by Carol Lipton
(from her novel-in-progress)
I came to the Aladdin Hotel with my parents at the end of July, 1959. We arrived in the middle of lunch hour, after a 2 1/2 hour drive up the Major Deegan onto the New York State Thruway from Pelham Parkway. Mom had pulled the usual last-minute hysteria after leaving her nose spray behind, so we had to drive all the way back from Fordham Road to our apartment. Dad was fuming.
“When are you ever going to remember to pack everything? It takes you three weeks to pack for a one-week vacation. Why does everything have to be a big production?”
“Well, maybe if you helped me once in a while, instead of sitting in front of the t.v., watching the ballgame, I’d get done a lot sooner”.
“My wife and her excuses. It’s always something with you. You have to pack the whole house when we go away?”
It went on like that for an hour, then there was the inevitable hand on the radio dial. If my father got to it first, it would be the Yankees, if my mother, WQXR. This would then segue into a secondary argument about what radio station we were going to listen to, with my father acquiescing after mom started yelling at him to keep his eyes on the road.
This time, my father switched stations for a few minutes. I heard news reports from Buffalo and Schenectady interspersed with grainy static covering the mellifluous tones of Billie Holliday, then a Mozart concerto, and finally Gene Pitney. I got to listen to “Only love can break a heart, only love can mend it again”, when my father abruptly switched back to WQXR.
We passed endless hills, fields, and pastures, and I leaned out the window breathing in the wonderful, fresh air, feeling carefree, relaxed, safe. I felt so relieved being here, away from the heat, the concrete, the crowds, and the fists landing in my stomach on a regular basis when I walked out of my buiding.
While dad parked outside the main lobby, mom went up to the registration desk, and got our room keys. The bellhop carried our suitcases to a large cabin up the hill to the right of the main dining room. It was dark inside, and mom swiftly parted the long, puckered bark cloth draperies, with their burgundy and cream banana leaf design. The room had a citrusy smell with a slight musky overtone. Opposite the bed was a large blonde wood dresser like grandpa’s, with drawers that slid out quietly. The dark green carpet had a leaf design that echoed the print on the curtains. I loved the tiled bathroom, the large mirror, and looking out our large windows to gently sloping walkways and pine trees. I knew that even though we were staying for only two weeks, our room would be far more comfortable than cousin Sylvia’s kuchelayn near Kiamesha Lake.
I imagined being in cousin Sylvia’s and seeing row upon row of ramshackle bungalows, each with creaking doors, ripped wire netting on the windows, hordes of moths circling insanely under unshaded light bulbs, and heat so intense you could plotz.
I was overjoyed to be in our room. It was cool, calming, and elegant, and reminded me of the Par Mel in Miami Beach, where mom and I stayed for five weeks in the winter of 1955, when dad was in the hospital getting daily whirlpool baths for rheumatoid arthritis.
It was certainly a world apart from our vacation the year before, when we made our second and final visit to the New Hampshire motel mom found in the AAA guide and nicknamed “tobacco road”. We went there in late August, at the height of pollen season, so mom could escape the dreaded ragweed invasion and inevitable hayfever attacks that followed.
Our tiny apartment, which was halfway between Bronxwood and Waring Avenues off Pelham Parkway North, had cross-ventilation, a godsend if you don’t have air conditioning, which the projects weren’t wired to accommodate. But during pollen season, our apartment turned into a virtual Bermuda Triangle of grass, pollen and ragweed, a condition mom found intolerable. I came in time to appreciate that pollen and ragweed were to my mother what communists were to Senator McCarthy.
On this sunny July day shortly before our vacation, mom gave me a five-minute warning to pack my swimsuit, towel and slippers, as she frantically closed all the windows, made sure she had her car keys, and double-checked to see that she packed tissues, nose spray, and suntan lotion. She was kvetching about how noisy the lawnmower was, while starting to sneeze uncontrollably. Grabbing a handful of tissues from her bureau, she continued blowing her nose, her eyes tearing and her voice growing progressively harsher. By the time we made it into our 1952 Chevy parked a block away, mom was sneezing like crazy. The attack gradually subsided during our twenty-minute drive to Wilson’s Woods swimming pool, where Janie and her mom met us with their Westchester residency card, the only way you can swim in a nice outdoor pool if you live in New York City.
So, in 1957 and 1958 we stayed in “tobacco road”. That was before the New England Thruway was built, and the drive up to New Hampshire, took over seven hours on winding back roads. Dad was very irritable during the last three. I enjoyed looking at the verdant hills majestic mountains, and quaint towns, each with their soaring white steeple-topped churches, and tried my best to cheer dad up.
Mom, who thought that any place listed in the AAA guide was by some divine law impeccable, was completely shocked by the decrepitude which greeted us. It may seem strange to you that my mom, an otherwise educated and intelligent woman, would want to return to such a dump, but like the proverbial moth to the flame, return she did. After calling the owner, Mrs. Kennerly, she fell hook, line and sinker for her story about the wonderful improvements and newly remodeled rooms.
Our cabin was truly the most disgusting, filthy room I have ever seen in my life. The minute I stepped inside, my heart sank, as my eyes slowly took in the panorama of faded, ripped and yellowed furniture spread across the three rooms that were going to be our home for the next week. My room had an old iron-framed cot with a sagging, stained mattress that smelled vaguely of vomit. The space heater barely worked, and it was freezing cold at night. There wasn’t a decent piece of furniture in the entire place. Luckily, mom packed all our wool blankets, as I couldn’t imagine using the ones Mrs. Kennerly kept stored in her attic. The floor was rough, guaranteed to give you splinters if you had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The screens were broken, paint outside was chipping, and the wallpaper had that faded pink, green and white stripe effect that could only have been from FDR’s first term in office.
But the most disgusting thing in the entire cabin was the windowshade in my room. Dark ochre-colored and facing south, it caught the sun every morning, and the little holes which looked so innocent when we arrived in late afternoon had now metamorphosed into a terrifying connect-the-dots profile of a witch.
I was terrified each morning when I awoke and started to dread going to sleep. Mom tried to assuage me, telling me it was all in my imagination, but I was completely unconvinced.
Mom and dad argued incessantly about the accommodations for two days, then reached an uneasy truce. They decided we should make the best of things and visit the surrounding tourist sites. So, we went to see the Old Man in the Mountain in Laconia, which was very exciting, because Aunt Roz lived on Laconia Avenue in The Bronx. There were many other majestic rock formations, enormous chasms with rivers rushing through them, which we viewed from narrow wooden walkways, and picnic grounds surrounded by towering birch and pine trees.
On one tour, we saw crackers from the 1800’s, perfectly preserved in a wooden crate. Our guide talked about the last Ice Age, which ended over 5,000 years ago, and had once blanketed everything from New York to Canada with a solid wall of ice and snow, leaving its random harvest of boulders strewn across New York and New England. For the first time, I realized that everything I took for granted, the trees, the gardens, the seasons, the beaches, that made up the landscape I considered “home”, was at one time a barren, cold, barely habitable place. The thought of this was very disconcerting.
