Lauren quit her job to take care of me. I would never have believed it. She brings me sandwiches and soup and sits with me for hours at a time. Sometimes she watches when I sleep. This began in the hospital. She is very patient though they say there is no longer much physically wrong with me. I just feel extremely weak and have these pains in my stomach sometimes and most of all I don't want to leave the room. Desiree's room. I don't like to call it mine, though Lauren already has for a long time.
I will have missed an entire term of high school. I'm hoping to feel well enough to take some courses this summer. My problem is that I want very badly not to go back to Midwood and see Ship and Coop and Allen and the others. Lauren is looking into whether an arrangement could be worked out to permit me to attend one of the neighboring public high schools, maybe Madison. She says I might also be able to get into the Friends school in downtown Brooklyn. A friend of hers works in the admissions office there. I like the idea of Friends because its a Quaker school. I imagine it would be strict and peaceful, not chaotic and loud and dangerous like Midwood.
Ship came by twice but I wouldn't let him come upstairs. I don't want anyone to see my face. Everyone reassures me that the scars are already faded, and that with a little make-up they will be invisible anyway. Lauren brought her make-up kit up one day and I let her work on me, but I remembered Desiree doing the same thing in this room. I started to cry and she had to stop.
Victor is a darling. He comes up immediately when he gets home from work and visits for a little while. Later in the evening, he comes back up and reads to me, as my eyes are not very good yet. I got a bad scratch on one and the other one has blurred in sympathy.
We are reading Portrait of the Artist. I think Victor prefers books he is perfectly familiar with. When he reads a strange one, he sometimes grows quiet and flips pages to make sure no-one dies.
He is a wonderful smart gentleman and very fatherly to me, but I miss his laughter. His laughter and his daughter, which were bound together. When one went so did the other.
April 3, 1971. Dr. Wing wanted me to write every day, but I'm too tired. I felt very good after writing the March 18 entry, but also exhausted and painful. I think I don't actually feel alive most of the time. In January and February I was sedated. Now they have gotten me off the medication but it doesn't actually matter because I am still knocked out all the time. I have considered getting the medicine back; I suspect all I would have to do is make another remark about suicide, like I did in January, and they would start administering pills again. Naturally, after a comment like that, they don't leave the medication here with me; Lauren brings it in and gives it to me a pill at a time, with a false cheerful expression. At those moments, she is a little afraid of me.
Writing brings me back to life, which is what Dr. Wing wanted. That wrinkled Jewish Buddha is smart; I guess he's saved a hundred like me, with his little tricks and sarcastic manner. But feeling alive is very hard and painful; after writing a few words on March 18, I was crying and in a sweat. In the weeks since then I have thought a lot about writing more but I didn't feel good enough until now.
Victor asked if I wouldn't come downstairs, maybe even to the backyard now that the spring is here. It seems awfully indulgent not to leave this room and to make Lauren wait on me hand and foot, except she doesn't seem to mind at all. When I tried to come downstairs in February, I had a panic attack and sat down on the stairs, at the exact spot where last November I overheard Victor and Lauren fighting about sending me away. I went back up and didn't try again until mid-March, when I sat in the kitchen with Victor for an hour. At the end I felt very dizzy, he helped me back up and I haven't gone downstairs since. I promised Victor though that I will keep him company when he works in the garden on the weekend.
April 8, 1971. That didn't go so badly. It was nice to sit in the sun. Victor knelt in the dirt, planted bulbs and talked to me about sea urchins, which he uses in his research at the lab. He wants me to come in to the lab sometimes and help him, but it seems impossibly far and difficult and I wouldn't promise. He rigged a hammock and I lay down in it and fell asleep for an hour or so. I had the blanket up around my face, both in the hammock and when I was sitting in the chair before. He said, "Char, you mustn't hide your face. There's no reason."
I've acquired all new mannerisms; I realized that I mumble more than I talk, and that my hands are always around my face when I don't have something else like a blanket. When I'm not in a vegetative state, I'm this alert, nervous spidery person who talks in jags. Its more comfortable being a vegetable, and sometimes I lie for hours without moving on Desi's bed, though never under the cover, and I don't sleep there.
I frequently don't unfold my couch to sleep, either, but stretch out on it with a blanket. I feel better in a narrow place than I would right now in a big soft one.
May 21, 1971. Ship wrote me a letter. He went to Washington for the May Day demonstrations, and slept by the reflecting pool with hundred of thousands of other people. Victor showed me the photos in the newspaper. Ship wants to come by but I still don't want to see him. Lauren says it would be very nice for me to see people. I think she would like Ship, because she likes the smart, gentle ones like Victor. But I can't see any of them right now, especially not Ship, so that's that.
June 17, 1971. All spring I didn't have any curiosity. I must be feeling better now because I'm starting to wonder about the peculiarities of the mind, and mine in particular. I was in the hospital nearly a month, from December 21 to January 18. The first thing I remember is being in the middle of a conversation with Eugene Sparrow. He was even holding my hand; as soon as I noticed, I took it away. I asked him to call Aunt Betty in Michigan to tell her I wouldn't be able to come on the third of January. Eugene gave me a strange look and told me that it was already the seventh. Also, Betty had come over New Years' and spent two days with me and I had spoken to her. It seems for a week or so in the hospital I conducted conversations with people and functioned, not entirely normally, but like a polite girl in a hospital bed in a lot of pain, who wanted to be courteous to people and didn't want them to feel too badly for her. I have no recollection.
I sit in the backyard every day now, and I eat dinner downstairs with Victor and Lauren, but I still don't want to go out on the street or even sit in front of the house. I feel a powerful terror about certain things, which I know is irrational. Its very self-indulgent and I will try to adopt a more normal routine soon. I'm signed up for some summer classes at Madison which start after July 4th, so that will be my border-crossing. Back into the world.
Adopting me has been their big project. They filed the paperwork in March. Admiral Davis gave them no trouble. My father held them up for a while, until I wrote him a note saying I wanted the Steins to adopt me, whereupon he withdrew his objection. That was the last obstacle and now it is just a matter of bureaucracy and paperwork. I have already started signing myself Charlotte Stein.
Lauren and Victor have both said they love me. Victor is sincere but formulaic; he says it before leaving the room, with a hesitant smile. Lauren is urgent and intense; she throws her arms around me and whispers it into my hair. I love you, Char. I want you to get strong. Please be well.
I call them Victor and Lauren. They haven't asked me to call them Mom and Dad. It would feel false, but perhaps not for very long, as there is something in me that really wants to. Desiree called him Pinky. Back then he was Dr. Stein to me. I can't call him Pinky, since I never did before.
August 19, 1971. I haven't written all summer but that's because everything was going so well. The courses at Madison were a welcome distraction. I met all new people; I won't even walk past Midwood or the hang-out corner at Brooklyn College, or enter the campus, even in the summer, for fear of meeting the people I knew. I can just imagine what they say about me: she turned weird after the car accident. The way they used to talk about that girl Lorraine, who became a Jesus freak.
I had to let Lauren put the make-up on at last, so I could go to school. I didn't know how to do it myself, until she showed me: first the foundation everywhere, to cover my scars. That goes on thick. Then the subtle skin-toned eye shadow in three shades; not the horrible purple stuff that cheap-looking girls wear. Some blush on each cheek so I don't look too pale. Eyebrow pencil. Lipstick. It takes me half an hour to make up my face, and I do it two or three times a day. Since girls like me don't wear make-up these days, I go to school looking like a Young American for Freedom or the daughter of Republicans. We had to do my hair with bangs to hide the scar on my forehead. Different boys talk to me now, boys with military crew-cuts, while the hippies stay away.
Desiree's birthday was June 25. It was a terrible day. I couldn't write about it at the time. Lauren collapsed in the backyard and I ran up to Desiree's bedroom. It was touch and go there for a while as Victor had two crazy, wailing women to calm down. He said that it was a mistake for us to spend Desiree's birthday at home. In the future we will go away on significant dates. I think it is a good idea.
I saw Eugene Sparrow. He had tried to come to the house in the winter and spring, but I turned him away as I did Ship. In March, he sat downstairs for an hour visiting the Steins, but I wouldn't let him come up. I didn't mean to be rude to him, I just couldn't see anybody.
It was one of my better dressed days. When I started summer school, Lauren took me out and bought me an entire wardrobe. She threw out my old jeans and dresses. I still wear jeans sometimes, but new-looking ones, as Lauren wouldn't let me buy the kind that come looking as if they've already been worn; the stone-washed. (I feel stonewashed myself, like the jeans.) Other days, I let her dress me, because it makes her happy. I was walking home from Madison wearing a medium-length floral print skirt and a white blouse. I had a little white hand-bag, but I drew the line at the gloves she wanted to buy me. Eugene called to me from his car. Just like he did one night at the hang-out place last November. I don't ride in cars these days, so he parked---illegally, I might add---and walked me home. He smiled and smiled and couldn't stop saying how much he liked my new look. He said it one too many times and I suddenly understood he was attracted to me. This made me nervous, not because there is any danger with him---he's not the kind of man who would launch himself at me---but because I'm eighteen and he's thirty-two or so and I'm not thinking about boys right now, let alone men. I looked at myself through his eyes and I understood: Lauren, and the necessity of concealing my facial scars, have transformed me into something that looks like a Daughter of the American Revolution, just the kind of girl Sparrow would like to bring home to his mother. I couldn't believe that the scars wouldn't matter; I've already noticed other boys reacting to them, peering curiously through the make-up. So I tried to look through his eyes again, and I understood that my injuries make me interesting to Eugene. In his own mind he is a modern knight of the round table, and I am a wounded girl who needs his help. He lost both his sisters; Susan died and Trelia ran off to California and cut herself off from the family. So perhaps he sees a replacement in me, just as Victor and Lauren do; I can be everybody's do-over, the time they get to do things right.
I figured all this out without even knowing that Eugene had invited me to live in his house, chaperoned by his mother of course. It must have happened during the weeks I don't remember, when I was conducting conversations with people. Betty had not yet arrived, and Victor and Lauren had not yet told anybody they wanted me to stay, though they had already decided.
The fact of Eugene's invitation came out at one point in our conversation. He was startled that I had no recollection.
I had never seen him at a loss for words before. He said a few more times how splendid and grown-up I looked and I thanked him. We were in front of my house and I asked if he would like to come in and say hello to Lauren. He declined and wanted to say something else, but was as shy as Shipwreck ever was. Neither of us had mentioned Desiree. I'm sure he would have liked to talk about her, if only to prolong our contact, but I didn't want to. I haven't yet spoken about her to anyone outside the family.
September 10, 1971. Before writing, I always read my last entry over, and sometimes the whole journal. I just saw that I wrote the word "family" to describe Victor, Lauren and me. It was an honest, unpremeditated use of the word. I did not even notice at the time that I wrote it. I can't stop thinking about it. It seems very remarkable to me that three unrelated people can make a family. I had a vision of a field full of refugees, and an arbitrary authority, some kind of military commander, walking through and arranging them into small groups. "You, you, and you." He lines up an elderly woman, a twenty-five year old man, and a four year old girl. They try to approximate being mother, son, grandchild. When he designates men and women near the same age, they attempt to behave like married couples. Some probably fall in love with each other, while others simply act as honorably as they can. In many of those cases, love probably comes later. When there is a couple, they turn to the other member the commander designated for their little group, and figure out a relationship: very young children become their offspring, while older ones become a spouse's younger sibling. Older people become parents and in-laws. There is nothing about this fantasy that could not work. In fact, people in displaced person camps probably do something similar anyway, without a commander telling them.
Betty came for a few days at the end of the summer. She stayed with us (I sensed this made Lauren a little nervous, as if she feared I might still go off with Betty. I should be very flattered.) Betty slept in Desiree's bed, and I lay there to talk with her as I used to with Desiree. I suddenly saw that in a way they are very similar. Betty is a big red-headed woman with a loud laugh and an exuberant manner. She isn't fat, just very big-framed and larger than life. I think she's quite dramatic and beautiful. Like Desiree was.
We had an amazing conversation. I have only met Betty four times in my life; the first time I was too young to remember, the second time I was twelve, the third was last January when I was in the hospital, during the period of lost time. So I only recall the visit in New York when I was twelve and already living at the Davises. Women have this facility, I guess, of being instantly intimate with one another. We lay in bed and she told me her life story, about being childhood friends with my mom, and losing touch with her when she left Akron, Ohio to marry my dad; visiting us in New Mexico when I was three; her own marriage and move to Michigan; visiting me in New York when I was twelve, after mom died; divorce and nursing school. I learned many facts about my mom that I didn't already know. She wore Chanel no. 5 (which Lauren also wears.) She loved gardenias. Classical music in the key of G minor made her cry. She could read French.
Betty said that it was a very strange experience, to resolve that I would live with her, and then relinquish me again. When I called her in December, her first reaction was that it was impossible: her apartment was too small, she didn't make enough money, she was hoping to meet someone and marry again. But she believed, as she said, that my mother would have walked through flames for her, and she felt selfish and cheap. So she called me back and said of course I could come. In fact, when my mother died, she had briefly daydreamed about volunteering to take me, but there were too many obstacles: her difficult husband, and the likelihood that I would be much better off with my father and his parents. After speaking with me, she re-organized her life during the next ten days. She bought a convertible couch, arranged for me to attend school, and got back on the day shift at the hospital. She bought some plants and even some stuffed animals, and she says she began to long for me. First she had felt she wasn't equal to the burden, then she acted out of duty to my mother, and then she began to love me and anticipate my arrival in her house.
When she came to New York, Victor told her that he wanted to keep me. She had already seen me, and engaged in a long conversation with my surgeon about when and how I could be moved to Michigan. Since everyone knew I would be well enough to leave the hospital within ten days or so, the problem was that I wasn't mentally ready to travel. Betty had arrived thinking she would take me right back with her, but when she saw me, it wasn't clear I would be able to fly without becoming hysterical. She thought about renting a car and driving me home in easy stages, so we could stop in motels and rest along the way, but everyone thought I might be phobic about riding in automobiles too. (They were right.) She was so eager to get me home that it was already an act of renunciation to ask Victor if I could return to his house for a few more weeks until I was ready. It was then that Victor told her that he and Lauren wanted to keep me.
