Dorothy’s Party

They had chosen Kate to come get her and take her to mass, because her sons were too embarrassed to come into her room anymore. They waited in the lobby. Kate was  Joe’s wife, she reminded herself. His new wife, not Catherine. She liked Catherine better. It was an unfortunate coincidence that they both were named Catherine, though the new one spelled it with a K and went by Kate. Dorothy didn’t like Kate very well: the name, or the wife, though she didn’t know why. The girl was nice enough. (Well, woman, really. Kate was forty-six years old, but Dorothy never did like saying ‘woman’; it sounded sexual somehow, so she called everyone a girl until they were near her own age, and then they were a gal.)  But the name: it was pretentious; it evoked movie-star arrogance. Katherine Hepburn insisted on being called Kate, Dorothy once heard.

Kate was sent because of the one time when Dorothy had needed help in the bathroom. David and Marjorie were taking her to church; one of those Sundays where they’d called ahead and said how about we take you to mass and then to Dixon’s for brunch after, and she was supposed to be grateful. The truth was she didn’t like Saint Boniface church. She didn’t like Father Bob, who insisted on being called Father ‘Bob’ instead of Father Whatever. No one even knew his last name, and he tried to be everyone’s friend. He had a little beard that made him look like a hippie. His homilies were always about justice and mercy, and he had an i-Phone and one of those bigger thingies. He apparently even had a Facebook page, of all things, and not for the church, for himself. He shared his ‘thoughts’ on there; little witticisms and jokes that were self-deprecating on the surface but really meant to show off what a great guy he was. Dorothy had looked. Everyone thought she couldn’t use a computer but they were wrong. She just didn’t like them. Easy enough to get one of the girls to look up Facebook for her. She’d asked Tina, the little Hispanic one. She looked like a child, and she wasn’t as bossy as the others. Didn’t ask a lot of questions.

Dorothy also didn’t like going to mass with David and Marjorie because her daughter-in-law, Dorothy felt, was a prig. One of those women who acted just so: made meals for Christ House and had Father Bob over for dinner dutifully once a month and took Dorothy to lunch every week, bringing her the Prevail undergarments  she knew Dorothy preferred, because Belmont Ridge housekeeping staff used Depends, and Dorothy hated them. Marjorie even brought Dorothy the particular brand of lemon cookies she was fond of. True, none of the boys did this, not David himself, or Joe or Jamie, but Marjorie always made Dorothy feel she was supposed to say how grateful she was for the visit and the cookies and the undergarments, which were just a precaution. And Marjorie wore a mantilla to mass. Dorothy had worn one herself in the 1950s when everybody did, but nobody wore them now, especially not at Saint Boniface where people came to mass in beach clothes and rubber shoes. Which of course was terrible, too. But Marjorie and David and their brood usually attended Saint Mary’s, where the priests went by their last names and on Fridays they even had mass the old way, with the priest facing the same way as the people. Well, she liked that better. Presumptuous, when they were turned forward. Too casual. But Marjorie was too pious. It was showy. St. Boniface was closer to Belmont Ridge, Dorothy’s home now. An upstairs room, she was quick to point out, not the first floor where they called it ‘assisted living.’ The first floor was all the droolers in wheelchairs. Everyone was driving out for mass and brunch this time: Joe and Kate and their kids, David and Margie and their kids, and Jamie. Jamie would have that girl with him. That Stephanie. He would meet them there, he said, and Joe and Kate were the ones picking her up. Now Dorothy would have to sit by them in the church so they could all feel good about themselves for taking old Dorothy to mass, and then go to Dixon’s for omelets that were never all the way done in the middle; the fellow made them too fast. The bread basket was good, though. Cinnamon raisin.

Kate knocked now, and then opened the door, smiling. Why did people do that: knock, as if you had a choice, and then open the door without being told to come in? A formality, but not formal at all. Familiar. Pointless, if they weren’t even going to wait.

“Hi there,” Kate said, leaning down to kiss Dorothy’s cheek. She always said hi there, not hi mom or hello Dorothy, and always the breezy air kiss on the cheek. Dorothy knew it was because Kate didn’t know what to call her. Mom? Dorothy? Certainly not Mrs. Bowers, Kate herself was Mrs. Bowers now, too.

Kate looked pretty, actually, if a little tired. Always trying to look glamorous, that one. Soon she wouldn’t be able to pull it off anymore, Dorothy thought. Just wait. She was wearing a turquoise scarf with her jacket and her hair was down, but Dorothy looked away and heard herself say, “They brought my coffee cold, and I never even got to go to breakfast.” Kate seemed to have this effect on her; she was always complaining when Kate was around.

“Well, you can’t leave on an empty stomach,” Kate said, opening the cupboards as if she owned the place, already looking for something for Dorothy to eat. As if Dorothy would want anything in there. “You get ready and I’ll find something.”

“I can’t eat now, mass is in less than an hour and I’ll want to receive. And I am ready,” Dorothy said. She was. It was mass, not a fashion show. She was wearing her good wool skirt, too.

“Oh. Well, great!” Kate said, too brightly. Then, “Hey, why don’t you wear that green sweater we gave you for Christmas? That would go great with that skirt!”

“Fine.” Dorothy shuffled to her dresser to get the sweater, though her blouse was fine, if a little wrinkled. It looked like real silk, and it was still a nice shade of rose, though not the pink it once was. It was a perfectly good blouse; she didn’t like how Kate said the sweater would “go great” with her skirt. It wasn’t even correct grammar.

Joe Jr. had gotten out to open her door, smiling and giving her a good hug. “Hi, Mom,” he said, and she thought for the millionth time what a handsome man Joe turned out to be. A surprise, because he’d been an odd-looking child. Teeth too big for his face. He was turning fifty next year, but he’d stayed slim, and the gray hair looked good on him. Catherine-with-a-C was a stupid woman, to let Joe Bowers go, although he could be a bit aloof. Prickly, even, if you caught him at the wrong moment. And he was too caught up in his work; Dorothy always thought so. When his first child was born, Joe Jr. took one day off. They didn’t have this ‘paternity leave’ back then, though they didn’t have it in Dorothy’s time, either, and she’d had four children without Joe Sr. ever having even one day off and she’d done just fine, thank you very much. But that first Catherine expected more, from day one, and Joe was always working. When the baby was two, Catherine-with-a-C put him in some silly music class where the child whacked around a tambourine or maraca, Little Maestros, it was called, and both parents were supposed to come, but Joe never wanted to. Dorothy knew this, because of the one time Catherine-with-a-C stood before her, teary, right before they’d announced to the world that their marriage had fallen apart, and asked her, “Did Joe Sr. ever come to things? You know…the kids’ things? When they were little? Because Joe never does. He says he can’t take time off during the week for things like that, and he doesn’t want to use time on Saturday for a music class for a two-year-old. As if Harper’s age were the issue.” One tear had escaped then, and she’d blown her nose loudly.

Dorothy had wanted to tell her that no, Joe Sr. never came to things like that, because she would never have expected him to, and she would never have put a two-year- old in a three-hundred dollar class just to shake around a cheap maraca. She had another child by the time Joe was two-and-a-half, and they could play in the yard with sticks for free. You could make a maraca type of thing with a jar and some rice. But she just said “those were different times,” a phrase she thought made the point without too much blame, or not enough to take issue with. The marriage ended a month later. Little Harper was so young, they thought he wouldn’t know a thing, but that child didn’t use a toilet until he was four.

That was her first grandson’s name: Harper. A last name, and not even the first Catherine’s maiden name. Not a family name of any kind, just a name they “liked the sound of.” This was back when the only people who gave their children last names were southerners using old family names, and wealthy people wanting to establish a child’s patrician roots with a first name like Anderson, Bentley, or Greer. Now everyone used last names; it meant nothing now. By now, it was probably considered lowbrow. Her grandsons were Harper, Forrester and Cole, and the girls—the girls!—were Darby and Ryan. She would never get used to Ryan for a girl, and Darby was, well, not even a name, really. Thank goodness she was a pretty child, when she was not acting sullen, or absorbed in sending messages on her phone with her thumbs.

Ten o’clock mass was packed as usual; it always amazed Dorothy that this many people showed up, the same people who just the day before got drunk or cheated on their taxes or their wives. But they came. Some of the couples who showed up were not even married, but living in sin. Like Jamie. Father Bob turned a blind eye. Though Jamie didn’t belong to this parish and probably only went to mass when he went with the family. The girl, Stephanie, wasn’t any religion at all; she had a tattoo on her ankle, and was some kind of new-age veterinarian who gave acupuncture to dogs. She adored Jamie, was always holding his hand. Sure enough, she was there, too, in a dress that precluded wearing any sort of bra. She made Dorothy nervous. Clearly it was mutual.

After mass–Father Bright, the young one–gave an earnest homily about grace, and what it lacked in substance it made up for in sincerity–they all drove to Dixon’s, where they were given the back room. Dorothy didn’t want the back room, the back room was all booths. You had to scoot in, and then ask everyone to get out if you had to use the ladies’, or else you had to ask to sit on the outside in case you need to get out, which just caused speculation. And you couldn’t hang your purse over your chair. The light was better in the front room. Why didn’t anyone care about light anymore? “What’s wrong with up here?” she asked. There were several free tables.

