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She Hates Numbers

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Sisterlove, a short story

illustration sisterlove

Sisterlove, a short story

            I was teaching my sister to drive that year.  We had bought a weird old ’66 Barracuda, silvery-mauve color, and we’d spent weekends compounding the surface, getting ready to give it a coat of wax that would make it really shine.  Vickie and I used the car to cruise the strip and troll for boys.  My sister loved the boys.  The boys loved my sister.

            She had long hair, golden brown, with blonde ends.  It turned green when she went swimming, then we’d cut the green parts off with nail scissors, her sitting on the toilet, me catching the hair in an ancient orange beach bucket.  We’d leave the hair on the compost pile for the birds to line their nests with.

            Vickie had gone crazy about this guy Michel she’d met over spring break, and all she could talk about was getting up to Canada to visit him.  It might as well have been China.  She was still a virgin, but crazy over the idea of sex.  I pretended I didn’t care about boys in the slightest, but I did, maybe more than she did.  I’d never had a real boyfriend, just a few short flings.  Vickie was always falling in love, which made me sick to my stomach.

            I was two years older.  I was named Edna for my great-grandmother, but everyone called me Jessie, because for some reason that had been her nickname, too.  I always wondered how they got Jessie out of Edna, but I was glad they had.  Mom got really crabby whenever I asked her about the family history, she never showed old pictures, though we knew where they were, stuffed on the highest shelf of her closet, over the old college dresses she’d kept. 

            My mother was completely hippied out — she didn’t shave her legs or under her arms, and the compost pile was her altar.  She didn’t pay much attention to us unless we were sick and then she was the most wonderful nurse in the world — even though she was a strict vegetarian she’d make us chicken broth with little stars, mostly stars so that it was more of a chicken pudding, a glob of butter oozing on the top.  She’d spoon it into our open mouths like a mother bird.

            Vickie and I liked to sneak into Mom’s room while she was at work, and dress up in her old clothes and look at her old pictures.  She’d been married before she married our dad, straight out of college, and so we always tried to guess who he was from the pictures.  Our favorite was the one of her going into a dance, frothy skirt and strapless bodice, her sharp collarbones like exclamation points underneath her satiny, satiny skin.  She wouldn’t say, but we figured she’d had a pretty wild career, before we were born.

            Neither of us were as pretty as Mom, though.  We’d play all day with her makeup, trying and trying to get her look.  It was no good — Vickie had her chin, I had her eyebrows, but there was too much of our dad in both of us, and this was unfortunate, because he was homely.  Since Mom was drop-dead gorgeous, we came out average-looking. 

            Not that we didn’t get plenty of attention in our own way.  We’d get in the Barracuda and drive up and down the beach road, honking at cute boys.  Once in a while they’d motion us over, and we’d park, take our sandals off and hop across the burning sand to find out where they were from.  Most were from Boston, a few from New York.  We liked the Canadians best, they loved the sun so much they’d fry themselves, joyous to turn red and peel — they thought it looked so healthy.  Sunscreen hadn’t been invented, we mixed iodine with baby oil and slathered it on.

            Vickie and I had good skin, the kind that never burned, so we looked like Indians, and I’m not talking the American kind but the Hindus.  Our brown legs shone — they were our best feature by far, all the boys said so.  We learned to kiss from those sunburned Canucks.  The ones from French Canada were the best, but they’d never write to you once they left.  The other Canadian boys were all earnest and geeky and would write us millions of letters, which eventually we stopped even opening.  Instead, we’d take them to the beach, put them in empty juice bottles, then cap them and throw them in the surf.

            So, Vickie went more than a little nuts this time, started calling Michel in Montreal every night after Mom was asleep, and when the phone bill came she was put on restriction for a month.  Mom yanked our bedroom phone out of the wall.  I laughed, but Vickie cried, she was really serious about him.  “Love isn’t real,” I told her.  “Do you think this guy would ever, ever cry over you?”

            “Michel loves me,” she said.  “But now he’ll think I don’t love him and he’ll go back to his girlfriend.”

            What had caught her eye first about Michel were the brilliant red scars on his back, streaky and painful-looking.  We thought he’d been wounded playing hockey or something.  His English was so bad, at first we thought he was kidding when we pointed to his back and asked what happened.

            “My girlfriend,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.  We were so dense, we didn’t know what he was talking about for days, until Vickie came across this ratty copy of the Joy of Sex while she was babysitting for our best client, a lady who danced Polynesian-style at a big tourist restaurant downtown.

            “Scratches are given during the throes of passion,” she whispered over the phone.

            “Bring the book home,” I said.  Later that night, we snuck out of the bedroom window and went driving.  I let her drive and held the book on my lap, reading it to her while we went up and down A-1-A, bending down and swigging our beer at the stoplights.

