Copyright © 2016 by
Suzanne Jenkins. All rights reserved.
Created in digital format in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations in blog posts and articles and in reviews.
Mademoiselle is a complete and total work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
noun (pl) mesdemoiselles 1. a young unmarried French girl or woman: usually used as a title equivalent to Miss
noun a women’s first published in 1935 by and later acquired by . Its final issue, 2001.
Growing up, my goal was to have an exciting life, a life that would surpass the humdrum way we lived when I was a child. Not sure what would lead to this phenomenal life, when I learned to read, the idea that I could be an author wove its way into my brain, shining like a beacon lighting the way for the next fifteen years.
At night, I’d lay awake long after my sisters had fallen asleep, imagining the place where I’d write. A romantic space, far more suited for reading than actual work, it could be a garret, the kind Josephine had in Little Women or Laura Wilder’s cabin in the woods. Our old house in the suburbs had an attic, but the only way to access it was through a hole in the cedar closet ceiling, so its occupation took place only in my dreams where I’d arrange imaginary book piles as I fell asleep.
I recently came across my old childhood copy of Little Women. It’s a cheap, dime store purchase I’d made with money saved from my allowance for helping my mother around the house. Even with the cardboard cover peeling off, finding it was like buried treasure unearthed as I held it in my hands. Slowly turning the pages, I came across the date and my signature in cursive, the round, childish, neatly made letters carefully transcribed. In a fantasy I’d pretended to interview Louisa May Alcott long dead by that date, and thinking about the sweet child I was, already loving books and reading, brought tears to my eyes.
After I grew out of the writing in the garret fantasy, my sisters introduced me to Mademoiselle Magazine, and that changed everything. Like a girl possessed, my obsession with the stories I read in the magazine grew.
It took five years, but I finally graduated from college, landing the dream job. I hoped against hope being employed would be enough to satisfy my mother. Unfortunately, though I’d found the job, my mother believed that not having found a husband constituted a failure.
During those five years, self-imposed isolation bred more distance between me and my classmates than if we’d been in different schools. All through college, Mother harped at me. The phone in the hallway would ring, and I’d freeze, closing my eyes, praying to God it wasn’t her calling. Then the dreaded tap at my door.
“It’s your mother again,” a dorm mate would announce, rolling her eyeballs.
Reluctantly, I’d go to the phone.
“Hi, mom,” I’d say, looking at the ceiling.
“Do you have a date this weekend?” she’d ask, not wasting words.
“No,” I’d say. “I’m packing to come home.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” she’d complain. “Stay at school. And not in your dorm.”
“There’s nothing to do here,” I’d say. “The other girls are coming home, and I want to come home, too.”
“You’re not trying hard enough to meet new people. If you keep coming home every weekend, if you refuse invitations, you’ll never make any friends.”
What she meant was I’d never meet my husband. The truth was I didn’t want to make friends. Invitations to join in weekend fun stopped after I refused enough during my freshman year. It was a relief; I liked being alone while I was at school. I felt the few who actually persisted in befriending me sought me out the way a scientist looks for an unusual specimen, like they were either taking pity on me, or needed my presence to boost their own sagging self-confidence.
To add to the stress, by the end of my freshmen year, the major which my mother had picked for me just didn’t fit; elementary education. Going along with her plan was the path of least resistance; easier than fighting her to get my own way.
The reasoning for pursuing a teaching degree, she’d explained, was so that when I had kids of my own, I would be off work when they were off from school. My sisters had listened to the propaganda, and because I respected them, I gave in to her, as well.
“What makes you so sure I’ll have kids?” I’d replied.
In spite of what she said, I was never going to be tied down with kids. Kids were not in the plan. Not where I was headed. My mother’s life revolved around us kids, sacrificing her life, and I wasn’t letting that happen to me.
“Everyone we know has children,” she said, maddeningly.
Giving the curriculum a try, after a year, I was sure teaching wasn’t for me. If I had to spend one more day with other elementary education majors, people who really wanted to be there and could see that I was a fraud, I’d kill myself. Unless I rebelled and chose the career path I’d dreamed about, I was giving in to misery. The prospect of following that dream, of having an exciting life gave me the strength to defend myself, to stand up to my mother.
When I told my mother what I intended on doing, she had a fit.
“You’ll waste a whole year!” she cried, pulling her hair. “What will you do instead?”
“Journalism,” I said without hesitation. “I want to write.”
Dumbfounded, my mother didn’t understand the concept of taking a class to learn to write. No one in our family did anything like write. We have teachers, nurses, even a chef. But write? It was as obscure as if I’d said I was going to school to be an artist.
“How can they teach you to write? You either got it or you don’t,” she said, mumbling. “Your father would die if he wasn’t already gone. It’s a blessing he isn’t here to see you ruin your life, Alev hashalom.”
Those words really hurt. But in all fairness to my mother, she hadn’t been privy to my childhood fantasy. One of the ways social anxiety manifested itself in my youth was an abhorrence of displeasing my mother, so I avoided sharing most intense feelings with her or my sisters. My sisters knew what I longed for because their observations led to questions that were more like badgering, and eventually I’d share my deepest longings with them.
I felt my birth had been a disappointment to my parents; my name, Philipa the best indication. My father’s name was Philip. They’d obviously wanted a boy after four girls, and when my mom had another girl, they made up that derivative. We aren’t Italian; then it might’ve made sense.
So I was Philipa Weiner. The name alone was enough to give chase. I was hunted down like a rat in elementary school, bullied because of the name and my red hair.
“My goal is getting you through a school year without having your books stolen or your glasses broken,” my mother lamented, determined to get me to graduation at any cost.
“Poor Pipi,” my oldest sister, Martha lovingly said. “I wish I could protect you.”
“We’ll take care of her,” Lynne and Ida chorused. “As long as we’re there, no one will mess with Pipi Wiener!”
The bullying continued through elementary and junior high, however. My sisters couldn’t be with me every second of the day, and the moment I was left alone, it would begin again. Hair pulling wasn’t the worst of it; my mother insisted we wear dresses and skirts to school, although other girls were wearing pants by then. A favorite target was pulling on my skirts so I was unable to get away.
Looking back, I believe it was during this time I developed my love of track. In junior high, the bullies had to catch me in order to harm me, and no one was fast enough. Protecting myself had become an exhausting priority.
By the time high school started, I knew that the safest place for me would be home, behind locked doors. Visualizing hoards of zombie-like creatures chasing me, I begged my mother to homeschool me, a controversial undertaking in those days, but she wouldn’t do it.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, trying to be positive, but not convincing me, placing the blame for the attacks on me, the victim. “Just relax. You invite those bad children to torment you by the way you act. “
Stunned at her blame the victim mentality, my sisters Ida and Lynne became even more protective of me. Today, my behavior would be classified as social anxiety disorder, but back then, I was just called shy.
After all the worry and concern, high school turned out to be shocking, but in a good way. A big city school in the center of an upper-middle class community, all the little junior high schools from the surrounding areas melded into one. Definitely the little fish in a gigantic ocean, I felt surprisingly safe there, a place where I could hide from bullies in the vast sea of students.
The sisters set the routine for us to follow together; walking to school, having lunch, and until after school sports started up for me, walking home. If their protection was needed, at least during those times I’d be safe.
The confusing hallways and throng of humanity pressing in on the first day were overwhelming. Walking me to my homeroom, they hovered over me as long as they could before insisting that I go into the classroom. Finding my desk, I turned to see them leaning in the door making sure I was okay, rousing the curiosity of my classmates. After lunch, my sisters and I parted again, them wishing me well. Walking to my next class, I stared down at the floor with my hair hanging over my face, hugging the wall.
“Boy, you sure are pretty.”
Instead of continuing on, I swung around to see who the speaker was, the red creeping up my neck onto my cheeks. On the very first day of school, the boy who would end up being my best friend sought me out to boldly say what no one had said before. Up to this time, I had only been teased, or worse. But when I saw his face, I knew he was sincere, his eyes kind. Sticking his hand out for me to shake, the gesture caught me off guard.
“I’m Wax,” he said. “Walter Spencer, but everyone calls me Wax.”
Scrutinizing him out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t be sure of his motive. Was he teasing me? His delivery was as nerdy as mine would have been, but because he was so handsome, it just didn’t ring true.
Timidly, I nodded my head. Avoiding his hand, shoving mine into the folds of my skirt, he thrust it out a little further, pumping it in the air until he was interrupted.
“Wax!” a boy yelled from the stairwell. “You comin’ or not?”
I turned to look at the boy and saw he wasn’t alone; there were three or four of them, his posse, looking down on us. Not with derision at all; just curious. Wax didn’t take his eyes off me, waving away his friends.
“I’ll be right there,” he mumbled, staring into my eyes.
Putting his hand out again, I reluctantly took it to shake, but he didn’t shake right away, cradling my hand in his. Cool and dry, the feel of his skin shocked me, expecting his hand to be hot and sweaty like the hands of boys who tried to grab the volleyball away from me in gym. His cool hand cooled off my entire arm, I could feel the coolness traveling from his fingertips up my arm until my entire body was cool, and the little hairs on my face and arms started to rise up. I stifled a giggle as a body rush spread through me from my head to my feet, unlike anything I had ever felt before.
“I live around the block from you, did you know that?” he asked softly.
I shook my head, trying to remember who lived on the street I passed daily, could see from my bedroom window in the autumn after all the leaves had fallen.
“Can I walk home with you tonight? I mean after school.”
Still recovering from his touch, I had to regroup, pondering what walking home with him would mean. My mother, like a vulture roosted on the back steps, waiting for me and my sisters to come home from school. If she saw me with a boy; oh God, what a thought.
“I can walk home with you as long as my mother doesn’t see us,” I replied. “She’ll embarrass you.”
What I meant was she’d embarrass me, but Wax laughed out loud.
“I can handle your mother, trust me,” he said, with more confidence than I’d ever had. “She’s just watching out for her daughter.”
Bending down to my ear, his breath warm on my neck, and in a voice so soft I had to strain to hear him, Wax whispered, “You’re worth watching out for.”
I wanted to melt into a puddle, just collapse right there on the floor of the high school hallway. Then reason set in. Not trusting him yet, I didn’t know him. What if he was setting me up? I’d been the target many times in the past, some charming boy pretending to be nice and then letting me have it when I least expected it. Memories reminded me to use care; destroyed homework papers, a stolen book bag, and the worst, a dead robin in my lunch sack, I’d trusted the wrong boys enough to be more than cautious.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said uncertainly, wanting to agree, but fear stopping me. “Can I let you know after school? I have to think about it.”
Deciding to find my sisters, I’d ask their opinion, the two people on earth I did trust. I was in ninth grade; Lynne was in tenth and Ida in twelfth. They’d know what to do.
While he looked at me curiously, I wondered what Wax Spencer thought of me now, sorry I made such a big deal out of an invitation to walk home from school.
“I’ll be waiting right here,” he said. “If you show up, fine. If not, my feelings will be hurt.”
Smiling at me, his teeth were very white but the left eyetooth sort of overlapped, giving him a very young grin like a little boy. I had to fight not to smile too broadly because his face made me happy as it always would, his beautiful eyes sincere and hopeful, never taking their gaze off me.
“Okay, maybe I’ll see you later,” I said, straight-faced.
Moving away from him, I headed to class, awkward as usual, hoping my skirt wasn’t tucked in my butt, or caught in my tights. Giving up to pride, I turned to look behind me and he was still there, a subtle smile on his face. Waving, he mouthed later. With my books clutched to my chest, stumbling a little, I walked to class with Wax looking after me.
Before the end of the day, I got similar responses from my sisters. Ida said I’d better walk home with Wax or she’d do something that would really embarrass me, and I knew she was capable of it. Lynne said she thought it would do me good to get to know Wax. Always the romantic, Lynne had the future in mind.
“There is a dance almost every quarter. If you make a boy-friend, not a boyfriend necessarily,” and here she inserted quotation marks with her fingers, “but a boy slash friend, you’ll have a date for every dance. Pipi, you’ll never be alone on national holidays. Yes, walk home with him. How does he look to you, anyway?”
Lynne was more superficial then she liked to let on. I pulled her aside.
“Swear you won’t repeat this,” I said sternly. “The others will crucify me.”
She crossed her heart. “Swear, cross my heart, hope to die.”
“He’s gorgeous,” I said, sighing. “I can’t believe he even talked to me.”
Lynne slapped my arm playfully.
“Stop putting yourself down, Pipi. You’re pretty ravishing yourself.”
I shook her off and started walking backwards toward my class.
“Okay, I’ll walk with him. Can you and Ida get home and distract mom?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s a great idea!” she asked, slapping her leg. “Don’t want mom hanging around, no we don’t!”
Laughing, Lynne took off toward her own class. I thought for a second how lonely it was going to be when they both graduated, away at college and I’d be at school, alone. I had a few years with my sisters though, so I wasn’t going to worry about their absence yet.
The afternoon dragged by with two last classes. In art class, sitting next to the class clown, and spending an hour trying not to get in trouble, my head down, resting on my crossed arms on the desk, hiding the tears which rolled down my face from laughing so hard, completely inappropriate.
And the final, sleepy hour in creative writing which would have been wonderful if the teacher had cared about teaching us. I fought to stay awake because it was the one subject I was really interested in.
Instead, the girl who sat next to me taught me how to put eyeliner on the bottom lid, and I did her eyebrows for her. Finally, at three sharp the bell rung. My heart started beating like a drum; I could feel it in my throat, the anticipation of seeing Wax and what the walk home with him might bring looming ahead.
Taking my time getting back to the staircase, he’d said after school, so that meant I could go to my locker first and get my book bag. If he thought I wasn’t coming and left for home, that would be fate. What if he didn’t intend on showing up? What if he was simply teasing me? Well, I would find out soon enough, trying not to succumb to disappointment before the fact.
Once I got to my locker, I nervously dawdled in my obsessive way, methodically pulling out the books I needed for homework, systematically filling a book bag. Then I took an extra minute to organize my already neat locker, stalling for time. All books were new, notebooks and sharpened pencils and pens neatly arranged. Having a clean locker and new books at the beginning of the year was instrumental to my mental health. Part of me was excited about what the twenty minute walk home might bring, and part dreaded it; I didn’t make small talk easily. What would we say to each other?
When it was impossible for me to loiter at my locker any longer, I turned to walk toward the staircase and almost ran headfirst into Wax.
“So, are you dragging your feet?” he asked, smiling down at me.
“I’m getting my books,” I answered, knowing it sounded ridiculous.
Putting his hand out, he pointed to my book bag. “I’ll carry that,” he said, authoritative.
“That’s okay,” I said nervously. “I can manage.”
Taking the strap, he gently pulled it off my shoulder. I gave in and shrugged it off. Slinging it over his shoulder, he placed his free hand on my upper back, but this time unlike the handshake, his unexpected touch made me cringe. We walked toward the exit door with the edge of his pointer finger along the collar of my blouse. It didn’t feel right, and I wanted to shake him off, but it seemed disrespectful.
Our first moments together were mixed; feeling invaded and yet not wanting to insult him because I was grateful for his interest. Fortunately, he didn’t leave his hand there long, taking it off when my shoulders were squeezed almost up to my ears.
Trying to rationalize why he did it, I thought maybe it was a gesture of intent; like let’s move in this direction. Or of possession. His buddies stood on the other side of the door throwing the book of one of the less fortunate up in the air, laughing and acting childish.
“Jeesh!” he said. “What a bunch of idiots.”
They were my words too; I just didn’t say them out loud. Except for the grace of God, I’d be the unfortunate victim of the book toss.
“Aren’t they your friends?” I asked.
It was a stupid question, because it was clear they were, and I felt he may have taken it as an admonishment that he could have such silly friends. But he wasn’t defensive at all.
“Yes, unfortunately,” he said, chuckling. “It’s pretty hard to break away from people you went to kindergarten with.”
I didn’t think it was hard at all, but kept quiet. We walked side by side, not touching. The place where his hand had touched me still burned. Reaching up, I rubbed my neck, pulling the collar over it. Air on my skin mimicked where his hand had been, distracting, and I recognize now, provocative.
It was only September. The city pools were still open on the weekends, yet it felt like fall already. I looked up at the blue, blue sky and a few, white clouds zoomed across space. Soon the sky would turn gray, autumn rain an ominous prelude to winter. If I didn’t watch it, depression would blanket me, my regular companion for this time of year.
“How’d you know my name?” I asked, slowing down my pace which had the tendency to be frantic.
The question wasn’t planned, I thought it and the words popped out of my mouth, sounding a lot more confident than I felt.
“Everyone knows Philipa,” he said, stopping.
Frowning, my inadequacy prevented me from hearing the admiration, almost reverence in his voice.
“How?” I asked, dreading the answer. “Oh, wait. The kids from my old school, right?”
I was suddenly embarrassed. The bullies from junior high were the only human beings in the high school, besides my sisters and their friends, who knew my name. I could just imagine what they had said about me, and a heatwave of shame flowed over me. I thought I could benefit from more of the cooling touch our earlier handshake provided, but he wasn’t reading my mind.
“No, not the younger kids; I mean Ida and Lynne’s friends. We’ve been waiting for you,” he said, his voice soft and kind. “Beautiful Philipa, with her lovely red hair.”
Stunned, I looked up at his sincere face, his eyes beautiful, large liquid-brown spheres. My reflection in his right iris mesmerized me, desiring to close my own eyes, to remember what that looked like, burning it into my memory forever.
“I wanted to be the first to get to you, before the wolves started to circle,” he said.
Not familiar with that reference, it sounded ominous and negative.
We walked down Outer Drive toward my house, me silent, listening to him talk. The majestic old oak trees shaded our path as we walked, Wax chatting, the drone of his voice comforting. The sense that he only took his eyes off me long enough to keep from tripping drowned out the awareness of everything else. I don’t remember much of what was actually said on that first walk, but I was captivated. I looked up; we were almost to my house.
Soon, the leaves would turn color and fall to the sidewalk. I imagined walking on the leaves, crunching them under my feet. The weather would grow colder and colder, and snow would fall. The thought of having to wear boots and mittens and a heavy overcoat on a warm day like this seemed impossible. I wondered if we would still be walking together in the snow.
“Let’s stop here,” I said when we got to the corner, hoping my mother wasn’t waiting with her eagle eye.
He’d said he lived around the block from me. Again, the idea that I’d lived within shouting distance of him all my life was inconceivable. All I had to do was cross the alley, walk through my backyard and I was home. Reality ended the hypnotic walk. I didn’t see my mother waiting, so Ida and Lynne had been successful.
“Thank you for walking me home.”