They all paused, looked at Joe. “C’mon, Mom,” he said, putting a long arm around her as if she were a child. “There’s more room in the back. And I think I see some people I know back there.”

Oh, wonderful. Some people he knows. From what? From his job that she still didn’t understand, selling advertising on web sites? A ‘senior manager,’ he was called, but the time she tried to call him at the office and interrupted him, she’d said she thought she would reach his secretary. He’d said he didn’t have his own secretary, exasperation in his voice. So he couldn’t be very important there. In her day, an important man had his own secretary. These friends in the back room were probably computer people or slick advertising folks. And nobody told her! She would have done her hair better. it was a little flat on one side. Maybe worn a different blouse under the green sweater. This one was fine for every day, but not to meet your son’s friends, even if they were slick computer people. There was a little bit of something on the collar, she saw now; food or make-up or something. Nobody told her. She started to say you go see the people you know, I’ll wait up here, but the waitress or hostess or whatever she was had already walked ahead, and Joe was ushering her to the back room. He could really be so pushy when he wanted to be. Just like his father, before he got sick and became a big baby again.

“SURPRISE!”

Dorothy looked around. Why, there was something going on here already. They could move to the front room. She started to turn from these people, saw the look on her son’s face: delight, with a shadow of something else over it. Hesitancy, or nausea.

“Joe?”

“Look, Mom, all your friends are here.” Dorothy turned again, aware of her easy spirits hugging the floor, making her feet heavy. What was this floor, linoleum? Slippery, and almost…magnetic, at the same time.

“See, Mom?” Joe was saying, Kate smiling by his side, David and Marjorie nodding vigorously, as if she’d said something clever. At least Marjorie had taken the lace off her head in the car. Her dress was quite nice, actually. A little too nice for Dixon’s. “See?” Joe was saying. “Penny and Stuart Miller are here! Hey Stuart!” He was looking around the room. “And Dr. Masterson and his wife, and Karen and Bob are here! And look, your friends from the old street: the Andersons, and Pete and Didi Heckman! And there’s Dutch Beckerly…everybody’s here, Mom!”

Dorothy looked around the room. Why were they all here? That was Didi Heckman, though the old neighborhood was two hours from here. Her hair looked awful, too. A bad dye job. Karen and Bob were really Joe’s friends, not hers. Why were they here? What was Dr. Masterson doing at Dixon’s? They expected her to say something.

“Oh, my!” she mustered. “What’s going on?”

There was a smattering of laughter. Joe grinned but there was that shadow again, like all the times when he was young and Joe, Sr. would tease him in that way where you didn’t know if he was kidding. If Joe brought home a B+ on a test, his father would say, “Whatsa matter, that the best you could do?” A joke, of course, a B+ was just fine. Or if one of the children made Joe Sr. a gift; a crooked clay pot or ashtray–this is back when it was okay to smoke–he’d open it and say, “What, is this all I get?” Teasing, of course, But not entirely, so the kids always looked confused. Joe looked like that now.

“Your birthday, Mom,” he said. Then, brighter: “Everybody came to celebrate your birthday!” Some clapping, a little cheer, and then both Andersons started in with Happy Birthday to Yoooooo, and everyone joined.

“Goodness, how nice!” Dorothy ventured when it was over. Kate seemed to relax a little, and they made their way to a table, Marjorie saying let’s get you off your feet. “My birthday’s not for a month or two yet…” she said, shuffling. She was aware that she was shuffling. Was it her birthday? Or, had Joe forgotten the date?

“It’s next week, Mom. We picked a day everyone could come,” Joe was saying as he scooted in her chair. It didn’t scoot well on this floor. Was it some sort of tile?

“Dorothy!” Dutch Beckerly clapped her on the back, as if she were a man, Dorothy thought. “Happy birthday, Old Gal,” he boomed, and then shuffled off the omelet bar. That was shuffling. She wasn’t that bad, she just walked slowly. Dutch looked so old! Surely she didn’t look that old. And she did not shuffle.

“May I see a menu?” she asked Joe. A reasonable request.

“Well…sure Mom. Sure. But don’t you want to talk to people? To your friends?”

She hated how he pronounced it “dontcha wanna.” He didn’t get that from her. Then Marjorie piped in, “People want to talk to you, Dorothy…” She’d appeared out of nowhere, as always.

“Well, I’d like to eat!” Dorothy said, and just at that moment, Kate appeared with plate of food from the buffet for her, setting it down with a flourish. Loaded with potatoes, just the way Dorothy liked it.

“Oh, but the buffet is expensive, and I only get the one pla–“

“Mom! The price does not matter!” Joe said, in a fierce whisper.

“No, it doesn’t matter one bit,” Kate said smoothly. “They know this is your party, Dorothy. In fact the whole thing is paid for, and you can eat one plate of food or ten. Doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it!”

As if she would eat ten plates of food.

“Heh-ey, look who’s here,” she heard David say, and she knew without looking that Karen had come. She feigned surprise anyway when Karen leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Mom. Happy early birthday.”

There was a bit of a scuttle as her brothers all looked for an empty chair to pull up to the table, as though Karen were elderly herself. Of course, she wasn’t young either. Karen was no spring chicken. She’d be, what, fifty-something now. Strange, a daughter so old. She looked good, and Dorothy meant to say so, but what came out was, “Did you come alone?”

“Yes, Mom. I am alone. Nancy’s in Florence. You have me to yourself.” Karen smiled a wry smile as she put a napkin on her lap, a nod to one of her brothers that yes, she would like the buffet, just give her a minute. They were serving her, too, but leaving distance so the two of them could talk. Dorothy remembered now that ‘Nancy’ was in Florence. She worked in international marketing, Dorothy had been told several times through the years. Whatever that was. Pretentious; she would have thought so no matter who it was. “She says to tell you happy birthday.”

“Well.” Dorothy had no response, no message to pass along to the woman who was, as she still explained to people, her daughter’s roommate. As if they were twenty-two and sharing an apartment.

The bread basket was filled again (they put other kinds of bread in there now, probably it was cheaper, everyone was cutting corners these days, but there were still two pieces of cinnamon raisin), and nearly everyone had made their way to Dorothy’s table to say hello, even Penny and Stuart Miller, who both called her “Dot”. Stuart was pushing a walker that was too tall for him and made him look as if he were holding the bars of a cage, and Penny was prattling on and on. As usual. Dorothy decided to sit back and watch. Dixon’s was just the same as it had always been, except for the employees. They all recognized her now, but none of them really knew her. She’d been coming here for years and there was a time when they knew her, knew Joe Sr. and that he liked his coffee with milk and she took hers black. Now they knew nothing. She supposed it was nice of the boys to give her a party. Joe’s idea, probably. David would think it cost too much, or Marjorie would anyhow, and Jamie wouldn’t have thought of it. A big heart, that one, but no foresight, none at all.

Dorothy remembered another party, the only other party given just for her. She was nineteen, but everyone thought she was twenty. Her mother, not normally a vain woman, made Dorothy rinse three times with vinegar so her hair would be shiny. Her mother had known. And in her insistence on new stockings, a vinegar rinse, there was a tacit consent given. Dorothy’s mother disapproved of Jack Campbell, for his two-tone, cap-toe shoes, the flamboyant red of his silk tie. But she was a pragmatist; Dorothy had her father’s strong nose and eyes just slightly too close together. They couldn’t afford to be too picky. Jack Campbell was a war hero, they said, and a man who liked a challenge. He didn’t mind Dorothy’s height, and he said she looked like Marie McDonald. Which she did, at a certain angle.

Dorothy stared at the people, at nothing, and let her mind turn inside to the place where it slipped sometimes now, the way your foot will slip off a curb if you aren’t careful and sometimes even if you are. Only now she let it slip there, willed it, looking around this back room at Dixon’s, smelling the burnt oil of old hash browns, until it became something else entirely, and she could hear Frankie Carle playing, smell the sweat and the punch and the Brylcreem the boys had in their hair. Jack Campbell was dancing with her, his hand  low on her back, his hips pressed against hers, even with hers, she was so tall. She’d met him there, as requested, and when she walked in the door, the band played “Happy Birthday,” and she had looked over her shoulder to see who they were playing it for. Surely not her? Jack Campbell laughed and took her hand, walked her out on the dance floor. Her birthday wasn’t until the next week, but she didn’t say so.

Jack Campbell thought she was beautiful and so she was. He had a Hudson Super 6, inherited from an uncle, parked outside. Later he would tell her the car didn’t really belong to an uncle, but to his cousin, Georgie, who died somewhere in Northern France, in something called ‘Operation Norwind.’ Such a pretty name, Dorothy thought, when so many of those things sounded ugly. Only eighteen months ago, Jack said. A great guy, but his time was up. Georgie loved that car.

He would tell her this and then wipe at his eyes with the bottoms of his palms, nearly his wrists, though his tears never spilled over, only turned his eyes a fierce blue. She’d remember that, the clumsy way he wiped at his eyes, like a school boy or a farmer. It made her feel motherly for a moment, which confused her. She knew nothing then of how you could feel towards a boy, a man. But then he had shaken his head a little, as if to clear it, and smiled at her, the old Jack Campbell smile. He was talking about California now, a job waiting there for him. “Come with me, Kid,” he’d said, the emphasis on with, because he was going either way. It made Dorothy weak, how he called her ‘Kid,’ though years later when she thought of it–the rare times she allowed herself to think of it–it sounded absurd. They were in the corner, sitting out a slow dance, talking. Flirting. It was like speaking a language you weren’t entirely fluent in: you might understand the words, but only guess at the meaning.

