The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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My parents lay in long, white, woven-plastic chairs while I danced on the diving board. Behind our house was our deep in-ground pool, surrounded by grass, enclosed by a fence: how safe; how Floridian. Open sky, white patio, turquoise water slapping and chopping. And the me-girl: long legs, baby tummy, bangs in her eyes, red two-piece. “Mummy, are you looking?” I couldn’t tell. She wore dark glasses, and the sun was in my eyes. “Are you looking?”
And my mother, who was looking, called, “Yes, yes! Go on!” her face pointing toward me, away from my father.
“Watch!” And then some Highland fling, some flying jounce of a dance, kicking and twirling with arabesque arms, and ending with a flamboyant leap — I could not yet dive — into the cold. And when I surfaced, blowing water, hair streaming, Mummy was clapping, arms raised above her head, “Very good!” making my father cheer, too, both of them wearing a subtle glow of amusement. Exultant, I swam to the ladder, to do it again.
After finishing his gin and tonic, my father liked to throw his ice into the pool. Sometimes he stood, towering above me, and briskly tossed the melting remnants over my head before returning to work. But more often, indolent and muscular in his chair, he hurled the cubes one by one, each arcing into the water, where it bobbed like a little white boat. I think he liked the harmless thrill of throwing things away.
Memory returns kaleidoscope pictures, jewel-bright and unreachable. I was given a kaleidoscope to play with, an old-fashioned wooden toy. Dutifully, I pointed it toward the sun, or the cat, or the television, and twisted the tube. Each image fractured, multiplied, and was made miniature: a whirling mandala of gray TV, a hundred-slice pizza of ferns and orange Persian cat, the Wedgwood blue of my mother’s eyes.
What did she think about, my mother? A decade out of England, where she’d lived her first thirty years, she made tea and scones in the afternoon, the way her mother had. Lovely, lovely, with a clever doctor husband and two good little girls, a pool, a maid, a car of her own to drive, acres of shiny linoleum, and odd red flowers bursting outside year-round — did she dream of mossy emerald hillsides, pubs that shut at ten, dinner dances in Knightsbridge?
She did not. She thought: I must get the plumber in. That dress needs cleaning. It’s time to start dinner. She wanted a dog, but my father chased strays from our yard with a stick.
After dinner, while the dishwasher swished and sighed, my mother would waltz the cat around the kitchen, cradling it like a baby, and singing it songs I was too young to understand. The upside-down cat, amazed anew every night, gazed into her face. Envious and embarrassed, I sat at hem level, on the step stool my father had bought so Mummy could reach high shelves. My mother’s feet took long, sideways steps as she rocked wide-eyed Amber, crooning, “I’ll be loving you always, with a love that’s true always. . . .” Her voice was high, sometimes piercing. Sometimes she’d sing along with the leftover dinner music still playing in the living room, tunes from Porgy and Bess or The Sound of Music. Then she sat my cat on the floor with a little pat, saying, “There. He enjoyed that.”
Bedtime was seven-thirty. Doomed to miss the sitcoms my classmates would shriek about in school the next day, I took my bath each night before bed and soaped my hair into a lopsided French beret, insisting to my mother that I was a painter named Pierre. Then I became the Breck girl, then a fancy lady, then a pony, sculpting the white-lathered hanks of brown hair into more and more extreme shapes, standing up out of the water to swipe the fog from the mirror and admire myself. I was a success if Mummy called my older sister to come and look, or told my father about it later.
Standing on the potty lid, I held my limbs out to be rubbed with a big towel. Nightly, she dried me off in the same order: face first, then neck and arms, then middle, and finally up and down each leg. Finishing, she wafted a nightie — invariably some shade of pink — over me. And if she forgot what came next, I reminded her: “What do I look like tonight?”
“You look like a strawberry!” or, “You look like a princess!” Me! Her pixie, her popsicle, her peach girl.
During the war, my mother’s family had made cakes out of lard. She made it sound like so much fun, the rations and struggle. “You had a little tiny pat of butter each week,” she said, holding her thumb and forefinger a quarter inch apart, “and some people would eat a tiny bit of it each day, but others would have it all on one piece of toast on Sunday, for tea.”
“What did you do?”
“Oh, well, I was all right, because I was in the Wrens, helping the war, and we had plenty to eat. But stockings! We could never find enough stockings. There were parties and dances every night — all the naval officers wanted to take me out — so you know what we did, the other girls and I? We used eyebrow pencil to draw lines up the back of our legs, like seams, to make it look as if we had stockings on! Daft, really.”
