I don’t remember giving consent. Or protesting. Or having a choice, not with adult forces at work. A secret committee decided that I should represent my elementary school at the Little Miss Lafayette pageant. How I got the news, I’m not sure, but my guess is this:

My mother: “Ronlyn, you’re going to be in a beauty pageant. You were picked out of everyone from the whole school. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Me: I likely scowled. I likely pondered the real threat of dress-up clothes. It’s possible I asked, “Why me?”

Why me indeed. There had to be at least 150 girls in my school. Certainly someone else would have been thrilled by such attention, someone to whom strangers commented, “Oh, what a pretty little girl.” I was a cute kid, like the quirky type in cereal commercials. I was not a beautiful child, one born for pageants or hair product ads, tresses wavy and loose, eyes and cheekbones aglow with well-placed catch lights. I was no girly-girl.

I am about eight years old in this photo. The little boy I am towering over is about four. His name is Louis. The 1950’s love-bot next to poor, distraught, little Louis is, indeed, yours truly. For the record Louis did not want to be wearing that frilly dress and bonnet, but I can be very persuasive. Even as a child I had a thing for men in drag.

When I look at this picture I feel profound joy. I smile at those skinny legs, laugh at that proud expression, and am filled with a sense of pride and love for my silly little self. I want to hug me.

There was no adult help in the conception and preparation of this get-up. It was my own creation, my own vision, a vision of a sullen housewife, perhaps, or maybe a haughty hooker. I’m not sure. I have no idea what I was thinking, but I know I loved it. I loved that blond curly wig, those red prostitute heels, that green synthetic monstrosity, those strap-on, plastic, Dolly Parton tits with their enormous pronounced, engorged nipples. I remember the hilarity that ensued whenever I donned that outfit and slunk into a room of adults. I didn’t understand why it was funny, but I loved the reaction.


It sounds like an outrageous statement to make but I’m fairly sure that in the late 1970’s and early ’80’s I had the best dress-up collection of any child on planet Earth.

I was the only daughter of two creatives. A father who dressed like an urban cowboy in constant battle with his own inner Indian, and a mother who was a fashion designer, the founder of Brox Sox (the coolest hosiery company in New Zealand), and the proprietress of a vintage clothing store.

My dress up box was the envy of every girl who ever encountered it, the bane of many a small boy’s existence and the amusement of my mother’s friends. There was never any indication at her soirees that a 1920’s bride, or a clown, or a gorilla would suddenly waltz through the living room. Many a dinner party went happily awry at the unexpected arrival of a princess, bitch, tart, actress, or whatever other slinky little personality I decided to undertake.

The contents of my wardrobe included, but was not limited to:

-Multiple wigs

-Designer gowns dating from the twenties through to the seventies

-Scarves and beads and broaches and bangles

-A silk clown suit

-Many pairs of shoes

-Masks – both glamorous and terrifying

-A full body gorilla suit, including feet

-Hats, capes, cloaks

-Bridal dresses

-Furs and fur stoles, including one with the fox head still attached

-Veils, acres of lace and ribbons and silk

-Negligees, lingerie, slips and petticoats

-Hand-sewn beauties, everything from flowers to handkerchiefs

-A strap-on plastic bosom and matching dimpled ass.


I loved those tits and ass. I still do. I smile fondly as I remember the sense of excitement, daring and masquerade I felt as I tied on those gigantic breasts, donned that curly blond wig, and strapped on my four-inch red hooker-heels. I remember practicing my walk in those heels, a practice that came to serve me well several years later.

This picture is oddly prophetic.

I still love to dress up. I’ve even made a career out of it.

I still love bossing boys around.

I still adore men in drag.

I still love to wear hooker heels, wigs and naughty negligees whenever possible, even when vacuuming.

Not much has changed.

But the more I think about it the more I wonder if my love for dressing-up was somehow tied in to my desire to hasten the process of growing-up. I never liked being little. I never liked being kept in the dark or forbidden to do things because I was too young, too small, too… anything. Being young was prohibitive for me and being grown up seemed like such perfect freedom. Looking back, grown, I love the irony.

The child in this photo had more freedom than she knew.

stairs

Growing up working-class in a small Southern city, I early acquired a racist vocabulary. This was by no means encouraged by my parents, who were mortified when, at four or so, I referred to a fellow customer at Sears as a nigger. I have no memory of doing that — I was told about it years later — but I’m sure I was baffled by the punishment I received. The kids in my neighborhood used the word “nigger” as a matter of course. To them, it was an appropriate term for a person of color, and I followed suit, even after the Sears incident. Why punish someone for calling a bird a bird? And why would a bird object? So, I think, my reasoning went.

I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a rock star. For the two years I took gymnastics I thought I would go to the Olympics. I thought maybe I would be a lesbian. I fully intended to be a poor writer, living in an apartment somewhere in New York with two or three dogs and no electricity. I considered doing the same in the country except that the basic necessities would take up all my time. I feared I would live out the dream scene in Look Who’s Talking, in which Kirstie Alley’s character pictures her life if she married John Travolta’s character. I got really close on that one. I thought I might be single for a while. I thought of becoming a happy old maid. I thought I’d be dead by now. Not for any particular reason, of course. Just because, which is why I think most things.

