"Chosen Girl," Part I
In the beginning were my parents, shoulder to shoulder, the baby floating within their massed outline.
I sat close, in either lap, during their disputes.
My father said, "Oliver Twist. It's a wretched book, Deirdre. You like it because you read it as a child."
"I like it because it's about people. Not like your Eliot, who writes about things."
"Deirdre, Fagan's a sentimental abomination."
She held me tight against her bosom, and I learned how her muscles tightened when she clenched her teeth. “Well I love that book.”
“Fagan’s an anti-Semitic stereotype,” said my WASP father.
She struck quickly. “Are you Virginia Woolf to my Leonard?” My Jewish mother.
That was the form. Books and books and books. A book to say I love you. A book to say I hate you. Later, they attacked one another, down to the muscles of the hands that held me, saying names like Henry James, Robert Browning. When they agreed, Auden. The way they loved me was to teach me what they knew. And what they knew was books.
Before I could read, my father taught me how to open a new book. First I must riffle the pages, feel the paper with my fingertip, and smell the lingering odor of ink. His fingers were tapered, cool half moons at the base of each ridged nail. His hand warm. I must: open near the beginning of the book; press the book open until the spine gave; move through the pages in quarter-inch increments to crack the spine until the book lay supple and ready in my hand.
Books were their lifeblood. Later, Laurel would say the same about the blues.
At four, I drew a scowling face on black construction paper with waxy red. My mother asked, "What is it?" I said, "The Angry Mother." My mother wrote, The Angry Mother, in pencil. I didn't like the silver graphite letters on my dull black paper with my scrawled red.
That evening over drinks, she showed it to my father. I snatched it from her.
"It's mine," I said.
She crushed my hands in hers. "Don't interrupt."
"I hate you," I screamed.
"A touch of the angry child?" my father asked, with a smile as thin as the slivered almond he fed me.
My mother knelt in front of me and stared rudely into my eyes. "You will say you're sorry."
I wouldn’t, so I was sent to my room.
I stared angrily at photos of my mother and her two brothers and sister, each mounted within a sepia oval. Her older brother, at age five or six, was in a sailor suit; the younger brother smiled from blonde curls and skirts; the sister at age seven or so, looked out from her oval with a studied gaze, chin propped on a ringed hand; my mother, a toddler, scowled from her oval, light tulle clutched to her bosom.
In the light from my bedside lamp, when I tilted my drawing with its red image, the silvery caption slid off the page.
Laurel, the music teacher.
In my first memory of her, I stood beside the upright piano in the nursery classroom. The piano strings jangled. I could see the lines in the skin on the back of her hand as Laurel played absently. It was a hand smaller than my father's, squarer than my mother's. I reached out to touch it and she laughed and struck the keys. She took my hand, pushed my finger onto a key. A puny sound. She said my voice was as soft as this -- she plinked, the highest note. I went home and told my parents I wanted Laurel to live with us.
“She is colored,” my mother said.
“Colored?” I shrilled.
“Haven't you noticed her skin?” my father asked.
I looked at my own hand. “Look,” I thrust it at my parents. “I'm flesh colored.” From the box of crayons.
At the first PTA meeting, as a pleasantry, my parents told Laurel I wanted her to come live with us.
"Do you have a room?" she asked.
When my mother told me this, I demanded, "Are we going to?"
"We'll see," she said.
In a few weeks, my mother said, "This afternoon, Laurel and her sister are calling. When they arrive, you must shake hands. You may say either 'How do you do?' or 'Pleased to meet you.'"
“Grown-ups don’t want to shake my hand.”
She looked me in the eye, the way cats and children hate to be stared at. "You will do it."
Laurel arrived with her sister, a fine lady in a copper and black skirt that rustled.
"Pinny, for the poet Pindar," Laurel said when she introduced her sister. The sisters said, "No, thank you," to stingers in long-stemmed glasses.
"Are you going to move in?" I asked Laurel, who said, "We'll see."
The grown-ups looked at the extra bedroom and returned to sit in the living room.
"Did you like it?" I asked, but they ignored me.
It was the end of the afternoon and I remember the three seated women looked as easy and elegant as the phrase, women of leisure. My mother sat in the armchair opposite Laurel and Pinny, who wore skirts. My mother wore trousers, belted about her waist, so small where her pearly blouse tucked into the gabardine, so small below her heavy breasts. She shook out a match with her large hands, on which the veins and muscles hung like vines. My mother explained to Pinny that my name was pronounced De borr ah, not Debra. Unlike three other girls in my class who were named after movie stars, I had been named for the Bible's desert warrior and judge. My mother spoke through cigarette smoke, eyeing the sisters skittishly over the beak of her nose, blue-black hair falling in one eye.
