These kids and others kept pushing me to explain what I had meant, and finally I said: "My mother used the epiphany machine!" I think I feared that we would be tarred and feathered and sent out of town, "tarred and feathered" being a phrase I had heard in movies I watched with my grandmother. But the kids hadn't heard of the machine. I discovered slowly, over the next few months, that some of the parents had heard of it, but for the most part thought it was something to snicker over, not to fear. (I later learned that the link between HIV and the machine had been definitively debunked—the institute that had posited the link in the first place turned out to be a right-wing Christian operation unhappy with the strange theology of Adam Lyons.)
I am not sure that I actually felt the absence of my mother, a woman I had never meaningfully met. To be honest, the times I missed my mother most intensely were when a teacher would ask me whether I missed her. And even then the emotion I felt was probably a desire to impress the teacher with the depth of my emotion, itself an emotion strong enough to cleave a child in two. And there were those moments when other kids, with varying degrees of subtlety, would harass me, first for not having a mother and later for having a mother who had joined a cult. Approval and protection were the only things I wanted from a mother. Maybe these are the only things a mother can give. I wouldn't know.
Or maybe that's a self-pitying way for me to describe my childhood. After all, I did have a mother in my grandmother, who cared for me by moving slowly but all the time. The signal sound of my childhood was of her shuffling feet, which would take her around the house with great noise and over the objection of her aching joints. She cooked goulash or lasagna or pot roast for us almost every night (resorting to spaghetti only when she was unusually tired), often changing a lightbulb or a roll of toilet paper on the other end of
the house while the water was boiling. I should have helped, no question about that, although in my defense she adamantly refused my help on the (admittedly rare) occasions that I offered it. It didn't take the genius I hoped myself to be to realize that doing everything for me was my grandmother's way of redeeming herself for failing as the mother of my mother. Her more conscious attempts to revise her parenting style were less successful. "I gave your mother too much freedom and let her watch too much TV, so you can only watch three hours a week," she often said, but in practice she gave me an essentially unlimited amount of freedom and let me watch an essentially unlimited amount of TV. We also watched a lot of movies together, mostly riches-in-the-midst-of-the-Depression musicals and gangster movies, as we tried to pretend that we truly enjoyed each other's company and were not trying to distract ourselves from our mutual loneliness.
If my father was lonely as well—he appeared to have no social acquaintances—he did a remarkable job of channeling this loneliness into a stream of staggering productivity that would suggest a man operating at an unsustainable pace save for the fact that he sustained it. In addition to the infamous hours of a partner at a
corporate law firm, Isaac Lowood worked obsessively on his private passion, privacy, and wrote an influential book on the subject, Polaroids, Pac-Man, and Penumbras: Technology, the Supreme Court, and the Future of the Fourth Amendment. He boasted of a colleague who had referred to him as "a legend in his spare time." Other colleagues complained of all the time he spent on extracurricular pursuits, but he could always point to the fact that he billed more hours than they did. My grandmother made sure I knew that none of this would have been possible if she did not drive me to and from school and see to one hundred percent of household chores, but it also wouldn't have been possible if my father slept more than five hours each night and worked fewer than sixteen hours each day. (His workday began the moment he stepped on the train in the morning, when he would remove files from his briefcase and start reading.)
It is also true that it would not have been possible if he had spent much time with me. I'm not sure what we would have done together, other than maybe watch sports that neither of us liked. My father did the best he could, which as a description of human behavior sounds like a tautology but is actually true of very few people.
The epiphany machine only truly came into focus for me around the same time that I met Ismail. If one or both of us had not been assigned to Ms. Scarra's ninth-grade Global Studies class, then you might be watching a play written by Ismail rather than reading a book written by me. I fell in love with Ms. Scarra as soon as I walked into class on the first day, and I was determined to lose my virginity to her, a goal I probably chose because I had seen the scenario in a few of the nudie movies I had only recently discovered
on late-night cable. At the very least, I was determined to make her think I was a genius. So I was annoyed that her early favorite was another boy. Though unreligious, I had a great interest in the world religions we studied early in the year, and would have been the star of any other class. But Ismail's command was undeniable. He was extremely knowledgeable about not only Islam, his own religion, but also Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and particularly Zoroastrianism, of which his late father had been a scholar. When I say Islam was Ismail's own religion, I mean it was his own religion in the way that Judaism and Catholicism were my own religions, ambiguously inherited from parents who had not themselves been
believers. Ismail made it very clear one day that he thought that religion was "stupid" and that "anyone who doesn't hate thinking knows there's no God," which angered a lot of the other kids, most of whom had already embarked on lifelong careers of believing in God whenever they needed comfort or forgiveness that they did not want to ask another human being for. The nasty tenor of his remarks gave me some hope that I would become the teacher's favorite despite being outmatched, hope that was bolstered the next day when Ms. Scarra asked him to stay after class, maybe to lecture him about respecting the beliefs of the other students. Then she asked me to stay as well, so I got to listen as she praised Ismail effusively and he looked on with a barely respectful smirk, almost certainly harboring the same fantasies about Ms. Scarra that I did and appearing to have at least a slightly higher likelihood of fulfilling them. Finally, she turned to me and said a couple of nice things about me—not as nice, I thought, as what she had said about Ismail—and asked us to serve as co-presidents of the Coexistence Club, an afterschool group that would be devoted to harmony among religions. Ms. Scarra said that religious intolerance was cultural intolerance, and that since between the two of us we had cultural ties to the three major monotheistic religions, we were the ideal co-presidents. I think Ismail was as unhappy with the situation as I was, since there were strong flavors of tokenism, condescension, and illogic in the whole endeavor. We might have asked her about the
arbitrary focus on monotheism and why she didn't want to include a co-president who was actually religious—the idea of two atheists coexisting seemed strange. We might also have asked what she might possibly have thought the purpose of the club was. But Ismail and I both said yes, since the club was obviously going to look good on the college applications we were already looking forward to filling out. More important, Ms. Scarra was a female who was willing to talk to us.