"Chosen Girl," Part III
I watched Laurel for signs that she had changed, looked for despair in her face. I dried the dishes without being asked, took out the garbage in its oozing waxed paper bag and our life continued as before.
Once a week Laurel and my mother washed their hair.
Deirdre, my mother, washed her hair by bodily sinking into the tub. Her hair licked through the water, short and blue. Her toes, crowded by bunions, stuck out at the foot of the tub. Two fingers held her cigarette. She set the cigarette in a blue enamel ashtray, and soaped and rinsed her hair. Laurel washed her hair with castile soap cut from a long ivory bar she bought uptown. Laurel toweled her hair dry until it stood out from her head. Then Laurel sat with a white towel about her shoulders and my mother unfurled the cord of the straightening comb. Two fingers of pomade, and then the comb, drawn section by section from the scalp out to the end of the hair, and again, from the scalp to the ends. The smell of cigarette smoke mingled with the creamsicle scent of the pomade. Laurel and the Bedouin passed a cigarette back and forth with their conversation.
Laurel's hair done, they opened the nail polish remover with its pine smell. With cotton balls, each swabbed old polish off the other’s nails, until there was a mound of cotton with gobs of polish piled in Laurel's trash can. Laurel shook the Dusty Pink nail polish by its white cap. My mother smoked and painted Laurel's nails. Laurel puffed a cigarette and painted Deirdre's nails. My mother waved her bony hands in the air, to speed the drying.
"Where should we go for dinner?" my mother asked me.
"The Golden Dragon." I anticipated the taste of my fried rice. My mother would have Moo Goo Gai Pan and Laurel Egg Foo Young. When had we not?
That evening, in the booth where I had discovered I could read, I studied Laurel as she lifted her porcelain spoon to her lips. My mother excused herself to the bathroom. My tongue seized the moment. "Why do you wish to jump in the river and drown?" I demanded. I leaned forward, squishing the breath of my lungs high into my throat.
"Darling, what a terrible thing to say," Laurel said in a merry tone. Fear fluttered in the corner of her eye, like the tip of a linen napkin.
"Why do you want to die?"
Laurel put down her spoon. She fumbled with chopsticks. "Sometimes," she informed me, "even to a very bright child like yourself, the adult world is subject to misinterpretation." She offered me sweet sauce for my noodles. I took hot mustard instead.
Because I loved her and wanted her to love me too much to ever leave me, I persisted. "You want to die," I said. I wanted her to say, No, no, that she couldn't bear to die, if I, her child, were still in the world.
She stared at me. Water coated her round hard eyeballs. She waved toward the mustard as if it had brought the tears and said, "You must never say that."
"But I feel it," I said, blurry-eyed with hot mustard and embarrassment.
"You feel wrong," she said, but she said it so calmly I knew it had to be a lie. I learned that: I could watch her do it, lie. And I could refrain from telling her what I had seen. I felt so distant from her and my mother. It was like the night when the fever monkeys had jabbered at me and I had been so far from my parents and Laurel as they ate dinner. I’d felt so alone with those screaming, finger-pointing monkeys -- I could never be rescued. But that time, my mother had come when I screamed.
I turned from Laurel and my mother. I resorted to Ethan.
I didn't have hair between my legs, but my nipples were painful buds when Ethan and I stood in utter silence and took off our clothes in his parents’ bedroom. My t-shirt fell on my foot. Without clothes, we flitted around the apartment like little children.
I heard the elevator roll open. Footsteps approached the apartment. I got that sickish feeling from fearing his mother had come home. The footsteps passed. We lay on the couch. We didn't talk. The couch was velvety and smelled of his family. It smooshed up around us. Though he touched himself, he didn't ask that of me. He touched me and my insides curdled. Did he know what he was doing? I thought the top would fly off my head and I leaned back to hold it in place. I had to close my eyes. My feet got terribly cold, cold like I had been the night of the fever monkeys. My hands tingled like my breasts. I survived. Warmth flooded back into my fingertips.
I moved his hand away.
