First Party

It all began with that party. The first one she had ever been to, well, a party that was anything like that one. She didn’t even know the girl– the one whose parents were away that night– but she knew that Samantha had legendary status somehow. For Madeline, it was a rare chance to be out with her new boyfriend– her first– without any grown-ups around. They held hands. They wandered from one dark candle-lit room to the next in the little house with no adults. Intoxicated, awed, and tamping down her trepidation all at once, Madeline thought to herself: so this is what people do, when they can do whatever they like.

She thought she may faint when Tim introduced her to Chad Howe, whose grandfather had founded a military academy. Chad had parlayed that heritage, together with his skinny-boy looks, Buddy Holly horn rims, and shockingly deep, authoritative voice into a high school persona that shot him into the stratosphere of Hippies Who Mattered. It felt like Chad looked straight into her soul as he said a quick hello before helping his girlfriend – who had a plaster cast from her toes to her mid-thigh – into the back of a friend’s van. He ceremoniously closed the door, leaving a number of hangers-on standing around, staring at the ground.

Oh my god, Madeline thought: He’s having sex in that van! I am thirteen years old, and I am at a party where Chad Howe is fucking his girlfriend in a van! How totally cool is that?!

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Tim wrapped his arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear, “I’ll be right back. Gonna go talk to a friend.”

“Oh, I’ll go with you,” Madeline said. “Want me to?”

“Nah, something I got to talk to him about. Be right back.”

The time that Tim was gone blurred. Samantha sitting in an old arm chair, by herself in a dark corner, head hanging down so her long, deep brunette waves fell completely across her face, nodding ever so slightly in time to the music. Madeline wondered if Samantha was ok, thought perhaps she should ask her, but then got worried that she might be bothering her, interrupting something Madeline didn’t understand. Plumes of incense twirled madly whenever someone moved. A guy wore round blue sunglasses in a night black house.

When Tim wandered back beside her, he was different. Woozy-seeming. He chuckled a little, to himself, and mumbled something she couldn’t understand.

“Sorry, what?” she asked him.

“What the hell were you doing talking to that guy?”

“What guy?” she said.

“Don’t fuck with me. You were definitely talking to him.” Tim held up his hand, his palm facing her. In the dark of the room, it was hard for Madeline to tell what she was looking at. A circle. A perfect circle, faintly reddish-brown, traced the periphery of his entire palm. “It’s from a candle. I put my hand right on the candle and held it there.”

“What?” Madeline said, grabbing his hand to look at it more closely.

“I did it to prove my love for you,” Tim said.

“Hey, is there somebody here named Madeline?” said a guy who was standing at the front door.

“Your dad’s here. To take you home, I guess.”

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As I work on getting my third completed novel Out There, I am playing around with several new ideas — such as the one above.  Perhaps one or more of them will come together into the next long[er] work.  Stay tuned!

Stories of My Mother #7

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Being a lady of her era, my mother did not swear, mostly. Being a sporting gal, she tossed around the occasional “hell” or “damn” with judicious and sparse placement when the situation warranted –never in public, nor in the presence of children or anyone she did not know quite well, and never, ever within earshot of my beloved aunt, who was still a devout Catholic. I am not sure my aunt ever recovered from taking me on a girls’ overnight when I was 12 years old. We went to a movie that had recently opened and was getting a lot of attention. She was curious about it, and I was up for anything that felt so utterly grown up and fun. The movie stunned me; I found it a magnificently eye-opening, hilarious, thought-provoking jaunt. But when my aunt ordered her second drink and downed it with the same rapidity she had tossed back her first one at our posh post-movie dinner, I realized that she had been severely traumatized by The Graduate.

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When my mother swore in anger, she muttered the cuss words under her breath. This stood in marked contrast to the literary cuss, in which she used her normal speaking voice to talk about the God damned rabbits who were mowing down her tulips, or Hells Bells what in the world would become of the neighbor boy who had once again made a concoction from his science kit and sweet-talked my friend across the street into drinking it. And hadn’t he learned his lesson after he’d gotten into so much trouble after tying me to that tree? Is all reason to be damned?

