“I’m the alpha bitch,” my boyfriend’s mother announced over my cell phone as I stood on a street corner in my native New York City. I was late, and my feet hurt from hustling my cheap heels around the Garment District, previewing spring clothes when it was 20 degrees outside. I was an independent young woman, a fashion journalist, and my boyfriend’s mother had called me from Orange County just to talk. Again.
“Yup. You’re the alpha bitch,” I said, wondering if this was a trap.
It was a new thing, talking on the phone with Tracey. She called my boyfriend and his sister, Whitney, dozens of times a day.
This was not how I related to my own mother, to whom I spoke by phone mostly when a Jewish holiday rolled around. Maybe it was a California thing. I had seen those
TV shows. But what kind of mom calls herself an alpha bitch?
“I’m the alpha because everyone listens to me, and I’m always right. But I’ll let you be the beta bitch,” she continued. “You’re in training.”
“To be like you?”
“Yes! You and Whitney are the betas.”
“Tracey and the Beta Bitches?” I said in disbelief.
I didn’t appreciate what I was getting into at that moment five years ago. But Tracey saw clearer than I did that I was headed for marriage to her son. It didn’t occur to me that she was marking her territory, because in the house where I grew up, there was never unclaimed territory to mark. We were a family with clear, unspoken, and non-negotiable boundaries.
Tracey, on the other hand, claimed she was the top dog, and in the same breath called us a team. I couldn’t figure her out.
Hand me any glossy women’s magazine advice column, and I promise I will win the most-in-your-face mother-in-law contest. Yours tells you how to run your house? Yours nags? Please. My mother-in-law doesn’t tell me how to run my house; she reminds me that, because she helped with the down payment, she owns it. And, as for nagging, she knows I’m writing this essay—because she ordered me to.
My mother, by contrast, respected my boundaries. She never hunted for my diary, never pried into the private realm of my adolescence, at least as far as I know. We spent many peaceful afternoons together when I was in high school watching movies in her bedroom or sitting across from one another at the nail salon, exchanging glances and contented smiles. When I was home from college, we took yoga classes together. We treasured spending short amounts of silent time with one another. It seemed to me then, and still now, that there was something pure and impossible to replicate in this kind of knowing love.
Tracey doesn’t care if I consider something private. Her questions ignore any difference between us and assume my feelings always match hers. She even had a hard time understanding why she couldn’t come shopping with me for wedding-night lingerie.
But she also showed up at 6 one morning to clean a grimy bathroom in my new Harlem apartment. She bought me my first suit for a job interview—over the phone—while I was uptown at Bloomingdale’s and she was downtown in Huntington Beach, demanding I go to the first floor and buy a scarf, too.
At first, I bridled at Tracey’s brash, uninvited closeness. But there was a moment, as I prepared to move to Southern California, when I realized I needed someone to push my boundaries. I needed someone willing to cross a line or two or three to make me feel that I belonged in Surf City, as if I, too, had made a Spanish mission out of sugar cubes in fifth grade instead of an Algonquian wigwam out of bark.