Childhood by Cara Hoffman

It was my childhood dream to become either an alcoholic, or a very old man. After thinking it over it became obvious that the latter, though it would be more difficult to achieve in the short-term, would afford me more respect.

I dressed in brown corduroy pants and oxford shirts, tweed sports jackets and loafers. I kept a pack of Players navy-cut cigarettes in my breast pocket and read Ibsen. I went out regularly by myself to cafes and to plays put on at the college, for which I only had to pay a child’s admission price. I bought a pair of leather slippers and a smoking jacket. Every evening I would sit in front of the television, watching 60 Minutes, and drinking ice water mixed with vanilla from a scotch glass. It was a quiet life. I was thin and long limbed and easily mistaken for a boy. I am certain that some days, while waiting for the bus, if the light was right or if my back was turned, people thought I was indeed a little old man.

I began wearing a tweed cap. I had six or seven ties given to me by my father, and had purchased another four from the Salvation Army. I had more and better-quality neckties than any girl my age. I was also able to find a pocket watch at Goodwill for fifty cents.

Once my wardrobe was established, I began to listen to swing music. And it was then I realized that I had been a music critic before my retirement. I missed my apartment in the city, and my desk in the newsroom where I had sat composing my columns, cigarette smoke catching in the orange light that came through the metal blinds. I missed my rapport with the musicians and my free tickets to their performances. I missed the other writers and I especially missed Diego Rivera and his wife, whom I’d met briefly when Diego was painting a mural at Rockefeller Center. I began to wish I’d never agreed to move in with my daughter and her husband, the psychologist. I did not like the countryside and couldn’t stand my daughter’s taste in decorating, which struck me as somehow both bucolic and pretentious. But mostly I hated that my daughter referred to me as “’toots,” and insisted I attend dance lessons every day except weekends. The lessons were humiliating. My class was composed of a group of scrawny girls with missing teeth who dressed in pink tights and white leotards. Often I was singled out in class and placed at a small bar in the middle of the room, so these children could observe my technique. Which was, I’ll admit, precise. But it was also uninspired. When my daughter picked me up from dance lessons she would say, “How was class, toots?”

“I need to find some peers,” I would tell her, thinking of Rivera and Kahlo, and my friend Man Ray. “This can’t go on. I raised you better than this.”

She said, “I found a chain for your pocket watch.”

I took to reading all day, listening to swing music on my son-in-law’s stereo with a pair of gray plastic headphones. My son-in-law, the psychologist, oddly referred to me as “Beauty,” but then, they say that only the disturbed make good psychologists. He would come home in the evening and say, “How’s my little Beauty?” And I would peer at him from over the paper and rattle the ice in my glass. I couldn’t imagine how my daughter had married such a man. They were both a disappointment.

Finally I told my daughter flat out I could no longer attend Madame Helena’s School of Dance.

“She was trained in the Soviet Union,” my daughter said, hoping to appeal to the party politics of the era in which I once wrote.

“I thought my only annoyance now would be my daughter’s habit of cutting my sandwiches into little hearts. This I tolerated because I had never liked crust.”

“I don’t care,” I told her. “It’s humiliating. I can’t wear that ridiculous costume anymore.”

“But look what you wear every day, toots. You look so cute in your leotards. You look so free like a little girl should.”

I shook my head; the very idea.

“Listen,” I said. “I appreciate you paying for the lessons. I realize you and your husband are only trying to make my stay here less boring. But this isn’t the way. I used to take in a lot of ball games at the Polo Grounds, maybe there’s some athletic program going on over at the senior center.”

“You’re staying in dance,” she said gravely. “You’ve been in dance since you were a baby. We’re not throwing away nine years of study.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it study. Maybe I could pick up some freelance work for the local paper,” I told her, and she began to cry. 

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can no longer cram my tired old feet into those leather and wooden torture shoes.” I rattled the ice in my vanilla water nonchalantly, to show her who was the parent. I produced an excellent smoker’s cough, then took a handkerchief from the pocket of my dressing gown and wiped my forehead. “I’m just too tired,” I said.

When my son-in-law came home, he said, “Hey, Beauty Rose, Mom said you’re quitting dance.”

Who? I asked him, not even bothering to set the paper down.

“What’s going to happen to Daddy’s little ballerina?” he asked.

I cleared my throat and ignored him. 

I remained silent instead of giving him the comeuppance he deserved for speaking to me that way. And because he did provide me with bus fair and spending money. But his remark convinced me that he was sexist. As a member of the Socialist Labor Party, I believed there should be a continual exchange of mutual, temporary and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this sexist authoritarian had warped my not-so-bright daughter’s understanding of the world. I couldn’t believe she was foolish enough to anchor her identity to a man who would use the phrase “Daddy’s little ballerina.” 