He said when he was little he didn't like being alone in the apartment before his mother came home. I said, “I used to go in Laurel's room and do my homework.” I told him about dynamospheres. He looked blankly back at me. I would have ground my teeth if it could have shrunk the space between me and Ethan, having given up hope that the space could shrink between Laurel, my mother and me.
Back home, I studied the Bedouin for signs that she knew of my sexual adventures, but saw none. Maybe, I hoped, she was hiding her knowledge. But, why?
After my bedtime the muffled Loretta Young theme song came through the wall of my bedroom. I got up and went to the bathroom. Passing in front of the TV, I studied Loretta Young. She stepped through the door, swirled her skirts as wide as her outstretched arms and breathed rapidly, her eyelids fluttering.
"Deborah, bed," my mother prompted.
In my room, I sank to the floor against the wall, wanting to hear what happened on the Loretta Young show. I could hear the intonations, but not the words. I fell asleep trying to hear the story which I suddenly, passionately, believed I must hear or I would die. I awoke on the floor to hear them quarrel.
"She would have to go to her father," my mother said.
I heard the clatter of a breaking glass.
"What good will throwing things accomplish?" my mother demanded.
"She loves me," Laurel said.
Yes, I do, I thought furiously.
"She's mine," Laurel said.
"Legally, there's nothing we can do," my mother said. I realized it must all be my mother's fault.
"I feel so desperate," said Laurel. Music from the television swirled over their words. Now I really did have to go to the bathroom. I traipsed back through the living room.
"We'll have to do something about this nocturnal wandering," my mother said to me.
I want to be calm, cool, collected, I thought. Then they could never hurt me.
My mother sat me down to tell me her version of the birds and the bees.
She told me that men who wanted me to sleep with them might use the argument that sex would increase my artistic sensibility. This was a good argument, she said, but only if I loved the man. And, she said, men who used this argument often did so because they were after sex, not love. I must not let someone have me unless he loved me. I imagined it had happened to her. She said sex was the most beautiful feeling in the world, but her tone of voice told me she didn't believe this.
She told me about diaphragms, which she called "pessaries;" the only other time I have heard a diaphragm called this is in a J.D. Salinger story, in which the character confounds the word with "peccary." The mechanics of birth control sounded impossible to me, not to mention those of birth. Where would everything fit? The material implausibility of what she told me could occur in the vaginal canal proved it: she was an unreliable narrator.
Before I married anyone, my mother said, I must live with him for a year.
I thought, Maybe Laurel is the one I should believe. But she had lied.
The cruelest thing my mother told me was that if a man tried to grab me on the street, I should knee him and he would pass out cold. I was a short eleven-year-old. How in the world would my knee jam high enough to do its job? And if it did, could I move out of the way fast enough not to be crushed by my would- be assailant?
She was a liar and I would balk at everything she expected of me.
In a minor skirmish one Sunday, I delayed my chore of buying the New York Times. "If you don't do it this instant, I will take away your new radio," my mother threatened.
I rushed to the store. All the New York Times were gone. I knew better than to take the Sunday News, which my mother called "a rag." I looked around wildly, grabbed the nearest, largest paper. I took my money to the owner, but he hurried outside to chuck a metal plate which said Herald Tribune on a stack of newspapers blowing in the wind.
I followed him.
"You don't want that paper," he said.
Red Face bumped against me and went inside.
"Yes, I do."
Back home, my mother said, "The Journal American? You'll have to take it back."
Tears stung my eyes.
"It's a fascist paper. I won't have it in the house." "Throw it out."
"No. The Journal American won't get a penny of my money."
Back into the candy store, with all the men standing around. Of course the proprietor was grouchy. He gave me a Herald Tribune. I was humiliated that I hadn't understood about my household and The Journal American, but he had.
One afternoon in butterscotch sunlight, Ethan and I lay staring deep into one another's eyes, our naked stomachs touching. He reached out and moved my upper lip with his finger, so he could touch my discolored tooth.
"Don't," I said, moving my head sideways.
To fix that tooth, the dentist filed all of it away, over several afternoons. He drilled a hole into my jaw and screwed a post with a false front tooth into my skull.