I cringed, the words sounded so corny and anticlimactic from what I was really feeling, but he seemed to like it.
“You are very welcome, Philipa. Thank you for allowing me to walk with you. Will you meet me here tomorrow morning at eight sharp?”
Asking to walk me back to school must mean I didn’t do anything to repel him. I’d replay every single word spoken for the next eight hours, paranoia destroying the bit of self-confidence his attention had given me. In contrast, my heart did a little flip. I wondered how long the night would be now, having that to look forward to; having to wait to see him again.
“Okay, I guess I could do that.”
Wincing, I didn’t mean to sound nonchalant, but he didn’t seem to take it that way, replied how glad he was.
“That’s great, I’m so glad,” he said.
Handing over my book bag, he put his hand out again. As I placed mine upon his, the same, wonderful feeling traveled over me, that cool electrical charge that elevated the hairs on my arms and cheeks. So happy, the feeling cured the burning of my neck where he’d touched me earlier. Wondering if the sensation traveled between us from me back to him, I smiled but couldn’t make eye contact. I was speechless. We stood facing each other for the longest time, holding hands.
“Good bye, Philipa,” he finally whispered.
Taking all the strength I had, I looked up to see if he was really speaking, afraid of what I might read in his eyes.
Shockingly, he looked happy.
“Bye, Wax,” I answered, looking down at the ground again.
Letting go of my hand as he backed off, he gripped my fingers, releasing them little by little, searching my eyes while he smiled, pleased. I didn’t move, my hand still hanging in the air.
Watching him walk away, his long legs and broad shoulders stirred something in me that made me uncomfortable, and I quickly turned away, letting myself through the gate which led to our backyard and safety. Closing the gate, relief passed over me, but residual anxiety would make it impossible for me to fully relax, thinking about Wax.
More self-conscious then I’d thought I’d be, it really was just a walk home, I was making so much out of it. Worrying that my mother would be peering out the window, ready with a thousand questions, I forced myself to forget about Wax and what his physicality was doing to me, and concentrated on our family garden instead.
The vegetable garden my mother planted behind the kitchen every spring was almost finished. Everything about the garden spoke of love and family to me. It was a group effort; no one was immune from tending it. Meals often revolved around bounty from my mother’s garden.
Nurturing a few late tomato plants, her winter squashes, cabbages and beets were still growing, ready to be harvested at any time. A prehistoric vine, a hybrid volunteer from last year, birthed gigantic pumpkin-like squashes; only instead of orange they were pine green, their huge leaves beginning that telltale whither that announces the beginning of autumn.
Among the flowers still blooming were zinnias in a profusion of color, some of the foliage starting to whither like that vine, and giant sunflowers, planted for the birds. Marigolds and geraniums blossomed, hardy to the first frost. Off to the side my mother had placed new containers of mums, seemingly taunting those summer flowers which struggled to stay on.
In a few weeks, she’d ask us to pull up the spent annuals so she could set the mums in their place. It made me sad, yanking up the flowers. There were always a few last buds. I’d cut them off and force them to bloom in a glass of water in my bedroom.
Fall was just depressing. This year, Wax Spencer had come to rescue me. The thought stunned me, stopping me in my tracks. I’d never looked for anyone to do anything for me. This was a dangerous first, prepping me for disappointment if I wasn’t careful.
At the door, my mother appeared, standing on the other side of the screen wearing an old jungle fatigue shirt of my dad’s over pressed pants and a blouse.
“The garden is almost done,” she sighed, reading my mind. “I hate this time of year.”
“I know, I do, too. It’s so sad. I’m going to save seeds from your flowers, for next year,” I said, hoping to make her happy.
“How’d you know to do that?” she asked, frowning.
“School,” I answered. Everything came from school. “Where are the girls?”
We referred to each other as the girls. The two oldest, Martha and Angela were away at school. We’d all go to the same, state supported school that was our mother’s alma mater, where our father studied, as well. Everyone knew they’d met there when my dad was attending, paid for by the US Air Force and the GI Bill, and the rest was history. Ida was going next fall with the others. Then it would just be me and Lynne at the high school.
My sisters were what I thought of as dynamic in the extreme. I once told Ida she was the most dynamic woman I knew. She snickered.
“I grew up with the name Ida Wiener. You don’t become a shrinking violet with that following you around.”
Having a strange name didn’t affect me in a positive way. I avoided having to say it out loud whenever possible. I foolishly blamed my name for most of my struggles.
Now, with Wax in the picture, it didn’t seem like such a liability. I remembered the way he said it, with a question mark at the end. You’re Philipa?
My mother held the door open while we talked about the garden. I could smell beef cooking.
“What’s for dinner?” I asked stupidly as I walked into the kitchen.
“Pot roast, potatoes and carrots, the carrots from the garden. Good fall meal. You gotta lotta homework?”
My mother may have lived in the Midwest since going to college, but she still talked like she just sprung from Brooklyn.
“I have a ton of homework. I’m starving.”
She held out her hand for my book bag.
“Get a snack. We gotta a while before the roast is done.”
Putting the book bag down on a kitchen chair, she pointed to the fruit bowl. I could hear laughter coming down the staircase in the living room as my sisters came in with their homework. Both had changed out of their school clothes. Ida had on pajama bottoms and Lynne wore jeans.
“Mom, can we do our homework down here?” Ida asked pointing to the kitchen table.
We usually studied up in our rooms or if it didn’t require much concentration, in front of the TV.
“Yes, I guess so,” she answered. “What’s going on? You girls ready to gang up on me?”
Turning to the sink, she resumed peeling potatoes while we pulled chairs out around the table.
“Mom, we wouldn’t gang up, promise,” Lynne answered. “We just want to be together.”
“You never answered me, Philipa,” my mother asked, ignoring Lynne. “How’d today go for you? First day in high school!”
“How was it?” my sisters chorused, winking at me.
“It was very nice! I’m surprised. I expected it to be much harder.”
“Well, that may come in time. Don’t get lazy,” my mother said.
“I won’t. Can we do our homework here?” I repeated Ida’s question.
A nice, new habit for all three of us to sit around the big oak table in the breakfast room while mother fixed dinner, doing our homework together. I might actually get it done quickly this way.
“I guess so,” she repeated, distracted.
Taking an apple out of a big bowl of fruit she kept for us on the counter, I started pulling books out of my bag, while my sisters settled down for an afternoon of group homework.
The United States, in spite of having over a half-million young men on the ground in Vietnam, had its first draft lottery drawing on the day I was born, December 1, 1969. American troop deaths in the years from ’67-’69, numbered almost forty thousand. The government replenished soldiers by increasing the enlistment numbers through the draft.
My dad was an enlisted man stationed at an Air Force base in the Midwest. Lucky to stay in one spot while their friends moved away, my parents often forgot that new orders could change their lives in a moment’s notice. The escalating war took away their peace, and they held their breath, waiting. Nothing could prepare them when he finally received his first orders to go to Vietnam; they were devastated.
At the middle of a tour to Vietnam, the men were given a choice to either come home for a week or meet their loved ones in Hawaii. With four children under seven, Lynne only a year and a half at the time of his first tour, the Hawaii option wasn’t practical for my folks, so he came home for a week in March. I was born nine months later.
Leaving for his second year long tour of duty to Vietnam when I was two, I vaguely remember him being home and then returning to war for the last time a year later.
My sisters and I watched our parent’s relationship curiously. As young as I was, observing their affection made me feel safe. My father loved my mother, and he made sure we knew it. He’d grab her to hug and kiss in front of us all the time. I remember them kissing each other, and then drawing whatever child was nearby into their embrace.
While my dad was home between deployments, we would pile onto the couch while he sat in his recliner to watch TV. My mother didn’t worry about our clothes, often allowing us to stay in pajamas all day if we wanted. When I hear a certain tune on the radio, it will carry me back to those times. I’m not even sure they were real, or if I’ve imagined them, longing for memories of a father I didn’t know.
At night, with all of us finally tucked in bed, the sounds of my parents’ voices droned through the house, with occasional laughter, or murmuring and finally, silence.
The last weekend before his final deployment, we were all together, and though I was so little, I remember the tension in the air. While my mother ironed my dad’s fatigues, Angela sat on their bed cradling me and Lynne, while the others did chores for my dad, polishing his shoes or addressing envelopes with our address. Watching him sorting through items, organizing his toiletries, handkerchiefs, and socks, and writing paper and pens, and stuffing them into a duffle bag lying on a towel spread over the comforter to protect it, I’d someday pack the same way. I must have realized what was happening even though I was so young.
Getting into my mom’s station wagon, we drove to the big metropolitan airport to drop him off for his flight. All of us girls went wherever they went with no family nearby to babysit. My mother was suspicious of babysitters. The airport ride meant his gear and duffle bag took up room, so Martha, the oldest, came as a helper for Lynne, and I, the babies. Ida and Angela stayed with a neighbor just this once.
After his departure, our living room wall became the place of honor to display a map of Vietnam my New York grandparents had sent, taken from their National Geographic. With it we followed the location of fighting. Our father was stationed at the air base with the odd name, Phu Cat, northeast of Saigon. My mother and the older girls watched the evening news before dinner every evening, and would mark where the latest fighting was with stick pins, clustering south of the DMZ.
My father was a helicopter pilot, and as a toddler, I’d run to the television when my sisters cried, “Is that dad?” every time a helicopter flew into the scene.
Once a month, my dad made a phone call to us transmitted through amateur radio. Girlish giggling followed every response; whoever’s turn it was to speak had to say “over” when they were finished so the radio operator knew to switch the radio over to the operator in Vietnam on my dad’s side.
“Dad, I love you! Over!”
Angela was the worst at remembering to say it. Pausing after she’d speak, everyone would yell, “Say over, Angie!”
I associated the ringing of the yellow wall phone and the screams of joy which followed with my father’s calls. After the others had a turn telling Dad they loved him, followed by over, they’d thrust the phone at me.
“Let Pipi say hello to dad!” they’d cry.
But I’d retreat, too shy to speak into the phone, hiding behind my mother, who would wait to cry until after everyone had their chance to speak, and he’d hung up with one last, “I love you, over.”
Besides the calls, my parents wrote letters to each other faithfully. The letters became a hallmark in our lives. Sitting at the kitchen table, or curled up at the end of the couch, my mother with pen and paper in hand, laughed or sometimes cried as she wrote love letters, often with a small child on her lap.
Every day mother, wearing that jungle fatigue shirt of dad’s over her pristine shirtwaist dress, waited for the mailman to deliver, and seeing her run to the door to greet him was a familiar sight. Looking forward to handing his bounty off to her, her grateful response made his job worthwhile. Seeing how happy receiving the letters made her was a source of happiness and security for us, too.
“Three today,” he’d say, giving her the thin envelopes with the exotic stamps in the corner and the long return addresses ending in APO.
If there was nothing for her, he’d stop by to tell her so she didn’t have to walk to the mailbox and discover it was empty. I’d seen her do it, and she held a tissue to her eyes afterward. Very rarely, he’d say, “Nothing today. You’ll probably get several tomorrow.”
The day came when she didn’t get any letters for several days in a row, the palpable anguish permeating the house so even Lynne and I knew there was something terribly wrong.
And then the official looking car pulled up in front of the house and two uniformed men got out. I remember her putting me down, backing away from the door, crying before they even rang the bell.
“Girls!” she screamed for my sisters, who came running at the alarm in her voice.
Later, she would say how sorry she was that she’d needed us to be there when she got the news. But my sisters, growing up overnight, disagreed. The impact of the loss hit them all at the same time. Lynne and I were too young to understand much more than my family was sharing sad news together which involved our father. We cuddled with the older girls, and something about having a small child in their arms brought them comfort.
I remember Martha holding my mother up. At almost eight-years-old, she became mother’s helper, and willingly looked after us during the time my father’s affairs were being put in order.
Angela was only a year younger, but completely unprepared for the responsibilities of big-sistering. Daddy’s favorite, mother said, she was devastated after the news. Angela didn’t appear to recover from his death, and was in a continuous state of grief. Functional, she was pleasant and responsible. But rarely smiling, when she did, it was very slow and deliberate.
Even though at age three I was closer to Lynne, we were not particularly close. At four, Lynne and Ida, age six, were inseparable, the same as they are today. They whispered to each other, staying out of the path of grief. They were affected, but not in a life changing way, like the older two.
My mother was quiet, sticking around the house for the week before the funeral. It wasn’t like the man had had a heart attack, or had been hit by a car. The logistics of getting his body home were different; it had to be shipped from places foreign to us, and then examined by men on the base where he served. I remembered words being spoken carelessly in front of us. Autopsy and head wound. Brain trauma. Contusion.
Angela carried me although I was old enough to walk; I think she was using me as a shield from more pain. Alternately hugging me to her chest, she cried throughout the day. They were excused from school until the funeral was over.
My grandparents from Brooklyn came, tiny people who spoke Yiddish when they thought no one was listening. I was almost too heavy for my bubbe to pick up.
“You’re a big one,” she said, bouncing me. “How much does this baby weigh?”
“Muter, she’s over three years old,” my mother answered.
“Harrumph, she feels like a rock, whatever her age,” she said, kissing me with a smack on my cheeks.
My grandparents never liked my father. There was no discussion of it; only that his people looked down their noses at us. My mother reassured her parents, putting an affectionate hand on her mother’s shoulder.
“You don’t have to worry any longer,” she said, tenderly. “He’s dead now. They’ve lost their only son.”
I don’t think they felt guilty for badmouthing him.
“You need to move back to Brooklyn with us,” my bubbe said.
My mother whispered to her sister, my Aunt Jane that she’d rather poke out her eyes than move.
Shortly after, my father’s family arrived. They scared me. His father was a giant; six foot seven inches tall, at least three hundred pounds, and his wife, not my real grandmother, tall for a woman at five-eleven. Towering over everyone the day of the funeral, many of the soldiers who came to pay their respects had to look up.
Afterward, my paternal grandparents didn’t stay in touch with us. Every year before Thanksgiving, I’d ask if they were going to come for the winter holidays, and the answer was always not this year.
Until I was seven, my mother said I’d approach any man in a uniform and ask “Did you know my dad?”
Martha told anyone who would listen that her father was killed in Vietnam. My mother, bless her heart, allowed us to grieve as we must, never asking us to stop talking about it or that we shouldn’t feel the way we did.
When Angela was suffering; she’d pull me to her and bury her face in the top of my head. Or she’d get busy doing something nurturing, which was totally unlike her, like helping my mother clean house or reading to Lynne and me.
Eventually, life returned to normal as my mother took over the task of raising five girls alone, doing a pretty good job. Like a hawk, nothing got by her, setting high standards for us to live up to. Ready with a switch, she’d cut it off a pussy willow bush that grew by the back door, just in case anyone decided to get out of line. I don’t think she ever used it, but in spite of it, I grew up frightened of my mother, giving her a wide berth whenever possible.
Martha and Angela fought with her about the things girls fight with their mothers about; the appropriate clothes, dating, curfew. But mother was like a rock; she wouldn’t budge.
“You’ll understand someday when you have children of your own,” she used to say repeatedly. “You’ll want your girls to be successful. Letting you dress like a hooker and stay out all night, that’s not the way to raise a lady.”
The noise level my sisters made, indignant after their own mother said they dressed like hookers, increased a few decibels.
Except for the clothing issues my sisters had and the bullying I experienced through elementary school, we probably led a fairly common existence in the middle-class, white suburbs. For me, it would become agonizingly boring.
A young widow raising children was a rarity in our neighborhood. Everyone was stunned to learn that we wouldn’t be moving back to live with our grandparents. Evidently, that was the normal thing to do when tragedy struck. But since my mother didn’t have to work outside of the house, she didn’t need her mother to babysit. She owned the house we lived in, and with my father’s social security, we were okay financially. They’d started college funds for each of us, but we were expected to contribute heartily by working as soon as we were able and saving every cent.
When Martha turned fourteen, she got a weekend job cleaning hotel rooms at the new Holiday Inn a few miles from our house. Every Saturday morning, she got up at dawn, put on an ugly yellow uniform, hopped on her bike and drove down Outer Drive, the youngest chambermaid ever hired. The manager was a neighbor and promised to watch out for Martha. Working there for four years until she graduated high school, every weekend and full-time in the summer, she encouraged Angela to find something else when the Holiday Inn came knocking.
“Trust me Angie, you’d hate it there. The only reason I cope is I like flirting with the maintenance men, but don’t tell Mom.”
Angela found a permanent job at Anthony’s Pizza. During the school year, they let her answer the phone and fold pizza boxes. But during the summer when she was older, she started waiting on tables.
“If ever there’s a catalyst to stay in college, it’s that damn restaurant,” Angela said. “I’m actually looking forward to going back to school in September.”
We were sitting on the balcony off their bedroom on a late summer’s night while she and Martha smoked. Earlier, Ida and Lynne sneaked out with their boyfriends. Mother would kill both of them if they got caught, so we made it our business to make sure it didn’t happen. Younger than the other girls, being part of their intrigue made me feel accepted.
“What does that mean?” I asked, when Angela complained about her job.
“It means hopefully, I won’t have to wash the smell of pizza dough out of my hair every night for the rest of my life. It means not taking flak from mean customers who get pissed off if their food isn’t cooked correctly. I won’t have to stand on my feet all night. There’s so much about working there I hate, the only alternative is to stay in college and be what Mom wants me to be; a teacher.”
“Pipi,” she said, grabbing my left hand. “Promise me you’ll never work at Anthony’s. Cross your heart.”
I crossed my heart with my right hand and put two fingers of left my hand in a peace sign.
“I promise I’ll never work at Anthony’s,” I said.
Early the next morning, with Ida and Lynne back home, safe and sound asleep in their beds, I crept out of the house like I had almost everyday that summer to go for an early morning run. The cemetery across the street, ten acres of rolling, wooded hills was perfect for doing laps around the grave stones for half an hour. Leaving the safety of our yard, I paused at Outer Drive to cross even though at that hour on the weekend, there were few cars out. Crossing, I’d walk the block to the entrance. The groundskeeper gave me permission to open the gate and enter as long as I didn’t tell anyone.
Warming up, I’d do laps, climbing the hills that wound among the cedars, ending up in the very back corner, by the baby graves. The first time I saw them, I knew right away what they were for; headstones of baskets of cement bunnies, or a marble angel with a tiny infant in its arms, angels and infants carved into granite plaques. Most of them were very old, at least fifty years old, with mossy etching invading the porous stone. Few were tended with flowers. After my initial curiosity was satisfied, I avoided the baby graves, too much sadness and hopelessness lurking there.
