"Chosen Girl," Part II
On a summer morning, the street still wet in a swathe from the street cleaners' brushes, I stepped outside, looking for my mother. I was going swimming that summer morning and needed to find my swimsuit. That's all I wanted -- my suit. Stepping outside, I heard the grinding of the garbage truck. Up and down the street, building supers and tenants retrieved clattering cans.
I found my mother on her hands and knees, scrubbing with a coarse brush. Her cheeks, usually as drab as cheese rind, were bright. The light was soft. I have seen paintings by Vermeer with the same patina.
Scrawled on the sidewalk was "... nigger ... Mussolini was right."
"What's muscilini?" I asked, pronouncing it like the plural of small Italian muscles, ignoring the more troublesome word.
"Moosolini," she corrected me.
"Who is he?"
"I need my swimsuit. I'm going swimming with Binnie Anne." It was all just too hard. And I needed that swimsuit.
"Oh, today's the day." She clapped the back of her hand to her mouth.
But then that word, nigger, got me: "What's it got to do with Laurel?" I asked.
She told me Italians who were angry about Ethiopia, or proud, I couldn't tell which, had written on our stoop.
Back in our apartment, my mother heard Laurel leaving the bathroom. Hastily, she chucked the scrub brush under the sink.
"They used mustard gas. The Fascists," she said to me.
"Good morning, Deirdre," Laurel said, "and Deborah. How's my girl?"
Though she still looked sleepy, Laurel had sheets of staff paper in her hand. "What a lovely day," she said, and my heart dragged. Fascists.
"Where are you off to?" she asked me.
"You don't sound enthusiastic."
"Mommy's making me go."
"Deirdre, whatever for?"
"Mrs. Grady asked her. It would look ungracious to say no," my mother said as she trimmed the crusts off my sandwich.
"You'll have fun," Laurel said.
"Were the Irish fascists?" I asked my mother who waggled her eyebrows: shut up.
The doorbell rang.
I grabbed suit, towel, and sandwich, stuffed them in a paper sack and ran downstairs.
Carrying towels and lunches in paper bags, Binnie, her mother, and I rode a subway, a ferry, a bus to the far side of Staten Island, where the Bedouin hadn't even known there was a beach. We were going to a beach where Irish people went. Binnie's mother, Mrs. Grady, said I must sit with my legs together during the trip, or the boys would look at my panties. The bus let us off beside the road, as if we were in town. With our paper sacks, rather than the picnic basket my mother took on such trips, I didn't think we looked like we were going to the beach. We walked from the road where tough sea grass grew through the asphalt. In our street shoes, we walked across the sand. It may have been an improbable place for a beach, and we may not have looked like beach-goers, but there it was -- a beach with a June breeze and white foam slipping in and out on the damp sand. We settled near wood pilings. Binnie and I clung to tarry ropes stretched between the pilings as the tan water jerked us to and fro. There were no concession stands. No boardwalk. No Jews, no Italians. The wind buffeted Binnie's mother who sat in her dress on the blanket with her feet crossed. Binnie and I screamed as the waves came at us. We ate lunch and Mrs. Grady told us there were rough boys waiting to hurt us if we strayed from her side. We waited twenty minutes so we wouldn't be dragged under by uncontrollable cramps. Then back in the water. Mrs. Grady crossed her ankles and watched us as we swam.
Going home, we slept on the bus, the ferry, the subway.
Back in the neighborhood, we walked up the block. I had sand in my socks; my skin stuck saltily to itself; my hair was matted; the noon sun still glared beneath my inner eyelids. And the ocean sighed and roared in my ears. My skin was hot.
I ran toward my mother and Laurel who sat on the stoop. Treacherously, my body shifted like the waves pulling back from the shore they had just desired. Goose bumps broke out on my arms. I shivered. A foghorn sounded. My mother threw her red cardigan over my shoulders with a giddy laugh. The wool hurt my skin. Laurel pressed her cool fingers on my upper arm and said, "You're flaming red."
Mrs. Grady and Binnie said, “Good night.”
The horse police, a dozen of them, rode through our block on their way from the Twelfth Street stable to the theater district uptown.
