If You Seek It Like Silver
My father was evasive on the subject of ancestors. Emigrating, as he did, from the dark heart of Bohemia, he must have understood that some mixing of races was inevitable. Otherness was part of him — visible in his eyes, in his cheeks, in the reluctant way he wore his necktie. He forced himself to stand still and proper his whole life — in due time even Anglicizing his name — but try as he might, never managed to forget who he was and where he came from. That was why he ended up erasing himself until all that was left with a pen & ink silhouette.
My mother was not evasive about anything. Or so I thought. In fact, she was so brutally honest, she admitted to my father that her idea of “socializing” was to invite everyone in the neighborhood over, once a year, for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (whore’s ovaries, she called them). Other than that, she kept our family as stiff & guarded as Alcatraz. My father seemed to be quieter, to drink a little more, to sit a little longer in front of the television. Then one day my little brother came home dirty, sweaty & crying, from his very first day of school.
“They all called me a dirty Bohunk,” he sobbed.
“Well, why do you listen to the stupid, mean kids?” my mother grumbled. She sat at the dining room table hand-tinting my little brother’s most recent black-and-white, artsy portrait photograph. In the picture, he leaned against a Victorian-style porch railing, his blond curls glinting in the studio light, caressing a large sailboat. “Quit complaining about your feelings. Feelings were made to be conquered.”
My little brother and I were eight years apart, and were nothing alike. I was tall, angular and dark, and had a talent for rages that seemed to be sudden, but were slow-developing and complex in origin. He had inherited the large-boned, pink-and-ivory glow and the sound, dreamless sleep of my mother’s family.
“But I want to have friends, Ma,” he shouted. His chest, like mine, wheezed & he coughed
“You’re there to get education first,” she said. “In two weeks they’ll have forgotten all about your last name. They’ll go on to other games.”
“No they won’t. They’ll never forget. They’ll keep saying it until I die.” He turned, running out of the room, and then we heard him clatter down the porch steps, banging the porch door behind him.
My mother frowned and stared, as if waiting for me to go after him; instead I began setting the table for dinner. “He’ll get over it,” she said, turning around. “Just like you did.” No, I thought; he’s going to learn to ignore his feelings; just like you; disgust. The last thing I wanted to be was anything like my mother; who freaked me out; who wasn’t comforting; who scolded her way into your brain like a hot branding iron. Imposing her will; all over the place; over your spirit. Branded spirit; oppressed spirit; dying spirit.
My little brother wasn’t gone very long, but upon returning, got into his pajamas and went straight to bed, refusing to eat. This had never happened before. Daddy went up and sat on the edge of his bed. I watched from the hallway. Wake up, I thought; wake the hell up!
“Don’t you want something to eat, sport?” Daddy asked. He hadn’t cared so much about my feelings when this had happened to me. Then, he’d been silent, letting Ma handle the whole thing. I suppose he felt it was different for a boy — when a boy cried, it mattered. You too, Daddy, I thought; you need to wake up, too; ignoring things; postponing things; assimilating yourself into your life rather than creating your life; quit playing possum; get up out of that chair; change the channel; yourself.
I was surprised when the next day, Daddy told us what he wanted to do. So was everybody else. My mother most of all. I had never seen the two of them like this. My stomach fell into some icy, limitless abyss in the universe; I had to get out of it, immediately.
“I’m going to change our family name,” he announced. “I should have done it long ago. I should have done it before we were married.” My mother sat in her chair, breathing in short gasps, as if she’d received a sudden whack to the chest. Finally she spoke.
“But it’s my last name too,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous!”
“It’s not just for him,” my father shouted, slapping the newspaper against his legs. “It’s for all of us. I’m God-damned sick and tired of having everyone get our name wrong. Every time we order something, open an account, write a check, we get these asinine comments. Life’s too short for this. I’m changing my name, and the kids’ names, and that’s that.”
“That’s not a choice,” she hissed, “and you know it.” She kicked her pumps off, throwing them against the floor. “You’ve allowed me no say in this.” Now she was all for individuality; feelings; identity; spirit; it’s always just a question of whose ox is being gored by someone else’s ox. I felt like an ox, dragging my dysfunctional family along. Get out of here, I thought. Get out of here and find something to laugh about; or at least smile about.
