one another crystal ashtrays at the Yellow Door on Avenue M and sent their kids to the same fat camp.
I tagged along to the standing lunch dates she had with her two sisters at a Greek diner named Caraville, a hot spot for SY ladies in those days. Everyone loved the owners, Jimmy and Perry, who flirted innocuously with them, and Beverly—the patrician, weirdly glamorous hostess whose voice dropped about six octaves from all the cigarettes she smoked. And Beverly and Jimmy and Perry were all inordinately patient with the sometimes oppressive whims and demands of the SYs who made exacting claims for preferential treatment, and refused to wait for a table, and insisted on making substitutions to everything on the menu or battered the waitstaff with weird idiosyncrasies— like my mother, who instead of the customary coffee refill demanded a “fresh cup” every twentyish minutes because she liked it “steaming hot,” and was remorseless about sending back food that was even slightly warm, and who would send back her shrimp salad because she insisted something was “a little off” (even though everyone else who tasted it had no idea what she was talking about). But the waiters gladly took it back, the people at Caraville gladly put up with my mother and these rococo exchanges in which she assumed quite naturally the mien of a deposed yet still royal Russian aristocrat. They were terribly patient with her. I was patient, too. My patience was conscripted as part of my role as a small boy who was to be seen and not heard. I’d pick at french fries as she and my two aunts drank coffee, chain-smoked, gabbed in rallentando overlaps. I felt my lungs blackening from all the cigarettes as they gossiped about their kids—how they were sneaks and pains in the ass, how they gained or lost weight.
One weekend, my mother drove us to Deal to visit Claudia Terzi, who unlike most SYs lived there year-round. Claudia was in the throes of a crisis: her daughter Betty was supposed to get married, but the fiancé broke off the engagement at the last minute—and Betty was already 25; in the Syrian community that was verging on spinsterhood. Claudia was disconsolate. She was weeping and weeping in her kitchen, and later her sunken living room, the contents of which I took invidious inventory—the shiny baubles, the glass domes and cylinders, everything white and crystal and glass. My attention was forked between taking in all the glamour and listening to my mother’s boilerplate consolations. She kept saying things like “Claudia, it’s gonna be okay. Claudia, don’t worry!” And Claudia kept responding with things like “What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen to Betty?” She showed us scallop-edged photographs of the then-happy-now-sundered couple, mourning the bitter brutal unfairness of life photograph by photograph, offering short epitaphs for each one as though she were recounting the tragic death of a soldier killed preemptively in combat. Why? she repeated as tears sluiced down her damp cheeks now inked with mascara. Why? Why? She was perversely bent on putting herself through the stations of grief and making us watch her. I couldn’t ferret the deep significance of Betty’s breakup with her fiancé, but I understood, if not the circumstances of Claudia’s unhappiness, the fact of it, the anguish of human existence. Seeing Claudia’s pain, I felt my eyes well with tears. I felt the deep need to protect her—even though I knew there was no protection, which was why Sweeney Todd went crazy in the song “Epiphany” and sang about the world being a great black pit. I knew that I was powerless, I was invisible. Even as I sat in Claudia Terzi’s house that afternoon looking at her scalloped photographs and watching the gray-black veins of melting mascara drip down her cheeks and chin, I was evaporating, fading inside all the sharp angles, the lapidary surfaces of white and glass.
For a short while, my mother and I arrived at a stalemate regarding my friendlessness. She maintained her posture of curdled irrational hostility, and I, despite my loneliness and slow suffocation, maintained I didn’t want any friends or activities; I preferred to read a book, or lay supine in bed and stare at the peeling walls. But soon thereafter the stalemate dropped—my mother was far too compulsive to maintain things like stalemates. In one of her haphazard stabs at trying to make me cultured-slash-active she had the idea (good in theory) to enroll me in an acting class at Kingsborough Community College over in Sheepshead Bay that spring. The class met on Sundays. I was finally excited about something! I could be the next Quinn Cummings, the next Ricky Schroder! But when I got to the class we were instructed to make crowns from Reynolds Wrap. They marched us in circles and had us sing about castles. It was worse than never having gone to a class because now I was certain there was no hope. I fabricated some excuse for why I could no longer take the acting class, but the initial problem (my detached loneliness and ennui and crushing boredom with life) resurfaced and I was back in my room, reading books, glued to the television set, so white from sunlight deprivation I looked almost bleached. When I looked in the giant mirror over my mother’s dresser I seemed all out of proportion: my eyes were too big, my head equal parts shrunken and bloated.
One day after school I noticed a boy from my class, one I never spoke to even once, following me home. He walked directly behind me. When I stopped walking he stopped too; it was like that old Harpo Marx routine. I whirled around to confront him: “Where are you going?” I demanded, in a tone I’d learned from my mother.
“To your house,” he said.
“To play with you,” he said, rather annoyed.
When I got home my mother confirmed a playdate had been arranged without my consent. The stringency in her tone was infuriating; there was an undercurrent of perverse enjoyment in it too, a pleasure she seemed to take, as she puffed at her cigarette in her heels and tailored beige pants, in shoehorning me to fit her idea of what childhood should look like. As if interior lives could be retrofitted, molded for convenience. It seemed cruel of adults to repeatedly force me to perform my childhood, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I burst into sobs of frustration. “I don’t want to play!”
“I don’t care!” said my mother, proudly sucking at her Kent 100.
“But I don’t like him!” I shrieked, right in front of the boy.
“Too bad! Go play.
Her mulishness enraged me. My mother spoke to me as if parents had a kind of spiritual purchase on children, as though children could be pried open like mollusks—that they could be made to yield happiness as a kind of dividend, a liquor to be extracted. From that day on playdates were sprung on me repeatedly, usually at the last minute. But I found that once the boys were in my home I could make them do what I wanted. I enjoyed controlling them, just as adults enjoyed controlling me. I taught my victims how to sit in half-lotus position—something I learned from a segment on the Merv Griffin Show; I made them do headstands for uncomfortably long periods of time. If they complained I told them they had to do what I said, that it was my house, that it was yoga, that it was good for them. “Too bad,” I’d reply, in emulation of my mother.
I’d play the Sweeney Todd album for them—by this point I’d appropriated it as an origin story. With each listen, the screech of the factory whistle became less jarring, the snap of Judge Turpin’s whip less sickening. And with those shocks buffered, once I could withstand the horror of it better by abstracting its terrible currents, I began to enter into the record—like there was a portal inside the music. Once I stepped through the portal I too could become Sweeney—I fused with him, just as I was able to fuse with Ricky Schroder. The music was an auxiliary power source I could hook into, like a city when the electrical grid goes black. The boundary between the record and myself melted and we became one. Over the course of the forced playdates I’d take my hostages through this narrative, point by point, as if leading them through the stations of a passion play. I’d swagger up and down the length of my bedroom as if it were a proscenium, railing against the scourge of human injustice; with each step I’d feel resuscitated with this new black plasma, revived by the grim prospect of vengeance. The boys would listen—fascinated, horrified—as I recounted the story of the barber who went mad, who slashed people’s throats and cooked them alive in hot ovens. If the world broke him, he would recreate himself in the frightening glimmer of its reflection; if its inhumanity shocked and terrified him he could viciously turn against it. I never felt so exhilarated as I did seeing the terrified faces of those boys in my room, the seal of their virginal Judaism broken forever. I felt as powerful conscripting their attention as Sweeney when he brandished his razor, treading the length of that lit proscenium, taunting us and swaggering, bleating and screaming so we felt it in our guts.
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