He went on. “You’ll like it out there. Palm trees, pine trees, take your pick. Lemons. Limes, big as your fist. Year round.” He took her hand then, gently curling her fingers into a fist, then putting his hand around it. They both starred at their hands for a moment, a thing separate from them. “The ocean’s right there, blue sky, and it never rains.”

Dorothy couldn’t imagine a place where it never rained. The look Jack Campbell had in his eyes frightened her a little. He was in love with a place, and she understood in that moment that he belonged to the place more than he ever would to her, or to anyone else; that he was part of it already, and he wasn’t even there yet. Still, he wanted her to come. He didn’t say whether he meant for them to marry. She could not ask what he meant, it would reveal her uncertainty, spoil the moment somehow, the way planning the logistics of a trip spoils the daydreaming about it.

He knew anyway. He knew by the way she glanced down at her cup of punch, at the floor, instead of at him. He drew back, just barely, to look at her face, to make sure he’d seen correctly, then leaned in close again. A sigh, barely audible. His hand, still covering her fist, gave it a little squeeze as the band picked up, couples darting out to the dance floor again. A jitterbug, which the band always played when the sexual tension in the room got so thick you could feel it, taste it, suffocate in it. He didn’t lead her out to the dance floor gradually, he stood suddenly and grabbed her arm, almost shouting over the music, a sudden merriment in his voice when he said, “C’mon, Kid, let’s dance!” Shouted, really, because by then he was halfway there.

“Mom?” Karen was looking at her, the waitress holding the coffee pot over her cup. “No, thank you, I’m fine,” and the waitress disappeared. Dorothy could tell from the sharp turn of her heel and the posture of her back as she walked away that she’d been thinking ‘crazy old lady,’ or ‘boring old lady,’ or something that ended with old lady. They may have known it was her party, but they didn’t care, which was worse than not knowing. In fact the party was irritating the wait staff, it was clear.

Foot off the curb again, only it won’t go, even when she tries. But she can remember it, which isn’t the same as going back there; smelling it and tasting it and feeling nineteen, being nineteen, every sense heightened so much that she felt nearly dizzy all the time. It isn’t the same, but it’s close enough.

She remembers not just Jack Campbell, the red silk of his tie, wide-leg trousers since the war was finally over. There are other things, too: the blue of the sash on her dress the time her father took her to see Meet Me In St. Louis, the taste of the dill pickle he bought her in the lobby. The smell of starch on a hot iron,­­­­ because her apron had to be cleaned and starched every night; Boeing insisted on it. Peach pie, in the red ceramic pie dish, because company was coming. Her mother, in a rare good mood, humming the Texaco Star Theatre theme song, singing the words out loud when she got to Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief… The sum of all these things together rose up in Dorothy’s throat and drifted out in front of her, becoming a thing she could almost touch; sepia-toned, and just out of her reach. She tried to tell Karen this once, years ago, when she had had too much wine. She wanted to tell somebody, to say this is how it was. She tried to tell her about the movie and the pickle, the starch and the peach pie, those handsome Texaco men, but Karen had rather absently said, “Huh…is that movie the one with Judy Garland, with that ‘clang-clang-clang’ song in it? I always thought that one was kind of boring.” Dorothy had given up then, rolled her eyes and said, “It’s nothing you people would understand.”

Karen waited a minute, two, and then said, “We have our own things, Mom. We do.” Dorothy couldn’t imagine what they were.

Now Dorothy is looking at people moving slowly around the omelet bar, but she is seeing those couples on the dance floor. The band has picked up even more, a Lindy Hop, so one moment the girls are stomping to the music, nearly leading, nearly in charge of the whole thing, but the next minute they are crushed against the boys’ torsos, limp. The dance so violent, the boys, even the agile ones, the best ones, are heaving with the effort, and the girls’ spines seem about to snap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Short Fiction | Leave a comment

Fifth Harmony

Sometimes I have The Today Show on while I unload and reload the dishwasher in the morning, and in this way I stay abreast of critical happenings in the world, such as the fact that Israel and Palestine are in the middle of their worst military conflict in years, and that Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were fighting during the filming of The Notebook. The Today Show has concerts on the plaza on Fridays in the summer, and once in a while there is a performer who actually makes me turn the sink off and listen for a minute. Billy Joel was on there once, reminding me of my youth and my own mortality but still managing to bring depth and a new vulnerability to his music, and Sara Bareilles was on there once, awing me with her vocal versatility and soul.

Today, the concert on the plaza featured a girl band called “Fifth Harmony,” whom I only know about because I have a fourteen-year-old daughter. Fortunately, she doesn’t like them, and fortunately, she shares everything with me (or as much as a mother can reasonably hope for), so I was already aware of this group and had some data points: they are pitchy, both individually and as a group, and their skirts are too short. But I had never given them much thought or seen them perform until this morning.

If you have never seen Fifth Harmony and can’t get a visual image of what they looked like on The Plaza, imagine going to the red light district of a major city and bringing home five of the youngest-yet-cheapest prostitutes you can find, dressing them all in white but in garments that show as much skin or underwear as possible, and then having them dance with Brittany Spears inspired choreography, but sexier, while singing lyrics such as

You say that you a baller an’ I see you tryna holla
But that ain’t how I was brought up: NEXT!
Working for my money cuz that’s what my momma taught me
So yo ass betta show me some respect

I had to Google that because I couldn’t actually tell what they were saying, but the crowd on the plaza mouthing the words obviously did. That crowd was mostly little white girls of various ages, with their moms and friends and au pairs and boyfriends. The crowd loved these girls, and even worse, the Today Show cast (is it a cast on a show like that, where they are playing themselves but surely acting?) seemed to love them, too, wearing necklaces that featured the name of the group’s new single (“Boss,” wouldn’tcha know), and in the case of Savannah Guthrie, genuinely gushing. Part of Savannah’s charm is that she gushes at everything, would probably gush at Stalin if she met him, but still. She said that the group’s message is “be confident, be strong, be yourself,” and the Fifth Harmony Wikipedia page quotes the singers as saying their music is “fun, positive, and inspiring,” plus “relatable” and “what teenage girls want to hear and say.” 

So I’m just trying to reconcile “positive” and “inspiring” and “be yourself” with the hookers-on-speed look and sound I saw on that stage on my tiny kitchen T.V. Because, truly, I’m not exaggerating, their main dance moves were spreading their legs wide and pumping their pelvises, both facing the crowd and facing their butts to the crowd, squishing their breasts between their upper arms and thrusting them to the music at the audience, and what I will call the “watch my Kegal exercise” move. These Disney-Radio girls are all about sex, being sexy, thrusting their sexuality at people and showing off their bodies. (Though I will say, several of them are kinda chunky and sporting teeny-tiny clothes. anyway, so I guess there’s some in-your-face confidence there, I’ll give them that.) All the while, they are singing lyrics such as “I was such a good girl, so fragile, but no more…my innocence is wearing thin but my heart is growing strong,” they are tousling their hair, pouting their lips and affixing a vacant, come-hither look in their eyes, while having air-sex in time to the music. That’s being positive and inspiring? That’s how they hope to send the message be yourself?

I guess it is. I guess it really is, because thanks to feminism and the pill and the media and television and movies and a general turning our back on things like manners and decorum, our culture values sexual freedom more than anything else. We bow at the altars of health, fitness, some lazy notion of “peace” that involves doing nothing and hoping it all works out, “being yourself” and sexual freedom, especially if you are female. Premarital everything is so normal now that my daughters’ pediatrician said to make sure I got them the Gardisil shot before their “sexual debut,” so best to do it before thirteen. Dubut! Thirteen! (Getting a new pediatrician.)

The dirty little secret here, or maybe it’s no secret, is that promiscuity is the one thing that hurts young women  more than anything else. Even when it doesn’t result in pregnancy and all the social and emotional baggage that accompanies that, promiscuity causes low self-esteem, lower grades in school,  and emotional problems; any counselor knows that. It rips and tears at the fabric of society and the soul of individual girls, and then we tell them Be Yourself! Be confident! Be positive! And then we (and by we I mean Savannah Guthrie on behalf of The Today Show) praise groups like Fifth Harmony, who say they are positive and inspiring for girls and assert the occasional lyric that relates to being “strong.”  But any parent will tell you that our example is not in what we say but what we do. Any teacher or psychologist or pastor or public figure will agree that the best way to influence young people is not with words but with how we live our lives. Our actions. This girl band and all the Katie Perrys and Bionces in the world do not set an example by their lyrics, even if every girl in the free world knows them by heart. They set an example by their clothes and dancing and how they comport themselves. It doesn’t matter what they are saying, their message is clearly sexsexsexsexsexsex… It isn’t strong, it is weak and beneath the dignity of girls and women. But somehow, our culture thinks this is okay. They’re being themselves! They’re strong! Yay girls!

