The Writing Disorder



New Fiction


by Avi Wrobel

      Before I tell you about the dollhouse I must tell you about Tsippi, who was one of the major scourges of my childhood. Tsippi was a daughter of a remote family relation of my mother’s, officially known as Cousin Deborah but always referred to as Tsippi’s mother. Cousin Deborah was one of the few on the outer fringes of Ma’s clan to make it out of Poland alive. This woman was hard of luck even by Holocaust survivor standards, as not only did she lose all the family to which she was born, as had practically all of my parents’ friends and acquaintances, except for the Persians, of course, but she also lost her acquired family, e.g. her husband, who was killed while on patrol — not during the heavy action of Israel’s War of Independence, which he managed to survive, but on a random patrol during his time in the reserves a year later. The extra year of life gave him just enough time to impregnate his wife with a daughter, Tsippi, to whom, in his great generosity, he donated an extra chromosome, making her a Mongoloid, which was not the word we used to describe her behind her back. Tsippi’s mother was given a meager widow’s pension by the fledgling state which allowed her to sit at home and, having to do nothing else, devote her entire waking hours, and I surmise, most of her dream time, to Tsippi. She fed her, dressed her and spent untold hours trying to teach her to read, write, to count, to add, to subtract, to tell time, without stellar or any other kind of success in any of those endeavors except for, alas, the first, the feeding part. There she was wildly successful as Tsippi became a strapping girl, taller, broader and way stronger than me, even though my Ma was no laggard in the force-feeding department.
      It seems Cousin Deborah and Tsippi’s only respite from their solitary, endless and fruitless travails in their bleak, ground- floor, one-room apartment was their yearly journey to our, by comparison, spacious and airy two-room apartment, launched into space by eighty-eight dreaded, steps. To my mother the steps were a godsend, for they kept away all but the most determined of visitors from our lofty aerie. My mother wouldn’t normally welcome any guests for extended stays at our apartment, aside from my father’s sister Aunt Sarah, of course, who barged in whenever and for as long as she wanted with her daughter, the spawn of Satan, in tow. Guests tended to interfere with Ma’s very set and specific ways, and, coincidentally, neither did many guests brave Ma’s hospitality often or for long. Aside from our eighty-eight sheltering stairs Ma’s cooking and bewildering conversations, both sharing the quality of overabundance rather than taste, provided a natural barrier against intruders, but Cousin Deborah and her daughter Tsippi, much to my chagrin, were the exceptions. Ma took pity on Deborah as she considered her the only person in the world with luck worse than Ma’s own, hence Deborah and Tsippi were invited to our house on a yearly basis. When they were alone, e.g. when my Da was out of earshot, my mother would try to convince Tsippi’s ma in Yiddish that she, Deborah, the widow, was better off than my Ma because with a husband like my father she’d be better off without a husband at all, not realizing all the while that I understood Yiddish fluently by then, having learned it on the sly to get the inside scoop on my highly peculiar and precarious family situation. Not only that but Ma insisted she would trade her genius daughter Amy for retarded Tsippi in a millisecond, because while Tsippi is limited she does the best she can, while Amy, the proven genius, doesn’t do anything at all. Also, while Tsippi is good tempered and kind Amy is angry and mean. She said those things, of course, in my sister Amy’s presence to really help raise her self-esteem and confidence. She was to pay for such crimes to the end of her days, but for the moment she considered it good parenting, I suppose, a way of putting my ‘arrogant’ sister in her place. Ma didn’t really mean it, about the Amy for Tsippi trade as she held Tsippi, endowed as she was with the standard package of Mongoloid features, including but not limited to the tiny slanted eyes, protruding tongue, frequent drooling and mental retardation, in utter contempt, totally inferior to my sister Amy, who, after all, came in first in the high-school entrance exams of the whole country, a country of smart-alecky Jews. My sister, however, used that honor as proof of her innate belief that she is the smartest person alive, hence relieved herself of any further need to prove herself by exerting any effort in any field of endeavor, other than her perpetual need to exact revenge on my parents for the brutality it took on their part to turn her into the smartest person alive, revenged she exacted on anyone on her path who questioned her total superiority and perfection. Still, Ma didn’t mean it about the trade, I’m pretty sure. She just meant to make Cousin Deborah feel better and my sister Amy feel worse. I don’t know how successful she was with Cousin Deborah, but her success with Amy was total and perpetual, but not to the effect that she, my Ma, desired, I am sure.
