Always a bowl of sunflower seeds in the corner of her desk, next to a glass of diet iced tea. Her right hand darted for the seeds, and with three fingers she brought them to her mouth, cracked the shell, extracted the nut, and spit the shells into a napkin, lifted from her lap with her left hand. Her eyes never left the list. She read and re-read, crossing out, renumbering, underlining, punctuating. She didn’t flinch when in a tiny moment of temper, I slammed her door behind me.
I am poised at the Underwood my mother brought home from the office. I have not yet settled into journal writing and bang out my frustrations on this manual machine, setting the caps in lock.
DONNA MAKES ME SO MAD! I CAN’T STAND I HER! I CAN’T WAIT TILL SHE GOES OFF TO COLLEGE NEXT YEAR! GOOD RIDDANCE (TO BAD RUBBISH). CAN YOU BELIEVE SHE USED TO IGNORE ME IN THE HALLWAYS AT SCHOOL? IN THAT DOPEY RUST FAKE SUEDE COAT WITH THE BEIGE FLUFF THAT LOOKED LIKE SHEEP SHEARINGS!
I ignore her and keep typing, furiously.
I COULD HAVE REALLY GOTTEN HER WITH ALL THAT CRAP SHE WROTE IN HER JOURNAL ABOUT JOHN AND WHAT THEY DO OUTSIDE THE HOUSE IN HIS CAR.
“Susan! I know you’re in there....”
KEEP ON KNOCKING YOU SHITTY BITCH! JUST WAIT TILL I TELL EVERYONE WHO YOU REALLY ARE! YOU BIG LYING FAKER!
With a scrape and a slam, the hall doors open and my father stomps towards my room.
“What’s all this racket!”
“Dad — Susan won’t open the door!”
“Susie? Susie? Open this door! You know I don’t like closed doors!”
FUCK OFF, YOU SENILE OLD FART!
“Don’t make me put a hole in this door again, Susan. Now open up!”
I rip the typed page out of the roller, throw it in my desk drawer, and jerk open the door, arms folded against my stomach. My father steps in, scans the room. “You need air in here,” he says quietly, walking past me. “Always leave the window open two inches.” He’s stalling, as if he welcomed this distraction from the poker game taking place down the hall.
“Daddy, are you winning?”
“No, I’m losing — the bastards.”
“Should I give you a dollar? For luck?”
“Don’t fight with your sister.”
“She’s being mean to me!”
“Enough, already! Just keep it down back here…” He leaves my door ajar and returns to the game. My sister, who lost interest ten minutes ago, is back in her bedroom. With the door closed.
An hour later, soft knocking at my door.
“Susan!” she whispers harshly.
“Go get me a half a grapefruit....”
“Come on, please? I’m not going out there in my T-shirt. Just get it for me, okay? And tell me what they brought. Tell me if Mrs. Kaldor brought that gushy cheesecake you love.”
It was the third Monday of the month — poker night. Seven pairs of middle-aged, middle-class Jewish men and women are in the house. Most of them can’t stand their own spouses, let alone the other couples. The “boys” play five-card stud in the dining room while the “girls” crack their way through “Jewish” mahjong in the living room. My mother dreaded this night; it meant pulling out the coffee urn from the back of the pantry. It meant picking up cold cuts at the delicatessen downtown, which was too far away to get to on her lunch hour, so she’d have to go after work, and then there was all that traffic.
“If you were a better driver,” my father reminded her, “there wouldn’t be any trouble with traffic.”
For my mother, poker night meant overhearing my father’s bravado, and worse, hearing the “boys” belittle him at his own dining room table, where the brown leather-covered mat was turned over — green-velvet side up — to better grasp the flag-colored chips and fresh cards.
My tirade complete, I oblige Donna’s request; I’m a little hungry myself. I open the double doors that lead from the bedrooms into the front of the house. They’ve been fitted wrong and scrape loudly, forcing seven women to turn and regard my entrance.
“Susie, come out and see us.”
The room smelled like perfume and percolating coffee. My mother looked drawn, uninterested. Up at 5:00 a.m., she’d made herself coffee, fixed four lunches, made breakfast for my father, worked a full day, shopped, made dinner, cleaned the house for company, made more coffee.
“Susan, what is it?” she asked without looking up from her tiles.
“Donna wants something to eat.”
Mrs. Kaldor pokes at my belly with fingers flashing orange nail polish. “Are you sure it’s Donna who wants it?”