She never said the s— word; and I felt pretty certain that she never even thought The F Word. If you had seen my mother’s hair when she came back from the beauty parlor and her weekly appointment with Gretta, I am certain you would understand that this was true.

Or so I thought.

My father was a physician in general practice in a different era. He made house calls, set bones and stitched people together right in his office, delivered babies and sat with the dying. His patients had our home phone number, and they called when they needed him no matter the time. Meaning that I was mighty begrudged about having to answer our phone – each and every time – by saying “Monier residence,” so they would know that they had gotten the right number for their doctor. All of my friends got to pick up the phone and say, of course, “Hello.” Also, this was before the days of answering machines, back when you called people and counted ten rings at least, to ensure they had enough time to interrupt whatever they were doing and run for your phone call! There is just no ducking calls, in other words, when your father is a physician and anyone who calls is determined to call repeatedly and let it ring a minimum of ten times.

One evening, when my father was not yet home, my mother picked up the receiver and said “Monier residence…” The voice on the other end of the line whispered, “Hey, baby, how about a little FUCK?” She slammed the phone back in its cradle. The next night, she got the exact same call at nearly the same time. When the call came again the third evening, she called the police, who said there was nothing they could really do. She consulted with my father, who quickly went from amused to enraged, but drew a blank.

When he called on the fourth night, and whispered those words, “Hey baby, how about a little fuck?” My mother said, loud and clear, “A little FUCK? What’s wrong with you? That all you got? I want a BIG FUCK. A REALLY REALLY BIG FUCK.”

He did not call again.

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Stories of My Mother, #6

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Meanwhile, my mother came home from her weekly hair appointments sporting a face that seemed only vaguely reminiscent of the one she had left with. In her her eagerness to embrace the day and to sell her wares, Gretta sent my mother home each week with shockingly inappropriate eye make-up and a passel of samples. We tried to be kind. But the colors that were smeared across my mother’s eye lids were truly an assault to both nature and my mother.

My mother never did “do” her eyes on a daily basis, but on the now-rare occasions when she and my father went out for the evening, she would spread Gretta’s samples across her bathroom counter, stand in front of her room-sized mirror and attack the job at hand in much the same way that she attacked gardening. My mother, in fact, had no eyelashes. Well, damn few, in the sense that what hairs did manage to sprout forth happened to be sparse, fine, blonde, and exceptionally short. Nonetheless, my mother grasped her eyelash curler (a medieval contraption I tried a small handful of times to largely painful and highly undesired results – meaning I either ripped out more eyelashes than I “curled,” or I ended up with lashes that formed a severe right angle, heading straight OUT for a short distance, and then straight UP) with no end of determination for the task at hand.

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Mascara of the day bore little resemblance to the technological marvel of lengthening, thickening, volumizing, curling, smudge-proof, waterproof, lash-defining, no-clump, lash-separating types that incorporate resins, waxes, nylon fibers, and light-reflecting particles that overwhelm us today. My mother’s mascara was a brownish goo that I’m pretty sure was actually a combination of shoe polish and cold cream. The applicator wand was essentially a screw, much like one would find at the local hardware store, where the tarry goo insinuated itself between the threads of the screw. Once my mother had curled her lashes, swiped the mascara screw across their length, then repeated the entire process a second time…well, it’s difficult to describe the end result. It did look as if my mother had something coming out from the edges of her eyelids – not eyelashes, exactly, but something.

My mother relished the idea that Gretta’s little eye shadow samples had taken a page directly from Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 role as Cleopatra. Like Gretta’s miscarriages, my mother followed the news of Taylor’s frightening health scare that nearly ruined the production, her great love affair with Richard Burton, and the charming fact that once married, she referred to herself as Betty Burton. So. My mother stood before me, clumps of…something… on her lash line where her real lashes had once been, colors that could scarcely be imagined swathed across her lids; and as a final touch, a kiss of lipstick in one of the exact pale, frosted shades that I had recently tossed away. In her gown, and her glory, my mother asked me how she looked.

