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Again After Pamuk: The Inside Story
February 16, 2012
In the anteroom to the lobby at 3760 88th Street, Jackson Heights, New York, is a mat to wipe feet on and a row of shiny brass mail boxes. The key my mother uses to open ours seems magical to me, the feel of it, impossibly flat and thin. The lobby has a kind of faded, spacious grandeur, one or two benches covered in maroon or red velvet, dark polished floor. No one sits here, no one hangs out. In the center is the Super’s apartment, imposing, up a couple of steps; the building’s two wings open dim and cavernous on either side; there are two hidden sets of stairs, twin elevators. We seldom visit the “other” side, but our pediatrician, Dr. Lally, has his ground floor office there, my friend Phyllis lives there, and Anita Seitz and her son Kevin. Is there a Mr. Seitz? I have an idea they are divorced. The Graves family lives there too. I have seen Bob, back from the War in his uniform, know Kitty and their daughters Margaret, who sometimes babysits, and Eleanor, my age. They gave us our cat, Velvet, a male with white paws, but I just assume he is a girl cat because I am a girl. It was exciting to pick Velvet out from the litter of gray Maltese kittens, the floor streaked with sunshine, and one was called Buttons because of three white spots on her stomach, but we rejected the one with six toes.
To get to our apartment, we must turn right. By we, I mean the four of us, Melville, Marguerite, Marian, and Libby (Elizabeth) Shaw, in any combination, and I jumble the years (1944-1949) and our ages deliberately in this memory. On our way to the elevator we pass the Sullivans and the Abells. The white marble stairs under which bicycles are stored without locks are faster, but they are cold and uninviting. My father sings and whistles in the elevator. He talks to people, even to people he doesn’t know, and once a woman tells him I look like Veronica Lake. It’s the way my blond hair is falling over one eye, not because I really look like this movie star who is not one of my favorites. She is too knowing, too sexy, not one my mother admires, Barbara Bel Geddes, for example, or Myrna Loy. Smoothly we ride past the second floor, where Penny Ingles lives, and the Reynolds family. Owen is older, but I play with Bebe, short for Beatrice, who will become a nun; little Patricia is my sister’s friend. And here we are home again, as my father often says when we return from some excursion to apartment 3M. Mrs. Fisher, as nosy and pushy as my mother says she is, lives across the hall with her seldom seen husband and teenage daughter Evelyn. Silent, shadowy, black-haired Evelyn, wherever she is, dead though she may be, I thank her for her gift to me of a book she no longer cared about, my first Beverly Gray mystery. Next door to us lives Josephine Kaiser, a retired nurse from upstate, who gives off a powdery smell masking something else, who puts her dresses on inside out. Kyky is a dear friend and help to my mother, though she goes overboard when she tells us she will get sick and die if we don’t learn to pick up our room. Kyky is the best kind of babysitter who checks on us and goes home, telling us to knock on the wall if we need her.
We enter the foyer, kitchen to the right, a longish hall. Here is the coat closet and another with shelves where Christmas and birthday surprises are kept; here is the telephone table with its bright glass knobs, red cloth on top. From here we can backwards somersault to the end of the living room where the Christmas tree goes, or reenact endlessly the opening scene of Little Women (1949) in which Jo (June Allyson) leaps over a fence, in our version a small stool which belongs in our bedroom. The neighbors downstairs, who never have names but are always the Neighbors Downstairs, complain about this and about my mother’s running the sewing machine at night to make clothes for us and our dolls, about her letting every child in the neighborhood in to play, but my mother holds her head high. This is one of her expressions, one of her ways. Shy and self-conscious as a girl, she has by now developed remarkable presence, my mother.