Once, hardly out of diapers, I inadvertently ran away from home. Having awakened before everyone else, and bored, I took myself to the grocery store several blocks away. I stood mesmerized before the enormous racks of chocolate bars, knowing that stealing was wrong — and that, moreover, the man in the office was watching. Eventually I toddled off, candyless but with my baby conscience clear. I was making my way down the center of the four-lane road when a strange man and woman from a nearby house swooped down on me. The woman held my arm, as if I might try to escape.
“What should we do?” they asked each other. “Call the police?”
I calmly pointed out that I knew where I lived. The couple seemed relieved that I could talk. “You do? What’s your address?”
I didn’t know what an address was, but I gestured in the right direction. They put me in their car and we crawled up the road until we came to my house. The front door was open, my mother was up, and everything was fine except for the two strange grown-ups, who seemed shaken as they restored me to the nest. My mother laughed and hugged me and told me not to go off alone. Maybe she felt proud.
When other children’s parents read aloud, it bored me. In my house, bedtime was like Broadway, with a repertoire of musical comedies that included my mother’s own made-up stories about the Little Blue Aeroplane and the Little Red Race Car (both capable of astonishing feats, and owned and operated by children just like me), excerpts from Winnie-the-Pooh (Piglet’s voice was a fat little squeal, and Eeyore’s a melancholy grunt), and hands-on nursery rhymes: “We’re going on a treasure hunt,” she singsonged, fingers waltzing up my arm. “X marks the spot, with a bi-i-i-ig question mark, going up, going down, going all the way round!” Her fingers drew squiggles on my back, making me laugh, and leaving me quite unprepared for sleep. “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” won awards for both props (all the bears in the house) and set design (the dolls’ tea table, cups, and saucers). Sometimes my little record player buzzed along while the bears danced and paraded in the air before my unsleepy eyes, and my mother waved her hands, conjuring ogres and fairies. With blankets tucked under my chin — to keep out the bitter, damp drafts of English winters, there in Tampa — I clapped my hands under the sheets and cried, “Encore! Encore!” the way she’d taught me.
Encore was my prayers. My mother said I should think about the words as I said them. “Gentle Jesus” (he was gentle, you could tell by his eyes), “make us mild. Look upon a little child.” (That was me.) “Pity our simplicity” (my mother said it didn’t mean pity in a sad way), “and suffer us to come to thee” (which wasn’t really suffering). Afterward I’d add some ideas of my own about who should be blessed: “God bless Mummy and Daddy and Vicky and Michael and Amber and Mrs. Lowe and Mrs. Sanderson and Dr. Battel and Mrs. Battel and Dr. and Mrs. Henderson and Auntie Jean and Auntie Noni and Uncle Brian and —”
“— and everyone else we know.” My mother kissed the top of my head. “That ought to do it. Now go to sleep.”
By high school I had hair to my hips, and washed it damn near daily, worrying that the front parts would separate into anything that might be considered a strand. I brushed it between classes, on the bus, any time I was nervous — which was most of the time. I thought it was because I used a Mason-Pearson hairbrush, from London, that my hair gleamed and attracted attention. Boys sometimes played with it; girls stroked and braided it, sighing and saying that they hated me. I filled a B cup in the ninth grade and had friends in all the cliques.
When some of my artistic, pot-smoking friends asked me to join a community-theater group, I went, and invited my mother, because the group was “all ages,” and we needed someone to drive. The blackened, cavernous auditorium held a thousand squeaky seats, most long unused, their bottoms folded up. Other people’s parents came, too, looking astonishingly attractive and open-eyed in a way they never were at home, dishing out green beans or nagging us to get off the phone.
Somehow we had a director from New York, whose name was Joe. Joe from New York led us in weekly “practice” sessions even before we had a show to rehearse. On a blond-wood stage, scuffed from years of sets being shoved back and forth, we practiced improvising and relaxing and mirroring each other’s motions and screaming dialogue convincingly. We read poetry out loud “for rhythm” and mimed passing an apple around a circle.
My mother wore a low-cut leotard under a pink angora cardigan. Joe shortened her name to Marge, so everyone else did, as well. My friends’ fathers sparkled at her, brought her Playbills from shows they had seen, and said, “We should all go” — meaning them and their wives and my mother and father. But really they wanted to play her husband.
“You, Marge, come on up,” Joe said, white-blond hair glinting under the hot lights he insisted we use even at practice. “You’re a nurse, an Irish nurse at an old folks’ home in the Bronx. And you, Roger, you’re a deaf old man stuck in the home by ungrateful children. You hate the nurse.”
“Oh, dear,” my mother muttered, “not me again, Joe.” But she jumped to center stage, pursed her lips, fiddled with her hair, and in a moment became a stout, commanding matron. “Come along, Mr. Smith! Time for your medicine.” My mother grasped the man’s arm, making him totter over to her desk, a rusting, dented table Joe had set downstage left.