Betty says that she immediately knew that it was the right thing to do. I had already lived with them for three months and I had been in Brooklyn for six years. They were a couple and she was single, they had more money than she did and a bigger place. The Steins were a bit frightened of her; they now wanted me very badly and she was the only one who might offer any resistance. Instead, she gave them her blessing, after talking to me about it. I apparently told her I wanted to stay.
Betty felt very lonely when she went home. "I had set my heart on you," she said. But now she is dating a man again and thinking of marriage, and there is no guarantee that could have happened if I lived with her, because he might have been frightened off.
After she left, I thought how remarkable it was that my mother's best friend was so similar to my own best friend. You can't even exactly say that my mother and I chose the same type, because Desiree chose me.
Victor and Lauren had to tell me twice that they wanted me to stay. The first time, which must have been a very dramatic scene, happened during my missing weeks. Victor came in first, and told me shyly. He says I asked him about Lauren, presumably because I knew that Victor had always been willing to keep me, and Lauren had been the sole voice in opposition. He said she was waiting outside and wanted to talk to me. He left, she came in, and (as she told me recently) began kissing my hands and crying. I don't remember but the image seems familiar to me: my hands held in someone else's and wet with tears.
After I really became conscious, in the middle of a conversation with Eugene, it became clear to him that I did not remember any of this. He called Victor and Lauren, who came in and spoke with me again.
The first time around, I was calm and unemotional, as I apparently was in all my dealings during the missing weeks. The second time, I was terribly upset, because
October 15, 1971. I couldn't finish that last, and won't now either.
It is now within a week or two of the anniversary of the day I moved in with the Steins. No-one seems to know the exact date. It was a weekday, because we cut school, but I don't know which, nor if it was the third or fourth week in October. Looking at last years' calendar doesn't help. Victor says it was the third week, Lauren says the fourth. Admiral Davis would probably know; I'm sure he had a party that night.
That's not fair. I know he didn't have a party. I cannot forgive that bitter, cruel old man, but I don't have to make him out worse than he is.
If this is an anniversary, we should have gone out of town, according to Victor's rule. I keep seeing two seventeen year old girls meeting in the Brooklyn College quadrangle, and then my mind slides away into silence. I cannot think of her. I try to comfort myself by thinking about Victor and Lauren instead. I want to write "my parents". Why shouldn't I? This is a journal---a glorified name for a diary---and I can write any fantasy I want, can't I? So I think instead about my parents, and it helps not to know the date I moved in with them, because that way it is simply "a long time", which is close to a very pleasant fantasy of "forever", and then there was no time before. But if I take it too far I will forget Desiree. If I write "my parents" I will forget her, because they are her parents, not mine.
I had a panic attack. I have just come back from the bathroom. Who said words can never hurt you? Words are stones.
October 22, 1971. Dr. Wing died. I hadn't seen him since August, which is a good thing. I'm glad he waited until now, because if he had done it last spring, I don't think I could have handled it. (What a morbid thing to say, but I can't take it back.) I saw him every day in the hospital, then spoke to him three times a week on the phone afterwards, as I refused to go out to his office and he didn't make house calls. He wasn't a traditional Freudian therapist; he was an alternative figure of some kind, with a bit of P.T. Barnum about him, who popped out of the woodwork when Midwood High School lost so many students and recent alumni in one accident. He worked with the survivors and counseled the school. He was an expert in teenage death, suicide and grief. I think I have written that he was old and wrinkled like Buddha, and smiled like him too. He was completely familiar with all of the ways and means by which young people dispose of themselves; he could discuss with you why this would be painful or that would not work. Of course, he was just trying to manipulate you into not doing it. His trademark phrase, as I learned in talking to another girl he had counseled, was, "Do you have a plan?" Apparently having a plan distinguishes the ones who would really do it from the masses who dream about it but never would. I had a plan, I just didn't have a date. I would buy a sharp knife---I didn't want to use one of Lauren's, or Victor's shaving razor---and cut my wrists in a really hot bath. I used to lie in the bathtub in Desiree's bathroom, luxurious in a mound of bubbles, holding my arms out straight and imagining. I have these thin little wrists and they wouldn't have been hard to cut. But I never could decide to do it, because even at the outset, I was much too concerned with what it would do to Victor and Lauren. To lose another daughter. Lauren was very frightened for me. She would come into my room---Desiree's room---and put her arms around me and hold me for hours. Sometimes I slept. I loved her perfume---I didn't remember then that it had also been my mother's. She smelled nothing like her daughter, the sagebrush queen. In the end I suspect I am still alive because of Lauren's arms and Chanel no. 5.
Dr. Wing jumped from the ledge of his office in the Williamsburg Savings Bank Building in downtown Brooklyn. The one with the large clock. You could say that Dr. Wing took wing. They covered it up---there was even one incredibly stupid story that went around that he accidentally fell while trying to save a cat, or a child, from the ledge. They were very frightened that it would trigger a wave of suicides among his clients. It didn't. Would he have been disappointed?
I remember his calm, engaging manner; you sensed that death did not frighten him, in fact that he was very interested in it. Now we know why. Perhaps he was like me, simply deferring his own suicide from week to week because of other people. Something must have happened; his interest in his patients fell below some critical threshold, and he went.
I am trying not to be overthrown by this. I haven't thought about killing myself since last June. By the time I started going to summer school, I was past it. But on the anniversary of my move into the Stein household, I ask myself why I am, and whether I have a right to be.
October 24, 1971. I spoke too soon. I am fascinated by the image of Dr. Wing on the ledge. According to a witness quoted in the Daily News, he took a few preparatory bounces. Like me jumping for joy on my window ledge. Then he toppled over.
I bathed last night and had the old fantasy about my wrists. Am I drawn to death again, or was I testing the wound to see if it is healed?
Why did the man have to kill himself on the anniversary of my arrival in the Stein household?
One of his patients has in fact committed suicide. The newspaper called her the "Death Doc Disciple". Am I also a disciple of the death doctor?
I thought about throwing this book away, as he gave it to me. But its mine now; I made it mine by writing in it.
There is a hole, like a vacuum in the middle of life. I look at Victor, and Lauren, and myself. A few weeks ago I said we were a family. I meant it then, but now I think I was ridiculously naïve. Wanting it doesn't make it so. That's what it all boils down to for me. If three people wishing to be a family can be one. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
We cannot stay where we are. The hole in the middle of life may cause us to cleave closer to each other, or it may rip us apart. We'll know by January.
I saw a bumper sticker on someone's car yesterday. "Let Go Let God." I keep saying it over to myself.
I just took a few minutes off and went out in the backyard and looked at the moon. Its cold outside, a bracing fall cold, like the night of the day I met Desi. I always loved the autumn, but I fear it now. Victor came outside with me. We looked at the harvest moon and didn't speak.
I came back and re-read this entry and I know it is highly irrational. A stranger reading this would think I am coming apart at the seams. So I tried to analyze my superstition and I couldn't dispel it, but I was able to separate it into elements.
That leaves three questions.
November 2, 1971. I went to see a priest Lauren knows. Victor doesn't practice Judaism, and I know nothing about it, while Admiral Davis used to take us to church sometimes. Lauren stays away from religion mostly, so as not to displease Victor, but once or twice a year she sneaks away to an Episcopal church in Brooklyn Heights. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
The Reverend John Harville is an old friend of Lauren's. I made an appointment to see him. I still won't get in a car if I don't have to; I took the subway to the Heights, which is quite frightening in itself, especially if it grinds and roars, but at least it isn't claustrophobic. We met in a pleasant little room in the church basement; I examined his books while I waited for him. St. Augustine, Teilhard de Chardin, Thoreau, Darwin.
He came in. He is a square-jawed man about sixty, still very forceful and strong. He smelled of shaving-cream; Old Spice, which Victor also uses. He said, "What can I do for you, Charlotte?"
I said, "I want to know where God is in what happened to Desiree."
He said, "I don't know."
And he delivered a pleasant homily about not looking for reasons in the events in our lives. He related how he had lost a brother to violence, shot dead by a mugger on a Brooklyn street in the early hours of the morning. He had examined his choices: He could believe that God had never existed or that He was dead. He could believe that God was evil, a malicious killer and torturer of men. He could engage in weak rationalizing, that God had taken his brother for a particular mysterious purpose. He chose another pathway: since he needed to believe in Him, he simply withdrew the question. It would be possible, he said, to believe in a God who did not intervene personally in our lives, but he was not prepared to go that far; he reached no conclusion; he simply withdrew the question. And he had been happy and at peace with himself ever since.
"I can't do that," I said. I knew then that I would never stop asking.
I thanked him and returned on the train. Walking home from the Avenue M station, I stopped by a playground and sat on a swing, watching bundled up mothers keep an eye on their children at play. I reviewed Dr. Harville's choices, and I found that it was easier for me to conclude that God did not exist. Otherwise he had punished me and killed Desi for no reason. I could not abide the idea that God might be like Admiral Davis, petty and cruel, or irrational like my father. If there was no God, then what happened wasn't personal, it wasn't aimed at us, it was just like marbles colliding in a children's game. The Brownian motion of molecules bouncing off one another.
I went home and fell asleep feeling peaceful, and I woke the same way, and I still do a few days later. So I guess I found my answer to number 2.
Question number three then answered itself. If Desiree wanted me to stay, and God wasn't out to get me, then the best way not to hurt Victor and Lauren was to do what I was already doing, but more of it. Not to hold back. To love them.
Number four was not a question. It was a statement: I didn't matter. Since I don't matter, I could decide my code of conduct based entirely on the answer to number 3.
November 16, 1971. I forgot to mention that I went to the Friends' school. It is the right place for me: strict but kind. Even here some of the kids are hippies but there are quite a few like me. I have fallen easily into that persona, because it requires minimal work to let people continue to believe that you are what their eyes tell them. That doesn't mean I have to be in favor of the war or anything. The Quakers certainly aren't. They won't even let the younger boys play games involving guns or violence. I have friends here, especially a pleasant fat girl named Bridget who seeks me out, like Desiree did. I don't have to speak much. I didn't before. I have been over to Bridget's house and her mother adores me too, and I can't really understand it. It seems all I have to do is show up and there are people willing to love me when I don't give them anything in return.
It wasn't always that way. For years I lived tightly constrained on my window ledge. It was only when Desiree brought me home that I discovered that there were such people in the world. By that time I was someone who wouldn't rescue a kitten for fear I would have to share dinner with it. And here was Desi bringing me home like a kitten, to share her parents with me.
This is what I couldn't write about before. I sometimes think of myself as a little inert ocean organism, like a barnacle. For years on end it was low tide, and I learned to live on a little brine blown to me in the breeze. Then, when I thought I no longer needed it, the tide came in. Desiree, Victor and Lauren, Betty, and Eugene all wanted me. I don't know what to make of it, or how to respond. I haven't had to, because not one of them has as yet asked me for anything in return.
If Lauren would only yell at me, once. We're too perfect to be a family. Families are founded on knowledge. The man and woman who think they love me have no idea who I am. Nor does anyone else in the world, under all that foundation, eye shadow, lipstick and blush.
November 20, 1971. I feel as if I took Desiree's life. Yes, I'm aware that has a double meaning. If I had been at the wheel of the car it would have been the tub and knife for me long before this. I have to keep reminding myself I was only a passenger. Since the last thing I remember is settling my guitar on top of Tommy McPherson in the back seat, I can't be certain that I didn't encourage Desi to be reckless in some way. Except that I never once did, that I can recall.
She was a happy teenage girl with parents who loved her. Now her parents love me, I sign my name Stein, I live in Desiree's room. Desi is gone and I am their daughter. This is the path I couldn't let my thoughts go down all this year. I have no right to be here.
I have often wished that I had died instead of her. It would have made so much more sense. She had people who loved and needed her and I had no-one. She was anchored and I was adrift in the world. It is no criticism to say that Desi would have gotten over my death much more easily than I will over hers. That sounds all wrong and vain, in a way; but it is perfectly natural. She was healthy and optimistic, and I was and am morbid and spidery. Of course, she would have had a harder time in one way: she was driving the car.
Even before I decided that I don't believe in God, I didn't know how to pray. But over and over again last winter, I closed my eyes and wished just as hard as I could that I could go back and that there would be a different outcome. I would have been happier to die in the street and let Desi wake up to see her parents. There wouldn't have been any hole in their life that way.
Let Go Let God.
Less work for me.
There was a time last spring when I didn't think I was going to be able to handle the guilt about taking Desiree's place in the family. Then I remembered something she said. I only knew Desi for less than a year, and we were only really close for the three months we lived together, but we talked enough that I have a store of her sayings and thoughts that I can go to when I need them. I must not forget anything. The sayings of chairman Desi. I must write everything down. I've had this book since January, but up until now I couldn't write anything about her. I wrote around her, instead. About me. Selfish. I don't count.
When I went shopping with Lauren and wondered if Desiree was jealous, Desiree said that she could not be jealous of me, because she knew I would never hurt her. Thinking about this helped me get through the spring.
November 21, 1971. On October 24, I wrote, "What does Desiree want?" If a stranger ever reads this journal, that will be one of several bits of evidence that I am morbid, if not actually crazy. A normal human being making a successful re-entry to the world would have written, "What would Desiree have wanted?" I have left out all of the nuances and transitions, but I have come to the conclusion that in some way, Desiree is alive. I don't mean that she didn't die in the crash, that there has been some conspiracy or anything irrational like that. It is just that she is still there, in our room, in the house, in the backyard, in the autumn air, in the moon shining through her skylight, and in my dreams. She was silent all year, because my heart was not ready for her, but now it is and she is back.