My father’s grave was there, as well. Laid to rest in a copse of cedars, his stone was provided by the government, and every Veterans Day, someone from the VFW came out and put a flag on his grave. My mother never walked over to visit the gravesite like other widows did.
“He’s not really there,” she said, eyeing a small cardboard box on the bookshelf in the living room; my dad’s ashes.
The rest of the cemetery didn’t scare me or make me sad. It was a great, safe place to run away from the danger of cars. I hoped that when school started, I’d be able to join the track team.
When I returned home from my run that Saturday morning, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and making a list.
“You need to let me know when you’re going out,” she said, frowning.
I went to kiss her cheek.
“Sorry, mom,” I said, guilty that I’d made her worry.
Taking an apple out of a bowl of fruit on the counter, I took a bite with her staring at me looking me up and down, still with that frown.
“You’re so skinny. Sit down and let me make you breakfast,” she said, pushing back her chair to stand up.
“Mom, it’s okay. Don’t get up. I don’t want anything to eat yet. It’s too early.” I turned to go upstairs to my room. “I think I’ll go back to bed for a while.”
She sat back down with a plunk nodding her head.
“Take advantage of it,” she said. “School starts soon. I can’t believe summer is over already. My baby will have her first day of high school!”
Looking down at the floor to avoid eye contact, her emotions embarrassed me. Calling me her baby was so unlike my mother, acting melancholy completely out of character for her. Wondering how my going to high school would change her life, I left the kitchen without asking her or saying more, uncomfortable. We’d just had the classic Weiner argument, where I’d begged her to let me stay home while she homeschooled me, but she wouldn’t hear of it, telling me I needed the socialization, like I was a puppy.
The last days before school started were spent laying on my bed, eating snacks and reading in front of an open window, the breeze coming in through the screen and blowing the curtains against my body.
The excitement of Wax Spencer noticing me on first day of my freshman year made it special. Lynne told me he was a sophomore, like her.
“He’s in my English Lit class,” she whispered after we finished our homework. “The last class of the day. You’re right; he’s gorgeous. Go for it.”
Smacking her arm, I didn’t know what go for it meant, but absolutely sure it was something our mother would not approve of.
“I mean, have fun,” Lynne explained. “Nothing bad.”
I smiled and squeezed by her on the staircase to get to my room.
“Do you want to go for a run?” she asked.
I loved running with her and nodded my head.
“I’ll change,” I said.
I discovered as we were pounding the pavement, that she had an ulterior motive.
“He lives around the block from us,” she said as we rounded the corner of our street.
“How do you know?”
Although he’d told me, there’d been no chance to tell her.
“I’ve seen him around,” she said. “I remembered when you asked about him. Slow down a little bit.”
As we slowed our pace, I followed her eyes, sweeping the landscape of postage stamp lawns and modest brick bungalows that typified our neighborhood. I didn’t see anything that led me to where he might live.
Suddenly, Lynne smacked my arm. In the backyard of a house about five hundred yards from the corner was a group of boys shooting hoops, and Wax was in the middle of the mob, trying to take the ball. My heart picked up an extra beat or two.
“Oh, let’s not stop. I don’t want him to see us,” I said. “He’ll think I’m looking for him.”
“Right,” she said, grabbing my arm and pulling me back into a run.
We sprinted to the corner and just as we were about to turn to our backyard, I heard my name being called.
“Philipa!” he shouted.
I grimaced. That name! But Lynne and I turned, synchronized. I couldn’t help myself as a huge smile replaced the grimace; he really looked like something, running toward us in his cut-off blue jeans and sneakers, his legs tan and muscular. Lynne squeezed my arm again and I shook her off as unobtrusively as I could. He reached us, not even breathing hard.
“I saw you run by!” he said, turning to Lynne to hold out his hand.
“I’m Wax. I recognize you from English Lit.”
First looking at his hand with a smirk, Lynne shook it. Later, she would say it felt ridiculous that a teenaged boy was shaking hands, but after a bit she found it endearing, anyway.
“Pipi’s sister, Lynne,” she answered.
Wax looked over at me. “Is Pipi your nickname?”
Nodding my head I promised myself that I would claw Lynne’s arm the first chance I got. “May I call you Pipi?” he asked, his voice soft.
“Not so anyone can hear you, okay?” I replied, frowning.
Wax and Lynne laughed, but I didn’t think it was that funny.
“I don’t need anymore ammunition for bullying, please,” I explained.
“You were bullied?” he asked, clearly distressed.
“Unmercifully,” Lynne answered for me.
“Oh, that’s horrible,” he said. “It won’t happen with me on watch, I promise.”
Reaching up with his right hand, he grabbed my shoulder. I watched it happen in slow motion. The look of concern on his face, his muscular arm, tan from a summer at the lake, slowly rising with the open hand coming toward me, I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be wonderful, like the cool hand shake? Or painful, like the hand on my back? If I thought hard enough, I could still feel the place where the touch of his finger burned my neck.
Amazingly, I knew it was going to be good. As that hand came toward me, I felt the sensation of expectation throughout the upper left side of my body, goose bumps rising before he even made contact with me. Something told me I was going to have to be very careful around Wax Spencer.
“Do you want to come in? We have iced tea.”
I wanted to slug her, but he’d have seen so I just stayed quiet.
“No thanks. My team waits for me,” he said pointing over his shoulder toward his house. “But I hope you’ll ask me again soon.”
Then he looked at me, raptly in my eyes. “Tomorrow at eight, correct?”
Speechless, I nodded my head.
The first month of ninth grade passed by quickly. As I had hoped, I joined the track team, adding it to my already crowded schedule. The more I did to make my resume look good, the better my chances would be of getting on that magazine. Our coach pounded those words into us; team work, being part of a team, future goals, blah blah blah.
Wax and I walked to school everyday, and he waited to walk home with me every afternoon on the days I didn’t have practice. In October, he hinted around that he’d like to be my date for the Sadie Hawkins Dance, which took place the weekend before Thanksgiving. After conferring with my sisters, and ensuring that my mother would allow me to go, I asked him in my usual, shy way, skirting around the issue. We were standing in front of a display case near the cafeteria where a big sign proclaiming the Sadie Hawkins Dance was thumbtacked to cork board.
“What do we do at a Sadie Hawkins Dance?” I asked, pointing to the sign.
“Ah, dance,” he replied, softly. “What did you think it was?”
“I have no idea. It sounds like something from Li’l Abner,” I said the obvious because the poster included a blown up facsimile of the cartoon strip.
“Li’l Abner?” he asked, smiling down at me.
“Dogpatch, hillbillies and moonshine,” I said.
Wax laughed out loud.
“Don’t forget Daisy Mae,” he said, and then seriously. “We dance and then go out to dinner afterward. Do you think that sounds boring?”
“No, not at all,” I said, sorry I’d been flippant. I didn’t want him to think I didn’t want to go. “So, would you like to be my date?”
I looked up at him, hopeful.
“Yes, absolutely. I thought you’d never ask,” he said, smiling. “I’d love to go as your date.”
For weeks, we’d walk to and from school, meeting between classes, sometimes having lunch together, and we’d never mutually touched each other. Putting his hand on my upper back when we were walking down the halls took some getting used to, my body reacting like it did the first time, but he did it so often, I eventually got used to it. A classmate confirmed my initial guess was correct; it was a sign of possession. Wax let other guys know I was taken.
“I see that hot Walter Spencer had his hand on your back,” she’d said. “I guess he’s telling the world whose girl you are.”
After our Li’l Abner conversation, he gently took my hand instead as we walked. It was the first time we’d held hands. Large, soft and dry, his hand enveloped mine, like a warm glove. When he finally let go of me, the air hitting my skin felt cold, and I wished I had the confidence to take his hand back.
“We have homecoming, too. It’s in a few weeks. First there’s a game on Friday night, then the dance on Saturday, and then we’ll go to dinner afterward. Would you be my date?”
The answer should have been easy; I’d just asked him to go out, and now he was asking me. Why was I hesitating? Fear that involvement with him past the hand holding stage would distract me from my goal. I wouldn’t allow anything or anybody to get in the way of that.
“Okay, I guess,” I stammered, suddenly freezing cold.
Forcing myself to smile at Wax, he seemed so appreciative that I’d said yes. When I talked to Ida about my conflicting feelings, she had a ready answer.
“You’re not attracted to him,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
I disagreed. I was attracted to him, but I wasn’t relaxed around him. I couldn’t let my hair down. When we ran together, even though I was thin by most standards, I held my stomach in the whole run, which turned out great for my abs, but I’d have to put an ice bag on my back all night.
Plus, he never made a move that might lead to anything, and I mean never. Being relaxed around him might not be a good thing. If I was comfortable, it might lead to badness.
My mother coined the term badness when the older girls started to date.
“Don’t get into any badness,” she’d remind them.
Later, I’d hear them giggling and conspiring at night, confiding in each other about the badness that had taken place.
Yes, I definitely wasn’t up to any badness with Wax Spencer. And here was the second dilemma. I might have been attracted to Wax, but after a while, I didn’t have any desire for him, if that’s the right word. The first months together, I resisted my need for him to show interest in me physically; I longed for him to kiss me or tell me that he loved me. When that didn’t happen, after enough time passed, I only wanted him for a friend. I think his hesitation, his need to respect me, might have hurt us in the long run.
There was a big difference for me between being attracted to someone because of their physical appeal and desiring to be physical with them. I was scared to death of my own physicality, and Wax’s apparent disinterest made that worse. Coupled with my obsession to succeed academically, our relationship was apparently doomed.
My sisters were concerned for me, saying I was denying my birth right as a woman by not making a move, but I disagreed. Lynne and I were standing in line at Kroger waiting to pay for our groceries, when a classmate of hers, a young, pregnant, and unmarried girl walked into the store with her mother. I elbowed Lynne so hard she grunted.
“Badness,” I whispered. “Forget desire.”
Lynne snickered as she placed our things on the belt.
“That’s just stupidity,” she replied. “And it never has to come to that.”
She looked at me with her eyebrows up and an all-knowing grin.
“No way!” I said, shocked.
She slowly nodded her head, smiling. Well, I didn’t care what my sisters did; I would never be the one to initiate going all the way with Wax Spencer. Forget the magazine; I’d rather join the cave-dwellers first, or whatever it was people did to avoid life in society. I’d become a nun.
“Ha, you say no now, but trust me, the day will come when you won’t be able to stand it another minute,” she said, grinning at me. “I’m only speaking for myself, mind you. Don’t breathe a word of this to Ida.”
I put my fingers in my ears and started to make the familiar chant when I didn’t want to hear what was being said to me.
Lynne just laughed, giving me a little shove. The check out girl was smiling at us.
“How embarrassing,” I said as we left the store.
“We need to drop this stuff off at home,” Lynne said. “Then we can drive to Blazo’s and have a little chat.”
“Forget it! You don’t need to talk me into anything. Except for those dances, I’m not even really dating the guy,” I said. “And he’s shown no interest in me in…that way.”
“You’re dating,” she said. “You see a guy everyday, even if it’s just for lunch, you’re dating. I see how he is with you.”
Then she got in close to me and whispered. “Pipi, Wax is a nerd. You have to give these nerd guys an extra push to get them going.”
“Forget it!” I yelled again, nervously laughing.
Growing up and reaching for my destiny, being self-confident, when the time came for me to be with someone it would be because we were good together, not because of what I needed from him. Wax was my security blanket for high school, not for life. I could make it on my own after he left high school, I was sure of it. It would be the journey after we graduated that would test me to the core.
I’ve blamed my lack of confidence on my red hair, my awful name, my father dying and leaving our mother a young widow. Now that I’m an adult, I can honestly say my mom did such a good job filling both parental roles, I didn’t notice my dad wasn’t around, even before he died. An enlisted Air Force man, he was rarely home, and when he was, our lives revolved around him. Everything changed when Dad walked in. I never admitted it, but the presence of someone different in the house confused me. Our lives were turned upside down for the time he’d be home, and then once he was gone again, it would settle back down to normal. After he died, I barely noticed his absence.
One spring weekend during my junior year in high school, the older girls were home from college, and we sat around the table talking long after the sun moved behind the house. The shadows cast by the trees in back conjured memories of growing up, the fun times we’d had when we were all at home, looking forward to the summer right around the corner.
As often happened, the conversation turned to reminiscing about my dad, innocent chatter of fun times they’d had. But sometimes the mood switched to the what ifs, the if onlys. I listened to Angela talking about his death; she was still sad after all these years. She cried while she talked, and everyone patted her shoulder, prompting her to continue.
“I pretend he’s deployed,” she said. “He’ll be gone for six months or a year, and then I’ll fantasize that he is home. It’s easier to do this when I’m away at school; I just pretend he’s here. When I come home, I imagine his reaction seeing me. We are all growing up, and I go through all the antics I imagine he’d have; commenting on our hairstyles, our grades, giving advice about school, asking about our dates.
“Mom, I pretend he’s with you, too,” she said, turning to my mother. “I pretend it’s time for him to go back to war. I can see him kissing you goodbye at the airport, and you and me and baby Pipi in the stroller, walking away from him to the parking lot for the last time.
“He’s so handsome, standing in his blue uniform with his duffle bag on the floor next to him. I keep turning back to look and he waves to me, but the last time I look, he’s gone.”
Angela cried at this juncture, and everyone waited patiently for her to pull it together so she’d continue reminiscing. Her memories were all I had of my dad, and I discovered I was making her memories my own.
It occurred to me that the whole family didn’t go with him to say goodbye because there wasn’t room in the car due to my stroller and his duffle bag. The other girls accepted their position in the family hierarchy as being unimportant enough to stay home from the airport. I wondered if they’d ever been resentful and that was why Angela had the fantasy. She’d stayed home at the neighbor’s house the last time my dad left. I was glad it wasn’t a problem for me.
“Mom, I pretend you and I are going to the airport to pick him up the last time he came home,” she continued.
I looked over at my mother and suddenly thought that as helpful as they were for me, Angela’s frequent walks down memory lane might be difficult for our mother.
“In my dream, you and I look like we do now, but dad is still young. It’s not jarring to me; I expect it even in my dreams. He’ll always be young.”
Everyone sighed. Dad would always be young. The rest of us would age; my mother had gray hair and crows feet. I remembered her being voluptuous when I was small, but looking over at her now, I realized how slender she’d become.
Breaking the spell, I reached out for her and grabbed her arm, suddenly worried.
“You okay, mom?” I asked passionately.
The loss his death had been for her suddenly occurred to me. She’d always stayed so busy looking after us, I assumed it had been enough to fulfill her. The loneliness must have been crushing.
She nodded, but didn’t make eye contact, upset. It was the first time we noticed the effect our chats had on her.
“I can’t believe he’s been gone all this time,” she said, absently.
Getting up from the table, she stretched, clearly trying to move on from Angela’s revelation, but having trouble doing so. The rest of us were mortified that we’d possibly…probably hurt her, maybe many times, never considering how insensitive our conversation was.
“I guess I’d better think about fixing dinner. What should we have tonight?”
We watched her walk over to the refrigerator and open the door to look in like she always did, no one offering any suggestions.
Martha nudged Angela and mouthed enough, scowling, and got up to join my mother.
“Mom, let’s go out for dinner,” she said taking her hand. “It’s a beautiful spring evening, and you deserve a night off.”
Resisting, she claimed she didn’t mind cooking for us. It was usually at this point that Angela would get up and offer to help her, however, she was too upset.
We’d always coddled Angela. I felt that she’d overstepped some invisible boundary of thoughtfulness. Martha would tell the rest of us that Angela’s forays into the past would be private, from now on.
“Unless mom starts it, she’s to keep her mouth shut.”
If Angela was annoyed or hurt that she’d had restrictions placed on her, she never said anything to us as a group.
“It’s time to find something else to talk about.”
I began to wonder if she had any other conversation when she was home and observed to see if she did. Martha whispered that Angela was a much different girl at school. I’d accepted my sisters, never guessing the face I saw might not be their only self. Except for the frustration with my friendship with Wax, I didn’t have any secrets from my family. What they saw at home was what I was.
“What’s she like?” I asked.
Martha rolled her eyeballs.
“Take a guess,” she said. I had no idea and said so. “Well, you know how mopey she is here? How mother waits on her, and Lynne and I baby her?”
It was second nature to do so, and I’d never thought anything of it. I shrugged my shoulders.
“So?” I asked.
“At school, she’s a clown. She’s in trouble for her sarcasm all the time. I’ve seen her lose control in a classroom and laugh uncontrollably until she asks to be excused. It’d be hysterical if it wasn’t so embarrassing.”
I don’t remember where Ida and the others were. Lying on Martha’s bed, she and I munched a bag of chips. My mother was bringing laundry up from the basement, and when we heard her on the steps, we hid the bag. No food allowed out of the kitchen.
This disclosure about Angela rang so untrue, I just couldn’t see her laughing in a crowd, or being the life of a party, or doing anything that wasn’t solemn and controlled. I wondered if she didn’t have an undiagnosed mental problem, like I did.
“I don’t believe it,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Angela laugh out loud.”
Martha smiled an all knowing grin.
“Yeah, well believe it. We all have our moments where we lapse into our real selves. I’m completely different at school. I don’t volunteer to help, refuse to organize or lead anything.”
Martha was my rock, and our mother’s, too. Maybe it was all the responsibility one person was able to carry as a young adult.
“I’m like this no matter where I am,” I said stupidly, holding my hands out.
I looked at Martha, embarrassed, and she started laughing.
“You aren’t kidding. One thing I’ve always loved about you, Pipi is your honesty. You are really authentic,” she said.
“I hate that word,” I said. “What does it mean? So are you saying Angela is putting on an act to be relaxed and funny when she’s away at school? She acts all moody and disappointed at home so Mom will feel sorry for her? That really doesn’t make a bit of sense.”
“She acts the way we expect her to act,” Martha replied patiently. “It’s the way we allow her to act. She has an audience here. At school, no one cares what makes her sad or what her memories of Dad are. The role she acts here at home was as Dad’s favorite. He’s dead, so she just modified it to be ‘I’m depressed now that dad is dead.’ Do you get what I mean?”
I shook my head. It still didn’t make any sense. If what Martha said was true, my sisters were role-playing when they were home, and I didn’t really know them. It made me angry.
After that, I began to look at my family differently. My four sisters weren’t perfect, and it was a shocker. The realization that I was really alone in the world, that my sisters weren’t who I thought they were, replaced my former wellbeing. A false sense of security I had from being enveloped in a tight knit family was just that; false. We truly didn’t know each other. If that could be said about my family, what hope did I have?
