Three or Four or Six

Zoe Stoller


I remember being three, or maybe four, or maybe six. In a dimly-lit restaurant. Who knows what food. Aunt Irene — she’s dead now but wasn’t then — calling me bubbeleh in her raspy voice. The only time my mother tried a cigarette was when Aunt Irene gave it to her. My grandfather smoked cigars. I used to hate the smell. Today I kissed a man with smoky breath.

Three, or four, or six — in a restaurant — maybe Italian? With my family for Aunt Irene’s birthday. She never had kids. My mom tried hard to be a replacement. Her father died from prostate — not lung — cancer. His brother married Aunt Irene. It was easy to fill in the gaps.

Most men give directions in numbers, women by landmarks. Whenever I see the movie theater I know I’m home. I think back on my life in the same way — events, not ages, years. I was a senior in high school when my grandma died; I remember how I felt but it takes me a minute to say for sure I was seventeen.

Was I three? Four? Six? I know exactly what the restaurant looked like, but I couldn’t say aloud the details.

My mom was like a surrogate child and knew Aunt Irene loved clocks. I couldn’t grasp analog clocks until recently; I wore a clunky digital watch until I was upgraded to Cartier.

I’ve always been self-aware and I’ve always understood. If I ever upset my mother I cry her tears. My mom thought she knew what would make Aunt Irene happy. She had no kids so she sat alone with my Uncle Sam in their apartment in Brooklyn. My sister and I used to play hide and seek when we visited to avoid making conversation.

The restaurant was dim but I saw every detail. Sometimes I find it hard to reconcile speech and thoughts. Sometimes the two are seamless. In the restaurant it was like an explosion.

My mother handed over a clock to Aunt Irene for her birthday. I rarely call her mother or mom; she is mommy and I used to be embarrassed that I couldn’t say anything differently. I’ve always been her child but in that moment I felt old.

What do I need another clock for, and I heard something fall in my mother’s body. I was three? Maybe four? Maybe six? And I could feel my mother’s tears like they were my own. She hid them so I did too. My biggest fear is disappointing my family. If I hurt someone else, I’m the one who suffers.

Sometimes I’m jealous of sociopaths. Sometimes I’m relieved I’m myself. Mostly I hated seeing my mother cry and I hated growing up.