Redheaded Mrs. Kaldor is thin and birdlike. She wears tangerine lipstick and too much jewelry for a Monday night. At my eighth birthday party, her daughter Renee told the other girls that I weighed 80 pounds to their 50.
“Well, go get it and then shut the hall doors,” my mother says. I beeline to the kitchen, head down, arms folded across my belly. I slice open a grapefruit, grab a paper towel, and bring it to Donna.
“Did you give Daddy a dollar?” I ask, handing over the dripping grapefruit.
“I gave him two,” she sniffs.
“Way before you even thought of it.”
Quarter-sized pastel butter mints line a crystal dish — the one Mother uses when guests are in our house. For the weeks between card games, she leaves the candies in their dish and places them up high in the cupboard with the good china.
Later that night, in the dark, I reach up and tug at the china cabinet door and grab a handful of pink, green, and white. I hear my father’s shuffling footsteps, shove the candies deep into the pocket of my quilted robe. Back in my bedroom, I fish them out. Head tilted back, mouth open, I shake them onto my tongue. They are stale with age and air, but if I suck on them long enough, the buttery sweetness saves me.
He lived in the city’s “old money” neighborhood and went to a private prep school. He drove a Lotus, wore hats, and listened to Sly and the Family Stone, my sister’s (and thus my) introduction to soul music. He drove 50 miles one way to our house every weekend that summer, arriving at the door with a corsage for her, a boutonniere for himself. The date included a stop at the Conga Room, the Starlight Roof, or the Top of the Mark, where they ordered daiquiris and mai tais. I don’t know how they got served, at 15 and 17, but they did; she has the cocktail napkins to prove it.
For these weekly events, my sister produced hand-sewn, low-cut halter dresses. The same pattern repeated with different materials — a red-and-white Hawaiian print, a dotted Swiss, a striped jersey—the décolletage dropped deeper each time. Her hair was parted in the middle, curled at the ends. She wore too much blue shadow and white highlighter. n Polaroids she looks like an owl in drag.
She let me open the door when he arrived. Sometimes I ran outside as soon as I heard the low rumble of that foreign motor round the corner to our cul-de-sac. I’d wave both arms in the air and he’d smile back, tip his gray fedora. I was a tall 12-year-old: pudgy, with a mouth of braces, a head of frizzy curls, cat-eye glasses, and freckles against fair skin. I waited for him all week.
My parents seemed uninterested, but in truth they were heading for disapproval. The arch of my mother’s right brow noted the ever-plunging neckline. As soon as they’d leave, my father would say, “She’s seeing too much of that sheygetz. ”
After coats and corsages in the foyer, they smiled at each other, whispered something secret I took for sex talk, and danced out the door.
“Donna!” My father shouts from the porch, where he waters a dying eucalyptus. “I want a phone call if it’s after midnight, you hear me?”
I watch from the kitchen window, too far away to catch her answer as the boyfriend opens the car door and she folds her lanky frame into the front seat. The oversized UK license plate grows smaller, like the descending letters of an eye chart, as the coupe rolls down the street.
I rinse the dinner dishes, picking pieces of leftover chicken off the bone, stuffing it in my mouth, swallowing hard, turning on the disposal to muffle the sound of a starting argument.
“Aren’t you the least bit interested? Aren’t you at all concerned?”
“I’ll be goddamned if I’m gonna let that little putz ruin a daughter of mine....”
I wipe my hands, toss the towel, and head down the hallway to the back of the house. My Friday night routine awaited: The Odd Couple followed by Love American Style—in the den with the door closed, a bowl of ice cream on my lap.
One Saturday, when we were five and eight, she didn’t want to play library anymore.
“But you wanted to play yesterday. If you wanted to play yesterday, why not today?”
“I’m tired of it. I don’t want to play library anymore.”
I looked down at the supplies our mom had clipped from the school district where she worked: stamp pads, date stampers, moldy books with plenty of boxes left on their checkout forms, slips of paper in canary and lime, index cards (with holes in them from the card catalogs) printed with the Dewey decimal system we’d come to know so well. How could she pass this up? “How co-ome?”
“Susan, I’m not playing.”
“One more time? Just once more....” I start setting up shop, ignoring her refusal.
“Susan, why would you want me to play when I don’t want to?”