I wrote about that first dream in which she was shrieking. I have dreamed about her again. In the second one she was muttering, as if she had had a bad shock. But then she saw me, and smiled. The next time, she was quiet. Reflective once, happy once. She keeps me company. In one dream, I came into her room and she was kneeling on a chair, looking out the window. Her back to me. I wanted to go to her, touch her hair, smell her beautiful sagebrush scent.
I am crying now. There is only one person I want to hug and I can never hug her again.
I haven't written about the closet. I wouldn't let Victor take her things away, and I wouldn't hang my own stuff in there. He relented and bought me a free-standing wardrobe which we moved into the corner where the record player used to be. I am afraid to touch Desiree's things because if I do, if I hold her shirts to my face, I will eventually replace her scent on them with my own. I want so badly to take her favorite big flannel shirt in my arms, to hug it instead of her, to sleep with it. Instead, I open her closet and lean in and smell her. I dole it out to myself as a reward. I am afraid to count on it too much. Smells don't last forever. I could try and counterfeit it, but then it would be only a counterfeit. Desiree wore these shirts.
November 23, 1971. I was able to think about my guitar as a stepping stone to remembering Desiree. For a few weeks, earlier this fall, I found myself recalling the guitar at every turn. It was a used acoustic I bought with my savings from a job at Dooley's art store. I was very nervous about playing it at Admiral Davis' house, but at Desi's I practiced every day. I was decent; I don't think I ever would have been great at it, even if I'd started earlier. Desi loved to listen to me. I rarely took it out of the house, but for some reason I brought it to the party that night.
I never heard anything about the guitar after the accident, and I don't think I ever asked about it. I tried to take it in the front seat with me, but ended up balancing it on top of Tommy McPherson in the back. He was very drunk, which is why Desi was driving his car. I remember being afraid that Tommy would break my guitar or throw up on it. But I didn't want to put it in the trunk either, for fear it would slide around and get damaged.
When I first started to think about the guitar, in September, I had the absurd thought that it made it through the crash, somehow, and was stolen from the scene, or was never returned to me because no-one realized it is mine. I imagined it in a police evidence locker somewhere.
Of course, there is no way the guitar survived. Tommy McPherson was crushed to death in the back seat. I was thrown through the windshield.
December 5, 1971. I did it: I called Victor Dad, and he was very pleased. I had decided to do it, and then (like the time I decided to caress Shipwreck's hand, and could not) every time I tried to, I froze. So I stopped thinking about it, and a day later, it just popped out. He walked me to the subway in the morning and I kissed him, and suddenly, instead of saying, "I love you, Victor," I said, "I love you, dad." His whole face lit up. The man was one huge smile.
It won't be as easy with Lauren. I'll have to ask her first.
December 7, 1971. I did. Now that I am in school, she has gone back to work, as a copy editor at Little, Brown. I get home before her, and defrost things, and cut vegetables. Sometimes I cook dinner, more often we do it together. She came in and while she was still taking off her coat, I said, "Lauren, I would like to call you mom if its all right." And she came to me, took my hands and said, "I didn't want to say anything, but I was hoping you would."
December 21, 1971. I didn't think I would be able to write anything today. Dad and Mom took me out of school a few days early, and we came up here to Woodstock, Vermont, and are in a beautiful old inn. There is a dining room table downstairs made from a single huge tree trunk. We eat pancakes every morning with local maple syrup. Dad went to Killington one day to go skiing and Mom stayed with me. I won't try it because I am afraid of heights, speed and being out of control, which about covers it. I did try snow-shoeing, but my knee soon hurt and I had to come back. We take short walks through the woods every day.
January 1, 1972. We are still in Woodstock----we'll be driving back tomorrow. We celebrated New Years' Eve with some other people in the inn. Lauren---Mom---drank several glasses of champagne and for the first time, spoke of Desiree as my sister. I have probably made it clear that Lauren is a very buttoned-up person, and so it was a shock. "Your sister," she said, "would have loved it here."
I found an excuse to leave the table, went into the bathroom, and thought. The Steins have adopted me. I am Charlotte Stein and they are legally my Mom and Dad. If Desiree was alive, she would actually be my sister. I never thought of it before. But if Desiree were alive, they would not have adopted me. I would be in Michigan with Betty.
Desiree kissed me once, like a lover. It is the only sexual kiss I have ever received from someone who loved me. Beside Desiree, there were two boys who didn't matter. That kiss was a revelation and it might have led to something more. I had as much as decided it would before I left for Michigan.
But if I had been given a choice, I would have renounced that in a second in order to have a place to live. And to be her sister. I told her as much at the time.
January 15, 1972. I just re-read the whole journal and realized that I haven't described my injuries in any detail. I have only mentioned that I have scars.
I was in a car that was hit twice. The first collision was with a car ahead of ours. I was apparently not seriously hurt, but was knocked unconscious. (I do not remember the accident at all---my last memory is putting my guitar in the back seat, on top of Tommy McPherson. I am told this is not unusual.) A few moments later, another car hit ours from behind, traveling at high speed. I flew through the windshield, receiving major cuts to my face, shoulders, and back. I slid across the hood of the car in front---it was stopped lengthwise to us---and fell under it while it was still moving forward, suffering a fractured skull, a broken arm and leg and some internal injuries such as a perforated spleen. I was taken to the hospital and surgery was performed to relieve pressure on my brain and deal with my internal injuries. I received hundreds of stitches in my face and elsewhere.
I do not look like a monster. My face is not distorted, nothing droops. I have a highly visible tear in my right eye-lid, which I cover with three tones of eye shadow. A year after the accident, the scars on my face are faint but visible even under the make-up. When I am emotional, when I blush, they become livid. The scar on my forehead is worse than those on my face, but it is covered by my bangs.
Something was smashed in my right knee. I had two more surgeries last spring to try and correct it, so I spent almost half the year in and out of casts and walking with a cane. I haven't needed the cane since June but I still walk awkwardly, dragging my right foot a bit. I have good days and bad; some days the knee only twinges, others it is excruciating and I take codeine.
I look like a normal girl if you don't stare at me too closely. Seated, with my make-up on, I am like anyone else.
January 29, 1972. I haven't really written anything about the accident, either. There were four cars involved. It happened at about ten thirty at night on an entrance ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, in a freezing rain which had formed ice on the roadway. The ramp is, I am told, badly designed in the first place; it is too steep and has a blind curve at the bottom, so there have been numerous accidents there even under normal conditions. Vehicles on the ramp must yield to traffic on the highway, so cars coming down routinely hit others waiting for an opening in the highway traffic just on the far side of the blind curve.
We had all left a party on East 18th Street and were driving to another in Bay Ridge. We were "convoying", and three or four car lengths separated each vehicle from the next. Car number one was driven by James Fowler, a Brooklyn College student. He sped up on the ramp as an act of juvenile bravado, lost control at the bottom and spun around, blocking the ramp. Desiree also accelerated on the ramp, as she had seen Jim do a moment before. At the bottom, we ran into Jim's car. Car number three was driven by John Chalfin, another Brooklyn College student. He managed to miss both vehicles but to hit Desiree (which raises all kinds of questions I will discuss later.) I don't know how fast he was going. The fourth vehicle was a stolen car (though we didn't know it at the time) driven by Maury Halloran, one of the Apple Bonkers, a boy Desi and I knew as Big Moe. They later estimated that he was traveling at sixty or seventy miles an hour when he plowed into our car and Jim's.
Jim, Desi, Tommy McPherson (passed out in the back of our car---actually, it was his), and Big Moe all died. John Chalfin was not injured. I flew out the windshield, etc.
Tommy was very drunk but was not driving. I believe Desiree was completely straight, because I didn't see her drink or smoke anything at the party. John Chalfin was never tested. Big Moe had three times the legal alcohol in his blood, as well as traces of methedrine (speed). I saw him snorting it earlier in the evening with Brian Hanrahan and several of the Apple Bonkers. Big Moe was speeding and speeding when he hit us.
I was the only person who was hit inside a vehicle who lived. Jim was killed by a piece of metal which came loose from his car. Tommy was crushed. Big Moe was decapitated.
I broke the windshield with my head because I was already unconscious, otherwise I would have put my hands up and had all different injuries.
I know all this because I called Eugene Sparrow. He wanted to have dinner with me and I arranged for us to have lunch instead, on a Saturday. Mom got really excited, as if it was a date. You have to stop and think a minute to realize how pathetic and ridiculous this is. Under normal circumstances, Mom wouldn't be thrilled by a daughter of hers dating Eugene Sparrow. Mom comes from Philadelphia, she married a university professor, and would want me to be the wife of a senator, if not actually First Lady of the United States. Mom was just glad to get Char out of her room. Char has one girlfriend, Bridget, whom she sees after school but rarely on weekends, and she hasn't shown any interest in boys since the accident. Char probably wouldn't have shown any interest even if she didn't have these scars or drag her right foot. All her time and attention, as far as Mom knows, goes to her schoolwork. She studies all day every Saturday and half of Sunday; Mom and Dad eventually come and interrupt her and drag her to a meal or a movie.
I suggested to Eugene that we go to the Caravelle on Avenue M, your traditional Greek diner with hundreds of dishes on the menu. He actually put on a blue sports jacket and tie for me. He came to the house and sat awkwardly in the kitchen for a few minutes, while Mom chattered brightly at him. She can be such a goose sometimes. Then he drove me to the diner. Yes, I go in cars sometimes now, for doctor's appointments and the like, but not on the highway and not fast. He was a gentleman and he drove very slowly down Avenue M.
I think he was disappointed when I told him I wanted to talk about the accident. The day I ran into him after summer school last July I thought he was sweet on me, and his behavior today confirmed it. He was nervous, complimentary, forced many smiles. He had obviously made up a whole story about why I wanted to see him.
I knew that he got the radio call and arrived on the scene before they even took me away in the ambulance, and that he spent a few days afterwards investigating the accident.
Now I can't avoid saying it any more: Desi left the car. She left me in the car. I wanted to see Eugene in the hope he could shed some light on this.
I don't remember when I first heard the details of the accident; it seems as if I have always known them. I probably learned them soon after being told that Desi was dead---which I had to be told twice, once during the missing weeks, the second time by Eugene a few minutes after he told me that it was January seventh, that Betty had been and gone, etc. So I had known for a year that Desiree was standing or running in the road, out of the car, when John Chalfin hit her.
For a year, I had been telling myself that it didn't mean that Desi was a coward, or that she didn't care about me. I made up scenarios:
Any of which would be much more acceptable than:
When Kennedy was assassinated, I remember seeing the Zapruder film, and noticing how Jackie tried to climb out of the car when the bullet hit her husband. The official story was that she was going for help. Yes, and Dr. Wing was trying to retrieve a kitten from a ledge on the thirtieth floor.
February 10, 1972. I got tired and emotional and my scars lit up. I didn't have to look in the mirror: I can feel the flush in my face when it happens. So I couldn't write any more.
There was another question which was important to me, and it is not the one you probably think it is. You would probably expect me to be very angry that Desiree accelerated on the ramp. It was a foolish and dangerous thing to do, but it was all Desiree. She probably laughed that loud, wonderful laugh as she did it. I can't say I have forgiven her for it because I never blamed her in the first place.
There is something else, though. Although Jim Fowler was driving a Lincoln Continental, which is a big car, he couldn't have blocked the whole ramp, even if the Lincoln was at a perfect right angle to us. The proof that he didn't is that Chalfin didn't hit him; he would have sailed by unscathed, with about fifteen or twenty feet clearance, if he hadn't hit Desi. So this means that Desi also could have missed Fowler.
Eugene had two theories to offer me. Desi was not as experienced a driver as Chalfin; she may have concentrated on braking rather than steering, hoping to come to a full stop before hitting the Lincoln. Another possibility is that our car lost traction and slid rightwards on the ice, into the Lincoln. There's no way to know; Chalfin didn't see what happened before he got there, and I don't remember.
Dad told me the quantum physics parable of Schrodingers' Cat. Until you open the box, the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously. There is no way to open this particular box.
I lie on my bed---Desiree's bed---and go over and over these things until I have a migraine. Suppose the worst is true, and Desi panicked and ran and left me there? She was a seventeen year old girl. Everyone can have a bad moment. It wouldn't have meant anything, just an accident she wasn't prepared for. It doesn't make her less loving and brave at other moments. Yes, I keep telling myself, Desi had the courage to bring me home, to defend and to love me. She would have done anything for me. I remember her shrieking inside the house the day I told her I was going to Michigan.
March 2, 1972. The afternoon I spent with Eugene Sparrow was so complicated it has taken me three entries, and three months, to describe it. After lunch, he asked me to marry him. He said, "Charlotte, I was really glad you called, because I've been thinking about you a lot. I was going to call you and ask if you would see me, because I realized recently that I love you."
"You love me," I said stupidly. Like mom, echoing back comments. I used to think it was sarcasm.
"I want to marry you," he said. I discovered I was holding my hands over my face, the way I used to do all last year when I wouldn't come out of the house. Not over my eyes: I had one hand across my mouth and the other blocking the cheek that has the worse scars. So he reached over and took my hands, but I took them away as quickly as possible.
It was a very conventional conversation, I think. I said, "Eugene, I like you and I'm very flattered. But you don't know me."
"I know everything I need to know."
"You told me once I was a good girl." I was remembering an incident about a month before the accident, when he had stopped me at the Brooklyn College hang-out place, to tell me in his role as policeman that I was a good girl in with a bad crowd. He didn't like Desiree and thought she was going to get me in trouble. By which he meant drugs. Not flying face-first through a windshield.
"I think you're a wonderful girl."
"I'm not. You only think so because I've behaved politely to you. I'm jealous and mean and I don't think I have the capacity to love."
He looked startled and said, "Well, maybe you feel that way because nobody loved you."
"A lot of people love me: the Steins do, and Aunt Betty. Desiree did. I don't understand why. I'm not worth it."
"You're worth it to me."