I also wanted to be a saint. Not just any saint, though. Not the kind that get her sainthood by doing a lot of nice things for other people. Not the kind who donates money, volunteers, feeds the poor, touches dirty people and so forth. I wanted to be a martyr. I wanted to be one of those virgins who got thrown to the lions rather than betray her vow of purity, one of those who were so beautiful that to protect their virginity, they mutilated their beautiful faces. I considered becoming a nun because the idea of alternately praying and working in a vegetable garden within the stone walls of a convent sounded sublime. I hated tomatoes, but I could imagine the freshness and beautiful red ripeness of tomatoes grown by the virtuous women of my would-be convent. I thought a vow of silence would be fab. Then I learned about sex. In the eighth grade, I thought really hard and decided I couldn’t become a nun because I liked boys too much. Not boys, really, but guys. The ones who notice you. The ones who toss meaningful glances across the church when you are sitting in your pew pretending to pray.

I thought my mom would die when I was 16 because when she was 16, her mom died. I thought I was really lucky to still have a mom at 17, and then I thought I was pretty dumb because if she was going to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she would’ve died when my older sister turned 16, since my mom was the oldest of her family. But the whole pattern started to lose credibility because my mom was the oldest of three while there were four kids in our family, and the oldest was a boy. That was a turning point.

I wanted to be terribly skinny, but that was never going to happen. I wanted to be one of those girls that other girls call “skinny bitch,” because even if other girls hate you, at least you’re skinny, which is the most valuable trait a woman can have. But starving myself was out of the question, and I couldn’t bring myself to puke, not even with a spoon down the throat. Then I thought maybe I’d just lose a few pounds. I wanted to be crazy and wear dark eye liner and be excused for things because people thought I was “sensitive.” Then I got therapy, and I wanted to be listened to. And I wanted a big dictionary, and I got it, but I never open it because it’s too damned big, and who needs a dictionary that big when you’ve got internet, anyway? Then I got group therapy and realized I was comparatively incredibly well-adjusted, and that as fucked up as I was, so was everyone else. Then I just wanted to be left alone and not to have to listen to these people anymore, and then I told this girl in therapy to say hi to my old best friend who went to her high school, and only years later did I realize how awkward that must have been. “Hey, I’m in group therapy with your best friend from junior high, and she says to tell you hi.”

I considered becoming a Realtor. I worked in customer service, selling shoes, then selling jeans, then selling coffee. Turns out it doesn’t matter what I’m selling. I cannot be nice to people purely in the hopes of receiving money from them. I waited tables at a seedy strip club while wearing a black leotard, shiny tights, black heels and red lipstick for a week until a man offered me money to go home with him and a stripper tried to give me lessons on how to upsell: Don’t just make do with cash — offer to start him a tab. Ask him if he’d like to meet one of the girls. Don’t call them dancers, call them ladies. Then she did her dominatrix routine on stage in something resembling an Aeon Flux outfit. I really just wanted to hang out in the dressing room and watch them. One of them threw her cell phone across the room upon learning her boyfriend had spent all their rent money. On what, I wasn’t sure. Then a woman called Luna, who was the mother of a five-year-old boy, made the sign of the cross and said a blessing over her plate of spaghetti in front of the large makeup mirror all the girls shared. Her glittered breasts dangled precariously close to the marinara. I took cigarette breaks every fifteen minutes or so, and a stripper told me I should quit because smoking would ruin my good looks. I didn’t know I had any such thing, and I told her I didn’t care. I kept smoking for a couple years, but I took a job at the Gap a couple weeks later. I folded some shirts for a week and didn’t sell a single pair of jeans.

I wanted to be a journalist, or at least a copy editor, but I’m a bad speller and terrified of interviewing. I can’t write fast enough. I want to learn shorthand. I want to write a book. I want so much. I have wanted so much, but I have so much else.


trout stream

When I was ten, my parents sent me to summer camp for two weeks. They made the arrangements secretly, knowing a fit was inevitable the minute they broke the news. I was an explosive kid, coming as I did from a histrionic family, and my parents wanted me gone for a while so they could rage at each other without me around to upstage them.

In photos from his youth he looked like a porcelain doll, a severely myopic puppet. When I knew him, he was in constant motion, a coiled spring: knee bouncing, fingers grasping and lighting cigarettes, eyes darting, lips moving and always talking sports. I couldn’t keep up with him though I knew I was smarter.

He was my mother’s only sibling, born when my grandmother was in her 40s, eventually becoming too much for her to care for. Back then my Uncle Billy had a sweeping range of unspecified mental issues (widely ignored by all around him), yet he possessed an eidetic memory for sports trivia. (Asperger’s Syndrome wouldn’t be recognized until 1944 and only officially named for Hans Asperger in 1981, a year after the good doctor’s death.) He was hyperactive, displayed attention deficit tendencies, was susceptible to stimulants and depressants alike. We merely called him Silly Billy, but not to his face. Billy was simply complicated.