"Was it horrible? No restrooms or concession stands?" the Bedouin asked me, trying to rub tar off my shin. I jerked away and said it had been all right.
"Thank you for going," she said.
The three of us sat on the stoop, where the letters had been chalked that morning.
"Oh, look," my mother said.
“What?” I asked.
“Under the bushes.” I crouched down. “Careful,” she said.
A cat or a mouse would have run off, but the twig-like insect below the sticks of the yew just continued to run its folded “feet” across its jaw.” What is it?” I asked.
“A praying mantis.”
“Praying.” Like Binnie Ann and Kathie did in their Catholic Church.
"They say a mantis will attack a cat," my mother said. I leaned closer. “Hi.”
"It's against the law to kill them," Laurel said. “What’ll they do to you, if you kill one?”
“I don’t know.”
“I want it to move.”
“It probably won’t. Tomorrow in the daylight, look at its eyes,” my mother said.
I crouched on the ground and watched it until it was time for a bath, and bed.
The next morning, I ran outside before breakfast. No slogan on the sidewalk. The mantis was there. I ran back inside for breakfast. For a week, the mantis was there every day. Behind a metal fence, it sat on the same dry and dirty twig, and craned its head, lost in thought. Almost fifty years later, I remember the mantis. In our militantly humanist household, it was the closest I came to seeing a miraculous sign. I paused daily to worship the mantis among the twigs. As I gazed at its round eyes, supremely physical eyes shaped so differently from the eyes with which I received the world, I would think, Rejoice, Rejoice.
One morning, the mantis was gone. That same day, we drove toward the beach through bumper-to-bumper traffic. My sunburn had dimmed to an even tan. I couldn't wait to reach the ocean.
The car radiator steamed and spattered the windshield.
"Uh oh." My mother pulled off the highway in front of a diner and gas station.
"I hope this place has a jukebox," I said.
Inside, the air conditioning was as frosty as the blue glass above the booths. I imagined the cool air hanging above our heads in curlicues like the chrome arabesques that skirted the walls. I spun on the padded seat at the counter.
"I want a Broadway soda," I said.
"As soon as the waitress comes," my mother told me.
The waitress poured a new batch of coffee into the urn. She cleared a booth and placed devil's food cake on a clean doily under the glass dome of the cake plate. My mother said, "Miss" twice, but the waitress flung dirty cups into soapy water with her back to us. "I'm going to the bathroom. Just tell the waitress about my Broadway soda," I informed my mother.
"Say please," she said.
Leaving the bathroom, I saw them seated at the counter. Laurel wore a white blouse against which her skin bloomed red brown. She was shaking her head, possibly disputing with my mother. Her black hair sat in a circlet on top of her head. Taller than Laurel, my mother leaned her elbows on the counter. She wore a dress I especially loved -- gold, with tiny designs in it, a wide skirt, a peasant neck that showed her collarbones. She, too, frowned. She caught sight of me and smiled. There were no frosted soda glasses in front of our places. We had not been served. Before I could slip onto my stool, my mother put her hand on my newly tanned shoulder.
"We're going to a different restaurant,” she said.
"But I like it here."
"It's so cold here, and we're tired of waiting.”
"But where are we going?"
“We’ll find some place. I’m going to see if the gas station will give me water for the radiator." She walked out of the restaurant.
"Are you coming?" I asked Laurel whose cheeks were cherry red as if they burned.
Her lips jerked once. Had they quarreled? Laurel put out her cigarette and we left, side by side. My mother was walking toward us with a watering can. She opened the hood and opened the radiator cap. “Careful, love,” Laurel said as steam hissed. My mother poured in the water until it slopped over. She took the can back to the gas station.
Back on the highway, we made a U-turn.
"Careful. A policeman might see you," I said from the back seat.
"Shut up, darling," Laurel said.
My mother parked in front of a clapboard restaurant called Country Farms. I reached to open my door.
"Wait," my mother told me.
"Why?" My thighs stuck to the leather seat. "It's hot in here."
"I'll be right back."
"I want to go." I reached for my door.
Infuriatingly, my mother dawdled: she looked in the rearview mirror; pushed her bangs with her finger.