"I think you're having some kind of a rescue fantasy. You probably collect lost kittens and wounded birds."
He winced. I figured out later that those are among the worst words you can say to a cop---they're all afraid of being thought too soft to do the job. "I'm no social worker," he said.
"Well, you're behaving exactly like one." I had found the line to pursue if I wanted him to back away.
"I guess you're saying no."
I didn't need to keep talking, because it only softened the impact, but I said, "Anyway, I'm only eighteen and I haven't even gone to college yet."
It turned out he had our whole lives planned. We would get married immediately and live together anywhere I wanted (anywhere he could afford, of course) within commuting distance of Brooklyn. He would continue working as a detective while I went to college. After that, he told me, he wanted to leave the job and go to law school. It was very important to him that I know that he didn't always plan to be a cop: he wanted something better.
I said, "I'm eighteen, and I'm not ready to think about this. I haven't even thought about men in a year, and I'm not ready to leave the Steins' house." So I ended up giving him a much softer answer than I intended, and leaving him somewhat hopeful. There is no doubt he will ask me again. He has called twice since, and I spent half an hour on the phone with him each time, but I haven't agreed to see him again.
When he took me home, he hovered, hoping I would kiss him, but I didn't and he refrained from pushing himself at me. He's on the good-looking side. I would say he's not my type except I have no idea what my type is. It is certain that I don't love him or even feel any sexual desire around him. I haven't felt anything for anybody since the accident.
I had sex about eight or nine times with two boys, before I moved in with Desiree. I relied on them for protection. Desi took me to Planned Parenthood and got me on the pill, as she was. I took the pills faithfully every day, but I never went with anyone. The pills were lost along with my handbag in the accident, and I haven't taken anything since. Or needed to.
I came in and told mom that Eugene had proposed. She was arranging flowers in a vase, and stopped still and looked at me. Surprised, very alert, flattered for me, afraid of what I would say next. I told her I said no and she sagged with relief. "You were right, Char. You're too young to get married. And you'll meet and fall in love with someone more from your own background when you do." Background is such an interesting word.
April 11, 1972. Undeniably, I look very pretty, with my make-up and my bangs. From a distance, and not walking. Dad showed me some photographs of a barbecue he had for faculty friends in the backyard, and I make a lovely figure in the middle distance. In one, I am laughing at a silly joke Dr. Kohler made, and looking at it I can almost see how Eugene fell in love with me.
I have a picture of Desiree which I stole from her my first night in this house. Of course, there are many other photos of her, whole albums-full that Dad took and that we never look at because it is too painful. But the most special one, my favorite, is the one she showed me that night. It was taken at camp. She was D'Artagnan in a play, with a painted mustache and goatee, and is brandishing a wooden sword. She is laughing, that wonderful explosive laugh that made the pigeons fly away. When she showed me the picture, I didn't return it to her, but slipped it into The Red Badge of Courage, which we were reading for school. I still keep it in that book.
Desiree didn't think she was beautiful; she thought her nose was too big. She had bushy black eyebrows, which contrasted strangely with her dark blonde hair. She could have plucked and dyed them, but she wouldn't. Mom used to nag her sometimes about having a nose job. Desiree thought she had a "man face". I thought she was the most beautiful, dramatic girl I ever met. I conserved energy, she expended it at every moment.
Desiree knew she was very sexy, though. She always said you didn't have to have a pretty face to be sexy. She was aware of it because all the boys were after her every minute. She said once she was one of the trophy girls of Midwood High School: she had been with each of the most handsome, sought after boys, and no-one but them. Brian Hanrahan. John Chalfin (yes, she had slept with the boy who ran her over.) Tom St. Clair. I won't list the others.
She said another time that she was a kite and I was the rock it was tied to. I kept her from flying away (except I didn't, in the end.) It was a startlingly inept analogy; it worked fine for her, but it had nothing to do with me. What does a kite do for a rock? Makes its life more interesting, I suppose. If pressed at the time, I probably would have said that I was like a remora to her shark: she swam through life feeding, and I clung to her and got a free dinner.
Sometimes, in extremely morbid moods, I think of Desiree in her grave. How she would look right now, if dug up. Then I want to vomit, run from the house, bang my already scarred forehead on the metal trunk of the street-light outside.
Dr. Wing warned me I would have thoughts like this. (Of course, the good doctor himself looks none too pretty right now.) He said it was "normal." I find at such moments that looking at Desi's picture helps. I have a mantra I say to myself: "Desiree Stein is alive." I say it over and over and eventually, I calm down.
Why bury people? Its so barbaric. I thought, back in the knife and tub days, about leaving a note saying I wanted to be cremated. But I imagined the flames and was afraid they would hurt. When I told this to Dr. Wing, he all but shouted, "Aha!" Fear of pain after death is a pretty good indication you don't really want to kill yourself, I suppose. But then that makes me even more a hypocrite. The knife and tub were just an act.
So this leaves us with an astronomical phenomenon, two stars rotating each other, like Mizar in the Big Dipper, which dad showed me in his 4.5 inch reflector telescope from the backyard:
The skull beneath the skin. I remember that Allen once took some bad acid, laced with strychnine, and imagined that his skull was eating its way out of his face.
May 4, 1972. Today is the second anniversary of the killings at Kent State. Four students shot down by the National Guard while demonstrating against Nixon's war. Mom and Dad let me light a candle for the dead at dinner.
I had joined in the student strike the next day at Midwood. Shipwreck had a bullhorn and was leading the marchers in a chant. "One, two, three, four, we won't fight your fucking war." I think that's how I met him. I always like people who show a bit of fire. I have none.
The hateful dean of girls recognized me and called Admiral Davis---he was a well-respected figure at the school, where a lot of the older men teachers had fought in WWII. When the admiral threw me out of his house, the only specific example of my malfeasance he cited was my participation in the Kent State demonstration.
I dreamed of Desiree last night, for the first time in months. She had her back to me, and every time I walked around her to see her face, she turned away from me. I thought she was angry, and I ran around her very quickly and this time caught a glimpse of her wonderful smile before she turned away again.
May 22, 1972. I had a terrible shock today. Mom alluded to the fact that she and dad tried to have another baby. They haven't used birth control from last June, when they knew I was going to be all right, until now.
It came out in a strange way. Dr. Kohler's wife Linda just had a baby yesterday and it was diagnosed at birth as a mongoloid. Linda Kohler is forty-one years old, and apparently babies born to women later in life have a tendency to have problems. Mom is only thirty-nine, but was badly frightened by what happened to Linda, and she and dad talked it over and decided to stop trying. Since eleven months without birth control hadn't resulted in mom getting pregnant, they suspected there were other problems, so they were at a crossroads. If they hadn't stopped, they would have had to start seeing fertility doctors, taking drugs, and all that.
Mom told me while we were making dinner and I was very careful to respond correctly, commiserate with her, and say the right things. I even told her I would have liked to have a baby brother or sister. But I escaped back up to my room as soon as I could after dinner, to think about it.
I am very upset. I have the sense I just had a very close call. With the best intentions in the world, mom and dad would have loved me less if they had another baby of their own. It would have been their flesh, and I am not. I have heard so many stories that prove this. I would have receded back into the corner, the rock to another kite. That wouldn't have been so terrible, I guess; I am used to the role and I do it so well. But for a moment a wizened little devil poked its head out of my breast and said, I have had all the sun until now.
Proving (as if it needed proof) that what I told Eugene was right: I am jealous and mean.
I fell asleep about an hour ago, and woke with a start, thinking about Desiree. In the first dream in which I saw her, she was screaming, like a baby. In the second, she was moaning and hiccuping, as if she had just quieted down from a tantrum. In the third, she was looking out the window intently, like a baby watching the shifting patterns a tree makes as it moves in the wind. In the fourth dream, she was playing a childlike game with me, hiding her face.
I thought, Desiree's soul has been hovering about us for a year and a half, waiting to enter the baby. And then I had a very different view of that child. I was ashamed of myself that I didn't want it, because it was like not wanting Desiree back.
I went downstairs again. It was only eleven o'clock; mom was reading in the living room, and dad was paying bills at the kitchen table. I sat next to mom as close as I could---it is sad how rarely I think to touch her, when she touches me so much---and I whispered that I wished they would go on trying to have a baby. Whatever it was, we would love it, and I would help take care of it. Even if it was a mongoloid. Mom started to cry and as I put my arms around her, I understood something else. I had assumed that mom wanted another baby more than dad did. Why did I think so? In part because she is a woman, and in part because dad loved me sooner than mom did.
I was wrong. It was dad's idea. It was mom who got frightened and wanted to stop after Linda Kohler gave birth. She told me she was sorry to deprive me of a sister---she knew how lonely I must feel. But she decided she is just not up to it.
If they had a baby this year, dad would be almost eighty when it went to college. I don't know if that is courage on his part, or selfishness, or merely self-delusion.
June 1, 1972. I have become Scheherezade. Mom has finally approached me with a request, that I tell her all about Desiree. I should have expected it. She knew all along that I must know more about Desi than she did; but she also respected the fact that I couldn't talk about her for a very long time. She is in a better position than I am: the information I need about Desi has been lost; why she left the car, etc. The information mom wants resides with me.
She does not really see the position this puts me in. She did not really know much about Desi's life at all---took a tactic of staying deliberately out of it, never imagining, of course, that Desi would not be there to come back to her later. She said, "For example, I am pretty sure Desiree was not a virgin, but we never spoke about it." While her interest might seem morbid to an outsider, I understand it---I would like to be able to ask Desi a few questions right now myself. I know things, mom wanted to know them, and my telling her would make her happy and bring us closer together. The only problem: I didn't want to do anything that would hurt Desi, cut her down in her parent's estimation, or elevate me. I remember Desi saying, "I know that you would never do anything to hurt me."
There's a second consideration: since the accident, I have never lied to mom about anything. I did before, never on my own initiative, but always when called upon to back Desi up. Never since I became mom's daughter. Of course, I haven't exactly lived a life where there was anything to lie about.
I compromised by doling out as much of the truth as I sensed I could without harming Desi. If I said she never had sex, or never tried drugs, mom wouldn't believe me. If I told the whole truth, mom would think less of her. So I admitted to three of the eight boys; to the relationships rather than the one night stands. I spoke of Planned Parenthood---mom was very pleased that Desi was sensible and careful. I told her about pot and wine, but not Desi's experiments with Southern Comfort, acid or speed. We talk for a few minutes at a time---she says, "Tell me something else about Dizzy," and I offer her an anecdote, something I have remembered in advance, so I am never caught short. I make sure I always have several stories ready for her.
Mom asked, "What did Dizzy say about me?" and I told her, almost truthfully, that Desiree loved her and dad and never spoke ill of them. (She never did say anything bad about dad, but she was very critical of mom a few times.) I told her their life seemed like a storybook to me when I first met them. She considered this, and told me it hadn't seemed that way to her at the time.
One of the songs I used to sing for Desi was "Big Yellow Taxi"---"You never know what you've got 'til its gone."
Things I haven't done since the accident:
She said, "You should start dating again. You work so much. I know you want to go to a good college, but you could make a little time for pleasure in your life."
I am still in school for the summer because I missed the spring of 1971. I caught up by going to summer school last year and again now.
"This is what I need right now," I said.
"I'm afraid we're holding you back."
I said there would be time for boys later.
June 25, 1972. Desi would have been 19 today. This year, as Victor promised, we took a trip---came up to the Catskills, where mom, dad and Desi went every summer when she was a little girl. We are staying in an inn in a town named Big Indian. We go walking in the woods every day. Dad has taken up birdwatching and bought us all binoculars. I am not terribly interested, but do it to please him. The birds are pretty, looking them up in Peterson's Field Guide is diverting, and the air is nice.
Today was very hard. I thought, I have kept having experiences. Desi stopped. Sometimes you see two people end their friendship because they diverge too much from each other, like a girl who has entered puberty dropping a girl who hasn't. I can still talk to her in my mind about things, but how will I do that when I am thirty, forty, fifty and Desi is still seventeen?
I haven't dreamed about Desi in months, not since the one about hide-and-seek and the smile. I wish I would. I did wake up with a sentence fragment in my mind about three weeks ago: "Still a happy monster." Desi told me that dad called her that. "He's a happy monster, and I'm a happier monster," she said.
July 11, 1972. I just re-read the whole journal and I find I am not a very good writer. There is too much about me (of course, Dr. Wing would say that was the purpose) and not enough information about mom or dad to give you a sense of who they are. Or about Desi, for that matter.
I will try to remedy that now, starting with mom.
The key to mom: she is like me. She is practically me. It took me a very long time to understand her. When I first knew her, for a few days I thought she was wonderful, the perfect mom, affectionate but just disengaged enough to give Desiree room to breathe. Immediately after, I concluded she was a snob and a phony, and that all her friendliness to me had been an act.
At first, I thought she was very smart. Then I thought she was shallow. Only recently have I started to think I have the key: she is of only moderate intelligence, habituated to particular ideas, very reluctant to think outside established channels. Emotionally, she is not as much of a vacuum as I concluded on several occasions. She has a core of very strong emotion, which she keeps locked up within herself except when circumstances force it out of her. She was undoubtedly raised, as I was, to be very undemonstrative.
Appearances are important to her. She was brought up with a rule book, which contains some good things but seems very quaint today. Charity is important to her, as long as it is remotely managed and not embarrassing. She would feel badly if dad didn't contribute to a few organizations which help children (her choice) and the environment (his.) But doing anything personal---especially anything physical, like working in a food kitchen on the Bowery, or helping to build houses for poor people---would be unthinkable, because it would infringe some other rule on the book, such as the rule against making a spectacle of yourself, or the one against running any risk.
She has very definite ideas about how women should dress, speak, and think. She stayed very much out of Desiree's way, but I knew from some almost-arguments, quickly defused, that she didn't think girls should call boys on the telephone, for example.