“Mom, is that how all the boulders got left on Pelham Parkway? From the Ice Age dumping them?”
“Yes. New York City was covered with ice from the last Ice Age. That’s how The Rock that you and your friends play on got there. “
“Mom, how come there aren’t any boulders in Manhattan?”
“Oh, there are. They’re just mostly left in Central Park. All the construction has gotten rid of the rest of them.”
“Gee, mom, is the Ice Age going to come back soon? Are we safe living in Pelham Parkway?” I tried to envision woolly mammoths lumbering through White Plains Road, their dense fur weighed down with icicles, and a great wall of ice and inexorably advancing towards Williamsbridge Road, my parents packing everything into our car, and racing towards the George Washington Bridge, headed for Miami Beach.
“No, monkeyshines, it’s going to be a very long time before the Ice Age comes back. Certainly not in your lifetime. I don’t think you have anything to worry about”. But worry I did. I thought about the next Ice Age 10,000 years from now, long after we were dead and buried, the ice flow ripping down the cemetary, obliterating any trace of me or my family. I decided I was going to have to be buried in Mexico, a disturbing prospect, given that our family plot was in Fairlawn, New Jersey.
After three more days of complaining to Mrs. Kennerly, mom decided she’d had enough of the place. There was mold in the shower, holes in the screens, and silverfish scurrying across the bathroom floor, threaõtening to invade our closets and suitcases. After mom demanded a new mattress for me, Mrs. Kennerly brought out a nearly identical sagging and yellowed replacement, minus the vomit smell. We took a walk outside. Mom was resplendant in her navy, green and red tartan plaid pants which she referred to as being “from the year one”, (meaning she bought them before 1950), her jet black hair glistening in the September sunlight. She was angry and defiant, but determined.
“I insisted that Mrs. Kennerly let me use her phone in the office. I called up the AAA and they found us a place in Lake Winnepesaukee. It’s about 90 miles from here, and they said it’s very clean with all new furniture. We have the cabin starting tomorrow”.
I was so relieved to be getting out of New Hampshire, and excited we were going to a nice, clean cabin by a lake. Our new motel was just what I imagined a home in New England to be: walls covered in wood panelling, comfortable Adirondack chairs in the living room, gingham curtains, and a spotless bath. I could see the lake from the window and watch the other kids feeding the ducks after dinner. At sunset, dad and I would feed them bread crumbs, and I’d delight in watching the circles in the water as they dove after the bread, listening to the echo of their quacking and the gentle sounds of the water, deeply inhaling the descending night air, laden with marsh reeds and honeysuckle.
One night, I was overcome with a powerful desire to throw rocks into the water. When my father went back into our cabin and, while no one was watching, I picked up a handful of small pebbles and began to throw them into the water, knowing the ducks might eat them and choke to death. At first, I enjoyed this immensely, feeling clever that I could fool them into thinking that rocks were food, but soon became horrified that I might kill them.
I nervously looked around to see if any ducks were missing. I was relieved to see none of them were. I kept wondering why I had done this. But I never had the time to figure it out. When I got back to the cabin, I noticed mom was crying in that half-ashamed way of hers, quickly brushing tears from the corners of her eyes, like when she was chopping onions. She quickly composed herself.
“They just announced Ezio Pinza died”.
“Who was that, mom?”
“He was a wonderful opera singer. Your father has a lot of his records. Don’t you remember when we played them for you?”
I thought about his rich, powerful voice, now coming on the radio, and remembered. “Wasn’t he in ‘South Pacific’ “?
“Yes, he was. But on Broadway, not in the movie. Rosano Brazzi was in the movie.”
I saw “South Pacific” at the Pelham Parkway RKO in June, 1958. My parents had also seen it on Broadway shortly after the war ended. They seemed to feel very deeply about it. Right after their honeymoon, dad was stationed overseas for two years in the South Pacific on a big naval carrier. He was in Hawaii and the Philippines, and also in London during one of the B-2 raids, where a movie theater right across the street from him got blown to smithereens.
They had a photo album with pictures of dad standing on the deck, smoking, and many of him in Hawaii and the Philipplines, standing under palm trees with other officers and native girls in long grass skirts. I wondered about how incredibly beautiful but also how lonely and frightening it must have been for dad to be stationed there, not knowing how long he’d be overseas, or if his ship would be the target of the next Pearl Harbor. I remember the first time I heard my mother use FDR’s expression for December 7, as “the day that would go down in infamy”, and I thought of the enormity of these battles on those who served in the war, and all the wives and families who could only wait and listen to the radio, watch the newsreels, and pray for an Allied victory.
My parents loved all the Broadway shows in the late 40’s, the golden age of musicals. They seemed to capture the enormouõs hunger for hope, renewal and rebirth that their generation so desperately craved.
“South Pacific” was also the source of my first romantic obsession, Lieutenant Cable, the slender, blonde haired-blue eyed dreamboat who falls in love with a young Polynesian girl, sings “Younger Than Springtime”, and dies right before D-Day when he’s hit by a mortar shell. My apologies to those of you who haven’t seen this film.
Around the same time I saw “South Pacific”, I spotted a hand-tooled, small leather box in mom’s underwear drawer, behind her slips. I asked her what it was, and she told me it contained love letters from my father. I was very surprised that she let me read them. They all had white lettering on a black background, which I found very strange, but Mom explained that the government did this to prevent spying. They wrote about how much they loved and missed each other. In one letter, my father wrote “I worship the ground you walk on”.
I couldn’t believe these depths of passion, and reread them until mom came into my room and said it was time to put them away. I asked her if she loved dad differently before I was born. My parents seemed like different people in those letters, not the same ones who yelled all the time and threatened to divorce each other.
Our sojourn to Lake Winnepesaukee in 1958 was the last of our New England vacations, aside from a weekend trip to Mystic Seaport in 1960, where I got to see an actual Japanese kamikaze plane. From then on, mom decided we would go to the Catskills.
In the great pantheon of Catskill resorts, the summit was occupied by Grossinger’s, the Concord and the Nevele. That’s where everyone from the suburbs seemed to go. Then, there were the older hotels, Kutscher’s and the Raleigh, where my aunts and uncles stayed. The Aladdin was one of the new, smaller hotels, which had mostly young families with children.
After the drama of the war and the terrors of the Holocaust had ended, and prosperity replaced fear and deprivation, the Catskills became the grand theater of the Jewish middle class, a place where dreams of wealth, glamor and romance could be played out in casinos, night clubs and chandeliered dining halls.
When we arrived at the Aladdin, I felt so lucky to be growing up in America in the 1950’s instead of the 1940’s. I was amazed that only 10 years meant the difference between being secure and healthy, going to day camp and hotels, and being in the middle of the most horrible war in the history of mankind. If my grandparents hadn’t come to America when they did, I might also have starved or been incinerated, part of the anonymous mountain of ashes that had once been six million Jews, and was now the detritus of the Final Solution.