There’s a picture of her I remember, though I’ve not seen it for years: a tall, trim, lovely 15-year-old with straight, shiny brown hair and a suntanned face full of freckles. Caught mid-pillow fight, long hair flying, she sits forward on her knees. She wears a sleeveless white cotton nightie with flowered trim. A matching robe with puffed sleeves sits at the edge of the bed. Red cloth-covered buttons run down the robe’s length and delicate, royal-blue ties dangle by the neckline. A wide-mouth laugh makes her eyes dance around the red dot of a cheap Instamatic’s flash. I am so jealous looking at this photo — even thinking of it now — that my heart hurts.
I sat on the bench next to her desk the night before school started, one leg up, chin resting on my kneecap. She was making a list. Every day the list began, “Get Up,” as if even this most reflexive act required her direction.
“What should I wear tomorrow?” It would be my first day as a high school freshman.
“How should I know!” she spat.
“Do you think, like, a skirt or jeans?”
“You’re bugging me, Susan. Don’t you think I have my own stuff to worry about?”
“I just wondered what you thought....”
She turned to face me for the first time since I’d entered her room. “Will you leave me alone?” (She doesn’t know what to wear either, I tell myself) “...and close the door.”
As I reach for the door, I turn to look at her. The ends of her hair are still wet from a shower. She flips the mass to one side, hiding the gold lettering of her Cal T-shirt, the one she wears every night since returning from camp in August. The blue shirt belonged to some bearded boy who went to Berkeley—“My Maintenance Man,” she’d called him. I’d read it in her journal.
“What do you mean, ‘maintenance’?”
“He cleaned up, okay? He, like, planted things, carried things. He had a great bod.”
“But he collected the garbage, right?”
“I’m not talking to you.”
The year she went off to college, I acclimated to the scrutiny and neglect of only-childhood. Rather than revel in my fortune — no waiting for the bathroom, plenty of extra closet space — I concluded there was little left for me but nightly dinners with parents who were, at that stage in their lives, dull with exhaustion and disappointment. My older siblings, long gone from the four-bedroom house, weren’t married yet (“I want grandchildren,” my mother declared) and neither was financially successful enough that my father could relax. All my parents had left were me and Donna: “The Girls.”
I didn’t visit her once that first year at Davis, but I drove with my father to pick her up in late May of 1973. On the way home, we sat in the back seat together, separated by the flowered pastel comforter she’d bought in September to decorate her dorm room. She wore a yellow, scooped-neck, ribbed top and brushed-cotton hip-huggers from Jeans West. I notice her hand reflexively grazing her belly, checking for flatness. I crunch against the corner, stare out the window at the smelly alfalfa fields. She looked pissy — about leaving college, about coming home for the summer, about some boy who might or might not write, about having me in her periphery for the 85-minute drive home.
“So, what are you gonna do?”
“Susan, I don’t want to talk to you....”
“Well, you’re stuck with me — all summer. ” She pulled her long hair off her neck and flipped it over one shoulder. My father started crooning Perry Como just past Vacaville. I piped in for some harmony, but not much.
“This one won’t eat,” he gestures to Donna. “This one eats too much” (that’s me).
Fans are on. It’s too hot to cook so my mother’s made a dish she calls Farmer’s Chop Suey — tomatoes and cucumbers and scallions and celery drenched in sour cream. Even I won’t eat it. I stuff myself on Bing cherries and cut-up melon. My father mixes the chop suey with pickled herring and claims it’s not bad. He sops it up with brown bread.
“Peasant food,” he announces to us, his listless audience.
My mother picks at her salad, listens to Donna describe the rigors of college courses. There is nothing on my sister’s plate.
“Donna, you have to eat something.”
She sighs, whines, “It’s too hot. I’m not hungry.”
“Susie, knock it off with the cherries already,” my father says, tapping my hand away from the bowl. “You’ll be in the bathroom all night.”
My mother is curling her eyelashes at the dining room table shortly after six in the morning. Since the news has forecasted another scorcher, the windows are open, letting in the only cool air we’ll have all day. The Today Show blasts from the TV — the volume isn’t really so loud; the house is pre-dawn quiet. I pad into the kitchen, pull open the fridge in search of juice, drink it from the container while she can’t see me. “Mom, wouldja turn it down?”
“Go back to bed, Susan.”
“Mother, it’s too loud.” I slam the refrigerator door.
“This is the only time I watch television, Susan,” she says evenly, squinting from one eye to watch the screen in the other room. “Now either go back to bed or go put some clothes on.” “I do have clothes on.” My mother does not believe in robes; you’re dressed for the day or in pajamas for bed. There is no lounging.
I open the refrigerator again, just to annoy her. “Out of the refrigerator....”