When my sister and I were still young, our dad would sometimes take us on a long walk through the woods that started right behind our house in a small industrial suburb in Northern Germany and seemed to stretch forever, even though forever ended at the road to Frankenbostel, a village that was important only to its farmers. I can’t recall how long these walks really lasted, but they seemed dominated by silence and small whispers, so as not to disturb the animals and the overall atmosphere of making our way through brush and over small, secret meadows, where small prints on the ground told stories we were unable to read. We knew they were stories, we’d read all the Wild West novels by Karl May, and were familiar with noble and not so noble Indians reading the ground in front of them, but we could only guess. Still, we didn’t realize how little we knew, and felt just like our heroes Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, the Chief of the Apaches.

I was two years younger than my sister, and sometimes given to imitating bird calls, mostly owls, whether or not that was appropriate. My sister was a calm girl, matching my dad’s solemnity on these occasions. I however did not fit in. I wasn’t able to keep their peace – I was bubbly, impulsive, and irrevocably they would start to shush me and cast angry looks at me.

As a young man my dad had wanted to emigrate to Australia or Canada. He never got farther then looking at pictures of endless forests and the wide open desert, yet he treated every forest as though it could lead him to the Bering Strait, if only he would walk long enough.

On better days we found that small ditches running through the woods – who had dug them and when? – had filled with water, which was running clear and shallow. “A stream,” I’d crow and imagine that I could some day catch fish. I wanted to live by a river, be able to go on canoe trips, but the closest river was three miles away and too shallow in the summer to allow for canoe trips.

Sometimes we’d find a freshly dug foxhole, and my dad would cautiously approach us, waving us slowly closer, with a face that expressed awe, interest, and importance. And on other days we found colorful bird feathers and collected them in our pockets.

These were the early 70s and people often got rid of their trash by dumping it in the forests. We saw our share of house trash, savaged by raccoons and other rodents. My dad always tried to find a letter with an address, in order to call the police about it, but he never did. Those trash heaps we found close to the road to Frankenbostel. Whenever we got there, our expedition reached a point of crisis. It was a letdown to reach ‘civilization’ again and there were only two things to do: turn back and march home, a disappointing prospect; or cross the road and enter the area of the small landfill.

The landfill, though surrounded by trees, bordered on farmland. It was an open space, the seclusion of the woods was gone, and yet it had its own special joys. When it was first dug, the pit seemed like a canyon in a rugged and remote mountainous region (Zeven was as flat as you can imagine it. The highest elevation was about 90 feet). You could enter it and watch the heavy machinery like some relics from a long lost civilization, you could climb the large heaps of yellow and reddish sand outside the pit and imagine to be near the beach, on a dune. I was a cowboy, trapped by vicious Comanches, I was an archeologist digging for skeletons, I was reaching the ocean to become a whaler.

Soon, water collected at the bottom of the pit, and strangely, it seems that when the first trash was deposited there, the water levels rose. The water turned a strange, intensive blue-green, opaque and reminiscent of laundry detergent and shampoo. Refrigerators sometimes broke the surface, little white, rusty islands, and we would throw small stones at them. In the winter we skated over the frozen surface here, trash covering the sides of the pit, a barbecue trapped in the middle of the ice.

On one of the walks we found trash of a different kind. It was an overcast fall day, winter announcing itself with a certain chill in the air. We were dressed in dark colors, in our outdoors clothes, which looked nothing like the fancy lifestyle clothing that is so popular nowadays. Back then, at least in my memory, nobody wore trekking gear and bright-colored trail shoes. Hikers had hiking boots, and that was that. Our outdoors clothes were our old clothes, not good enough to be worn to school or church, but fitting okay to be still worn.

Only oaks still had their browned leaves on their branches, and we fought our way through some scratchy underbrush and dying pines, when we came, in the middle of our forest, onto a small clearing. A bit of moss was left of the ground. Yes, there was trash, but these were not household items, but clothes. Mostly women’s clothing. And magazines, which my dad opened with the tip of his shoe to reveal gigantic, large-nippled breasts, and men with sideburns, long hair, no clothes and long penises.

My sister knew she wasn’t supposed to look and didn’t, and I gawked until my father closed the pages again. The ground was soggy from recent rain, and so were the colorful magazines. Soggy too was a book which lay among the pants and bras on the ground, it’s title Süßes Flittchen, Sweet Hussy.

It was very quiet among the trees and I was awed by our find, and my dad paced about, lifting a jacket here, panties there. There were so many clothes – how many people had gathered here, and in what state had they left? Even shoes, high-heeled yellow sandals lay on the ground. What had happened to the feet wearing them?

We breathed in the cold air, stood, giddy with our find. My dad must have been thirty-five, and he examined what I didn’t dare touch, and then we left. The woods though changed that day, and the lonely adventures of trappers and Indians began to fade. My forests became populated with people who parked their cars by a landfill, and dragged their friends into the trees, to clearings where no one else could hear the rustling of clothes being discarded.