That weekend, with all of us home from school, was a turning point in my life. The idea that I didn’t particularly like one of my siblings opened the door to the truth that they might not like me, either. If I wasn’t loved and adored by the family, I was vulnerable to whatever was lurking to destroy me outside of the cocoon of the house, and my experience was that there was a lot lying in wait.
Everything about my life changed that week. No longer able to count on my family to take care of me forever, I made a commitment to work harder at school than I ever had before. That longed for job would become a reality if I gave it my all.
I ran harder in track. Because that wasn’t taxing enough on my body, I started playing on the field hockey team with more determination to win, leaving Wax in the wake of my new obsession.
Noticing right away, he didn’t hesitate to question me, grabbing my arm as I rushed to the locker room after school.
“Where are you going, Pipi?” he asked. “You’ve been like a maniac all week. Slow down.”
I stopped short, resisting tearing my arm away, not wanting to have to explain anything, but knowing I owed him an explanation. Holding on to me, he looked at me with concern in a way I knew, with his head pushed forward from his shoulders, determined. I was not going to succumb, however.
This was his senior year; we had until June together, and that was it. Wax was going away to school in Massachusetts next fall, as far as I was concerned, that would be the end of us. Our history was as school friends. Over the summers, we’d chatted on the phone, but we never had a date aside from school dances. Not once. I waited for him to ask, but he was always busy working or involved in one activity with friends and family after another.
We could remain friends after he left, but a couple? Forget it. He might as well be going to Antarctica.
“You’ve been avoiding me.”
Taking a deep breath, I didn’t want to get emotional.
“I’m sorry, Wax. I have to stay after school every day this week for practice. I should have told you,” I said apologetically.
I didn’t want him to get defensive.
“Oh,” he said, letting go of my arm. “That’s no big deal. I’ll come and watch when I don’t have to work.”
We walked toward the locker rooms with that buffer of air between us. I didn’t mind if he watched. A big group of students stayed, and he’d sit with his friends while I ran like a fanatic, trying to attack the ball with all of my effort.
When practice was over, I looked at the bleachers and he was still there, talking to one of his classmates. Running to the locker room, I showered and dressed. Like being with a brother, I wasn’t as self-conscious around him about my appearance as I was at the beginning, and unable to tame my wild hair, I caught the bushel in a rubber band. Waiting for me outside of the locker room, his lanky frame leaning against the wall, I could see him trying not to say anything about my hair, but I knew he liked it. It was for my sake he didn’t respond teasing or otherwise. My teammates weren’t so kind.
“Wiener, you have some wild hair!” they yelled.
I just snickered and shook my head, the flounce of hair whipping from side to side.
Wax grabbed my arm again as we walked away.
“Slow down, will you please?” he said, laughing.
I tried to, but it wasn’t easy. After a game, I was wired and would stay that way until I got home and could really relax. Trying to corner me, I could feel his eyes on me, something different emanating from him.
Silent, we reached the cemetery. There weren’t any sidewalks on this side of the street so we walked in single file along the fence, me in front. We approached the entrance, and he pulled me through by my arm.
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
“We’ve been talking,” I said.
“Not school news. Not superficial stuff. We need to talk about us.”
Oh great, here goes, I thought.
We walked along the gravel path, the majestic cedars towering over us. I loved the trees, the history they must have seen in one hundred years. During windy storms, one would get blown down, and it was like a death. From our house across the street, I could hear the crack as the tree snapped.
Later, the smell of pitch filled the air as workers used chain saws to cut the giant trunks into pieces small enough to haul away. After the sun went down and the workers left for the day, I’d sneak into the cemetery and collect pine cones and needles from the tree. The cones would ooze sap and the piney smell seeped out of the treasure box I hid them in, a strong, everlasting memory.
I followed Wax to a marble bench carved into curly cues and Ionic columns.
“Sit,” he demanded, pointing to the bench.
I sat and although the cool stone felt wonderful against by battered legs, I was anxious.
“What, Wax? I need to get home.”
Uncomfortable with whatever was coming; I knew I would be unaccepting of any change. I wanted to leave things as they were.
But it wasn’t just me I was concerned about. Even though I was a junior now, my mother still waited at the screen door for me everyday. I never wanted to do anything to cause her to worry.
“What are we doing?” he asked, sadness on his face.
I knew what he meant, but I wasn’t getting into the discussion about it with him when my mother was hanging at the door watching the clock.
“Call me tonight, and we’ll talk,” I said.
But he wasn’t having it.
“Pipi, I don’t want to talk on the phone. This won’t take long. All you have to do is tell me what this means to you,” he said.
I wanted to ask Does what mean to me? I had too much respect for him. It was better to just get it out, let him get angry with me, and move on.
“Why don’t we begin with you telling me what it means to you?” I asked, hitting a nerve.
“You’re avoiding the question,” he said.
“Okay! We’re just friends,” I said. “You’re my best friend.”
Sitting down next to me, he let our book bags slide to the ground, his head hanging down.
“I was scared you’d say that,” he said, softly.
Afraid he’d get emotional on me, I wasn’t equipped to handle emotion from him. My family wasn’t big on emoting. I didn’t want to lead him on if he wanted more from me, so I didn’t touch him, no comforting hand on his arm, no pat on the back, all things he gave me from time to time. It was too late for me.
“Wax, you’ve never let on that you wanted more from me or our relationship. Never.”
“Well, I’m letting on now,” he said, shy. “I want more.”
“It’s too late,” I said, not meaning that exactly, but hoping he’d understand me. “You’re leaving in three months.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to go steady? I thought before I left for Boston, I’d get you a ring,” he confessed.
Petrified, I was afraid he’d already bought it and was just testing me, that before long he’d whip out a box and get down on one knee, or whatever guys did to ask to go steady. I weighed my next statement carefully, knowing it would end up destroying the next four months for both of us before graduation.
“Go steady? Since your junior prom last spring, we haven’t gone out on a date,” I said, sounding more brutal than I felt. “You’ve never even mentioned the senior prom. Over Christmas break, we spoke once.”
“I know. I’ll change that.”
“Oh Wax, I don’t want to go steady. I’m not the going steady type,” I said softly.
It never occurred to me to ask him why he’d never given me any indication he wanted me for more than just a friend. I was too angry to hear the truth, anyway.
He pulled it together, I have to hand him that. He stood up, bending over to pick our book bags up off the ground. I was shocked that was going to be it from him.
“I guess we’d better get moving. Your mom is probably looking for you,” he said.
I bit my tongue, not wanting to call attention to his disappointment, but needing to apologize, feeling guilty because he’d come to my rescue so early and made the transition into high school as smooth as could be.
The only problem was that he’d waited too long to let me know what he really felt for me. We were having the going steady conversation about two years too late.
We left the cemetery and crossed the street. For the first time, he didn’t place that protective hand on my back as we crossed. I could see my mom standing at the screen door, most likely on her tiptoes, craning her neck to see if she could catch a glimpse of me. When we reached the corner, Wax gave me my book bag. I could see he was trying to find the right words; now it was his turn to hurt my feelings.
“There’s no point in us continuing on like this,” he said. “You’re safe now from bullying; you don’t need me to protect you. We should put some space between us.”
Frowning, I wondered why the drama. I thought what he was saying was that he didn’t want to walk me to school anymore. Our friendship didn’t include much else.
“Okay, Wax,” I said, unable to hide the disappointment. “Whatever you want. I guess this is goodbye, then?”
Corny, I know, but he wasn’t making it easy on me.
“I guess,” he said. “Goodbye, Philipa.”
Turning on his heels, his face stony, he walked away from me. I felt badly about hurting his feelings, but not bad enough to go after him. I was too confused, the push-pull of contradiction overwhelming. What did I want from Wax? An adoring boyfriend who I had to fight off every Saturday night? A going steady ring to prove to everyone I had a boyfriend at MIT who would come home to see me during his breaks, ready to beat up anyone who dared to flirt with me?
Or just a good friend? I would miss the friend the most, since the boyfriend was never mine to begin with.
I turned to go through the gate to the yard, choking down a sob.
“What’s going on?” my mother asked, pulling the fatigue shirt around her body protectively.
That woman can smell intrigue from fifty yards. Martha’s words about Angela and her two faces zoomed through my head and I remembered the way it made me feel, like I’d been betrayed. I wasn’t going to do the same thing to my mother.
“Wax asked me to go steady, and I said no, so I guess we can’t be friends anymore,” I replied truthfully as I came up the steps.
She held the screen door open for me, looking at me with concern.
“Well, I don’t think that was very nice,” she said.
I agreed with her. He didn’t get his way so bye bye Philipa.
“I let him have the last word. He’s probably angry now,” I said. “He’ll get over it.”
“Come inside, Pipi. Dinner’s almost ready.”
Pushing me along gently, she had her hand on my back in my mother’s no nonsense way. Although it was warm outside, she closed and locked the door against an imaginary threat. I knew she was in protection mode.
I could hear water running and then the squeak of it being turned off. Soon, Lynne came running down the stairs.
“Is Pipi home?” she called.
My mother took my book bag from me and pushed me over to the table.
“Sit,” she said.
Everyone was telling me to sit; but from my mother, taking charge was welcomed.
“She’s in here,” my mother called out. “That Walter guy gave her the ax.”
Snickering, I shook my head. My family would surround me like a wagon train. Lynne came into the kitchen, stopping to stare at me, shocked.
“No way,” she said. “Wax and Pipi are a hot item at school.”
“What’s hot?” my mother said, shaking her head. “You sit. I’ll make tea.”
“We were never hot,” I said, annoyed. “We’ve never been more than friends. Close friends. Out of nowhere, he asked me to go steady, and I said no.”
“Why on earth did you say no?” Lynne said, pulling a chair out to sit with me. “Isn’t that what you want?”
“Lynne, you know he’s never given me any indication we were more than just friends. Not a hint. And right before he graduates, when he’s going to go away to school, he drops that on me.”
“He wants to make sure you’ll be waiting for him,” Lynne said.
“Well, too bad. I doubt I’d date anyone, anyway. Now I can concentrate on school.”
“That’s all you do anyway,” Lynne said, argumentative. “Maybe that’s the problem. He knew he wasn’t a priority.”
“Gosh, thanks a lot,” I said. “As if I’m not confused enough already.”
Placing tea cups in front of us, my mother pulled out a chair and joined in.
“Girls, girls. Pipi’s right,” she said. “Walter needed to ease into asking her to go steady. Not drop a bomb like that without something leading up to it.”
“I wonder why he didn’t make it clear earlier that he wanted more than friendship,” Lynne replied. “He probably doesn’t know what he’s doing. The guy is inexperienced.”
“Inexperience is not that bad,” our mother replied.
“Mom, Wax is a nerd,” Lynne said. “Nerds are so cerebral.”
“So is Pipi,” my mother said, protective. “What will you do now?”
“Just get through the evening. Lynne, walk to school with me tomorrow, will you?”
“Of course,” she said. “I dare him to approach you.”
“Great! Now I can spend the rest of the semester hiding from him.”
Anger over the situation took hold. Thinking about what school would be like with Wax ignoring me until he graduated, I wasn’t sure I’d survive it. The alternative was unthinkable; I couldn’t pretend feeling something for him that didn’t exist. The contradiction was that although I would miss his friendship terribly, I didn’t want to go steady with anyone. I wanted to be alone, and it appeared I’d received my wish.
I couldn’t wait to get up to my room and flip through back issues of Mademoiselle.
My wish came true; I was alone. Remembering how freeing it was to not have another’s schedule to adhere to, I came and went from school as I pleased, able to walk home with Lynne if I didn’t have to stay late.
Classmates watched carefully, taking their time approaching me now that Wax’s presence wasn’t dominating every second of my day.
On the afternoons I had practice, I began a new routine; instead of taking a shower at school after the game, I’d run home through the alleys of town in my uniform. Off the well trod path, I was sure to avoid an accidental meeting with Wax and his new girlfriend. It was only an additional mile of exercise, and it saved me at least an hour. I’d get home in less than ten minutes, get a shower and into my pajamas before dinner.
“Should I be worried about you?” my mother asked, tapping her foot. “What are you going to do when Lynne leaves for college in September?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, believing it. “I’ll have an opportunity to really push with my grades. Maybe I’ll even get a scholarship to some famous university.”
“Don’t even bother,” she replied, shaking her head. “I want all my girls in the same place, exactly where Daddy and I went.”
“Okay,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Whatever you want.”
“Well, that’s what I want.”
Picking up a potato to peel, I sensed she wasn’t done with me.
“What will you do about Junior Prom now,” she said, turning to me.
A flash of dismay pulsed through me, and I broke out in a sweat again.
“I never even thought of it,” I said honestly. “I guess I won’t go.”
The Junior Prom would have been bypassed anyway, because I’d hoped Wax would invite me to his Senior Prom. It was doubtful that would happen now.
The few weeks he had left in school were sad and uncomfortable for me. Less than a week after our friendship ended, he started dating someone in his class. It hurt me to see him with another girl. It seemed like he was going out of his way to make sure I saw them together, lingering outside of the room just as I left a class, or standing by the locker room on my way to the gym for practice. The first time it happened, a fellow student, I wouldn’t even call her a friend at the time, blocked the door, protecting me.
“Don’t go out there right now. Wax is hanging outside with some blond. Wait here a minute.”
Clutching my books to my chest, that he’d disrespect me was so foreign, I couldn’t believe it. But he did it again and again, and other students would do what they could to warn me, or block the view. It wasn’t unusual for me to be surrounded by angry protectors; I’m sure baffling for Wax.
Eventually, I got a chance to see the girl. I didn’t know her name, but she was everything I wasn’t; curvy and vibrant, she wore tight short skirts and tighter sweaters. A natural blond, her hair was shiny and straight. Her hair alone would undermine all the self-confidence I’d gained being with Wax.
Mortified, while I stared at them he glanced at me, his eyes zooming into mine, walking toward the staircase with his hand on her back, possessively, as he’d done to me. The deliberate exhibition did the trick; like a wounded animal, I might have even yelped a little bit. A nearby classmate, came to my rescue and pulled me away from the scene. I felt horrible; he’d been my best friend. Within days, I was dodging hallways like I had in elementary school, trying to avoid bullies. Unable to eat or sleep, the toll his actions took on me were unmistakable. My heart was broken.
As Wax’s graduation approached, he found other ways to intimidate me. We’d never driven anywhere together, yet after our break up, he started to drive to school everyday, and she’d be sitting on the center console with her arm around him. Lynne spotted him the first time he did it on Senior Skip Day. Mother had warned Lynne that if she valued her freedom that summer, she’d go to school. Resigned, she met me at the door.
“I guess you’re stuck with me one more day,” she said, following me down the path to the sidewalk.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “I’ll be miserable without you.”
Then, grabbing my arm, she pulled me back behind a tall yew hedge growing around our yard.
“Lynne! What the heck?” I cried.
“Shut up and duck down. I just saw Wax pull up at the corner.”
Spreading the branches of the yew, I could see him at the stop sign, the car idling, looking over at our house.
“Why doesn’t he move on?” I whined, frustrated. “This is just great.”
Pulling away from the corner, he drove off toward school.
“Ugh,” Lynne said. “What’s going on with him?”
“Let’s just get to school,” I said, for the first time, thinking I might get sick for the rest of the school year just to avoid him.
Trying to help me, Lynne took over as we resumed our walk to school. We chatted about the upcoming summer, where we were going to work; Lynne as a candy stripper at the local nursing home, and me delivering papers, my old standby summer job.
“Oh, I get what he’s up to,” she said. “Don’t look now, but he’s obviously trying to make you jealous.”
We were about four blocks from school when he passed us, this time on the opposite side of the street, with Blondie on the console. Lynne took my arm, speeding up our pace while I kept my eyes glued to the pavement.
“If I had more courage, I’d wave,” I said, not really meaning it.
“Forget him,” she said, seething. “He’s not worth the effort.”
Lynne wouldn’t tell me until many years later that she’d given Wax what for on graduation day and that he was miserable and remorseful. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Fortunately, because Wax had chosen to skip school that day, I was spared hiding from him and dashing to my next classes in a frenzy. Instead, I took a deep breath and ambled to class, talking to other students. Wax’s absence enabled another junior, one who’d admired me from afar when Wax and I were a pair; I won’t even say a couple.
The boy, Chris Schmidt, approached me as I entered my last class of the day, a definite yawner; statistics. I’d noticed him over the years just because he too was a red head. Handsome and popular, his hair hadn’t paralyzed him as mine had. Nope, Chris was a hit with the opposite sex, and when he spoke to me, it was as jarring as when Wax did almost three years before.
“Philipa, can I talk to you after class?” he asked, holding the door for me.
“Okay,” I replied, my usual, dismal response.
Thinking he probably wanted to borrow my notes, it was a little shocking to find him waiting outside the door when class was over after my unenthusiastic reply. Forcing myself to smile at him, I waited.
“Would you like to get something to drink?” he asked.
“Like in the cafeteria?”
Blanching, I’d committed one of my own grievances; answering a question with a question.
“No, I was thinking we’d drive over to Blazo’s,” he answered, smiling.
Wanting to say no, my mother is waiting for me was on the tip of my tongue when Lynne appeared.
“Oh, this is my sister, Lynne,” I said. “Lynne, Chris.”
“So what do you think?” he asked, looking from Lynne to me.
This is a good time to mention that while I look like my grandfather from Brooklyn, all four of my sisters look like my father’s side of the family; tall, willowy, dark hair. Chris seemed surprised Lynne and I were related. Exchanging pleasantries gave me time to think. I didn’t want to go out with Chris. I wanted to get home and hide.
“Did I interrupt anything?” Lynne asked, an inquisitive tone to her voice.
Before I could open my mouth to say no, Chris spoke up.
“I asked Philipa to come out to Blazo’s with me for a drink,” he said. “Why don’t you come too?”
“I’d love to. I’ll call Mom, Pipi,” she said, ignoring my scowl.
A bank of pay phones waited in the hall under the stair well, and Lynne ran to one. I could hear the clink of coins going into the phone, the drone of her voice.
“So, you’re Pipi?” Chris asked, sure of himself.
“That’s what my family calls me, but you can call me Philipa,” I said, trying to be pleasant and losing the battle.
“I think I’ll stick with Pipi,” he said, checking me out.
Scurrying back to us, Lynne had a big smile on her face.
“Mom is so happy I didn’t skip school, we have her blessing to go to Blazo’s as long as we don’t eat anything the car hop brings over.”
“She didn’t say that,” I said, embarrassed.
There were just some things others didn’t need to know about our family.