The Bedouin and I had walked two miles up the boulder- strewn bed of the river, looking for a swimming hole. I accidentally brushed against stinging nettles on the way, which left an angry patch on my thigh. All we found was a shallow pool in which flat rocks formed an immersed chaise lounge for each of us; we lay back to watch the trees grow into the whirling blue sky; to let the tepid water flow over us until our feet puckered; to talk of the remembered sound of snow shovels on pavement.
We returned to take naps in the bungalow where the only sound was that of carpenter bees batting against the snagged and rusty screens. Laurel sat at the dining room table, transcribing. Glancing slantwise at her seated figure, I thought, She's really here, with me. No grown-up sadness leaving me behind.
I arose from my nap and tried to draw the bony trees growing into the radiant sky. My drawing looked like an imitation Van Gogh. I balled up the paper and tried again. This looked as crude as a group portrait of snow angels. I tried and threw away, tried and threw away. My mother came into the room. She put her hand on my shoulder and looked at my face, as if to say, May I touch you, stinging nettle? I looked at my last drawing. It was right. The clouds blossomed like searing magnolias and they had something of the stifling quality of magnolia scent. The trees were perfect. Stark, ecstatic, backlit. How did I do it? I felt woozy with pleasure and self adoration. And I loved my mother because in that moment, her body told me she, too, saw how perfect the drawing was, but she did not try to define this in words.
The bungalow sat in a long open valley; in any direction, the land sloped upward. After a supper of corn, tomatoes, steak, my mother said, "Let's find the sunset." We got into the ancient Studebaker. My mother sent me back to make sure the door was locked. As I returned, a sports car drove past, trailing dust, the sound of its motor harmonizing with the lowing of cows waiting to be milked.
"Maybe I'll buy one of those Thunderbirds," Laurel said.
Rolling backward out the dirt drive under a maple tree, my mother looked over her shoulder. "You can't even drive. What do you want with a car?" Laurel stuck her nose in the air, pursed her lips, and looked out the window. "Where shall we look for the sunset tonight?" my mother asked me.
"That way,” I commanded. At each crossroad, she asked, and I chose. We drove until we looked down upon the farmland. Sweaters draped over our shoulders, we stood together, facing west. More than the setting sun, I remember the loss of light on my mother's face and a fierce private look she had as she witnessed the death of the sun. Back in the car, we drove to Stormkill Drugs and Notions.
"Evening, ladies. Two Broadways and a Butterscotch Sundae?" the man behind the counter greeted us. I liked that we were recognizable regulars in the country place, in spite of our exotic city looks. I thought we were like the stars on the movie billboard in the front window -- the Bedouin swift and inviolable, Laurel creative and unappreciated, I young and intelligent. I squawked the last fizzy sugar through my straw and my mother frowned at the rude noise. I got up to rummage around, looking at birch bark jewelry boxes, "tomahawks" made from fluorescent pink feathers glued to rocks. My mother wouldn't allow me to buy any of these. They were, she said, junk. I asked for Pez candies, but she said no. Wistfully, I eyed the list of shows for the drive-in, printed in red ink on white cardboard. Carousel, Singing in the Rain. Gigi. I'd never been to a drive-in.
The guy behind the fountain said, "That prison out past where you're staying? Been an escape. You ladies be careful to lock your doors tonight."
A pink feather of fear tickled the back of my throat. Going home, the moon scudded behind us as if it were on a string, but the night landscape, usually benign, was not as lighthearted. It frightened me. Sugar and cream rode nastily in my stomach.
"What if they're at our house?" I quavered.
"Deborah, drop it."
In the living room, the silence between my mother and Laurel loomed. They're afraid, I thought. My heart beat right up to my ear drums. I was parched. I took a drink of water and dropped the glass in the sink. It shattered like the glass Laurel had thrown the night they quarreled about custody. My mother yelled, "Watch what you're doing." I curled up in the living room chair near them.
"Bedtime," my mother said.
I wanted to stay with them but could think of no good reason. I kissed each of them good night.
"If someone were running away, they would run away," Laurel said. "We're lucky we're so close to the prison."