“I said, out of the refrigerator, Susan. I thought you were dieting.”
“Mother! What is your problem?”
“You're my problem!”
I slam the door again, furious and fully awake. The sun slivers in through the dining room window, reflects off the cobalt blue vase centered on the table. According to my mother, I have just ruined her day.
Donna is still on Davis time—faithfully wearing her Cal-Aggie T-shirt to bed, talking to some guy long-distance in Sacramento every week.
(“Those phone calls are costing me a fortune!” my father laments.)
I’m awaiting summer school’s start: Driver’s Training and Introduction to Ceramics. Donna’s landed a job hostessing at a local pie shop (Dad talked the owner into it). We have little in common except an irritation for our parents (“Dad’s driving me crazy!” “Why is Mom so out of it?”) and disdain for anyone who has ever enjoyed high school.
An overcast Thursday evening, my two blonde friends cancel on our plans to go to the movies (The Godfather is playing again; it would be my third time). They had dates; I had Donna.
“They ditched you, didn’t they?”
“Yeah.” I hop off the stool that sits under the phone mounted on the kitchen wall. “I knew they would.”
“Who’re they going out with?” she says, zipping up her hooded blue sweatshirt.
“The Fearn brothers.”
She dawdles in the hallway, messes with her hair in the mirror.
“Wanna go for a walk with me?”
“Um...like, how far?” I knew what she was capable of.
“Susan — do you wanna go or not? My god, it’s not like I ask you to do something every day....”
And from then on we walked every day, usually twice.
“By September,” she guarantees me one morning as we tie our shoelaces, “you’ll look much better.” I step a little livelier, almost race-walk to keep pace with her long-legged gait. “’Course, you need to completely change your eating.”
A half-mile into our walk, my glasses slip down my nose. I stop to wipe them off.
“Susan, why don’t you get contact lenses?” she suggests. I am grateful for the advice; any opportunity for improvement is my nature.
Hour-walks first thing in the morning, before it got hot, before I went to Driver’s Ed, before she went to the restaurant. Another walk as the sun set, after we ate dinner (“Always leave half of it on your plate,” she admonished. “And cut everything up into small pieces — it’ll seem like you have more”). It would almost be dark as we headed home, pink clouds in the sky, night-blooming jasmine and honeysuckle scenting the alleyways.
Donna convinced me that I needed her, though she was the one without a friend in town. I spent less and less time with the two blondes, spoiled by the proximity of a built-in friend, counselor, fashion consultants and drill sergeant. This was more attention than I’d ever had in my life; it wouldn’t have occurred to me to turn down the deal.
There was always talk: where we would walk that evening, tomorrow; where we hated to walk; the houses we loved. She reminisced about Davis — the brisk mornings and fall leaves and cozy couches in the library’s reading room and the charming houses, how I would have loved the houses. “You never came up once.”
I said nothing, which wasn’t like me.
“I could have showed you so much stuff....”
“Can we go up this summer?” I rushed in. She turned her head, squinting at passing cars (she wouldn’t be seen wearing her glasses; she preferred not to see). We crossed the street as the sun sank behind yellow hills. I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and waited for her reply, eyed that brown ponytail bouncing against her back.
After a few blocks she answered me. “It’s hot up there now. You need to be there in the fall — that’s the best time.”
“You missed it, Susan.”
We walk in silence, come to another crosswalk and stop. When the light changes, we dart across, but we’re not fast enough and get stuck standing on the median, a skinny island of cement running the length of the boulevard. I pluck a white oleander bloom off a nearby bush, stick it behind my left ear. Cars whoosh past us, flicking pebbles from the asphalt. When the light changes again, we run for the curb, and I can feel the flower slip from my ear. It’s not worth running back for, doesn’t even smell good, and besides, Dad says they’re poisonous.
In our routine we talked about routine: what we would eat, what we wouldn’t eat, where we would go to eat it. Like a treasured bedtime story, I looked forward to being regaled with tales of dormitory life, particularly episodes in the dining hall: the bowls overflowing with coleslaw, carrot-raisin salad, ambrosia, three-bean. Heaping masses of fruit-flavored yogurt, granola, trail mix. Platters of cookies, brownies, doughnuts. Forbidden to eat that food, certainly I could hear about it. When food talk set our appetites up, we ate carrots.
We ate so many carrots that summer that the palms of our hands turned orange. We chewed packs and packs of sugarless bubble gum, drank diet sodas all day long. As the bright green of early summer moved past Fourth of July, picked up deeper shadows and more golden light, she lectured less, revealed more.
