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Archive for January, 2018

Birds vs Bees

People are sure weird about sex.  When I was twelve, my guardian, Aunt Judy, arranged at considerable inconvenience, to have my cousin Jeanne, eight years my senior, come and officially talk to me about sex, while my Aunt and Uncle made dishwashing noises in the kitchen.  That was weird.

 

Jeanne made much of getting seated right next to me on the living room couch, pencil and paper at the ready.  After a flurry of nasty diagrams, she told me that babies get made when the daddy puts his “thing” inside the mommy.  Then nine months later a baby comes out.  I was embarrassed, not about the making of babies, but about everybody thinking I didn’t know.  I knew, but I didn’t want them to know I knew.  Piqued, I played their game, acting dumb but in actuality sharing my own discomfiture; when she asked if I had any questions, I demanded to know how his “thing” got through the mommy’s nightgown.  Jeanne blushed and whispered furtively, “I guess she can pull it up”.

 

Judy must have been listening, because at that point she charged out of the kitchen to the rescue.  With a smile that was way too wide, she queried, “How’s it going, y’all?  Ready for some fresh lemonade?”

 

“Gott’a do my homework”, I mumbled mostly toward my feet.  I sidestepped, and shilly-shallied toward my room, shaking my head.  Why did Judy go to so much trouble to feed me information about babies, and why didn’t she just tell me herself?  I already had guessed that stuff Jeanne told me, just knew, from visits to Grandpa’s farm.  Kids at school made jokes I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know any of the girls well enough to compare assumptions.

 

So much for “the big lesson.”  Jeanne piled into Uncle C.J.’s Buick and began the tedious drive all the way from Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park, through downtown Dallas, past the old book depository, where Kennedy was shot, then on to Highland Park, while I was left to wonder, but not dare to ask, what was going on.

 

I knew about the yucky pink thing that Wesson dangled below his shorts while he made morning coffee.  It made me feel nauseous, not that it had anything whatsoever to do with me, but that he knew I saw it and wanted me to see it.  Everything Wesson did had some evil intent.  He despised me because Judy pictured me as the daughter she had always wanted, a pure affection that Wesson could never emulate, nor did he try.  His kind of lovemaking with Judy must surely have been a one-dimensional affair, selfish, crude, and hurtful.  Inexplicable to my childish understanding, Judy enjoyed Wesson’s attentions.  She would put on a slinky ruffled teddy, pottering about the house on week-ends, affecting a “little woman” domesticity while Wesson mowed the lawn, trimmed hedges, and made much ado of his manly chores.  He would come in occasionally to get a fresh beer, and snuggle up against Judy’s backside while she peeled veggies.  He would slip his hand inside the loose silk while Judy giggled and shrugged him away.  Judy was not the giggling type; she better expressed her statuesque elegant nature dressed for a day of professional commerce in an exquisitely tailored suit, silk blouse, leather shoulder bag and suave up-do.

 

This remembered scene of Judy costumed for the boudoir, a grotesquerie of enticement, had a watercolor quality to it, a Monet camouflaged in its own reticulated light, a softening of truth to something remotely safe to envision.  Even in memory, I cringe.  She would shoo him out of the kitchen, clucking, “Don’t do that in front of the child,” the child” being me.  Didn’t she know it was me, watching, seeing, feeling?  She surely felt the same as me inside, where the tight pull of belly strings told me all I needed to know about womanliness.  That’s what she must have been feeling.  Wesson was showing off for me, bragging wordlessly about what I was missing, what I would never enjoy no matter how much Judy loved my sweet little girl self.  His favorite diatribe when he could catch me alone began, “Mommy’s sweet little thing.  You think you’re so special.  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.”

 

If Judy didn’t want him to do that to her, she wouldn’t have put on that pretty pin-up outfit.  She did want his hand inside the silk, touching her skin, making her smile.  Why could she want his affection, when she knew sometime soon he would again break bones and make ugly bruises on that same tender skin?  I was awash with questions never to be asked.

 

***

 

Soon I was fifteen and spent weekends helping my voice teacher’s lazy daughter complete her last year of high school as payment for my singing lessons.  Sexual feelings continued to be something that I didn’t talk about.  My teacher lived in Darien Connecticut and was well situated to host week-end parties inviting musical young people from the area for salon performance and socializing.  I typically got paired up with Alvin, a pretty decent violinist, nice and good-looking to boot.  He was sixteen, with an old jalopy, and a new driver’s license.  We rode around or went to the movies or the Soda Shoppe and then returned to the teacher’s house before my curfew.  Before escorting me inside, Alvin always kissed me goodnight.  It was something I looked forward to all evening.  I didn’t care all that much about the movie or the sodas or the pizza; I just wanted to go back to the house and feel his soft lips pressed against mine.