On fair days, the living room is bright with windows at the far end, a burgundy couch, and flowered upholstery on the wingback chair. The living room is where we read and are read to, where we pretend with Let’s Pretend, and the red head of Mary Queen of Scots rolls on You Are There; where radiators bang and hiss in winter, where we listen to the Nutcracker Suite with words that will never leave my head; where Little Womencontinues, and I perfect falling to the ground gracefully, though not without noise, as I play Amy’s (Elizabeth Taylor in a blond wig) part in Jo’s melodrama: Roderigo! Save me, save me! In the living room on Saturday nights we listen to Frank Sinatra, always begging for five minutes more on the Hit Parade where Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco, while my mother rolls up our wet hair, glorified by Halo, on mismatched socks, softer to sleep on than curlers. On nights like these, I am unaware of any restlessness, of any sense that my parents might wish to spend their Saturday evenings in a different way, out to dinner and a local movie, say, or rattling into Manhattan for a night on the town. And I explain to myself that they couldn’t afford it, or at least not often, banishing the thought that Ernst and I were less contented with, less devoted to family life than they were.
But, of course, when my grandparents come to visit, they take them out for Chinese, not worth ten cents for a carload, my grandfather says, and to see the musical Oklahoma,which belongs to us because that’s where my mother’s parents live, where she grew up, went to the University, majored in English, flunked swimming, and snickered at jokes about being hit on the Oval, OU’s answer to a quad. Soon after, I can walk to privies in the rain, lust after fat, pink, pretty girls who go about as far as they can go. I can practice saying no, being in love, or being dead like poor Judd, his fingernails clean at last. It’s a revolving stage, our living room, never more than now, revolving in my mind. It fills with cigar smoke and Spanish when my father entertains Escobar, a big customer from Venezuela, who arrives with dolls we name Esther and Annabelle for my sister and me. Small cocktail parties sometimes after Libby and I have gone to bed, but in the morning we sample the dregs, fishing out maraschino cherries, what luck, becoming adventurous, tipsy. The Graves family comes for an evening. Glowing lamps, bowls of peanuts, tomato juice for the children, but I am being punished. I imagine the scene in the dark from my bedroom. I see it all, it’s better than being out there. I find peace of mind in pretending and fall asleep happy.
But we have somersaulted past the kitchen. A quick list because otherwise I cannot bear it, leaving anything out, that is. The kitchen is where we open pheasants packed in smoking dry ice sent by hunters, our Oklahoma uncles; where my mother puts up a gate when she scrubs the floor, her hair tied up in a kerchief giving her a second set of pointed ears; where the enamel-topped table sits with its dangerous drawer full of knives; where the open dumbwaiter allows us to hear things and smell things going on in other kitchens; where the refrigerator is the icebox, round motor on top, raw liver inside for Velvet who refuses to eat cat food until he gets it; where we learn to cook scrambled eggs and bacon and baking powder biscuits by ourselves for breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day. At dinner, we are not in the tiny dinette on the other side of the stove, bare bulb overhead, but in my father’s office with the exasperating secretary who does nothing but shrug her shoulders and Jean McGibbon, another one, but she’s in love with Charlie McVeigh. Paniagua, whose funny name means bread and water, says, He cannot come to the phone right now, he is answering a call of nature. He actually says that into the phone, in the New York office, in the export division of Pillsbury Mills, can you imagine? We can, we can! We know him, this crazy Cuban, who says embarrassing things on the telephone, and all the others who become real while my father prepares his baked potato, mashing it smooth in the skin with salt and butter and just enough pepper. But then we want it. It’s perfect, it’s a work of art, it really is. So he gives it to someone and starts over, but the other half is cold by now and will never be the same. The human garbage pail, he calls himself.
