See You Later, Alligator

by

11/04/2001

200 eastern parkway, new york, ny 11238

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

A favorite phrase of my mother’s, those early days in Brooklyn, was “See you later, Alligator.” She would send my brother Wally to play with his friend next door. And she would leave me with Fanny, the so-called cleaning lady, a monolithic black woman who took perverse pleasure in threatening to scrub my mouth with Joy. When I complained about staying home without Wally, my mother would say, “Wally’s a boy. He needs to get out and run around. Besides, he’s older.” She probably thought it was counter-productive to have a boy and a cleaning lady in the house at the same time.

Fanny came twice a week and my mother’s outings were specifically timed for these visits. There was only one acceptable answer to “See you later, Alligator.” If I said it, my mother would smile appreciatively. If I didn’t, she would go anyway.

My mother’s spare time was occupied in a way befitting an upper-middle class housewife of her generation. She would go shopping at Saks, and Bonwitt Teller. She would meet her friends for lunch or coffee. She would go to the beauty parlor to have her hair streaked. Or she would volunteer. She was a member of the Junior League and a docent at the Brooklyn Museum in the Department of Egyptology. I have always been curious why she chose Egyptology. She’s never been to Egypt, or revealed any particular interest in ancient cultures, or kilims. When I’ve asked, her answers are, as they often are when she talks about herself, frustratingly vague. Maybe one of her friends mentioned something about it and it sounded interesting. Maybe they were looking for volunteers. More than anything, I think, it was something to do, an excuse to leave the house.

My father worked on Wall Street, a fifteen-minute walk from where we lived, across the Brooklyn Bridge. Sometimes he would come home for lunch, but usually he was too busy. It made my mother sad to spend so much time alone with us, but my father was the youngest partner in his firm. To prove himself, he had to work hard, long hours. His parents supported my parents early on in their marriage, when Wally was born, and my father was still in business school. They loaned my parents money for the down payment on our house. My grandparents were wealthy. Still, after this considerable head start, that was it. They never gave my parents any more money. My father said they believed people needed to take care of themselves. But sometimes my mother would whisper about how they thought she came from the other side of the tracks, that she was a gold-digger, and that she’d trapped my father into marrying before he finished graduate school.

Before my mother went out, she would give Fanny the stamps from the grocer, which my mother kept in a pile on the kitchen counter. Fanny would smile and thank her. “You have a good time, now,” she’d say, in her sweet, sadistic voice. “We’ll be alright, won’t we?”

I was so focused on my mother, on bracing for the inevitable, that I would barely hear her.

“See you later, Alligator,” my mother would say to me cheerfully, buttoning her coat. The silky assurance of her voice, the smell of her perfume, the way she tugged at the cuffs of her leather gloves as she gave last-minute instructions to Fanny—all of these things only increased my panic.

At the top of the front door there was a pane of etched glass. My mother would stand on the other side of it. Tapping her gloved finger on the glass, she’d mouth the words. “See you later, Alligator.” Her nose would crinkle up, the way it did when she was excited. And I would realize with dismay that this process of leaving was easier than anything else I’d seen her do. That in fact, she was quite good at it.

I was only two or three at the time, but I knew a few things, and this was one of them: If she left without my saying goodbye, I was the one who would suffer. Tears got you nowhere with her. Wally’s stoic bravery was what she admired. If I wasn’t cheerful enough, she would only leave faster—she resented feeling guilty. With this in mind, I’d force the words up through my throat: “After awhile, Crocodile.” With her nose still crinkled, her lips bright and glamorous, she’d blow me a kiss.

Things would calm down a little once she was gone. Fanny and I would go to the kitchen where I would play with our cat, Underdog, while Fanny did her stamps. There were these cards Fanny had, and she would line them up on the kitchen table. She’d take a sponge from the sink and lay it on a saucer. Then, counting the stamps on the card, she’d add this number to the number of new stamps my mother had just given her. One-by-one she’d peel off the new stamps and wet the back of them, and stick them on the cards. She was very methodical. She said the stamps on the cards were worth money. Some stamps were worth a penny. Other stamps were worth five cents. Sometimes Fanny would let me stick stamps on her card. But they had to be straight and in the right order. When Fanny finished her stamps, she’d get out the vacuum. Then Underdog would run upstairs and I’d miss Wally.

I’d follow Fanny around while she cleaned. “Where’d Mom go?” I’d ask. “When will she be back?”

“Errands,” Fanny would say, casually. I could tell my questions irritated her. It was all right to talk while she did her stamps. She was taking her time then. But when she was cleaning she didn’t like it, because she wanted to go fast.

Once I offended her in some way. “That’s it,” she snapped, “I’m going to wash your mouth out.” It all happened very fast. She got a bottle of Joy from the kitchen and stuck it under her arm. With her free arm, she dragged me into the bathroom.

“No,” I said. “Please. I want Mommy.” I covered my mouth with my hands.

She pried my mouth open, and held my head over the sink. Then suddenly she let go, as if I wasn’t worthy of all her efforts, she let go. “Here,” she said, tossing the Joy at me. “You go ahead and clean your own dirty mouth.”

Fanny’s back was turned. She was walking away. I thought she was going to tell my mother, but she didn’t. I didn’t tell my mother, either. I knew she’d only get mad at me. And if she got mad at me, she’d tell my father. And I’d get spanked. Anyway, it wouldn’t have made a difference. My mother treasured her time away. And Fanny was convenient.

“You need to get out. You need to do something for yourself.” Those were the words of the day among young housewives. Just as they were my mother’s words to me, when the time came. As if the simple act of going outside were enough to quell the rage and humiliation one sometimes felt at finding oneself stuck at home with young children. As if one’s lack of personal purpose could—and should—be assuaged by a trip to the beauty parlor or to Saks. As if one were a freak—or worse—ungrateful, if one happened to crave more. I don’t harbor any grudges toward my mother. To me it shows how little she asked for. How little she expected from her own life.

I still wonder at her choice of Egyptology. I have asked her, several times. Her answers are always frustratingly vague. Maybe someday she’ll tell me.

After her outings, my mother would look almost suspiciously radiant. Her heels would click glamorously on the marble tiles as she peeled off her leather gloves, hung her coat in the closet. And for a brief moment, with the outdoor air still clinging to her, I would glimpse the person she was without me; the person perhaps she wished she could have been; her other self, which, for some reason, she can’t, or doesn’t know how to share with me.

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