“Why do you think I hated high school so much?” she demands.
“I don’t know — you had Mr. Prep School.” I think back to my adolescent crush, wonder what he’d think if he saw me now, three years later and a few pounds less.
“Actually, he embarrassed me.”
“You’re kidding! You looked so cool together ”
“I liked it at the beginning. Then he got on my nerves.”
The hike up the hill to our house leaves us out of breath. I’m still stunned by her confession, and it shows on my face.
“I dunno...” I shrug, heaving the last few steps up the grade. “I always thought you were gaga over him.”
“Oh, Susan,” she sighs, stopping at the top of the hill, hands on hips. “You always believe what you see, don’t you?”
Pink and orange vinyl seats, caramel-colored cups and saucers, plastic menus bearing perfect images of burgers and fries, layered sundaes, dollops of butter on golden-brown pancakes. We came to expect the predictability of the place, knowing what the coffee would taste like, where the bathroom was. Given a half-hour in any direction, we’d find one: the slanted roofs, the banks of booths, the wood-and-stone ’60s exterior, the goofy, playful lettering: Denny’s.
I develop a righteous coffee addiction — up to ten cups in a sitting, we counted once. The caffeine zaps my system: I stay up late watching reruns of The Big Valley, can’t fall asleep. At four in the morning, I throw covers off, swear that bugs are crawling on my legs. Crickets seem to screech out my window.
We never leave the house without Sucaryl pills in our pockets, panicking if, while waiting for a table, leaning on the cigarette machine, squished on the bench near the sign, PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED, we fish around and can’t find them (by next year, pink Sweet ’n’ Low packets will grace every table).
“You got ’em?”
“Shit! I forgot,
“Susan, I told you to bring ’em!!”
“Well, I thought you had them!”
She exhales loudly, shakes her head. I’m digging deep into the front of my Levi five-button cutoffs, the tiny right pocket. My fingers hit something small, pebblelike: could be shmutz, could be sweetener.
We are friends again: chatter about what we’ll order, make fun of “hard guys” in the parking lot, notice a handsome man at the counter (“He looks like Al Pacino!”), who notices her. She pretends she doesn’t see him, flicks her hair back, tries to look bored. I watch him watch her, stare boldly, willing him to at least consider the alternative. He returns to his newspaper, never even sees me. “Two for smoking?”
On “good” days, when we’d walked hard or eaten light, we treated ourselves to pudding: vanilla was the premium choice, followed by tapioca, then chocolate, maybe butterscotch if they had it, and as a last resort, Jell-O (the later we got there, the more likely we’d be stuck with green).
Creamy, smooth, comforting pudding was worthy reward for her daily restrictions. We watched the waitresses, in their zippered uniforms stretched taut against broad backsides, pull the metal container from the brightly-lit pastry case, ladle out the blond vanilla into parfait glasses, settling the glass on a plate, reaching back to grab the long-stemmed spoon, delivering the pudding to our table, along with more coffee, more cream. How many dipped tips of the teaspoon it took before the pudding took a dent! Donna would test the luscious stuff, dunk her spoon in the coffee, and bring the combination up to her mouth. Then she’d sigh, put her spoon down, light a cigarette.
I tried to stop when she did, pacing myself not just to impress her with my discipline, but to stay even — nothing worse than winning this race. By the time we were ready to leave, her dish was still three-quarters full.
It took me most of the summer to realize she never finished anything, barely touched it, really. She knew how to make it look as though she’d eaten: pushing food around on her plate, taking small bites, chewing languidly, sometimes spitting the masticated food into a napkin and wrapping her fist around it.
I struggled with her half-on-the-plate rule, so famished by dinnertime that I ate too fast and probably didn’t chew at all. Slicing the piece of meat, chunk of potato, ever closer to one-third, one-quarter, until I heard her theatrical throatclearing, felt the pierce of her eyes darting to my plate.
“Uh, are you sure you wanna do that?”
“Jeez, Donna. It’s only a little piece.”
She shrugs her shoulders, pushes back from the table.
On her way to the kitchen she hisses in my ear, “Fine. Don’t blame me if you freak out when you weigh yourself tomorrow.”
As expected, this kills my appetite.
“You’re doing so well with your diet, Susie,” my mother says, patting my arm. I can’t tell whose side she’s on.
From his seat at the far end of the table, my father glares at Donna. My mother and I follow his look into the kitchen, where we watch my sister bend over the garbage can and scrape her plate clean.
