Three and a half months before her dip in Hell's Kitchen, in an apartment overlooking this miasma, my mother was up, at two in the morning, cooking herself something to eat. She had been working out feverishly for the last twelve weeks, trying to lose a stubborn little tire that had swelled around her waist. My father, staring at her in the darkness, saw her left hand draped protectively over her belly, and he knew immediately. It was pictured in a thousand frescos and altarpieces, this graceful, natural gesture of maternity.
"Rhonna, you're pregnant. We're having a baby."
Without context, this could seem like a sweet moment, a wonderful development in a relationship between two young lovers perhaps looking forward to starting a family and realizing some picket-fence fantasy. Let me clear up that misunderstanding; my parents were just hot in the eighties. In fact, if we are going to grope around in the dark closet of existential responsibility, I blame the bathtub. A lot of relationships, and probably a lot of eighties babies, can be traced back to the tenement tub.
Allow me to explain: when you walked into a one-bedroom, railroad apartment in an old tenement, you entered directly into the kitchen. Across from you were the stove and a refrigerator, and two inches from your right elbow was an iron bathtub, encased in white porcelain, a shorty, with little lion's-paw feet, from the turn of the century, crafted for a little person. In our apartment, there was a dark bedroom to the left and a sunny living room to the right.
People tend to underestimate the importance of a tub in the kitchen to establishing the sexual tone of a bohemian existence. It adds a whole new spice when friends take a bath while you're cooking dinner. Sensual mayhem.
Carrying an armful of records and a bottle of whiskey, my mother was all legs and skimpy outfits when she showed up on my father's doorstep. He had run into her before, once lying naked in a triangle of sunlight at the center of a cocktail party on the Upper West Side and another time on the street, clutching everything she owned in two plastic bags. Freshly widowed, she was being ravaged by agonies beyond her control and stalked by "friends" turned to suitors. Jailbirds who had started hanging around after the mysterious murder of her husband by the police.
A week after their second encounter, my parents were both kicked out of a nightclub for drinking out of their own stashes. Collared by a bouncer who knocked their heads together, they were tossed, laughing, into the street. By this point, my father had seen all he needed to cast her as the unhinged and suicidal Ophelia in an avant-garde film version of Hamlet, which he had been shooting for a few weeks.
At the apartment, "Hamlet" slept under a brown blanket in a corner of the living room among his paintings. He was a young friend of my father's who I would later know as Uncle Crispy—a wiry kid with a wild head of curls, whose long eyelashes beat down over big, soft brown eyes, and who talked shit with the raspy voice of a hustler, like he had a million sentences he had to force through the bottleneck of his mouth before his dime ran out. Crispy spent his time avoiding his duties as leading man, flirting with Rhonna, and darting out of the house.
She, meanwhile, was up every night, howling old torch songs back into blasting speakers and swigging Johnnie Walker in nothing but a China red skintight sweater. This perpetually naked tornado of energy and beauty living in his kitchen caused a great deal of excitement in my father's life. A great deal indeed. One thing leads to another, and they were rapidly entangled.