So my own daughters, who don’t read my blog and don’t tend to like this kind of music anyway, will not be listening to Fifth Harmony, and I wish there was a vaccine that protected other little girls from this kind of music. And I won’t be one of those moms who wants to be cool and fun and goes to concerts with their girls and mouths the lyrics and says woo-hoo in-between songs. I will have to really be counter-cultural and tell them that a real lady doesn’t have to dance like that. That a girl who is really confident isn’t bossy and tacky and aggressively sexual. That having your “innocence wear thin” as a pre-teen or teenager isn’t a good thing, even if you get stronger, like scar tissue. (Which by the way sometimes aches for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if you are strong.) That you don’t get respect by acting like that, you get it by being kind and fair and discreet, by not gossiping, by surviving hardship with grace and having a good sense of humor. In fact, stay the heck away from any boy from whom you have to demand respect; you should command it by your strength of character. That it is possible to really be ‘yourself’ and also wears skirts that go to your knee and shirts that don’t show your bra. And that “fun” doesn’t mean trashy or vulgar–that trashy and vulgar do still exist, even if we don’t call them that. Even if we put them on a stage and praise them for their message. I will tell them skanky is skanky and I hope they tell their daughters–God only knows what they’ll see on The Plaza– that the Emperor and the girl band aren’t wearing any clothes.

 

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42

I heard a fact today. The scientific world who has just discovered that human’s capacity for both sympathy and empathy increases as we age. I would like to say I read this fact, but the truth is that I heard it on the Today Show, because I have turned in to one of those women who watches about 25 minutes of the Today Show or Good Morning America while loading and unloading the dishwasher in the morning, after dropping off the kids, and before throwing in a load of laundry and taking a quick shower and going about my day. I have turned into my mother. But whatever. She was great. Anyway, the study and resulting discovery were discussed in the surprised, awe-filled tones usually reserved for a major scientific breakthrough, and I kept thinking I’d missed something. They were not talking about a discovery of a nutrient that prevents cancer, or of a daily habit that makes us live decades longer, it was simply one study that suggested that, as we age, our capacity for compassion increases. I stood there, scraping a plate of uneaten scrambled eggs into the sink, thinking (and I don’t like this expression, but) well, duh…

 Years ago, I taught high school, and was sometimes mistaken for one of the students. Their mothers seemed old to me, or, at least, formidable, simply because they had kids, they had life-experience, they had cool clothes and husbands and knew what they wanted in life. I did not. But I had flawless skin, and was mistaken for a teen-ager, and in a world that values youth above all else, I had currency. I worked in a school where most of the faculty was over fifty, and knew much more than I about the world and teaching. But they also had poochy tummies bags under their eyes and big mortgages and grown children with problems. I had none of those things, and I had a small waist and my whole life ahead of me. I was twenty-eight, and forty seemed old.

James Thurber said that women deserve to have more than twelve years between the ages of 28 and 40. It does seem too short. Such a short time between when you are young enough to be mistaken for one of the students, and when you are old enough to be one of their parents. Between the time when you have no wrinkles, cannot even imagine having them or where they’d be, and the time when you spend $38 on a one-ounce bottle of something promising to fill the deep gashes around your lips, where apparently you smiled too often. Between the time when you saw older women with skinny, spindly legs and flabby, puffy stomachs stuffed into their comfort-waist pants and thought how did they get that way? and the time when you stand in front of a mirror and suck your tummy in but it puffs out anyway, despite the crunches and the diet, and you think it begins. Twelve years. You’re young and then: poof! You’re buying Activia and you’re tired by 9:30.

But here’s the thing: I have things now that those other, older women must have had when I was younger, but I couldn’t see. A currency I didn’t know about. More compassion, the study says, and I know this to be true because when I was in my twenties and heard about someone else’s problems, I would think, oh, bummer for you, that really stinks. I would like to say I was a better person than that, but I wasn’t: I was busy and tired and preoccupied. Now, when I hear about other people’s problems, my heart aches for them and I think what can I do to help? If possible, I actually do it. Here are some other things I have more of: more happiness than I used to feel when I see a smiling baby or a sunset or a nest of bright blue eggs. More excitement than I used feel over small things, like knowing the kids will all be home Friday night and we can make chili and play games in front of the fire, or watch a movie together. More pleasure than I used to feel when I smell baking bread or see the first crocus of spring or feel the sun on my face after a long winter. I think it comes down to joy; our capacity for joy must decrease a little after childhood, but then increase aftern age forty. I’m sure somebody will study this at some point and then confirm what we already know.

Yesterday was my forty-second-and-a-half birthday. When I washed my face,  I looked a little longer than usual in the mirror at that person who has been looking back at me for four decades. I didn’t think man, I look great!  I didn’t think gosh, I look terrible! And I didn’t think wow, look at all those lines, the big nose, the slightly sagging upper eye… I just thought, Hello. S’up? Good to see you. I guess that’s the difference: not that I care more or that I’ve stopped caring, but that my main reaction is sort of a happy-to-be-here moment. Like when you see an old friend, you might notice that she’s getting gray hair or looks a little heavier through the middle, but it doesn’t affect your affection for her. Mainly you just think Hi! So good to see you! A little rush of endorphins, because she knows you so well, and you can’t wait to see what happens.  

 

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The Spectrum Club of West Jefferson High

One

The air conditioning vent was behind and above Dr. Berger’s head, so Katie could look at it instead of at the bearded school counselor who was looking at her too intently. Another bonus: there was a small piece of paper wedged between the metal bars of the vent, which flapped wildly when the air conditioner came on, making a comical whizzing sound, and then went limp when the air conditioner turned off. Dr. Berger didn’t seem to notice this, so Katie didn’t mention it, but she watched the little piece of paper when it did its spastic, solo dance. It was surprisingly entertaining. Outwardly, she pretended to listen, to care about what Dr. Berger was saying, her expression thoughtful one moment, earnest the next. She had perfected what she called her “session faces.” She ought to win an acting award, she thought, although nobody won acting awards for faking out their psychologist. A psychologist. She couldn’t bring herself to think of him as hers in any way.

He was asking her again about the colors, and if her difference was getting any easier to “assimilate,” and whether the teachers were accommodating her sufficiently. That was what he called it: her “difference,” something she possessed, like a ball or a cup you could hold in your hands. It must have been intentional; “different-ness” sounded more like a bag of bricks you’d drag around.

Katie knew that Dr. Berger’s use of big words and clinical language was intentional. He didn’t say, “Are you getting more used to your weird problem?” Or, “Are your teachers letting you have extra time and bring your colored pencils?” Instead he talked about assimilation, synthesizing information, and teachers accommodating her. It was both an affectation and an implicit challenge: understand me, he was saying, and of course she did, so perhaps he was complimenting her, too. But he was weird, with his little eyes, like a mouse, she thought, or, no, a gerbil. Dark brown eyes that looked brilliant and calculating one moment, lifeless and dim the next. The gerbil effect was  magnified by the bushy beard with the streak of white running through it. Katie imagined it was white paint, or milk, dried on the coarse, wiry hairs of his beard. Dr. Berger was a short, thick man who seemed to be lacking a neck, and when he sat down, his collar pushed into his cheeks. His jowls, Katie thought. He was not unkind to her, exactly, but he asked question after question, and then gave no reaction to her answer, except “Hmm-hmm.” He didn’t even write anything down, like a psychologist in a movie, he just sat with his small, thick hands folded as if in prayer, but with his fingers facing into his palms. It made Katie think of the little rhyme here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, see all the people… She vaguely recalled liking that when she was very little. Or maybe she imagined she had. That moment, when you could drop your elbows and turn your fingers up to wiggle them, always a small surprise. Open it up, and they all run away. Only Dr. Berger never opened his hands, he just sat there until the period was up, which, in Katy’s case, was study hall.

The minute hand on the institutional clock jerked upwards with a loud, mechanical sound, followed by “the bell.” It was not a bell at all, but a sustained intercom beep, indicating that third period was over. Funny that someone, at some point, had decided to call it “the bell,” as if it were a pleasant sound, or as if it’s predecessor were a chime of steel on copper. But West Jefferson was a relatively new school, and there had never been an actual bell. Katie was already standing up when she saw Wally at the door, knocking with two knuckles and leaning in, which struck Katie as a terribly grown up gesture. Wally always came, ready to walk with her to lunch because they were going the same way anyway. She thought she saw, just for a moment, a shadow of disappointment cross Dr. Berger’s face as he said what he always, unfailingly said: “We’ll continue this next week.” Was it possible that he liked these sessions? Katie had no idea, and thinking about it was vaguely uncomfortable, so she slung her backpack over her shoulder and shot Wally a look, something between exasperated and grateful, and stepped out into the crowded hall.

Of the six members of the spectrum club of West Jefferson High School, Katie McDonald was, in her own opinion, the only one who was average. She was not beautiful, like Dagny and Natasha, and even Joss and Cullen. She was not ugly, like Wally, who could get away with his looks because he was brilliant and nice, and enormous. His un-handsomeness somehow suited him. She was not rich or named after somebody famous, and even her “difference,” which, last year, earned her an invitation to the spectrum club in the first place, did not set her apart. She could not instantly multiply several five digit numbers in her head, she was not a musical genius, a fabulous writer, an aspiring movie director, a famous mathematician, or an science prodigy. Katie McDonald’s “difference” did not give her slightly slurred speech or social problems, and it did not enable her to do anything at all. It simply got in her way.