Grandma and Grandpa always told me how lucky I was to have food on the table. Grandpa’s parents had died of starvation in the concentration camps. At the Aladdin, there was more food than I could possibly eat. Main dishes for dinner had more food than I would normally eat in most of the day at home.
There was a large dining room for adults, and a separate one for children. Near the parking area in the front were the casino and nightculb, with elegant blue glass mirrors, dark walls and a large stage.
Meals at the Aladdin were an extraordinary experience. I ate food that mom never cooked for me: kosher barbecue spare ribs, kasha with mushrooms, lo mein, chicken cacciatore, elaborate salads. At lunch, I liked to get the Hawaiian salad, with cottage cheese, pineapple chunks and banana, with a maraschino cherry on top. Our counselors made us say kiddush before meals, and because they were strictly kosher, I had to wait a really long time to have ice cream after lunch, things I never had to do at home.
The head counselor, Big Stan, was a big, lumbering man well over six feet tall, with a prominent nose, large teeth, and very hairy. He wore a whistle around his neck, and frequently sported an African safari helmet. He practically attacked my mother when she brought me a glass of milk in the dining room while I was eating liver and onions, recuperating from two days of 104 degree fever. Mom was very worried about my becoming anemic, and insisted that I get enough protein. It just so happened that my protein intake was more important to her than the kashruth requirements of the dining room.
Big Stan was furious, and ordered us to leave at once. He threatened to have us barred from coming back to the hotel, and was outraged that my mother would violate Jewish dietary laws. I was absolutely mortified, and angry at mom for violating the hotel’s rules.
So for the next few nights, I ate with my parents in the adult dining room. But I’m jumping the gun a bit.
Saturday night at the Aladdin symbolized all that the 1950’s were to me, almost as much as the barbecues at Anita’s house in Babylon. Anita was one of mom’s closest friends. She was Italian, and married for the second time. Her first husband was supposed to be a rotten louse who fooled around with other women and beat Anita when he got drunk, something mom carefully pointed out to me that Jewish husbands did not do to their wives, and the second reason that shiksas were always marrying Jewish men, the first one being that they were “good providers”.
Anita had a big ranch-style house with a large inflatable pool in the back. This was a definite improvement over the spray fountain in the Bronx Park East playground pool. Anita had an adopted daughter, Ginny, who was a year older than me. We played in the pool while the grownups drank beer and played gin rummy andr five-card stud. Out of curiosity, I tried beer one hot afternoon in the middle of a long round of gin rummy. I hated the taste. It was sour and disgusting and made me ill. I couldn’t believe that grownups actually enjoyed drinking beer. But it was great playing cards, and everyone was impressed by how good I was.
“Meryl, your little girl is quite a card shark! This is the third game she’s won. Where did she learn to play gin rummy at her age?”
“From my father. He’s 75 years old but still sharp as a tack. No one’s ever beaten him at pinochle or rummy. He memorizes every card in the deck.”
“Well, it’s not so amazing when you think that when he was 12 years old, he memorized geometry from books that he smuggled into his house in Russia. If the czar’s soldiers had found him studying, he would have been shot and killed”.
At this point, I worried that mom was going to launch into one of her long monologues, regularly delivered to our goyim friends, on how Jews in Europe overcame oppression by dint of hard work and education and made it in America. The monologue always included the story about how grandpa staged his own funeral, sneaking out of Russia in the back of a haywagon, somehow making his way through Europe to England, where he boarded a ship to America. It also included the story of how his brother Itche nearly lost his right arm when it turned white from being tied up in a touniquet, to avoid being conscripted into the Czar’s army during World War I. This time, Anita was lucky and got to hear the abbreviated version, which she listened to with rapt attention.
“They had quite a hard life, your parents”.
“Yeah, they certainly did. Now where was I?”
“You were telling us about Sam’s great prowess in pinochle, and how he seems to be passing it to your daughter”.
“Well, he taught her gin rummy when she was only 5. This year, he started teaching her regular pinochle, and he thinks he can teach her auction by the time she’s 11”.
We sat and played for a few hours. Mom and Anita talked about their favorite subjects: growing up in the Bronx, the Depression, housework and cooking tips, the suburbs versus the city, Maytag versus Bendix, Stevenson versus Eisenhower, raising daughters versus raising sons. Sometimes we’d stay past sunset, and barbecue dinner. I loved how delicious hamburgers tasted, and the way my red and white striped white cotton sweater looked at dusk, pale and mysterious in the glimmering light.
Inspired by her friend Anita, and by the mass exodus from our building to the suburbs, my parents took me house-hunting almost every weekend to Long Island. We saw dozens of towns: Syosset, Babylon, Great Neck, Little Neck, Hempstead. The routine was constant: bumper to bumper traffic, dad missing some exit, blowing his stack, mom yelling at him not to have an accident, telling him what route he should have taken, ordering him to get back on the highway at the next turnaround.
There were the endless visits in blaring hot sun on newly laid cement to model homes, all furnished, mostly in bright yellows, pinks and white, my father ready to put down a deposit, getting excited about owning a home, only to have my mother find some flaw and put her foot down the last minute.
They used to dress me up to go with them. One Sunday, I had on my yellow, grey and white dress. I felt so special and sophisticated wearing these colors. I was anticipating a big celebration after my parents bought a house, but the celebration never happened. After two hours of yelling on the LIE, we always came back to the projects empty-handed. To make matters worse, we inevitably arrived back just as the girls in my building were in the heat of a marathon double-Dutch game. I was depressed and sad that I missed it for nothing. There were so many beautiful, sunny days in May spent like this, and the best I could ever hope for was a nap in the back seat and drawing Lulu and Dennis the Menace on paper plates.
I figured that if we couldn’t buy a house in the suburbs, at least we could go away to the Catskills in the summer.
On our first Saturday night at the Aladdin, we went to the lounge. I had just been the flower girl at cousin Janice’s wedding, and mom packed the dress she made for me: a multi-layered pink eyelet organdy dream, with scalloped hem, round collºar, and ribbon sash. I looked like a ballerina, with my hair done up in a chignon. Mom had paraded me in front of our building before the wedding, so the neighbors could kvell over how beautiful I looked. This was proof positive that she had inherited my grandmother’s genius for dressmaking. While she couldn’t sew an entire dress without a pattern like grandma, she certainly could create her own masterpiece.
The lounge was entrancing and mysterious, with blue lights everywhere, and intermingled scents of perfume, cigarettes, and air conditioning. I felt like an angel as I entered this mysterious den, imagining myself on stage as the magic fairy in “Babes in Toyland” our second-grade Christmas pageant. Mom suddenly became very animated.
She spotted a woman across the floor, and quickly walked over and introduced me to her. “Adele, what are you doing here? My God, I haven’t seen you in ages!”
“When was the last time we saw each other?”‘
“I think it was back in ’48 or ’49, on Lydig Avenue”.
“Boy, it’s been a long time! Isn’t is great to be getting away from the city, having a little peace and quiet? And this must be your daughter. My, she looks just like you. What a sweet little face!”