 

My mother gave my father a Diane Arbus photo book for his birthday the year I was ten and he was thirty-four. The entire family (Mom, Dad, my older sister, Becca, and my younger brother, Josh) gathered around and slowly waded through it, picture by picture. The pages were thick and glossy and smelled remotely of plastic. Almost all the photos were portraits—people whose entire lives seemed exposed through the simplest physical details. There was the terrorizing image of the boy holding a toy hand grenade, the stoop of the Jewish giant who stood beside his small rodent-like parents, the overly-shadowed nasal-labial folds on the middle-aged woman cradling a baby monkey whose face is identical to hers.

And then there was the Topless Dancer.

She sits in a chair in her dressing room in San Francisco, wearing a long sequined, chest-cut-out gown, which I have always imagined to be red (the photo is in black and white). There is a slit up the front of the gown, revealing her crossed legs, shimmery in stockings—closed-toed pumps on her feet. Her sleeves are long and flared with boa-like feathers at the cuff. Other than her face and hands, her breasts are the only bare flesh she exposes: giant breasts, buoyant-looking, inflated to the point of bursting. One finger is pushing into a breast so you can see that there is little give—like a waterbed upon which your body won’t make a dent. Her nipples are glowing, bright eyes beckoning, yet blind to the viewer.

At the time, they were the strangest, yet somehow most fascinating breasts I had ever seen. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen a lot breasts—we lived in Southern California, it was the seventies; my parents and their friends had frequent pool parties where all the adults were naked as the children cowered at the water’s edge in their chaste orlon swimsuits. What made the topless dancer’s breasts special was the fact that the purpose of their exposure was simply so that they’d be appreciated. They were breasts for the sake of breasts—breasts beyond normal human breasts—breasts as a prurient object of desire that had nothing to do with the person who wore them.

The following year, in Fifth grade, my own breasts began to develop. I discovered it while sitting on the edge of my bed in my underwear. There was a pain, or throb in my breasts, something that called me to them. With a fat dirty-nailed finger I rubbed and prodded until I found a large sore nut underneath the thin skin of each nipple. I called my sister in, she was fourteen, a flat-chested gymnast, on the precipice of anorexia.

“What’s this?” I asked, and I pushed her finger onto one nob.

“You’re developing,” she said. Then she looked away, furious, almost-panicked and called for our mother. “MOOOOM!”

My mother came in the room—she wasn’t a doting or involved mother, but she did have an interest in my brother, sister and me; she liked to observe and note us in the same way that she noted the details of the faces in the Diane Arbus photos.

“Jessie’s developing,” my sister said.

My mother placed a finger on my nipple and rubbed.

“Yup,” she said, “you’re developing.”

That was the beginning of a three-year rift between my sister and me. It was when I started to receive, without ever asking, the things she wanted most.

Sometime in the middle of the school year, the swollen garbanzo beans beneath my skin pushed out so that through a thin tee-shirt or blouse, one could see my puffy nipples. The Mediterranean climate of our town—our location on the jagged California coast—demanded no hats or mittens or woolen vests like I’d seen on television or in magazines, so it never occurred to me to hide or cover up my new developments. And then came the day that Kevin H., who was often teased because his father was a gay activist, pointed at me as I walked down the open air hallway, and shouted, “Jessica’s sprouting!”

It was a refrain no one could resist repeating. And how could I have blamed them, as even to me, the words Jessica’s sprouting sounded freakishly interesting. I was sprouting—growing things with seeds I had never planted, tending to a tiny crop that already was of great interest to my peers. People love breasts, and I was starting to get them. My thrill of them, however, seemed like a secret I wasn’t ready to share. I asked my mother for a bra.

All underwear for my sister and me was purchased at J.C.Penny. The dressing rooms were in the Lower Level, a dingy place with carpet that looked like it belonged in a basement or a carport. Back then, girls’ bras came only in white or beige (think of teeth: bleached or tobacco-stained). And one fabric: polyester. Mom hustled me out of the dressing room as soon as we found two that fit, handed me the credit card and let me pay for them myself (a deeply embarrassing transaction) while she rushed outside for a cigarette.

The bras provided a good barrier—they hid and cradled my breasts until the time I entered high school where I eventually discovered the power of breasts; the power of the Diane Arbus Topless Dancer.

“Jessica,” wrote one boy in my ninth-grade yearbook, “I’m glad you sit near me in math. I like the clothes you wear. Love, John.” Other than his signature, there was nothing in that inscription imitative of the usual yearbook platitudes. I was stuck on the clothing line. My uniform throughout high school consisted of shorts, flip-flops and Hang-Ten tanks, tees or halter tops. There were hundreds of girls, mostly blonder, taller, tanner and prettier than I, who dominated the fashion scene at our school.

At a beach party to celebrate the end of the school year, I approached the John who liked my clothes.