I loved my mother. I said she looked just swell.

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Stories of My Mother, #5

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Everything changed the year that I was 13, and before my 14th birthday I had tossed out my last jar of Dippity-Do, deep-sixed my hair curlers, and thrown away a large number of white and pink-white and nearly-white tubes of frosted lipstick. Even though I was slightly late to the party, I considered myself A Hippie, and pared my wardrobe down to one pair of jeans that were long enough to abrade the bottoms in an artful fashion, a pair of moccasins that I wore in all weather conditions, 4 identical mock turtleneck sweaters in different colors for winter, and four men’s T-shirts for summer.

Suddenly everyone who had been desperately trying to get their hair to hold a curl was straightening it! I grew my hair to my waist and beamed when people asked me regularly if I ironed it to get it so straight! I was a Natural Woman. I told my mother she had given me her last Toni home permanent, thank you very much, and gathered up my bras for a ritual burning. My mother was actually quite accepting of the changes in My Look, never getting especially excited when I came home with frozen feet from wearing moccasins in mid-winter, or put the same pair of jeans in the laundry time after time (though jeans were not meant to look clean at this time – we doodled on them with ink pens, and if we didn’t smoke ourselves, we co-opted friends’ cigarettes any chance we got, so we could grind the ashes into our jeans to create a look that was just so.)

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My mother drew the line at the bra thing, however. She commenced in giving me anatomical lectures about the Cooper’s ligament, and how I was putting myself and my 14-year-old breasts in danger of developing a ghastly condition known as “Cooper’s Droop,” due to my poor, unsupported B-size breasts being unable to support their own massive weight, the ligaments stretching under the immense strain, and ending up with – Cooper’s Droop. Her own mother had suffered this fate, she told me. Being a fashion victim of the 1920’s, the “flapper era” when women’s ideal appearance was flat-chested, my grandmother had bound up her ample bosom, resulting in – Cooper’s Droop. My mother alleged that things degenerated to the point where my grandmother had to lift her breasts out of the way in order to fasten her belt. My mother attempted to horrify me even further by saying that at least it was easier for grandmother to see the breast lumps she kept developing.

I was unfazed. Cooper’s Droop be damned. My girls were set free.

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Stories of My Mother, #4

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Over the two decades that my mother and I cohabited the planet, her beauty regimen changed very little. She switched from doing her hair herself to having it “done” each week at a salon. She chose a style which was highly constructed, bore no relationship to anything hair would ever do on its own, but could last a full week between salon visits and look astonishingly unchanged. Sometimes I would lie in bed and think about her hair remaining unwashed for an entire week. And looking the same! Occasionally I dreamed of plants starting to grow in my own hair that I would have to painstakingly pull out of my scalp, making sure to get the entire root without breaking the little sprigs.

My mother discovered the great joy that many women of the time shared – the weekly visit to the hairdresser! She returned with her curled and lacquered coif in bubbly good spirits that carried through the rest of the day. Each week we would hear new tales of Don and Gretta, the husband and wife owners of the shop. Don was clearly the front man of the outfit – the chatty, convivial, completely non-threatening, [cough*straight*cough] charmer that anyone would want to tell their troubles and secrets to. By early 1960’s suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania standards (ouch), Gretta was Glamor itself – meaning she came off as adorable (rather than trashy or “cheap”) in her bleached-platinum, cat-eye made up, slim. capri-sporting way. She was quiet, letting Don do the heavy lifting of the conversing. Quite slender and petite, she also gave the impression of perhaps just a hint of fragility, a hint that expanded considerably once she experienced a number of Tragic Miscarriages. My mother was all aflutter about poor Gretta, taking each of the miscarriages, and Greta’s increasing quiet, totally to heart; with the news of a third miscarriage, I came home from school to an open bottle of Anacin on the kitchen counter alongside a note saying she had taken to her bed, but that she had every intention of rallying in time to have supper on the table at the usual stroke of six o’clock.