Mom looked at me with a simultaneous mixture of adoration and disapproval that only she is capable of expressing.
“Where are your kids?”
“Well, there are three right now.”
“David just turned 12, Mitchell is 10, and Renee is going on 9. They’re all in summer camp in South Fallsburg.”
“That must be nice, to have a break for awhile. They’re a lot of work at this age. Your oldest must be getting ready to be bar mitzvahed.”
“Yes, he’s been studying in Yeshiva in Little Neck and his bar mitzvah is coming up next March.”
“Oh, he’s over at the bar having a scotch with a friend of his. Gosh, Meryl, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Have you gone back to work?”
“Well”, my mother suddenly lowered her voice to a whisper, “no one where I live knows, but I substitute teach. I put in forty days a year, kindergarten to sixth grade. We can’t tell any of our neighbors or they’ll throw us out of the projects. How abot you? I remember you saying you were planning to get your masters.
“Well, Meryl”, Anita said with a wry laugh, “I’m still working on it. I’m doing the program in hospital administration at Adelphi in Garden City at night. I go twice a week to classes.”
“Boy, your baby-sitting bills must be pretty hefty!”
“Well, everything seems to take care of itself. Dave’s making a good living, so I can’t complain.”
“How are your parents? Still on Wallace Avenue?”
“Of course. Still in the same building that my father built. They go to Miami in the winter every year now. Pop is semi-retired, but he still does repairs for everyone in the family. He built some shelves in my sister’s house, but he has to take it easy now after his hernia operation. Mom still bakes challah every week and sews and embroiders all the time. She’s always making everyone tablecloths for Passover. You’ll be proud to know that she makes every monthly meeting of the Workman’s Circle.”
“She’s salt of the earth, your mother.”
“You know, Carol’s taking piano lessons since she’s four and a half, and now she’s taking ballet three times a week and art lessons as well.”
“My, what a talented child! You must be very proud of her.” I beamed and looked at mom adoringly. I was disappointed that Adele’s kids were in sleep-away camp, and that I couldn’t play with them. But I enjoyed talking to Adele. I liked the fact that mom had such attractive, sharp friends.
Adele was stunning in a jade green sheath dress trimmed with white linen, and a little jacket. Her straight, jet black hair curved gracefully under in a pageboy. She had large, deep-set, piercing olive eyes with delicately arching brows. She was wearing slingbacks with little heels, just like the ones Uncle Max made for Aunt Roz to wear for Linda’s engagement party.
Like mom she was trim and athletic, but more angular, a Jewish Babe Diedrickson. Mom later told me they had both played tennis together on Pelham Parkway, and that Adele was the only one who was able to beat her. Mom also wore the same dress she had on at Janice’s wedding.
It was the most amazing creation I’d ever seen in my life. Mom was incredibly excited when she discovered it in the second floor European boutique in Alexander’s. In fact, I would say that finding this dress was the zenith of my mother’s bargain-hunting career. It was a one-of-a-kind sheer lawn cotton import from Italy, with a diamond-shaped dropped waistline, v-neck, and billowing sleeves that tied with small bows at the elbow.The colors were my favorites, and not the typical earth tones or dramatic colors mom usually wore, but the evanescent and romantic hues of twililght: soft, pale sky blue, cobalt, lavendar and lilac. Layers of fabric swept dramatically from the waistline, buffeted by a crinoline slip, and mom tried it on with her art deco rhinestone necklace and matching clip-on earrings.
She called both dad and Aunt Roz from a pay phone on the mezzanine, plunking more money into a pay phone than I’d ever seen her do. She gave them every last detail about the dress, asking whether she should buy it. Realizing that her meter was running out, and worried that she’d get a ticket, she decided to put it on hold, returning the next day with her fashion maven oldest sister, who gave it overwhelming approval.
She was absolutely radiant at the wedding in Pelham Parkway Jewish Center the last week in July, 1959, almost upstaging the bride. It was as if the dress made her young again. As she walked, the layers of her dress gently swayed, and the colors and patterns seemed to move across the fabric, like clouds.
My father obliged by being the perfect escort in his slate blue tropical wool suit, blue tie and crisp white shirt, looking a bit like a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Gene Kelly.
There was something both reassuring and intimidating about my mother and the other mothers at the Aladdin. I wondered if I would ever grow up to be as elegant or as beautiful.
I was in awe of the movie stars my mother watched on television and spoke about constantly while we were making dinner or running her errands. I loved Cyd Charisse, with her long legs and fluid dancing style; Greer Garson, for her stateliness and commanding manner; Kay Kendall, with her dramatic high spirits and poise and Mitzi Gaynor, with her knowing slyness and sophistication. I spent hours watching their films on Channel 9 on Sunday afternoons when my parents were out and left me alone, dreaming that someday I would grow up to be as sophisticated, as poised, as beautiful as they were.
Every Saturday night, they showed movies in the lounge. This Saturday, we saw The Eddie Duchin Story”, about the bandleader who died very young of leukemia, leaving a young son. Suddenly, I was thrown from being in a state of complete contentment into despair. It reminded me of my best friend Charlie, who died three years before of brain cancer, after being in and out of the hospital for brain surgery and radiation treatment.
Mom didn’t let me go to the funeral. She thought that children shouldn’t be exposed to such things. She told me that Charle looked like a little doll in his casket. I tried to picture Charlie in this tiny casket, inanimate, the delicate lavendar eyelids framing his blue eyes closed, delicate wisps of his strawberry blond hair brushed neatly over his forehead, wearing a white shirt and bowtie. And laying so still like a little doll, so beautiful, motionless, frozen in time. So much joy and activity and playing, and now stillness.
I wondered if he died with a smile on his face, if he was happy in his last moments. I saw Charlie when he was well enough to play, always so sweet to me, never a mean word. It wasn’t fair for Charlie to die this way, to not be able to grow up, to have his life cut short right at the start, after such enormous pain.
I was angry that I couldn’t say goodbye to my friend. In the months after Charlie’s death, mom’s favorite piano pieces were “Rustles of Spring” and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Both had windswept, stirring melodies. They sounded to me as if they were written about a child dying in the spring. Charlie’s mother, Vera, kept trying to replace Charlie. She was pregnant every year for the next few years, hoping to have another son, but she had three more daughters. Now Vera and her husband had four daughters.
I didn’t want to be thinking about this on vacation, and was distressed that they chose a movie with such a sad ending. I felt a grief so deep, and so total, that I could not speak. I was silent as we walked down by the pool and the garden area in the moonlight . I longed for something, but I did not know what that something was.
During the day, there were endless activites for kids. We had swimming instruction in the morning, group swim in the afternoon, play hour, giant step and other games with Big Stan on the lawn, but most of all, we had the pinball machines. It was at the Aladdin that I developed an addiction to pinball.
I was constantly begging mom for nickels to play. The pinball machines were in a mirror-lined recreation room to the left of the dining hall, and had a door adjoining the dining hall that was always locked. Outside, there were long picnic benches where mothers would sit with their children.