“What do you mean you like my clothes?” I asked. He was holding a Lowenbrau, squinting into the sun.

“I like your clothes?” He took a step closer, I could smell the tangy beer on his breath.

“You wrote that in my yearbook,” I explained.

“Your body,” he grinned, “everyone can see the shape of your boobs and your butt in your clothes.”

“Everyone?”

“Everyone who looks,” he said, “and I always look.” John laughed quickly with a machine gun hahahaha, as if to cover up or blow away his words.

I was startled, but also fascinated by what he had just revealed. It gave me a thrilling awareness that I was unable shed: there were people who were actually looking at me.

That summer my family took a trip back east to see our relatives. I was fourteen, about to be fifteen—fully grown into the same size and shape I am today. My sister was seventeen. She had had her bout with anorexia and was one year into recovery. Within a matter of months she had gone from size 0 to size 6; from flat-chested to a C cup; and from amenorrheal to menstrual. Our builds were opposite: where I was broad-hipped, she was slim; where I was small-waisted, she was not; my legs were soft and doughy, hers were sinewy and narrow. But we both had large breasts.

A farewell party for my family at my uncle’s house in Vermont produced the following scene:

My grandfather is at the bar (this branch of the family consists of people who have actual working bars in their houses: beer on tap, neon Coors signs, St. Pauli Girl mirrors, the whole shebang). He is holding a glass half-filled with chunky ice cubes, amber scotch covering the ice with just a couple glassy peaks sticking out. My uncle is on the other side of the bar, pouring drinks, watching people, listening.

My sister, Becca, and I are standing together, near our grandfather, but not so close as to have a conversation with him. We are talking to each other, discussing our cousin Donny who has grown handsome, man-sized, since we last saw him, and who has invited us for a ride in his truck in order to smoke a joint.

My grandfather lifts his glass towards us and speaks loudly in the way of people who command rooms, the way of people who are used to being listened to by everyone around them. “Would you look at the tits on these girls?!”

My sister and I aren’t sure who he’s talking about at first. We both look at my grandfather, cautiously. We are, it seems, the only girls in the room.

“Rodney!” my grandfather says, and he turns to my uncle behind the bar, “Can you believe the tits on these girls?!”

And now we know that indeed our tits are the subject of this public conversation. Instinctively, we huddle closer together. I can feel my sister breathing; I can sense the tension coming off her skin.

Rodney smiles, nods his head, raises a glass as if to toast our breasts.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, “You’ve got mighty pretty granddaughters with mighty big tits.”

Finally, our grandfather addresses us directly. “Do all the girls in California have tits like that?”

In our confusion, we nervously giggle. This is an encounter for which we are not at all prepared. I feel like I am panting, yet somehow not breathing.

“Well?” he asks, laughing.

Becca grabs my hand and pulls me out of the room, still giggling. She says nothing to me about what just happened and so I say nothing, too. We avoid our grandfather for the rest of the party, although I am always aware of where he is. It is clear that neither of us wants to be seen by him in the same way that yearbook-writing John had seen me. I learn then that the thrill of being looked at depends entirely on who is looking at you.

I never saw my grandfather again. We left the next morning and, as usual, he
avoided the goodbye scene. The next year, as my grandfather was dying of cancer, my mother flew to his deathbed. When she came home from the funeral, my mother reported that his dying words were, “I never should have had children.”

“Well,” I said to her, “at least he didn’t mention your tits.”

 

The house on Cornwall Avenue was two blocks from the beach. It was large and white and perfect. Out front were lilac bushes. In the back, on the driveway, we would ride our bikes and drag our red wagons and wash our sandy feet with the hose. The house had three stories, several balconies and room enough for most all of us. For kids and grandkids and friends dropping by. The neighbors had a pool, but we had the carriage house. We held birthday parties there. Fourth-of-July celebrations. It smelled of wet sand and must and sweat and memory.

We’d walk the two blocks to the beach in flip-flops, carrying fold-up chairs and coolers of water and boogie boards. Aunt Nomi would tote along peaches and plums in plastic bags and some other aunt or uncle would bring money for the ice cream man. The cousins- bolder than I- would jump waves, venturing deeper and deeper into the murky froth of the Atlantic. I, who was not-so-brave, stayed by the shore building sand castles and hunting for snail shells with my father. In the afternoon the ice cream man would ring his bell and we’d go running after him, hankering for fudgesicles and ice cream sandwiches and chocolate tacos. Our mothers would rub sunscreen onto our sandy backs as we dripped chocolate down our fronts. 

At 4:00 or 5:00 we’d start back, hopping from foot-to-foot on the hot late-afternoon sand. Our feet burned and blackened, we carried our shoes clutched in our small fists, limping our way back to the house on Cornwall Avenue.

* * *

It is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed. Me, I imagine mine in Super-8 film. Like an episode of “The Wonder Years.” Like a Ford ad, circa 1972. I remember thin legs in terry cloth shorts sticking to the leather of the car. I remember the view from the back seat. My parents’ voices rising and falling musically from up front. My sister faking sick next to me. Windows down. The smell of sea-salt. Tossing quarters into the toll booth. Downtheshore. All one word.