“My name’s not Smith! What did you say?”
“Medicine!” Mummy bellowed in his ear, then muttered, “You old bastard.”
She mimed shoving pills into his mouth, a glass of water to his lips. They fought over the water, he sputtered, and she wiped imaginary spittle from her face, then his. She set him in front of the television and threatened to put him in diapers if he drooled on the remote.
She was good. Everyone — even Joe, even stiff Mr. Arthur, the accountant — was laughing. We were all tucked in bed, eyes shining, calling, “Encore! Brava! Encore!”
On weekends my hair, my breasts, and I went out with high-school seniors and college freshmen and older, even less mature men — men my friends and I called “guys,” and did not know or very much like. But guys had drugs, and gave me drugs, and I talked to them on drugs through the long, groping nights. I once floored a black Jaguar to ninety miles an hour while tripping on windowpane; I was fifteen years old. One of the guys was a detective, so when we got stopped and searched, the cops only tossed away the water pipe and told me to go home. “Damn!” I said. “That was my best bong.”
But by Monday evenings at seven — rehearsal time — I would have slept and eaten something and scored some Valium, and I’d be calm and compliant in the car, on the way to practice. We got the mother and daughter roles in the one-act play Joe found for us. “A family drama,” he called it. Though I was taller and darker, Mummy and I had the same popular shape of face and figure, and put on eye makeup the same way. The opening-night queen and princess, we applied pancake base with deft, professional strokes while the cast surrounded us, saying how good we looked, “Break a leg,” and did we need some water? A guy who’d had his hands up my shirt forty-eight hours earlier brought both of us orchids.
On stage Mummy smiled and petted me; I delivered straight lines to her. Sometimes she winked or murmured jokes beneath her breath to make my laughter real. In the middle of Act Two I knocked over a vase of flowers — “Oh, God!” — but she caught it and said, “Don’t be clumsy, darling; it doesn’t suit you,” then went on with the script. At the end, she, the leading man, and I held hands at the center of the line of actors. But all the cheering was for her.
How could I not drift? I drifted into more drugs, and depression, then drifted off to college and got seduced by a professor my second day. My roommate, Sharon, was a lesbian. Our women’s school shared some classes with an adjacent co-ed school. Men were around, and much was made of this.
In Biology, I refused to dissect a crayfish. “I will not,” I told the Chinese teaching assistant, my voice on the edge of hysteria. “I will not do it.” Bespectacled premeds — good students — stared at me over their round white blobs of sentient beings. I don’t think the teaching assistant had ever before encountered anyone who refused to participate. He made my lab partner cut apart the crayfish and smiled fearfully at me from under flat black eyes.
I got so lost. No one, not my six-foot, soccer-playing roommate; nor the professor who liked to smoke hash and screw; nor the guys who scrawled poetry on napkins in the cafe; nor my bear of a philosophy professor, who said I had a good mind; nor the hairnetted ladies in the cafeteria where I worked part time, slinging enormous plastic crates of clean glasses off the wash line, my face steamed pink — no one I knew or saw or talked to in that demented year of higher education had any clue how to find me. I rose at the crack of noon, slung on my knapsack, and tripped across the green, green softness of the college quad, avoiding the muddy Passion Puddle, a steaming greenish pond on the slopes of which novices lost their virginity. The algae was taking over, burgeoning because of all the bread girls threw to the ducks. I forced enough coffee into my system to get me through incomprehensible biology lectures. I drew some very good portraits during that class.
History of Theater, the prerequisite for Acting 1, met in a large lecture hall with soft nylon carpet: three hundred hopeful freshwomen shuffled spiral-bound notebooks, each hoping the professor would notice her smile. I listened and learned, but the final on Shakespeare undid me: I had studied for Goethe.
In Studio Art 1 — my only easy A — the cool black teacher leaned over my shoulder while everyone else struggled alone with charcoal and coarse paper. Her praise lured and distracted me. She made me register for Studio Art 2 in the spring, but it met at ten in the morning, and I was too deep in drugged sleep to hear my alarm go off.
Nights were blurred times of trying to study at the library, leaning industriously over my cursed algebra text. The C-plus in Biology had wrecked me.
Friends came and found me in my carrel. “Want to come to New York? Try some cocaine? Skip class tomorrow and hitch to the beach?” And I did, I did, I did. We cruised top-down in Mad Dog’s Porsche to Second Ave. to look at the prostitutes, who impressed me — despite my hours of fleshly accomplishments with semistrangers — as glamorous and invulnerable. We scored twofers for Cats, Phantom, Les Mis, and discovered funky, back-street theaters, though I never loved the gritty, intimate spaces the way I did the rise of a curtain in a blackened, expensive venue, with a perfumed audience and actors who acted and made me believe.
