Jewish Mom for the Straight Guy

When my father informed me he had scheduled a business trip to Los Angeles and was taking my mother with him about a month after I moved out here, his timing seemed less than coincidental. Both of my parents had been anxiously phoning me on a daily basis since I left New York. The real reason they were coming was to make sure I wasn’t living in a crack house, or at the very least had the decency to choose a Jewish crack house.

Truth be told, I needed them. After all the work that went into finding a suitable apartment and automobile in Los Angeles, I was growing increasingly listless about settling in much further. Even when the weather got colder and I struggled to sleep without a quilt, freezing each night felt preferable to braving the crowds at Bed Bath & Beyond.

Still, I had to be careful what I wished for. From the first minute my parents arrived at my new apartment, my mother began scrutinizing every square inch. As she wandered about steadying crooked picture frames, frowning at price tags and toeing carpet stains, I felt as if she and I were co-starring in the rejected pilot episode of "Jewish Mom for the Straight Guy."

But their visit was not entirely without generosity. When my father told me he was bringing a housewarming gift, my mind immediately raced with a few tantalizing possibilities: That waterbed I’ve been fruitlessly asking for since I was a kid? Not likely. A new car? In my dreams. A welcome mat emblazoned with the family name? Hope there’s a lot of willing Wallensteins on eBay.

So when he handed me a gift-wrapped package about the size of a cigar, I was completely confounded. Removing the wrapping, I unsheathed a mezuzah, the slender religious object Jews affix to their doorposts containing a scroll with excerpts from the Torah.

"It will watch over you," my father suggested.

The mezuzah was about more than providing a surrogate guardian, I realized. My decision to move out of New York City had only accelerated their long-compounding anxiety over my fading religious identity; despite Los Angeles’ heavy Jewish population, I imagine they pictured the city filled entirely with blonde heathens named Heather intent on eternally altering their bloodline. If my parents could fit Mount Sinai itself on a handtruck, they would have had it wheeled into my apartment. A mezuzah was a more practical choice to serve as a constant reminder of my Jewishness.

Had I wanted to distract my parents into forgetting about posting the mezuzah, I probably could have gotten away with it. But like every Jew, strands of guilt are coiled into my DNA’s double helix as tightly as a Chasid’s peyos.

On my parents’ last day in Los Angeles, they stood by as I fastened the mezuzah into place outside the front door of my apartment. Much as I would like to say the spirit of Moses himself swelled within my soul, the hammer, nails and wood actually brought to mind the crucifixion of Jesus.

"Can I ask what you’re doing?" a voice called out from down the hall. My parents and I wheeled around to glimpse the neighbor I had never met who lived three doors away. As if Central Casting had dispatched Hot, Young Los Angeles Neighbor to the never-ending sitcom that is my life, a striking blonde stuck her head out of the apartment, presumably prompted by the banging outside. My parents and I exchanged a helpless look. How were we going to explain a mezuzah?

She ventured out of her apartment for a closer look, which afforded me the opportunity to get a closer look at her blue eyes and tan legs. Fairly certain my parents would not spontaneously combust at that moment no matter how much I might will it, I instantaneously decided they would help me charm her. I turned to my father and asked him to explain the mezuzah, which he did with surprising gusto. I was then reminded of a fact I often forget: my father is also a man, and no man is immune to a friendly, attractive woman.

"Would you like us to install one for you next?" I asked. "Free of charge."

She laughed and even came into my apartment for a quick tour. My parents nervously milled about, watching their worst nightmare unfold in front of their eyes as I flirted with a neighbor who was way too blonde to be Jewish. When she scribbled her phone number on a Post-it before leaving, they simply ignored what transpired in sullen silence.

Not another word has been spoken about the mezuzah since that fateful day; I’d imagine in their mind I might as well have nailed mistletoe to the door. My mezuzah had indeed blessed me, but not in the way they had intended.

Boy Meets Mom

Busted flat in Barstow, I realize the desert is no place for an old Plymouth. The mechanic says something about “a machine shop in Victorville,” and I think that is one phrase you never want to hear in a sentence with your name. That and “feeding tube.”

I’m returning to Los Angeles from Las Vegas, where I spent the weekend with The Boyfriend, introducing him to The Mom, who has inexplicably decided to spend much of her retirement in a cozy little Vegas condo. She has mastered bingo and familiarized herself with every buffet and half-decent casino band in town.

The mechanic won’t know for a few hours what the exact prognosis of the Plymouth is, so The Boyfriend and I cross the dusty, sun-baked road to the Bun Boy, where it’s just about time for the early bird special.

I pretend to read the paper, but I’m mulling over the events of the weekend. I conjure an image of my mother looking right through The Boyfriend, not asking about his job or where he’s from. She’s met so many by now, and I think she and my stepfather just don’t want to get attached, in case he disappears like a political prisoner buried under some Latin American soccer stadium; in case he goes the way of the last few boyfriends, gone with little explanation.

This time, however, I could swear that my mother wasn’t seeing The Boyfriend but instead a giant sperm, a sperm that may or may not fertilize her daughter’s egg and bring her the thing she most wants: a grandchild.

That Saturday, we had all lounged in the pool. Mom’s elbows propped on the edge, she joked about when said grandchild would be coming. “I don’t care if it’s illegit,” she said earnestly, following the great Strasser tradition of voicing what should really be an inner monologue.

And “illegit”? What was she, MC Hammer? Her choice of words wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the sentiment. Then again, I couldn’t be too annoyed, because I understood where she was coming from. It was about a year ago that I woke up and suddenly found dogs and babies cute. Men don’t exactly look like big sperms to me, but I have begun to wonder how, when and if this whole family thing is going to go down.

The Boyfriend and I are polishing off a carafe of jam-like Burgundy at Bun Boy when we decide to check on the car. It’s going to be at least another hour, so we return to our diner booth.

I pretend to be discouraged, but I’m secretly thrilled to be stranded. I don’t want to go home. I love to be stuck between places. Barstow seems as good a place as any to press the pause button on life.

And The Boyfriend is a perfect companion. He’s totally unruffled by the overheating disaster. He lets me cry without offering too much advice. “It’s going to be OK,” is all he says.

“How can you say that when our fate is attached to a machine shop in Victorville?” I ask. He laughs, and I realize that hours have gone by without a tense moment between us — despite heat, a cracked radiator and a creepy tow truck guy named Jerry, who has a leathery face and a mouth full of plaque.

I’m on the fence about The Boyfriend, but I can’t deny that we get along. I sit at Bun Boy wondering how I’ll ever be able to tell the difference between a guy who isn’t right and that ever-popular “fear of intimacy.”

I don’t ever want to leave Barstow, and, according to the mechanic, that’s a distinct possibility. I won’t be able to drive the Plymouth for days. I decide to tow the old lemon back to Vegas so that my mother can return it to the mechanic who fixed the thing just days before, in exchange for another family jalopy that has proven desert-worthy.

It’s late when we arrive in Vegas, and I can tell my mother is happy just to see me again. She doesn’t see much of me these days. The Boyfriend thanks her again for her hospitality. “Just bring me my daughter and you can stay with me anytime,” she says.

“I don’t hug,” she adds by way of explaining her stance several feet from him. And all at once I understand how much I’m my mother’s daughter. And I’m ready to try going home again.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.