This was where my grandparents lived. My Bubbie and Zadie*. But it was more than that. Downtheshore was my grandparents. The dark blue of the kitchen carpet. The porcelain tea sets and cat figurines in the living room. Ketzie** the cat, gray and cranky, hissing at us kids from underneath Bubbie and Zadie’s bed. Oreo cookies dipped in milk. All of us cousins, one multi-legged creature with 18 tanned arms.

Like I said: it is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed.

* * *

At 78, my Bubbie is still beautiful. She no longer has the tremendous breasts of her youth. Cancer got those. And she can’t walk these days. Her feet are enormous: swollen to the size of melons, fit only for special-order shoes and thick support hose. But she retains that sexy Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth. A killer smile. Eyes that sparkle and perfectly arched brows. An enviably thick head of hair. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though. I am 55 years her junior but all I have over her is youth.

In my favorite photograph of my grandmother, she is 16. In profile. She is wearing a fur headpiece and staring pensively away from the camera. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. She hasn’t yet been introduced to my dark and handsome grandfather. She hasn’t yet given birth to her four children. She doesn’t yet know that her beloved father has only a year to live. She doesn’t yet know that in three decades she will lose her sister- her best friend- to breast cancer. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though.

* * *

At 78, my Bubbie is losing her memory. This is a fact, though I choose to believe it is merely conjecture.

If we don’t use the A-word then it isn’t real.

She has good days. Days when she can reminisce with fluency about yesterday and last year and thirty years ago. Days when she cracks jokes. Days when she tries to press her jewelry on me, saying, “you like this? Take it!” She has good days and this makes it easier to forget that she has bad days too.

* * *

Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the house on Cornwall Avenue over a decade ago. The house was too big so they downsized to a small yellow box of a house five blocks from the beach. It didn’t matter much. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore. Couldn’t. Some years later, they built a ramp for her wheelchair. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore so neither did we. We sat on the porch and ate dried fruit from candy dishes and watched the roses grow into maturity. We still held birthday parties. Fourth-of-July celebrations. We still stopped for soft-serve at the Purple Penguin on our way home. Downtheshore.

Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the little yellow box on North Union last year. To an apartment in a retirement community. They are in independent living. There is, however, the option for assisted living. Nursing care. But Bubbie still has good days and Zadie is still only 83 and we still have 15-year-old sand lodged in our toes and our tans haven’t faded completely. This is merely conjecture but I choose to believe it is fact. This is merely grasping at straws. But I’ll take it.

* * *

One night not too long ago, Bubbie woke Zadie up in the middle of the night. “What’s Debbie?” she asked him urgently. “What’s Debbie to me?” “She’s your daughter,” he said.

* * *

My mother doesn’t believe that there was blue carpet in the kitchen of the house on Cornwall Avenue. We ask my father. He has no recollection whatsoever. “What’s for dinner?” he asks instead. I remember it distinctly though. Blue carpet in the kitchen. It was there, I think, even if it wasn’t. Blue carpet in the kitchen downtheshore in the house on Cornwall Avenue.

 

*For those of you who aren’t Chosen- you get your Easter eggs and we get circumcision- Bubbie and Zadie are Yiddish words for “grandmother” and “grandfather.”

** Ketzie is Yiddish for cat.  Go figure.

The first I gave you was Farewell, My Only One by Antoine Audouard, a novel written in French, translated into English and shipped across the ocean where I found it on a shelf in the mountains. I lay it in my suitcase and took it back to France where I put it in your hands.

SACRAMENTO, CA –

Anyone who has a younger sibling knows what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. If you have enough siblings, you may even know what it’s like to be loathed unconditionally. Me, I’m lucky to have two younger sisters who would have done just about anything I asked them to do when we were younger. It might be said that I made them into my own personal slaves. Kati was about 16 years younger than me, so her tenure was short-lived and she didn’t get into nearly as much trouble as my sister Jess.

I would get Jessica to break into my mom’s secret stash of M&M’s. Or I’d have her steal my sister Melissa’s favorite doll so we could torture it. We’d also dress up my brothers as girls and take photos of them. Or we’d convince the youngest child of the moment to eat bugs, or dirt, or rotten grapes. And if we ever got caught, or if someone tattled on us, Jess would always take the blame. She never once told my mom that I made her do it. Of course, she was (and still is) adorable, so my mom was never too mean to her. Sometimes she’d get her hair pulled or be forced to apologize or sit in time out. But as soon as her punishment was meted out, she’d be back in my room hoping to play barbies (which I was always able to talk her out of because I didn’t ever want to take my barbies out of their boxes).

In my family we all had what I guess you’d call a “soul sibling.” Jess was mine. Even though we were six years apart with two other girls between us we were paired together from the time she was born. When she was a baby, I’d hold her whenever my mom would let me, and as she grew she became attached to me. She would beg my mother to dress us in matching clothes and we’d talk incessantly about how we should have been born twins.

