In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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© Jean-Claude Lejeune
That spring, my father became a voluntary mute. He’d putter around the house with a spiral-bound notepad and a black pen, frantically scribbling down directives or questions.
“Tiny,” the note would read, “I’ve gotta work, so get yourself and all your friends out of the house for a while.”
“OK,” I’d mumble, and then I’d wave to Amanda and Jane, my two best friends, the only people I dared bring home during my father’s embarrassing silence. The three of us were usually hanging out in the kitchen, as mine was a house reputed to have exotic foods (stinky cheeses, halvah, and the like), and, unlike me, my friends appreciated those foods.
It was 1977. I was sixteen and had inherited from my recently deceased older sister, Zoe, a green, dented, sperm-shaped car that I couldn’t legally drive, having failed my driver’s test three times. The car was in frequent use, however, with one of my license-carrying friends behind the wheel.
For my father, “work” meant wandering in a circle from his office, to the kitchen, past the family room, and into his office again, a manuscript in one hand and a pencil in the other, wearing a tattered blue-gray bathrobe with coiled strings hanging from the hemline like dreadlocks. He was a professor and a translator of novels from French and Italian. Unlike previous breaks from teaching, his sabbatical that year did not consist of a semester in France or Italy, but a semester at home, his pale, wire-haired legs sticking out below the bathrobe, his near-balding head wild with what few patches of hair he had left. To leave the country would have meant leaving my mother, who, after Zoe’s death, had moved out of the house, although not entirely. She rented a cabin high in the mountains above Pueblo Valley, a twenty-minute drive from our house near the beach. (Although most beach houses in our southern-California town were owned by millionaires, my parents had bought theirs in the late 1960s, when someone on a professor’s salary could still pick up a chunk of Pueblo Valley real estate — with a little help from his wealthy East Coast in-laws.) After she moved out, Mom still did the grocery shopping and left checks for the cleaning lady and the gardener, and on Sunday nights she would cook dinner and insist that the three of us surviving family members sit down and eat together. Other than that, she had quit our diminished family for a life of independence, abandoning me to Dad in his bathrobe.
“I love your dad,” Jane said one day as we were pulling away from the house in my sperm-shaped car, on our way to a destination yet to be decided.
“Me, too,” Amanda said.
“No,” Jane insisted, “I mean I really love him.”
“You’re grossing me out,” I said, and I turned up the radio. Jane was driving. She was in control. Sometimes when I was with her, I felt like I was with Zoe; I remained one rank below her, no matter how hard I tried to slip into first place. To make matters worse, if you squinted your eyes and looked at Jane from across a smoky room, she even looked like Zoe — straight black hair, almost stunted nose, eyebrows shaped like chevrons.
The one place I had outranked Zoe was in life experience. While my friends and I explored drugs and sex, she remained pure. She always resented me for this, yet thrived on it, too — the way an anorexic thrives on mastery of her own starvation. Every joint I smoked or beer I drank increased the gap between us, until I might as well have been a drug addict and her an abstinent mother superior.
Amanda scooted up in the back seat and stuck her head between mine and Jane’s.
“I can’t believe your parents let you have this car after what happened to Zoe,” Amanda said.
“They’re just playing the odds,” Jane said. “The chance of having two kids die in a car crash is so remote that it’s, like, almost safer for Tiny to be in a car.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I should spend my whole frickin’ life in this car; it’s probably the only place I won’t die.”
And then I heard this choking noise from Amanda and saw that she was crying. Her nose was red and her eyes were rimmed with pink. With her thready blond hair and flushed face, she looked like a baby bird.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “It’s just that every time we talk about Zoe, I can’t stop crying.”
“You’re the one who brought her up!” Jane said.
I turned the radio up even louder and looked out my window. I had done a lot of crying over Zoe — months of it. But now I hadn’t cried in weeks, and I had this strange feeling that my sister was slipping from my consciousness, as if she’d been flushed away by my tears. When I shut my eyes and thought of Zoe, I sometimes saw Jane — or Jane across a smoky room. I thought about Jane’s feet: dark tan with a white Y where her flip-flops blocked out the sun. What had Zoe’s feet looked like? Was her second toe larger than the first? Did the bone alongside her big toe bow out?
