I’m putting on my boots, pulling the zipper that runs from my ankle bone to the soft flesh on the inside of my knee.
“You don’t let him do anything, do you?”
She says this with such revulsion that my throat tightens. I forget to breathe.
Heat rises up my neck, into my face. I grab my purse and rifle through the contents, practicing nonchalance. We are so different, her and I.
I know my cheeks are flushed and I worry she’ll mistake this for guilt. How, I wonder, do you explain desire to a woman who lusts after Betty Crocker?
“No, of course not.” My voice sounds louder than usual.
She turns away, washes the coffee cups that have been sitting since breakfast. I straighten my skirt, pressing my hands into the hollows above my hips. I remember the last time I wore this skirt. He seemed surprised that the nubby wool was backed by a cool, silky lining. His hands slid effortlessly along my thighs.
She closes the cupboard door and faces me, the edge of a teaspoon glistening through the folds of her dish towel. I’m smiling. Lust is dripping from my upturned lips.
I catch myself and look down at the paper-strewn table. In among the bills and grocery lists is the latest Life Magazine. The cover displays some of the over nine hundred bodies; men, women, and children, bloated and rotting in the tropical heat, the buttons on their clothing strained. Disciples of mad man Jim Jones, they believed that the poisonous Kool-Aid they drank was their one-way ticket to Nirvana. There’ll be no happy Thanksgiving for this group.
“Once you let them have their way you’re damaged goods. I hope you know that.”
You’re damaged goods, I think. She shuffles over to the silverware drawer, her ratty slippers making a shush shush sound like crumpling paper. Her legs are heavy, the thickness of her thighs causing her calves to flare out from the knees down. She shuffles back and sits down at the kitchen table.
She has said these things before. The words run in a loop behind my eyes. When his hand touches my knee, I hear her. When he kisses my neck, they’re all alike.
She thumbs through the TV Guide.
“Oh, Good Lord,” she grins, “guess what’s on tomorrow night?”
It’s got to be a one of handful of our movies, the movies we watched when my dad was working late. We’d lie in their bed, burrowed beneath the blankets, watching the little black and white TV. We’d eat brownies and cry over women who sacrificed everything for love; the small town girl in Picnic, the lonely socialite in Madame X. We watched them over and over until I had memorized the lines. I’d play all the parts and she’d clap and laugh, “Bravo!”
“My favorites are the cheating movies,” she confided.
“What’s on tomorrow night?” I set my purse down and slip into my coat.
“Gypsy, at nine o’clock.”
We loved Gypsy, it was one of our favorites. I saw it for the first time at eight years old. By the time I was ten, I’d seen it more than five times and could mouth the dialogue along with the actors.
My mother came up with the idea but I leaped onboard, more than a little excited by the thrill of the hunt and the prospect of a masquerade.
“You’ll have to dig. It’s in the back of the closet, way back behind the coats.”
That’s where she said I would find the dress.
“It’s satin, baby blue.”
I’d been in that closet plenty of times, poking around the same as any other kid. I’d never seen a blue satin dress.
She ran the palm of her hand over the table top in a circular motion like a medium conjuring a spirit. Her eyes belonged to someone I didn’t know.
The closet door opened onto a row of house dresses, dowdy handmade numbers faded from repeated washings. I slid them to the left and tugged at the coats, my mother’s wool herringbone next to my dad’s gray overcoat, and a long trench coat stiff with age. The weight caused them to stall along the horizontal pole. I sank to the floor resting among my dad’s Brogans. I tugged at the coats again and they let loose opening onto the rear of the closet and a wardrobe that surely belonged to someone other than my mother.
The first dress was black crepe with spaghetti straps, a row of sequins along the bodice. There were others ; cinch-waisted, femininely flounced, candy colored skirts. And the shoes! High heeled pumps and peep-toed little beauties. I scooted further into the closet. A hint of something within the fabrics evoked a memory. It came to me slowly, that powdery sweetness that hit me in the gut on long car rides, overcame me on special occasions. Shalimar. It tied the petite party dresses to the housedresses she wore. In that moment I understood that the woman downstairs, wrapped in a thread-bare bathrobe, two inches of gray outgrowth exposed by randomly placed pin curls, had once been a woman of style. I could almost imagine her dancing in spike heels, her pleated dress a pastel blur.
I pulled the blue dress from the hanger and crabbed back out into the bedroom. The long white gloves were where she said they would be, in the drawer behind her brassieres, the handkerchiefs, and the small hand embroidered purse. I slipped into the dress and the black pumps that were too big for my feet. I pinned my hair on top of my head and pulled on the gloves.