Katie saw colors. All the time. In places where, she learned, others did not. Not in the air, or in objects that had their own color, but in words. Letters had their own color in Katie’s mind, and objects had a rightful color even when a particular object was not the correct color. A blue table remained a blue table, though table was a brown word in her mind, and a green ball was a green ball even if balls were red. It had proven particularly problematic in early elementary school, when students spent much of the day coloring and arranging things that were, in Katie’s mind, already colored. Katie had learned to read in preschool, with the help of her own picture books and a box of colored plastic magnet letters. Possibly these things forever printed her brain with what color things ought to be: it was true that BALL in One Hundred First Words! was red, and that CUP was blue, colors that Katie would forever associate with ball and cup. But she still had some of those plastic letters in a little box of toys from her early childhood; the H was yellow, which was correct for H, but the A was green, which was clearly incorrect.  In Katie’s mind, the letter A would always be red, B would forever be green, and C a pale goldenrod. Her plastic letters were not to blame for what would, years later, be diagnosed as severe synesthesia. Eventually, the guidance counselors would know that synesthesia affects one in every two-hundred-thirty-seven people, causing them to unintentionally assign colors and personalities to letters and inanimate objects. But in elementary school, they knew nothing.

In Kindergarten, on a naval base in Norfolk, Katie un-learned to read, so confusing was this world of wrong-colored letters. Mrs. Camden didn’t notice, since most of the other children could not read either, and only thought Katie showed a quiet, passive-aggressive streak when it came to coloring. But Mrs. Camden had twenty-seven five-year-olds in her care and only a part-time aide, so Katie’s difficulty with colors went largely unnoticed. In first grade, she had regained some of her reading ability, but she was in the low reading group and was so bored with Biscuit books that she stared out the window much of the time. Miss Gillespie, her earnest, newly accredited teacher, thought something was a bit “off,” and talked to Katie a few decibels louder than the other students but made no other real effort to help her. Second through fifth grade, in San Diego, were much the same. By then Katie could read well above grade level, though her scores on standardized tests were below average, and she was prone to near paralyzing panic in situations involving math homework, particularly fractions, or coloring maps.

It was Katie’s eighth grade English teacher, at a DOD school in Naples, Italy, who first noticed Katie’s “way of thinking,” as she called it. The class was called ILA there, not English, and there had been an assignment on Johnny Tremain. Katie’s notes were left on top of her desk when the students had to suddenly go outside for a fire drill. Taking her purse out of the file cabinet and walking to the door behind her students, annoyed that her lesson had once again been interrupted just when the students seemed at least mildly interested,  Mrs. Houser happened to notice Katie’s notes; entire sentences shaded in different colors for no apparent reason. It looked intentional, not like doodling, and in fine black pen she had written odd phrases to the side: “Whigs NOT BAD–ignore mean letters. Torries liked England. Ignore R and I.”

It was Mrs. Houser who would eventually encourage Katie’s parents to “have her tested,” an experience they all resisted. Katie imagined sitting upright in a chair with electrical wires coming out of a band around her head, her hands tied down, while a scientist like Dr. Doofenshmirtz cackled nearby and planned the demise of the planet. Her parents worried about the results: what would it mean? Wasn’t Katie doing just fine, getting As and a few Bs? A few Bs was better than being someone who needed to be tested. Katie’s parents were people who succeeded, and they were positive she would be, too. Testing was not necessary. She was sort of melancholy; slumped shoulders and mild panic in her blue eyes, but wasn’t everyone like this in middle school?

But they acquiesced, at Mrs. Houser’s near insistence, and Katie’s diagnosis of “significantly above average IQ, presence of both graphemic and ordinal-linguistic personificatory synesthesia” was something of a relief, at least to Katie herself. It confirmed what she already knew: that letters do not have personalities and colors to other people. Letters and numbers are, apparently, generic things that simply come together to form words or equations, and most people think of them as no color at all, or black. And this: other people do not find contradiction when two letters or numbers who do not get along must sit side by side, or when they are told to “color Indiana blue” when Indiana is pale gold. Not that it would be pale gold if you got on a plane and actually went there, but on a map. To Katie, the shape of Indiana is gold, not blue.

Briefly, she was something of a celebrity.

There was a faculty meeting at McArthur Middle School with an entire agenda item called Synesthesia: understanding the needs of our students, and “our students” meant Katie McDonald. She was to be given extra time on tests, something that nearly 80 percent of the student body’s IEPs entitled them to for one reason or another anyway. Most teachers simply let every single student have as much time as they wanted, even letting them take the test home to finish if necessary. But Katie was also to be allowed to use her colored pencils at any time, and to have teachers re-word test questions if anything about the phrasing was difficult for Katie to understand. She was entitled to a private tutor in any class at the location of her choice, the use of a computer at any time (no reason was given but it seemed the right thing to do), and weekly sessions with a school guidance counselor. Katie politely declined every accommodation except the use of colored pencils.

Later, when they had lived in Italy and California and finally moved back to Virginia, someone occasionally arrived from the University of Virginia, or John’s Hopkins, or, once, Madison Wisconsin, and asked to have Katie be part of a study. This  meant meeting with them during school hours, under supervision of the school counselor, to be asked questions. Katie readily complied if it meant getting out of a math test, and declined if it meant missing art, her favorite subject, or social studies or chorus, her favorite classes because her friends were in them. Katie went to regular public school for seventh and eighth grade, her father having received orders to the Pentagon, and they were apparently going to stay for four or possibly six years instead of two. She prayed for six: to live in one place for six years would be heaven. To not have to pack her belongings, leave her friends and adjust to a new place; it would be almost normal.

Katie’s main friends in middle school were Abby Gately, whom she’d actually known a little bit when they were living on base in Naples and Abby’s father had been stationed there too, and an assortment of other girls. They were all nice, average girls who stuck together out of a tacit understanding that they shared a similar social status (average), values (don’t be too mean, don’t act like Heather Andrews, the head of the popular group, and don’t cheat on tests), and socio-economic status (white and middle class, their parents called it, but it was really very upper-middle class and they all knew it). They went to each other’s birthday parties and dutifully hosted sleepovers and called each other for homework help when needed, but none of them seemed to be best-friends-forever, soul-mate kind of friends, and they accepted this. It was particularly true for Katie, because she’d only just gotten there in the last part of seventh grade, and was used to having temporary friends.

The summer before high school, Abby Gately’s father got orders to Guam, and the school board voted in favor of a proposal that would divide the school zone yet again, splitting Katie’s neighborhood in a seemingly zigzag line for reasons having vaguely to do with racial equality and diversity. County test scores suggested the zoning needed to be fiddled with a bit to even things up. The proposal, passing,  mandated that the left side of the zigzag would attend Sandburg High, and the right side would attend West Jefferson. (There was no East Jefferson. No one knew why.) Katie’s not only lost Abby, her best friend and the closest thing to a sister she had, but her friend pool was drastically reduced, so on her first day at West Jefferson High School, she had the clean-slate look of a girl who was available for friendship. This was certain social suicide unless you happened to be beautiful and extroverted, like Cassidy Miller, or downright sexy  and mysteriously introverted, like Shea Moran, or very, very cute like Megan Becker. Or, if you had total confidence in your entitlement to popularity, like Heather Andrews. In Heather’s case, very expensive clothing and accessories helped. Having none of these, Katie adopted a look of industrious seriousness, always walking around with a book she could instantly look at,  as if she had other things on her mind than high school or friends, unconsciously hoping this look would insulate her from perceived loneliness. Freshman year was spent in one long attempt to look busy. She sat at a lunch table with Beth Peterson and a few other kids from McArthur Middle School, who clung together that first year, masking their fear of aloneness with casual indifference to each other.

But sophomore year, in the second week of school at the club fair, Katie noticed a table with SPECTRUM CLUB written in big letters on the supply room paper they all called ‘butcher paper’ even though it wasn’t. She had been told, back at McArthur Middle School, that her synesthesia placed her “on the spectrum of Autism,” though it did not make her autistic, but Katie didn’t immediately connect “spectrum club” with the word ‘spectrum’ in that context. Her decision to casually wander by the spectrum club table had more to do with the presence behind the table of a junior named Joss Silverman. Joss lived near Katie; she had often seen him rounding the corner in his BMW, as she had just this morning while waiting for the bus. Katie hated the bus. There was something demoralizing about standing there in the heat or the cold with an assortment of freshmen and a few others: the skinny girl who wore all black and picked her nose, the angry-looking boy who wore his hair braided in the back in an homage to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Salvadoran boy who carried an old battered brief case and would not speak. Katie tried to be nice to them all, but it was impossible to make much headway, and she longed to go to school in a car. A heated, baby-blue BMW would be even better, and it could be driven by a boy who looked like the one who drove that car, even better.