And what on earth would I tell people at school? Somehow, facing the teachers with a new name seemed even worse than telling all my friends. It was just like my mother and father to ignore the fact that this whole thing would be the hardest on me. They were already grown up, and Dennis was just a little kid. I was the one stuck in the middle. I sat there examining my nails, not wanting to see their faces at this moment. Fox-holing my soul, stuffing it into a warm, soft hidey-hole; as safe as that icy abyss had been dangerous.
The name change happened at the end of summer. On my last day before joining the WASP tribe, such as it was; white bread; vanilla ice cream; whipped potatoes; roasted meats; sugar cookies; freshly squeezed orange juice. The day was bright and sunny and dry; my best friend and I were out in the backyard, perfecting our variety show. That day I was the emcee, she was the sponsor, and we each did half the guest acts. We had tap shoes, and purple and yellow shorts from gym class, and a small piece of plywood to serve as a stage. She also had a fringed felt skirt of her cousin’s and a pair of black kitten heels, for the commercials. Nothing else mattered until tomorrow. Stranded on a desert island, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide; naked but for the protective coloration in my mind. No one outside the family knew about our imminent name-change.
In an attempt to make peace, Daddy let Ma choose the new last name. She picked one which sounded horrible at first, but gradually became appealing. I begged Ma to send out announcement cards to my friends’ parents and to my teachers, but she just closed her eyes.
“You’re going to have to tell them yourself,” she said.
“She’s just scared to tell them she’s not going to be a dirty Bohunk anymore,” said my little brother. “I’m not scared.”
“What do you mean?” I yelled. “Don’t make me laugh. You’re the most scared one of all. You’re so scared, you’re the whole reason we’re doing this stupid thing.”
“No he isn’t,” said Ma. “Don’t blame your brother. Now go find something to do, both of you. I don’t want to hear any more fighting.”
“I bet you like being a Bohunk,” he whispered as we walked down the hallway toward the front door. “You’re stupid, not me. You’re a stupid Bohunk girl.” He ran out the door, ducking my attempted slap with an expert sideways twist.
When he appeared in the backyard, jeering and laughing at my best friend and me, pointing at us and smeared about the face with dirt and grape soda, I picked up a large rock and threw it at the fence where he stood — to scare him. The rock, being inanimate, didn’t understand, and so, obeying the laws of physics, bounced obediently off the fence, then into his head. A large egg-shaped lump sprang out instantly, right in the middle of his forehead. The skin swelled bigger and bigger before my eyes like a balloon. He swayed and fell down on the ground right where he was. Without even looking back at my friend, I ran — out of the yard, down the rear alley, and out of the neighborhood. I ran till my breath burned in my windpipe, then kept on walking.
Our house was five and a half miles inland. I walked all the way to the boardwalk in my tap shoes, the metal taps tapping and grinding against the sidewalk with every step. Blisters formed on my heels, but I kept on, walking slower, placing my feet against the sidewalks with more care. The wind had begun to pick up; the decorative streamers on my favorite ice-cream parlor puffed and snapped.
The boardwalk was crowded, as usual, with transient peddlers. Amid the portable push-carts was a large, gleaming Airstream trailer. Its bulbous surface reflected the milling crowd like a funhouse mirror. As I approached, drawn like a magpie to the smooth, shiny aluminum surface, I noticed a young woman sitting at a folding display table in front of the trailer. She was missing several of her front teeth. Other than that, she was beautiful, her eyes large and clear, her skin like velvet. The dumpy baby in her lap was drooling and babbling like any ordinary kid. My heart leaped inside my chest suddenly, for no reason.
The brand-new Airstream was hitched up to a horrible-looking pickup truck: scabrous, multi-layered paint, rotting fenders. I stood, my legs trembling, examining the large array of beaded purses on her table, and also peeking in the side window of the trailer — the built-in furniture inside was pale pink, and sheathed in plastic. I picked up one of the small purses, completely covered with tiny glass beads, sewn in a dark Oriental-rug pattern. The beaded bag was sinuous and heavy in my hands, like a living thing.