This is still not a complete portrait. If she was only what I say, she could never have left Philadelphia or married dad. She had a certain stock of independence, stubbornness and rebellion, which she may completely have used up by going to N.Y.U. and marrying her (Jewish) biology professor. And by having a career as a book editor, though she only seems to do the routine stuff. She has said that her job involves being very good at English grammar (the rules, again!), not deciding what is art, or making it better art (except by making it better English).
I am not entirely sure if she is more timid than lazy, or vice versa, when it comes to both thoughts and emotions. She listens but doesn't like to give her opinion when dad and I talk about Nixon, and then, when she does say something, it always seems to be in favor of not judging too quickly. She believes that the people in charge of the country more or less know what they are doing, whereas I think the four-car accident on the BQE ramp is a pretty good metaphor for the Way Things Really Work. (Note to Dr. Wing: first use of the accident as an allusion to something else. Certainly a milestone?) She concedes mistakes, like Vietnam, but even there cautions that there are Things Going On that would explain much, but that we are Not Permitted to Know. (I never thought of those ironic caps before, but how easily I fall into them when writing about mom!)
She doesn't like to talk about feelings. The accident certainly made her physically affectionate (I have already written that she spent hours holding me in the early months) but she was, and is, the last person in the world to whom I would talk about love, sexual arousal, or thoughts about death. Even when we talk about Desiree, we mainly exchange facts: I trade an anecdote about Desi in school for one about Desi in the bassinet. After we have talked a few minutes, one of us says, "I really miss her," and the other agrees. The rest of the conversation, which would start from this point, never takes place.
I just remembered something which may give you some insight into mom. I once told her that I never thought I was attractive, even before the accident. When I entered a room with Desi, all eyes were on her. She was dramatic, vibrant, electric. I was quiet and pale and never noticed by most boys. Mom replied, sincerely I am almost sure, that I had great "lines". We were talking on two different planes. She was as incapable of understanding Desiree's electricity as I am of caring about "lines".
Well, I re-read this entry, and I have failed again. I started out by saying "Mom is me", but then I never closed that circle. You are thinking, "Is Char calling herself only moderately intelligent?" No. I think I am very smart (though I did not know until this year, when I had the quiet, stable surroundings that allowed me to apply myself, and parents to whom intelligence matters.) I am emotionally very similar to mom: a very small store of strong feelings, thoroughly locked up. Extreme conservation of resources at all times. I am probably more timid than I am lazy, but there is no clear boundary between these two states.
There is one more important fact to tell you about mom. She wants to be my friend more than my mother. I think there are several causes. When you adopt a seventeen year old, you never acquire the same authority over her that you have over a child of your own. Mom never tried to exercise much authority over Desi, even when Desi needed it. I don't need it. And finally, mom is pushing forty, and being my best friend instead of my mother makes her feel younger.
I have been dressing older since she started choosing my clothes; I dress like a thirty-year-old. Since I rarely go out with anyone but my parents, and they still try not to leave me alone too much, I have consented to accompany them on many of their social engagements. The result is that I am almost always the youngest person in the room anywhere we go. Many of their friends have exclaimed that they always forget I am so much younger. I accomplish this effect in small part through intelligence, in larger part through a good grasp on mom's rules of conventionality, and also knowing when to remain silent. It is certain I am the oldest eighteen-year-old on earth.
Mom has started dressing down to my age---not my real age but the one she arranged for me. We are two thirty-year-old girlfriends. Certainly she is beautiful; she is usually the most attractive woman in any room, in a quieter, more poised way than Desi was. She does not really look the same age as me; but when men---following those same conventional rules---say we look like sisters, she is very pleased.
July 15, 1972. I still haven't succeeded in capturing mom. How does one ever really describe another person? Writers must do it through some trick; throw together four or five unlike but oddly resonant features and let the reader fill in the blanks. "He had a face, lined with care, that was older than his years, but his smile was curiously youthful. His steel blue eyes were clear and penetrating, but when they wrinkled around the corners, etc."
I said she had a small store of very strong emotions. I have implied more than once she is shallow---I think I even called her a goose somewhere. I didn't mean to give you the idea that Desi wasn't important to her. She was devastated by Desi's death (Note to Dr. Wing: possibly first time I have used the phrase "Desi's death"?) In some important way she will never recover from it. But she stored her grief away in its box, found another project (me) and went on.
July 16, 1972. Desiree regarded mom as someone to whom she was mildly attached at best, like your roommate's dog. Most of the time mom did not count for her as an important figure, because she stayed out of the way. When mom intervened in her life, Desiree immediately flared up in hatred. That terrible shouting the night I told Desi mom had asked me to leave.
One night when she was angry at mom, Desi said, "She doesn't do a thing for dad except hold him back. He'd be better off without her." A few moments later, with that mischievous look she got when about to say something repulsive and funny, she said, "If mom left, dad would probably marry you. Then you'd be my stepmother!" We were a little high, and we both started giggling uncontrollably.
July 23, 1972. I wanted to profile dad next, but have some conversations with him fresh in my mind. Let me give them, and then the background.
Unlike mom, I can talk to dad about any kind of thing. Here are two things he said recently, during these intimate conversations that go on for hours:
"Lauren and I would certainly be divorced by now if you hadn't been there."
I was completely taken by surprise, and took this away to think about it. But I hadn't yet made any headway when he said today:
"One reason we felt we needed to keep you with us was that Desiree was responsible for the terrible thing that happened to you."
In response to this (which I also wanted to take away and mull over) I asked him about the first comment. He replied that it was very common for couples who lose an only child to separate afterwards. He said that even on the night of the accident, when Eugene came to the house to tell him what happened, he knew they must cling to me at any price.
On another occasion, dad had told me about that night. Eugene, who chose to take on the mission because he thought he could handle it less horribly than the other officers present, rang the bell and said, "I have very bad, very unfortunate news. There has been a serious automobile accident, and your daughter Desiree is dead." Dad immediately believed him---dad is a realist---but mom, before breaking down, asked, "Are you absolutely certain? There has been no mistake?" Dad, in recounting these events, said, "It is apparently also very common for parents to ask if there has been a mistake." Mom was thus conventional even when being told of Desi's death. Mom began to cry and sag, and dad says that, even while seeking to hold her up and guide her to a chair, he asked Eugene, "What about Charlotte?" I believe him; he would not lie to me about something so important. He says that mom cried much of the night---he called Linda Kohler, who lives nearby, then went off to attend to business with Eugene. But at three in the morning, when she was calm for a few minutes, he first said: "We must keep Charlotte." She gave no sign of having heard him. When he said it again the next morning, she was angry and indignant. But before another twenty-four hours had elapsed, right after she saw me comatose in the hospital for the first time, she told him, "We must keep Charlotte," as if it were her own idea.
"You got us through," he said to me today. "Losing a child at any age is like having one ripped from the breast. When a woman loses an infant she is nursing, she must give the milk to someone else."
I can see that, without me, it might have been too painful to live in the empty house, to see Desiree's things and to be alone with each other. I kept them busy, with my depression, maunderings about suicide, nightmares, repeated surgery, the removal of stitches, some infections, and the myriad problems around my appearance, my hair, my inability to walk.
(I haven't mentioned anywhere that, due to the surgery to relieve pressure on my brain, I came out of the hospital with my head shaved. Mom bought me a wig that looked very similar to my hair, but I only wore it a few times, to be polite to her. Mostly I wore a baseball cap of Desi's. I was reluctant to wear it only because it had that sagebrush smell which I did not want to replace with my own. But Desi had four caps in the closet, and I also knew it would be very comforting to be able to smell her whenever I was wearing her hat. She had a Mets cap, a Yankees one, a third that said "Desiree" in script, and a fourth with "Brooklyn Navy Yard". I took that one.)
"One reason we felt we needed to keep you with us was that Desiree was responsible for the terrible thing that happened to you."
In high school, we diagrammed sentences sometimes. I split up this one as follows:
One reason we FELT/we NEEDED to keep you with us/was that Desiree was RESPONSIBLE/for the terrible thing that HAPPENED to you."
Dad is a scientist. A sentence beginning "One reason...." gets off to a strong start, but it immediately bogs down in "we FELT". One does not "feel" a "reason"; one "feels" an "emotion", or "thinks" a "reason". Granted, the sentence is ambiguous. It is not grammatically wrong: he may mean by it not that he "felt" a "reason" but that:
"We FELT we NEEDED to keep you with us because Desiree, etc."
The second segment also clashes with the first; "we FELT" and "we NEEDED" collide with one another. Did you "feel" or "need"? Professor Dinty in English 101 used to pay us an imaginary dollar for every word we cut from a sentence. I could make at least four dollars on dad's sentence by saying, "We wanted to keep you with us because...." Five dollars, actually; that "because" is a substitute for "was that".
The third and fourth segments again clash with each other. If Desiree was "RESPONSIBLE", it does not really seem appropriate to say "for the terrible thing that HAPPENED." "HAPPENED" implies an act of God, not Desi. Instead of saying that Desi was "RESPONSIBLE" for something that "HAPPENED", dad could have used the more direct formulation, "Desiree did":
"We wanted to keep you with us because of what Desiree did to you."
I make ten dollars on that sentence, but I could squeeze another three out of it:
"We wanted to keep you with us because Desiree harmed you."
This probably seems like puerile game-playing, but I have learned several things by doing it. For a very rational scientist, dad uttered a confused, terrible sentence. That is probably what happens to him as a result of strong emotion; grief does not affect his tone of voice, but breaks his syntax apart.
His words also astonished me because I have never for a moment thought of the accident as something Desi did to me. Then it wouldn't be an accident, would it? At first, it was something God did, not Desi (Let go let God). Then it was just an accident, like molecules hitting each other, random, not personal. I never blamed Desi and do not now.
The thought that Victor and Lauren wanted me to stay because they felt they owed me reparations diminishes the nobility of their choice. It becomes almost like a settlement of a lawsuit. Instead of love.
The only way I can get out of this is to tell myself dad is "over-intellectualizing", thinking too much, rationalizing what needs no rationale. I am loved. Desi did not harm me. Desiree Stein is alive.
August 4, 1972. I meant to go on writing about dad but had to stop. I am not sure I really need to say more about him, because those two quotes tell you a good deal. However, here is a more traditional sketch.
Dad is sixty years old, very erect of carriage, with impressive silver hair and a strong chin. He has blue eyes and is a very handsome, elegant older man, with wonderful manners and an infectious laugh. He comes from a blond, German Jewish family; I never met such an unlikely looking Jewish person. "Someone must have been raped by a Cossack," Desi once said. Her own face, with its strong nose, was a throw-back to another generation of the family; dad says she looked like his maternal grandmother.
He is the smartest person I have ever met, always ten steps ahead of me in any conversation, but very careful to demonstrate his logic and help me catch up. His typical mood is smiles and laughter, which seems very contradictory when you learn that his world view is exceedingly dark. He believes, the contrary of mom (he is much more intelligent than she is), that very bad and dangerous people are in charge, that "history is the record of human folly and misfortune", that our leaders will inevitably "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory", etc. One of his favorite exercises is to ask people which century in human history they think has been the most murderous. They always say Roman times, the dark ages, etc. His answer: the twentieth century.
His family got out of Austria before Hitler took over; he was a young man at the time. He had many cousins who stayed behind and died.
Dad believes that our form of government will eventually crack. "There was a time before the United States existed and there will be a time when it is just a memory, like the Roman empire. There will be a period before that when it still exists but not in any form that would be recognizable to us." He talks of President Nixon arranging a coup d'etat.
On a political spectrum, I guess dad would be pretty far to the left. He approves of all demonstrations against the government and says that he would be out there himself if he was even ten years younger.
His way of "plucking order from chaos" is to study the natural world. He loves his laboratory work: it is a controlled world which makes sense to him, in the midst of danger and disorder.
He is much more open and introspective than mom and will answer any question honestly, even if it is to his discredit. I once asked him what would have happened if there had been no accident. He said, "You would have gone to Michigan to live with Betty." When I was still very sick, mom once told me she is certain they would have decided to keep me anyway. I believe dad.
Dad feels things much more deeply than mom. His love for Desi was more visible and tangible than hers; when they were in a room together, every moment he radiated approval, pride, his enjoyment of her. He is also very good to me, in a different way. He was like a spectator to her drama, applauding her bold gestures and fiery or sarcastic dialog. He is a quieter man today, and his love for me is quieter. He beams his approval when I have offered him a sound insight. Our nightly conversations, which last for hours in the living room, are more measured than his with her, and have fewer hills and valleys. Mom sits in the big chair in the corner, as she always did, and listens but rarely speaks.
Dad is the most practical of men. He accepts reality quickly, and recovers from blows rapidly. So, though he loved Desi more intensely, he also came back sooner from her death than mom did. When he says that I kept them together, he means that mom would have left him if she had not had me as a project. Despite all his efforts to hold her. He feels in almost all situations that he is the only one who sees things clearly, at home, in politics, in personal relations, and at work. He has admitted me to partnership as another realist.
We have spent many hours talking about morality. He believes there is none in the world and no external basis for it---no God, no book of rules engraved in the foundation of the universe, only what man invents. When I was reading Karamazov, we discussed the statement "everything is permitted". He said it was Dostoyevsky's weakness, his romanticism and need for God, that led him to think that the idea "everything is permitted" is too frightening to contemplate and leads to man's downfall. Dad says that a man can still conduct a moral life, even in a hurricane, as a result of human rules, or because he chooses to from compassion or even (dad must be describing himself here) from personal standards of beauty or elegance. Since the mass of men will inevitably slide downhill into violence and blood, he says the prospects for humankind as a whole are not encouraging. ( And refers to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.) He frequently speaks of the "beauty" of particular ideas, which is not related to their "truth". Truth and beauty, he says, are not coextensive, though they overlap. Certain concepts of quantum physics are "beautiful" and apparently "true". Moral and philosophical assertions can be "beautiful" but never "true" in the same sense because subjective to man and not built into the structure of the world.