One afternoon, I was sitting next to Gale Moskowitz’s mother, while she was talking with some of the other women. She suddenly turned to me and said “Carol, you’re different from the other children”. I was completely startled. I had no idea why she would say this to me. I was afraid it meant she didn’t want me to play with Gale.
I got up and left immediately, and went into the rec room. I stared at the mirrors lining the walls, which made me feel like Alice in Wonderland. I had always secretly believed that it was possible to walk through mirrors. I kept concentrating on them, hoping to will myself into being able to do this, but it never happened. I thought that kids could do this, but that when you grew up, you lost the magical ability that allowed you to go into mirrors. My eyes darted to each wall, and fixed upon a mirrored door. I imagined that another world was on the other side.
I started to play. Suddenly, I felt a powerful force surge through me. It started in my feet, spread throughout my hands, up my waist, and all through my torso, right into my head. I felt electrified, connected to the flippers, in charge of the machine. Instead of clumsily fumbling with the flippers, this time I was totally in command. I started flipping more powerfully, in perfect time with the balls.
Pretty soon, I was getting thousands of bonus points. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on the screen. Silver balls madly ricocheted off each corner in a chorus of pings, followed by the whir of the bumpers, the ringing of little bells, and the loud honking of red and blue lights. I felt like a pilot or race car driver, taking curves at breakneck speed. I played three games, and got four more for free. I felt totally in sync with the machine, as if we had merged.
A small crowd of kids had now gathered in hushed amazement around me. I had no idea how long I’d been playing, but I wasn’t going to stop, not even for a glass of water or to go to the bathroom.
Balls were wildly popping out of the bonus point holes at the far side of the machine, where there were an extra set of flippers. I was having the most fun with the round buzzer-zones, and kept bouncing balls off them, making that whizzing, electrical sound each time. I watched in awe as my score soared past one million points.
I kept on going, shooting the balls with complete assuredness back up to the top, watching them gently descend, then flipping them back up just at the critical point when they slipped precariously between the two flippers, barely missing the gutter. I flipped with the speed and precision I had used in winning multiplication contests in Miss Graham’s class.
Then, all of a sudden, something totally unpredictable happened. Just as I thought the machine was going on “Tilt”, a miracle occurred. It started to give away free games.
I was totally dumbfounded, thinking it would stop, but it kept giving away game after game, and most strange of all, without the usuall “free game” sign on the lightboard. It felt like the machine was in the twilight zone!
I played for what seemed to be hours, but was probably another 45 minutes. Kids were jostling for a prime viewing position in front of me, yelping and excited, their eyes glued to the silver ball. I let other kids play, and we cheered each other on. This was certainly the most exciting day of my entire life.
Then, a mean kid with dark hair in a crew cut, with big hands and fat fingers, started playing. He was rough and brutal, and forced the levers. I told him to take it easy, but he was greedy. Within two minutes, the machine went on “tilt”. A cry of disappointment and annoyance went up among all the kids. The miracle had ended. But we talked about it all that evening at the dinner table and for the rest of the week.
I also loved sports at the Aladdin. We had 80-yard races, tetherball, relay games, swimming and softball. On my third day at the hotel, under the beautiful morning sun, I played softball for the first time.
I watched all the girls as they got up to bat, hitting the ball tentatively, as if they were afraid they’d hurt the ball if they used more force. They all wound up fouling or striking out. I got up to bat and all eyes were on me. I felt confident, thinking of the times I’d played with dad, who coached me in front of our building to throw and catch like a boy, and watched proudly as I’d play throw and catch with Kenny. I was determined not to hit the ball the way the other girls did.
I noticed that a boy was standing next to me. I’d never seen him before that day. He must have checked in midweek. I asked him how to hit the ball. He was flattered and happy to show me how. He stood behind me and gently moved my shoulders with his hands, showing me how to stand parallel to the plate. I liked the feeling of his hands on my shoulders, the directness of his gaze. He had a beautiful smile, with large, bright teeth and full lips. His hair was dirty blonde, in a crew cut, and he looked like a Jewish G.I. in his white t-shirt.
“How do I know when to swing?”
He chuckled and looked at his friend. “It’s nothing. Just don’t worry about hitting the ball. Keep your eyes on it, and when you see it come over here”, he said, pointing to a zone in front of my arms, “you just swing straight across”. He then took my arms in his from behind, and glided me through the motions. “Think you got it?” I nodded my head, but chills were going through my spine.
The pitcher swung, and I could see the ball coming straight at me, in the area in front of my arms that was in the zone to hit. The sun was starting to blaze down on me, but I didn’t flinch. I swung the bat and felt an enormous crack, then the heaviness of the bat and a dull thud as it hit the dirt behind me. I had connected with the ball! I watched in awe as it soared over everyone’s head, deep into the outfield.
A tremendous surge of excitement washed over me. It was like playing pinball, but even more powerful. I had never experienced antying like this in my life. I felt competely mobilized, but also strangely frozen. I stood there, riveted to the ground, watching as the ball soared deeper into the outfield, and was only dimly aware of everyone yelling at me. “Run, Carol! Stop looking, and start running!”
But for what seemed like an eternity, I couldn’t run at all. I was so dumbstruck that I had actually gotten this incredible hit, that I wanted to watch. I was also afraid of actually getting on base. Then, I started to run, with every fiber in my being, as fast as I could. But by the time I reached first, the ball had hit the ground and bounced into Jason’s glove, who threw it straight to Steve on first. Steve tagged me out on the arms as I ran frantically, trying to dodge him from the side. Loud moans and yelling erupted. “Oh, you blew it, Carol! How could you just stand there and screw up such a great hit!”
I felt like a total idiot, but somehow relieved. I wanted to be better than the other girls, but I was afraid of what might happen if I’d really gotten the hit, and what everyone would think. I turned to the boy who showed me how to hit. He was talking to a really cute, thin, blue-eyed boy next to him.
“You girls just act so dumb when you play ball. I can’t believe you blew that hit. What a waste! You could’ve brought in two runs!”
“So what!” I countered, starting to sulk and grow flushed. “Next time, I’ll run and get on base, just watch me”.
“Oh, yeah? What’s your name, anyway”?
“Well, Howie, I said defiantly, “girls are a lot better than you think”. I decided I was going to get even with Howie for being so nasty to me after being so kind and helpful.
The next day, it was overcast, but the counselors said it was o.k. for us to play, since the weather forecast didn’t say thunderstorms.
Howie was talking to his cute friend, whose name was Sandy, to the right of me. I was behind the pitcher’s mound, and Howie was awaiting his turn at bat. I watched him as he got a line drive and landed on first. Then, Aaron got up and hit a high, pop-up fly, which the pitcher caught, tagging Howie out before he could reach second, making a double play. I got up to bat, and this time, I connected. This time, I hit a low ground ball and got on first. Then Lenny got up to bat, struck out, and our side retired.