Jess and I also shared a room, and a bed, for as long as either of us can remember. Even when I finally got my own room at age 12 Jess would sneak down in the middle of the night to sleep in my bed with me. I was afraid of the dark and of killers hiding under my bed, so I appreciated the company.

I managed to get over my fear of the dark and I bought a bed under which nobody could fit, but I’ve never been able to get used to being in bed by myself. In fact, I’ve never been able to get used to being alone at all. Since the time I moved out of my parents’ home, I’ve had one boyfriend or another to keep me company. When they weren’t around, I’d turn on the TV and the stereo at the same time to fill up the silence and loneliness threatening to envelope me. Then, two weeks ago, the other half of my bed was vacated, with nobody new waiting to fill the void.

And so it is that, at age 28, I’m learning how to be alone with myself for the first time.

The first thing that really nailed it was “Constantinople.” The word comes toward the end of Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop and when I pronounced it for the first time, finally, I think that lit the candle. Droplets spilled from the ducts of my parents and mine as we closed the book and then perhaps I was offered some fried chicken. A simple exchange of values, my inchoate literacy for a bucket of Popeye’s extra crispy. It has always been that way for me; chicken for literature. Madame Bovary and I shared a bucket in bed until Rodolphe burst in with a revolver. But that is later.

I flounder on what to include. After Hop on Pop, I think I rode the Seuss wave dressed in a Marmaloot suit, scrambling Horton’s eggs and devouring the oeuvre. Then a snag. There is no real transition from Seuss to anything. Maybe Finnegan’s Wake, or some of the more obscure Borges stuff, but that doesn’t really do it either, does it? And thus, my literacy was stifled for a rather large quantity of years, as Good Night Moon and its cohorts never really did it for me. However, I did look at covers of books during these dark ages.

Those god-damned Hardy Boys, with their blue bindings and images on their covers depicting all sorts of scenes of mystery, intrigue and adventure. So alluring to the youngster, all the while not giving a tinker’s fuck to the fact that I can’t read you, man! And so I waited. I can’t quite remember the time when I first opened up one of these Hardy Boys books, but I remember it was a little anti-climactic. Isaac, one of my associates had apparently been devouring all this Hardy Boys nonsense for a while. I was accused of being a tyro in the sphere of the Hardy Boys and felt I ought to compensate by attending the book fair and enlisting my mother to buy around 10 of these books because one must catch up to one’s fellows. They still sit on my bookshelf, and I still am only able to look at the covers. I’ll bet they’re not bad, though.

My next endeavor into literature, I suppose would be the series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. These books are responsible for my current literary bankruptcy. Now, I am sure I am not the only one to abandon the whimsical “chance” happenings in these vile books, but I am quite certain that their resonance has stayed with me longer than the average anybody. I remember distinctly one of these books. The main character, presumably I, am stuck in some kind of Orwellian nightmare of totalitarian regimes and faux Nazis that continue to kill my family and hook me up to some kind of brainwashing mechanism. Well, this tried my patience, as every adventure I “chose” enlisted me in the same odious situation. At wit’s end, I wrote my own “adventure” on the back jacket cover that had me blow-torching some futuristic Reichstag and wandering in a field with the love interest of the story who never actually appeared except in my addendum on the back cover. I still look for her in bars and sundry houses of ill repute. I can see her. Is it wrong that I continue to put her age at around twelve? Eat your heart out Humbert.

When I woke from this, it seems I spent my days treading Vaseline in a sea of warped sexuality (not so different from now, at this very instant). A Separate Piece (Peace?), To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in The Rye. These works are what I remember from my early adolescence. Alas, all I really seemed to absorb in my sexually quiescent stage was how much Scout would enjoy a good romp in the back of the courtroom. Hell, at this stage, I would have fucked Holden, Stradlater, Phineas, Gene, Jem, Gregory Peck (he is Atticus) as quick as the crack of dawn–given the opportunity. I think at some point around this time I also read The Jungle by Sinclair, but all that did was switch me from hot dogs to corn dogs for a semester. The Jesuits really know how to put a scare in you.

And then it gets interesting. I am sitting on a hammock in Fortaleza, Brazil with summer reading (high school) in my hand. It is this atrocity called Madame Bovary. Flaubert? Flaubert? Sounds like some kind of ice cream that you should set on fire. I guess it still does. But he introduced me to my literary fait accompli. Falling in love with heroines. No, but bad love. That faded love in aurora, thrice before the cock crows. Yes–hanging from the fig tree. Holy Thursday love. Dead love. And Emma Bovary is my first, my last–my alpha and omega. And then the credit card debt. I spoke to her. And she spoke back. Our knowledge of each other made us complicit. And she adores my jejune reflections on life and art. And her blood sings in her veins like the very river of milk.