We sing as we do the dishes, my father and I. This is how it falls out, the way the family is divided: Libby is Mommy’s baby while I am Daddy’s girl. I stand on a stool, a dishtowel tied around my waist, as we make our way through the fight songs: Illinois, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and more. My father and I are fellows, a couple of rambling wrecks, as we turn the ball around Chicago, crash on through that line of blue, pausing to breathe, rah, rah, rah, we are dead sure to win. It is all about honor and glory and soap suds sliding down slippery glasses, about happy hours and careless days coming to an end so suddenly now, just as they did when it was bath time followed by bedtime. Somehow we manage to steal it, that sliver in between. And like Columbia’s lion we roar, Naked, naked, five touch the kitchen floor! We are gleaming, my sister and I, damp still, and without a stitch, as we race, one behind the other, out of the bathroom, into the small space between the two bedrooms, through the living room, down the long hall, quick swipe of the black and white linoleum, back to the hall in reverse. And again. And again, shouting, Naked, naked, five touch the kitchen floor!
How many times do we do this? Over what period of days, weeks, months? Are we two and six? Three and seven? Four and eight? And what about the accompaniment, the nameless march my mother sits at the out of tune piano to play by heart? The piano not good enough for the lessons we cannot afford. Why and when does this begin, and where is my father, because he is part of this scene, observing his escape artist daughters, his offspring, these savages. What can any of it mean? It’s a little embarrassing, a little too intimate, because we are grown up now. Like Adam and Eve, we have tasted the apple and know we are naked.
Why must they grow up and lose it all? Never will they be so happy again. So thinks Mrs. Ramsey, mother of eight, in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Plaintive, guilty for having brought her children into life which she views as hostile, terrible, ready to pounce on you if you gave it a chance. And so it is. Mrs. Ramsey dies suddenly and young, as do two of her children, beautiful Prue in childbirth and Andrew, blown up in France during World War I. My sister and I are more than grown up, we are old. Old and lucky, but hardly unacquainted with the relentlessness of life. Once, though, as we chased through the house chanting nonsense, refusing to be stuffed into pajamas, to be human, we put a stop to it. I would not say with Woolf that we were happy. I’ve been happier since and hope to be again. But never so free, never again so connected, to my sister, to my parents, to everything in the room. To the copy of a Renoir which depictsus, two little girls in frilly dresses sitting on a sofa with their mother, only their dogs are lacking; to the phonograph, not long since the Victrola, to the music of Oklahoma and the Nutcracker Suite, to the sound of the cello in Rusty in Orchestraville, a birthday present from Peter Abell downstairs, the brittle 78s slipped safely now into their brown paper jackets, their album covers closed; to the wingback chair with its flowered upholstery, to the window sills I dust, to the round pull cord wound with thread, exactly like the one in Stuart Little, to the radiators and the fire escape, all part of our interior and permanent unity, all encoded in the war cry we will recognize as long as we live.
Read to, sung to. Only make believe I love you. It’s only a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sky. Tucked in. The day is over, though many of our toys have not been picked up. They spill out of the closet onto the two child-size rocking chairs, table and stools, onto the floor. The room is too small for us, the closet and bureau drawers crammed with blouses with peter pan collars, with our jumpers, our leggings, snowsuits, and stocking caps, our cable knit sweaters, our dresses with puffed sleeves and sashes, with sailor collars and set-in yokes, trimmed with eyelet threaded with ribbon, with smocking and rick rack and applique, made of cotton, velvet, pique, and dotted Swiss. We have oxfords, red sandals, and patent leather Mary Janes, pocket books and shoulder bags, bowlers, berets, black watch plaid Scottish soldier’s caps with ribbons down the back, straw hats stiff-brimmed and floppy. We have organdy pinafores trimmed in lace in which we look like angels. Shadows of the evening, bedposts, shape of a car, steal across the ceiling and, framed by my window, across an alley in another building, the last thing I see before I fall asleep is another family with two sisters just like us, but they must be older because they go to bed later, and they sleep in twin beds, not a double like ours. Every night their mother tucks them in. Every night she kisses them, first one and then the other, in their soundless, orderly room. This pantomime, this universal shadow play of lights being put out in apartment houses all over New York, has become for me the prayer we have outgrown, stopped saying: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.