The first time she’d seen Joss driving, it occurred to Katie that a sophomore could not be driving himself to school unless he repeated a grade, and she mentally filed this away under “facts about Joss Silverman.” But it did nothing to diminish her fascination; Joss was beautiful. Startlingly, disarmingly beautiful. Green-flecked eyes with lashes any girl would kill for, a square jaw and perfect, never-needed-braces teeth, and the dark, shiny curls of a pop star. He was a junior now, but looked about twenty. He wore a tiny amulet of some kind on a leather string around his neck; whatever it was, it looked perfect on him, the way a hummingbird egg looks in a nest, or maybe a pearl in an oyster. Or maybe that would be gross and covered with slime, but still. Katie had not known many boys growing up, only the sons of her parents’ friends, and Joss was a far cry from those boys. They repulsed her, with their runny noses and crooked teeth, their wild laughter and their creepy songs about greasy, grimy gopher guts, sliced monkey meat and chopped parakeet. Boys were awful, and their high school counterparts not much better. Katie knew that this was simply the genesis of males, that her own father might have started out this way and outgrown it, but she had no frame of reference for a boy with some elegance, some class. So when she saw the owner of the blue BMW sitting at the “Spectrum Club” tale at the activities fair, Katie casually walked by that table with, she hoped, a look of only mild interest, as if she had somewhere else to be and was only waiting, killing time.

Joss Silverman glanced up at Katie from a worn copy of The Art of Cinematic Storytelling, and said, “Hey. Take a brochure if you want. You need to be seriously deranged to join, but we’ll consider your application,” and then he looked back down at his book. By “brochure” he meant a paper with “Spectrum Club” printed hastily at the top in Times New Roman–Katie had become something of an expert on fonts, and had disdain for the boring, default font of computers–and the description “We meet when we feel like it. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out if you qualify.” Nothing more.

Another, rougher voice piped in: “What my colleague means is, we’d love to have you, but you have to meet certain…qualifications. Which most people don’t. But feel free to join us if you’re able.” He smiled sheepishly and stuck out his hand.

It was an enormous junior named Wally Cooper, whom Katie knew by sight because his head stuck up about a foot above everyone else’s during passing period and she’d asked Beth Peterson, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Wally Cooper,” Beth had said, as though she’d known him all her life. “Isn’t he huge? He’s like, an oaf.  But totally smart.”

So Katie had some knowledge of Wally Cooper, and shook his hand with a smile that she hoped conveyed friendship and not pity. He wasn’t exactly fat, though you most certainly couldn’t say he was slim either; just wider and taller than anyone she knew, with a broad nose and an unfortunate case of acne on his cheeks and neck. She had never shaken a boy’s hand before, that she could recall. Wally was clearly being funny but the gesture still struck Katie as…mature. Suave, even. It spoke of a sophistication that this group must have, a cool sapience Katie hadn’t even known she was craving until this minute. She was so tired, suddenly, of girls who only talked about boys or their hair, and boys whose idea of wit was fart jokes. Here was the beautiful Joss Silverman reading a book about movie making or something, and the huge and brilliant Wally Cooper had used the word “colleague” and shaken her hand.

As it turned out, having a rare form of synesthesia was, indeed, “on the spectrum,” and when the club met during “activities period,” the un-inspired name given to the final hour of the day on Wednesdays, Katie went to the “guidance cluster” to see if the club of Joss Silverman and Wally Cooper was a real club. It had occurred to her that this was odd: a club dedicated to kids who…who what? Were autistic? Joss Silverman was sort of aloof, and apparently had a driver’s license since tenth grade, but if he had traits that were “on the spectrum” Katie couldn’t tell what they were. Of course, no one could tell hers, either, if it counted at all. And there was nothing autistic-seeming about Wally Cooper. It was a real club, albeit one of the more vague, purposeless ones. They weren’t putting together a yearbook or raising either money or awareness, because there was no need for money and all the members were well aware of why they were there, and didn’t particularly want others to be.

Besides the beautiful Joss, whose Tourettes Syndrome may or may not have contributed to certain personality traits common in a boy his age, (aloof unless particularly interested in something, prone to both sudden detachment and ‘over-focusing,’ fidgety), and the disarmingly nice Wally Cooper, there were two other old members, and two new, if Katie included herself. The old members were Dagny Brooks-Pierce, the sophomore star of both the music and theater departments, and Natasha Mori, whom Katie had never seen. Dagny had a mane of dark blond hair so thick, it really did remind Katie of a mane, and an alarmingly womanly figure for a fifteen-year-old. She seemed to be all hair and lips and boobs. That first day, she’d been wearing a low-cut tank top and a tweed blazer, and…were those jodhpurs? It was an outfit that would have looked ridiculous on Katie but was perfection on Dagny Pierce-Brooks. Katie averted her gaze and looked helplessly at Natasha Mori, who regarded her back with cool orange eyes. Her eyes were Asian in shape, but almost literally orange, a color Katie had never seen in a human eye, and her long black hair and high cheekbones did not make Katie feel any better. There was beauty everywhere, and she nearly walked out, it was all so disconcerting. But then Joss Silverman walked in behind her, saying, “Well, look who came. Rainbow girl. The human color-wheel.” He’d been the one to read her “application,” such as it was, and the thought of Joss Silverman sitting alone somewhere–his room, maybe?–reading about her, made her neck flush. She stayed.

“Guys, this is Katie Something-or-other. She’s got this thing where she sees colors in letters, or numbers, or something. It’s legit. Katie, we welcome you,” Joss said with a little flourish, and then, as if he’d used all his word for the moment, he sat and bent over a notebook.

“Oh, my God. She’s adorable,” Dagny Pierce-Brooks said, flapping her hand almost spastically, motioning for Katie to sit by her on the file cabinet despite several empty chairs. Katie thought: adorable? There was a note of condescension in it. But then the immediate thought: oh, well, that’s pretty good. There was nothing else you could hope to be when up against this girl, whom Katie’s mother would call buxom, and about whom Katie’s father would only say, Yikes in a parental sort of way, and when up against this Natasha person, who looked like a princess from a far away land. ‘Adorable’ was going to have to be fine.

The other new member turned out to be Cullen Jones, who walked in with several binders, sat down heavily in a desk, and began to do what appeared to be homework from another planet. Katie noticed that his papers were covered in numbers, but with symbols and squiggles she had never seen before.

“Hey, Cullen. Going to join us this year, huh?” Wally Cooper said, and Cullen grunted in the affirmative. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled at him, like indulgent parents.

“Cullen’s our resident math genius,” Wally said, obviously for Katie’s benefit. “I’d show you, but he doesn’t do parlor tricks.” Cullen was a student of un-specific graduation year, because he’d arrived at West Jefferson High in fifth grade to take math courses, then continued on to college math courses in what should have been seventh grade. His lack of social skills and astounding mediocrity at any academic subject other than math prevented him from simply going to college at age fifteen, but the teachers and administrators at West Jefferson gave Cullen a wide berth. So advanced were his mathematical skills, (he’d been asked to co-author books on both string theory and quantum modular forms, and had been in Time Magazine’s ‘child prodigy’ issue), it seemed almost indecent to give him the label of “sophomore” or anything else. He was always just Cullen Jones. He, too, was beautiful, for lack of a better word. All the best physical traits of his handsome, Scandinavian father and his graceful, Kenyan mother had endowed Cullen with theoretical good-looks that were very camera friendly, at least in Time. But Cullen seemed to be in a different world, and he was. He might be next to you, but far away and unresponsive, so the good looks were noticed and then forgotten.

So that was it. Three boys and three girls the year that Katie McDonald was a sophomore and Joss, Wally, and Dagny were juniors, and the next year, though no one knew why, they did not advertise their club in September. By then, it had become something almost sacred, though none of them would have called it that. They were just a group of friends who started as a club and became something else entirely. By then, they couldn’t really open it up to others. By then, they were, (literally, Dagny would have said as a joke, because people were always saying ‘literal’ when it wasn’t literal at all, and they enjoyed light, disdainful mocking of their peers), carved in stone.

 

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White Lie

They saw it coming. They said it was going to be the biggest snowstorm in twenty years. Just as the blue-white flakes began to fall, I gingerly climbed into the car, cradling my pregnant belly in my hands, and headed into the storm with my sixty-two-year-old father at the wheel.  It was what Google now calls “The North American Blizzard of 2003,” and it began on Valentine’s Day. As my father drove me to the hospital to have my baby, my husband was 6,500 miles away, on the deck of the USS Ashland, in Kuwait. As I went into labor, he was reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, waiting until he could make a phone call to me (a very rare thing, only allowed because I was having a baby). After the call, he would step off the ship and onto the dessert sand to await orders.

Having a baby while my husband was deployed was not the bravest thing I ever did. Neither was enduring the dramatic events of the birth itself. The bravest thing I ever did was tell a lie.

In 2003, I had been married for six years, had  two small kids, and was expecting a third. My husband worked for a newspaper, producing their website, but he was also a Reservist in the Marine Corps. He’d enlisted after high school, despite a high GPA and SAT scores, because he loved his country, and he wanted to do something different. Something hard. Enlisting in the Marines was bold. Rebellious, even. He had no regrets: he still went to college and eventually grad school, and served his country one weekend a month and two weeks every summer.

We were accustomed to phone calls late at night: if the servers at The Times went down or a story broke that had to be covered, he would get a call. But when the phone rang at ten-thirty, and I heard my husband saying, “Yes, Sir. Yes, Sir…” my heartbeat quickened. Colonels and Majors don’t call up enlisted guys at ten-thirty on a Monday night. Unless…

He was gone by Friday. Forty thousand Marines, including the 4th Civil Affairs Unit of the Second Battalion, were being deployed to Kuwait, hours from the Iraqi boarder. Spouses were not told the details. Enlisted Marines did not take cell phones with them or have access to email. I was eight months pregnant, with two little kids, and on a tight budget about to be made tighter by my husband’s sudden pay cut.