"Go on," Laurel said, "just ask."
"Ask what?" I demanded.
"Little bat ears," Laurel said and serenely looked out the window.
My mother returned. She yanked open my door. "Okay," she sang out. "Time for that Broadway soda."
We got to Ethan’s family’s beach house within the hour.
After dinner, in the dark back yard, with butter from my ear of corn running down my wrist, I asked my mother, “Why did we leave the first diner?”
“Shh.” She gently touched my mouth with the flat of her hand. “That’s our little secret.”
The weekend by the sea with my friend Ethan and his parents was fun -- the glad, glad sun, rocking in the water, the two families cooking on the beach in the dark, the grown-ups drinking wine until they were giddy and kind. Coming home half asleep in the car full of wet towels to crawl between sandy sheets, getting up the next morning to do it all over. Ethan and I threw ourselves at walls of water while the grown-ups talked behind us in the blinding sun.
In the afternoons, when I was in grade school, I would lie on the floor in Laurel's room and do my homework. Laurel's was the only room in the apartment I asked permission to enter. Her special things were in this room, a desk she had designed herself, the driftwood lamp, a "Danish modern" butterfly armchair, the only stereo in our household, a tank of tropical fish. Occasionally she or I would speak on these afternoons, but only occasionally.
It was here that I used to draw with the colored pencils from my father’s last Christmas at home and even occasionally reverted to the crayons and construction paper of “The Angry Mother.” One year, I copied rigid Egyptian designs, another year I drew almond-eyed odalisques with heart-shaped faces.
Entering the room, I paused to look at Laurel's work -- sheets of staff paper covered with clefs and musical notes. Lesson plans written between the melodies, sometimes the words over- running the staffs.
One day, her paper was covered with minute boxes, some inked in, some not, lines zipped here and there, all in the optimistic, turquoise ink of the paired Christmas pens.
"What's that?" I asked.
When I asked, she said Laban Notation was a way to write down the body's movement in space. Come here. She traced around me in the air with her fingertip. “Now, reach for the ceiling. Further,” she said. She outlined my body from fingertips to toes, in space. “You're tickling me,” I said. She said, ”The two shapes you made, one standing with arms at your sides and then reaching up, are each distinctive. No one reaches up in the air quite like you. With Laban Notation I can capture the distinctness of any human gesture.” I felt her considered tenderness for people, especially children, and I felt with a pang that I would one day stop being a child.
“Look,” she said, and opened a book which showed silhouetted human shapes. They lunged, stood on tiptoe, flung things. Each was inside a circle, rather like the globe carried by the sculpted Atlas at Rockefeller Plaza. She traced one of the globes and said it was a dynamosphere. “Each of us has a dynamosphere,” she said. “Each of us moves in our dynamosphere characteristically. We can go up, down, sideways, or on the diagonal. The rest is all a matter of force and degree.”
"They look like prisoners," I said.
She laughed. It was not the dynamosphere which trapped us, but our perception of it, she told me. I touched her hand as I had when I was four beside the piano, but she didn’t seem to notice my touch.
I asked, “The dots are shorthand for the gestures?” “Very good,” she said. She picked up her pen and returned to work.
Dark filled the room, sharpening the voice on her maroon Zenith radio to a point. The light of the gooseneck lamp gilded the wood of the desk. I could feel her possessions in the shadows. On the shelf beside the mahogany turtle from Haiti was a nut carved into the face of a peasant woman. When I tipped her forward, tiny white eyes on ivory stems shot forward. Lying on the braided rug, my book forgotten, I studied Laurel's face. Lamplight splashed her head and shoulders; her face was sealed and thoughtful. I thought, she is happy in her work. Someday, I will be just like her.
The phone rang. I ran to answer it, but it stopped ringing. Knowing my mother had answered it, I picked up the receiver anyway.
“Hello dear, this is your mother, remember me?” My grandmother, The Dowager. Listening on the extension, I heard every word. “Next Tuesday is my birthday. For my sake, Deirdre, make up with your brother.” The child molester.
“Mother, I have no desire to do so.” My mother later said she lost her teeth to an infection caused by neuralgia, a disease that no one seems to get anymore, but I believe she ground them to nubs. I thought I could hear the grinding on that extension phone.