The two of them sat facing one another, each with a book. Night insects keened. The fireflies of early summer had thinned to a rare one here and there that flickered like a nearly spent fluorescent bulb. My mother called my name sharply, and I went to bed, where I lay sweating gummily. The insect sounds grew louder and louder, then ceased, deafeningly.
"Mummy." I screamed and wrenched open the door.
"What is it?" she asked.
There was fear in her eyes, I knew I saw it. Surely she would recognize my fear, and let me stay with her? I stood there in my cotton nighty.
"I can't sleep," I said.
"Go back to bed," she said.
"Come with me," I begged, knowing my weakness would soften her heart. She shook her head, no. I stepped close to her, as if to kiss her. I tried once more. "I'm scared. Of the prisoner."
She turned from me. "Get in bed, right now."
“Mommy!” I grabbed toward her hand.
She backhanded me. I felt the bony pivot of my neck as much as the searing slap.
"Deirdre," Laurel said.
"You stay out of this."
Laurel turned her back. I was licked. Then Laurel said, "Come. I'll put you to bed, Deborah." I got in bed. She brushed my cheek with a kiss. Her back to me, Laurel looked out the window. My fear subsided. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. Don't go, Don't go. Eventually, she turned. She bumped into the chair at my desk, where she had worked that afternoon, and cursed lightly. She stood over my bed.
She said. "We'll be all right. I promise you.” I was silent. “Do you trust me?” she asked.
I nodded and said “Yes,” but I wanted to scream, You don’t love me. You want to die and leave me all alone. Laurel patted my shoulder and left me.
The window where carpenter bees had batted that afternoon could let in how many men? I feared windows: Red Face jerking off.
In a few minutes, the living room light was turned out. My heartbeats bulged against my ears. Like the diagrams of sound waves in my science book, my fear swelled and receded in the dark, electric pulses like the churning of the sweating refrigerator. I fingered the place where my mother had hit me.
I'm sure that they, too, stayed awake until that late moment when the air, finally, lost its heat and that they stayed awake past that to when milky light poured back into the sky with the first calls of the birds. Such a fragile household. Three women.
We slept late that morning, dream-churned catch-up sleep.
When I awoke, my sheets were creased like the granite cliffs hulking above the river, but outside everything was serene and normal. The grass was properly green; the sun, lemon yellow. Laurel was making crullers, perfuming the summer air with nutmeg and oil; and the newspaper lying on the table said the prisoner had been found.
"You were afraid," I insisted at breakfast.
"Have a cruller?" Laurel asked my mother, who shook her head.
"No thank you. My teeth."
As I ate my second cruller, my mother said, "Deborah, I owe you an apology for last night. Please forgive me.”
It de-clawed my anger for the moment. It was like her to make a ceremony of it. She put a bouquet of midsummer flowers - Queen Anne's lace, Black Eyed Susans, a drooping rose from the landlord's hedge -- on my windowsill. At night the flowers’ outline interceded between me and the outdoors.
That evening, as we were getting in the car to search out the sunset, the landlord came across the lawn. Laurel had a phone call. She went off while my mother and I waited in the car. Laurel walked back toward us. She looked like she was carrying something, like my mother carrying the can of water to our car’s radiator years before.
“Pinny’s gone,” she told us as she sat in the front passenger seat.
“Where?” I asked.
“How?” my mother asked.
“A stroke. The funeral’s this weekend. In Rhode Island.”
My mother started to get out of the car.
“I’d like to take our drive,” Laurel said.
Before the dying sun, on a hilltop, we stood silent. My mother frowned fiercely. Laurel’s eyes gleamed under the shields of her lashes and I threw my shoulders back -- warrior princess in the hail of the sun’s red arrows. We skipped Stormkill Drugs. Driving back to the bungalow, my mother asked, “When will we leave?”
“Just me,” Laurel said.
“But. We’re your family.” My mother swerved the car and righted it.
“I go by myself,” Laurel said firmly.
We drove her to the train station the next day.
While Laurel was gone, I asked, "Why is Laurel sad?"
"Is she?" asked my mother.
I almost gave up.
"You know she's sad," I yelled.
"Deborah, that is an unacceptable tone of voice."
"I don't want anything to happen to her."
