I finished trying on the umpteenth pair of vintage eyeglass frames and walked back out into the heat towards the hospital. A woman stopped me. I’d noticed her earlier mostly because she seemed lost in thought, and her yellow t-shirt said in spangly old glitter iron-on MOZART. She looked out of place at Vermont and Barnsdall simply because she looked so lucid. The rest of us seemed to drift around her like whirlpools of air on the sidewalks.

Spring Feverish

By Tina Traster

Humor

Anyone who’s ever spent a winter week in Vermont or Canada’s Laurentian Mountains knows how easy it is to get swept up in the dreamy idyll of living in a “place like this” one day. There’s a perpetual blanket of snow. The glow of candles flickering in windows and fires blazing in brick hearths. A red cardinal made redder by a backdrop of stark whiteness.

I used to fantasize about living in a “place like this” every time I visited one. Now I know how it feels. Winter 2011 has given us nine storms and 63 inches of snow in the Hudson Valley so far.

My daughter’s school closed four times for snow days, and there have been several delayed openings and one early dismissal. I don’t think she had a full week of school during January.

We are toiling breathlessly to keep our six hens alive during our first winter of animal husbandry — jerry-rigging the coops with blankets, tarps and heating devices.

The locks on our old cars freeze constantly and the engines barely start. Power outages are frequent.

The front door shrinks when it’s below 20 degrees. So when we leave the house, the door must be slammed approximately 10 times before the latch catches. When we return, every picture on the wall is tilted, like in a funhouse.

Oh, and speaking of fun, have you heard about the newest extreme sport? Collecting the mail. Thanks to the plows, there has sometimes been a mound of frozen ice in front of the mailbox. To retrieve mail, one must stand in the road and drape one’s body over the igloo to reach inside the box. The consolation prizes? Scorching fuel bills and Lands’ End catalogs that make you fantasize about — what else? — living in Vermont.

Nothing, though, has tested our mettle more than the driveway — or what’s left of it. Normally, our long, skinny gravel driveway fits two cars side-by-side at the wider end. But after the post-Christmas Day blizzard, my husband and I did a do-si-do with our two cars, lining up one behind the other. Then an ice storm hit, and his economical but winter-challenged stick shift auto-froze in place. No amount of chipping away at ice or spinning tires nudged the car an inch.

For countless days, I offered him my all-wheel jalopy and experienced the life of a shut-in. Finally, a snow angel appeared just as my husband was once again urging his fossilized car to get a move on. A strapping guy — the kind who wears a T-shirt when it’s 15 degrees outside — stopped his pickup truck in front of our driveway and asked if we needed help. He got behind my husband’s car and successfully pushed it out of the driveway.

Everyone is in on this winter’s complaint-fest. But I had to laugh the other day when my mother, who lives on the Upper West Side, lamented over canceled bridge games and difficult journeys down to Lincoln Center.

“Bridge games,” I scoffed. “Right now, Ricky is in the basement using a blow-dryer to unfreeze our frozen water pipes! He has to bring hot water bottles out to Miracle [our hen] every few hours to keep her from freezing to death!”

“Well,” she responded with a sniff, “these are the choices you made.”

My mother has never understood why I bought an old farmhouse on a mountain road 25 miles from the city. To her way of thinking, I should have stayed in Manhattan, or at the very least, chosen a lovely groomed Westchester suburb.

But I have no regrets about moving to our rugged Hudson River town. When it’s all said and done, whatever wintry challenges we’ve muddled through have been offset by pleasure. Hunkering down as often as we have made us inventive: cooking soups and baking breads. Life slowed down, and our road became largely silent. We stayed in our pajamas all day. We drank hot chocolate and gazed out the windows, watching deer trudge in slow motion through deep snowdrifts. It’s made me nostalgic about childhood winters I seem to remember but probably never had.

Maybe Vermont would be manageable after all.

Read more about Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb in “Burb Appeal: The Collection,” now available on Amazon.com. E-mail: [email protected]

“Guy” and I met while working at a tiny summer stock theatre in Vermont.

We quickly fell in love and on the anniversary of our first kiss, onstage, in front of a cooing audience of 150, Guy chivalrously dropped to one knee and presented me with a diamond ring.

He had been engaged once before, he announced, but it didn’t work out. He simply couldn’t marry her. This time he wanted to do it right.

For the right girl.

For me.

I burst into tears.

I was nineteen when we met and Guy was my first everything: first boyfriend, first sexual partner, first fiancé, first musician, first bi-polar manic-depressive, first Jesus freak and first deeply-closeted Gay. So looking back, it was only natural that the following year, his was also to be my first broken engagement.

The late-night Vermont cabarets in which we performed were loosely themed around a few staples of hard-scrabbled New England in-jokes: maple syrup, cheese, Flatlanders, fudge and cows.

I had finished my first act number and changed into my next costume before escaping to the back porch where the cast and crew spent intermissions for mid-show smokes and beers.

On that porch, in front of a cringing audience of 15, Guy cavalierly dropped the bomb.

It wasn’t going to work out. He simply couldn’t marry me.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the right girl after all.

I burst into tears.

The emcee stuck his head out the backstage door and called, “Places.”

He looked down at me, crumpled on the ground, wildly sobbing into the arms of a friend –

– in a cow suit –

– one of those black and white Holstein get-ups, complete with a hot pink boa.

The emcee put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Can you still go on?”

I could not.

I was convulsing so hard that my chest bounced against my friend’s as they pulled the costume from my shoulders – the emcee having chosen to punt and reassign the number, rather than cut it – for as we all know, The Show Must Go On.

I vaguely recall gathering myself together to watch the end of the cabaret. I made it just in time to see someone else onstage, in my cow suit and my feather boa, singing my song: the seminal Cats’ classic: “Memories,” but revamped for Vermont audiences as “Mammaries.”

“Mooooonlight, and no sound from the pasture, all alone with my mammaries, and their days in the sun.”

It suddenly seemed so very, very appropriate.

* * *

I never went back to Vermont after that summer.

I had heard through the grapevine that Guy had gotten engaged twice more after me; breaking off each one with equal severity. Thus bringing the total number of cancelled engagements for him to four in six years.

I never heard of another cow suit, though.

I guess there’s a first for everything.

 

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.”