This is the view I arrived at independently after my meeting with Dr. Harville, though I didn't have anything like dad's vocabulary or breadth of vision to describe it at the time.
I hope I have given a good enough description of dad that you know where Desi came from. She once said that, if men bore babies, she would doubt mom was her real mother. Her "happy monster" qualities: Victor without the caution or pessimism.
August 20, 1972. I want to write about Desi next.
Two phrases come to mind when I think of her: "taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi" (Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam) and "something walked that seemed a burning cloud" (Yeats). Both are in a yellow paperback, a compilation of English verse, one of the few books she kept in her room, and both passages are marked with her childish, enthusiastic check-mark. A footnote explains that "Mah to mahi" means "moon to fish".
I thought Desi was a force of nature when I first met her. I suppose that she was the classic teenager, full of energy and desire, perfectly poised on the verge of an identity. Any discussion of what she was inevitably shades over into what she would have been.
From dad, she drew her intelligence and her fierce appreciation of life ("'happy"), her sense of humor and her anarchic moral views ("monster"). I am not exactly sure what she drew from mom: perhaps her sensitivity. She was more easily hurt than dad, and didn't recover as quickly.
We were friends around ten months, and lived together only three. As a seventeen-year-old, she was not yet formed into a final shape (are we ever? Maybe an almost final shape, like a late draft? Of which the dead person is the final.) I have many questions about Desi. The most important one: did she run from the car and leave me there?
I am not certain even of things I thought I knew about her at the time. For example, Desi decided in an instant, the day she found me crying on the Brooklyn College quadrangle, that I would come and live with her. She didn't mean I would stay at her house for a few days or weeks: within moments of meeting me, she declared that we would live together in her house for two years, then leave for college together. (In a week I will be attending NYU orientation, but I will continue living at home.) What kind of person could know that instantaneously, and say it a moment later? I myself can never take up any good thing until I have thought about it for ages, by which time it is usually too late. I can always find more good reasons not to seek happiness than to seek it. A love, a commitment (I don't know what else to call it) formalized by Desiree in an instant baffles me. Was Desi completely steadfast, or utterly impulsive and unreliable? I have believed all along, when she was here and after she died, that we would have been friends for life, and all because of that impulse of hers. Which belonged to a truly happy monster. But there is also the possibility that Desi was not steady---she was not, in the rest of her life---and that her castles in the air had no foundations under them (cf. Thoreau). There is an alternate universe in which I went to live with Aunt Betty and Desiree forgot me, moving on to other impulses and loves.
Whenever I have thoughts like this, I take out the picture of Desi as D'Artagnan. Then she is here in the room with me for a moment. Her booming laugh makes the pigeons fly again. I smell her sagebrush scent, and I recite another mantra: Whether or not she would have let me go, I must never let go of her. First, because she loved me, and therefore, for that reason alone, was better than I was. Second, because it would be evil to live in her house, sleep in her bed (which is now mine), and accept the love of her parents (also now mine), while forgetting her. I may be bad in other directions, but the most important of the goals I have now set for myself is a certain kind of truthfulness, of being true, to Desiree.
Desiree Stein is alive.
Desi had the most life in her of anyone I've ever met. She spoke once of dropping the final "e" from her name. She was all Desire, for boys, drugs, intellectual success, material things, admiration and love. And me. But she was simultaneously all heart. She never held back. If she loved you, she would share anything she had, at any moment. As she shared her room, her life, and her parents with me.
I was accustomed to hoard crumbs in a corner, and could not believe she wasn't jealous when mom took me shopping or when dad praised me. She said one is only jealous of people who may harm you, and she knew I never would. I hope I never have.
Another view of Desi: she was right on the cusp between good and evil. No, that's grandiose. Between being a good person and a bad one. She took drugs I wouldn't have dared to. She dropped acid ten times or so with Coop, Allen and Ship. Snorted speed and coke with them. The distance from desire to addiction is not clear to me. Eugene predicted she would be dragged down. I have always found it safer not to want anything very badly.
She shoplifted, and she slept with Brian Hanrahan, who was with our friend and classmate Lina Griglia. I was very pleased when both these deeds made the happy monster unhappy. She had a view inherited from dad that she could take or do anything she wanted. Then something within her surged up and said it wasn't so. I liked her better for that. So there were signs she would have been a very good person, though she might have said she was being very "conventional".
Brian was shot to death this spring in Jay Park. Desiree danced with him at Coop's house, her arms around his neck. He was the most beautiful boy in school, she was the most magnetic girl. She was dead a few weeks later, he had another year and a half.
It hasn't been two years yet, but there is already a gulf between us. Desi, as she was, would not know what to make of the life I live now. I have no friends my own age (Bridget and I drifted apart before the end of last year). I dress sedately: mid-length skirts, high-necked blouses. I come home from school and read. First I do homework, then I read for myself. I talk with dad, or mom and I watch a little television late in the evening while he pays bills. Fridays we see a movie, or more occasionally a classical concert or a play in Manhattan. There are no boys.
Desi was very smart, but she drew the line at being an "intellectual". I have become one. If eighteen year old Charlotte met seventeen year old Desi, we wouldn't know what to talk about. She might not like me today. She would say I am a pretentious, egg-headed snob.
Desi often talked about her future, not knowing she didn't have one. She would be an actress. An author. A doctor. The first woman senator from New York state. Every one of her aspirations involved an audience: a real theater, a surgical theater, the theater of politics. She wanted the adulation of millions.
I try to project Desi forward into the future, but I have no idea what she would have been. She said she would never have children, but I am sure she would have (while I am certain I never will.) Desi was all potential, at the crossroads of so many possibilities that I can't exclude any. She might have been a failure, even a huge one, as Eugene predicted. She might have been famous; she certainly had the passion and ambition. Or she might have ratcheted along like most people, somewhere in between. I am always imagining her, at twenty, thirty, fifty, seventy. Happy, loved, successful. Fat, drunk, disappointed.
When this goes on too long, I take out the picture again and look at the happy monster. All that you will ever be, you were in that moment. That is a tragedy (and I am aware that that word is a worn coin, but I use it here with intent.) But it is also not so bad. Because at least you lived instead of waiting to live. As I do.
August 21, 1972. Time to write about Charlotte. Maybe I should have saved Desi for last. Writing about myself now suggests that I am the center, the beginning and end of my whole life. Well? Everybody is, but it is still an embarrassing admission. When I wrote "I don't matter", I was more comfortable, even if self-deluded. Translation: I am so profoundly selfish, I don't even know.
Charlotte Stein is serious and strange. Her dad is unaware of this, because he is strange in the same way. Her mom stops and looks at her doubtfully sometimes, but doesn't say anything.
Charlotte doesn't laugh very much. She doesn't ever cry any more, either. She is like a serious female android in Star Trek (a show she used to like) but without the short skirt or the sex appeal. The character she identifies with most is Mr. Spock; if she could live in the Star Trek universe, she would prefer to be a Vulcan, not an android.
Charlotte reads science fiction, and enjoys it, but regards it as a guilty pleasure. If she read several science fiction books in a row, she would feel bloated, as if she had eaten three chocolate chip cookies. So she rewards herself with a Heinlein or Larry Niven novel after she had read some "serious" works.
Charlotte must always be in control of everything. She watches what she eats with obsessive carefulness, so that she is always thin, a few pounds under the "appropriate" weight for her height shown on any chart. She thinks through every situation in which she must appear in public, to make sure it will be "do-able" for her. Her considerations: loss of face, limited social skills, and her difficulty walking, both from a physical point of view (she doesn't want to feel pain) and from the standpoint of appearances (one of her least favorite things is having to walk towards a group of people in a well-lit, open space.) She once got in a cab and came home from the theater at intermission, because the seats were too narrow and her knee hurt. It was all she could do to persuade her parents to stay on that occasion. Now, if it is an unfamiliar theater, dad calls the box office and inquires about the size and spacing of the chairs.
Her mom and dad have created an environment in which Charlotte is always in control. She is never under any pressure to do anything. They make all their weekend plans with her in mind, including her in activities which meet her criteria, and engaging in other things without her when she encourages them to do so.
Her parents are the type of people who would, in normal circumstances, be capable of exerting pressure on a daughter. Dad would naturally want her to work hard and do well in school. This is important to mom too, but mom also wants Charlotte to be her friend, go shopping and do other things with her. The reason there is no pressure is because Charlotte is out ahead of her parents on most things. No-one ever had to tell her to go to her room and study; instead they knock on her door timidly and ask if she wouldn't like to take a break. Charlotte is careful to do things with mom regularly. She believes that if she can't return love she can at least return shopping, and thinks mom may not be able to tell the difference.
The potential for conflict exists in the future as a result of mom's latent desire that Charlotte marry and have children. Mom hasn't said much about this; Charlotte isn't yet nineteen.
There is a hole in Charlotte: she is not sure she has a functional heart. Although she can muster strong feelings for Desi, especially when looking at her picture, she is unable to feel intensely about anyone else, even mom and dad. She suspects that she loves them in the only way of which she is capable. She certainly enjoys spending time with each of them (more so conversing with dad than being girlfriends with mom). But no-one other than Desi has ever made her heart hurt. She has never walked away from an encounter with mom thinking, "Oh, what a wonderful mom, I adore her," and feeling what she imagines must be a certain mushiness, a certain milkiness, of the heart. She has never said, as Desi once did, that she wants to marry a man just like dad. She knows that they are important to her and that she would miss them, in fact be at a total loss, if they died or went away. But so would a cat, if its owner vanished, and cats don't love. Charlotte lives in the Stein household like a cat.
There are times when Charlotte feels very aggravated with her parents, especially with her mom, who can be something of a goose. At such times, Charlotte feels very ashamed of herself, because, on an intellectual level, she knows she owes them everything.
Boys are completely nonexistent in Charlotte's life right now, though she is beginning to regard college as being the time when she can start thinking about them again. Although she is not at all certain she will feel ready to live away from home any time soon, she will be out of the house more, and her parents will be less aware of the details of her life. In a larger, freer world, there may be room for boys (men, really, at that point.) But if she does explore them, she will do so very carefully, because she must first establish that she can make very good grades in college. If she can do all the work she needs to and still date, she will. If she can't, the other sex can wait until later. It has already been more than two years.
She has come to doubt her capacity in this area also, not so much as regards the act (which she has already performed eight times or so in her life, with two boys) but, again, in the area of the heart. Her friend Bridget at Friends School, who was fat and plain but very jolly, used to say things like, "I'll fall on the floor if he doesn't ask me to dance." Charlotte has never had that fall-on-the-floor reaction to anybody (except the time Desiree unexpectedly kissed her.)
Charlotte wonders sometimes if she is a lesbian, but she is fairly certain she is not. Freud suggested everyone is inherently bisexual. She knows that she likes boys better, and since Desiree died she has not looked at another girl with desire. While certain handsome, tall, broadly built boys make her uncomfortable in a particular way.
Charlotte is a very angry person (a revelation which would shock mom and dad, whom she is convinced have no clue). The anger is free-floating, and there is usually no-one to aim it at, except herself. She is ashamed ever to feel resentment of her parents, who have been wonderful to her. She was very mad at God, but now believes He doesn't exist. Feeling angry at Desiree, for leaving her in the car, or for dying, causes her to feel sick and hollow. There is no-one else.
Charlotte is a very good actress. At her core, she believes, is a nervous, spidery, angry person whom no-one could love. She hits her marks daily in the role of dutiful daughter, and competent and outspoken student. She makes sure she raises her hand once per class, wanting neither to be a mouse or a show-off; Desiree's hand was often up, unself-consciously and only when the topic interested her. Charlotte has learned to be easy-going and even charming with people like the Kohlers; but she never dominates a conversation. As Desiree always did. Desi couldn't tell a joke, she always ruined the timing or forgot the punchline. But she was an excellent story-teller, and naturally funny when she wasn't trying to orchestrate a laugh.
Charlotte still believes she lives on a window-ledge. There is no reason for her to think this, not in the old way; her parents love her, and they will never throw her out. But she is very conscious that people, women especially, can make mistakes that ruin everything, can throw it all away if they are not careful. So she must still balance nervously, must never jump up and down.
Charlotte always imagined, when she was never happy, that happiness was a steady state, one experienced by other people. She knows now that happiness is a series of brief moments available to almost everybody. She can think of four or five happy moments she has had: when she thought she was going to have to live with her father, and Desi took her home instead. When Desi kissed her, and another time when they laughed together. The first time in the hospital when mom hugged her and she felt safe. Dad saying to mom one day in the backyard in spring 1971, when she hadn't yet been with them very long and was just starting to feel human, "We have a very intelligent daughter." When the word "daughter" was still very novel.
All these moments happened very unexpectedly. The phrase "the pursuit of happiness" is not meaningful to Charlotte. Happiness finds you. Pursuing it is bitter and invites disappointment. Like horses in Western movies which "founder" if they drink too much water at once after a drought, Charlotte does not know how she would handle a lot of happy moments on the heels of one another. But she does not expect to have that problem any time soon.
It is time for me to end this journal. It was probably a mistake to describe myself. I am shading into self-pity. I have noticed in my reading that there are many great novels of emotion: Proust's sadness, Hemingway or (even more so) Celine's anger, George Eliot's compassion. There has never been a great novel of self-pity. I think I have worked through whatever I needed to (thank you Dr. Wing, now on the wing so far away). If I continue writing, there is extreme danger of whining. I am going to close this book up and push it in the bottom of the closet, under Desi's old sneakers. I will take it out only if there is something really important to tell you.
September 20, 1972. That didn't take long.
Admiral Davis is dead.
Mom and dad went to dinner in Manhattan on Saturday but I stayed home to study for my first test in college. The phone rang and a voice which I couldn't place said, "Is this Charlotte?" When I said yes, she went on, "This is your grandmother Bethesda Davis," in a curiously formal way. I hadn't seen her since the day the admiral threw me out of their house.
