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Personal Essays

Photograph by Renee Silverman

Mama’s Boy

After the dust settles from their own stormy relationship—and their torrid relationships with others—a daughter learns her mother’s big secret.

My mother had a crush on her oncologist when she was dying. He was a tall, solidly built sixty-something, with a gray moustache and expensive spectacles. I thought he looked like Walt Disney with an advanced medical degree, and so I trusted him with my mother’s metastasized liver and pancreas. To her, he was a strapping Italian playboy around her age, so she trusted him with her body over hours of sporadic companionship while tethered to a chemotherapy drip.

“He seems kind,” she said, weakly smiling after their first meeting, “And he’s big.”

This was my mom’s type: tall men with muscles who made her feel protected. She was four feet 11 inches, and a diminutive 80 pounds; one would think just about any average-sized man with enough strength to open a mayonnaise jar would have sufficed—but no. She rhapsodized about the merits of “big men” as she opened yet another bottle of Chardonnay to wash down dinner. Never mind that she’d never dated after the five feet, six inches of my father faded out of her marriage and into the arms of a leggy, 28-year-old blonde. Never mind that her last serious crush was on the moving man who’d hoisted her furniture into her new house a decade before the diagnosis.

“Steve was so…strong,” she sighed, and her eyes would go as glassy as a teenager’s in front of a cardboard cutout of a Jonas Brother.

“Did you fuck him?” I asked, blunt in my AA-assisted sobriety.

“Ainsley,” she said with haughty offense. “That’s none of your business.”

I never learned whether she bedded the moving man, but I didn’t see him at the funeral or the wake. None of her exes—except for my father—attended. Michael, the imposing, motorcycle-riding macho man of her youth, was lost to the dry plains of Oklahoma; the last we heard, he had a wife and kids. The tall, balding orthopedist who tried his best to court her as the divorce drew itself out a decade ago was a no-show. Even the 6'5" truck-driving construction man who paved our neighbor’s driveway, and who brought her flowers every evening only to be turned away after the clock struck nine, didn’t stop by to pay his last respects. My mother’s mammoth pink coffin (my choosing) took her emaciated corpse to the ever-expansive earth without a single wailing giant to stop it.

I hit the ground, simultaneously running and groping—with an emphasis on the latter. After the dust settled, I threw myself a second funeral—one for my hopeless relationship with a skinny DJ from Portland. Tattooed and bespectacled, he rose a scant few inches above my five feet. Upon meeting him, my mother had quietly confided, “He’s nice. I suppose I just like my men more…manly.” Once the relationship had dragged on for three miserable years, she blatantly told me she thought he was gay. I tried to laugh it off, wondering how a woman who hadn’t dated since the Clinton administration could think she had the right to give me relationship advice. But after spending five months taking care of her while she valiantly struggled with terminal cancer, absorbing every whispered aphorism and combing through every conversation for a piece of advice she could only give me that one last time, I couldn’t go back to being with him. That relationship, which had once been fairly fun and fleshy, fizzled. I kicked him out of my apartment and cautiously started to date.

A friend of mine once said that dating after a long-term relationship is like living in a dark basement for years and then stepping outside on a sunny day. You’re bewildered and blinded and in a temporary world of pain. I emerged from the basement in full workout gear ready to run a half-marathon. I hit the ground, simultaneously running and groping—with an emphasis on the latter.

The first body I ran into belonged to someone I met at a party who leaned across the table, touched my arm with a warm stroke of his index finger, and asked about my tattoos. His confidence relocated my pulse to my underwear. After a brief conversation, I discovered what his looks already betrayed: He was Italian. He’d spent enough time in the old country to glean a tiramisu recipe and a few choice words—to my great, throbbing pleasure. I took note of his simpatico swagger and gave him my information, even after I’d been informed that he shared a luxury loft with his girlfriend in TriBeCa. Two weeks later I was deep-throating him on my couch after a lunch date. I couldn’t help but notice that when he said goodbye to me he used the word grazie.

“Never be the other woman,” my mother warned me years before, in a voice that indicated she knew the divorce lawyers and doom that would follow. I imagined his girlfriend packing up and moving out of their shared apartment, and I felt pangs of guilt. Maybe she would have a stoically attractive and muscular moving man? Instead, I deleted the Italian stallion’s number and updated my online dating profiles.

I often consulted my mother’s ghost for the best way to describe myself, knowing she always skated toward harsh and brutal honesty rather than saccharine, empty praise. My hair, my outfits, and my choices in body art were all open game to criticism. But it was because of her that I learned high heels are a tool of female empowerment, and nothing emphasizes the assets of a petite woman as well as a tailored pencil skirt. My mother-approved online personality was a mix of sardonic wit and restrained flirtatiousness. However, in place of my professional achievements, I inserted euphemisms and insinuations of what I was really on the market for. I didn’t mince words when it came to my proclivities. She had always warned me about seeming loose, but the way her friends had described her posthumously—fun, bubbly, and always very…social—led me to believe that, for all of her restraint and attachment to outdated manners and chivalry, she had projected an image of WASP-threatening sex appeal.

Perhaps it’s a normal stage in mourning, grief’s unspoken eighth stage: appropriating your dead mother’s taste in men. I went out on countless coffee dates courtesy of computer algorithms and digital photographs. The mountain climber who leered at me and threw a tantrum when he thought the cafe mistakenly gave him chicken instead of tempeh. The bike messenger, who had a master’s in creative writing and a face like Sloth from The Goonies, believed he could overthrow the publishing world using his two hands and knowledge of bookbinding. The nasally-voiced nightlife photographer was short. The show-tunes-loving carpenter with the man-purse as well. The girl with the Bieber haircut had bedbugs, which automatically moved her to the pariah pile.

I was about to give up on the internet for good when I met the 6'4" programmer who showed me that my depth can stretch far beyond my knowledge of Linux. Most of all, I finally understood my mother’s fascination with large and intimidating men. Power plays in bed had always been fun for me, but it was make-believe and you knew nobody would get hurt. With my au courant, code-savvy bedmate I knew that when he held my wrists down to the mattress, I wasn’t going anywhere, and when I was hoisted up for him to thrust at a different angle, my hands—generally considered somewhat large for my size—looked like tiny squirrel paws on those massive upper-arms. As I lay, pleasantly broken and post-coital, staring at his chiseled back, I heard my mother’s smile-saturated voice in my head, “He’s so big.”

Perhaps it’s a normal stage in mourning, grief’s unspoken eighth stage: appropriating your dead mother’s taste in men. Like my newfound love of Hall & Oates and an inexplicably sudden obsession with Balenciaga bags, I can only attribute my gravitation toward mammoth or Mediterranean men to some sort of twisted need to feel closer to my mom. With her physical presence excised from my life, there are no phone conversations about my latest exploits, no languorous lunches where we’d discuss the pluses and minuses of my recent paramours, no celebratory shoe shopping to commemorate me kicking my ex to the curb.

Instead, there is simply silence and me talking to myself in the late hours of the night, asking a dark room questions under the guise of “talking to mom.” To fill the void, and maybe to live up to some inherent standard that I knew I’d eschewed during her life, I find myself pursuing men she would ardently approved of. And just like she taught me, I make sure to wear a pencil skirt on the first date. It cuts them right down to size.