Everything around me seems to be humming. The CPU flanking my chair whirs and emits a cold blue light. I can hear the air filter purring in the dining room, and the sound of the compressor outside my window rises in the warm air of the morning.
I prefer the sounds and sights on my porch, but I have left the laptop unplugged all night. An orange light glows from its port, and the warning of drained power admonishes me for my carelessness. I resign myself to writing without the surroundings that I so love: the emerald expanse of our yard; the charming cracks in the shared driveway; the long sweep of the maple's branches; the occasional, quiet greeting from a passing neighbor sharing the morning air.
Beside me on the window sill of my computer nook is a framed copy of the poem "Warning", by Jenny Joseph(1). I wonder when I will get to the age when I can flounce around in purple, with a red hat or its functional equivalent, disdaining of the opinions of others about how I look and dress. I used to wear flowing skirts and muslin dresses; I used to wear crushable straw hats and carry wide floppy handbags in soft leather. Somewhere along the last year or so, I began to think about what color might appeal to those who had to look at me; and whether I should tweeze my eyebrows; and what I should do about the lines on my face. Inexplicably, I have grown more worried about what others think of my appearance, rather than less. I don't think I could yet join the Red Hat Club. Self-acceptance seems, in the final analysis, to be a function of mind-set rather than age, and I struggle to recapture the casual confidence that I lost along the way.
Christopher Robin closed his eyes to see his nursemaid's robe hanging on the door.(2) I close my eyes to see my mother's face, hear my brother's laughter, smell the French fries at Pickwick's, the Famous 'n' Barr restaurant.
Those fries were thin, coated with salt, flash-fried and delicious. My girlfriends Trini and Mary and I walked from my home, up Kinamore Avenue, to visit a friend who worked at that department store and drink Cokes with plates of those fries. In our Campbell-plaid skirts with inverted box pleats, and the white blouses we pulled out to hang around the folds that hiked our skirts higher than the nuns allowed, we flounced passed tables of disapproving women with crabby children. Our eyes flashed back in disdain, though whether real or assumed, I can no longer say. When those women were watching us, we talked louder, and laughed with more gusto, and pulled soda through straws with more vigor. Their shifty eyes did not deter us.
I made the walk from McLaran to the Northland shopping center often. We bought our groceries at Bettendorf-Rapps, which later became Schnuck's. My mother worked at Famous 'n' Barr. My sister worked at the Kresge's. I had public school friends who lived on Kinamore, halfway between my home and the mall, whose daring always amazed me and whose freedom had a lurid allure.
The heady taint of attending public school fascinated me. Girls who went to public school had boyfriends, whom they kissed and, I suspected, with whom they did other things that I could not even imagine. They had jobs -- real jobs, not just baby-sitting or working in their high school cafeteria, but jobs at restaurants and in offices, where they went on early release from high school. I knew only one Catholic school girl who got early release, and that was because her mother had died and she was helping her father raise a much younger brother.
The summer of the year in which I turned fourteen, I became friends with a girl who smoked, chewed Juicy Fruit and lived across from the public grade school at Kinamore and Willet. She had dishwater blond hair, a thin frame, and angular shoulders. She wore crop tops and black pedal pushers and put the hair above her ears in pin curls, which she wore while she sat in the living room next to the box fan and talked to her boyfriend on the telephone. I can't remember her name but I remember the grey, worn carpet in her living room and her boyfriend's long, knowing gaze.
That girl gave me my first designer pocketbook -- a castoff, but new for me, a square purple purse, a Villager, I think. I had craved such a bag but never dared asked my mother to buy one, and my small earnings could not finance its acquisition. This girl tossed a barely used one in my direction, thoughtlessly, as though she could not be bothered with it anymore. I did not pay attention to her dismissive air. I eagerly deployed it and felt a little thrill.
With the same casual attitude, that girl also provided my first drink: harsh red wine from a bottle with a screw top that she poured into a Dixie cup, on a night so hot that she tied her blouse up and sat in short-shorts on the steps of her house. I am not sure where the girl's mother spent most of her time; I rarely saw her. The girl seemed to come and go with no limits. She had no father, no siblings, just the haggard mother who supplied her with cigarettes and left her alone for long stretches, to loll in the muggy night air, one arm around her boyfriend's outstretched legs, her eyes half-closed as she drew in smoke and blew it back out across my face.
At my house, the music on the stereo rotated between Broadway shows and early Rock, depending on who commandeered the long low stereo in the living room. At this girl's house, I heard blues, and jazz, and the mournful, sexy tones of saxophones. I fell in love there, too, with a friend of her boyfriend, a clean cut boy who never so much as touched my hand.
One night the four of us sat on her porch and she serenaded me. She had a decent voice but I squirmed beneath the strange attention. Her eyes danced as she held a hairbrush under her mouth like a microphone and pulled me from the glider to force me to dance with her. I can hear her voice now, though I strain, without success, to remember her name. Black pearl, pretty little girl, let me put you up where you belong.(3) Her boyfriend smiled, and encouraged this diversion with his indolent tone. The subject of my crush straightened his back and told her to leave me alone. She ignored him, and I let her pull my body around, in the dark, the only light provided by the occasional passing car. The shadows flickered across the hard planes of her face. I felt sick, but I succumbed. She sang; we danced; and her boyfriend lit cigarette after cigarette as the night waned.
She grew bored of me at last and shooed me home. I left the three of them and went down the stairs, holding onto the pipe rail, ignoring the flaked paint crumbling under my grasp. At the foot of the stairs, I nearly turned around to wave goodbye, but I heard her voice -- murmured, intimate words followed by a sharp, careless laugh. A sheet of winter ice gripped my heart. I did not look back.
Half a block away, I stood at the crest of the hill at the bottom of which our house sat. I saw our wide porch, with the light that would stay illuminated until the last child had come home for the night. I could see my mother sitting in a lawn chair, watching my younger brothers in the driveway. They were rolling Match Box cars down its rough contours, gleefully aiming for the gate to the back yard and the sidewalk which ended at the stump of the elm tree where I had learned to climb. I can't remember when disease took that tree; I can't remember when we had to take it down. But I remember the sight of my mother that night, and the little boys. I remember the quickening of my steps, as I stumbled down the hill, in the stifling air, amidst the sounds of crickets, and the occasional, eager flash of a firefly.
Dedicated to my mother, Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley, 10 September 1926 - 21 August 1985.
"My child and my heart will never part."(4)