"Deborah, come see," Pinny said, and rummaged in her purse, which smelled of perfume and not of money and tobacco crumbs, like my mother's. My mother and Laurel talked. On the palm of her hand, Pinny held two inch-long metal dogs, one black, one white.
"What are they?" I asked.
"The Black and White Scotch Scotties," Pinny said.
“A promotion,” Laurel said.
“To sell scotch. Liquor,” my mother said.
None of it made sense, but I let it go when Pinny said, "Look.” She held the dogs nose to nose. Forcefully they whirled around, tail to tail. She asked if I could make them stand nose to nose. Her tea colored hands over mine, I tried it. The magnetized Scotties pivoted in my hand. They'd jump from my hand before they'd face one another.
Sick in bed with the measles, I imagined monkeys climbing up and down my bedroom door, pointing at me and jabbering. It's imaginary, I told myself, but the monkeys screamed so shrilly and they pointed their hairless fingers at me so believably, I screamed and interrupted my parents' and Laurel's dinner.
My mother came to sit by my bed.
"Tell me a story," I begged.
"At the turn of the century, your grandparents' families settled on the Lower East Side," she began. "When he was a boy, your grandfather sold all-day suckers at Coney Island. He caught rides with farm wagons from Manhattan to the beach. One day, only half of his suckers sold, he paused to watch a man in red tights and big black mustache high on a tightrope. What the man did was marvelous to your grandfather: he took a little stove from a pretty lady, and he made pancakes right there, in the air. Your grandfather Ben was hungry and the pancakes made his mouth water. After the act, Ben approached Biaggio the tightrope artist and said, 'People do not believe you are really making pancakes.' Biaggio frowned fiercely. Ben continued, 'Toss your pancakes to me in the crowd and I will eat them, to prove they are real.' Biaggio agreed. The pancakes were delicious and the people loved Ben's role. They threw more coins to the lady in the tights than they ever had. That day, your grandfather sold all his suckers, was given money by Biaggio, and he ate all those pancakes, too. That night the family ate a fat chicken purchased with his earnings."
The monkeys had scampered off. I drank ginger ale and drifted in and out of sleep.
"Your grandfather bought his first book, the complete works of Shakespeare, from a book cart in the street. He paid twenty-five cents down, and ten cents a week.”
The pillows were full and smooth, for my mother had changed and plumped them.
"Your grandfather proposed to your grandmother."
"The Dowager," I interjected.
"So your father calls her. Ben proposed in front of an ash can on Delancy Street when he was twelve. He thought her the prettiest girl in the world."
"Was he right?"
But I didn't hear her answer. I slept.
I awoke. She and Laurel sat in my room. Laurel was saying, "...papers of manumission and settled in Rhode Island."
"I don't think of Negroes as coming from New England," my mother said. "But the way you say 'heart,' is a dead giveaway."
"Just because you mispronounce 'hot.'" Laurel did not release the “R” from her throat.
"I mispronounce 'heart'?" My mother ground down on the “R” with gusto. She laughed -- ha hah!
In my fever, I drifted through cool ether, gazing down upon their slight figures. The cold pinched out my sight and then I blinked back into awareness.
Laurel said, "Every Saturday, my father and I went to the farmers' market. In summer, he would go through bushels of corn. He was very particular about his corn. He'd discard them over his shoulder, right and left, saying contemptuously, 'For the horses. For the horses.'" My mother laughed again. "I was so embarrassed," Laurel said. "An ex-slave, rejecting the white farmers' corn."
"But that's wonderful." My mother whooped. "'For the horses,'" she parroted. She threw back her head to laugh. Her laughter gleamed. Laurel laughed, too. Together, they laughed and wiped their eyes, unseemly as the sweat in which I lay.
A red flannel fever engulfed me. I regained consciousness chattering and half naked on the bed. Alcohol seared my skin. I screamed when my mother put the wash cloth on my back. My arms and legs shook. She pulled a sheet over my legs. She moved the sheet and parts of my body as she sponged and called me her chipmunk. She turned me. Finished, she slid me onto a clean, ironed sheet. She balled up the soiled sheets and threw them in the hamper.
I was too sick for family stories. She opened a chunky book and said, “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” I’d never heard these four words. I barely heard them then, but slipped into the clean cool words issuing from within the cloud of her cigarette smoke.
Sighing winds, cool earth, dripping apple trees, and the repose of a child come home. How I relaxed into that home, but then Millay’s words turned on me, forcing me into the fires of Hell.
I couldn’t cry to my mother: Stop. Hot.
The next day, I continued sick.