They dropped the topic of dance and I went about my daily activities, reading and taking in plays, watching the news and drinking my vanilla water. I resigned myself to living with them. I tried out different caps. I thought my only annoyance now would be my daughter’s habit of cutting my sandwiches into little hearts. This I tolerated because I had never liked crust.

With dance lessons safely in my past I had more time to read and to practice what I felt to be one of life’s great joys, jumping rope. A man my age needed a certain amount of cardiovascular exercise, and since I’d been a featherweight boxer in college, I had gotten used to jumping rope as part of my training. Every afternoon, I would jump rope for an hour or so in my daughter’s driveway. I found that singing helped pass the time while jumping so I sang some of those great American traditional songs, like “Engine Engine Number Nine” and “Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat.” We used to sing those songs around the office to determine who got stuck with the dull assignments. No one wanted to be O-U-T. This practice gave me a great deal of pleasure, except when it was interrupted by my daughter bringing one of her heart-shaped sandwiches down the driveway and setting it off to the side with a glass of ice tea. She usually said something insipid like, “You look so cute, toots,” or “All that jumping must be getting you hungry, tootsie pie.” 

I also had a great deal of time to observe the interactions between my daughter and her husband. It seemed that my daughter spent her days vacuuming, doing laundry, cooking, watering plants and rearranging furniture. Her husband would come home every evening and fall asleep on the couch, after an exhausting day of siphoning off the dysfunction of others in the community. When he awoke, he would recount this dysfunction through a series of vagaries and platitudes that appeared to represent professionalism. He was like an employee of a uranium mine, coming home after digging and making his family radioactive. In reality his demeanor expressed an ego that had long gone unchecked, a martyr complex, a chauvinism, poorly developed intellectualism and misanthropy so thinly veiled I was certain he had chosen his career to exact some sense of power over his own neurosis and emptiness. Every day, when he came home and they kissed in the doorway, it was Cinderella meets the The Emperor’s New Clothes. Cinderella whistling while she wove a mantle of false confidence for him through her own ambitionless materialism.

“Hey Beauty Rose,” my son-in-law would say to me. “Who is Daddy’s little girl?” I would stare blankly at him and he would laugh and shake his head. “You’re always going to be Daddy’s little girl no matter how big you get, you know that, don’t you?” Sometimes he would stand by my daughter as she worked in the kitchen, with his arms folded across his chest and say things like, “That’s not the way you make vegetable stock, is it?” Or, pointing to something just below his fingertip, “You better wipe that up.” Then he would sit at the table and drum his fingers in different arhythmic patterns while she worked. The finger drumming sometimes led to whistling, so that all of the work being done, or in my case the reading being done, moved to a kind of counter-musical human noise, a nagging of taps and shrills that seemed meant somehow to suck all internal attention, all thought or personal contemplative pleasure, towards the rattling that radiated out from his position at the table. As a person whose musical sensibility was finely tuned, I found this nearly unbearable.

“As a newspaper man, and former featherweight boxer, I was familiar with intoxication. Not sloppy intoxication, but the kind required to get through the type of situation I currently found myself in. A tight-lipped kind of intoxication that makes dealing with bores and anti-intellectuals either tolerable or amusing.”

My son-in-law’s need for attention put everyone around him in a constant state of interruption. My daughter did nothing about this, though I observed her annoyance. Finally, one evening I looked up from my book and asked him to stop this practice. He laughed and beamed into my face with great condescending affection, “What? Don’t you like Daddy’s whistling?” My request seemed to bring out a great need for him to continue this behavior whenever he was home. As if it were a game we now had. Being asked to stop amused him a great deal. If you turned and tried to engage him in a productive manner, to dissuade his fidgeting he would lecture you on his favorite topic: child abuse. He would detail graphic accounts of child abuse going on nearby, but by whom he couldn’t disclose. These impassioned speeches to us were a great complement to the noise in terms of intrusiveness. If you began to tell him about your day, his eyes would glaze over. He liked to lecture with a melancholic nostalgia about himself. As if he were, in fact, some poltergeist of a man that had once had enough self-possession to just be quiet.

My own daughter was not much better, but to her credit, I believe she had been driven insane through constant interruption and disrespect. Whenever she looked as if she were about to say something about his behavior, he would tell her she was beautiful. This had a terrifically pacifying effect on her. Almost as if she had been drugged. It seemed to me she had been much brighter as a child. The only minor consolation was that, despite what they thought, they had no children of their own.

Eventually the fact that I had nowhere else to go began to wear on me. I gave up attempting to read or ponder anything of significance when they were around for fear of interruption, and the negative feelings associated with it. I could achieve nothing now that I had moved in with them, I could feel my mind and heart beginning to atrophy and my independence and self-esteem suffered terribly. They were poor conversationalists, with little understanding of politics, and no genuine appreciation for beauty. I could not show them the writing that I or my friends had done, nor play them the recordings of the music I loved. I feared that doing such things would result either in my son-in-law bastardizing the work through a musical mimicry, or my daughter buying me a nightshirt with a picture of Cab Calloway on it.