My mother had always blamed the rift between Zoe and me on puberty: she claimed that Zoe never forgave me for getting breasts first, and then my period, which preceded hers by a year. But the truth was, even before that morning when I called my mother and my sister into my bedroom to feel the garbanzo-bean-sized lumps that had suddenly materialized beneath my nipples; even before the day when my yet-to-menstruate older sister hid all my sanitary pads — and the belt used to hold them in place — under the kitchen sink with the scouring powder, we still hadn’t been close. In fact, if you had asked me how I felt about Zoe the day before she died, I would have said I hated her.
That night, I decided to cook dinner for my father. We had fallen into a routine of eating frozen dinners. For him, kasha and bow ties, which he bought at a Jewish grocery in Los Angeles, an hour away. For me, macaroni and cheese, with chocolate pudding that would bubble over into the macaroni, leaving a brown smear, like blood.
I was dropping the pasta into the shiny new pot that my mother had bought us when she moved out (to this day, I don’t know why she didn’t leave us the old dented pots with the rust spots and missing lids, and buy new ones for herself) when my father made his hissing sound: not quite a psssst, more of a szzzzt. It was the sound he made when he wanted my attention. I walked over and read the notepad that he was holding up. It said, in slanted, angry capital letters, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
“I’m making dinner,” I said.
“WHAT?” he wrote.
“Spaghetti,” I said.
Dad just stood there, staring at me, his head tilted and the pad resting in his hand like a closed mouth.
“Is that OK?” I asked. “Do you mind if I make spaghetti?”
Dad shook his head and waved his hands — a vague “OK” signal — then made a quick ch-ch sound and pointed to the pot of water, which was about to boil over.
Our dinner conversation was usually quick, as my father was a fast writer. He might ask, “What did you do today?” or, “How’s school?” and while I answered, he would already be scribbling out his next question. But that night, Dad didn’t write or even look my way. We just sat there twirling spaghetti onto our forks and forcing giant noodle-cocoons into our mouths.
“Did you get a lot of work done today?” I asked.
Dad shook his head no, picked up the green shaker of grated parmesan cheese, and sprinkled some onto his food. Earlier that evening, as I was setting the table, I had eyed the cylindrical green can of Comet cleanser. It was awfully similar to the can of parmesan cheese, and it had occurred to me that, if I wanted to, I could probably put it on the table and watch my distracted father sprinkle the chlorine-smelling powder over his meal. There was a good chance he would never know the difference.
“Do you like the spaghetti?”
Dad moved his head in a yes/no sort of way, as if he couldn’t make up his mind.
“Should I not make spaghetti?” I asked. “I mean, I’ve forgotten: did Zoe always love spaghetti or something?”
Dad dropped his fork and wrote something on his pad. Then he stood and cleared his plate.
“Spaghetti’s fine,” the note said. “I’m just not hungry.”
I could hear Dad scraping the spaghetti into the trash can, then the dull tuk sound of the plastic trash-can lid being dropped into place. The faucet began to run, and there was a clanking ruckus as he loaded all the dishes into the dishwasher: my sticky ice-cream bowl from the night before; the runny-cheese-smeared plates from Jane and Amanda’s snack. The house was messier without my sister and mother around; they had imposed order.
I took another bite of spaghetti, and then it came to me: we had been eating spaghetti the night Tom Lane’s father called to say that Zoe and Tom had been in a car accident. I whispered aloud, “No spaghetti, no spaghetti, no spaghetti,” adding it to the mental list of things to avoid in order not to upset my father any further. My list kept expanding, the stain of my sister everywhere, growing like black mold: I couldn’t wear Zoe’s clothes, even though we were the same size. I had to avoid her favorite TV shows, especially M*A*S*H* and the Carol Burnett Show. And I could never listen to Carly Simon or James Taylor. Zoe had worshiped them, even fantasizing about them amicably divorcing so that she could become Carly’s best friend and James’s girlfriend. It was far-fetched, she knew, but she still talked about it in an ongoing-serial way.
I ripped Dad’s note off the pad, scrunched it into a ball, and wrote, “SORRY,” in big black letters on the new page. Then I ran out of the house (leaving my plate on the table), drove around the block (illegally, of course), and parked at Jane’s house (a two-minute walk).