“Can you tell me my fortune?” I asked the lady, my heart pounding against my chest like a small fist.
She stared at me for a moment, then laughed, causing the baby on her lap to startle, his small fat arms jerking. But he, too, smiled after a moment, a toothless grin that matched her own. The baby grabbed at her long hair, stuffing a large handful of it into his mouth.
“No, I can’t,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you dance,” she said, pointing down at my dusty tap shoes, “I’ll give you something.”
“You mean right here?” I asked. “In front of all these people?”
“Sure,” she said. “I love tap-dancing. I’ll give you that purse, if you want.”
The purse’s beading was dark purple, amber and bottle-green. I glanced around at the people strolling by, wondering what they’d think, whether they’d laugh. But it didn’t really matter, did it? I had stepped across some invisible line: tap-dancing on the beach was nothing for a Bohunk like me.
“Okay,” I said. I moved away from the table and raised my arms, spreading them like stiff, flightless wings. Nodding at her, I began my spring recital piece, the one I did wearing a silver top hat and spats. Though the sound of my taps was muffled by the rough-laid planks of the boardwalk, I knew my form was perfect. I finished, and she brought her baby’s hands together with her own, holding his wrists and slapping his tiny palms in mock applause, but then she stopped and smiled, and I knew she’d been pleased.
“Take it,” she said, gesturing toward the table.
“Thank you,” I said, letting the prize swing from my fingers, the beaded loops of fringe rustling against my arm like the curious touch of a stranger. I stood for a moment, noticing her eyes, which from a distance had appeared dark brown, edged in black: surrounding her pupils were small featherings of blue, green, yellow, brown and gray. “I think I killed my brother,” I told her, starting to cry.
“No you didn’t,” she said. “He’s not dead. You can go home.”
“How do you know?” I asked, clutching the bag to my chest. The baby snuggled against her, leaning into her generous breasts, sucking his fingers and blinking his eyes slowly, falling toward sleep.
“You dance too well to be a murderer,” she said, frowning. “Go home to your… fortune.”
As I turned to leave, I saw a handsome boy in a vivid yellow windbreaker watching me from the boardwalk’s edge. His lean face was sculptured, his cheekbones and chin jutting out. His mouth was open — not a smile — and his teeth were square and white. As my eyes met his… his face benign, expressionless… he made his hands into tight fists, arms stiff and straight at his sides, and began nodding his head — forward and back, forward and back. Yes, he indicated. Yes.
“Take your new purse and go home,” the woman said again, turning to look at the strange boy. “But first give the baby a kiss, for luck.” So I bent down, kissing the baby’s drool-wet cheek, struggling with the impulse to dry my lips on my sleeve as I turned away.
By the time I got home, it was dark. A police car was parked in front of the house. As I tried the front door-handle and started to knock, it opened and my mother stood to one side, holding the door, as I walked into the foyer. She reached out, as if to embrace me, but at the last minute changed her mind and pushed me away. I don’t care, I thought. I don’t fucking care. For a moment? I hated her with every cell in my body. Then Daddy grabbed me, squeezing me so hard around the ribs I couldn’t inhale.
“Are they going to arrest her for throwing rocks at me?” asked my little brother from the top of the stairs.
“Certainly not,” said my mother. “Go back to bed.”
The next day was hot — the smog so thick it dimmed the sun’s rays. Somehow, that weird half-light made the air seem even hotter than the real temperature. We toured the marble-floored courthouse downtown, meeting our lawyer outside the judge’s office. The secretary ushered us in. The judge had a lot of fluffy white hair and a waxed, curlicue handlebar mustache that gave me the shivers. As I walked by him, he winked.
He asked us if we had any dishonest or criminal reasons for changing our names — then asked us if we were all sure it was what we wanted. I wasn’t sure — I saw my mother start to say something, too, but the judge didn’t notice. He looked at me.
“What about you, young lady?” he asked. “Do you want to change your name to something that everybody in the U.S. can spell?”