"When I was twelve," my mother said, "I had a massive collie named Bud. Bud had been abused by the cab driver who owned him. My middle brother won him at cards and gave him to me. Bud snarled at me, and my brother pulled off his belt and thrashed the dog. Then he told me, 'You must praise Bud when he is good and he will never snarl at you again.' Bud loved me so much and I him, we could read one another's minds. Every day, he and I walked around the Central Park Reservoir without a leash. He was bigger than a timber wolf. One day, a cop approached us on Amsterdam Avenue. It was illegal to walk a dog without a leash. I put my hand on Bud's ruff and said, 'Meet you around the block, Bud.' He turned and walked away from me. I walked ahead, past the policeman, turned right at the next corner and as soon as I turned right at the second corner, I saw Bud walking sedately toward me on his dainty white feet."
As the afternoon progressed, my fever rose in spite of the ginger ale, the ice cream, the sponging. Like my fever, my mother's narrative turned dangerous. She must have thought I slept. "My older brother cornered me in the corridor and pushed against me. Bud appeared in the doorway and ripped out the seat of his pants. Mother didn't believe me when I said, 'He was kissing me like Daddy kisses you,' but my middle brother believed me and of course, Buddy knew.”
The stories came one after the other, strung together by nothing but my mother herself, touching end to beginning to end. "My mother was a grand lady for an immigrant. No one loved her except my father. She was vain about her tiny feet, which she wore stuffed into heels with names like Cuban and Stacked and French. Without her high heels, she was a cripple; her Achilles tendon had shrunk. And she was vain about her children, so vain, she starved me.” My mother gulped smoke. “When I was a toddler, I was all eyes and bone. The Dowager would give me neither chocolate nor eggs. I was too sallow already, she said, and these rich foods would make it worse. My mother, with her little blue eyes and tiny feet, took me to an American doctor. 'Why won't my baby grow?' she demanded.
"'She's malnourished.' said the doctor. 'Feed her, Madame. Feed her. Eggs. Milk. Chocolate.'” My mother stubbed out a cigarette, started another, absorbed in herself, the malnourished, sallow child. I pulled the sheet back over my shoulder as she stared into the distance.
"Others found me attractive enough, especially as I matured. The primitive. A famous theatrical director fell in love with me when he saw me walking Buddy in the park. We spent many evenings after the show walking from the theater to my parents’ apartment. His father, who was a syphilitic maniac, made the director give me up. The newspaper pictures of the three successive women he married all looked like me." She laughed bitterly. "He was weak in everything except his devotion to his father.”
I stirred to tell her I was awake.
"When I was in my twenties, some of my friends called me The Bedouin," she said through her film of smoke. I could tell this nickname pleased her, for she smiled when she said it. "Names, Deborah, are important. If you had been a boy, I would have named you Spinoza."
Thank goodness I was a girl.
Days passed. I enjoyed the afternoon baths in dissolved baking soda. My mother made me what she called an eyrie in her bedroom window, so I could watch people walking in the street below. She cut my hair and sent the wisps floating, "for the sparrows to put in their nests." The week of attention and stories was drawing to an end. The doctor had said I could go outside the next day.
"How come you look so angry?" I asked and pointed to the photo of my mother I’d studied the night of the Angry Mother. Such a big-eyed little girl with tulle clutched to her naked bosom, scowling furiously. Above her were pictures of my uncles -- on a pony with ringlets was the molester and with a violin was the merciful middle brother. To the side was the sister, dead before my birth, whom my mother once sadly said was a nymphomaniac.
My mother said, "In those days, all babies were photographed naked on rugs. When the photographer tried to take my picture that way, I wouldn't lie down for him. Finally, your grandmother threw the tulle over my shoulders and he took his goddamn picture."
In the beginning, I had rested within the massed outlines of my mother and father, but then Laurel came. Laurel called me, “my girl,” and held my hand in her short, broad one which was so warm. Laurel and my mother were close as breath the night of the fever monkeys, but my father hadn’t come upstairs that night. He stopped arguing about books with my mother.
I wished he’d read to me, as he had used to, but he didn’t. Instead, he taught me how to polish these things: the silver coffee urn with a lion crouching over its ivory handle, the mahogany table top which reflected like a mirror when we were done, and shoes, mine and his, brown and oxblood. Finished with these chores, we would wash the rags. He kept a jar of water into which he dropped leftover slivers of hand soap. He used the resulting soap scum to wash the rags. His rags came from his worn shirts, which he taught me to rip into strips. Once, after washing out the rags and leaving them draped over the bathtub to dry, as we prepared to walk in Washington Square in our newly polished shoes, he took my hand and said, "Let's go, Junior."
He was gone so often, I was surprised that he was there on Christmas morning, wearing pajamas, like the rest of us. He placed a flat package in shiny green paper with an enormous gold bow under the tree for me. While I opened this, a collection of poetry for children, Laurel and my mother opened presents from one another, identical fountain pens they laid side by side on the cherry side table. My mother handed my father an unwrapped box, liqueur in miniature chocolate bottles. He said I couldn’t have one because of the alcohol. “Will it make me drunk?” I asked and he said, no, not drunk, exchanging a smile with Laurel who, like him, was sipping eggnog from a glass cup. I picked up one of the two pens.