Jane’s family was eating spaghetti, too.
“Sit down, Tiny,” her mother said, and Jane’s father stood and pulled another chair to the table.
“We’re having spaghetti,” she said, as if it weren’t entirely obvious.
Jane’s family was normal — or, at least, as normal as a family could be. The best thing about them was that, even though my family was quirky and weird; even though my mother wore long batik dresses, didn’t shave her armpits, and spent less than thirty minutes a week with me; even though my father was a voluntary mute who ate homemade yogurt with odd fruits like kumquat; even though we were the only family in the neighborhood with a dead teenager — despite all of this, Jane’s family always acted as if I were as normal as them.
“Do you like meatballs?” Jane’s thirteen-year-old brother, Jimmy, asked me.
“Yeah, sure,” I said as Jane’s mother delicately tonged two meatballs from the platter onto my plate.
“I think they look like giant turds,” Jimmy said.
“Jimmy Lester Young,” Jane’s mother said, “that is not appropriate table talk!”
Jane and I held in our laughter. Mr. Young was about to crack up, too. “Jimmy,” he said firmly, “you go sit in the kitchen for a few minutes and think about what is and is not appropriate language for the dinner table.”
Jimmy scooted his chair back and dragged his too-big feet toward the kitchen. Once he was out of sight, Jane leaned forward in her chair and giggled. “He’s always saying things like that,” she said.
“Now, Tiny,” Mrs. Young said, “how’s your father these days?”
“Just fine,” I said. “He’s translating some French book about love and death.”
“God,” Jane sighed, “that’s so romantic.”
“If you went to France, you wouldn’t think it was so romantic,” Mr. Young said. “The French are like cockroaches: all dark and dirty and scurrying around.”
“Gerald!” Mrs. Young said, scolding him in the same jovial way she had Jimmy.
“Dad,” Jane said, “Tiny says France is fantastic, and she should know; she’s been there more times than you can count.”
“What you see as a young, impressionable girl is much different than what you see as an adult,” Mr. Young said, winking at me. He liked to inveigh against all things foreign. It was his personal running joke, and I got the feeling that he particularly liked to do it around me.
After dinner, Jane and I helped Mrs. Young clear the table and do the dishes while Mr. Young played Pong on the television set with Jimmy. The Youngs had been the first people in the neighborhood to own an Atari. Mr. Young and Jimmy each held a small black box with a dial on it. The dial directed a white line — or paddle — up and down the television screen while a white dot bounced between them; it was like tennis, except the player’s physical movements were restricted to the small twitchings of the first finger and the thumb. Each time the “ball” hit a white line, it made a hollow, clear tok.
“You know,” Jane said, “that sound could just about drive me crazy.”
We had finished the dishes and were sitting in the family room watching the Pong match with a certain bored fascination. Mrs. Young had slipped off her shoes and tucked her pantyhose-clad feet under her behind, such that only the reinforced toes stuck out. The orange nylon blended her toes together in a way that reminded me of the smooth humps between the legs of Barbie and Ken.
“Do you mind if Tiny and I go out for a while, to Baskin-Robbins or something?” Jane asked.
“Sure,” her mother said. “You girls go have fun.”
“Be home by . . . ,” Mr. Young started to say, but then he stopped to focus on his game. “Just don’t stay out late,” he finished. “You’ve got school tomorrow.”
The Youngs were like that: they kept track of their kids. Jane had to ask to leave the house, and she had to be home at a reasonable, if unspecified, hour. Me, I was like a Pong ball released from the television, bouncing any which way, with no one to paddle me back.
“Should we pick up Amanda?” Jane asked, driving my car along the route to Amanda’s house.
“Sure,” I said, “but if she starts fucking crying about Zoe again, I’m going to kill her.”
Jane pulled into Amanda’s driveway and honked three times. A curtain was pushed aside, then fell closed again, too quickly for me to see who had looked out. Within seconds, Amanda fled from her house with a sweater, her purse, and what looked like a tampon box.
“Look what I got,” she said as she slid into the back seat. She lifted the lid of the blue cardboard box and held it out for us to examine. It was filled with joints.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked.