“Oh, yes she did!”
Chris laughed, putting out an arm to lead the way.
“My car is across the street,” he said.
Walking to the parking lot, Lynne and Chris got to know each other while I was silent. Leaning forward from the backseat to continue talking, Lynne should have let me sit in back but she pushed me so hard to get into the front I almost fell into the car.
By the end of the hour, I knew Chris was attracted to my sister, in spite of her being a year older than he was. In high school, a year is a lot. He was trying to be a gentleman, though.
“Pipi, I wanted to ask you if you’d like to go to the Junior Prom with me,” he said.
“Oh, come on Chris. It’s okay,” I said. “You and Lynne have talked nonstop for the last hour and a half. You can ask her.”
“Pipi, are you nuts? You’re being so rude,” Lynne said, mortified.
“I’m so sorry; I don’t mean to be rude at all. I have no intention of going to the prom anyway, so I’m just being honest.”
“It’s okay,” Chris said. “I’m asking at the last minute because the girl I was going steady with broke up with me last week. And I heard through the grapevine that you were free now.”
Shuddering, I was not getting into a conversation with him about Wax. I wondered who the grapevine was. Commiserating with him, Lynne wheedled all the necessary information out in five minutes. He’d dated the same girl since the beginning of the school year, and when he didn’t want to go steady, she dumped him.
“That sounds familiar,” Lynne said, glaring at me.
Mouthing shut up, I opened the door to switch seats with her.
“Why don’t you sit up here, and I’ll get in back?” I asked. “Would that be okay with you, Chris?”
“Are you sure, Pipi?” he asked.
“Positive, Chris. I hate dances. You’d have a terrible time with me.”
Lynne burst out laughing. “Believe it, Chris. Pipi is a party pooper.”
Turning to look over the seat at Lynne, Chris chuckled.
“I guess you wouldn’t want to go to the Junior Prom with me, would you Lynne?”
“Well, I have a better idea,” she said. “Why don’t you go to the Senior Prom with me? That’ll really set your ex on her ear.”
“Why don’t you have a date for your own prom?” he asked, confused.
“It’s a long story, isn’t it Pipi?” Lynne replied, smirking.
“I have all afternoon,” Chris said. “You’ve got to tell me now. I’m dying of curiosity.”
“It’s not that complicated,” I said. “Our mother didn’t like the guy who asked her.”
“So it was no go,” Lynne added.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a mother denying her kid a chance to go to the prom because she didn’t like the guy,” Chris said. “Of course, if he’s a schmuck…”
“I wouldn’t exactly call him a schmuck…” I said.
“No, he probably is,” Lynne said. “He was pressuring me to, you know.” Lynne winked at me. “Badness.”
Stunned, I felt awful for her. Shaking my head, I knew what it took for Lynne to be good with temptation lurking around every corner. We watched our sisters take too many chances and it scared us to death. Even Ida, Lynne’s alter ego; even Ida walked a thin line. Hopefully, in college she’d be okay.
“I’m glad mom wouldn’t let you go now,” I said, sliding into the backseat. “He was a schmuck after all.”
Not responding, Chris might have been embarrassed by so much information.
“What do you think?” Lynne asked. “Would you like to go to the Senior Prom? It’s sort of short notice since it’s this Saturday.”
“Sure, I’d like to go,” he said. “I’ve even got a tuxedo.”
Our drinks arrived; like good girls, we only got Cokes. Our appetites wouldn’t be spoiled for dinner. I sipped mine through a straw while Chris and Lynne made plans for their date. Listening to my sister talk, I felt happy that she had the prom to look forward to. A fleeting emotion I couldn’t define right away passed through me, a gloomy disappointment. I didn’t want to go to my own prom so that couldn’t be what was troubling me. And then I defined it; I was lonely for Wax. Just as I recognized what my problem was, Wax and Blondie pulled up along side of us, like he had radar.
“Oh, heck,” Lynne said, turning to look at me with compassion.
“It’s okay,” I said, not wanting to get into a discussion in front of Chris.
“Do you want to leave?” he asked.
Concerned for my comfort, he was so considerate. I just hoped he wouldn’t ask me any questions about Wax. He must have known something was up though since he’d asked me to go to the prom due to that grapevine.
“Do you mind?” I asked, answering his question with a question.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Can you hold on to your cups or do you want me to signal for the carhop?”
“Just leave,” Lynne said, more upset than I was.
“Can I take you home?” he asked, backing up.
Peeking over Lynne’s shoulder, I tried to see Wax, who looked at Chris’s car in his sideview mirror. I thought we made eye contact in that second, his sad eyes and remorsefulness, all the while Blondie stretching to catch a glimpse of me.
Just as I was about to say no, don’t take us home, Lynne spoke up.
“Please take us home,” she said. “You’ll need to meet my mother anyway, and this is as good a time as any.”
“Oh boy, goin’ to meet the mother,” he sang.
Wax was quickly forgotten as the three of us laughed, relief that a crisis was narrowly averted.
“Just head down Outer Drive,” Lynne said.
“I know where you live,” Chris said. “I’m a caddy at the country club. I see Philipa, Pipi, running around the graveyard every Saturday morning when I head to work on my bike.”
“Oh, how embarrassing,” I said.
“Glamour girl, not,” Lynne said, chuckling.
“I guess before I leave the house in the morning, I’d better look in the mirror, first,” I replied.
The entire time we chattered, Chris disagreed. I thought he was sweet to pretend I looked okay when I ran early on Saturday, wild hair uncombed, harnessed with a ponytail holder, nothing on my face, not that I ever wore much makeup, ratty sweatpants and a tee shirt. Then the thought arose that Wax lived right there by the cemetery, too, yet he rarely asked to join me, or mentioned my morning runs. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps he was giving me the privacy I kept saying I had to have.
Following Lynne’s directions, Chris pulled into the driveway. My mother was waiting like a vulture as always, standing in the door with a worried look on her face.
“You made it home safe,” she called, relieved.
“Sorry, Chris,” Lynne whispered.
“What’s with the fatigue shirt?” he asked. “Your mom’s cool, like a hippie.”
Holding the door open for us, she examined us girls like she hadn’t seen us in a week as we filed through the door into the kitchen.
“Mom, this is Chris Schmidt,” Lynne said. “He’s taking me to my prom.”
I held my breath, hoping he wouldn’t hold out his hand to shake.
“Nice to meet you,” my mother said, looking at me.
“What’d I do?” I asked.
“Why aren’t you going?” she asked.
“Mother, do you mind?” I hissed, humiliated.
“I asked instead,” Lynne said, winking at Chris.
Glaring at my mother, she got the hint not to mention Wax’s name in front of Chris.
“I guess I don’t understand how someone as nice and as pretty as my Pipi doesn’t go to her own prom,” she said, sighing.
“I don’t want to go, Mother,” I said, enunciating every word. “Can we change the subject, please?”
“Yes! How about what am I going to wear?” Lynne said, although we all knew Ida and the other girls left many formal dresses in the upstairs cedar closet.
“We’ll have to put on a fashion show tonight,” my mother replied, still looking at me.
I wondered what Lynne had said to her on the phone, and then it occurred to me that she might have slipped and told her Chris was interested in me and that was why we were going to Blazo’s.
“What’s for dinner?” Lynne said, looking around the kitchen.
I noticed there weren’t any food odors. “What’s going on?”
“I’m so excited, I don’t know what to say,” she replied.
Clutching her hands together, she did a little movement that was endearing, rising up and down on her toes as though she was trying desperately to control her excitement.
“Mother, out with it!” I cried.
“Everyone’s coming from school tonight because Martha is engaged!”
Squealing with delight, Lynne, Mother and I huddled to together and jumped up and down.
“Is Hubert coming?” Lynne asked.
“Not this time,” Mother answered, looking at the kitchen wall clock. “He had a late class tonight, so just the girls. They have to go back early tomorrow morning. They should be here any second.
“Chris, if you hang around long enough, you’ll soon be bombarded with my other three daughters,” she said, unusually warm and chatty.
“You’ve got time to clear out,” Lynne said, wary.
“I think I’ll hang around, if it’s all right with you,” he said.
“Sit down,” Mother said, pointing him to the table. “I’ll make tea. Dinner’s delivered tonight. Anthony wants to see Angie.”
“I’m going to change,” I said, excusing myself.
“I’m right behind you,” Lynne said, then turning to Chris. “Will you be okay for a moment?”
“Of course, he will,” Mother said, gearing up for a thousand questions.
“I’ll be fine,” he answered.
Running up the stairs together, I flew in my bedroom, desperate to be alone for just a few minutes. So many emotions had hit me at once that afternoon; I wanted to empty myself of anything negative so I could concentrate on Martha. I just wanted to be happy for her.
But Lynne wasn’t having it, pushing me into my room close at my heels and shutting the door. Grabbing me, she held me by the arms.
“Okay, now be honest about this. Are you okay with what happened today? If you’re not, I won’t take him to the prom, just say the word.”
Shaking her off, I collapsed on the bed, suddenly exhausted.
“Lynne, it’s fine, okay? You two are perfect for each other. I didn’t want to go to the darn prom with anyone. Having Wax pull up like that was too much. It was such a coincidence, I felt like he knew I was in the car and he wanted to make me feel bad. But that’s ridiculous. How could he have even known?”
I picked at my cuticles while I made my little speech. Suddenly, I thought how Chris knew I didn’t have a date for the prom.
“I wonder if Wax put Chris up to asking me to the prom.”
Lynne stood in front of my mirror, combing her hair with my brush. Putting the brush down, she turned to me, frowning.
“Why on earth would he do that? You mean you think they’re in cahoots? That’s pretty outlandish.”
“I suppose,” I said, defeated. “How much can be crammed into twenty-four hours?”
“I guess we’ll soon find out.”
The sound of car doors slamming echoed through my open bedroom window.
“They’re home!” Mother yelled up the stairs.
“Go change,” I said. “I need to be alone for five minutes.”
Lynne looked at me, concerned.
“Okay, Pipi. I’m sorry about everything. And thank you for your generosity with Chris! You’re right. We’re perfect together. I felt it immediately.”
“Love at first sight?” I asked, fascinated, no longer thinking about myself.
“It was something at first sight, that’s for sure! Hurry, we need to get downstairs.”
Renewed excitement for Martha, I quickly changed clothes and met Lynne in the hallway.
“They didn’t come up to see us because Chris is down there,” she whispered. “That’s the only thing about dragging a guy home. I don’t like to share my family with anyone.”
“Me, too,” I said. “My family has been enough for me all these years, and you’re all enough for me now.”
It was true, to a point. Reaching for the door knob, I glanced in my room and to the left of the dresser, just out of range of view, my collection of Mademoiselle magazines, some probably dating from before my birth. The first issue I’d gotten my hands on belonged to Martha, but she’d hoarded my mother’s for years. I might have been ten years old when she cleaned her room, deciding to toss the treasure trove of fashion bliss.
“No!” I screamed. “Don’t throw them away. I’ll take them.”
“Mom,” Martha called. “Pipi wants my magazines.”
“Well, give ’em to her then,” she replied.
Helping me transfer the pile from her room to mine, excitement overtook me. I loved the magazine. My mother had a subscription to it, and we knew the ritual to be followed when it arrived. While we were occupied, she’d make coffee and sit with the newest issue, reading the stories and looking at the pictures to get ideas for ways to wear her hair or accessorize her dresses. When she was done reading, that was it, until Martha was old enough to be interested. Over the years, the magazine made its rounds of all the girls, Martha taking final possession of it because she had the biggest room. Soon they were in four neat piles, four feet high.
Anytime I wanted to read, she’d given me permission as long as I put it back in the right order. The stack was a history lesson of women’s fashion, and my goal as long as I could remember was to work there.
Stopping in the middle of the steps, Lynne turned to me.
“Pipi, are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m sure,” I said, pushing her. “I’m thinking about the magazine.”
“You and Mademoiselle,” she said, chuckling.
The fashion commentary wasn’t the only appeal. Credit could be given to Mademoiselle for my love of reading, having introduced me to the short stories of Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates and Sylvia Plath. My mother, usually such a stickler about us adhering to the conservative in everything from our clothing to our values, never curtailed what we read. When questioned later in life, she said she hoped our impulses would be satisfied in fiction. My mom!
Senior Prom that year was the game changer for Lynne, who fell head-over-heels in love with Chris Schmidt, and he with her. Looking dashing in a tux, Chris had the kind of confidence any man joining our family would have to have in order to hold together during the scrutiny of five women. Perpetually smiling, Chris devoted each day to doing when he could to make Lynne happy, and that endeared him to us.
Leaving Chris behind while she went off to college wasn’t an issue for Lynne. Staying home for another year was never a consideration. Not only would our mother haunt Lynne until she left just to escape the tyranny, Chris had his own agenda; he wanted to go to the other big school, a rival of the one we would all attend. Saying goodbye wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be; Chris drove her on move-in day, an act my mother appreciated because she still had the three other girls to move back to their dorms.
The summer before my senior year of high school, the first where I’d be alone, getting through each day became my secondary objective, my primary still hoping to work at the magazine someday. Part of making it a reality was giving the goal credence by sharing my hopes outside of the family. The situation sprung up out of nowhere, in yet another creative writing class.
The first day of senior year began like any other, that is until it was time to leave for school. I woke up to a quiet house, the sounds of the last day of summer filtering in through my window. A neighbor’s dog barked, traffic picking up on Outer Drive, the echoes of a woodpecker going to town. The sound on the periphery of consciousness, I thought my mother was chopping vegetables for a breakfast omelet at first, but when the racket continued for some minutes I knew it was the bird.
Soft foot steps coming up to my room, my mother opened the door a few inches and peeked in.
“Pipi, it’s a school day,” she whispered.
“I know,” I moaned. “Thanks, Mom,”
Although it was early September, I felt the chill of autumn. The temperature would rise later in the day, summer returning for a few, short weeks. I dressed and grabbed my book bag, taking one last look around my room. Leaving it was difficult.
It had been a summer of peace, the last summer we would all live under the same roof, a slightly lonely summer with my sisters all dating, going steady or engaged. I was the only one of us who didn’t have a boyfriend, and the solitude was unusual, but not painful. What I’d missed most was the camaraderie, my sisters and I against the repressive tyranny of our mother, but not so that she’d ever find out. Over the summer, I was forced into cahoots with Mother, wondering what the others were up to.
I already knew what I really wanted in life; one, to get away from the boring, domestic grind of home, the footsteps of which my sisters appeared to be following, and two, to acquire a job at Mademoiselle Magazine. The creative writing class my senior year helped define my goal in words.
The way my exposure to the outside world came about was circuitous; the instructor gave us a writing prompt in the form of a photograph from the 1950’s of a stylish woman standing next to an expensive sports car, a bridge in the distance partially obscured by fog. The moon rose in the background, eerily beautiful.
Closing my eyes, I imagined I was the woman in the photo, being lured over to the edge of a cliff by a handsome man. The bridge in the distance, the Golden Gate, drenched in fog, reminiscent of stories I’d heard about San Francisco. I admit, I was fully enraptured by the photograph, transported there in seconds. I could even smell the seaweed in San Francisco Bay.
Giving us fifteen minutes to write two hundred and fifty words or more, he waited, watching us, watching me. I didn’t notice his stare until the classmate behind me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Weiner, are you completely grossed out? Old man Hare hasn’t taken his eyes off you since we started to write.”
Ignoring him, I glanced up at the teacher and didn’t waver when I saw that it was true; he watched me.
“Philipa, do you have a question?” he asked.
“No,” I answered, embarrassed and fidgeting in my seat.
“I know something about you,” he said loudly, walking toward me.
Standing at the side of my desk, his groin at eye level I was afraid to look. Intimidated, I lowered my eyes. I know my face was burning red. No one made a peep. Holding out his hand for my paper, I put my pen down and handed the essay to him. Skimming it quickly, he smirked, complete with sound, just enough to make me feel inadequate.
“So! You’re the student who wants to work at Mademoiselle!”
The announcement got the attention of my classmates. He must have obtained the information from the questionnaire all seniors filled out for the yearbook. Since I wasn’t on any committees and didn’t hold any office, a simple line of words to be placed under my senior picture and most likely ignored by my classmates, was now made public in front of forty students.
Not responding to him apparently was the wrong thing to do.
“Do you think this romantic rubbish is going to get you a job at a New York magazine?”
He didn’t really expect me to answer, but that was okay because I wasn’t going to sit there another second; I was afraid I’d throw up. Sliding my books and papers off the desk, I slipped out of my seat, reached for my book bag, snatched my essay out of his hand, and left the classroom.
Apparently, not waiting for class to end, several of my classmates made a beeline to the principal’s office, complaining on my behalf. I didn’t know because I was on my way home, sick, the revulsion that by making a spectacle of myself, I might have destroyed chances of happiness my senior year. The first response of any catastrophe is often exaggerated, and I had definitely inflated the situation.
My mother was waiting for me, standing at the screen door in a frenzy, worried, compassionate.
“School called,” she said. “He’ll apologize to you, of course.”
I heard her words, but they didn’t register, feeling like I was underwater. Opening the screen door for me, she ushered me into the kitchen, that protective arm around my shoulder.
“Sit down, dear. I’ve made you tea and toast. You should go back, you know. I’ll go with you.”
“Okay,” I said, my lips trembling.
This was a new experience for me, the drama and overreacting. It was something we expected from Angela. It gave me a new compassion for her. A being could truly be driven to unexpected behavior by the cruelty of others.
“I don’t know why he singled me out. It was like the man hated me on sight. He must be on the yearbook committee.”
“Well, try not to worry about it. We’ll nip it in the bud right away so you can get back in school. Excellent student, perfect attendance and awards for sports. You aren’t going to let some little man destroy that for you, now are you?”
“No, but how did you know he was a little man?” I asked.
“The secretary at school told me,” she answered, smug.
After tea and toast with my mother, she got her purse and keys and waited for me at the door. Following her out to the car, I remember everything about that day, how she took my book bag for me to lighten my load, turned to lock up the door; even though our neighborhood was safe, the house rarely empty. I could see with everyone away at college, just her and me living there during the week, we’d have to alter the way we came and went. It made me sad, evidence of our changing life.
I got into the front seat and waited for her to get into hers. Each detail I remember clearly; the way she leaned forward to put the key into the ignition, the smell of her car with the little paper pine-tree deodorizer hanging from the rearview mirror, the blast of air when she turned on the air conditioning.
Chatting about the girls and when they’d be home again soothed me. I felt protected and cherished; the opposite of what I’d experienced in class. At that point in the return trip to school I knew I wasn’t going to go back to the class, apology or not. A seminal moment for me, the idea that I could make choices protecting myself from abuse was huge. Even more, that my mother had my back.