"You must never use another person's fountain pen," my mother said. If I ever, ever took her pen from her desk and wrote with it, even one word, it would be ruined. "The nibs are broken in to one hand." She let me watch as she filled her pen with its translucent turquoise ink. She tried it out -- brisk flourishes, galloping curlicues before she capped it and tucked it in her desk, before going into the kitchen to join Laurel who had carried her glass cup in there. I sat down with the colored pencils and creamy paper which my mother had given me.
In the kitchen, Laurel was talking. Among the welter of words, I heard damn it and like a daughter and I want.
"Don't say it," my mother said.
Holding up the poetry book, I asked, “Read this,” when Laurel came out of the kitchen. Instead she sat with me, leafing through a wide, glossy magazine, Look. She deliberately found a page and touched the picture of a man whose chest was bedizened with medals. His eyes squinted and his skin in the black and white photo was the same color as his uniform. "I was once married to him," Laurel said.
My father, dressed for a party, came into the room.
"Have you seen Deirdre?" he asked Laurel.
"I'm upstairs," my mother yelled.
"Are you coming?" he snapped.
"You know I hate cocktail parties."
"Are you coming?" he repeated
"Jesus, no." She slammed their bedroom door.
He put on his topcoat and left.
That spring, my mother forbade me to enter their bedroom. She said my father was sick with strep throat and that I might catch it. She took his meals into their bedroom on a tray. After a few days, I saw the untouched food in the kitchen and realized he hadn't been home for who knew how long. It was like summer vacation with him gone. Meals got served any time and I got to eat with the grown-ups. The next time I saw him, my father walked into the dining room in a pale linen jacket. He had a flower in his buttonhole.
"Behold, the bridegroom cometh," my mother said.
He looked around the room, as if he expected to see some of his cocktail friends in the corner beside the cabinet. "I'm going out," he said.
My mother called me to her. "Your father and I are separating. He won't be living here anymore."
"Who will wash his rags?" I asked.
She reached for me, but I twisted down into the couch with my back to the room and cried and cried. Laurel and my mother tiptoed around. One or the other would call gently, "She's becoming calm." I didn't care. I would cry my eyes out. Slowly, slowly, I stopped, shifting imperceptibly from weeping to exhausted sleep.
I awoke. My mother sat in the dark watching over me. She led me to the bathroom and washed my face. “Let’s go to the Golden Dragon,” she said kindly.
When we got there, I was hungry, but when my mother asked what I wanted I plucked at the tablecloth and said, "Nothing."
When the waitress reached for our menus, I scowled and hung onto mine. While Laurel and my mother ate wonton soup, I ran my fingers over the heavy paper of the menu, skipping from letter to letter. I knew the consonants. The waiter brought Laurel's Egg Foo Young, my mother's Moo Goo Gai Pan.
"Anything for the young lady?"
I shook my head, no, with my finger poised on a "D". The grown-ups plunged serving spoons into their food. After the "D" came two "N's" and an "R.” "Would you like a taste?" Laurel asked my mother, who accepted. If I made the sound of each letter in my head as I touched it, the letters spelled dinner. The next word was menu. I didn't tell them. They didn't notice.
I refused fried rice, bits of shrimp, lush green pea pods, kumquats. I refused their weakness. I would never be imperfect, like them. They, who didn't know I could read, they, who couldn't manage to live with my father.
My father, who had left me.
The grownups, who didn't know.
For a year, I saw my father on weekends. Saturday morning, he would pick me up. From the New Yorker, which he had marked in red, we would select a museum, a movie, or zoo to attend. Perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan at the Jan Hus Playhouse. One week, he phoned on Thursday night to tell me he would soon be going to Reno for a vacation. He would send me a post card. He was going to move far away, to San Francisco, where he'd been offered another job. Then he asked to speak to my mother.
When she got off the phone, she said, "I suppose he'll charge me with mental cruelty."
Laurel asked, "Tell me, would you charge him with adultery?" I sensed a painful need behind her words.
“No. It would be too humiliating. For me. For Deborah. And besides, you know I wouldn’t sue him for divorce.”
“We can have our life. When you’re divorced.”
"It will never be safe."
I didn't know what any of this was supposed to mean except, Don't think about the musty smell of the rag with which you once polished the silver lion crouched on the ivory handle.
That summer, Pinny sent the only gift she ever gave me, the Black and White Scotties, with a note:
Dear Deborah, I found these in my jewel box and thought of you, such a beautiful little girl.
I put the Scotties in my own jewelry box and didn't tell my mother or Laurel. I was embarrassed by how beautiful I had once thought the three women, scandalized that Pinny applied that same word, beautiful, to me.