“My brother’s started dealing,” she said.
“No way!” Jane said.
“Way,” Amanda said. “He gave this to me as a bribe so I wouldn’t tell Mom and Dad.”
Amanda’s father was the Superior Court judge of Pueblo Valley. Her mother was president of the neighborhood Welcome Wagon, a group of women who delivered baskets of gifts — baked goods, refrigerator magnets with the names of banks on them, a map of the town — to new homeowners. (Renters weren’t welcomed.) Amanda’s parents tried to keep track of her and her brother, Kevin, but they were foolishly ignorant and easily misled — so, essentially, Amanda and Kevin did whatever they wanted. They’d perfected the art of reflecting back exactly what their parents wished to see and hear.
Jane turned the car around and headed for the beach, the best place to get high in Pueblo Valley. No one went there after dark except to smoke pot, drink beer, or have sex behind a sand dune. It was where Amanda, who’d had sex with more boys than Jane and I put together, lost her virginity. She described it as a “gritty” experience, but that didn’t seem to keep her from having sex with four different guys since then — always on the beach.
Jane had been more monogamous, but also more voracious with her sexuality. She lost her virginity with her boyfriend, Tad, and once they started, the two of them became unstoppable. In the ten months that followed, Jane and Tad had sex in Tad’s car every single weekend, and in Jane’s bed every Thursday afternoon while Mrs. Young was out doing her weekly shopping and Jimmy Young was at band practice. But since Tad had broken Jane’s heart by letting a girl in his karate class perform fellatio on him, Jane had been celibate. She alternated between thinking of becoming a nun and pining for some older man she claimed to love: our biology teacher, the man with the caterpillar-looking mustache who ran the local hardware store, my father.
Two days before my sister died, I had tried to lose my virginity with my then boyfriend, Mickey. We’d been planning it for months: we’d do it up in the mountains, on a cozy blanket, under a sea of stars. I’d imagined the moment in cinematic slo-mo, Rod Stewart singing “Tonight’s the Night” on the soundtrack. I was madly in love with Mickey, with his mop of toffee-colored hair, his slightly sinister-looking teeth (the canines were larger than the incisors), and his brown surfer’s body, almost as smooth and hairless as any girl’s. And the fact that he seemed to love me, too, made the days leading up to the big event seem weighted and profound, almost like an engagement before a wedding.
The day of the scheduled deflowering, I asked Zoe to take me to Planned Parenthood to get a diaphragm. We hadn’t said a word to each other in weeks, having chosen silence over yelling. I thought that if I let Zoe in on my secret and made her a co-conspirator, the driver of the getaway car, she would somehow forgive me, though I wasn’t sure for what. Maybe for the fact that I’d never had to wear braces, while she was on her second set.
I didn’t know at the time that Zoe was still a virgin, after three years of dating Tom Lane, a poorly proportioned (big head, little legs), acne-ridden boy on the yearbook staff.
“Do I have to wait for you?” she asked sharply.
“If you want,” I said. “Or I could take the bus home.”
“We’ll see,” she said; then she pulled her woven, sacklike purse from the kitchen counter and yelled to our mother, “Mom, I’m taking Tiny to Planned Parenthood to get a diaphragm so she can lose her virginity tonight! We’ll be back in an hour or so!”
There was silence from the family room, where my mother sat talking on the phone. I thought I heard the click of the receiver being hung up.
“Well, let’s go,” Zoe said to me, and I followed her out the door, too stunned to speak.
An hour and a half later, when I walked out of Planned Parenthood with a size-sixty diaphragm — it reminded me of a miniature, rubber Frisbee — my sister was still waiting for me in the car, her eyes red and narrowed into little slits.
“You know, Tom and I haven’t done it yet,” she sniffed. “We’re saving ourselves for his eighteenth birthday.” Then she turned the ignition key, pulled out of the lot, and added, “You’re such a slut.”