I left the dugout area, and saw Howie talking to Sandy. I walked up to him and sweetly said hello. He said hello back. Then, without warning, and with no hesitation at all, I took his right hand in mine and kissed the top of it, the way I’d seen gentlemen do it in the movies. It happened so fast, I didn’t think about what I was doing.
What was even stranger was Howie’s reaction. Looking stunned and confused, he slipped and fell into a puddle of mud, cutting his foot.
“Look what you made me do!” He was livid and angry. “You made me get hurt!” He was almost in tears, red-faced, his voice cracking. Sandy helped him up.
“Serves you right for making fun of me!”
“I don’t care about your hit. I’m bleeding!” He and Sandy gave me dirty looks as I stood there, unable to respond. Howie leaned on Sandy’s shoulder as he limped off the field.
I was wondering if I’d be able to face them again.
Later in the day, we had all kinds of great games on the lawn: ping pong, jumping jacks, relays, broad jumps, and Giant Step. That’s when I met Karen. She had straight brown hair, bangs, and a sweet face, but with a haunting, wistful undertone. She was three weeks younger than me. We started sitting together in the dining hall, and I knew we were going to become best friends.
One afternoon, we decided to cut out from relay games. We had just finished making fancy napkins with special colored pencils that imprint designs onto linen. You wet the pencil, and like a marker, it bleeds, leaving an indelible design. We traced butterflies and flowers. I insisted on doing one freehand, and made a little bit of a mess. I wanted to see if I could invent a design. I loved the names of the pencil colors, and just like in my French pencil set, my favorite was Heliotrope.
Karen made butterflies with curleycues around them, in shades of blue and turquoise. When it came time to avoid the games, nap and afternoon cookies that Stan had lined up for us, we snuck all around the back of the table area, where there was a partition of bushes and hoses for watering the lawn. I was lookout and signaled to Karen, and we dropped to the ground, combat-style, crawling on our bellies for about 20 yards. It was great to get covered with grass and dirt, and fortunately, the ground was dry. We snuck around to the side where Big Stan was giving his afternoon sermon to the rest of the kids after milk and cookies, and ran behind the cabanas.
Then, we decided to make a run for it, and crossed the road in front of the hotel without having grownups help us. I’d gotten into major trouble for this type of activity in Miami. Back then, I’d crossed the street with Jackie to climb up to his palm tree house without telling Mom, and she had a fit. She saw us returning from the beach, and came towards me screaming about worrying to death about where I’d been, and how I could’ve been run over by a car or kidnapped. None of my protestations about how there was almost no traffic and how I looked both ways when I crossed the street were of any use. I was grounded for a day, sent to bed early without any cookies, and not allowed to climb any more palm tress.
Well, now I was older and after a few years of crossing the street unattended to pick up half a loaf of rye bread at Rosenberg’s bakery, I was considered a “big girl”. I knew I could get away with this. We ran across the road. It was beautiful and sunny. On the other side was an overgrown field. We climbed up about 10 feet onto a plateau. Everywhere, there were strange circles the size of car tires. I had no idea what they were. Then, we noticed that everywhere there were flies buzzing around and realized these were piles of cow manure. We sat by a tree and talked. Karen looked at me quizzically, then with great sadness.
“You know, I haven’t told you, but my father’s dead”.
I felt a deep twinge in my chest. “That’s terrible.” I sighed and paused, not knowing what to say. “Wow, I’m sorry. You must miss him so much”.
“He had some kind of rare cancer.”
“Oh, Karen, that’s awful.”
“It’s been real bad for my mom. She says she doesn’t know what she’s going to do without him.”
We were silent for awhile. I touched Karen gently on the arm, and saw the deep sadness in her eyes. I’d never known anyone before whose father had died. The thought was somehow inconceivable to me. I thought about my uncle Freuyim grandpa’s brother, who died two years before of cancer. He was very thin, and always giving me nickels. Then I thought about his other brother, Uncle Enoch, who died of a stroke last year and Bubble sobbing at the shiva. I thought of Charlie, but I didn’t think it would be right to talk about him to Karen. After all, he was my friend, not my dad.
I felt hopeless thinking about this. Karen was so sweet and kind, and I knew her father must have been very good to her. I wanted to be the best friend to her that I could and make her pain go away. Karen looked me straight in the eyes.
“Do you know how you want to die?” Flies were swarming all over, and we swatted them away. The smell of manure wafted through the air, a discordant note interwoven with hay and wildflowers.
I thought about Karen’s question very briefly. I was so certain of the answer, that I blurted It out.
“I want to die awake, with my eyes open, with the people I love next to me”. Then I thought for a second. “I want to be able to say goodbye to the world. It’s so beautiful.”
“Not me”, Karen replied. “I want to die in my sleep”. I was shocked and disturbed by this.
“How could you want to die in your sleep? You wouldn’t know that you were dying. How would you know where sleep left off and when you died?” The thought of slipping from a state of dreaming into death was utterly terrifying to me. It felt like drowning.
“How could you want to die in your sleep, Karen?” I felt I was getting angry at her for being a coward. “If you died in your sleep, you wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to anyone. You wouldn’t know you were dying”.
Karen looked at me very calmly. “I don’t want to know when I die”. She looked down. “That’s just what I want”.
Soon, we crossed the road and walked back to our rooms to change for dinner.
That night, Wednesday, our counselor told us that we were going to put on a talent show in the night club after the weekly movie. I was very excited.
“Dave, are we going to be on stage?”
“Yeah, you’re all going to get a chance to perform”.
Everyone was giggling and jumping up and down. I had visions of being up on stage at Junior High School 135, in my white snowflake tutu with silver-flecked crinoline and my silver and diamond tiara.
Dave went down the row and then turned to me, “Carol do you want to dance?” I nodded my head intently. “Here, l’ll put on some music and you can give it a try”.
I had never done this before in ballet class, and was excited to be improvising to music. I’d done this a few times in the living room, when mom was out shopping, putting on WQXR and inventing whole ballets.
Dave took out some records, and put on some Middle Eastern music. the I I got up on stage, and started to dance. I put my hands together over my head, pointing towards the sky, like I’d seen belly dancers do. I wiggled my head back and forth, but then started blushing and giggling.
“C’mon, Carol, you’re doing great!” Dave smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I started to imagine myself in my dreams, on a flying carpet, soaring over the grass and trees of the Bronx Botanic Gardens, and started swaying gently to the music. I moved my hips in circular motions, at first awkwardly, then more gracefully. Then, using the spotting technique I learned in ballet class, I did a few twirls.
Everyone clapped enthusiastically. I’d never felt like this before. Suddently, I noticed Howie sitting in the front row, right in front of me. I was so busy concentrating on the rear of the crowd and watching Dave, that I hadn’t seen Howie. His blue eyes never looked clearer or more intense, and deep dimples punctuated his smile. I smiled back at him and felt something uncontrollable. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
I kept inventing steps, swaying in rhythm with the music, all the time keeping my arms over my head and my palms touching each other. I loved the feeling of my arms and body stretching towards the sky, and the music going right through me. I heard a few yelps and wolf whistles, but imagined that I was dancing only for Howie.