Watching him go wasn’t the bravest thing I ever did, either. You don’t have a choice about that. Reservists sign a piece of paper saying if they are called, they will go. Period. And my husband wanted to go. He loved me, he loved our kids, and there was  pain in his eyes when he let go of my hands and walked away, but he wanted to go do what he’d been training to do for a decade, and serve the country that he loved so much.

Twenty-nine days later, I was thumbing through a magazine with my feet in stirrups, a warm blanket over my lap as snow fell outside, waiting for Pitocin to work because it had been nine hours and I was only three centimeters dilated. My doctor came in sipping coffee, to offer me some words of encouragement before he did a scheduled surgery down the hall. He decided to check on the progress of the baby one more time.

He never finished his coffee.

His eyes widened, then locked on mine, and he said to me, “I need to make a decision, and there isn’t time to talk about it. This baby has a pro-lapsed cord, meaning the head is pushing on it, cutting off the oxygen. You need to have a C-section, right now. Do you trust me?” I said a weak “Yes,” and within sixty seconds I was on an operating table, nurses buckling my wrists and ankles down and an anesthesiologist telling me they were moving as quickly as they could, and I would be “out” in about twenty seconds. There wasn’t time for an epidural; they needed to knock me out. My doctor gave me a look of pity, and I saw in his eyes the moment he made his decision. He had delivered my other children, and he knew me. He knew what I would want. He said, “We don’t have twenty seconds.” I felt that first cut. Completely.

That wasn’t the bravest thing I ever did either. Again, I didn’t really have a choice; the decisions were being made for me. Neither was the recovery, or taking care of a newborn and two small kids. Alone.

The bravest thing I never did was lie on the phone. It was during the phone call my husband got to place from his ship, that same evening. The time delay and background noise of an international call did not help the conversation, but I was thrilled to hear his voice and be able to tell him we’d had a boy. I’d named him Christopher, after the patron saint of safe journeys. When my husband asked, “How was the delivery? Are you okay?” I had a moment to think about my answer. I didn’t know where he was, or what he’d be doing the next day. We’d been told he’d be gone for about a year, and it had only been one month. No matter what was going on with me or the baby, they were not going to send him home unless somebody died. So I didn’t tell him about waking up from the surgery in my own vomit, or the fact that our son may or may not have been without oxygen for a while. I didn’t tell him that the baby was blue, at least from what I could tell; they’d whisked him off to the NICU before I could hold him. I mentioned that it was snowing, but not that they were predicting another two feet, the power had already gone out in much of the area, and the roads were closed. I didn’t tell him that when I thought about the months that lay ahead, I felt so lonely that my chest and arms ached. Instead, I swallowed, and said, “I’m fine. The baby’s…beautiful, and we’re…we’re fine. Really.” I heard the relief in his voice when he said, “That’s great. That’s so great. Happy Valentine’s Day…” The line went fuzzy, then dead. I had no regrets. There was no point in worrying him. It would have distracted him from the job he had to do, and my own need for catharsis wasn’t as great as my need for him to be happy, and, well, alive.

He had to spend a month in Kuwait, waiting, just in case Saddam Hussein decided to play nice and let the U.N. weapons inspectors back in. For four weeks, my husband had too much free time, and he spent it fiddling around with coding web sites. He told me in a letter that if he came home, he wanted to make a Shakespeare search engine, like Google for Shakespearean actors and scholars. He thought maybe it could be his Master’s thesis. By the time I read the letter, he was in Nasiriyah, trying to evacuate villages before they were bombed by the Saddam Fedayeen. Sometimes people died. So I am glad I lied. I’m glad that when he thought of me, he probably pictured me and the children in some scene of domestic tranquility: me cradling the new baby in a rocking chair while the others looked on, a soft glow around my face as the baby slept. The reality was exhaustion, Cheerios on the floor and my hair unwashed for days as I watched Kerry Saunders on the news and bit my nails.

Christopher is ten now. He plays soccer and the piano, and has a fondness for card games and butter-pecan ice cream. Miraculously, he had no brain-damage at birth. Even if he did, I would do it all again. My story is like many, many others that will never get published or even told. In the big scheme of things, it is not a story of remarkable bravery,  just everyday bravery, when you put aside your feelings to do a job that must be done, or to put someone else’s welfare before your own. Soldiers and Marines do it every day, so other people don’t have to. Parents, doctors and rescue workers do it every day. Grown children, taking care of their parents, do it every day, and anyone who hasn’t had to be brave in this way will have to at some point. I will probably have to be brave again soon, but for now, I am happy to sit listen to the sound of my kids downstairs, playing blackjack and talking about Shakespeare with their dad.

 

Posted in Creative Non-Fiction | Leave a comment

Amazing Grace

I am sitting at a McDonalds on Rt. 1, because I made the mistake of telling my four year old that if he did not complain at Home Depot and the shoe store and the sewing machine repair place, I would buy him lunch anywhere he wanted. So I am at a McDonalds on a Tuesday morning with my two youngest kids, picking at my salad and wondering how many extra calories are in the crispy chicken versus the grilled, and hoping no one reports me to social services for letting a 23 month old eat French fries.

My four year old is playing happily with his American Idol Happy Meal sunglasses, which have glow in the dark stars on them which can only be seen if he climbs under the table where it is relatively dark. I’m sure it is filthy under there, but he is so happy in his little under-table world, popping up only to take a bite out of a nugget or ask me something about the largest possible size of a t-Rex or the speed capacity of a rocket. I know the answers to neither but guessing will still pacify him, so I reply and tell him not to touch the floor with his hands.

It has been a long morning; the kind of morning where juice was spilled on the last remaining clean uniform shirt, I was late for carpool and the baby fell down the stairs during my shower.  The tree service came to take out a large oak that may fall on my daughter’s bedroom at any moment, only to tell me that their estimate was slightly off, it may be closer to a thousand dollars, and someone named Ray cannot appear with the right noisy equipment until after lunch, which is when the baby naps. So it going to be a very long day.

I am aware suddenly that we are being watched; I feel eyes on me and look up, instantly defensive the way mothers of young kids are: is my baby flinging food? Is my pre-schooler eating fries off of the floor? Is my blouse buttoned crooked? What? But I see only a little old lady, at least eighty and roughly the size of a thin ten year old. She is watching my kids and me, smiling the wistful smile of the very old, incongruously holding a Big Mac in her small hands.

To her left at a table in the corner is a gentleman in his seventies, a retired-Admiral type in a regimental-stripped bow tie. He is sitting ram-rod straight except for his head, which droops slightly, though his gaze is up. On me. He, too, looks wistful and, I think, a little lonely, and I realize that I am the entertainment here. There is another elderly man to my left with half an egg-McMuffin on his tray, and it is past noon, so he’s been there a while. It dawns on me that all of these older people have come here for lack of anyplace else to go, just to get out and be around other people.

“Your children are beautiful. Just beautiful,” the Admiral tells me. It is such a delicate, feminine word for such a large man, masculine even in his fragility. I thank him, marveling that he would say this when one of the kids has ketchup in her hair and possibly a dirty diaper, and one is playing on the floor of a McDonalds. “It does a heart good,” he finishes, and slowly collects his things and walks to the door with more dignity than most statesmen.

The man with breakfast still on his tray has fallen asleep and I am planning my exit strategy, so I can go change the baby, when my son grins up at me and says, “Momma! You should come down here! Seriously! It’s really cool!”

“No, get up sweetie,” I say. “We have to go in a minute.”

His face falls, almost imperceptibly, and he tries again, “But Momma, it’s neat down here!” ( He still pronounces “here” hee-oh.) His happy meal sunglasses are on crooked, his hair is sticking up on one side, and his pleading smile digs at my heart.

“You should get down there,” a voice says. I turn to see the small old lady, penetrating blue eyes staring right at me. I laugh uncomfortably and she repeats herself, “Go down there with him. He’s asking you to.”

Her vocal chords are weak but there is strength in her presence and her accent. She is a  Tennessee Williams character. She softens a little and says, “They-ah only little once. You can’t ev-ah get that back.”  She probably weighs less than a hundred pounds, she is a total stranger, and she has the power to make me climb under a table in a seedy McDonalds. It is kind of cool down there, in the way that spaces can be interesting only to children; the way my ceiling was when I was six and lay in bed wondering what it would be like if I could walk around up there and look down at my bedroom. It is dark under the table, and the empty space under the booth next to us is like a secret compartment. I do not fit, but Christopher is beaming at me from back there, and all I can see are his chicklet baby teeth and the stars on his ridiculous glasses. In his own funny way, he is beautiful, and I have forgotten to notice that for weeks. What’s more, he has made this day fun and funny and, for about five seconds, magical.

When we have surfaced again, a young woman comes in and calls to the Southern lady, “Miss Grace, time to go.” A caretaker of some sort, who wipes her mouth and helps her up and to the waiting car, and Grace (of course her name would be Grace) also leaves with a quality of dignity I’m not sure I will ever possess. But she pauses first to grab my hand in her wiry, strong one, and say, “Gifts are meant to be taken.” She leaves me speechless and stunned. I seem to have had a life-changing experience on a Tuesday morning in a McDonalds on Route 1.