 

Finally, requisite social group activity completed, we headed home.  Outside, we cuddled while the car idled, holding back the winter chill.  Then he pulled me close and gently covered my mouth with the soft warmth of his lips.  I traced the slit of his lips with my hesitant tongue.  The center of my belly lurched.  The world dropped, and I hung weightless.  Then I slapped him and ran for the house.

 

This inexplicable pattern of behavior repeated itself several times, until one day Alvin finally asked me, “Why the slaps?”

 

I gulped, and began; “I saw a movie, with Claudette Colbert and Jimmie Stewart.  That’s what she did when he kissed her.  Wouldn’t you think I’m fast if I liked it?”

 

“But you do like it?” he asked, taking my hand, his violin sensitive fingers tracing its outline, softly circling my palm.

 

I dropped my eyes and whispered, “Yes.”

 

Fingertip lifting my chin, he looked me straight in the eyes and pronounced, “Good.”  That bit of truth negotiated, we puckered up for a real kiss, imagined, actualized, enjoyed, and discussed in the immediacy of the present.  We laughed, cranked open the sun-roof, and headed for the movies.

 

Alvin and I had an understanding, maybe even a gentle friendship, and enjoyed our occasional date smooches until I took off for Carnegie Tech. to study physics, where my virginity remained resolutely intact.  I was singularly unimpressed by engineering freshmen, whose idea of scholarly competition was to compare whose slide-rule was the longest.  I was out of the running, having chosen a round rule which is quicker and arguably more accurate.

 

I only slapped one of those silly boys, only a single time, and that was when he pinched my bottom in General Chemistry lab while I was setting up a distillation.  My instincts were pure; completely bypassing interval reaction time.  He pinched; I slapped.  The cavernous room rang with the impact.  I didn’t miss a beat, continuing with my procedure while the other students grinned and whispered behind their hands.

 

Later, while settling into the pleasurable realities of marriage, I still retained my reticence about kissing and telling.  I insisted, for instance, to my mother-in-law, that nothing had “happened” between James and me, until a swelling belly proved otherwise.  I hadn’t sworn James to secrecy, so I still don’t understand why, when he was presented with the fact of his impending paternity, he declared it must have been somebody else’s doing, swearing he had done nothing, absolutely nothing.  Why are humans so conflicted by sex?  Why did it take Freud so long to realize he was onto something, and for the rest of us to catch on?  The biology and mechanics are easy; it’s the psychology that’s hard, and hopefully the member.

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The End

During the cold Massachusetts winter that I was nine, my father disappeared. It was a difficult time for my mother, and for me, the end of the world. Looking back, I see it was the end of her world as well. Mother was a musician and poet, creative and excitable. Sometimes she scared me, but she was all I had, and she loved me. She had good reason to be behaving strangely: Bank accounts were cleaned out, electricity and gas turned off. A fire had destroyed our basement, and we were anticipating eviction.

I wrote a poem for her, an attempt to reassure her, and maybe myself as well, that I could make things better.

I’m a little sunbeam
Not so very tall.
I want to make you happy
Which is not hard at all.

Just mind you and respect you
Each minute of the day
And I will make you happy
With everything I say.

For I love you and I trust you
And I know that you love me,
And I will make you happy.
You just wait and see!

We hung on with help from the church and family far away in Texas. They were concerned but states away from our problems.  Then, unannounced, Daddy appeared at the door on Christmas Eve. He was dragging an enormous fir tree behind him, much taller than our ceiling. Mother cracked opened the door, refusing to let him in, her voice breaking as she hissed, “How could you be so stupid? That tree won’t fit in here! Take it away!”

“But it’s for Dottie. She’s got to have a tree for Christmas,” he pleaded.

“I don’t care who it’s for!” she shrieked, now past caring if the neighbors should hear. “You don’t love Dottie or you wouldn’t have left us here without food or money. Go away! I don’t ever want to see you again!”

My father shrank, jaws clenched, tears plying salty rivulets down his cheeks. Then he bent and broke off a branch, handing it to my mother. “Please take this for her,” he said and turned away, dragging the now imperfect tree down the front steps and out of my Christmastide.

Mother and I watched him drive away, quietly falling snowflakes softening the glow of the Packard’s receding tail-lights until they were no more. She pressed the branch into an urn and positioned it with a cruel irony where our holiday tree had in past years stood resplendent. I kneeled and stroked the pathetic, solitary branch, finally hugging it to my chest, sobbing. Mother left me to my grief, but of course she borrowed it for a poem:

“In her arms she held the sprig of green
As though calla lily rare
Embraced in love and mourned in loss
Her heart knew much to bear.”