      By the time of Tsippi and her mother’s arrival at our soaring nest my Ma, that if annoyance were an Olympic event would have been a perennial gold medallist, had lectured me for days on end on how I should be happy to be who I am, that is, almost normal, as opposed to Tsippi, who not only was an idiot but was also an orphan. Now, I was not discernibly good by nature, at least no better than anyone I knew, but I acquired the reputation of being the goodie-two-shoes of my little community purely for survival reasons. The foremost motivation for such two-faced behavior on my part was to avoid my father’s famous all over town Vesuvian eruptions, which could lead into one’s being flung into space from balcony launch pads, such as the flight my sister Amy barely aborted. A very close second reason for my unctuous exterior was the desire to avoid triggering one of Ma’s harangues — at all costs. Her droning tirades made final flights from balconies seem like happy landings. My Ma could have taught the Chinese a thing or two about torture as her harangues would follow one unrelated tangent after another, the total lack of logic or sense constructing for me, the sole unlucky member of her perpetually captive audience and a desperate seeker of order and logic, a multi dimensional maze with no exit or breathable air. Before Tsippi’s annual visit Ma would ply me with her preemptive Tsippi lecture, even though I would promise on my pet turtle Shlimazel’s head to treat Tsippi as if she were the funken Queen of England, to no avail. Once Ma got going there was no stopping her. Tsippi’s eventual arrival following the Tsippi preparatory lecture series compounded the injustice of the situation, hence drilling into me Ma’s most insistent and, to date, most invaluable lesson — life’s not fair and then you die, or, in this case, wish you did. Ma’s Tsippi lecture would touch on all her usual bullet points regardless of their relevance to Tsippi — Ma’s family’s murder in the Holocaust, that Ma’s family was enlightened and educated with her brothers and sisters attending the universities of Prague and Vienna, yet she, who just finished high-school, survived, leaving me to connect the dots myself, after hours and hours of dizzying meanderings, and come to the inevitable conclusion that only due to her inherent goodness and her service to others did God spare Ma’s life while taking those of all the brilliant luminaries of her family in particular and of Judaism in general because their inherent arrogance and pomposity. This part of the lecture troubled me deeply on two fronts, as on the one hand, with every ounce of her considerable energy and resources, Ma was trying to turn me into one of those lost intellectual luminaries of her family hence subjecting me to the wrath of God. On the other hand service to others was not one of Ma’s discernible characteristics, at least not to me, unless one considers her devotion to American dresses, Italian shoes and German cosmetics her personal crusade for free world trade and the rights of the consumer. In that case one can consider my Ma a true freedom fighter and a major thorn in the side of the drab and oppressive socialism of the time. Looking back upon that community at that time, as I imagine her petite, elegant form sashaying down the boulevard, I realize that indeed she addressed the most urgent need of that community by providing a touch of beauty, a hint of color, to those dark, sad streets.
      In order to illustrate the depth of her commitment to the unfortunate souls of the universe Ma would recite the story of how, when she was five, one Friday evening before the Sabbath, when she saw the coal carrier of her shtetl struggle with a big sack of coal on his back, she, in her Sabbath go to meeting best, ran towards him and helped him lift his heavy, black black sack all the way to his small small house, thereby soiling her fine, white white dress, her very finest dress, beyond redress. When on her way home she noticed the totally ruined dress she was afraid that she would get a beating, or, actually, a scolding, should I say, for there no beatings at her enlightened house, unlike ours. Instead, when she told her Dad how she soiled her dress, he hugged her and kissed her and called her mein tayere Ruchaleh, thereby, I presume, soiling his own Sabbath clothes. Due to the high emotional state Ma reached while telling the story, moved to the verge of tears, as it were, by her own saintliness, I didn’t dare mention for a second time that I had read that very same story in an Israeli book of Eastern European children stories, a book I had borrowed from the library when I was four. The one time I did make the mistake of mentioning this little fact it earned me a bonus harangue about respecting my parents by believing them, with ample samples of the times when she doubted her own father and he always turned out to be right, and as for the story I read, she wouldn’t have been surprised if indeed it was based on her own act of heroic charity. Didn’t you tell me that by not listening to your father, who wanted you to stay in Poland, and making an aliyah you saved your life? I dared ask, that one time. But that was too much for poor Ma to handle all at once as she had used up her ample supply of harangues by that point, so she slapped me. How dare you, was all she managed.