“I won’t be with you long,” continued the Dowager. “After my death, you never have to see him again.”
“We have nothing to talk about, he and I.”
“Deirdre, whatever happened is over and done with.”
“Nothing is ever over and done with.”
“For me,” Grandma pressed. “it’s my eightieth.”
The next day, my mother said to Laurel, “I told him, if he lays a hand on Deborah, I’ll put a gun to her head and shoot her.”
“Why shoot me? Why not him?”
“Please don’t be rude,” she said to me.
On the birthday afternoon, Laurel reminded me, “Extra places for your grandmother, your Aunt and Uncle.” She poured herself a glass of sherry, reminding me of the giddy grown-ups the weekend we’d gone to the beach with Ethan’s family.
“What are they like, my uncle and aunt?”
“You can be sure I’ve never been introduced,” Laurel said.
“Finishing a rush job.”
I put out the notched crystal glasses, washed the demitasse cups through which light shone like the gleam of an eye. Laurel ironed the linen napkins, releasing a sweet scent that reminded me of skin in summer. She took the roast from the refrigerator. The Italian butcher had assured Laurel he cut the roast from a side that had aged in the locker for a week.
When I took my aunt’s perfumy fur coat to my bedroom, it slipped from my arms and slid willfully away when I tried to retrieve it. Unobserved, I grabbed it by an arm and dragged it like a carcass to my room.
With his baby blue eyes, my uncle roved around the festive table. My aunt held her shoulders up around her ears and called my mother Sissy Dee Dee. The Bedouin gritted her teeth. My mother said if Eisenhower were elected, we might as well count on World War III. My uncle swept the table with his roguish eyes. “I think it’s so amusing to hear my baby sister mouthing the communist line,” he said.
After dinner, Grandma said she didn’t want a chocolate; she couldn’t tell which were the ones she liked, or more to the point, which she didn’t like.
“What kind do you like?” Laurel asked loudly.
Grandma liked opera creams, maple.
“We’ll fix you right up,” Laurel said and reached for the foil candy box. Her cheeks flamed red.
“Laurel,” said my mother.
My Aunt said, “Dee Dee, where did you get those divine cafe curtains?” Though I had read the word divine in books, never in my life had I heard it used in conversation.
Opening the box, Laurel poked her thumb in the first cream which oozed pinky red. Cherry. She poked another. Mint. She punched another. Indistinct sugar color. She licked her thumb. “Mmm, maple,” she said, sounding pleased, but her lips jerked as they had when we’d been ignored in that Long Island diner. Laurel slapped the candy in front of Grandma. There it sat, finger-poked. In front of Grandma, a woman so fancy that even her bedroom slippers had heels.
My mother said, “I think you’ve had enough to drink.”
Grandma set the candy aside. Laurel reached for it, but my mother got there first and stuck the oozing chocolate into her own mouth. Laurel poked one more cream, put the candy in front of me. It was a creamy, dizzying caramel. Laurel rose to make coffee.
“Dee Dee. We have theater tickets,” my uncle said.
“I’ll get your coats,” I volunteered.
“How about a cup of coffee first?” my mother asked.
“No darling, we can’t,” my uncle said.
My mother turned to Grandma, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wasn’t invited to the theater,” Grandma said.
“It’s mother’s night,” my mother said to her brother. She sounded as if all she wanted in the world was for him to stay.
He swiveled his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.
“Coats,” Laurel prompted me.
My fingers smeared caramel on the perfumed fur. As I tussled with the unruly coat, my uncle entered the room. I dropped the coat. He put on his own and lightly tossed the fur over his arm. He winked at me.
Grandma had a demitasse of espresso. “I don’t believe they really had tickets,” my grandmother said. After my mother had put Grandma in a cab, my mother slammed the door to her room. I made a conciliatory card with a drawing I thought she would like -- a bounding collie -- and knocked on her door. When there was no answer, I thought I would leave it on her bureau, and opened the door. She lay on her studio bed.
“What are you doing in the dark?” I asked and reached for the light switch.