I'm glad I didn't shoot back, "Are you my grandmother? The admiral didn't think so," because she immediately continued, "Admiral Davis died of a heart attack yesterday. He's at McGlatchy's funeral home on Kings Highway. The funeral will be Wednesday."
"I'm sorry," was my "conventional" response, though I wasn't. I had always thought the admiral would eventually burst something in a fit of bile.
"Will I see you there?"
"Let me call you back on that," I said, feeling a little ashamed for an evasive answer.
"I'd really appreciate it if you came," she said. "I'd like to see you."
When mom and dad returned, I told them and added that I had no desire to go to either the funeral home or the funeral. Dad, the original happy monster, agreed there was no need. Mom felt it was required and said she would go with me.
That night, I seriously considered flouting her---it would have been our first serious disagreement---but the next day, I gave in. We went over to McGlatchy's at one o'clock in the afternoon.
It was a very strange scene. During the five years I lived in the Davis house, few people ever came over. The admiral used to escape to a V.F.W. post and socialize there. The house, with its slip-covered furniture, was not for smoking, drinking whiskey or playing cards.
I didn't see any card players there, but outside the funeral parlor, there were a bunch of really florid-looking old men in naval and army uniforms drinking from a flask and smoking cigars. The women were inside, all elderly and in black. Bethesda hadn't changed in any way. I went over and shook her gloved hand with my gloved hand and she said, "Take a little walk with me, dear. I want to talk to you." I looked at mom, who nodded and stayed behind.
I almost forgot to mention they had an open casket. I didn't go near it, but from a distance I saw the admiral, looking just as red and angry in death as he had alive.
I went down the hall with her to the lady's room; it was one of those elegant ones with an antechamber with couches, and there was nobody there. We sat down and Bethesda said, "May I kiss you?" When I didn't object, she leaned over and laid her cheek against mine for a moment. I didn't remember her ever kissing me when I lived with her.
She leaned back and touched my cheek with her gloved fingertips. "Your poor face," she said.
Then: "Life is short, Charlotte, and I've made a lot of mistakes. I never had any doubt you were ours, but I was very used to Ty making the decisions, and I didn't oppose him."
I didn't know what else to say, so I answered, "Thank you for telling me that."
"Do you believe you're ours?"
"I always knew it," I said. "I'm sure my father did, too, even though he talked crazy. The admiral was the only one who believed him."
"I know. Ty was very limited. Still, when you left I was very sorry."
I thanked her and thought to ask: "Where is my father? I expected to see him here."
Her extraordinary composure in the face of the death of her husband of fifty years cracked and a large tear streaked through her make-up.
"I guess you wouldn't know, but he left Brooklyn a year ago, and we lost touch. I don't know where he is today. I suppose he'll write or call eventually." With bitterness: "Asking for money as usual."
She sat quietly and I was about to stand up to return to mom, when:
"Well, let me blurt it out, Char dear. It never sat right with me, your leaving, and I want to make it right. I want you to come back and live with me."
I laughed. It was one of the worst things I've ever done: one hysterical bark of astonishment.
"I mean it," she said, her brow wrinkling the way it used to when she was upset. "We're blood and you've been living with strangers. Nice people, but...."
"Victor and Lauren Stein are my parents now. They adopted me."
Her shoulders slumped and she said, "They did? Why didn't I know that?"
"Victor called Admiral Davis and he had no objection. My father signed the papers."
"No-one ever told me."
"They were probably ashamed."
"They should be," she said with a moral authority I had never heard from her before. "There's no chance.....?"
"None. The Steins are wonderful to me. I'm very happy there. They are my parents now."
"I had to ask."
"Please stay in touch with me? I'd love to see you now and again."
I promised I would. We went back down the hall and I extricated my mom, who was surrounded by elderly drunken men in uniforms.
We didn't go to the funeral on Wednesday because it was in Arlington, Virginia and I didn't want to miss school.
June 5, 1973. Dad has cousins in Atlanta who are conservative Jews. We flew down to visit them at Passover, something we had been talking about for years. Mom did not come. I had never seen a Seder, or any kind of Jewish practice before. Parts of it are quite beautiful; the message is one of self-searching and compassion. "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."
October 21, 1973. I gave myself a birthday present: I had a one night stand with a boy in one of my classes.
Before sitting down to write this, I re-read the whole journal and saw that I never before mentioned my birthday. It is October 20. I was twenty years old yesterday.
Mom and dad wanted to take me out to a fancy French restaurant as usual but I asked them to schedule it for another night this week. I told them there was a party at school I wanted to attend, which was true. A friend of mine in the dorms, Tracy Shapiro, had been planning to throw a party, and we worked out that she would do it on my birthday night and invite a particular boy who lives upstairs from her and is in my Twentieth Century Trends class. I had picked him because he is handsome, humorous and rather gentle. He is not a jock, rather a bit of a beanpole. He seemed to be someone I didn't have to be afraid of, and who wouldn't fall madly in love with me. Therefore the perfect way to re-enter the world of sex.
I talked to Tracy about my scars, how they light up when I am excited, or drunk. Therefore make-up, artifice, shadows and alcohol (imbibed by the beanpole, not me) are all important to the success of my plan. She brayed with laughter: "That sounds like my whole love life."
The last time I was with a boy was sometime in May 1970, so its been three and a half years.
The plan worked perfectly. I arrived early and changed into some of Tracy's clothes. I own nothing sexy and we are about the same size. I borrowed a blouse that showed the tops of my breasts; I've never worn anything like it and was afraid I'd blush the entire night. A long black skirt with a slit, which was also a new experience. I did my own make-up, but she provided the perfume (Kentucky Bluegrass, it was called.) When he showed up and I went over to him, I could see the impact; his eyes widened. I had heard the joke about the "honor" speech: "Get on her and stay on her." I got on him and stayed on him all evening; I wouldn't let anyone else come near. He didn't try to get away either. We ended up back at his room around two o'clock in the morning, very drunk. It was nice to kiss someone after all these years, but there came a moment when I was naked, he was fiddling with a condom (which he had to go next door to obtain) and he looked over and must have seen a very upset look on my face.
"You're not a virgin, are you?" he asked.
"I haven't had very much experience."
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
So we did. I don't think either of us enjoyed it very much. It was very quick. I stayed the night in his room but he fell asleep instead of suggesting we do it again. In the morning, I said I had to get home.
At dinner tonight, dad was oblivious but once he was safely out of the way, mom looked at me smiling and said, "I think something happened last night." She's not always as much of a goose as I think. She's been seriously worried that I have no boyfriend.
Summary: pretty low on the Richter scale, but the point about some things is that they get done at all, even if not well. Now I can be a woman with a brain, rather than a brain with a woman.
October 30, 1973. The whole thing backfired very badly; he fell in love after all. It turns out he is really this love-starved shy kid from Maine who doesn't know anyone here, and hasn't had a date in two years, and he fell really hard for the first woman who paid attention to him.
I had only ever planned to have a one night stand, and I actually went to bed with him once more because I felt sorry for him and wasn't sure how to say no. I didn't enjoy it better the second time; possibly less, because I was thinking the whole time about how to get out of the situation.
I have explained endlessly that I wasn't looking for a relationship, that he's a very nice boy, that some other girl will fall in love with him, etc. but nothing works. He waits for me after classes. He got my home number and calls every night. Mom came into my room and said, "You just got him, Charlotte. Are you sure you want to throw him back?"
This is her area of competence. I probably would have got her to break her silence years ago if I'd asked for advice about boys.
I finally had to be rude to him and he stopped. It was a very messy situation and I feel ashamed about it. I can't even go to Tracy's now, for fear of seeing him.
March 15, 1974. I wrote that I don't want a relationship. I got straight A's last year and when I got my first B+ in fall semester, I was devastated. There's no time to take care of anyone else. There's been one more boy, this time a sarcastic, arrogant jock who sought me out. I went with him three times. He was more what I have now identified as my physical type: muscular boys with thick necks and short hair. Boys who like themselves very much; no moody poets for me.
It was mutual exploitation; I didn't have to worry about being nice to him and he certainly wasn't concerned about me. It ended when he called up and demanded to see me on a night when I didn't want to. I said no, he got nasty and I told him to go fuck himself. "I won't have to," he responded, and he probably didn't.
I felt lonely a few nights later and, in a moment of weakness, tried to call Eugene Sparrow. I know this completely contradicts the assertion I don't want a relationship right now. I don't think that I mentioned that I got two very sweet letters from him after he proposed, the last one almost a year later. I got hold of his mother and she must have been drunk: first she was overly familiar, then rude. She said he had left the police force and gone away to law school, and that he was engaged to be married. Then she said, "I can't stay on talking to you all night," and hung up. I don't think she had any idea who I was, but assumed she knew me.
After the two men in college, I feel very discouraged. I think I just re-learned Desiree's lesson with Brian Hanrahan, that men aren't toys, even if they think women are. Or at least I am not the woman who can treat them that way. I'm painted into a corner now; the next thing I should try is a relationship, but I don't want to. No, its not that; I'm afraid I don't have time, that it would ruin things, and I wouldn't know how to begin. Anyway, there isn't a prospect in sight who would make me want to jump wildly,
Loose ends. Once a month or so I see Bethesda. Mom encourages it from that Philadelphia conventional rulebook, and sometimes she comes with me. I don't have an overabundance of grandparents anyway; dad's folks are dead, and mom has only her mother in Philly, whom I met for the first time on a trip there last summer.
There is a certain anxiety, which even dad has expressed, that my father will show up again someday, and need to be reincorporated into my life. Contact with Bethesda makes it seem likely to everyone that this will happen, though no-one knows where my father is.
I have decided to adopt a pre-law major next year. Mom was startled, as she had not imagined me doing anything so hard in my life as she expects law will be. Dad was upset, because he had been hoping I would pursue a scientific or medical career. He thinks lawyers are parasites. Which they are.
Mom didn't try to argue with me, but I had the closest thing to a fight I've ever had with dad. He was very exasperated and spared no rhetoric about the negative effect lawyers have on society, with numerous examples. I stood my ground and avoided getting angry in return.
I admitted to him that I want to go to law school for one reason only: I have to choose the path that will make the most money in the shortest period of time. So it was medicine or law. I am not one of those people who, after being in pieces, is drawn to help others who are in pieces. The sight of blood makes me feel faint. So law was the only choice.
Dad didn't understand. "Why? Why do you have to make so much money? You are not in love with material things. You don't ask us to buy you expensive jewelry."
"Because, if you and mom were ever not here, I have to have the means to live very comfortably, without being dependent on anyone again."
"If anything happened to us, what with my life insurance and pension and this house, you would be very comfortable. You are the sole beneficiary of everything."
"I have to have the ability to support myself very well, no matter what happens."
He was very hurt that I wouldn't consider a scientific career---he would even have settled for any other kind of academic career---because he didn't make enough money.
I told him that I didn't expect him to pay for law school if he didn't agree with it; I would take loans. I said this knowing he would never agree to let me cover my own education. He replied that if I went to NYU Law, it would be free as my undergraduate education was, because he is on the NYU faculty.
I don't think I've mentioned that when applying for colleges, I got into Barnard. I only applied to three schools, Barnard, NYU and Brooklyn as a safety. I went to NYU so that my education wouldn't cost them anything (my choice). If dad believed Barnard was better, he wouldn't have let me make the decision, but he says Columbia has never recovered from the events of 1968. I didn't consider leaving New York City to go to school, much as I would have liked to go to Radcliffe. Law school is still two years away, but I am still afraid of leaving the city or, truth be told, my parents' comfortable house. I have all the freedom I need right now, and the idea of living on my own, especially somewhere where I couldn't see mom and dad every week, is lonely and frightening.
October 20, 1974. No sexual hijinks this year. We went to dinner at Lutece to celebrate my 21st. It is a very beautiful fancy place, where you would expect the waiters to be snobs, if you don't know about wines or which fork to use. Instead, everyone is as friendly as could be, and the chef came over to our table and talked to us for awhile. It was really lovely. The most unusual thing is that Bethesda joined us. She offered to help pay the bill, but dad wouldn't let her.
I tried to sleep but have been lying awake thinking about Desiree. We never actually got to celebrate a birthday together. In June 1970, I didn't know her well enough to be involved in her plans. I celebrated mine that October at a surly dinner alone with the Davises; the admiral was in a very foul mood. I must have been thrown out and met Desiree a few days later, though I cannot pin down the exact date.
Aunt Betty came into town last month, hauling her one year old daughter Rebecca. Her husband is a kidney specialist she met at the hospital. I held the baby and her soft smell called up all kinds of strange feelings. First, I had that chemical reaction women have when holding babies: rightness, warmth, a craving for one of one's own. Which was immediately followed by terror and panic: I don't see how I can ever have one or be responsible for one. Too life-affirming, too frightening. I couldn't be mom, holding a child in her arms for hours on end. I would be impatient, sharp, critical and desirous of being anywhere else. I told Betty these thoughts and she explained that women who don't want children often change when they have one and become very good mothers. I think I am the exception. Anyway, there is no need to be thinking about these things at my age.
July 20, 1976. I graduated summa cum laude and will be starting NYU Law in the fall. There were two more boys after the jock I described, one for a week, one for three months. Just so I could remember I am human. I broke down last year and got myself a diaphragm, so I could stop relying on the males to provide birth control. It is the perfect method for someone like me: there can be very little in the way of impulse. You have to be in proximity to it (unless you carry it with you at all times, which I don't). Then, when the moment arrives, and you go out to the bathroom to get it, you have a little time away from the scene to ask yourself, whether you really want to do this.
Mom and dad offered to send me to Europe for a month this summer as my graduation gift. Many of my friends are over there right now: backpack, one nice drip-dry dress, Eurail pass, meet exotic European men and get laid. I had no interest in going by myself or with girlfriends, so they offered to take me. Nice hotels, restaurants, museums, dad reminiscing about his boyhood. I still wasn't interested: public spaces, long car trips, constant change, having to worry about how to cope in places where I don't speak the language. I apologized---they were very excited about going---and told them I would rather be rooted in one relaxing place. So we rented a house on Cape Cod for the summer, in the town of Sandwich.