My heart felt like a fat frog, quivering, and I couldn’t speak. The judge didn’t wait for my answer, just started chuckling to himself, then he signed the sheaf of official papers with a judge-like flourish and changed me from a Bohunk into an American.
I went to confession that week with a lot to say. The new priest had a strange kind of beauty — artfully shaped eyebrows, large protruding eyes, fleshy but precise lips, dimpled chin. His English was faintly accented. I liked to imagine he was in love with me, but too saintly to break his vows — he twisted and turned each night upon his hard, narrow cot, praying in vain for relief from the tempting visions of me. In the booth, the words came easily.
“I almost killed my brother,” I told him. I waited in the hot, breathy silence. “I committed perjury.” Still nothing. “I looked on a man with lust,” I said, remembering the taut face of the boy on the beach. Now tell me I’m evil, I thought. Tell me I’m going to hell, talk to me about the pit of fire, the writhing serpents.
“Do you fear for your soul?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “Everything has changed. I’m not the same as I used to be.”
“God knows what’s in your heart,” he said. “Sometimes being ashamed is the most important thing. It’s the first step to changing.” He cleared his throat.
“I’m supposed to be changing? Does changing your name count?” I couldn’t help laughing — then wondered if laughter in the confessional was some sort of sin.
“Changing your name? You mean by marriage?” He sounded shocked.
“No, my family — we all changed our last name. Because my father was ashamed. Because no one knew how to spell it. Because he didn’t want anyone to think we were — strange.” I waited; his silence was interminable. I heard him sigh.
“A name can be very important for the peace of the soul.”
“But nobody asked if I wanted to change.”
“Your father did what he thought was right.”
“But I can’t stop being angry,” I said, almost crying.
“Pray for your anger to be taken from you,” he said. “Pray for guidance.”
But wasn’t he supposed to give me that — guidance? Where was his usual sympathy? I felt weak, dizzy.
“Yes, Father,” I said, though tears had started. “I’ll pray for guidance.” Pushing the booth’s wooden door open — so hard it knocked against the outer wall of the adjacent confessional — I felt Father startle and jump inside his half of the booth in the second before I slipped my shoes off and ran out of the church.
A bunch of us freshman girls journeyed to the first school dance of the year as a dateless yet hopeful group. As we stood talking and laughing — eyeing the large group of stag boys near the gym doors — we fussed with our hair and rattled our charm bracelets. The tall, good-looking boy I’d seen that awful day at the beach approached, and invited me to dance.
“Did you get married over the summer or something?” he asked, tossing his forelock out of his eyes as we twirled out to the middle of the floor.
“Married?” I said, peering up at his face in the dim, dance-floor light. His eyes were large, round and brown, and his lower lip full so that even his scowl had a goofy, angelic quality. “Are you kidding or something?” I asked.
“Well, last thing I knew your last name was different.” He smiled and tapped my name tag with one finger. “So, I figure either I’m going senile, or you got married.” He winked. “Odds are, I’m not senile.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, smiling.
“Well, sometimes I wonder.” He laughed, caressing my back softly as we danced.
“My father changed our last name over the summer,” I said. “Tired of having it misspelled, stuff like that.”
“Well, this one will attract less attention, that’s for sure.”
“Yes, it will,” I said, and then the fast song was over. We stopped, standing together for a moment, then another song began, but we didn’t resume dancing.
“Would you like to go get a soda?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, nodding. We went out to the main entry hall, where some members of the student council were selling refreshments: Cokes, brownies, small bags of popcorn.
“It’s hot in there. Let’s walk around the courtyard for a minute,” he said, holding the cold green bottle against his forehead. He held out his hand to lead me, and I noticed it trembling. We sat down on the edge of a concrete planter, hidden from the dance behind its large circular hedge. The music sounded tinny from out here, but a slight breeze was blowing, and the air had a clean smell. He took a long swig of his soda, then put the bottle down. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, sounding like he might cry. He put his hand against my breast, squeezing me as though caressing some exotic fruit, and then, upon discerning no obvious resistance, he leaned forward with his lips pursed. As he kissed me, his hand kept on moving, pulling at the buttons of my blouse, sliding around under my clothing and tugging at the hooks on my brassiere like a small inquisitive animal.