      Ma’s lectures would grind to a stop only when Deborah and Tsippi arrived at our door, leaving their mountain of luggage at our landing. The hell of their arrival would be practically a relief from the purgatory of Ma’s Tsippi lecture series. The benefit of Ma’s relative silence, however, was offset by the fact that time would grind to a halt for the duration of Tsippi’s stay. First Ma made me go down eighty-eight stairs and do all the luggage lugging, forcing me to scale eighty-eight-times-five steps to raise the elevation of the widow and her daughter’s earthly possessions to that of my hitherto unreachable tower, making me be my own Trojan horse, welcoming the dreaded enemy within my gates. The pair of miserable visitors, having little experience in the art of traveling, had seemed to have emptied their abode of all contents and schlepped the entire load along for me to shoulder. Tsippi’s mother insisted that Tsippi would be more comfortable with her own sheets, towels, blankets, plates, silverware, toys, knickknacks and any and all sundry objects that happened upon her since the day of her unfortunate birth, including a diaper or two. I was surprised and grateful that she didn’t lug Tsippi’s mattress along for the ride. Contributing to Tsippi’s comfort level was highly counter indicative for my own well being, as it meant that Tsippi would be comfortable enough to eat her best, for Tsippi didn’t eat only when she was uncomfortable, a condition her mother avoided at all costs. While her ample eating was apparently the only source of joy for her mom, for me it was a source of paralyzing panic, for it only meant that Tsippi would grow bigger and stronger yet in the years to come and would dominate and humiliate me even more. This feeling of doom increased my resentment with every step I took under my heavy burden of Tsippi’s belongings, little knowing that taking resentful steps under heavy burdens would become my most avid form of recreation in the years to come.
      Tsippi’s visits would last for what seemed eternity but in fact would be four or five days at a time, days that became annual days of awe for me, tacked on to the official days of awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when you’re supposed to torture your soul in search of and in forgiveness of all your sins of the past year so you can improve your chances for life in the coming year. My Tsippi days of awe made death in the coming year seem like a welcome alternative. It wasn’t that Tsippi was mean or anything. On the contrary, she was the most positive and loving of humans I’d met to that day or to this, for that matter. She was practically as loving as a dog. She used her size and strength advantage not to beat me up, which I could have handled as I had received many a beating at Ma’s hands and on the streets of Haifa, but to love me to death.
      It came to pass that invariably by the second or third day of their stay, my mother would say to Tsippi’s mother: Yankele is such a good boy, you can trust him with Tsippi. We can go downtown.
      Trust me with Tsippi! I screamed inwardly in utter rage and despair. Trust me! How about her? Can you trust her with me??? You stupid cow! Now I know why father calls you a beheymeh, the Yiddish bastardization of the Hebrew word behemah, e.g. cattle, e.g. you stupid cow. You are a goddamn cow! Father was right all along! I screamed inwardly at the highest amplitude my inner child could muster as I heard the click of the front door’s lock as it slid into the doom position, binding me inside to Tsippi, an early bout of cage wrestling. No sooner did the lock slide shut that Tsippi would be on top of me and stay there for the duration of her mother’s absence. As soon as her Mom would come back Tsippi would be back in her chair in the corner, rocking back and forth and acting like a retard so her Mom would leave her alone. She was no retard when her Ma was gone, though. She was id let loose, an embodiment of raw sexual energy that expressed itself by her turning my body into an anatomy lab while the ladies went downtown.
      Downtown meant the Persian basement store, windowless and airless, lit by a single dim bulb, where American dresses smuggled past draconian Israeli custom officials by free spirited entrepreneurial sailors would crash land by the dozens on worn counters where grabby hands would claw at them as if they were the funken waters of the fountains of youth. However, all the customers knew this: if my Ma got a hold of a piece of cloth, it was hers. She would have shredded a pit bull toothless in a tug of war over a sleeveless, flower patterned summer dress with a made in America tag.