It has been a few days now, and it has got me thinking about Grace, both the person and the concept. St. Paul spends most of his letter to the Romans explaining Grace, and it seems to me to be one of the fundamental points of all the Gospels. But I only understand it superficially: that grace is that by which I am forgiven. Chesterton called it “God’s favor.” C.S. Lewis said it is the thing that sets Christianity apart from other monotheisms, in terms of content (as opposed to truth); that is a gigantic gift, given so constantly that we forget to notice it.

I am thinking of going back to that McDonalds on subsequent Tuesdays. While I know you can’t re-create any moment in time, I am having fantasies about befriending an eclectic group of old people. Maybe we need each other; somehow I could work them in to my life between baseball practice and brownies and explaining fractions, and they would not have to go to McDonalds for entertainment. On second thought, perhaps not McDonalds. Maybe I could start a book group; the kind where the point isn’t really the book, it’s the conversation and the dessert. I would make lemon cookies and serve them with Earl Grey. Decaf. Because these people? I think they might have a lot to teach me, about grace, and joy, and accepting gifts when they are given.

 

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The Soup Whisperer

I make this soup. It’s not really one kind of soup; it’s any; it’s many. It starts out the same every time, but it ends up different if I want it to, and I know how to make it because my mom died eighteen years ago.

I had to count up those years in my head just now because I can’t believe it’s been that long; it seems like just a few years ago she was walking around in a Lands End down vest and jeans (still a good look, I might add), and chatting with me, sewing, watching re-runs of Newhart. Laughing, at everything I said. She thought I was so funny. She died in this freak accident that I wasn’t there for and still don’t get (how do you not see the bus coming?) and left us all pretty broken. And no good came of it, either. All those aphorisms about how something good comes of everything, how we will see the wisdom in God’s plan years later; all those do not apply. No good came of losing my mom, period, and definitely not one large enough to make up for the gaping, yawning hole that was left in my family. But if I had, I mean absolutely had to think of something good, or sort of good, that happened in the years that followed that might not have happened if I hadn’t lost my mom, it is that I learned to make soup. Seriously good, comforting, delicate-yet-substantial soups that warm the soul literally and figuratively.

I’m a very competent cook when it comes to weeknight dinners and sweet breads. I make great pot-roast, decent pot-pie, and adequate quiche, but I’m gifted at soup. I don’t like to brag, but I am. No recipe, just me and the contents of my fridge and pantry, no matter what they are, and I can make a soup that is amazing. My husband names them after me: there is ‘Paigestroni’ and “Paige-sta e fagioli,’ and my favorite, “Myrtle-ini.” (Don’t ask.) The guy is a bit of a foodie, too, and holds the culinary world to very high standards. He recently called me ‘the soup whisperer.’

Here is how it happened: my mom died, I lost eleven pounds in three weeks because I couldn’t choke down any sort of food, only nobody noticed except my roommate and my boyfriend, and then I learned to make soup. One night as I sat grading papers, because life just marches on in your face and you have no choice but to do what you’re supposed to be doing, my then-boyfriend stopped by with chicken parmesan from the Italian place downstairs that I liked until I stopped eating. I loved their chicken parmesan, and he tried to coax me into taking some bites. He held them out on a fork for me, like I was a toddler, begging me to just have some, because I needed to eat. I was teaching full time, six different classes with five different “preps” because the school I taught at was using me as a workhorse, and I was driving home to Alexandria three nights a week and leaving food for my dad. Casseroles, mainly, that he wasn’t eating. The boyfriend sat back on his haunches and asked if there was anything that I would eat. Anything that sounded good, and he’d go and get it for me, or make it for me. I came out of my stupor for a minute when I realized he seemed about to cry. (And by the way, it’s not that I was too thin–I could stand to lose eleven pounds then and I definitely could now. It’s just that my rapid weight loss was such an obvious symptom of my sadness, he thought if he could at least fix that, he’d have done something good. It wouldn’t have fixed the sadness, it was pure man-think, but he meant well.) I thought a minute and said, “Soup. I could eat soup. But…I think I want to make it myself.”

He was so pleased. I hadn’t wanted to do anything myself, let alone anything involving food, which he believed holds near-sacred qualities if prepared in a way that gives glory to God and food itself, and is consumed with family or friends. Really, I just wanted to make it myself because I wanted to make extra for my dad so I could skip a couple days of casserole-making. And I kind of wanted to be alone in my grief, because I was miserable company and knew it.

My boyfriend and my roommate got all excited, fluttering around arranging spoons and spatulas and cutting boards for me in the tiny kitchen of the hugely overpriced two-bedroom apartment. It was a crummy little place with peeling paint and stinky, sticky carpet and raccoons in the attic, but it had a kitchen with gas burners and a long countertop. “Do you need anything?” they kept asking, so I sent them to the store for chicken broth while I got to work chopping the one little onion we had. They said they’d get more onions, but I didn’t want more. We were on a tight budget, all of us, about half a shoestring each, and I wanted to see what I could do with what we had and very little else. The self-denial was strangely cathartic.

In the 20-year-old fridge we had some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, (my roommate had a touch of carnaphobia, or at least wouldn’t buy any meat that looked too gross in supermarket cellophane. We pooled our money for groceries sometimes, and I went along with her need to buy more expensive cuts of meat because they had less fat), two carrots, and some milk. In one of the 1975 cabinets, we had a box of Corn Pops and a single can of cannellini beans with an expiration date that was two weeks in the past.

I got to work. I began with a recipe on a recipe card in a recipe box that had been my mothers; the recipe was attributed to her friend, Sue Schultz, a neighbor in the late 70s. The recipe card was yellowing with age and had roosters on it. It was a recipe for “Anything Soup,” and the first thing it had you do was chop onions. Then it had you sauté them, then add flour, right to the onions, making a weird, chunky paste in the bottom of the pot. Then it had you pour broth on the weird paste, slowly, until there was a lot in there. Then you brought it to a simmer, adding things. I didn’t know I was making a roux, or that this could be the base of many soups and sauces. I only knew I was cooking, really cooking, and despite the grief over my mother and the crummy apartment and the job that was exhausting me and the fact that my father didn’t like my boyfriend, whom I wanted to marry, quickly if possible, (because of the grief over my mother and the crummy apartment and the job), some tiny part of me felt happy. Or, at least, found respite from all that sad. It smelled good. It is really hard to be totally sad if you are working with your hands and smelling sautéing onions.

I made that soup and it was a great success. (I did not use the Corn Pops, and I did use a few other things brought back from the store to cheer me up, which began my love affiar with shallots. But that is a story for another time.)  I started making soup instead of casseroles. There is a place for casserole, but it not on the table of someone who is grieving. At least, not too often and not unless it is a really great casserole. Great enough that the sad person can overlook the fact that they are so sad, somebody gave them a cassserole. But soup says I understand. Here, try a little of this, you’ll feel better. Slowly, glacier-time slowly, I did feel a little better and so did my dad. And my roommate, who had troubles of her own, ate well for a while until I married that boyfriend and she married hers and I learned to make a few other things.

I’ll get to the point now. Soup is good. It is filling and comforting and warm in your belly and making it from scratch is as good for the soul as eating it. Maybe better. And once you learn the basics, you can make many different kinds with no recipe, just half basic knowledge and half creativity. Here’s how you do it:

1. Chop up an onion or two, and is possible several cloves of garlic.

2. Heat up a pot with a Tablespoon of oil and a Tablespoon of butter. When bubbling, put the onion and garlic in there.

3. Wait three or four minutes, stirring sometimes, until onions are tender. Then sprinkle roughly 3 Tablespoons of flour on there. It makes a weird chunky paste.

4. Cook about 3 more minutes, then pour on 3 cups (or so) of chicken broth or stock. If you don’t have it, use bullion and make it first, or use some combination of water and broth and wine. Beef or vegetable broth will work, white wine, something. Broth or stock is best but do what you can.

5. Bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer. Now, ADD STUFF.

Meat: (already cooked). Anything you have. Seriously. Chicken, beef, turkey, sausage, ground beef or turkey, leftover pot roast, whatever.

Herbs, (rosemary goes with chicken, thyme goes with beef, sage goes with turkey, and oregano makes anything taste Italian. That’s all you gotta know.)

A starchy thing: (already cooked). Pasta, rice, brown rice, beans, corn, peas, potatoes, etc.

Stuff from your fridge: leftover tortellini, quinoa with herbs, whatever. If you need to get rid of a leftover savory item and don’t want to eat it alone, you can probably add it to the pot. Unless it’s, like, a dessert, or has a bun on it, or has a really distinct flavor that doesn’t go with your delicate soup. Don’t put leftover chipotle tacos in chicken and rosemary soup, for example. No, wait, that could be good.

Seasoning: do this at the end, just in case the meat you added already had so much salt that it has seeped into the soup and you don’t need to add as much salt as you otherwise would. Try salt and pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano, a pinch of paprika, etc.

Sauces: to make your soup Italian, add leftover spaghetti sauce and tortellini, or a can of tomato sauce or paste and a bunch of dried oregano, even a dash of red wine if you want.

Let it simmer for ten minutes. Set the table, toast some bread, grate some cheese to sprinkle on top. Relax. Eat your soup.

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