My feelings over the next few days were a dizzying combination of exhilaration and despair. I’d let him touch me, and it had felt good — but the fact that I’d allowed it to happen disgusted me. It was part of my body that had betrayed me — some fundamental weakness — a new aspect of myself I’d never be able to get rid of. I kept looking in the mirror: the dark circles under my eyes seemed worse, and my complexion got hazy. My hair seemed altered, losing its shine, its color. I felt suddenly younger and older at the same time. Ma and I were shopping for groceries when I felt caution melt away inside me.
“Did anybody ever try to touch you under your blouse?” I asked her, in the frozen food aisle.
“What do you mean, touch?” she asked.
“Like on a date or something,” I said.
“Of course,” she snorted, throwing half-a-dozen packages of peas into the cart. “What do you think, that’s a recent invention?”
“What did you do, then?”
“I kept their hands away,” she said. “I made them stop.”
“Well, what about Daddy?” I asked. “Did he ever try? He must have.”
“I’m not going to go into the specifics with you,” she said. “Just don’t let things go that far.” She turned and stared at me.
“No, of course not,” I said, feeling the blood heat up inside my lying cheeks, my lying neck. I knew she noticed. No way out.
“I don’t know why I bother,” she said, stirring a pot of tiny meatballs in sauce, her hair coiled in gleaming pin-curl clips. “No one invites us back.” My mother was more cranky than usual about her annual cocktail party.
“That’s not why you give the party, is it?” my father asked, laughing. “You wouldn’t go to most of these people’s houses, anyway. No, you just want them to be in your debt.” He patted her. “Just like me,” he added. People were trickling in when one of Daddy’s friends brought up the name change.
“When I got the invitation, I was stumped for a minute,” he said. “I thought, who do I know who changed their damn name? If you’re trying to lose the bill collectors, you forgot the most important thing — get the hell out of Dodge!” He threw his head back and laughed; a braying ass. My mother felt the same way and poured her drink on his shoes. For once, for one blessed moment, I agreed with her completely on something. Common ground. The beginning of our real, far deadlier arguments.
“I don’t care what you think,” she said, waving her arms over her head. “Any of you!” The whole group fell quiet, and after a moment, people who had just arrived began moving toward the hall closet to get their coats.
“Now, wait a minute,” my father said. “He was just kidding!”
“Gee, so was I,” she said. “Couldn’t you tell?” She kicked off her shoes, then ran up the stairs; I watched, then scrambled up after her. In her bedroom, she flopped down on the bed, heedless of the starched, organdy collar and bows on her black dress. She jerked her legs back and forth, back and forth, and her stockings hissed against the satin of the bedspread. “I knew from the day I met your father we’d never be soul mates or anything,” she said. “But I was hoping for something better than this.”
“I’m sure he was hoping for something better, too,” I said. “Do you know how horrible you can be? Do you?” I wasn’t going to end up like her, or like him — or like anybody in my family. It didn’t matter what my name was. “If Daddy and I hadn’t been there watching, you wouldn’t have poured that drink on the man, would you?” I hate you, I thought. And you hate me, too. Own it, you fucking cunt.
“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she snorted, throwing her arm across her eyes. “You and your theories. I was just mad, that’s all.” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, live for long outside her locked, electrified steel cage of rage, I realized.
She shook her head, and her hair, pinned in a loose bun, fell free and tangled in a soft cloak around her neck. My own breathing became the most delicate of rhythms. I closed my eyes and stood next to the door, swaying in place. She was absolutely right: her daughter was a rebel both by nature and by choice. Too much Order… too much Chaos… then back again, a beautiful, inscrutable figure eight. Ma kept on talking, talking about the right way to do everything, the petulant sound of her voice changing inside my head into a soothing, abstract blur, like river water over smooth, flesh-colored rocks. Grief and guilt flew out of me: sharp arrows of silver, or cobalt glass. My own insatiable needs burst their seed casings; moving shapes cast their inscrutable dark shadows against the walls of my secret cave; I fell in love with the light of my tiny, disobedient candle. I kept on nodding and nodding; pretending to listen; planning my escape.