I wanted to do something with Howie, but I didn’t know what it was.
“O.K., Carol, time’s up. You can step down”, Dave said from the side of the front row. Everyone cheered and applauded, and I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to dance on Saturday night.
When we left for dinner, I was still thinking about Howie and his blue eyes that seemed like they could melt steel. I had a strange sensation in my stomach, and didn’t order my usual big helpings of food. Was this what you felt when you were a grownup? How could I be feeling this way? I was only 8 years old.
I remembered in kindergarten, how I boasted to Livia that I was going to ask 40 boys to marry me. I thought for hours about being married to all the different boys I had crushes on.
I didn’t see Howie on Thursday at all. That morning, Big Stan made an announcement at lunch that we were going to the movies in South Fallsburg. “Gigi” was playing. Karen and I were so excited. This was going to be fun, seeing a movie set in Paris, that was supposed to be so romantic. We got on the bus, and I sat towards the back, next to Karen. We left the Aladdin at 2:00 p.m. and arrived at the theater at 2:35. I walked in next to Karen, and saw Howie out of the corner of my eye, walking down the next aisle to the right. My heart started to race. He wasn’t with Sandy, but with a bunch of other boys.
When he saw me, he stopped and smiled, and immediately crossed over to the aisle where we were sitting. Without hesitation, he smiled at Karen and asked her to switch seats. Karen shot me a look, then smiled sweetly and knowingly at me. I nodded. “O.K.”, she responded.
I was a little worried, since I didn’t want Karen to think I was ignoring her.
“You want a cherry lozenge?” I pointed the open box towards Howie, and he helped himself to one and smiled.
“You can have some popcorn, too if you want”.
“Thanks,Êbut hold the popcorn”.
The house lights dimmed, and the movie started. I knew from the first frame that I’d love the film. The colors were incredibly vibrant, and Paris was everything mom had described to me. Leslie Caron was radiantly beautiful, Louis Jourdan dark and intensely handsome, Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier so romantic and sophisticated. I loved the scene where they walked on the veranda singing “Yes, I Remember it Well”. It was so wonderful that two people could still love each other in a romantic way after being married for all those years. It was so different from how mom had desribed marriage, being “like oatmeal”, or from the signs I saw in my friend’s kitchen that said “It begins when you sink in his arms, and it ends with your arms in the sink”.
I wanted to believe that people could continue to love each other and feel passion, even when they grew old. “Gigi” gave me hope that this was possible.
I realized how I loved the feeling of being in a darkened theater and watching a movie. The rich colors, the music that seemed to be coming from every side, overpowered me in a wonderful way. I was enchanted with the beauty of Paris, and knew that mom was going to have to send me there some day!
Maurice Chevalier started to sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”. I loved the line where he sang “Those little eyes, so helpless and appealing, one day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling”. Just at that moment, I felt something strange. Howie had quietly slid his arm behind my seat, and it was now curved around my shoulder. I froze. I could not believe this was happening. I could see Howie’s eyes from the side, and glanced at him, startled.
I turned to look at Karen, but she was staring at the screen, completely immersed in the story. I was tempted to kick her in the leg, but that seemed too crude. I nervously munched on the popcorn we bought. It blended very oddly with the cherry lozenges I had been absent-mindedly sucking on.
Howie started to whisper in my ear, “Carol, I’m really sorry I said all those things to you the other day. I know I was mad at you. Please forgive me”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I kept asking myself if this was real, if I was really hearing this, that Howie, who just two days before had been so angry, was really crazy about me. My mind flashed to Kenny in my building, how he told me when we were alone how much he cared for me, but warned me that he had to ignore me once we walked out of the building together, so that the other boys wouldn’t tease him and call him a sissy. Would Howie do this to me once the lights went back on and his other friends saw him with his arm around me?
“I didn’t think you were going to talk to me any more. I thought you were really mad at me”, I whispered in his ear, leaning closer to him.
“Not at all, Carol. I think you’re so wonderful”. There were small pauses between words. “You’re really different from the other girls. I really love you”. And with those words, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. It wasn’t a quick kiss, the kind I’d get from mom or Aunt Roz, but a soft kiss that lingered a bit. He kissed me two more times. His mouth felt so warm on my cheek, and so light. Chills ran up and down my spine. I felt an incredibly strange sensation in my legs, and weak in the knees. I also had a strange sense of discord in my stomach.
Howie kept his arm around me, holding me tighter. I loved feeling blanketed by his warm skin, and the firm touch of his hands. I had a feeling of security from his graceful and strong fingers clutching my shoulder. He kissed my neck and whispered again that he loved me. I could smell the subtle cherry scent from the lozenges on his breath.
“Carol, you’re very special to me”. I squirmed a bit, and hoped Karen didn’t hear this. I didn’t want her to feel left out and betrayed as a friend.
Then, Howie moved closer and whispered, “Carol, do you love me?” I couldn’t say a word. I felt chilled, and clutched my sweater. I thought that this was going to be a trick, that as soon as I said “Yes, I love you too, Howie,” upon some secret signal,he’d burst out laughing, run down the aisles and let all the other boys in on his secret, that this had just been a big practical joke.
Why did I feel this way? Nothing in Howie’s words or his actions should have made me distrust him, but I couldn’t respond. I kept seeing it as giving him some sort of victory. I realized I was becoming very queasy and hot. I focused on my stomach, where the popcorn I’d been mindlessly munching on had combined with the cherry lozenges into a sickening amalgam. Why did I do something so stupid? Mom was always warning me not to eat popcorn at the movies.
I was horribly confused. Should I really believe that Howie loved me? How could anyone love me when I was so hated and beaten up all the time by the kids in my building? How did this happen so suddenly? It was unbelievable to feel his arm around me, his soft skin touch my shoulder, his breath on my neck, his wonderful, earthy voice whisper in my ear.
Part of me wanted to kiss him on the lips, the way Leslie Caron was kissing Louis Jourdan on the screen, and find out what that would be like. I was terrified. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I leaned over and kissed Howie back on the cheek.
I would never hear the end of this from my mother if she knew what happened. It was bad enough she found me playing soldier with Jackie under the sheets in his bedroom at the White House in Miami Beach two years before. She never believed we were just playing soldier. I didn’t know what she thought we were doing. I just knew it must be something horrible that had nothing to do with our soldier games. She said she never, ever again wanted to catch me in bed with a little boy. I knew that all this kissing had something to do with being in bed with a boy. That I had figured out. But what happens after that? Boy, I couldn’t wait till I was grown up, so I could find out!
Howie moved closer to me, so his head was touching mine. He whispered some things that I was unable to hear, but rather than break the mood or look stupid, I pretended to understand.
We went back on the bus, and I sat next to Karen. Howie seemed crushed that I didn’t sit next to him, and sat across from me, looking at me almost the whole time. I started to feel very hot. I stopped being aware of Howie or anyone else. All I could think of was wanting to throw up, get into bed, and under the blankets. I was starting to get delirious.