      My mother and Cousin Deborah would disappear for hours, leaving me at Tsippi’s mercy. Now Tsippi didn’t mean to be mean to me. She clearly liked me and showed her unfettered affection without cease for the entire duration of our mothers’ absence. She hugged me so hard she squeezed the air out of my lungs and as I was passing out from lack of oxygen she would kiss me on the mouth, sticking her humongous tongue, which was already permanently parked well outside of her mouth, giving her the early advantage, down my gullet. When she’s had enough of mouth play, she’d proceed to ass play as if following a Freudian script. She’d explore my body as if it were a Disneyland ride, sticking her fingers up my ass, grabbing my tiny dick, sticking her fingers in my ears, nose, eyes, belly button without restraint or self-consciousness while I tried feebly to protect myself as best I could, denying myself the pleasure I might be experiencing if I only let myself. Tsippi may have been retarded in the intellectual realm but she was a regular Nobel laureate in the sexual realm. These yearly sexual assaults started following the dollhouse incident. You see, Tsippi’s adoration for me stemmed from her radical misunderstanding of an event that occurred when we were five. The event was the transfer of ownership of a dollhouse, doll furniture and a collection of pretty cheesy dolls from my possession to that of Tsippi’s. She thought I gave her my most precious possessions because I loved her.
      The burden of caring for our family was dropped into my lap when I was two, when it was discovered that I was reading Hebrew more fluently than my Da or my Ma. The way my Ma put it to her friends was that I just picked up books and started reading them. The truth was quite different, of course. When I was one Ma started lecturing me about what her father taught her, specifically, that you can only run away with what’s in your head, e.g. with whatever knowledge or skills you have. As a Jew, you never know when you have to run for it and leave all your earthly possessions behind, she lectured the one-year-old, who then eyed his pathetic toy collection forlornly. After preparing the ground with that lecture, repeated multiple times per day, at about a year-and-a-half Ma decided it was time to teach me how to read, I suppose so I’d have some brain luggage in case I had to run for it when I was two. Her obsessive compulsive nature, completely oblivious to the emotional reactions of others in general and me in particular to her sometimes brutal actions, was so oppressive that I took up reading as fast as I could just to get rid myself of my tormentor. By two I could read Hebrew as well as her, and she let me be. By two and a half, when it was clear that I read Hebrew better than Ma or Da, I was assigned the task of helping Da pass his written driver’s license exam by reading him the driver’s training booklet. I read the laws and interpreted for my Da the best I could, given that I didn’t know how to drive at the time, and after driving illegally for years Da took his driver’s license test. His passing and getting a license was a cause for celebration in our house. I marked the celebration by acquiring my first doll. At first Pa was leery of my new acquisition, but when he found out that it was my papa doll, to whom I would sit and read the driver’s manual, he gave it his imprimatur. I had found the doll on the ground in one of my forays into the local park. From then on I was on a lookout for a mate for Da, a Ma’s doll. I expanded my search for discarded dolls in the local trash cans and soon found headless dolls, bodiless heads, arms without legs, and legs without arms. From that collection of doll members I fashioned a mama doll, papa doll, sister Amy doll, Aunt Sarah doll and others who came and went, as necessary. My Da, in one of his moments of over-the-top generosity, as a reward for helping pass his driver’s exam, made me a dollhouse in his welder shop. It was made out of welded sheet metal and so heavy I couldn’t lift it. It had so many jagged edges it shredded my hands, but it was a duplicate of our little apartment, even the balcony, and I started using it to stage my ‘plays.’ For a long time my parents found it cute. When one doll, my Aunt Sarah Doll, would yell at the other dolls about leaving marks on the floor, or bringing dirt on their shoes upon her fine Persian carpets, my parents thought it was a riot. It got so they started asking me to put on my doll show for their friends on poker night. They didn’t understand the function of my little dramas and thought I was trying to get their attention or amuse them when in fact I found their interest in my doll plays intrusive and disruptive. On a particularly balmy Saturday evening, when their friends came over to play cards and drink beer on the balcony, my father carried the dollhouse to the balcony, where a space was set for it, and my ma brought out my dolls.
