Nobody’s Runner Up: A Havana Love Story for Purim by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Nothing in Brooklyn could rival the formal dances in Havana at the Patronato de la Communidad Hebreo de Cuba. And nothing in the world could rival the exquisite Purim Ball of 1954 at the Patronato. Although my nineteen-year old mother was not selected as the Queen Esther of the ball that night, she was one of Esther’s four attendants—a very high honor for a girl whose father couldn’t afford to buy the title for her. It was also the night she fell in love with Manuel. She was wearing a black sleeveless velvet gown that her mother made for her, the neckline studded with tiny, starry rhinestones.

Matilde Alboukrek Bolton

Matilde Alboukrek Bolton

Falling in love with Manuel was fated, she thought. Not three weeks earlier, my mother tripped on the University of Havana’s famous stone staircase that fanned down to the street. She limped to the university clinic where a handsome doctor had dressed her scraped knee. Here he was again at the Purim Ball.

My mother has always believed in signs more than she believes in God.

**

On her first day of classes at the university, my mother ventured forth alone to the campus from her flat on La Calle Mercéd in Old Havana. She had just enough money for bus fare and a Coca Cola. It had been a fierce struggle to persuade my grandfather, my Abuelo, to allow her out at all. In his mind, the university was no place for a girl, particularly a Jewish girl. Abuelo slapped my mother when she told him she had been accepted to the university. And in one of his drunken rages, he beat my grandmother, Abuela, for encouraging my mother to apply.

“A girl needs an education,” Abuela screamed. “She’ll work like a burra, if she doesn’t go to school—a burra like me sewing until her fingers fall off.”

Abuelo begrudgingly, soberly relented, but gave his daughter grim odds: “You will come home with a Christiano,” he predicted “and if you do—te lo juro—I swear—you will be dead to me.”

But at the ball my mother defied her father’s odds and danced with the Jewish Manuel all night. Manuel stroked her knee, now fully healed, through the black velvet of her dress as she sipped lemonade. This was love, my mother thought.

**

By the winter of 1959, my mother’s heart was broken forever. She had followed Manuel from Cuba to New York. She believed that Manuel had not asked her to join him in the United States right away so that she could finish her studies in case Batista reopened the University of Havana. But soon after she arrived, she understood his noble gesture for what it was: Manuel did not want her.

My mother stayed in America anyway, where she endured the cold and year-round homesickness in a room she rented from her father’s cousins. When she came down with pneumonia during her first New York winter, she stayed in bed, feverish and disoriented. The Hungarian girls she worked with at the watch factory, where she typed invoices, brought her homemade pastries. While her friends’ political conflagration in Budapest happened in 1956, Castro had only recently come down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains, marching into the center of Havana on New Year’s Day, 1959.

Once she was well enough, my mother’s cousins encouraged her to go to Saturday night dances for Jewish singles, but she preferred to stay in with them and watch Perry Mason and Lawrence Welk. Those dances were for chusmas—girls who wore ankle bracelets and bright red toenail polish—on the prowl for men of equally questionable status.

**

Bound up in my mother’s lifelong sorrow has always been the loss of her nineteen-year old self, the girl who was so nearly the belle of the Purim Ball that she inflated the honor of runner-up into a victory of its own. “I was prettier than any of these girls,” she sighed when we watched a beauty contest on television.

That part she got right. The proof is in the black and white photograph I have of my mother taken shortly after the Purim Ball. Her head is slightly turned to the right; she seems to be gazing off into the future. Her wavy black hair is loose and cascades down her back. Her lips are dark, her eyebrows arched like a movie star’s.

At nineteen, my mother is magnificent. She is nobody’s runner up.

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A Life with Aspergers Recorded: A Book Review of The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch

David and Kristen Finch had been best friends since high school when they married in 2003. By 2008 their marriage was all but over until Kristen connected the dots and recognized her husband’s lack of social graces, his meltdowns, and his obsessive compulsions as symptoms of Asperger syndrome.

Rather than cause for alarm, the diagnosis was a relief for the couple. Over the years David had perfected a coping mechanism that involved viewing his daily interactions as acting roles in which he would “assume characters – versions of myself that are optimized for the social environment at hand.’’ That worked when Kristen and he were casually dating. It worked by day when he was playing “the businessman’’ with an impressive client base. Then at night he’d come home and fall apart.

The Asperger diagnosis also provided the Finches with a common vocabulary to communicate better. It gave them information and insight into David’s mindblindness – a condition in which people can’t read social cues or understand another person’s feelings.

Armed with new self-awareness, David Finch set out to reset his brain with the goal of becoming the empathic husband Kristen deserved and the loving father his young daughter and son needed. He meticulously recorded his efforts with grace and humor in a self-styled manual, which eventually evolved into a memoir.

“The Journal of Best Practices’’ began as a growing pile of notes to self – reminders that became something bigger as Finch attempted to challenge his behavior one obsession, tantrum, and social faux pas at a time. His self-education began with basics like showing respect for others or refraining from changing the radio station if Kristen was singing along. His approach serves as an organizing principle for the book, its chapters bearing titles such as “Use your words,’’ “Just listen,’’ and “Give Kristen time to shower without crowding her.’’

Finch’s book represents a milestone, arriving just as the first generation of diagnosed Aspergians has come of age. Just last month The New York Times published an extensive front page piece about the obstacles an Asperger couple faced as they struggled with love and sex and setting up house together. Among the trials these young adults faced was translating the hard-won skills they had successfully acquired to enroll in college or get a job, and use them in romantic relationships.