“Don’t,” she said and glanced at her window. Directly opposite hers, across the narrow street, a neighbor stood in his window with his hand in his pocket.
“When he knows I’m in here, he exposes himself,” she said.
“Why don’t you pull the blinds?”
“Usually I do, but tonight, I don’t want to feel shut in,” and she gulped.
I looked at him in the dusky street light. He strained to see shapes in the dark chute of my mother’s room. He had that kind of white hair that is splashed with nicotine yellow and a big red nose. When we roller skated, he would pass us kids in the street and yell at us. We called him Red Face.
“I gritted my teeth so much, it made my head ache,” the Bedouin said with a weak laugh.
“May I bring you ginger ale?” I asked and she accepted.
I went to the kitchen. In a dudgeon, Laurel was putting away pots and pans with a great clatter. I thought of her poking her finger into the candies. She turned recklessly, suddenly, and I startled. She saw me flinch and said huskily, “ I could never hurt you.”
The next morning, my mother put the drawing of the bounding collie on the table.
“It’s very good,” she said.
“Thank you,” I smirked.
“But you’re too hasty. You need to discipline yourself.”
“I am disciplined.”
I downed my juice, grabbed roller skates and headed for the street. Binnie Ann and Kathy were already skating. I hurried to tighten my skates and skimmed to join them. Two younger boys rolled orange crate scooters up and down the sidewalk with a grating sound. A truck pulled out of the end of the block, and disappeared into traffic on cobbled Hudson Street. Jimmie McDougal and Jessie, Mike and Jimmie Madden resumed their ball game. Red Face came out of the apartment building opposite ours and slammed a Macy’s bag of tinkling trash into the garbage cans.
“Drunk,” Kathie said.
Smack! Jimmie Madden hit a softball and it fell with a full- bodied thonk on the hood of a parked car.
“Watch where you hit,” Mike yelled.
“Catch it,” Jimmie scolded back
“Do you like Edwin?” Kathie asked Binnie Anne.
Smack! Another hit.
Crack! the ball hit me in the face.
My skates jumped out from under me.
“You dumb boys, watch it,” Kathie yelled. Jimmy was sorry.
Jessie punched his glove and yelled, “Hey guys, play ball.”
On a glaring surface of tears, I skated out the afternoon. In June, my left front tooth looked blue in some lights, like milk starting to turn. Over the summer, the color darkened and became warmer, greener. My mother insisted my father pay to replace the tooth, and if his insurance didn’t pay for it, it would have to come out of his pocket.
Laurel showed me pages of Laban Notation in a loose-leaf binder. “This is a Virginia reel. Here’s a debka jump. The miserlu,” she said. She chuckled when I asked if she could notate roller skating. She said, ”The problem with Laban Notation is that it is so tedious. That our relation to space and time is so fluid. That we can approach all that with finite jottings, but that at some point, we must acknowledge the limitlessness of motion.”
When Ethan and I were nine, he had me pull down my jeans and he put his hand on my thigh. It made me feel sickish in a sweet way, to have his alien hand on my thigh where no one had touched me since I started bathing myself. He put his penis out. It flopped, then stood up like a skinny pencil.
I didn’t discuss it with him.
I didn’t discuss it at home.
I knew what we did was forbidden. I thought my mother would know, would guess, but she didn’t. I kept waiting for her to let on that she knew.
Binnie and I ran up three flights to her apartment, intent on the box of Mallomar cookies she had sighted the night before. “Oops,” I said when my roller skates popped Binnie in the ribs. I rushed ahead of her into the apartment. The skates smacked my own ribs when I stopped stiff legged in the kitchen door. Binnie ran into me.
Her mother sat at the kitchen table, writing. A candle flickered and guttered. The only sound was the scratch of the pencil. “Come on,” Binnie pulled me into the kitchen. “She can’t hear us. She’s in a trance.” Binnie took the yellow and red box of cookies from the shelf covered with oil cloth. Her mother tore a full sheet from the pad, and poured words onto the next one.
“What’s she writing?”
“Gaelic.” Binnie bit a cookie.
“What’s it say?”
Binnie shrugged. “She can’t read it. Maybe she can when she’s in a trance. We don’t know.”
