Neurotic Battle

In the investigation of a neurotic style of life, we must always suspect an opponent, and note who suffers most because of the patient's condition. Usually this is a member of the family.

-- Alfred Adler

I sat alone on a small sofa flanked by two empty chairs, waiting for David to join me. Across the room, on a similar set of furniture, sat David's father, uncle, aunt, and 90-year-old grandmother, who had traveled from Hungary to attend this event, her granddaughter's wedding. David and his mother stood between my mostly empty seating area and the one populated by his family in the middle of the hotel's lobby.

Sipping my Starbucks Espresso Martini, I returned the smiles of strangers -- some of them hotel guests, some of them wedding guests, none of them familiar. I looked ahead to find out what was taking David so long to come sit next to me and caught his mother saying my name.

"...Barbarella...?" She was asking him a question, something about me. What was it? I could not make out any more words, but I could read David's lips when he said "No," shaking his head back and forth for emphasis. I racked my brain for questions about me that would inspire a negative response.

But David's response did not worry me as much as his mother's reaction to it. After he said "No" her hands went up in the air in an obvious display of frustration. Possible questions raced through my head: Did she ask him if we were going to get married any time soon? Did she ask if I liked his extended family? If I wanted children? If I believed in God? It had to be something dreadful and serious to upset her the way it did.

I had worked myself into a bona fide tizzy by the time David and Ency, his mother, came to sit in the empty seats on either side of me. They acted as if nothing was wrong. While we chatted about how lovely the flower arrangements were, I kept my gaze fixed on her blue eyes, convinced I could somehow glean from them the answer to the question I was repeating over and over in my head -- what did you ask him?

Someone opened the door to the reception hall and we stood, my eyes not once leaving Ency's for fear I might miss my chance at reading her mind. Then she turned away to join her husband and I grabbed David's arm to keep him from following.

"What was that all about?" I asked once we were alone.

Blank stare.

"What did your mom ask about me? I heard her say my name, and you shook your head and said 'no,' and then she looked all frustrated and threw her arms up in the air. What happened?"

"Oh, that. Mom asked if you liked mushrooms because we're having burgers Monday night. She'll have to make yours without them."

"Why did you tell her that I don't like mushrooms?"

"Because you don't!" I knew without holding a finger to David's wrist that his pulse was rising, so I let the subject go for the moment, pasted a smile on my face, took his hand, and led him into the reception hall for dinner and other typical after-wedding activities.

We were staying with friends in Boston but would be leaving in another day to stay with David's parents on Martha's Vineyard. Not even there yet, and already Ency and I had positioned David in the middle of our neuroses and our need to stress over stupid things.

When we were visiting last summer, I went into a panic when I overheard Ency mention her plan to serve mollusks for ten. David's brother Dana was also staying at the house, along with his wife and two daughters. Of the bunch, I was the only one who gagged at the prospect of licking the snot out of some shell. To ensure that everyone would be happy, I convinced David to take me to the store for tortellini. Little did I know what an uproar my cheese-filled pasta would cause.

Ency eyed the pot of boiling water on the burner to the left of the simmering shells.

"What's that for?" She directed the question to David.

"Barb's tortellini."

"Why's Barbarella having tortellini?" She rarely abbreviates my name.

"Because she doesn't like mussels, clams, or scallops," David answered.

"Oh. Oh, I see." She did not sound pleased.

I felt the weight of Ency's stare throughout dinner. She hates me, I thought. I've committed some kind of offense. And here I thought I was making things easier. Tortellini-related comments were made. I was the odd-man out, and as if that

wasn't enough, I further isolated myself by passing on the creamy white dessert to fetch the pint of chocolate ice cream I'd purchased along with the damning tortellini.

Later that evening, I pretended to read while I waited for David to finish brushing his teeth and come to bed.

"She hates me," I said, tossing my book aside as soon as he joined me.

"She doesn't hate you," David said. He took a deep breath. "More than anything, my mom just wants to make everyone happy. By fending for yourself tonight, you demonstrated her failure in that regard. In front of everyone. To her, that's public humiliation, especially because she prides herself on being a good host."

"I would never expect anyone to cater to my fastidious tastes. It stresses me out to think of somebody worrying about me," I said.

"Well it stresses my mother out even more to see you being forced to fend for yourself as a guest in her house."

"I am not being 'forced.' I'm making sure I eat what I want without forcing her to stretch herself thin in order to accommodate me."

"That's not the way she sees it," said David. Recognizing the beginning of a circular debate, I sacrificed my turn to talk.

"Look," said David, "both of you mean well. But your neuroses have pushed you to extremes. Mom is obsessed with being a good host and providing for the happiness and well-being of her guests. She knows there are many foods you don't like, but she doesn't know what they are. So for her, the preparation of every meal is like walking through a minefield. Whereas you don't want to eat things that disgust you, but you want to be a low-maintenance houseguest and not put anybody out, so you fend for yourself. I wish that you would both just relax a little and meet somewhere in a happy middle ground."

Now, almost a year later, mushrooms were the issue of the evening. Those spongy fungi I detest so much were threatening what might otherwise be a tasty burger. We arrived at the house on Ency's birthday, shortly after she'd returned from the hospital -- David's father had rushed her there before dawn after she had complained of chest pains. The doctors had found nothing wrong with her, but follow-up appointments were scheduled.

Concerned, but trying to brighten everyone's mood after such a scare, David said, "Mom, I would not have said anything about making burgers without mushrooms for Barb if I had known it was going to give you a heart attack." We all laughed a little harder than the joke warranted; it felt good. A few hours later, everyone had Hungarian-style burgers. Mine was a delicious, well-done, paprika-laden burger with a slice of American cheese melted on top -- and hard to tell apart from the patties overflowing with mushroom slices and sour cream. For dessert, Ency produced two tubs of ice cream: Breyers vanilla to please the masses, and H...agen-Dazs chocolate to please me.

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