When I walked into the living room she gasped.
“My God, you look gorgeous.”
I did the burlesque walk and sang Let Me Entertain You, peeling off the gloves one finger at a time, like Natalie Wood did in the movie. I tossed them over my shoulder, shimmied and dipped, ending with “We’ll have a real good time.”
She applauded, gave my performance a standing O. We both laughed.
“Ah,” she sighed, “thank God your dad isn’t here.”
“Now, go put my things away where you found them.”
I was anxious to get back into that closet, to inspect the other dresses and shoes.
I hung the blue dress and sidled in a bit further.
My foot bumped up against something on the floor. A metal filing box. I dragged it close to the closet door where the lighting was better, thumbing through the papers inside; tax receipts, life insurance certificates, car titles. I came across a heavy paper emblazoned with a gold seal. The words took my breath away, CERTIFICATE OF ADOPTION. I read far enough to see that it wasn’t my name listed as the adoptee, but my oldest brother, Wesley.
I was furious, confused, and angry at the deception. I ran downstairs, crying so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. I waved the paper in front of her, indignant in my need for answers.
I’d never had any reason to believe that my brother, twelve years older than me and the object of my absolute adoration was not my real brother. I had been told, “You know, when I had you, I was so exhausted, I just couldn’t hear your cries at night. Wes was only twelve at the time and he slept across the hall from you. He’d get up in the middle of the night, make a bottle, feed and rock you until you fell asleep.”
Now he was thousands of miles away in a place called Marble Mountain in Vietnam. God, I loved him.
“Stop crying, come here.”
I kneeled on the floor and pushed my face into her lap. She caressed my hair and rocked back and forth as she spoke.
“Before I met your dad I was married to someone else. You know your grandpa was sick, with Lou Gherig’s disease, we’ve talked about this. It was hard on me as well as him. I was the one who took care of him.” She falls silent for a few breaths and then, “I was so young. You grandmother was loaded half the time so she couldn’t help with my dad. Towards the end I had to bathe him. It was so embarrassing for me. But Dad, he was such a proud man and suddenly he was left paralyzed and without a shred of dignity. I s’pose I wanted out of the house, I don’t know. I was working in a jewelry store downtown and I met this man. He was older. He seemed nice and I found myself falling in love with him. At least that’s what I thought at the time. So we got married and a few months later I found out I was pregnant. He’d been coming home drunk. He’d knock me around; pull my hair, slap me. When I was eight months along, he pushed me down the stairs. I had just three cents in my pocket when I walked out and went back home to my mother’s. When Wes was a little over a year, I met your father. We were married and on Valentine’s Day, he adopted Wes.”
I put the paper back into the silver filing cabinet, brushing past the pretty dresses on my way out of the closet. I folded the gloves and pushed them to the back of the drawer, past the brassieres and the handkerchiefs and the small embroidered purse, and pulled the pins from my hair.
For a few years afterwards, until I realized that 1950’s burlesque was dead and I didn’t have the nerve or the boobs for the job anyway, I seriously considered classy, lady-like stripping whenever someone asked, “So, Suzy what do you want to be when you grow up?”
My grandmother had told me, “Your father is a good man. I knew it from the start, and I told her, ‘look at this man, Jim. He works hard, he has a nice car. He’s not a drinker. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t even smoke cigarettes.’ He’d come to take her out for dinner and I’d have to call her two, three times. I’d have to walk up the stairs to shake her awake. ‘Tell him to come back later,’ she’d say and then turn over and go back to sleep. It took me for her to see what was right before her eyes. Opportunity rarely knocks twice. It wasn’t just her, she had a little boy to think about. Which I was left to watch while she worked, mind you.”
That was my father. Opportunity. Not mad love. Not, God forbid, lust but solid. He addressed my grandmother as, Mother.
When he proposed she turned him down. “I’m not divorced. I can’t afford it.” He paid for the divorce. My mother was able to quit her day job at the Pottery and her night job at the diner.
There was one photo of their wedding day, a black and white picture with scalloped edges. My dad was in a suit and my mother in a dark dress with a wildly huge corsage that ran from her right breast to her waist.
I grab my purse and walk over, kiss the top of her head that smells like White Rain and sweet peppers.
“Ok,” I agree, “I’ll stay home tomorrow night. But I want to watch it down here, on the big TV.”
She picks up her cards, slices the deck and spreads it face down, prepping for a game of Solitaire.
“I’ll see you at midnight.”
She flips an ace right off the bat.
“One o’clock,” I counter.
“Twelve-thirty,” she winks.
I check myself in the hall mirror, turn and give her my very best smile, thinking again of those poor people in South America.