Secrecy begins, as does so much | else, between nipple and suckling mouth. The mouth takes first measure of the distance — an abyss — between Self and Other.
As a pigtailed grade schooler — fearing punishment, from shame (over, for instance, my parents’ divorce) — things happen I don’t “tell.” I don’t lie. I keep silent.
Second grade. Fall. White rubber boots like a majorette’s, but without tassels. I long for white boots. My maternal grandmother has moved into 5-B — our apartment. Cancer, “the crab,” is eating her “inside to out.” White boots, she says, won’t be “practical.” My mother and I go downtown on the rumbling subway. In Best’s, across from St. Patrick’s (from whose walls gargoyles plunge toward Best’s sixth-floor window), I beg.
Every day I salute them.
They stand in my closet next to roller skates. I dance for rain. For wind.
Look out each evening to Jersey for mottled sky, scuttling clouds.
Umbrella in one hand, lunch box in the other, I push open the heavy front door and stagger into the wind. Rain strikes my red umbrella.
Wet gold leaves stick to pavement. I put a foot on the low concrete wall, in which black iron fence posts are buried. Beyond the fence, cars hit puddles, tossing spray. For one wet minute, beautiful enough to paint a picture of: the white boot, glazed by rainwater, my bare leg. “I want,” I say, “to live forever.”
I am building a secret self.
Fingertips on hearer’s ear and heel of palm at comer of speaker’s lips, the hand — knuckles out and moist palm inward — shields the distance between mouth and ear. Behind the palm’s wall, humid breath carries the words. When I am told a secret, the sibilance, slight tickling at the ear, rouses me.
We grade-school girls trade back and forth navy-blue-bound mysteries whose heroine is Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch, Secret of Red Gate Farm, Secret of an Old Attic. Although we all tease, threaten to tell how Nancy solves one or another mystery that confronts her, we agree not to divulge to anyone who doesn’t yet know how this or that story turns out. Grubby, rough-and-tumble, freckled Margaret, my best friend, is a fourth child of seven in what my mother calls “a litter, not a family.” Margaret tells me she reads mysteries’ last pages before the first. I, an only child, reel with shock.
That you could deliberately turn first to the back of a mystery, or any book, to discover what the story’s end is, has not occurred to me. No moral prig, I lie readily and convincingly to throw blame on another, to avoid punishment; I steal from my mother’s lizard bag when I think I can get away with it. To turn, first, to a book’s last page seems physically impossible. Doesn’t life have rules you can’t break?
Fifth-grade genius Morrie Rosenthal, who can multiply double digits in his head and who can play by ear “Sentimental Journey ” or any song we ask, whispers to me while we’re in science room, cleaning our black-tailed rats’ cage, please not to tell, for I am, aren’t I — even though I’m a girl — his best friend?
“Them,” others, shut out, wonder what, he and I withhold. They strain to overhear. Being in the know,” I preen.
Morrie’s in love — he blushes — with Georgia, who’s a year older, a Negro who has her hair, in back, ironed flat.
She is in love with him. That’s why he’s wearing — Morrie makes a fist, shows his hand — this thin gold band.
Almost no one likes her, not because she’s not white. She’s mean, and her mother is famous as a nightclub singer, and Georgia’s stuck up.
“What’s so secret about that?” I ask, while I dump dirty rat paper into the trash basket and am mad because I want Morrie for myself. “Is it because she’s Negro, and your parents won’t like that?”
Partly. But he hasn’t told everything, says Morrie, looking about us before he undoes his fist and shows his palm. The ring is diamond. He’s hiding the diamond. Georgia stole it — he closes his fist — from her mother’s jewel box.
If I like her, Margaret says during lunch, I will tell what Morrie whispered.
From two tables away, Morrie looks at me and clamps his mouth so hard he turns white around the lips. I’m not telling. I’m not.
Margaret, whose brothers casually hammer open locks on their older sisters’ diaries, who herself puts her hand over the receiver to listen in on upstairs telephones, hardly speaks to me the rest of the week.
Their maid irons Georgia’s hair every morning. So it will be straight, Georgia says, like white peoples’. Georgia’s rich, and her mother is famous. I imagine myself bom as me but in Georgia’s skin, breathing through her wide-spread nose, scooping up jacks with her pink palm. Even though it would mean Morrie would love me instead, and I wish every day he would, I am glad I was not bom Negro. One more thing I must not tell.
When my grandmother, back on our sofa, dying this time for real, reads from the paper about an interracial marriage, she says “colored” women lure white men to “race-mix.” In my appetite for her love, I edge onto the cushions next to her.
A year later, the organist plays “Abide with Me” on a funeral parlor’s reedy Hammond. Gazing down into the coffin, I cannot not remember, and try not to, how she cackled, false teeth chattering, when I had spilled out Morrie’s secret.
We moved. We live in the South. My mother sends me to the beauty shop. The “beauty operator,” Selma, grasps my pigtails at the nape of my neck. Snips. Laughing, she holds the pigtails aloft, wakes women dozing in chairs under silver hair dryers. “I got these off, at the root.”
Are those women, dazed and pink, legs slightly apart, who I will become?