            “His girlfriend scratched hell out of his back, and he let her do it,” I said.  “He seemed happy about it, even.”

            “He was,” she said.  “Let’s drive to Canada.”  She put her foot down hard on the gas and passed a couple of cars.

            “No way,” I said.  “We’d get caught before we got out of Florida.”

            “I’m going,” she said.  “I want to see him again.  You can come if you want to.”

            “This is insane,” I said.  “You don’t even have your license.”

            “There’s only one first time,” she said.  “I want mine to be with Michel.”

            “You’ve been loony over a dozen boys this past year,” I said.  “How is this different?  What makes you think this’ll last more than a week?”

            “So what if it doesn’t?” she said, and the look in her eyes was fierce.  “You’re missing the point.”

            “The point is, we’ll be in jail,” I said.

            “Where do you want me to let you out?” she said.  She swerved over to the side of the road and slowed way down.  Her hair rippled over her face like a million tiny whips.  I knew I couldn’t let her go alone.

            “God damn you,” I said, and she threw her head back and laughed.

            “Hijacked by your baby sister,” she said.

            “Hijacked by a victim of raging hormones,” I said.

            “Damn right,” she said.  “And deep down, you’re not any different.”

            “Oh, yes I am,” I said.  “I’d never drive to fucking Canada to lose my virginity.”

            “I feel sorry for you, then,” she said.

            “Shut up and drive,” I said.  “The farther we get tonight, the better.”

            “Mom is going to be so pissed,” she said.

            I felt my stomach twirling with fear and excitement.  “I would say Mom is the least of your problems.”


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Soon After My College Graduation, a novel fragment

illustration soon after my college graduation

Soon After My College Graduation, a novel fragment

Soon after my college graduation, I became engaged to Harold.  I’d known him since freshman year; we had dated casually until my senior year, when he watched me perform with the modern dance ensemble and fell in love with the way I moved across the stage in my clingy leotard and filmy skirts.  Everyone in the family adored him.  My father, who never learned to drive a car himself, let Frank drive our very first car home from the dealer.  Though I was happy about the engagement, I wasn’t in a rush to marry.  I wanted to work for a few years, get a taste of the world before settling down at home with a brood.  My parents were skeptical, but they didn’t make a fuss.  They knew I wanted a big family, at least six.

Harold was very good-looking:  strong chin, auburn hair, lean and athletic torso.  We were engaged, so it was the usual custom to sleep together.  His touch was delicate, his hands smooth and lovely.  It was a peaceful, dreamy experience, being with him.  He gave me a pear-shaped blue diamond set in platinum — I wore it and real silk stockings to the office every day.  My family was just middle class, but people thought I was rich.  Nobody knew my father got the stockings free as part of his job at the patent office.  In those days my hair was dark brown, cut in a short pageboy, draped gracefully over my forehead and curled at the ends.  I looked good in simple tailored skirts; my legs were long and well-formed from all that dancing.  Of course the stockings were a plus!

It was about a year into the engagement to Harold that I happened to work with the same young lawyer on several complicated adoptions, right in a row — Robert was Italian, short and bald, and his suits were nicely cut though threadbare.  Something about the confidence in his fluid voice grabbed my attention; one evening after work we met for a drink.  He wasn’t classically handsome, but he had bright, lively features and a charming way with funny stories.  That night, over a pitcher of Rob Roys, he confided to me that he was leaving the Department after the first of the year.  He had an office and secretary all lined up, and could hardly wait to get into practice on his own.  We ordered another pitcher of drinks to celebrate his daring move.

I suppose my big mistake was letting him take me out to dinner, too.  I was drunk:  not so drunk I didn’t know what was happening, just so drunk that I didn’t much care.  Robert touched my cheek, tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear, then closed his eyes and sighed.  I was all over him in a second — he kept saying, are you sure, are you sure?  As I unzipped his trousers, he asked, what about Harold?  I said, I don’t owe him anything.  What I had then with Robert was neither peaceful nor dreamy, but a jolt of electricity that kept my nerves humming for hours.  Afterward, I held my breath for ten days, then kept right on holding it when my “friend” never showed up.  I started having trouble sleeping.  I was all mixed up.  There was no one I could talk to.

See, if I married Robert and the kid looked WASP, no big problem.  But if I married Harold and the kid came out looking Italian, what then?  I went with the easiest lie.  Does this seem terribly evil?  I had no real alternative at the time.  Now, I suppose I’d have an abortion and be done with it.  It’s true that I felt a little less awful as time passed and Robert and I had three more children who resembled their father, but I was never entirely certain about Robert Junior’s pedigree — depending on the time of day and the season he had the look about him of both men.


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