“I can see the bones in her back,” he mutters.
I’d get home from summer school, watch Ryan’s Hope and wait. When I heard the car in the garage, I’d jump off the couch, put away whatever I was eating, and open the door for her; she usually brought home pies, and I knew her hands would be full.
Between furtive tastes of lemon meringue and fresh strawberry—and more freshly whipped cream than she’d admit to — she complained.
“There’s nothing to do here!” We are in the backyard; she’s sunning her back, bikini-top ties dangling, jean cutoffs strategically ripped up the sides. I’m in brown corduroys that I’ve cut — unevenly — at the knee and for a blouse, what my mother refers to as a “shell.”
My sister reads a mystery novel while I peruse next week’s TV Guide. She’s stretched out on the one remaining piece of usable lawn furniture: a wooden lounge with a faded yellow cushion. Our house sits on the curve of a cul-de-sac, affording a broad half-circle of a yard that my father proudly insists he designed. The patio covering extends overhead in a patchwork of brown-painted latticework. Silver-dollar eucalyptus line the perimeter of the yard, separated by a lone Chinese fern. A brick barbecue dominates one corner, where a triangle of Monterey pines tower.
When he's not at the doctor having something checked or bringing his beloved Volvo in for repairs, my father putzes here, watering, trimming, pruning, singing to himself. He is two years away from an early retirement, but he’s already stopped going to the office every day.
Donna turns over, lights a True menthol, and runs a hand over a flat (and now tanned) belly.
“I have to get out of here,” she says, exhaling smoke. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“Can we go to Denny’s after?”
“Maybe later. God! I’m so bored! I’ll never make it through the summer....” She picks absent-mindedly at something on her leg — a scab, an ingrown hair — sings along with the Doobie Brothers:
Without love, where would you be now?
“Come on, Donna,” I coo, motherly. “We’re having fun this summer — don’t you think?”
“Susan! I hate it here! I wish I was back at school....”
I am too set on diverting her foul mood to worry about hurt feelings (but how can she hate it here when she has me?).
“Wait a sec...” she squints into the sun. “...I have an idea: let’s drive to a different Denny’s....” “What do you mean?”
“Let’s drive around the city....”
Excited, I toss the TV Guide onto the ground and skip into the house.
“We have to get Mom’s car!” she yells from her lounge chair as I pull the screen door behind me. “And don’t say anything! Dad’ll kill us!”
I call our mother at work, lie about the reason for borrowing the car, and write a note to our father. Pressing my nose against the screen door, I ask, “Can I drive?”
“I don’t care. But let’s go now, before I change my mind.” She starts stacking her supplies: journal, library books, suntan lotion, glass of iced tea, sunflower seeds, crossword puzzles, portable radio. Nose still pressed to the filthy screen door, I watch her long legs swing over the lounge chair, muscles tense as she prepares to stand.
“What, Susan?” she snaps back, standing to her full five feet, eight and a half inches and stepping into blue velveteen flip-flops.
“What are you gonna wear?”
We are walking past the apartments where I’d sold Camp Fire mints as a Blue Bird. Had such luck one day, went back the next.
Young lady! You just sold me a box yesterday!
“Susan, remember when you tried to sell that old man candy again?” I laugh automatically, but it’s chased by something smelly like embarrassment. I was so anxious about the sale, so pressured by our troop quota, I was desperate; I couldn’t remember which apartment bells I’d rung. But if I explained this, I knew she’d say, “Susan, I was just teasing you. You take everything so seriously!” And then I’d feel worse.
We pass the hospital, cut through our old grammar school playground, turn left at the church, and head for a wide boulevard with blocks of unbroken sidewalk.
“Remember the time at temple? You said you were Laurie Engel?”
It was the annual Purim carnival. My brother had dressed me as a hamantaschen, a triangular cookie filled with poppyseed or prune paste. I wore a little triangle hat and a brown sandwich board. During the costume contest, all the children stood onstage: many queens, many kings, many princesses. Only one cookie. One by one, a microphone poked under our chins, we were asked, “What’s your name? What are you today?” When it was my turn, I blanked, looked to my left, said the name of the girl next to me.
The social hall shook with adult laughter. The emcee had tears in his eyes, he was laughing so hard.
“Susie Greenberg! What’s the matter with you? That’s not your name!” I can’t remember what happened next; I’m sure I started crying.
“You were so cute in that cookie costume.”