Although California was having a drought that year, on the night of my planned virginity loss, it suddenly poured. So instead of being spread out on a blanket under a sea of stars, I lay across the front seat of Mickey’s truck, one bare foot perched on the steering wheel, my head banging against the window crank and inadvertently inching the window down. Rain was dripping on my forehead. The radio was blaring out “Hotel California,” an Eagles song about promiscuous people having sex and doing drugs. I thought it was a sign from someone (the God of radio waves?) telling me that I was doing the wrong thing, that I was, as my sister had said, a slut. But these thoughts didn’t stop me. I was third in line, Jane and Amanda having already done it. And of course, I had promised poor Mickey, who muscled himself against me with a teeth-gritted, jack-o’-lantern look on his face, eventually failing to achieve penetration. His penis seemed too blunt an instrument to pierce the winking-shut opening of my vagina.
The guilt and humiliation over my not-quite-lost virginity was only exacerbated that night when my mother came into my darkened room while I lay in bed. A flag-shaped beam of light darted across my wall as she opened the door.
“Honey?” she whispered.
She sat on the edge of my bed and began to stroke my forearm, as if I were a cat.
“I just want to tell you,” she said, in a too-gentle voice, “that I’m very proud of you for being responsible about birth control.”
“OK,” I said, and I pulled my arm away and rolled onto my side, my back to her.
“I’m not mad,” she said, trying to wedge her way into the conversation like a salesman sticking a foot in a closing door.
“I hate Zoe,” I said. Then I closed my eyes and willed my mother to leave.
© Michael Galinsky
Two nights later, the night my sister died in a car driven by her acne-ridden virgin boyfriend, Mickey was finally able to penetrate me. My parents left for the hospital telling me not to worry, that everything would surely be OK. I called Mickey as soon as I heard the car rumble out of the driveway.
“My sister was in a car accident,” I said.
“She OK?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” I said. “Only the good die young, right?”
Mickey laughed, then raced over in his truck while I went to the bathroom and struggled with the diaphragm, which kept slipping from my grip like an oiled rodent. Minutes after his arrival, we were on my twin bed, undressing, grappling, bumping against the wall.
“Doesn’t Zoe have a queen-sized bed?” Mickey asked.
“Yup,” I said, and we ran naked from my room to hers.
When it was over, I scooted out from under Mickey and examined Zoe’s patchwork-quilt bedspread. A small, shiny pool had formed on a stitched red square.
“Leave it,” Mickey said, with a wicked smile.
“Yeah,” I said. “She won’t even know what it is.”
Less than twelve hours later, I sat on Zoe’s bed with a wet washcloth slathered in soap. The door was locked with the small steel latch Zoe had put up to keep me out.
“Tiny,” my father called, his voice scrambled with tears, “come out. We need to be together now.”
“In a minute,” I sobbed, as I scrubbed Zoe’s quilt until the wet spot was replaced by a wide, soapy swath.
“I’m freaked out by what we did,” Mickey told me the morning of the funeral. He wiped a tear from his eye using the back of his hand like a paw.
“What?” I whispered.
“That we did it on her bed. I mean, she was probably dead already. She was probably hovering over us, watching.”
I looked over at Tom Lane, with his neck brace and crutches, the weeping survivor.
“Tom is a virgin,” I said to Mickey. “My sister died a virgin.”
The next day, Mickey left a note for me in my mailbox. “Tiny,” it began, “I know this is probably the hardest time in your life for you and your family. I’m going to stay away for a few days to give you the time to heal. I love you, Mickey.”
Two weeks later, when I finally returned to school, Roberta Schnitz told me she didn’t believe the rumor about me.
“What rumor?” I asked. We were in pottery class; my arms were covered up to the elbows in wet, mucky clay.
“That you blamed Mickey for Zoe’s death and told him that you never wanted to see him again, and that’s why he started going with Lacey Vogel.”
“He’s with Lacey Vogel?” I asked.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “I mean, they’re, like, a couple now.”
The funny thing is, when I was dealt this news — that the boy I loved was now dating the blondest, tannest, skinniest girl in school — I didn’t hate either one of them; I just hated Zoe a little bit more.
Amanda pulled a joint from the tampon box and torched it with a red Bic. We were on the beach, sitting high on a sand dune, looking down at the black water, the waves droning on, like the drone of cars on the freeway.
“You think your father’s ever going to talk again?” Jane asked.
“Maybe if my mom comes home,” I said, with my lips pursed around the joint. “Or if Zoe comes back from the dead.”