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Gretta never did carry a pregnancy to term; she and Don never had a baby. But her tragic situation touched the hearts of her middle-aged patronage deeply. Meaning – business boomed. She and Don expanded into a brand new shop with considerably more space and more staff, and they began carrying a wide array of beauty products – including make-up!

Sadly, perhaps, this coincided with my own entrance into the 1960’s. In junior high, as it was called back then, I had endured the torture of setting my stick-straight hair in rollers that I slept on at night, even though my poor hair would invariably revert to its natural state well before I got anywhere near the school. I liked to think that I looked mighty fine at the bus stop, and perhaps for a portion of home room as well. At the ripe old age of 12 and 13, I never left the house without a chic coat of mascara and nearly-white lipstick. And, if I were wearing a dress/skirt ( which I was, every day at school, since girls wearing pants was a dream for the future), I wore a girdle. A girdle. At 13. WE ALL DID. And if you don’t think you’ve come a long way baby, read that last sentence one more time.

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On the Eve of 2014

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My mother had on her fur coat.  They must have been going to the symphony, or maybe the opera, back in the days when they had season tickets to both, before my father put his foot down and announced that he refused to go any more and thereby broke my mother’s heart.  They came into the living room to say good-bye to my brother and me, all gussied up and remaining at a distance.

We had a babysitter.  Kathy Bates (nope, not that one, though having the always-a-hoot actress as a babysitter would certainly have been swell).  At 10 and 8, Kathy was not all that much older than my brother and I were; but we were very much little kids, and she had crossed that treacherous threshold into Early Adolescence.  Kathy looked, most unfortunately, exactly like her father.  At the age of nearly 13, she was well on her way to her final height of 6 feet tall.

She was athletic and strong and awkward and rangy all at once.  Her hair always seemed to be horribly greasy, and it was evident that she curled it, teased it, sprayed it and in every way possible fought with it to achieve what little détente she could.  She had clearly outgrown her pants and not yet grown into her blouse.  Because we were watching TV, Kathy had to reluctantly don her glasses – the narrow, black-framed, pointy-tipped specs of the time that everyone spent years making fun of before shocking number of hipsters across the country took up their cause once again.

I was, in every way, fascinated by her.

She must have gotten special permission from my parents, as our TV watching was Regulated.  No more than one hour per night, and only approved shows.  We were permitted to watch all the PBS we wanted; which needless to say meant that we watched absolutely none at all, ever, period.

Kathy was kneeling on the floor, her PFFlyer-clad feet tucked underneath her as she sat no more than three or four feet from our little old black-and-white TV.  Her eyes were already glued to the screen as my parents said their goodbyes.

It was Sunday, February 9, 1964, and the Beatles were about to make an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.  My brother and I had no idea what to make of the awed, rapt solemnity with which Kathy Bates seemed to be approaching this event; but we understood the fact of it, if not the reasoning, and so knelt on the floor beside her.

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The minute Ed Sullivan says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles!” the girls in the audience break into cheers and screams and yells.  Kathy Bates’ hands fly up to either side of her face, cradling her cheeks.  She moaned in ecstatic agony for a second before crying out.

Kathy looked over at my brother and me as if suddenly remembering we were there.  Our mouths were probably hanging open.  I spent the rest of “All My Loving” pretending to watch –I thought Paul was the cutest thing ever.  John scared me.  Ringo had a great goofy crazy smile.  And George?  Well, at the age of 8, George who? – but secretly studying every single move that Kathy made.

It was one of those pivotal moments in life, when a brand new door opens and you get a white-light-blinding glimpse of a world that is so much bigger, and scarier, and more complicated, and more magnificent, than you ever imagined before.  Thank you, Kathy Bates, for fanning a flame of curiosity and wonder.

Readers, may your 2014 be filled with such moments.

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