Two months before college graduation, I went to a job fair the university held. Checking the list of vendors, my heart rate increased exponentially when I saw the familiar name listed.
Many of my classmates didn’t have jobs yet, but unemployment wasn’t an alternative for me, my mother on my back every chance she got. Hounding me about perfecting my resume, she constantly sent me ads from the local newspaper, advising me about what I needed to do to make sure I didn’t come home in June without a promise of full-time employment. Since I wasn’t able to find a husband, employment was mandatory.
“Don’t be upset, Pipi,” Lynne said. “She made the same rules for the rest of us. Why do you think I’m still in school?”
Martha was the only one to find a husband in college. The quintessential science nerd, Hubert got a job at the airport testing safety devices for one of the airlines. Martha was going to be around for a while.
Angela found a husband, but he was practically raised in our backyard. Angela and Anthony got married the summer after she graduated from college. So in spite of getting a teaching certificate, after working in his father’s pizzeria every summer from the time she was fourteen, she’d work there until death do them part. Although I didn’t have the heart to tell her, now her hair always smelled yeasty, like pizza dough.
Ida, funny, sarcastic Ida, fell in love with an artist, a bonafide, card carrying, guild member artist. She’d be working for a long time to come, or until Luke got the recognition he deserved.
Lynne graduated with honors from the business college and ended up going to nursing school because she couldn’t find a job in business. My mother wasn’t about to let her forget that she’d told her to go to nursing school in the first place and could have saved a lot of time and money if she’d listened. Lynne was in her last semester; sweating it out before she had to take the licensing exam. I didn’t envy her.
Walking up and down the aisles at the job fair with a file folder full of fifty resumes, nothing fit. A journalism major; I didn’t want to waste time by filling out applications to be an administrative assistant for a food distributor, or a dental assistant. My fantasy job lurked within the tables and displays. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I wasn’t giving up until I got that job. And as I rounded the corner on the last aisle, there it was.
The only business worth handing over my resume; the fashion magazine I read cover to cover every month since I could read. A man sat at the table under their recognizable banner and when I paused in front of it, he jumped up, excited someone was stopping.
“Benjamin Smith,” he said, nodding his head at me. “You a journalism major?”
“Yes,” I replied, pulling one of my fifty resumes out of the folder and handing it to him. “What do you have available?”
Biting my tongue to keep from laughing, I wanted to add, I’ll take anything you’ve got.
“Entry level copyediting,” he answered. “We offer a foot in the door, full paid health insurance, relocation assistance and three weeks personal time off, which includes sick days and holiday pay.”
My mind swirled around what he’d just said. I never gave health insurance or moving expenses a thought, assuming my mother would keep me on her policy and would let me live with her for the rest of my life. That’s when it occurred to me that relocation assistance meant it wasn’t local. Of course, it would be in Manhattan. What was I thinking?
“Where are you located?” I asked, just be sure.
“New York City,” he said, smiling again. “Why not fill out an application and take a look at our remuneration package. The only caveat is that we’d need the applicant to come to New York for the interview. And, the job starts right after graduation in June.”
Pushing an application over the table to me, he pointed to a chair. I pulled it over and sat down, looking through my bag for a pen. I copied information off my resume onto the application. When I finished, I pushed it back to him as he handed me a folder with the name of the magazine on the cover. Chills went down my spine. This was my dream. I’d worked hard for it, and now I would make it come true.
“Have you had a lot interest?” I asked, suddenly worried I’d get lost in a shuffle of applications.
He shook his head.
“Not too much because it’s entry level, and that means entry level pay.”
Reaching for the folder again, he picked through the paperwork, pulling out a white type-written sheet covered with numbers.
“Editing jobs don’t start at much, but for the right applicant, the pay will increase quickly. Having to move to New York is a scary proposition for many new graduates, too.”
Well, it wasn’t for me, although I didn’t say anything to him. I reached out for his hand; the first time I’d done that. Wax came to mind, his wonderful hand which he’d held out for me to shake. A chill went through me, my mind wandering to Wax, while I tried focusing on the man in front of me, his name tag printed in large, red letters.
“Benjamin, thank you for telling me about the job. I hope you’ll consider me. What’s your time frame?”
I was shocking myself at how aggressive I was, but I wanted the job.
On graduation day, the whole family came, including my grandparents from Brooklyn. When my turn came to walk on the stage, my grandmother cried while my grandfather napped; his head down, toupee slipped forward. After I received my diploma, and everyone clapped for me, Ida said he sprung up and hammered his hands together, whistling through his dentures, screaming,
“Pipi Wiener rocks!”
Standing in a group with my family, the mortarboard in hand, I caught myself looking for Wax in the crowd, but of course, he wasn’t there. Although I didn’t invite him to the ceremony, he knew I was graduating, yet he never contacted me. Refusing to accept that I was being passive-aggressive, focusing on my family helped me get through the disappointment that he hadn’t read my mind and showed up.
My grandfather took us out for lunch, and in spite of the laughter and camaraderie, it took every bit of self-control I had not to permit my feelings about Wax’s rejection ruin my party. Later, I felt ridiculous that I allowed what I perceived as his indifference to impact how I felt about myself, anger at him gradually replacing the disappointment, the conflict cycling all day long.
The following day, while packing the last few things to move out of my dorm, one of the residents brought me a message from the receptionist saying that Benjamin Smith was on the phone at the desk. The name didn’t register immediately, and then I remembered. The magazine! I threw what was in my hand onto the bed and ran down the hall to the stairs.
Obsessed with thinking how wonderful it would be if I could move to New York right away, I didn’t want to go home unemployed and unmarried, another disappointment for my mother to deal with.
The logistics; how’d I get there, where I would live, the loneliness of living in the city where I didn’t know a soul didn’t bother me. I just wanted to get as far away from the risk of running into Wax as quickly as possible. Five years later, I still gave him power over my happiness.
The secretary smiled at me and held the phone out when I got to the desk. Hesitantly, I took it from her, trying to calm down.
“Hello,” I said, still out of breath.
“Philipa, it’s Ben Smith,” he answered. “I’ve got good news. The human resources people here are very interested and would like you to come to Manhattan at the beginning of the week and meet everyone.”
I didn’t say anything right away, because I didn’t know if that meant I had the job or if I was competing with other applicants.
“Oh, how exciting,” I said flatly. “What should I do?”
Realizing how ungrateful I sounded, it was too late to remedy. In exasperation with myself, I shook my head at the receptionist, who gave me thumbs up regardless.
“You don’t have to do a thing,” he said. “Your reservations will be made here, and someone will contact you tomorrow with the details. We ask you to come prepared for one night. The Barbizon Hotel is close by, and everyone stays there when first coming into the city. We’ll set that up, too. Then, if we all feel like we’re a good fit, you’ll go home, get your affairs in order, and come back the following week.”
“Oh wow, that fast!” I said, stuttering.
“Yep, remember I said it starts right after graduation. Well, what do you think?”
“Yes, absolutely, I’d love to come,” I said, trying to make up for my earlier lack of enthusiasm. “I can’t wait, actually.”
“Alright! I’ll get the ball rolling,” he said. “You have a great weekend.”
We said goodbye and I hung up the phone. The secretary was looking at me over her cup of coffee.
“Did you get a job offer already?” she asked, admiringly.
“I can’t believe it, but yes, I did,” I said, flabbergasted.
“Well, congratulations! That’s really great.”
I smiled at her and turned to the stairs again. I only had a few more things to cram into my car and then I’d start the hour and a half drive toward home for the last time.
It was then I realized there’d be no more Wieners at that college. It would be the first time in ten years. Hopefully, my nieces and nephews would attend, carrying on the tradition that had started with my late father.
The excitement that I’d be going to New York wouldn’t really penetrate until my sisters heard the news. I needed their validation like never before. Pulling into the driveway behind my mother’s car when I arrived home, I was mindful of not looking over to Wax’s street. After all this time, aware that he wouldn’t be waiting for me at the place where the alley crossed our streets was still disheartening.
Taking a few deep breaths, I focused on my news, hoping to rekindle the enthusiasm that thinking about Wax had diminished. I popped the trunk and grabbed an armload of my stuff. My mother heard the car and walked out to greet me, her usual inquisitive expression, honing in to see if she could read me.
“Well?” she asked, her poker face on.
“You’ll never believe what’s happened!”
“Don’t make your old mother guess,” she said, teasing.
“I got a job offer,” I said, grabbing her arm; I looked her right in the eye. “At Mademoiselle!”
“Of course, you did,” she replied. “All my children are successful.”
“Right, Mom,” I said, handing her bags.
“What, ‘right Mom’? You’ve set your sights on that magazine since you were a little girl. Of course, you’d get the job. Don’t downplay your effort, Pipi. You should be proud.”
Trying not to get my hopes up, just in case, I turned back the car to get another load when Martha came out to help.
“Pipi got a job,” Mother announced. “At Mademoiselle!”
“No way!” Martha shouted, leaning forward to kiss my cheek.
“I still have to have an interview,” I said.
Reaching to take my suitcase, I wouldn’t give it to her; Martha’s pregnant. It’ll be my sixth niece or nephew. Grabbing the suitcase, she was indignant.
“I’m not an invalid,” she said. “So, give us details.”
A quick rundown of the upcoming timeline, my excitement returned as I’d hoped thanks to the interest of my family.
“Well, I have to fly to New York on Tuesday to meet everybody. And if I’m a good fit, they’ll hire me,” I explained.
“A good fit? What does that mean?” my mother asked.
“It sounds like a way to filter applicants, Mom,” Martha said.
“Does that mean you’ll have to move to New York?” she asked. “Maybe it’s not such a good thing after all.”
“Can we get everything inside before we get into that?” I asked, the conversation not going the way I hoped it would with my mother’s negativity. “Who else is home?”
“Just Lynne,” Martha said, then whispering to me when my mother was inside. “She’s got news, too. But let her tell you in her own time.”
“Great,” I said. “Now I’ll be worried until she tells me.”
“Let’s concentrate on your news first,” Martha said. “This is such a milestone! We can use it to motivate our kids; focus on what you want all of your life, and it will come true.”
“I need to tell everyone. I need advice,” I explained, my mother’s concern over leaving the nest spreading doubt like mud over my enthusiasm.
“I’ll call them over,” Martha said. “Ida has been like a maniac waiting for you to get home.”
Some of my confidence seeped back hearing about Ida; my sisters were my sounding boards. Martha went back inside the house to make the calls while my mother and I finished with the car. They’d taken most of my junk home the day of graduation, so there wasn’t much to move.
The girls lived within a two-mile radius of my mother’s house. Waiting for them to arrive, I did serious self-talk. Leaving my childhood home was crucial to having my lifelong dream come true. I’d be a short, two hour plane ride away.
Before long, Ida and Angela arrived with their children and husbands. I was sitting at the kitchen table where so much of the action in this house had taken place, telling my family about Ben Smith’s offer, while my nieces and nephews took turns climbing onto my lap.
Soon, my mother was on the phone with her father, telling him I’d be in the city the following week. I wasn’t going to have time to see them but I knew they’d insist on taking the train from Brooklyn, even if it meant only waving to me from across the street. I’d have to find a way to fit them in.
We talked the afternoon away. Our dinner came from Anthony’s that night so no one had to cook.
My sisters continued to be touchstones. They validated me, as excited about my new job prospects as if they were going to New York themselves. Doubts disappearing, the resolution that my lifelong dream had come true grounded me. My life had meaning and value.
By eight that night my nieces and nephews were fussy and tired. The exodus from my mother’s house started. After everyone left, I went up to my room for the first time since I got home. The big house was empty, lonely. Lynne stepped out for a drink with friends without telling me her news. My mother was sitting in the living room, reading. The windows were open and I could hear traffic moving up and down Outer Drive. I had three days here to look forward to, in my childhood bedroom.
Something reminded me of Wax Spencer as I was putting the last of my clothing away. I went to the window to see if I could catch a glimpse of the top of his house, but the trees were so lush in early June that my room felt like it was in a tree house, and all I could see was green.
After he graduated and I was alone, the routine of high school and sports was enough to keep me going without him. Every year, he sent a card for my birthday. The printed greeting, and then his name, he never added any news about himself. There were never any sightings in the neighborhood. For the most part, he ceased to exist for me.
Then out of nowhere, the summer after he graduated from college, one weekend evening he came by the house with a six pack. Home after my sophomore year, I was a year behind because of that change in major.
Sitting at the kitchen table, leafing through a magazine, the house was empty, my mother over at Martha’s house. I heard a car engine pulling up in the driveway, and thinking she was home early, got up to greet her, but it was Wax. A strange mix of emotions swirled through me like a tornado; anger, surprise, hope, desire.
As he got out of the car and walked up the path to the house, I realized I hadn’t laid eyes on him for almost four years. Still as handsome as I had remembered, he hadn’t changed that much, maybe his musculature more mature; he’d always been so lanky. So now he was handsome and built. I looked exactly the same, wearing the same clothes, my hair still pulled into a ponytail with no makeup.
“Wow,” he said. “You haven’t changed at all.”
“You’re the one,” I said, so nervous my lips quivered, my throat in danger of closing up. “To what do I owe the honor?”
“I saw Lynne at Misko’s,” he said, holding up a six-pack from the local bar. “She said you were home alone. You know what a lecher I am, so as soon as I heard that…”
“Oh, right,” I said laughing, stepping out on the porch.
Going to extend my hand to shake, he reached for me before I could step back, putting the six-pack down he pulled me to him and held me, a full body hug that left nothing to the imagination. I could feel his heart beating, that’s how close we were standing.
Time ceased to exist. I don’t know how long we stood together. Enveloped in him, even his smell was familiar, soap and water, whatever detergent he washed his clothes with, even his deodorant filled my senses. Hands moving down to my waist, my heart skipped a beat, thinking this was it, this was the passion I had waited for.
“I’ve missed you,” Pipi,” he said, earnestly, breaking the spell.
There was a sadness about his voice that scared me. I didn’t understand why if he missed me, we weren’t together. But it wasn’t my place to ask; if he wanted me, he would have to let me know.
“You know where I am,” I replied. “I’m in East Lansing during the week, but every weekend, I’m right here.”
“What are you doing this summer?” he asked, watching me.
“Guess,” I said, giggling.
“Yep, still a paper route. My aim is so good; I hit the porch every time. I haven’t had to get off my bike yet this year.”
“You might be the only college student who has the same paper route they had since fifth grade.”
“I think I am,” I replied, laughing.
My mother came home after ten and said goodnight, smiling at me as she went inside and shut the door although the night was warm.
Wax and I sat on the back porch talking and laughing until after midnight, easy conversation like two old friends. The earlier discomfort disappeared, time and beer aiding, the sensuous hug forgotten.
Looking up at the sky, the lights of the nearby city obscured the stars, and I was about to say something when he leaned in to kiss me. We’d never kissed before. Putting his hand up on the back of my head, threading his fingers through my hair, he kissed me like we were lovers. My hands slid around his body meeting in the middle of his back. I could feel his chest expand and contract with each breath as I held him, the warmth of his body flooding me with desire. Smoothing my hair back, he did the same thing, embracing me, his arms encircling my body.
It took my breath away, the intensity of it, I wanted him so badly. I would have gone all the way right there on my mother’s back porch if he’d tried. But he didn’t go any further than the kiss. Pulling away from me just enough, his lips slid down my neck and stopped. I held my breath.
“I’d better go,” he said, muffling a sigh.
Stunned, I was speechless that he was going to leave me. Sensing my astonishment, he paused for a moment. I could almost see the wheels turning as he debated telling me something.
“I’ve got an early appointment tomorrow,” he explained, but that was it. “I enjoyed being with you tonight, Pipi. I think I made a big mistake letting you walk out of my life.”
When he got up to leave, it felt awful. I was afraid it would be the last time we’d be together, and I was going to ask him to stay, to give me another chance, when Lynne’s friends pulled up on Outer Drive to let her off.
The distraction was bad enough; I could tell she was upset, as well.
“We meet again,” she said to Wax, trying to act like there was nothing wrong.
We made small talk for one minute, and then he said again he had to go, that early appointment the next day.
“I’ll see you inside, Pipi,” Lynne said.
After she left, Wax looked at me for the last time, sticking out that hand of his.
“Goodbye, Pipi,” he said. “It was great seeing you again.”
Letting my hand go, he turned to walk down to his car.
“Take care, Wax,” I called after him.
Standing on the porch, watching him back out of our driveway and then turn the corner to his block, the finality of his departure struck me in the chest like a fist.
Picking up beer bottles and sticking them back in their cardboard holder, icicle fingers ran down my spine, the possibilities of Wax marrying and having children with another girl, seeing him on the street or running into him at the Kroger, the final indignity-pretending I didn’t know him.
“Are you ever coming inside?” Lynne asked, holding the door open for me.
It was then that I could see something had upset her terribly.
“Lynne! What is it?” I asked, taking her hand.
She led me inside and pointed to the kitchen table. “Is there any of that beer left?” she asked.
“No,” I answered. “But there’s wine in the fridge.”
We busied ourselves with uncorking the bottle. I could already feel a headache coming on, but the weekend stretched out ahead of me with nothing to do anyway.
Pouring a glass for each of us, I watched my sister, her eyes bloodshot, her pale beauty more pronounced when she was in despair.
“Lynne, what happened?” I asked.
“Chris and I broke up,” she finally said, sniffing. “He didn’t call all week, and tonight I ran into him uptown.”
“Was he alone?” I asked, baffled.
Chris was the most dependable, sweetest man.
“Yes, but he may as well not have been. I asked my friends to go ahead and get seated and I’d be right in. I asked him what was happening. ‘You never returned my calls,’ I said. He didn’t hesitate, that was what was so difficult,” Lynne explained. “If he’d had a doubt, or any remorse, I’d think there was hope for us.”
“What was his answer?” I asked, dreading hearing what she might say.
“‘I met someone else,’ he said. Just like that. I asked him who, and he said someone at his job. He was tired of waiting for me to make up my mind about what I wanted to do with my life.”
“You mean because you’re going back to school? Was it an issue that you were going to go to nursing school?”
Dumbfounded, I couldn’t work my mind around Chris betraying Lynne.
“Never. He never said a word to me about it. When I decided to apply for the nursing program, he didn’t have any opinion. I had to do what I had to do to be employable. He never said not to worry, that he’d support me.”
“Yes, well is that really an option? I don’t see our sisters sitting around eating bon bons while their husbands support them.”