My mother tightened her jaws. "Honey, if Laurel wants to leave, there's not a thing I can do."
"Yes you can," I insisted, at the same time that I was thinking, Laurel wants to leave, Laurel wants to leave. Calm. Cool. Laurel leave.
"What? Lock her up?"
"Beg her," I said, beside myself.
I thought she might hit me.
She said, "I have," and looked at me as if to ask, Any other great suggestions? Her eyes glittered like the jackets of bees in sunlight.
Laurel returned from Rhode Island quiet and gray around the mouth. “I have no sister,” she said several times her first evening back home with us. Our first week at school, she asked me not to study in her room. That she had trouble concentrating. Two afternoons a week, she was away from the apartment teaching a graduate class. One night, she was gone at supper. "I don't understand, it's not a class night," I said when she came home. She said, "I had supper with friends."
"What friends?" I asked.
She didn't answer.
All of my mother's teeth were pulled in one afternoon.
For a week, she sneaked around the house slurping broth, spooning down jello, lying on her bed in the middle of the afternoon.
The new teeth were the cheapest possible.
They had crayon pink gums and the teeth shone like dime store pearls. She hated the teeth because they were not as dark as her own smoker's teeth. She took a metal fingernail file to them, because their shape was too regular. My Greenwich Village mother filing her false eyeteeth to points.
My mother said her smile was never the same and she was right. She no longer had that wolfish grin of my baby pictures. In fact, she hardly smiled at all and never smiled with her lips pulled back to show her gums.
Binnie's father decided she would make their fortune through her prowess as a figure skater. He would train her. He had an old pair of skates whose worn leather was nicked and scarred with the skating he had done in his youth. When she skated for him, Binnie Anne, who was very plain, glowed as bright as her cherry red tights. She wore an old checked wool skating skirt and jacket, which I think her mother cut from a woman's business suit. They were always going to the rink, and I would sometimes go too. The shaving sound of her blade in the ice flared, icy hope: things would be all right. My ankles hurt after half an hour. I drank chocolate while on the ice, Binnie turned like a top. Even the subway roar going home couldn't stop her father from scheming. I sat across from them in the subway. To make himself heard, he'd scream. This is how we'll do it, hon, he'd say. Or, A little more spin. When he looked down at her, looking up at him, his face would soften. Then he'd be off again, with his plans. I hid in sweet chocolate. She cried when her ankle twisted and I said, “Don't skate on it, not until it's better,” and she twinkled her eyes and skated on.
Binnie's birthday party consisted of cupcakes hastily pulled from a bakery box and Mrs. Grady saying she hoped we were having a good time. Mr. Grady was at work. We played Drop the Clothespin in the Jar. The crown of the day lay on Binnie's bed behind a curtain in the living room -- new white skates, without scuff or blemish. Kathleen's littlest brother reached for the skates, and Binnie grabbed them to her protectively.
In late spring, Mrs. Grady died of a heart attack. I heard them discuss it in the candy store. The next day, I saw Binnie Anne coming up the street with a bag of groceries. I didn't know what to say. I hurried to go in my house before she saw me. The day after that, I watched from my window as she walked toward Eighth Avenue. I'll talk to her tomorrow, I told myself. But when it came, I stared down the street, thinking she would turn the corner any minute. I would run out of my house and say, Binnie, I'm sorry about your mother. But she never walked down my street again. No one said another word about Binnie Anne Grady or her father, and I didn't ask.
I thought, I am flawed. My friend's mother died, and I didn't talk to Binnie. Laurel's barred me from her room, and she has friends I don't know.
I gave up Ethan. It didn't help.
In the spring, Laurel, who was on a new diet and walking regimen, included me in her walks. I felt better, but wary. In art class, my teacher, a crumpled and abrupt woman, took one of my drawings of a mother and child and said, "You have an excellent sense of gesture." I remembered Laurel using that word, “gesture,” to describe each person's signature in time and space. That afternoon when she came home, I told Laurel what the teacher had said. I told her how I remembered about gesture within dynamosphere. I had learned that when I remembered things in detail, it pleased my mother and Laurel. I would use anything to tie her to me.