Then Jeff, Scott, or whoever, bought dinner, frantically ordering me wine and sangria and strawberry daiquiris, surprised when I wanted only whiskey and water. (I was over drinking, but it helped the guys calm down.) The nights burned on into sex and more sex; then less sex, as coke became a larger component of the late-night brew my roommate and I witched up after her girlfriend went home. My breasts shrank until I no longer needed a bra, and I saw the beginning of wrinkles below my eyes — or was it just lack of sleep?
The phone was ringing. Noon. Was it March?
“Darling!” My mother’s spring-break voice so warm and soft. “I’m so glad I got you! How are you?”
I was missing class and in danger of being expelled. I’d contracted a yeast infection from forgetting for a week to take out my diaphragm. Cheesy goo had dripped from me the day before, frightening me to the health center, where the nurse had sat me down and talked straight into my eyes.
“I’m OK,” I told my mother. “I’m having trouble with math.”
“Oh, I always did, too. Can you get a boy to tutor you?” Her smiling voice invited me to a week at home, capped by an opening-night bash at her house — “I don’t know how we shall manage” — because she was second female lead in a real show; all right, it was regional, but big time for Princeton, New Jersey, where my parents now lived. She was even getting paid. There would be a review in the Times. She wanted me there to have tea with her before the first performance, to help her with her eyes.
I packed a clear overnight bag with black clothes, said ciao to my roommate. “Have fun in New Jersey!” she called, and then added, “Why does that sound like a joke?”
I did have fun in New Jersey. I brought no drugs with me, and took none besides caffeine and an occasional Tom Collins. I ate again. Mummy said I looked thin, which was mostly a compliment, but she made me roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with hefty brown gravy. She showed off her costume: “It’s so tight, look!” On the big day, she bossed caterers and positioned the flower arrangements that kept arriving. My father polished the rail on his little bar. Her wood floors gleamed, and the Persian rugs and Persian cat looked groomed and fluffy, awaiting the hundred-odd guests. When she kissed me goodbye to go to the theater, I’d never seen her so happy.
I wore a soft blue dress, the kind of thing a real college student might wear. I sat next to the stage manager’s wife and opened the program to my mother’s picture and bio. McCarter Theater glowed, cleaner than Broadway, the ushers more patient. My seat was excellent, the house sold out. The curtain wafted away in a rush of velvet.
She wasn’t in the first scene, which went by lightning quick and effervescent. The lead chittered birdlike through her lines — something about a lost son; I wasn’t following it. Then my mother — my mother! — glided in, pure and sexy, a glamorous aunt. Perfect. I felt the audience tighten.
At first, I thought someone else was talking, and I missed a few phrases. Then the main character muttered a response, and my mother disappeared. When she returned, the lost son was onstage, too, and the three of them gabbled through some dialogue. As if I were on Quaaludes, I couldn’t keep up. The director, I thought, the director has done this. He’s told them to keep it moving, keep it moving, pick up the pace so often all subtlety has been lost. Damn it, I thought. Slow down. Bring back Winnie-the-Pooh!
I was breathing so angrily my nose and throat dried out. I wanted a drink, but at intermission I stood in the ladies’-room line, hiding behind my hair so no one would spot me and ask what I thought.
What I thought was: How could this happen? She’s not any good.
The opening-night celebration lasted till breakfast: caviar and smoking, songs round the baby grand, improvised romance. Unable to force my way through the packed dining room, I traipsed outside to get to the kitchen. I paused in the cool starlight, turning my face up at the black-and-silver sky.
Around dawn, survivor of a thousand lipstick kisses, I stood bleary-eyed and resolute as the last five extras wobbled to their cars, coats and signed programs tucked under their arms. My mother had retired in a cloudy negligee hours before. I sat in the wreckage, afraid to look up.
Neither the New York Times nor the Princeton Packet nor the Town Topics mentioned my mother, though the Home News called her “gifted” (whatever that meant). Each review used the term “fast-paced,” and nobody raved. A C-plus for Mummy.
“It happens,” my theater professor assured me. “A lot of shows are ruined by bad directors.” Still, I threw away the program from Mummy’s play. I cleaned out my closets at home and my room at school, scooping armloads of flannel sheets, loofah sponges, manicure sets, and homework assignments into bag after plastic bag. They made satisfying thuds in the dumpster.
I took jeans and plaid shirts, leather ties for my hair, and Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting. I convinced a friend to drive me to the Village, made him give me fifty bucks, and refused to tell him the phone number of the one-bedroom I would be sharing with six Asian actress-model-dancers.
That first night, I lay flat on my back in bed with a 9 A.M. audition the next morning and a strange ceiling above. I folded my hands across my chest beneath the sleeping bag and set my jaw, determined to dream.