Giving Lynne’s revelation time to sink in, we drank wine in silence.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Nothing; keep going to school. I’m just glad I’m going close by, so I can live home with Mom,” she said.
It was unavoidable; living home with Mom became our depressing mantra that summer.
During the five years it took me to get through college, my three older sisters graduated, got married and had babies every year. Their activity filled my life with meaning and excitement. I didn’t notice the emptiness, or the loneliness, until after graduation that first night home in my room, alone. The flurry of activity in the dorm was never centered on me, but the idea that something was going on, like a parade passing by, comforted me. I felt like I was part of the action of life.
Here at home, the quiet was depressing. I ran downstairs to talk to my mother for a while, hoping her companionship would help dispel the sadness I felt after my sisters left. When I walked into the living room, the soft yellow light from her reading lamp cast a glow over her shoulders and the area around her. It was eerie, almost lunar. Watching, I waited for her to take a breath.
“Mom!” I called, suddenly frightened.
Raising her head, she smiled at me, having dozed off. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” I said, not sorry at all, thinking she was dead.
I came to her and bending down, kissed her cheek.
“It’s nice to have you home, Pipi,” she said. “Although it sounds like it won’t be for long.”
Closing her book, she put it on her lap, looking past me, pensive.
“I’ve spent my life raising my family, excited about their milestones, but it’s sad, too. Everyone has their own life now. Lynne probably won’t stick around for long, and you’ll move to New York. I’ll visit Bubbe and Zayde more often if you do.”
“Would you ever move back to Brooklyn, Mom?” I asked.
“No, I’d miss the grandchildren too much. Unless you moved there and promised never to leave, there would be nothing for me back east. My parents are world travelers. I’d probably get there and they’d decide to move to Israel. You’ll be busy working and hopefully, meeting people. You don’t need me hanging around.”
“I heard Zayde is taking a Krav Maga class,” I said, frowning, thinking of my little grandfather doing marshal arts.
My mother laughed at the vision.
“I guess it’s not funny,” she said, getting up. “He’s doing it so he can protect himself if necessary.
“Let’s have tea.”
I followed her into the kitchen, nervous. I was building up the courage to ask her a question I’d wanted to ask since graduation.
“Have you heard anything about Wax Spencer?”
She filled the teakettle with water and placed it on the stove, turning the gas flame on under it.
“After he graduated, he took a civilian job with the Department of Defense,” she said, avoiding looking at me. “In the Persian Gulf.”
“He did? That’s odd,” I said, fear growing. “Why would a he take a job like that? He could’ve worked wherever he wanted.”
“I don’t know. I ran into his mother at Kroger, and she told me. I didn’t know who she was at first.
“‘I’m Walter Spencer’s mother. Our children dated all through high school. My son mentions your Philipa whenever he’s home.’ I wanted to argue with her. You were just friends, weren’t you?”
“I’m not sure anymore. He never tried to kiss me in three years. That sounds like just friends, doesn’t it? And then he never spoke to me again when I didn’t want to go steady.”
I remembered the rogue kiss that summer night. Was the appointment he referred to the next day deployment to the Persian Gulf? The kiss might have never happened as far as he was concerned; he never got in touch after. There was my reason he didn’t show up at graduation, too, invitation or not. I didn’t mention it to my mother.
“Well, ‘Pray for him,’ Mrs. Spencer asks, because he’s in the Middle East. The Persian Gulf War,” Mother said, clicking her tongue, shaking her head, thinking of another war.
I was sure Mrs. Spencer didn’t know my father was a Vietnam War casualty. Or maybe she had, and that was why she sought out my mother, a stranger, at the grocery store. Or was it really for my benefit?
“I need something stronger than tea tonight,” I said.
“Yes,” Mother said. “I’ll join you.”
We were at the kitchen table talking with only the light on above the sink when Lynne finally came home.
Kissing me on the cheek, she reiterated how proud she was of me.
“I’m glad you’re both here,” she said. “I’m got something to tell you.”
“You’re getting married,” Mother said.
“Right. In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t had a date in over a year,” Lynne replied.
“It’s only because you don’t apply yourself. Now if you would just…”
“Mother, please. Do you want to hear what I have to say or not?”
Standing up to get Lynne a wine glass, my mother laughed. “I’m sorry; of course I want to hear your news. Sit down and have a glass of wine with Pipi and me.”
Pulling out a chair, Lynne looked over at me and winked. Our mother joining in for a glass of wine was a fairly new affair; she said because I was finally an adult, she could relax a little bit.
Handing Lynne her glass, Mother sat down. “Okay, everything is perfect. Speak,” she said.
“Ma’s got a buzz,” Lynne said, laughing. “Okay, seriously.”
“We’re serious!” I said. “Hurry up.”
“I’m going to join the Army,” she said. “The Army Nurse Corp, specifically. They’ll pay my loans for nursing school, I’ll go in as an officer, and there’s a possibility I can stay right here and work at the VA hospital.”
This news coming on the heels of my mother’s story about running into Mrs. Spencer in the Kroger felt surreal. We were looking at Lynne, and then we looked at each other.
“This is just unreal,” I said. “Mom just told me Wax is in the Persian Gulf and now you’re telling us…”
“But I’m not going to go overseas,” she said.
“That’s what your father said,” Mother replied.
“This is a volunteer Army,” Lynne said. “It’s different now.”
“I don’t think it’s that different. You join the Army, the recruiter tells you what you want to hear, and you go where they want you to go, end of sentence.”
“Mother, please don’t be upset. I want to do this. I feel like I’ve been spinning my wheels so to speak. I wasted the first four years of college.”
“Because you didn’t listen to me,” she answered, triumphant.
“It would make Dad proud of me.”
“Lynne, you never have to concern yourself with making your father proud because he’s dead. You can’t make him proud. All you can do is take care of yourself and do what’s best for you.”
Realizing she’d backed herself into the proverbial corner, my mother started to laugh.
“Oh Lynne, I know you think this is what’s best for you! But muter thinks not!”
Reaching over, Lynne hugged her, kissing her cheek. “Mom, I promise you, I won’t do anything hasty. I just wanted you to know what I’m thinking. I don’t want to waste any more time. They’ll train me in the field I’m interested in. It’s all good.”
That night I tossed and turned, thinking of the parallels between my mother and Mrs. Spencer, both missing loved ones off to war. I didn’t include myself in the group because dwelling on Wax was counterproductive and if I started to worry about Lynne now, I’d be a wreck by the time she made up her mind. It was better to try to let things of which I had little or no control not trouble me. It took some effort, but soon, I’d forgotten the worry and fell asleep.
The following day, I received a phone call from Karen Fischler of human resources at the magazine, and my thoughts and concerns for Wax and Lynne quickly disappeared. The information I would need about my flight and the schedule for the meeting with my future employers on Tuesday took all my concentration.
“Welcome aboard, Miss Weiner!” she said before she hung up, acting like I had the job.
The weekend filled up with my sisters and their children. I walked to each house to see the latest renovations and give unsolicited garden advice; it was what I missed most about being away from home in the spring. My mother scaled down the size of her garden patch over the years while my sister’s got bigger and bigger. Ida’s took up the most space.
“I’m in competition with Martha to see who can get the biggest tomatoes this year,” she said.
“What about me? Mine were bigger than the both of yours last year,” Angela said, pouting.
They looked at her in unison and laughed.
“That’s why you’re not in the race,” Ida said.
Lynne was too overwhelmed with nursing school, the state board exam looming ahead, and now the Army to garden. If she didn’t pass her boards, she wouldn’t be able to join the Army.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about a garden right now. All I can think about is malignant hypothermia,” she said, complaining.
“Little ears,” Angela said, waggling her finger.
“Oops, sorry,” Lynne said.
But her comments opened the doors to discussions about her possible enlistment, and the men had to put their opinions in the mix, as well. The bickering went on for hours, all thoughts of Wax Spencer banished.
Monday I spent getting ready for the trip east, packing enough for three days, just in case. Buying a little gift for my grandparents, I’d never met them on their turf, and the anticipation sweetened the anxiety of the job interview. At my sisters’ insistence, I got my nails done and a hair trimming.
As I was going through the motions of the first step toward achieving my lifelong dream, waves of something I couldn’t identify kept sweeping over me. It had started at my sister’s house, when we sat around Martha’s kitchen table talking about shopping lists and diaper rash remedies and heirloom tomato seeds. For the first time in my life, I felt totally disconnected from my sisters. We were at such different places, and I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was disdain or envy or confusion. Their lives were complete. They were educated, employed, wives, mothers. Even Lynne had an agenda which was incomprehensible to me.
I didn’t even have a boyfriend; at age twenty-three, I was still a virgin. I hoped my dream job, as yet uncertain, would fulfill all the requirements and expectations I had for a happy life, because at the rate I was going, there would be nothing else for me. I’d force a smile and keep trudging along.
Early Tuesday, Martha’s husband drove me to the airport; he worked there and said it wasn’t an inconvenience for him. Waving goodbye to him, it was anticlimactic; did I expect a big sendoff with friends and family in attendance? I pulled my little suitcase through the terminal, feeling a pang of excitement for Mademoiselle, and nothing more.
The plane landed in LaGuardia, and as I struggled to get my bag out from under the seat in front of me, the sensation of being completely in the moment struck. I had no idea what the next instant would bring. Seeing my grandparents waiting for me just outside of the security gate shocked me, was exactly what I needed to ground me in space and time.
“Bubbe,” I screamed. “Zayde!”
Never having cried when I saw them in the past, something about them going out of their way for me, getting up at six in the morning to take the subway to the airport to welcome me and see me for ten minutes moved me. Hugging them both, they were a taken aback by the display of affection. My bubbe dug through her black leather handbag, produced an ironed and folded hankie, and patted my face, careful not to wipe off my freckle cover.
“Wait, I have something for you,” I said.
Digging through my bag. I pulled out a small leather bound picture album in which my sisters had organized photos of their kids. We visited as we walked to the front entrance, and a driver with a sign hand printed with Weiner was waiting for me. My granddad snickered, my bubbe elbowing him in the side. We kissed and hugged again, saying we’d try to see each other before I left. I went with the driver, watching over my shoulder as my tiny grandparents walked back to the subway. I brushed away another tear.
As it turned out, I would see my grandparents every Friday night for the next year. Celebrating the Sabbath with them was wonderful; my mother did a great job but it was very authentic the way my grandmother did it. You knew she was going through the motions from her heart; it wasn’t just about teaching her daughters. Worshiping God as she lit the candles, she said a blessing over the challah. We drank wine and laughed until it was time for me to leave.
Occasionally, if I stayed too late, I’d spend Friday night in their tiny Brooklyn apartment, sleeping in the same bed my mother slept in, surrounded by artifacts of her youth. In the morning, I’d have a solemn breakfast with them before taking off for my own apartment.
The job turned out to be exactly what Ben Smith said it would be; an entry level editing job. Living in New York was disappointing; I didn’t have friends with which to go clubbing, and the glamour I thought would surround me, like in Woody Allen movies, never materialized. I kept waiting to hear George Gershwin music playing when I was on the street.
The boring job accentuated a boring life, made tolerable by exploring the city when I could, and visiting my grandparents as often as possible.
About every six weeks, I’d hop on a plane and make the trip back home. My brother-in-law would pick me up on his way from work. I never missed a birthday or holiday. At the end of May, in time for Memorial Day weekend, I came home again, this time for my sister Martha’s barbeque.
Lynne would be home from Maryland where she was training to be a field medical unit nurse at Walter Reed Hospital. I didn’t think that sounded like a job that would be most useful stateside, but didn’t offer my opinion, remembering my mother’s warning about trusting recruiters.
The town made a big deal of Memorial Day with parades and lots of interaction between veterans, and the community. Already evidence of it, grandstands set up along the main street in preparation for the next day excited me. I was home!
We pulled up to my mother’s house, and I could see everyone was there already, waiting for me in spite of it being late. Mother stood at the screen door like she always did, and I could see my sisters standing behind her and their children surrounding them.
“I wish I had a camera,” I said, smiling.
No one seemed to think that was very comical. My brother-in-law had my suitcase and put his hand on my back as we walked up the stairs to the porch.
“What’s going on?”
Their expressions made it clear they were upset. Oh God, did one of the grandparents die while I was in the air? I thought. I wouldn’t be able to tolerate living in New York if that was the case.
“What’s wrong?” I said, walking through the gauntlet of family. Angela herded the children into the family room while my mother took my hand. “Mom, get it out, will you? You’re scaring the hell out of me.”
“Come in here, sit down,” she said, leading me to the kitchen table.
“Is it Bubbe?”
She shook her head.
“Oh, thank God,” I said. “What is it then?”
Lynne and Ida were close by, and I could see that Lynne had been crying, her eyes were red rimmed and she held a tissue in her hand.
“Someone tell me! Is it one of the husbands?”
My mother put her hand on my shoulder.
“It’s Walter,” she said in a soft voice.
I was caught off guard. Who the hell was Walter? But a wave of heat went through my body. I remembered the hand reaching out for me. I’m Wax. Walter Spencer, but everyone calls me Wax. My heart started beating a little faster.
“Yes,” Lynne said. “He’s been hurt. Seriously hurt. They flew him in to Walter Reed last week. Mom called me and I was able to see him. His mother keeps calling here, asking for you. I didn’t want to give her your number in the city because of work and everything.”
Yes, God knew work was so busy and so exciting; I wouldn’t be able to finish the important things I needed to get done if I heard that someone I loved was wounded. Loved? I was shocked; it had to be sarcasm weaving its way through my mind, attempting to cover the pain in my heart.
“Why would she keep calling for me?” I asked. “I haven’t spoken to him in years.”
After my disappointment that he hadn’t read my mind and showed up for graduation, he’d sent me a graduation card with his APO address on it, but I didn’t feel it was necessary to acknowledge it.
“Evidently, he asked for you,” Ida said, putting her hand on my shoulder.
“His mother said the flight nurse told her he was calling out for Pipi during the flight in from Germany, before they put a breathing tube in place,” Lynne said.
I felt like someone had dumped a bucket of freezing water over me. My lips were shivering.
“How awful,” I managed to choke out, seeking out Lynne’s eyes. “What’s wrong with him?”
“It’s not good,” she said gently. “He has a severe head injury. They don’t know the extent of his brain involvement yet.”
Everyone looked at me, concerned. I didn’t understand why. I wasn’t going to go off the deep end because an old high school friend had been injured. Head injury, brain involvement, breathing tube. I thought of my father and grabbed onto the table to keep upright.
“If they don’t know how bad it is, he could be okay, right? I mean, what else do you have to tell me?”
Lynne had her hand on my back.
“Let me get you a cup of tea,” my mother said, trying to soften the blow.
Tea was my mother’s panacea for all ills. A nice, strong cup of tea. I plunked down in a chair.
“What am I supposed to do now?” I asked.
“Do you feel like you could talk to his mother?” Ida said. “I’ll go with you if you want to see her in person.”
“We can both go,” Lynne added, safety in numbers.
I agreed that talking on the phone about it sounded awful.
“Let her recover from her trip and have her tea first,” my mother said, her hand still on my neck.
My sisters were hovering over me, taking turns patting my back.
“I think I should call her now and set up a visit,” I said.
The phone was an old-fashioned rotary dial phone that hung on the wall. My mother had written down the number for me but my hands were shaking so badly, I couldn’t dial it. Lynne came to my rescue and put the call through.
Mrs. Spencer picked up on the first ring. I didn’t remember her voice so high pitched and old. She really was from the Midwest.
“Hello, Philipa,” she said drawing out the O. “I’m so happy you called. You must have heard about Walter.”
I told her I had, that I’d just arrived home and the family filled me in. I didn’t think it was necessary to go to her, now that I’d heard her, and that she sounded fine, and then I heard her sniff. She wasn’t fine, she was crying.
“Walter’s in a coma, a drug induced coma. He has a head injury, and the coma will help his brain heal,” she said, weeping.
I thought of my dad again, wondering if Wax had ever shared the story of my father’s death with his mother. I felt sick. Had my dad called out for my mother, for us, before he died?
“I’m so sorry,” I finally got out, looking at my waiting family, shuddering, my weak attempt at comforting her. “What can I do?”
“Please, will you go to see him when you get back to the east coast? He went there, to the Middle East, to try to forget about you, Philipa. He’s been in love with you all these years,” she said, softly. “It’s not that far from the New York.”
I listened to what she was saying, but it didn’t make any sense. Hearing he loved me from his mother didn’t ring true. Was there something I missed? I wasn’t going to get into an argument with her, with my family listening in.
“It’s at least a five hour drive. I don’t have a car in New York. I’d have to fly down. I’ll get in touch as soon as I know what I’m going to do, okay Mrs. Spencer?”
We talked for a while longer, and then I hung up.
What possible good would it do for me to fly to Washington, DC while Wax was in a coma? I didn’t say anything because it would sound selfish and uncaring if I refused. My family stood by waiting for me to fall apart.
“You heard it,” I said. “She wants me to go to Walter Reed to see him.”
No one said anything, but I could tell in my sister, Ida’s eyes that she was thinking what else do you have to do? I shrugged my shoulders, answering her silent question. I didn’t have anything else to do.
“He’s in a drug induced coma.”
“Supposedly, they can still hear,” Lynne, the registered nurse said. “I have to be back on Monday but if it’s okay with Mother, I’ll leave early. We can fly together.”
We looked over to her.
“Is that right?” my mother asked, seemingly shrinking before our eyes. “I didn’t know they could still hear.”
She might have been thinking of my dad; us girls were. If he was alive for a few hours after the attack she might have been able to tell him she loved him one more time. I shook my head to rid it of such sad thoughts. Everyone was silent.
“It’s fine with me if you leave early,” she said. “I don’t see any other way.”
“Okay, I’ll go,” I said.
If it would get things back to normal, if it would shut the voices up in my head, I’d go. Anything to move on.
“It’ll have to wait until next week, though.”
“Oh, I don’t think you should wait,” Lynne said.
“Me, either,” my mother added, the others chorusing in agreement.
“You want me to go now?” I asked, incredulous.
Their looks said the same thing. Selfish woman, you’ll regret it if he dies.
“Oh, for heaven sake. Okay, okay, I’ll go now.”
My heart was pounding so hard I decided the only way I would survive the trip was to simply submit myself to my sister who had a commanding presence. Although I kept it to myself, if memory served, it was Lynne who encouraged me to walk home with Wax so many years ago on that first day of high school, so it was really her fault I was in this predicament.
