In 1985, when I became a man according to Jewish tradition, my family summered in a Russian bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains. The colony consisted of a dozen sunburned wooden cottages squeezed in between some unimpressive hills and a daunting forest-and-brook combination that to kids from Rego Park, Queens, might as well have been the Amazon. During the workweek, it was inhabited by grandmas and their charges (a few grandpas had survived the Second World War to play competitive chess beneath the easygoing American sun), our lives revolving around the intermittent delivery of stale baked goods from the back of a station wagon. “Bread! Cakes!” an unhappy middle-aged local woman would yell at us, and we would jostle for a week-old raspberry Danish on sale for a quarter which tasted as good as anything we had ever known.
My grandmother was always in the background, chewing an apricot down to its pit, her eyes fixed firmly on my weak, somewhat flabby body, making sure nothing and no one would cause me harm. Other kids had similar minders—women who had come of age under Stalin, whose entire lives in the U.S.S.R. had been devoted to crisis management, to making sure the arbitrary world around them would treat their children better than it had treated them. My grandmother talked about going to “the next world,” and that bar-mitzvah summer, having passed a milestone of my own, I began to see her as an older woman in decline: the shaking hands clutching the apricot pit, the trembling voice as she begged me to swallow another forkful of sausage; a figure as anxious and helpless before eternity as any other. Maybe this was what America did to you. With the daily fight for survival abated, you could either reminisce about the past or face the singular destiny of the future.
On Friday nights, we kids would sit at a picnic table by the quiet country road, alert as terriers for the difficult sounds our fathers’ secondhand cars made. I remember my first love of that year—not a girl but the gleaming new beige Mitsubishi Tredia S sedan that my parents had bought, a boxy little number known mostly for its fuel efficiency. The front-wheel-drive Tredia S was an indication that we were slowly ascending to the middle class, and whenever my father and I were out on the road I would rejoice if I saw the more basic Tredia model (the one without the “S”).
My father was at the apex of middle age then, a deeply physical man who feasted with great emphasis upon garlic cloves on hunks of black bread and who, with his small, tough physique, best resembled a cherry tomato. He lived for fishing. Each year, he would pluck hundreds, if not thousands, of fish out of streams, lakes, and oceans with a three-dollar bamboo fishing rod and a chilling competence. I believe he single-handedly emptied out a lake near Middletown, New York, leaving behind just a small school of dazed, orphaned crappies. The bar mitzvah may have made me a man, but when my father and I entered the forbidding, grasshopper-ridden forest by the bungalow colony and he reached into the ground to sift for the juiciest worms, I felt coursing through me the Russian word for “weak”—slabyi, an adjective that from my father’s mouth could reduce me to near-zero.
When we weren’t fishing, we entertained ourselves at humble cinemas in towns like Liberty and Ellenville. The movie of that summer was “Cocoon.” Its premise: aliens—Antareans, to be exact—descend upon southern Florida to offer eternal life to a group of nursing-home residents. At that point in my life, Hollywood could sell me anything—from Daryl Hannah as a mermaid to Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl and Al Pacino as a rather violent Cuban émigré. Watching movies, I felt close to my father, removed from the difficulties of worm-gathering while being attacked by aggressive grasshoppers, free of my constant fear of getting my thumb impaled on one of the gigantic rusty hooks with which he terrorized the local trout. At the movie theatre, my father and I were essentially two immigrant men—one smaller than the other and not yet swaddled in a thick carpet of body hair—sitting before the canned spectacle of our new homeland, silent, attentive, enthralled.
Here was the geriatric Don Ameche break-dancing after being energized by the aliens’ fountain of youth, while back at our bungalow colony my grandmother and her fellow senior citizens mulled over the price of farmer’s cheese and reminisced about the Great Patriotic War. Here were Floridian palm trees, ocean breezes, and Tahnee Welch—daughter of Raquel—taking off her clothes while Steve Guttenberg, playing essentially himself, peeked through a peephole. I had never seen a woman as easily beautiful, as effortlessly tanned and as New World lovely, as Ms. Welch the Younger. The fact that my sexual awakening peripherally involved Steve Guttenberg I have gradually accepted.
The theme of the movie is immortality. “We’ll never be sick,” the character played by Wilford Brimley tells his grandson before the aliens beam him up. “We won’t get any older. And we’ll never die.” Brimley’s character is casting a fishing line into the Atlantic Ocean while his worried grandson looks on, a sliver of a boy next to a fully formed, famously mustached mastodon of a man. As my father guided home the Mitsubishi Tredia S beneath the bright rural canopy of stars, our sedan redolent of dead fish, live worms, and male sweat, I wondered why Wilford Brimley didn’t take his grandson with him to Antares. Wouldn’t that mean that he would outlive his grandson? Were some of us destined for a flicker of physical existence while others exploded like supernovas across the cold mountain sky? If so, where was the American fairness in that? That night, as my father’s healthy snores rumbled in the bed next to mine and my grandmother wandered in and out of the bathroom, I considered both the nothingness to which we would all eventually succumb and its very opposite, the backside of Tahnee Welch partly shrouded in a pair of white shorts. I wanted Wilford Brimley to be my grandpa and I wanted him to die. I kept thinking of what he told his slabyi, obsessive little grandson at the start of the film: “The trouble with you is you think too much and that’s when a guy gets scared.”