I searched for a comeback line, think, I’ll get her! She grabs my left hand, actually swings it a few beats, trying to snap me out of the mood. I am lousy at hiding my feelings; she knows I’m either going to yell at her or start crying. I keep my eyes forward.
“We all thought you were cute, you know,” she says sweetly. “You always forget that.”
I imagine my little cookie self, flying around, mop of curls gathering perspiration at the back of my neck. I imagine that gamy kid smell: too many hours at play without a bath. I chuckle to myself, but I still won’t look at her.
“Although, you did sweat a lot from your head.”
It was the summer I learned how to drive and how to throw pots badly in ceramics class, where the longhaired boys listened over and over to Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush.
I watched a junior named Jim Farnell that summer, watched him flick his blond stringy hair, jammed under a blue bandana, away from his eyes as he cupped clumps of clay, threw them on the wheel, and began pushing the Base with his foot. Tilting his head to the right, he dipped his fingers in a bowl of sandy brown water and ran them over the clay, drawing it up into a cylinder.
“You’re Donna Greenberg’s sister, aren’t you?” he says after three weeks of me staring.
“That’s me!” I chirp.
“She’s a fox.” We both watch the clay crawl up his fingers, now thick, now thin, now a curve.
His buddy Casey walks in, all senior swagger, sauntering with a jocks’ “ditty bop” lift, raising his weight to the ball of the foot with each step. Pulling a chair up behind Farnell’s wheel, he sits down backwards, stomach flush with the chair’s back, legs straddling the chipped wooden seat. Ignoring me, he sets his gaze to the potter’s wheel.
“Looks good, man,” he offers. “Watch the lip, though.”
Eyes to the clay, Farnell asks, “Where’d your sister go to school last year?”
“Davis,” I say, trying to sound conversational, wishing Casey would leave. Wishing Casey would die.
“Who’s her sister?” Casey says, jerking a thumb at me without looking over.
“Yeah? Donna Delicious...I remember her.” They smile at each other, then turn their eyes to me.
“Really amazing,” I say, pointing to the vase, trying to distract them. Farnell finesses the top of his. creation, which has metamorphosed into an elegant pitcher: large and graceful, with a broad spout that opens like a lily. He slows down the wheel, stops it, wipes his wet hands on worn jeans, pushes his bandana up.
“How come her hair’s straight and yours is curly?” he asks me. Before I can respond, Casey leans toward Farnell, shouts, “How come she’s such a fox and you’re such a dog?”
They crack up. Farnell has the grace to look down (I can see him hiding a smile), but Casey — red hair flopping to his shoulders, green eyes bright— tips his chair back and lets loose a long howl.
“Who started calling you Donna Delicious?”
“How do you know about that?”
I read it in your journal
“You must’ve told me.”
“The guys at camp did.”
“Some of the guys in the kitchen....”
“Were they, like, football guys or hipped-out surfer types?”
“Did you know them from school or what?”
“Susan! Have you been reading my journal?” She didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day. I waited till she went to work, then rooted around in her closet for the summer before last’s journal.
She told me how she used to bring her big yellow cup with her to the dining hall, refilling it five, six, seven times at the Tab dispenser, until one time, she brought the house down.
“Maybe they knew Donna Delicious,” I say, enjoying the sarcasm.
“Think about it, Susan. They all started clapping.”
“All those snotty Tri-Delt sorority girls, all the guys from the water polo team....”
“What was it, a convention?”
“Ha-ha. Do you think I liked it?!”
“Since when don’t you like attention? Didn’t you like it when the guys sang Oh, Donna, Donna Delicious to you at camp?” I am speeding on a mix of envy and disgust. “If you didn’t want the attention, why’d you wear your dresses so short? If you didn’t want them to notice you, why’d you wiggle your ass up to the drink machine every five minutes!”
She runs away from me at this point, breaks into a trot, and heads down the street. My vitriol is replaced by sagging guilt, a hyperventilating worry that I have shit where I am fed.
I run after her, apologizing, trying to take it back. Can’t recall how we make up, but we do.
“You can really get me sometimes, you know?” I think she’s crying, but I’m not sure. “But you don’t play fair, Susan. You kick people when they’re down.”
“I do?” little voice.
“Yes, you do.”
I didn’t know about any of it, wouldn’t figure it out for years: the boys that called her a prick-tease; the girls who snubbed her; the pressure to maintain a 4.0 for the scholarship; the hammering will, the constant deprivation (if I don't finish this, I wont let myself do that; if I stop eating this, I can still have that).
