My mother tried to stab Magdalena with a steak knife. There, I said it.
For years I’ve wondered if I might have imagined the moment when my mother picked up the knife she’d been using to saw through a not-quite-defrosted Entenmanns’ coffee cake and attempted to plunge it into the flesh of my good friend and occasional lover Magdalena.
But let me back up, just a little. I was 15 when I met Mag. She was 22. My friend Jen had coerced me into joining a community theater; it was the best favor she could have done me. After surviving an überrepressed, preppy high school in Rumson, New Jersey, where Izod golf shirts and khaki pants were a required uniform, coming face to face with my first gay, bisexual, and don’t-give-a-hoot-whom-you- sleep-with friends was a gift from the gods.
I settled in as a back-of-house set person and ersatz mascot. I was an artist, after all. So why not paint sets instead of canvases? The group’s ringleader, Matthew (clearly the love child of David Bowie and David Niven), delighted in dragging me to thrift stores and dressing me in vintage prom dresses, then taking me to the Odyssey, the gay disco in Asbury Park. Being allowed into a real disco without being asked for ID, served alcohol, and twirled around on the dance floor by drag queens was the most glamorous thing that had ever happened to me.
It became clear to my parents that someone or something was corrupting me: a change in clothing, a distant attitude, the slipping of grades.
But it was not Matthew my mother hated; no, his charming, well-spoken demeanor gave her calm. But Mag, who stood seven feet tall in heels, who had the shoulders of a linebacker and the face of Bette Midler on steroids, who boldly wore miniskirts that barely covered her derriere, who smoked long cigarettes from plastic holders, and who rarely spoke below a screech — this woman made my mother very uncomfortable.
When I started to smoke, drink, stay out late, and carry on with boys and girls in all sorts of wicked ways, my mother didn’t blame my party-hearty friends. She was convinced that hell had come spewing forth through the tall woman blowing smoke rings at the picnic table in our backyard. Nothing right could come from someone who looked so wrong.
Magdalena was not my first lover and certainly not my last; to be truthful, even by that tender age of 15, she was one of several females who had graced my bed, or rather the backseat of my parents’ Volaré, but when Mom got an inkling that her middle daughter might not exactly be heterosexual, it was Mag she blamed.
“Magdalena! She’s ruining my Shana Madelah!”
When I wound up, like it or not, living in Crown Heights, Mom consoled herself:
“My beautiful little girl is out on her own too young ... but at least she is away from Magdalena!”
Little did Mom realize that Mag had been spending weekends with me in my funky bachelorette pad. She’d arrive on a Friday night as the neighborhood was rushing home to prepare for the Sabbath — Magdalena plowing down Kingston Avenue in a fuchsia minidress and red vinyl go-go boots, sending Hasids in black suits scurrying left and right like the parting of the Red Sea.
I loved to hang my head outside my window overlooking Kingston to take in the sight.
“Rossalinda,” she would screech from two blocks away, “I’m heeeeerrreee!”
When Mag came to town, it felt like a party. As hundreds of our neighbors scurried to the synagogue to begin Sabbath prayers, I would turn up the volume on my cheap stereo, and we would dance around my apartment singing along to my B-52s album, devouring the kosher salami the Big H, my mom, Harriet, had mailed me in soggy freezer packs with mustard and Tam Tam crackers. We’d wash it down with cheap beer from the bodega across the street.
“Hector!” I would scream to my buddy at the bodega, “Send over another six pack of cervezas!”
Who needs a phone anyway?
As big as Mag was, she considered herself a delicate flower. Once the sun had gone down, she would change into a pink lace nightie with matching panties. “Ain’t I pretty?” she’d screech, twirling in front of the mirror. In the morning, we would lounge on my milk crate furniture or the one real piece I owned, a couch, and drink Bustelo coffee accompanied by big hunks of Italian bread, a fifty-cent treat in my low-rent life.
It was during our Bustelo and bread siesta one Saturday morning in 1982 that my parents showed up for a surprise visit.
I opened the door after hearing the loud banging and assumed it was one of my ruder pals, only to find my parents and a half-dozen bags of kosher groceries at my door.
“You need to eat more!” my mother said, pushing past me before I had a chance to warn Mag.
I followed my mother up the stairs, making a point to yell, “Well, MOM, so nice to have this surprise visit, MOM!”
I heard a pronounced “EEEK” from the living room as Mag raced to assemble herself.
When my mother reached the top of the stairs and came face to face with Mag, in her pink lace ensemble, complete with bread crumbs in her cleavage, she froze.
“Hello, Mrs. Ross. Nice to see you again,” Mag said.
My mother said nothing. She stared Magdelena up and down and got a tired, beaten look on her face, then dragged her grocery bags into the kitchen and dropped them on the counter. Mom stood there for a moment, motionless, and then reached into one of the bags and pulled out a not-quite-unfrozen coffee cake. She found a small steak knife in the dishwashing rack and sat down at the kitchen table and began to saw.
I don’t know what she meant to do with the cake. The Big H was diabetic, so it may have been some sort of blunted suicide attempt. In mid-saw, my mother held the knife in front of her face, then thrust it into the air in a fury.
An eerie, high-pitched voice came out from between her clenched teeth, “I’ll kill you, Magdalena!” Then, to emphasize her intent, she stood up and began to wave the knife back and forth.
By this time, Mag had pulled on her pink leather minidress, go-go boots, and matching leather jacket and shoved her undies and toothbrush into her purse. Taking one look at my mother, she made a break for the stairs.
“Rossalinda . . your mother seems to have gone nuts ... Time to go ... Love you ... Call me!”
Shuffling as fast as her bulk would allow, my mother hobbled down the stairs after Mag, screaming, “Stay away from my daughter!”
I hung my head out the window. Mag, with her long legs, was already two blocks away, racing past the stunned Hasids, but my mother went after her, huffing and puffing and waving the little steak knife left to right.
“Magdalena! I’ll kill you, Magdalena!”
Mom never caught Mag, thank the Lord, but I’ve always wondered just what she would have done if she had.
I laid down the law when my mom returned — I would be 18 in six months, nearly legal, and the days of surprise visits were over. Much as I wanted and, okay, needed the free groceries, it was better to starve than to be subjected to this kind of humiliation, not to mention near homicide.
My mother, insulted, red-faced, and probably still in shock, left the butchered coffee cake on the table, grabbed my father’s arm and left.
My dad managed to squeeze in, “Goodbye!” before following my mother down the stairs.
“Marty! We’re not wanted here!” screamed my mother, slamming the door.
I sat down at the dinette and stared at the massacred cake. The marks on it could have been made by a serial killer. Would my mom actually have done it? I picked up a piece of cake and popped it in my mouth. Like most of the frozen cakes Mom brought me, it tasted stale.
As the years went by, the story seemed too absurd to be real. Had my mother really tried to stab Mag? I preferred to pretend that my childhood couldn’t have been that warped.
Twenty-five years later, at a reunion of the Barn Theatre, a tall, skinny woman smoking Mores with a long plastic filter came up to me. She was older and underweight, but I recognized her immediately.
“Rossalinda ... darling,” she said, squeezing me in her arms. “Remember when your mother tried to stab me with the steak knife?”
CHEF ROSSI is the catering director, owner, and executive chef of the Raging Skillet. Her book The Raging Skillet: The True Life Story of Chef Rossi a Memoir With Recipes was published by Feminist Press. The play by the same name debuts Wednesday at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Wellfleet, Mass.