I don’t know exactly how she did it, but by using her clout as an Army nurse, she got us on a flight to Dulles that night. My bags were ready for the trip since I hadn’t had a chance to unpack; Hubert loaded the car up again, this time with Lynne’s bags, too. Sitting in the front seat, Lynne’s attempt at putting me first, I glanced at the porch with my family watching, tissues to eyes, waving as Hubert backed the car down the driveway.
It’s my turn to have the family Memorial Day picnic this year. Everyone comes from the city, braving the hour drive to our farm. My grandparents fly in from Brooklyn and drive with my mother. They are actually considering leaving Brooklyn to live in the Midwest, here with me. We have ninety acres with swimming ponds, in-ground pool, a putting green, all sharing space with horses, sheep and cows. I have a huge vegetable garden. It’s enough land for my entire family, and they are all planning to build.
After Wax’s discharge and rehab, we began a whirlwind romance and then after a short engagement, we married. It only took three months; ten years and three months after we met.
Wax and I have four children; two sets of fraternal twins, boys, two years apart, six and eight. Our house is a madhouse most of the time.
My sisters have twelve kids divided between them. Lynne just had a baby, a little girl. She isn’t married, and won’t tell us who the father is, although Chris called me last night and asked if he could come along to my picnic with Lynne. Confiding in me, Lynne had said her inner clock was ticking so when she discovered she was pregnant, there was never any question about having the baby. I think it adds a nice touch to our conventional family.
Our farm is amazing. Wax loves everything about the farm; especially the equipment. We have two vintage tractors and several more in the garage in various states of restoration. More vehicles for zooming around the property include golf carts and ATV’s. Finding them as junk, he refurbishes them himself. When the brother-in-laws and the older kids are here, they race around our property, helping with building projects or clearing land for the house Martha and Hubert plan on building. They’ll be the first transferees from the suburbs with the others following as soon as possible.
Inside, my sisters and I are in the kitchen, competing. We strive to bake the lightest cake, or the biggest loaf of bread, or the tenderest brisket. My mother and grandmother put their two cents in, too, adding to the rivalry.
The day of the picnic is sultry; every window is open in my big farmhouse. In spite of the fans, it’s going to be hot inside once the ovens are lit. Everyone is already here, and there’s very little for me to do while my mother and grandmother and sisters take over preparations for the meal.
The upstairs of our house is compromised of large, airy spaces. The breeze flutters the white cottage curtains hanging at every window, blowing in the wind. The morning of our picnic, in our master bedroom, while I buttoned up a pair of shorts, Wax came in.
“Whatcha up to?” I asked.
“I’m changing my leg,” he said, sitting on the end of our bed. “Your nephew is about to get his ass kicked.”
I laughed as he put his running leg on, a specially made prototype of an athletic prosthesis Wax helped to develop. A long-standing speed feud between Dave, Martha and Hubert’s oldest son, and Wax, challenged to a foot face around our farm.
From all the work around the farm, his physic is amazing, muscular after the lankiness of youth; he’s in top physical condition. Leg switched, Wax stood, coming to me for a kiss.
I’m getting used to his shaved head. Evidently, it’s the way baldness is dealt with now. Running my hand over his head, remembering that thick, wavy hair, my fingertips played over the horseshoe shaped scar on his scalp.
Putting an eye patch on, just in case a tussle with our sons and nephews develops, it’s a good way of keeping his eye prosthesis in place. Once, just to be funny, he popped it out in front of the kids. The screaming could be heard over in the next township.
“Cutie,” I said watching.
Laughing, he pulled me to him, grabbing a handful of my hair and gave me an ardent kiss. I often tease him about being an exhibitionist; impassioned when my family’s around, we can’t do anything about it. Making up for lost time, he rarely allows a chance to kiss me slip by.
Last week, I went into town to visit my mother, a rare trip without the boys. We planned to go to the mall with Wax’s mom to shop for Lynne’s new baby. I enjoyed picking out the little girl outfits and the soft, cuddly toys. Mesmerized looking at the frilly little dresses and tiny patent-leather Mary Jane’s, thinking Wax and I might have to consider having another child, when an old high school acquaintance came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder.
I tried to think of her name and couldn’t, but remembered she was someone who’d been in one of the creative writing classes I took.
“Oh, hello,” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she answered. “Same old stuff. Are you here visiting?”
I nodded my head, smiling.
“It must seem so boring here after the way you live,” she said.
I didn’t get it.
“What way do I live?” I asked, laughing.
“Why, in New York! I dream of living there, without my family, I’d be in heaven. All of the fancy restaurants, the nightlife, well I can’t even imagine.
“Are you still at the same magazine?” she asked, then sensed my confusion. “Mademoiselle! We all knew that you were going to work at Mademoiselle someday. We’d heard you were hired as soon as you graduated from college. We were all jealous.”
I started to laugh again, adjusting my packages.
“Right! Mademoiselle. No, I was only there a year. I live on a farm now, about an hour from here,” I said.
“Wow! What an awful shock that must have been, going to a farm after the excitement of living in New York City!”
She grimaced at the thought.
“I guess the job wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be?”
“No, it really wasn’t,” I said, smiling.
“Well listen, it was great seeing you again, Philipa. See you next year at our fifteen year reunion!”
“Fifteen? How’s that possible? It was nice seeing you, too.”
She waved as she walked away.
Looking for my mother and mother-in-law, I’d had enough shopping. Suddenly, I missed my husband and our children. I missed the farm, its rolling topography and the small, quaint outbuildings Wax build around the property. Our house was old and rambling, drafty in the winter and hotter than ever in the summer. The furniture was beat from the abuse of the bodies of four little boys. My hair was still a mess. My days revolved around Wax and our boys. But I had the most exciting life I could have ever imagined.
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#1 Pam of Babylon Always FREE! Long Island housewife Pam Smith is called to the hospital after her husband Jack suffers a heart attack on the train from Manhattan. It is the beginning of a journey of self-discovery and sadness, growth and regrets, as she realizes a wife and mother’s worst nightmare.
#2 Don’t You Forget About Me Jack’s wife and two lovers discover secrets and lies, and each other. The family begins to sift through the evidence of a life of deceit, putting together the pieces left behind by Jack.
#3 Dream Lover A gritty, realistic portrait of the aftermath of deceit, more pieces of the puzzle come together as the women each attempt to go on living in the wake of despair. Jack’s lovers scatter as Cindy tries to move forward, Blythe discovers a way to live without him, and other make their way to the beach for an audience with Pam.
#4 Prayers for the Dying Pam makes startling revelations about herself, while Sandra hopes for a future with exciting expectations. Marie is in a most unlikely place, with the happiest news in the bleakest circumstances. Ashton’s story of a lifetime love affair with Jack is finally told, with his heartache revealed.
#5 Family Dynamics Heartbreak and devastation move toward triumph in the fifth installation of the Pam of Babylon series. Pam is at last able to overcome the pain of Jack’s rejection, and her own role in perpetuating his deviance, when she meets Dan and falls in love. Her children move on with their lives in ways Pam would have never believed. Sandra fulfills her dreams with Tom, and a gift from Marie helps to complete their life together. Ashton and Ted build a beautiful life, and new discoveries make it richer than they thought possible, but with a twist. But don’t be deceived; what you hope for is not what you may get.
#6 The Tao of Pam Pam is at a crossroad which will take her to the next phase of her life, if she chooses the right path. Brent and Lisa move on, dealing with their own life choices and Pam pays the cost. But does what she has to do to maintain a life of harmony.
#7 In Memoriam In Memoriam begins with the birth of a baby boy to Pam’s former boyfriend, Dan and daughter, Lisa as the journey of Pam of Babylon continues in this seventh volume. Still reeling from the death of her beloved son Brent, Pam endures life at the beach with remarkable strength. Sandra tries to balance several versions of her life while striving to be part of the Smith legacy. Lisa rises above circumstances that would destroy most, with determination. But don’t be too impressed; history does have a way of repeating itself.
We’re Just Friends: Short Story Prequel to #8 A short story meant to fill in details after Book #7 In Memoriam and before Book #8 Soulmates. Events occur that the reader may want to know about, but Jason and Sandra do their best to keep hidden.
#8 Soulmates Pam faces new challenges with glamour and poise, while Sandra doesn’t disappoint, and Lisa discovers new strengths. “Women’s fiction with a touch of noir.”
#9 Save the Date Pam and John plan their wedding, while love and healing grow around the couple. Lisa and Dan split up, and the day he leaves, she finds peace. Sandra and Dan make a commitment to each other, but for how long? John’s daughter, Violet makes major life changes and the grandmothers find adventure…and love. An old friend from Pam’s childhood returns with troublemaking in mind, but Karma is on Pam’s side, at last.
Julie Hsu: Short Story Prequel to #10 Julie Hsu comes back on the scene at the end of Save the Date, Book #9. Brent Smith was the love of her life from the age of 16, but their relationship couldn’t survive the damage which surfaced after Jack died. Julie has one goal now-can you guess? Contains spoilers for those who haven’t read Book #9.
#10 I’ll Always Love You The women; Bernice, Nelda, Pam, Lisa, Violet, Cara and little Miranda rise up in power in this tale of triumph and love. But there are a few proverbial flies in the ointment. Can you guess whom?
[+ A Good Beach Day+]: a FREE Pam of Babylon Short Story – While John’s away on a business trip, Pam faces the truth about her marriage. To John, not Jack!
#11 Beach Spirits Pam wrestles with spirits, living and dead as the past haunts her.
#12 South Shore Romance At last, with everything aligned perfectly, and her family occupied, Pam finds romance, love, excitement and joy with Senator Charlie Monroe and his rescued Greyhound, Margaret. But swirling around her are the antics of Dan and Julie and their exciting but exasperating relationship, the elders living a riotous life jet-setting between Babylon, Great Neck, and Florida, Alison and Diana spending more and more time with Miranda, Lisa and Ryan Maddox discovering bonds they never thought possible, Sandra finding true love, and last but not least, Sister Mary Joseph, settling in to a life of comfort and privilege at the beach. What could possibly go wrong?
#13 Meet Me at the Beach Pam, Lisa, Nelda, Sister Mary and Sandra seek hints of their destiny in the next installment of Pam of Babylon. Disappointments and challenges surprise Pam, but when one door closes, another always opens for her. Romance swirls around as friends and neighbors learn that perfect someone is right down the beach. A wedding shakes things up; a discovery is made during the honeymoon, and a love triangle is formed when Lisa opens her heart again. Things seem to be on the right path finally, but as usual, a secret of Jack’s is exposed, shaking it up once again.
#14 Pam’s Adventures in Babylon Dreams almost come true for Pam and her crew, until a storm, a native in a loin cloth, an ex-girlfriend, and a plantain stir things up.
Life at the beach takes on a new twist as Pam embraces the children Jack left behind. The triad of Lisa, Allison, and Ryan grows closer, then further apart when Ryan’s lust gets out of control. Even the reappearance of someone from Ryan’s past isn’t enough to keep him in check.
The final act is Pam’s July 4th Picnic where tequila plays a part in a critical lapse in…fill in the blank :-)
The rest of the players cope with life as each drama is thrown their way.
Gladys and Ed’s Big Adventure Short Story Prequel to #14 Pam’s Adventures in Babylon
Beautiful Heartbreaker: A Pam of Babylon Short Story The years of Jack Smith’s coming of age were the best and worst of Manhattan. Crime was at its highest, the city stunk of urine, and graffiti covered everything within reach, Gays congregated in the Village or stayed in the closet. It was a time in the city’s history in which living there was affordable and a possibility for all, the beginning of the Downtown art scene, and before the risk of AIDS ruined promiscuity.
Beautiful Heartbreaker tells the story of Jack’s transformation from the product of a tragic childhood to a larger than life icon who took the city by storm.
For followers of Pam of Babylon, Beautiful Heartbreaker fills in some of the blanks his death left unanswered. Will the mystery of Jack ever be unlocked?
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Perfect for Him Romance in the time of death, Perfect for Him skims the surface of a marriage before plunging into the abyss of heartbreak. Perfect for Him is a tale of two lovers whose lifetime romance sustains them, as an unwanted ending looms in the near future. Pathos and heartbreak intermingles with expectation and the comedy that only a close-knit family can generate. At the end, joy and hope reign, thanks to Harley’s unselfish love.
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The Greeks of Beaubien Street is the first book in The Greektown Stories. Although it may be read as a stand-alone novel, character development is on the continuum of all the books in the series.
Nestled below the skyline of Detroit you’ll find Greektown, a few short blocks of colorful bliss, warm people and Greek food. In spite of growing up immersed in the safety of her family and their rich culture, Jill Zannos doesn’t fit in. A Detroit homicide detective, she manages to keep one foot planted firmly in the traditions started by her grandparents, while the other navigates the most devastated neighborhoods in the city she can’t help but love. She is a no-nonsense workaholic with no girlfriends, an odd boyfriend who refuses to grow up, and an uncanny intuition, inherited from her mystic grandmother that acts as her secret weapon to crime-solving success. Her story winds around tales of her family and their secret-laden history, while she investigates the most despicable murder of her career.
The Greeks of Beaubien Street is a modern tale of a family grounded in old world, sometimes archaic, tradition as they seek acceptance in American society. They could be any nationality, but they are Greek.
The Princess of Greektown Jill investigates the messiest crime of her career, while her family suffers a loss that changes the way life will be lived in Greektown.
Christmas in Greektown As Christmastime approaches, the family prepares for another get-together in Greektown. Relationships blossom and some end during the hardest time of the year. But as Jill and others discover, when one door closes, another opens, often with more wonderful opportunities.
A Greektown Wedding After Christmas was over, the family could finally focus on other things, like love! The jam-packed fourth volume of the Greektown Stories Saga, A Greektown Wedding takes you on the emotional roller coaster the other books introduced you to as the Zannos’s have another family dinner in Greektown, but this time with a wedding.
Greek Style coming Spring 2017
The Burn District Series
Burn District: The Short Story Prequel Laura and Mike Davis and their four children build an idyllic life with friends and family nearby in the beautiful Brandywine River Valley. Dreams and goals come to an abrupt end soon after Hurricane Sandy hits the east coast. Discovered in wood soaked by seawater, a virus thought to have the potential to decimate the population becomes the excuse to relocate thousands of citizens from beach towns. Fire is the only known way to eradicate the virus.
Rumors spread that napalm is used to burn without evacuating the people. A neighbor warns Laura and Mike that their town is next as the destruction moves inland. Is it a drastic way to halt the spread of disease, or is there another catalyst?
Burn District 1 The family flees to Steve Hayward’s ranch in the desert at the Mexican Border, outside of Yuma, Arizona and build an encampment there. The government no longer exists. Lies, looting and lack of power are now the norm of life in the United States. Believers and Rumors coexist, as life appears to reach normalcy. But it will be short-lived.
Burn District 2 After the New Year, Jenna Hayward regretfully accepted that she had waited too long to leave Jacksonville for her father’s Arizona ranch. An unknown benefactor provided buses for the stragglers last minute exodus. While she waited to board with the other doubters, her sister, Laura, and father, Steve toiled along with the rest of the camp dwellers, attempting to turn the barren desert into a homestead.
At the end of book #1, as they tried to settle in to a new life, waves of pandemonium hitting the camp became the new normal. The camp dwellers asked themselves if they’d found asylum in the desert, or was the illusion of safety a flimsy veil?
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Alice’s Summertime Adventure
We meet Alice Bradshaw when she is at a crossroad. She’s just beaten cancer and is suddenly unsure of what her next move should be. Looking back on where she’s been and what the future may hold, she knows she needs to make a big change in her life. Then her car dies on the highway after an argument with her daughter. Dave, a stranger on a motorcycle, pulls alongside her and saves the day. He offers Alice a chance at adventure. She jumps on it, much to the dismay of her children. The adventure starts a chain of events that will have Alice and her children, as well as Dave, questioning every aspect of their lives. There will be a few casualties along the way, a lot of anger, life changes and a few shocking surprises. Alice’s Summertime Adventure is the story of an average American family as they struggle with dilemmas we all have, and making choices that aren’t for everyone.
Someone Like You
Life gets in the way as upstate NY sisters, Marley and Abigail cling to each other and their young children. But a babysitter introduces them both to Jay Malik, a medical student from India who becomes their lifeline to happiness, forgiveness and healing. “Another tear-jerker from Jenkins. Have the tissue ready.”
The Savant of Chelsea
From Publisher’s Weekly April 2014 “This gripping novel from Jenkins delivers complex twists and turns from start to finish. Alexandra Donicka is a talented but unstable brain surgeon living in New York City. When her mother dies, Alexandra travels to New Orleans to face the tragedies and secrets of her youth. These include childhood abuse and the birth of a child, who was taken from Alexandra by her mother more than two decades ago. As Alexandra searches for her daughter, she must grapple with long-hidden emotions and discover her own humanity. Jenkins creates fully realized, believable characters and ably portrays mental illness in this dark tale that provides nonstop thrills and culminates in an explosive and unexpected finale.”
Gracefully, Like a Living Thing: The Sequel to The Savant of Chelsea
So many possibilities existed at the explosive ending of The Savant of Chelsea. The author wanted readers to believe whatever they wanted. The doctor lives out her new life as a mother while the pendulum swings between lucidity and abject insanity.
Slow Dancing After midnight, a mysterious stranger appears at the edge of the woods and the peaceful life fifteen-year-old Ellen Fisher has with her beloved stepfather Frank is turned upside down. Small town gossip, jealousy and murder strive to tear them apart in a tale of secrets and unrequited love.
The Liberation of Ravenna Morton Ravenna Morton is an American Indian woman living a very old-fashioned life in a primitive cabin at the edge of the Kalamazoo River. Facing modern problems when her lifelong affair with a Greek artist is closely examined by their children after a child she gave up for adoption dies, The Liberation of Ravenna Morton captures the small-town dynamic of a family’s private secrets being exposed to the world. A poignant look at the melding of two Americanized cultures observed under a microscope.
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Gorgeous Pipi Wienerâ€™s family changes forever when their dad is tragically killed in the Vietnam War. Maybe because of it, marriage and family, motherâ€™s objective for all her daughters, is the last thing on Pipiâ€™s mind. Pipiâ€™s thrilling goal is to work in Manhattan, writing for Mademoiselle, a glossy fashion magazine she grows up with, having four older sisters. Then, handsome Walter Spencer walks into her life, upsetting her perfectly executed plot. Too strong to give into love, Pipi is determined to stick to her plan. Taking a job with the Department of Defense to run from his broken heart, Walter never forgets beautiful Pipi. In the end, Pipi has a choice to make â€“ will she follow her exciting dream? Or is there an even greater plan, including everlasting, love waiting for her?