It is not I that negotiates these grotesque self-deceptions. It is literature. It is Emma Bovary, with her “heavens torn open…and passion… spilt everywhere” that beguile me. I suppose when I open the novel and “go” I go. This is why I don’t wander around with Catcher in The Rye in my pocket. I have no inclination to assassinate anybody. Not yet. And Salinger’s shibboleth is one I don’t feel like speaking. I choose Emma. And Anna. And Brett Ashley. And Natasha Rostov. And Molly. And all those maenads hovering around Nightwood. It is the most erotic thing since considering balling the Aramaic legions and a vixen from every Ivy League school simultaneously. Horrific, yet undeniable. And necessary?

Then there is now, today. Literature aside, I try and brush up on my Portuguese. There she is, Paula. She sits with Gustavo, ordering a cervezinhas na praixa. If I can get him out of the picture, I have a chance. Hell, last night I swindled Portnoy’s “Monkey” into bed with Emma. I have so much more reading to do. I really do. But this is where I am. I am looking at the cover of Don Quixote. I wonder if Dulcinea needs a drink.

SACRAMENTO, CA

It wasn’t until I was about 23 years old that I was able to face my family with the fact that I no longer believed in the Mormon religion. And even then I didn’t really face them. They found out in bits and pieces. The most obvious sign was the divorce, which I never told my parents about directly. They heard about it from my younger siblings. Through my siblings they also learned of my tattoo (oh my!) and my drinking (this hasn’t been verified, but I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about it by now). And of course the whole living in sin with my boyfriend for the past two years probably tipped them off as well.

At first they would try to get me to come back around. They’d question me about my beliefs and ask when I had been to church last. When I avoided their questioning or outright changed the subject they’d get upset, angry even.

But then they just backed off. I don’t know what it was that made them stop asking – perhaps the realization that I wasn’t going to change my mind based on their prompting – but they did. And now they’ve taken on a new tack: Acceptance. Well, sort of.

When I see them now, which isn’t often, my parents will gingerly ask me about my boyfriend and whether we have plans to get married. We don’t. Conversation over. If my tattoo is showing, my mom will complement me on it, even though I know she doesn’t approve of it. I’m always tempted to remind her of what she used to tell me when I was a teenager and I’d ask to get a tattoo or a belly button ring, which was, “You can do whatever you want when you turn 18, but not until then.” I never do say this. Instead, I just reach back and pull down my t-shirt so it’s covered again, and try to act as though she hasn’t said anything at all.

I often wish I had a better relationship with my parents (and my siblings for that matter), but when the opportunity to forgive presents itself, I find myself acting like a bratty teenager. I’ve spent many of the past ten years trapped among guilt, self-loathing and regret as I worked my way out of a religion in which I’m not sure I ever believed. My parents seem to have forgiven me, or at least are willing to look past my breach of trust, for leaving the church. But somehow I still haven’t been able to forgive them for judging me so harshly in the first place.

I’ve begun trying to make amends, but years of bitterness and hateful words have made it a difficult path. I find myself constantly having to bite my tongue when I’m with my parents so there won’t be any flare ups. In the past I’ve been able to spend no more than a few hours among my family members without a huge fight breaking out. But my last visit with them was actually somewhat pleasant, aside from the constant praise from my dad, and one particular sibling, that I’ve really grown up. Apparently acting civil toward people you can barely stand is a sign of maturity.

I don’t know how long the civility will last though. Each perceived wrong brings back the bitterness. Things like when my sister Katijona calls me to ask if I’ll be visiting this weekend for Peter’s baptism. I told her I didn’t even know about it so, no, I wouldn’t be there. Four days really isn’t enough time to plan for a trip to Utah. I couldn’t stop myself wondering if my parents didn’t invite me for fear that I’d turn another child against the church. After all, Katijona, of whom I’ve written before, remains unbaptized (which, of course, is my fault) and shows no signs of accepting Mormonism. When we spoke yesterday, she told me that the bishop asked her if she’d like to get baptized along with Peter this weekend. Her response? “I barely even come to this church, why would I want to get baptized?” Ha!

But I shouldn’t be laughing. I shouldn’t be proud that this 13-year-old girl has more gumption and resolve than I did at age 23. This is the thing that drives a wedge between my parents and I. But how can I not want to give her a big hug and tell her I’m OK with her decision?

I fear my parents (and some of my siblings) will be at odds with me for many years to come.

The snow was piling up outside, a white blanket six inches thick and gleaming in the moonlight, reflected up through Darla’s bedroom window. I had just finished reading a story to the girls from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Treasury about sledding down a steep hill. Toad, the pessimist, is leery of such a dangerous undertaking, but the eternally optimistic Frog assures him they will be safe and have lots of fun.

Flying down the hill they hit a bump and Frog falls off. Toad keeps talking as if Frog were still on the sled, but a passing crow tells him he’s talking to himself. Toad looks back at the empty sled, freaks out and quickly crashes into a snow bank. Later, he tells Frog winter is fun, but staying in bed is much better. Safer too.

“I like that one, but it makes me cold,” says Emma, hugging her shoulders. “Can you tell us a Florida story?”

“Yeah, a Florida story!” Darla says, scrunching down under the covers.

So I begin as I always do.