“How do you know it’s Gaelic?”
“We just do.”
Mrs. Grady, who had insisted Binnie and I lock our legs against the eyes of boys, sat at the table taking dictation in a language she couldn’t read.
“Why? How?” I asked Binnie, but she fed me Mallomars, intractable mountains of marshmallow on stale graham crackers, waxed with chocolate. Mallomars were not permitted to cross the Bedouin’s doorstep.
Maybe my childhood would have continued -- Gaelic beaches, work drenched afternoons, couch swoons, even the caramel smeared fur of my aunt’s coat, my mother’s hypnotic tales, most of it sweet -- but for Laurel’s concert.
The concert began like other times I had seen her perform. It began, for me, with my pride and fear. Pride that she was associated with me, fear that she might somehow not do well. I went with my best friend, Ethan and his mother, who wore a turban and high-heeled shoes. My mother was backstage with Laurel. Seated in the audience, Ethan, and I, and Ethan’s mother, craned our necks to see Laurel.
In a red dress with a sweetheart neckline, Laurel came on stage.
A lady in front of us asked who Laurel was. “She’s my aunt,” I said, so proud I thought I would pop. The woman looked at pale me, as if to say, How dumb do you think I am, little girl?
Laurel opened her mouth in a Christmas card angel “o” and began to sing, “Hello, everybody, yes indeed.” It was sweet. Sweet, because it was Laurel. Sweet, because I knew the words. She sang without a care. She stopped to introduce each song and at one point she chuckled her throaty laugh and I grinned so hard tears came to my eyes, to hear that domestic chuckle sailing from her on stage to me in the auditorium. She said a few words about jailed victims of McCarthy, for whom the concert was a benefit. She played the opening bars of a song I didn’t recognize and it disturbed me that Ethan’s mother and the woman behind us stirred appreciatively and said it was a Leadbelly song. I wanted to say, Laurel, what are you doing, singing this Lead Belly song that I don’t know? Laurel’s fingers hovered on the keys as they had all those years ago in nursery school. So I felt a little sad for the four- year-old whom Pinny had said was “beautiful.” From my seat beside Ethan and his mother, I felt the warmth of Laurel’s smile. My heart opened wide to her as it always had.
Wide open, I followed her, but she, my city Laurel, sang to all those people that sometimes she lived in the country and I hated it, because she did not live in the country, she lived with me, but I couldn’t stop listening. She sang about loving some woman, and that was a story, too, but it was an okay story like when she sometimes sang that she was the Noble Duke of York who had ten thousand men. But she did not live in the country and she did live with me.
Laurel sang with her mouth open in that happy-to-be- singing way she had, that way which made me happy along with her, but then despite that voice which was sweet like when she sang to us at school, she sang that she would jump in a river and drown and the music was still sweet and it was still Laurel and I couldn’t bear that she might be so sad and feel such despair when she had me.
I could feel the audience welling up to her, surging toward an expected end when she sang that she would see me in her dreams. I didn’t believe her. What if she turned this, too, around?
Ethan and his mother smiled stupidly.
A Vermeer summer morning when my mother chucked a scrub brush under the sink and Laurel, husky with sleep, said, "Lovely day,” and it wasn’t lovely because of Mussolini. Laurel could go some place so sad that I could not reach her.
Ethan and his mother grinned toward me.
I would not cry.
Backstage, my mother and Pinny stood with several of Laurel's Harlem friends.
There stood Laurel, alone for a moment, a small brown woman in a flaring red dress, gold hoop earrings, open-mouthed smile. I started to run toward her, but veered off toward my mother.
Seeing me, Laurel caroled, "There's my girl.” Her eyes glittered as they did when she'd had a few drinks. "This is my daughter," Laurel said. Her face glowed with the same happiness I had felt when I watched her come on stage. Before.
The woman who had sat in front of me in the auditorium asked to be introduced. After I did so, the woman said, "What a happy family." Laurel glanced toward my mother, who looked sad.
When we were getting our coats, I asked my mother, “Why did Laurel say she wanted to drown?”
My mother said. “It’s sadness. A grown-up sadness.” “But she has us.”
“It’s not that simple.”