My financial dependence on them made me feel like some kind of scab. I hadn’t felt so low since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when all those little girls were burned to death because the owner of the factory barred the doors shut. I longed to be put in a nursing home.

“A nursing home?” my daughter asked incredulously. “You’re eleven years old,” she laughed and tugged at the brim of my cap.

Each day I would consult my pocket watch to make sure it was after twelve p.m. before I began to drink. As a newspaper man, and former featherweight boxer, I was familiar with intoxication. Not sloppy intoxication, but the kind required to get through the type of situation I currently found myself in. A tight-lipped kind of intoxication that makes dealing with bores and anti-intellectuals either tolerable or amusing. The kind that draws you out into the big picture, so far out that you can take comfort in the idea of the sun exploding, and then everything seems so temporary and insignificant.

I would wake up, spend several hours reading, practice my rope jumping regimen, listen to the BBC World Service on the radio, then pour myself two shots of Grand Marnier from a large bottle I had found in the pantry. Later in the day I might have another. I also took up napping.

Meanwhile, my daughter appeared to have finally snapped. She spent more and more time in front of the mirror applying various treatments to her face. Curling her eyelashes, sucking in her cheeks and repeating certain phrases to her reflection. She tried out different expressions. One in which she would raise an eyebrow and turn her head slightly to the left, while still meeting her own gaze, was particularly disturbing. For a while this benefitted me, as she left me alone. She stopped making my sandwiches and doing my laundry. It seemed that when she was speaking to me, she was trying out different voice modulations, laughs and body postures that were meant for some invisible person. She was unable to look at me without her strange new rehearsed face. Or the distracted look of calculating what that face’s effect would be on the invisible person. Between her husband’s noise and her posturing to the unseen, the house felt very crowded.

“Eventually the fact that I had nowhere else to go began to wear on me. I gave up attempting to read or ponder anything of significance when they were around for fear of interruption, and the negative feelings associated with it. I could achieve nothing now that I had moved in with them, I could feel my mind and heart beginning to atrophy and my independence and self-esteem suffered terribly.”

 She began to read cultural-theory books, which I took as a positive sign, until I realized that they were being used as props, and also scripts. The language in the books was used in the same way the glance in the mirror was. Only in this case, I was the mirror. In an affected voice, slightly lower than her own and with a tone of gravity intended to suggest world-weariness, she would parrot Gloria Steinem while dressed in a sheer silk blouse purchased with her husband’s credit card. Steinem as coquetry. I thought briefly that it might be some kind of performance art, and that my daughter was actually a genius. But that was parental blindness, a hope that I hadn’t failed completely. 

I suggested she read some Emma Goldman and she gave me a practiced smirk, as if she knew who that was. While I couldn’t fault her for realizing that women had it bad, I had no idea how she meant to make her life, or any woman’s life, better by this new behavior. 

I went back to reading the paper and drinking my Grand Marnier on the rocks. I had begun to time it so that I would be just intoxicated enough to tolerate my son-in-law’s yammering when he arrived home. My daughter now responded to being called beautiful by acting as though she had been slapped. The loathing she had adopted for my son-in-law seemed completely out of proportion to anything he had actually done. And it was amazing, and also hilarious to watch, particularly after a few drinks. It was as if they were reading from a script of a Soviet propaganda play meant to instruct on the corrosive, soul-crushing and intellect-warping evils of capitalist society.

It wasn’t long before my son-in-law stopped talking to me altogether, I guess it was because I had raised his wife, and admittedly done such a poor job. But the finger tapping continued and was now coupled with an aggressive and sarcastic grimace in my direction. My daughter was not home often and no longer cooked meals for us. My son-in-law would eat on the way home from work. I would make myself spaghetti with butter and drink vanilla water or whatever wine was in the house. I still took in plays. I did my own laundry, my own shopping. I watched 60 Minutes, I read. I jumped rope.

And I remembered the days when I was a writer, the orange light slanting through the metal blinds in the newsroom, singing “Engine Engine Number Nine” with the other staffers and going out to listen to jazz. I remembered how strong the women were, and how genuine the men. I remembered those little girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. And how we all cried down at the pub after work, the day they burned to death.

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Cara Hoffman is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, each named a The New York Times Editors’ Choice. A MacDowell Fellow and an Edward Albee Fellow, she has written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Bookforum, Bennington Review, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue and NPR. Her debut short story collection, RUIN, is forthcoming from PM Press in Spring 2022.

3 thoughts on “Childhood by Cara Hoffman

  1. This is the best piece of fiction I have read on this site in a long time: intriguing, original concept; disciplined style with some exceptionally beautiful lines; highly entertaining. Brava!

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