Finch’s brutally honest and very funny book takes the volatile mix of Asperger syndrome and relationships a step further by highlighting the emotional land mines waiting to be set off in “neurologically mixed marriages.’’

Kristen is no saint in the book, but she comes close. She’s a working mother with two small children and a husband whom she often has to coax to express himself in words. But Finch is a more insightful writer than to leave us with the impression that he’s the third toddler in the house. He conveys the complexities of his marriage as clearly as he does the obvious frustrations. He writes:

“Not only were we dealing with issues common to every marriage, we were also forced to deal with extremely bizarre challenges that plague relationships for people on the autism spectrum: my daily routines, my obsessive tendencies, my unwillingness to participate in social events.’’

That meant he had to figure out how to give his kids a bath even though he couldn’t stand the sensation of wet clothing against his skin. He eventually accommodates by donning swim trunks. He also had to find a way to control his temper when events – holidays, vacations, traffic patterns – didn’t unfold according to his preconceived plans.

After several months of jotting down behavioral dos and don’ts on scraps of paper and Post-It notes, Finch felt that he was dangerously close to adding another obsessive compulsion to his repertoire. In his final note to self, he warned: “Don’t Make Everything a Best Practice.’’ He heeded his own advice and transformed his ad-hoc journal into a poignant, self-effacing memoir about the power of love.

This review first appeared in the January 16, 2012 edition of the Boston Globe

The Anatomy of a Meltdown

It was a dark and sort of stormy night. There were still miles to go and promises to keep. Who knew when anyone in my house would get to sleep? My better half was living it up in some Mid-Atlantic state. Okay, he was away on business and he had dinner alone at the hotel bar. But I was still driving the kids around at 8:30 at night and he wasn’t.

Anna had a tutoring session for an SAT subject test. There is no rest for the college applicant or her mother. Adam was at home with a chicken roasting in the oven. As I was rushing out of the house, I yelled up to his room that he had to turn off the oven as soon as the timer went off. “Don’t fall asleep,” I warned. In hindsight, the reason why I thought that it was sensible to rely on a sleep-deprived teen-ager to turn off the oven eludes me.

Back on the road, Anna asked if we could stop for Starbucks.

“You really didn’t ask me that question,” I snapped at her.
“I’ll run in and I’ll get you something too,” said my seemingly accommodating daughter.
I must have given her such a look at the stop light, that all she said was, “The light’s green.”

I dropped Anna off and planned to nap in the car. Buzz, buzz went my ancient BlackBerry. A text message from my road warrior. Adam left phone off the hook? Call goes straight to voice mail. Not answering his cell either. I was sure that Adam had fallen asleep, that the house was about to go up in flames.

I interrupted Anna’s lesson and said I had to go home right away. I started the car and the orange light came on. I had less than two gallons of gas. I didn’t care. I had to rescue my son, salvage the house. Ten minutes later I was panting and wild-eyed in the kitchen. The oven was off. Adam was working on his math homework on the dining room table. “You’ve got to be more trusting, Mom,” he said without looking up.

I ran out again to pick up Anna and what do you know—there was that darn orange light again. It was even brighter. I stopped to fill up, which put me back about ten minutes. My cell rang. “Everything okay? Ken asked oh so gently. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” I said. I think I was sputtering.

Only fifteen minutes late for Anna. I can multi-task without breaking a sweat, I said to myself. Anna didn’t quite see it my way. She got in the car and fiddled with the heat until her arm got in the way of the gearshift. “Stop it,” I yelled.

“I’m cold,” she yelled back.

That’s what we said to each other, but if there were thought balloons floating over our heads, the subtext would go something like this:

Me: Why don’t you know how to drive yet? I’m so tired of hauling you around.

Anna: Don’t you understand I’ve been up since six in the morning and played a soccer game where I scored a goal? But how would you know that? You were late for the game too.

I told her that she had broken one of my father’s cardinal rules of driving—Don’t mess with the driver. She told me not to talk to her. That was it. I pulled over, handed her the car keys and proclaimed that I was walking the couple of miles back home.

I walked for about 15 minutes. Every time a car passed by I hoped it was Anna coming to pick me up. What was I thinking? That a kid who doesn’t like to drive, won’t ever drive without her permit, would illegally take the wheel and come looking for me at night. By the time I had figured this out, I had walked pretty far. And my BlackBerry was in the car.

Then I noticed a police cruiser coming down the other side of the street. I flagged down the officer. “I need a ride,” I blurted out. “My 17 year-old daughter and I had a fight and I left her in the car.”

The policeman asked me my daughter’s age three times. “Get in the back,” he said. Have you ever been in the back of a police car? There’s no upholstery and the windows have bars. I deserved to be treated like a criminal, I thought.

We pulled up to my car. The officer pointed out that he had to let me out because the patrol car locked from the inside. “It’s for prisoners, you know.” Then he peered into my car with a flashlight to make sure Anna was really 17 and not 7.

She told the officer she was okay. She had been crying and handed me my phone. “I can’t get a flight out tonight,” Ken said. “Maybe I can catch a train.” He thought he was still speaking to Anna.

What came over me? I guess that I dug myself so deep into a hole that I couldn’t climb out. And I was scared and cold and exhausted. But I’m the grownup. I should always know better.

Anna and I patched things up later that night. I swore to her I would never do something that stupid again. The next day she told me that she and her friends were cracking up over our little mishap. “Everyone said the story would find its way into your column.”

Kids these days are so smart.