I felt icy fingers of resentment slip into my mind to ask what I didn’t dare formulate as words, “Why can’t I have privacy for my grief? It is, after all, mine and not yours.” But I quickly disclaimed the ugly concepts, choosing others more dutiful with which to feel a proper gratitude for the poem. Passing years taught me that my mother, too, had her very own grief to bear. I missed my father terribly but was glad that he was safely removed from our pain.

One night before he left, Mommy had roughly awakened me. She dragged me into the bathroom where Daddy was seated, tugging groggily at his lowered pajama drawers, attempting to cover himself. He, too, was sleepy but was evidently sick as well. “I want you to know just how bad your father smells,” Mommy spoke, jaw tense, her face blotched with anger. “Smell him! He’s sickening! He makes me want to vomit!” I was embarrassed for him, and was shamed by my mother’s deficiency of grace, a concept for which I had no verbiage, but a completely adequate vocabulary of feelings.

The end of this period is marked by my mother’s hospitalization which followed an eventful period of paranoia. She flushed many casseroles, donated by concerned neighbors, down the commode, believing the gifts to be poisoned. A welder, attempting to remove a no-longer-used oil tank from our basement, had started a fire that destroyed all the precious plunder stored there. Mommy decided that it was the will of God to punish our sins because she saw “plain as day” the word “Will” etched in soot on the basement door.

My Aunt Judy was sent for. She rescued me, and I was saved. Driving cross country with her and her husband, Wesson, I was overwhelmed by an intense optimism. When Judy lamented the death of a still-glowing lightning bug that had splatted our speeding windshield, I quipped, “Well, at least he died with his light on!”

The next chapter of my story describes my sojourn in the home of my Aunt Judy, whom I adored, and Wesson, her fat, bald, cigar chewing, and aggressively unfriendly husband. Judy, a beautiful, statuesque, and successful purveyor of upscale ladies ready-to-wear, provided a luxurious standard of living for herself, for Wesson, and then for me, while he dabbled at various sales and mechanical drawing jobs. He immediately pegged me as dangerous, noting the seriousness with which Judy undertook her task as guardian ad litem. Forgetting that children grow vigorously, that first year while attending a trade show, she bought thirty-two Bobbie Brooks blouses for me, brought them home and insisted that I try on each and every one while she smiled and chewed on the rich nut of her new mothering role. She was delighted by this opportunity finally to have a child, even one not of her own blood and belly, but definitely a link to her soul.

Wesson was a horse’s derrière of a different color. He was clever to never accost me when Aunt Judy could hear. “You think you’re something special, Little Miss Priss,” he would sneer. “Mommy’s sweet little thing! Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.” Of course I hated him. This was a new uncomplicated kind of hate. It was sweet to taste its purity, unlike the bittersweet complexity of the love/hate I felt for my mother. Wesson arose early, and disdaining the civility of robe or dressing gown, he swaggered fatly in his boxer shorts, his long, soft, pink thing flapping below. I saw him, and he knew I saw him, so expose himself to me, a repeated act at once lascivious and aggressive. Whenever, at my request, Aunt Judy prompted him to adjust his pants, he feigned a shocked surprise, modesty affronted that I should have noticed.

Wesson enjoyed manipulating me to do things that inspired terror. Once each year at the Texas State Fair he required that I ride the big roller coaster, always in the lead car, wedged in between Judy and the press of Wesson’s sweaty bulk. “You have to ride it just one time,” he crowed. “It’s good for you. Keeps you from being a namby-pamby. Come on. Let’s get it over with.” And afterward, “Now was that so bad? You should listen to your old Uncle Wesson!” He insisted that I climb the giant pecan tree, whose luxuriant limbs shaded our backyard. He cut and installed wooden rungs to provide purchase for my slippery tennis shoes on the featureless lower trunk.

Victory over the tree won for me a new confidence, and I climbed it often until I was permanently grounded due to the onset of my menses. At the first sight of blood, Judy declared me a woman, bought me a training bra, and instructed Wesson to stop trying to make me into a tomboy. That was his cue to begin dropping suggestive references to my tentatively burgeoning bosom. I cringed, slumped, hugged my books, and walked lightly, a parody of the invisible.

Succumbing to Wesson’s nagging, Judy several times loaded me onto an airplane, destination pinned to my blouse, and sent me and my suitcase to stay with my mother in her Boston rooming house. The experiment always ended badly, local authorities indignant, and I was returned to the comfort and relative security of Judy’s Dallas home, not a bad arrangement if I could steer clear of Uncle Wesson…
Even more at http://www.morethanenoughtruth.com

The entire story is part of Dante’s Wedding Cake, using an inversion of the metaphor of the Circles of Hell to describe a life.

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