My sister’s vulnerability was a camouflaged cave with a small entrance; if she didn’t give you a map, you’d never find it.
Why don’t I have a waist?”
We’re in the dressing room of an overpriced boutique near Sausalito. It’s August, the light outside is changing. Sometimes I can smell a hint of fall, even though it’s months away. I can fit into a smaller-sized dress, but it looks goofy. My tummy protrudes less from a side view, and my legs have shaped up from our walks, but the frame is the same.
“You need to do more side twists,” she tells me, zipping up a linen shift that hugs her snugly, showing off slim hips and a narrow waistline. I can’t help tearing up. It’s only a month till school starts. A week or so before she leaves for Davis.
“I’ve lost all this weight and I still look the same!” I am slumped in a heap against the dressing room’s wall.
“Susan, that dress looks weird on you.” I feel my face squish up, prepare for tears. “It...you...it’s a weird dress!” We both start laughing.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t look better.”
“You mean it?” I wipe my glasses off with the weird dress.
“When’s the last time I complimented you?”
“You just haven’t found what looks good on you yet.”
When the fall preview TV Guide arrives at our house, along with course catalogs from the University of California at Davis, I start to worry: How will I stay on the regime? How will I get myself to walk twice a day? Who will stop me from eating cheese?
I come back from a movie one night, and she’s left a dress on my bed. “It’s too big for me,” she calls from her room. “I bet you can fit into it now.”
The mai tai dress! With a Mandarin collar and two-inch slits in front and back. I love this dress! Turquoise, yellow, and white, it has a sheen like silk and holds me in as if I had a waistline.
I run to the bathroom to try it on. As I pull — careful!—at the zipper, I hear Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” coming from her bedroom. If I hold my stomach in and don’t move quickly, I can just pull it off. Far-out.
She begins collecting boxes, placing them on the built-in bench in her room, which runs the length of one wall. She takes the Rosemond print she bought on Union Street; she takes the milk-glass lamp we shared as children, the one with little bumps. She takes her desk chair and the cushion tied to it. She makes dates with girls who are going back to Davis. She calls people long-distance. She goes to the city with my mother to shop at Macy’s and I am not invited.
I hang in her doorway, tentative. I know not to ask, why aren’t we walking as much? Why haven’t we gone to Denny’s?
I wander back to my room (my eldest sister’s old bedroom, still pink from the year we moved in). It feels more barren than Donna’s: just a bulletin board above my desk, a Peanuts calendar, and a poster of Al Pacino hanging over my bed. The floor is strewn with dirty clothes and tank tops and white socks and kicked-off sandals. I have stacked my composition book journals in a corner, next to a sweater box full of my mother’s old hats. Nothing in the room looks like me.
By next week, Donna will be gone, her door closed. Only the stuff left in her closet — clothes she’d never wear at school — indicates she lived here again.
In the second week of September I will meet my two blond girlfriends on the corner, and we’ll walk three blocks to high school, begin our junior year. My stomach will be flat in low-slung, hip-hugger jeans with three snaps and wide, elephant pant-legs. I’ll wear a V-neck, white cotton poor-boy T-shirt, and maybe white Dr. Scholl’s. I will have wrapped and rolled and tortured my hair into what approximates straight. For sure I’ll wear my new contacts, and probably too much blue eye shadow.
I can’t believe you’ve actually been gone almost two months! It's practically homecoming (not that I care about those football jerks anyway). How are you? How’s school?
Mom and Dad are the same — Dad’s letting me drive the Volvo (when he’s in the car— duh!). I’m dragging them to Sizzler a lot these days — it’s the only place I can find pudding (I just can’t bring myself to go to Denny’s without you).
I’m doing pretty good on the diet — okay, not as good as this summer, but so far, I can still fit into most of my skinny clothes. I got so many compliments in September that I hate to blow it now. Oh well....
What’s happening with that guy who drives the VW van? He sounds really neat. What does he look like?
Did I tell you we saw them filming Streets of San Francisco? God, I almost died! Michael Douglas is so cute! I actually got a picture of him
UP CLOSE! He was wearing this really cool green velvet suit and I swear, he smiled RIGHT AT ME! Shelly’s sister ran after his car and kissed him, can you believe it? I’m thinking of taking the Al Pacino poster down.
Well, I gotta go. The pre-SAT test is tomorrow and I’m trying to study a little bit (something you’re pretty good at!). Maybe we’ll drive up and see you soon, okay? Meanwhile, think of me when you walk by those great mansions and save me a few leaves, wouldja?