The next day, I had severe chills, a sore throat, and a 102 degree fever.
“Alex, our daughter’s very sick.” Mom felt my forehead as soon as I walked back into our room. She brought me some water. “Here, drink this all up. I’m calling the front desk to see if we can get a doctor to make a house call.” She immediately got the thermometer out of the medicine cabinet, vigorously shook it down after holding it up to the light to see where it was set, and put it in my mouth, way under my tongue.
“Alex, where’d you put that little jar of rubbing alcohol?”
“I don’t know, Meryl. You packed it, don’t you remember where you put anything?”
Mom was nervous and talking to herself the way she always did for a bit. Then she exclaimed, “Oh, I remember. Alex- go look in my shoebox with the pills. I think I put it in a little glass jar with a white plastic cap”.
“My wife and her shoe boxes. Don’t you believe in storage containers?” Dad slowly and with great weight got up from his chair, and in a few minutes returned with the rubbing alcohol and cotton pads. Mom proceeded to take my shirt off. I was shivering.
“Mom, do you have to undress me? I’m so cold”.
“Yes, monkeyshines, I have to rub you down with alcohol so we can lower your fever “. Mom rubbed me all over my chest and back, then quickly pulled my top down and lowered my pants, took off my underwear, and put alcohol on my lower back, thighs, and chest. She then quickly changed me into pajamas and put me to bed, where I got extra blankets. My chills were getting a lot worse.
“I don’t know where we’re going to find a doctor for you around here on a Saturday.” She gave me an aspirin and some other pills. I drank the water very slowly, as it hurt my throat to drink. I quickly fell into a deep sleep.
I must have slept most of the day and evening on Friday. At some point, a doctor came and visited me. I got a shot of penicillin in the tush, which was very sore, and went back to sleep. I awoke at 10 a.m. on Saturday, and realized what day it was.
“Mom, can I go to the talent show tonight? I danced in front of everyone at tryouts, and they loved my dancing and I’m supposed to be in the show. Please, mom! “
“Young lady, you’re not going to any show. I’m sorry, but you’re just going to have to miss it. You’ve had a 100 fever for 2 days, and this is the first day it’s come down. You’ve got to stay inside for at least another 48 hours. I don’t want you catching anything in the nightclub from the air conditioning.
“But mom, I just can’t miss the show. Please, I have to go!” I was starting to whine and cry. “Everyone wants me to dance- they’re all counting on me! I want to be on stage, like last winter in ballet class.” I couldn’t talk any more. I gulped hard and felt a huge lump in my throat. I cursed the popcorn and the cherry lozenges, and swore to myself that I’d never eat another cherry lozenge again.
“You need to get some rest, young lady. I can see you’re overexcited. You’re always getting so upset over everything. It’s only a show. You need to rest and get well. That’s it.”
At that point, I knew it was hopeless. I collapsed and went back to sleep. I woke up a few times to get water, and the next thing I knew it was Sunday afternoon. My fever was 99 until Monday, when mom let me go outside for an hour, since it was 85 degrees.
I went everywhere, trying to find Karen. I found her sitting on a bench. “Karen, I’ve been so sick. I was in bed for three days. Mom said I needed to stay inside.”
“I was looking for you. I didn’t know what happened”.
“How was the show?”
“Oh, it was great. I wish you could have been there. We all had so much fun. “Did you see Howie?”
“He was at the show. He asked about you, but I didn’t know where you were, or what to tell him. I know he felt awful you weren’t there”.
“Where is he?”
“I’m sorry, Carol. He checked out Sunday afternoon with his parents. I saw him saying goodbye to Drew and Suzanne, when they were loading their car”.
“Do you know where he lives? Does anyone have his address?”
“Sandy lives in Brooklyn, I think in Flatbush. I think they went to the same school. She paused a minute. “I just remembered his last name – it’s ‘Fine’. Howie Fine”.
“Karen, we have to check at the registration desk”. We asked if Howie checked out, and they confirmed that he did. My heart sank. I lived miles from Brooklyn. We had one cousin there, Tanta Pesha, who lived in Brownsville, which the old generation called “Brunsville”. I had no idea how I’d get hold of him. I was afraid to ask the hotel desk for his address and phone number. They might tell mom, and she’d have a fit.
I was frantic. I couldn’t figure out how to find someone who lived in Brooklyn. I wasn’t old enough to ride the subways, and even thought I could dial the phone, we didn’t have a Brooklyn phone book. Then, I realized that his phone would be listed only in his parents’ name, and that without this, I’d have no way of finding him, ever.
On Wednesday, we packed up and got ready to leave. I went down the walkway and spotted Sandy, happily skipping along, a girl on each arm. I was afraid to spoil his fun and go over to ask about Howie. I also thought he’d say something mean to me. Both girls were very pretty, with blonde hair in pony tails that bobbed up and down as they were skipping. They went to pay in the picnic area by the trees. I walked closer past them, and noticed Sandy was now crouching down on the ground, talking. He was now facing me, and I couldn’t believe what I saw.
His loose, baggy shorts had pulled away from his legs, revealing his testicles. I was riveted. I’d never seen a naked boy before, except for Paulie when I was 2 1/2 and lived on the other side of the projects. He was always running around in front of our apartment on Bronxwood Avenue with his diaper off. The only other naked boy I saw was my cousin Ricky in Easthampton, who ran around naked from the waist down when he was 4.
I was fascinated by how full and plump his testicles were, like ripe fruit. It excited me in a strange way. Then, another thought flashed through my mind. Was it Sandy who I’d really loved and wanted, because he was oblivious to me? I looked at his long, beautiful face and tall, graceful body, which reminded me of Tim Considine from the Hardy Boys, and how he seemed to like blondes. I would never be blonde or good enough for him.
While I found Sandy intriguing and mysterious, I somehow sensed he was not for me.
When we got back home, I vowed to track down Howie, but it would be two years before I’d actually get hold of a Brooklyn phone book. One day in the fifth grade, I ran over to Myriam’s house, remembering she had cousins in Brooklyn, and asked to look at her phone book. I saw page after page of “Fines”. I was devastated.
I would never again see Howie, never get to kiss him, never be held in his smooth, tanned arms, never again play softball with him. Worse, I would never get to tell him how much he meant to me, and how much I loved him.
For the next few years, I ran mysterious fevers, where I screamed out for mom to bring me water. But when she brought it, I refused to drink. She was extremely perplexed by this, and even consulted my pediatrician about it. He agreed that it was a bizarre medical phenomenon, but could offer no explanation.
Silently, a fire raged inside me that no water could quench. An invisible wall seemed to descend, surrounding me and keeping me from this boy who loved me, and who I wanted to love back.
That love was in Brooklyn. Someday, somehow, I would go to this place. And I would find that wonderful boy who showed me how to play softball and kissed me so beautifully, and spoke to me with such great tenderness. And the years could not go by quickly enough until I was grown up and able to go on the subway and find him.