      No, I protested. These dolls are not for show and are definitely not for guests I screamed inwardly but outwardly all I could manage outwardly was No! No! No!
      Apparently fearing that I was turning overnight into an oppositional machine, a role my sister was already occupying in spades, they were going to nip such resurrection in the bud.
      Don’t be such a nudnik, my ma said, put on a little play already. You’ll see, you’ll be a famous playwright someday when you grow up.
      I don’t want to be a playwright, I protested. I want to be a pilot.
      Give them the play about aunt Sarah. It’s a good one, Ma insisted.
      No I won’t. I said.
      Then any play you want, she said, but you have to do something, you can’t keep people waiting like this. So I staged my favorite play, the one I had played hundreds of times when no one was watching. It was the play where Hitler my father nearly threw my sister the Palestinian terrorist off our fourth floor balcony, paying particular attention to my sister’s kick to his nuts, his crumpling to his knees with my Amy doll yelling at him, you look like Hitler and you act like him, I wish he would have taken you with all the rest. You were born in Palestine and you’re a terrorist just like them, my Pa doll yelled at my sister Amy doll from his knees. Stop it, you meshugena, my Ma doll yelled at my Da doll. Shut up you stupid beheymeh or I’ll throw you off the balcony too. If you spent more time with your daughter instead of spending all your time buying your funken American dresses, spending every penny I sweat blood for, maybe this terrorist would have some respect for her father.
      There was a deathly silence on the balcony after I had finished my play, then the guests broke into uproarious laughter clapping their hands as if I’d just staged a Tony winning Broadway play as my parents shrank in mortification. A regular Shakespeare you got there, my parents’ friends exclaimed as my parents shepherded me off the balcony into my bed, even though it was an hour before my regular bedtime.
      The next time I saw my dolls was when cousin Tsippi visited a few weeks later. The dolls and dollhouse, doll furniture and doll clothing were put into a box and were handed over to Tsippi as a gift from me. He’s too big now for dolls and he wants you to have them, my Ma said to Tsippi. Tsippi screamed at the top of her lungs with joy as no one but her Ma had ever given her anything up to that moment in time. She jumped on my neck and hugged and kissed me so hard I nearly passed out, a ritual she kept up until my departure from the Holy Land to the wasteland.
      As my parents were handing over my dollhouse Tsippi’s mother, who did not possess an extra chromosome and who did notice other people’s emotional reactions by their facial expressions, unlike my mother, had taken notice of my bereft state. She asked my parents, in Yiddish, of course, as to why they were giving the dollhouse to her daughter, as in her estimation the boy still wanted it. My parents explanation befuddled me, as in Yiddish they told Deborah that they were afraid I’d turn into a feygale should I keep playing with my dolls, feygale in Yiddish being a birdie, a little bird. Only later did I understand that feygale stood for fagale, or a little fag, not the little bird I became afraid of becoming should I pursue my career in psychodrama.
      Tsippi kept my doll collection until her adulthood, I was told, and she took them with her to the care facility where she’s been spending the rest of her days once her ma passed away.
      Looking back at the effect Tsippi had on me I now realize that the havoc she wreaked upon my love life had a much more insidious and lasting effect than I ever imagined. It wasn’t the sexual torture and humiliation that affected me, oh no, it was the expectation that I would find a love as true and deep as Tsippi’s that ruined me for life.

Avi Wrobel was born in Haifa, Israel and immigrated with his parents to Alhambra, California, when he was thirteen. He majored in physics and literature at Caltech and worked as an engineer after graduation. After three years in a cubicle he moved to Big Sur and worked in construction and as a ranch hand while pursuing Henry Miller’s muse. He came back to the city upon his father’s death, had a family, raised two children and became a partner in an electronics firm. On the side he participated in a mineral exploration venture in Virginia City, Nevada, where he sought out Mark Twain’s ghost at the Territorial Enterprise. So far he has managed to match Mark Twain’s success as a miner. He is presently married to a classical pianist and lives in Los Angeles.

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