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Story Archives

Defining Moments

Wayne Koestenbaum

By Wayne Koestenbaum

 

I’m trying to figure out why — or how — or if — I became intellectual.

One place to begin: the time my mother “pulled a knife” on my father.

The expression “pulled a knife” — is it correct?

I think a kitchen knife.

Certainly a knife from the kitchen drawer.

Probably not a steak knife.

Perhaps a bread knife.

Just a soft-edged, relatively harmless butter knife.

Let’s say she was making a statement.

Her performance had two direct witnesses.

One, my father. He saw her “pull the knife.”

Two, my father’s aunt, Alice.

Seated in a black chair, she was waiting for my father to drive her home.

My father and his Aunt Alice often spoke together in German.

My mother didn’t understand German.

I imagine that she “pulled the knife” as a performance directly aimed at the aunt.

The act — “pulling a knife” — had two other indirect witnesses.

My sister saw it. I saw it. We were standing in the hallway. Later, we talked about the incident.

It has become, for us, a touchstone.

“The time Mom pulled a knife on Dad”: that scene is a card we sometimes play; a trick we pull out of our hat; a piece of evidence.

[From “Heidegger’s Mistress,” Guilt and Pleasure, Issue 2, Spring 2006]

 

What is a childhood experience that became a touchstone for you?

 

Wayne Koestenbaum is an American poet and critic whose works include The Queen's Threat and Jackie Under My Skin.