“It’s just so romantic,” Jane said. “I mean, I can’t think of a single father from Pueblo Valley who would suddenly choose to stop talking.”
“Do you think Zoe’s in heaven?” Amanda asked.
“I don’t believe in heaven,” I said, and I hissed the smoke out of my mouth. “Don’t start crying, Amanda, please.”
“I never cry when I’m high,” she said.
“Do you think your mom ever will come home?” Jane asked.
I didn’t answer.
“You know how Zoe wanted to marry Carly Simon and be James Taylor’s best friend?” Jane said.
“She wanted to marry James and be Carly’s best friend,” I corrected her. Amanda started laughing.
“Well,” Jane said, “I have fantasies of marrying your dad and being friends with your mom, and then you and I would be, like, sisters.”
Amanda laughed harder and then fell into a fit of coughing.
“Why do you tell me these things?” I asked.
“I’m just being honest,” she said.
Amanda was still coughing.
“But you’re talking about sex with my dad!”
“I didn’t mention sex. You’re the one who brought up sex.”
Amanda finished her coughing fit and started laughing again. “You guys are so gross!” she said. But neither of us was laughing.
When the joint was gone, Amanda and Jane wanted to go to my house to eat.
“Do you have any Nutter Butters?” Amanda asked in the car.
“Lorna Doones,” I said.
“If there’s Lorna Doones,” Jane said, “there had better be milk.”
Dad was sitting at the dining-room table when we came home. He had out the Lorna Doones and was doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.
“Oh my God!” Jane said. “I swear, we were just fantasizing about Lorna Doones!” She sat beside my father, plucked a cookie from the package, and dipped it into his glass of milk. “You don’t mind, do you?” she asked, as she bit off half the soggy cookie.
Dad shook his head and smiled.
“She’s not lying,” Amanda added. “It’s the honest-to-God truth, we were talking about coming here and eating Lorna Doones.”
“You know what’s even weirder?” I blurted out, my voice echoing in my stoned head. “I made spaghetti tonight, and then I went to Jane’s, and they were having spaghetti, too.” The words issued from my mouth almost slowly enough for me to have trapped them and sent them back. It was as if inadvertent references to Zoe were a habit I just couldn’t break, like nail-biting. Dad picked up another Lorna Doone, his face expressionless, as if I hadn’t even spoken. Then Jane grabbed his pad and playfully wrote him a note, which I didn’t bother to look over her shoulder to read. Amanda moved to the other side of Dad and began dipping cookies in his glass, too.
I went to the kitchen to pour fresh milk for myself and my friends.
“Dad,” I called, “are they stealing your milk? Do you need more milk?”
“He said no,” Jane answered.
I filled three glasses, then put the milk back and stared at a picture on the refrigerator door of Zoe and Tom at the Sadie Hawkins dance the year before. Zoe had hung the picture right in the center of the door, pushing aside grocery lists, postcards, my school photo, and other random snapshots, all held up with dozens of house-shaped rubber magnets — welcoming-basket leftovers that Amanda’s mother had given me when the mortgage company whose name was on the magnets went out of business. In the picture, Zoe looked only vaguely familiar, like someone I’d seen around school but didn’t really know. I had the strange sensation that, if the picture weren’t hanging on the refrigerator in my house, I would have no idea who that girl was, that girl with the wet, silver-tracked smile, her face pressed against some boy’s spackled-red cheek.
As I entered the dining room with three glasses of milk held waitress-style, Amanda and Jane were laughing so hard that they had gone nearly silent. My father was laughing, too, without using his voice box, just a wheezing sputtering as he rocked back and forth, a giant grin spread across his face. It was the first time I’d seen him laugh since Zoe died, the first time I’d seen him laugh as a voluntary mute. No one noticed me. They were passing Dad’s notepad, Amanda and Jane frantically scribbling and sliding the pad before Dad’s face. There was a rhythm to it: scribble, scribble; pass; ha, ha, ha (or breath, breath, breath for Dad); scribble, scribble; pass; ha, ha, ha. I had no idea what they were laughing about. All I knew was that, if I were to enter the circle, the laughter would quickly die out.
Jessica Anya Blau