I take long walks on the beach every day, sometimes with them, sometimes alone. This is the first summer since I met them when I haven't taken classes or worked (in college I took courses one summer, just because I couldn't think of anything else I wanted to do, did a research internship another summer and worked in the library the third.) I feel I am able to take a deep breath for the first time in five years.
I find myself thinking about Desi, especially during those walks. How much she would have loved this place.
This is an awful analogy, but Desi is like my knee. I can go as much as a year without feeling any pain. Then I'll be sitting in a theater without much leg room, and I'll be in such agony I have to leave. Twice during college I even had to pick up my old cane again. I have been back to the doctors, and am told two contradictory things. I have little cartilage left in the right knee, so it is natural it will grate and hurt sometimes. But nothing specific, nothing new and visible, is wrong. The doctor, somewhat contemptuously I thought, intimated there might be psychological causes, stress-related, for particular incidents. There is nothing they can do to help me, other than the weekly physical therapy I have received for some years. They offer to prescribe drugs, like the codeine I used to have, but when I started college, I decided not to take anything again. I don't even like aspirin; I'll lie awake all night with screaming insomnia rather than take a Miltown, let alone a Seconal.
During much of college, I felt like I was "cured" of Desi, but it was mainly because I was working so hard I had no time to think. On the beach, or when I go to bed early made sleepy by the ocean air, I find myself running the movie of our months together against the inside of my eyelids, and then asking myself all the old questions. In particular, why she left the car.
The other night, I found myself thinking that the one person I had never spoken to about the accident was John Chalfin, the boy who hit Desiree. I never liked him---he was an arrogant, politically-connected oaf---and even when I started dealing with the facts of what had happened, the idea of looking in the eyes of the boy who killed Desi was too horrible. But it would have been worth seeking him out, because he is the one person who might be in possession of a fact that Eugene Sparrow couldn't give me: which direction Desi was facing when he hit her. Was she actually running across the road, perpendicular to him? If she was facing him, or was looking back towards Tommy's car, perhaps she had been trying to get to me after all. One hypothesis: she descended from the car, perhaps starting immediately to slip on the ice, tried to turn herself on the door to go back around the car to the passenger side, and then slid away, in front of Chalfin's vehicle. Desi was wearing her cowboy boots, which had very slippery soles; I had seen her sliding in the ice earlier that evening as we walked to the party at Coop's. I don't know where John Chalfin is today, and am not sure I have the emotional fortitude to talk to him about the accident. But I want to know.
August 20, 1976. We came home last night and Bethesda called asking if she could come over to tell us some news. She was in our living room twenty minutes later, drinking tea with enormous composure as she told us that my father, her son, has been dead for a year.
She received an anonymous phone call three weeks ago from a man who said that he had been sleeping under the boardwalk in Coney Island last summer with my father and some other homeless men. My father was beaten to death by three teenagers who were out looking for a random victim. They crushed his skull with a baseball bat and left him there. According to this caller, my father carried his social security card and a piece of notepaper with Bethesda's address and phone number in a plastic bag in his wasteband at all times. He also had cash in there. After he was killed and before the police arrived, the caller, who had previously seen my father taking money from the bag, stole it. Now he says he is in a treatment program, at a step in his progress where he is supposed to make amends to people he has wronged.
Bethesda called the police and found that my father had been buried in Potters' Field, an unidentified corpse, about six weeks after the murder. A detective showed her photos taken of the body and she says it is certainly him. She is arranging to have him exhumed and moved to a family plot in Queens.
Like Desi. She ran from the car, I ran from my father. No difference. I am not entitled to any indignation, any sense of moral superiority.
I haven't written that Bethesda and mom have become friends---they see each other sometimes when I am not around. They are both very proper, very Philadelphia, well-dressed, white-gloved ladies. But Bethesda is like me. Hard. She has arrived at a point in her life where she depends on nothing, can let go of anything. That, and the fact that my father had already been dead to her for several years.
October 21, 1976. I am in love. At least I think I am. In any event, I have a real boyfriend!!!
His name is Dustin Lake---Dusty. He is a visiting assistant professor at NYU---here for one year, teaching an international law class. I met him orientation week, and did my usual calculations: nice, very attentive, built like a rock, very broad and solid, sandy hair, classically handsome face, cleft chin, no scandal, because I'll never take his class.
The impulsive part was that I knew it wasn't safe to start a relationship at the beginning of law school, until I get on balance with the work. But here is a man who works very hard, and understands the importance of it; has been to law school and is too mature to influence a first year student not to do her reading. (He is thirty-three.) I wasn't certain if this was going to be a few one night stands or a Thing; he is like a very nice and kind version of the two nasty jocks from undergrad.
Let me skip a few preliminaries to get to the good stuff. We had only kissed (but what kissing!) when he asked me to go away for the weekend with him. I hesitated twenty minutes, called back and told him I would. He said to pack a bag for the beach. I told mom I was going off with a man (her eyebrows shot to the top of her head, but she was very excited for me). Saturday morning I met him in Manhattan. He was driving a red convertible borrowed from a friend. We kissed again and I sat in the seat next to him feeling very tingly; vibrations racing around parts of my anatomy where I hadn't felt them in a while. He headed east to Long Island. I asked where we were staying and he said we would just stop at a nice looking place; this time of year, it wouldn't be hard (it was mid-September). It came out en route that he really intended us to spend the afternoon on a beach somewhere; I had packed shorts, all kinds of casual clothes, but no bathing suit because I didn't want him to see me in one and I thought it was too late to swim. We stopped in Easthampton and I bought a black one-piece (he kept picking bikinis for me but I wouldn't even try them on). We stopped in an outdoor restaurant on the highway, ate lobster roll sandwiches, and each drank a beer. In Amagansett, we found a nice-looking place with a series of units right on the beach, and I sat in the car, feeling very strange and uncomfortable, while he checked in. First experience going to a hotel with a man. We went in to the room---very nice, with a queen-sized bed and some personal touches, like photographs of the beach and an Indian wall-hanging; the units are apparently owned by people and rented out when they are not using them. A bookcase with all kinds of summer reading. The suspense was unbearable---would he attack me? Should I attack him? Instead, we left the sexual tension undischarged, changed into our suits and went down to the beach. Rubbing suntan lotion into each other's backs, etc. I thought, if this is seduction, if he's trying to get me to the point where my body is screaming for him, its working. I wouldn't go in the water. He went in and jumped waves, looking back every once in a while to make sure I was watching. Which I was. He came back and lay down next to me on the big terry-cloth towel the place had provided. I touched his cold, wet bicep, his pectoral, his hard stomach. He: "What are you doing?" Me: "Feeling you." He: "Shall we go to the room?" Me: "Yes."
I felt sweaty, so went to shower. I inserted the diaphragm. One more omission: no nightgown or bathrobe. I wrapped two towels around me--- body, head----and came out. He was waiting and said, "Come here." He led me to the bed and said, "Lie down."
I started to talk, he said, "Shhhh."
Feeling very nervous, I lay down, and he undid the towels. I felt the corner of my lip twitch, in that nervous tic I acquired sometime in the latter half of college, and which shows up when I am very unhappy.
"What's happening here?" He touched my cheek very gently, which made me feel a bit better. Meanwhile, I was saying to myself, "I came here with him and want to go through with this." But I was also saying, "I don't have to do this. I could get up now and tell him it was all a mistake."
I said, "Those are old scars from an automobile accident when I was seventeen. They light up when I am in the sun, or drink alcohol, or am sexually excited. This is my first triple play."
He laughed---he has a deep, mellow laugh---and said, "I've noticed something else about you. You're always knotted. You always have your legs crossed, or your arms, or you are wringing your hands." And he arranged me so that nothing was crossed. I had my hands up on either side of my head, as if I was being arrested. I thought, "You would really have to trust someone." I was almost perfectly happy, but with that old terror in the back of my mind. He said, "I'm going to kiss you all over." And he started with my palms.
He worked on me for a long time, and the experience only tapered off a bit with the actual penetration, when as usual, something in me went away to watch from a distance. But it was an almost perfect day.
I spent my birthday last night alone with him---Russian Tea Room, a concert at Carnegie Hall, champagne, bed. Very lovely.
March 22, 1977. First orgasm of my life. I had almost given up hope of ever having one. Dusty had been working on me much like that first time. He doesn't always do this, but often enough that I feel my pleasure is very important to him. I was sleepy, a little bit drunk. Something began to build in me. I felt like I was poised at the top of a hill on a sled: shall I let go? What the hell---I did. Release. When he realized what was happening (verbal cues were unmistakeable), he got excited and came too, so we had the simultaneous thing. Beautiful.
Contrast Desiree. She never had any problem, came before she ever had intercourse. Desi once said a boy looking at her a certain way would bring her off. Petting did it in seconds. She was very sensual, eager, open, unfrightened, the opposite of me. Until now.
April 9, 1977. Law school has been distressing---I never quite found that balance. Grades are respectable; top third of the class. But for some years I had thought of myself as the smartest person in any room, and I am not here. Not nearly enough to make the law review on grades. Of course, Dusty is a trade-off. Time spent with him could have been spent hitting the books. I have to remind myself sometimes that I just have to do well enough to get a good job on Wall Street. Law review doesn't add anything---I don't want to clerk for a federal judge or become a law professor; not enough money in it. But I'm a very competitive person, and I'm still disappointed. I can't blame it all on Dusty---don't think I would have made law review anyway. But he definitely cost something.
June 8, 1977. I have a job for the summer, doing research for Elridge Haynes, my civil procedure professor. He is writing a book on litigation which affects social policy. I'll be chasing around to various federal courts in New York, Boston and D.C., looking up case files and summarizing them. Interviewing attorneys, reading trial transcripts. I'm looking forward to it; litigation interests me.
Dusty is Catholic, from Chicago. Mom lives in Oak Park. His gig here is up, he's going home to be an associate prof at Northwestern. Dusty wanted me to spend the summer, I spoke of looking for a job there, but then the Haynes opportunity came up and spared me from making a decision. I'll go there and he'll come here a weekend or two, then August 15 I'll stay with him for two weeks. And be introduced to dear old Mom.
Dusty was disappointed when I accepted the job with Haynes. That's both good (he wants me with him) and very bad (the burden of expectations.) When I'm out there this summer, we'll probably have to decide where we're going with this. A commuting relationship two more years? Marriage? Will he look for a position here, or would I go to Chicago? I haven't lived outside New York since I was eight and we spent a year in New Mexico. Chicago, sight unseen, repels me. New Yorkers think of it as being violent, industrial, very cold.
He has met my parents five or six times now. Dinner at our house, restaurants and general socializing. Mom adores him; she couldn't have made a better man for me herself, she says. She has us married off in her thoughts, is counting the number of grandchildren, ready to shop for home furnishings and baby outfits. She asks: Why don't I transfer to the University of Chicago or Northwestern so I can marry him now and finish school there? I won't deny, even to her, I've thought about this. But the real world intervenes. What if it didn't work out and I was stranded there? We have made very promising, soothing noises to one another about the future, but there is no definite groundwork for me to live in Chicago. He hasn't actually proposed. Also, I don't pay tuition at NYU, because dad is on the faculty. Chicago would cost. Dusty hasn't offered to pay. I don't blame him; he doesn't make enough.
Dad doesn't like him much. He calls him "Dudley Doright" behind his back, slipped and called him "Dudley" to his face once but it sounds enough like "Dusty" that (with dad's Austrian accent) Dusty didn't notice. Dad would rather I was involved with an intellectual. He had warned me not to expect to meet intellectuals in law school, and I haven't. Dusty has written a book and articles on the foundation of international commercial law, the arbitration of oil disputes, etc. But he hasn't read all that much great fiction, doesn't understand science, or enjoy foreign movies, so he and dad run out of conversation after a few minutes alone. One saving grace: Dusty likes classical music, so in dad's estimation he is not entirely vacant.
Bethesda met him and pronounced him "honorable, straight and very handsome."
August 20, 1977. Its over, and in the most dismal way. A car crash end to a relationship, like being conscious this time, in the passenger seat, watching as the car slides on the ice towards the obstacle. The number of different things which had to go wrong to break us up is staggering.
It amazes me now that I've kept a journal for six years without ever writing about feelings. Just orgasms and people crumping. I came today, so and so died today. When I started seeing Dusty, I said, I'm happy now. I have a lover. I'm going to write every day. Instead, I made a handful of entries: We fucked. I came for the first time. We broke up.
Here's what I left out: about being in love. When I wrote, "I think I'm in love," I was in the first novel flush of an out-of-control sweetness, every other thought being about somebody, expectations out the skylight. From then until now, every second or third thought has been about Dusty. But, even before we broke up, mainly not pleasant. What I left out was that, when I finally opened up to someone, the woman who emerged was really awful. Insecure, jealous, angry, critical and cold. So the average thought was not "how wonderful he loves me," but: "He didn't call today," or "He was in a hurry to watch the game on television," or "He looked at his watch during lunch." In other words, "he can't possibly love me." I didn't like myself, I wondered why he put up with me, but I felt powerless to change. When a baby doesn't get enough oxygen in the first few minutes after birth, it is blind. It doesn't matter after that if you keep it in pure oxygen the rest of its life. I hated feeling so damn needy. It was like Dusty owned me but I wasn't sure I owned him. I hated the first feeling, and despised the second even worse.
Mom was wonderful. The night I got home, I had a sort of attack, crying so loudly that she heard me and came upstairs. I felt exhausted and hopeless. She put her arms around me, just like old times.
August 22, 1977. It doesn't make any sense. You see someone for a year, talk about marriage, where you want to live, fall into all sorts of habits with him, and then it all blows apart in a day. Its almost as if people aren't rational. It could happen to a madwoman and a madman, not two normal people. Maybe I've walked around for years thinking I'm solid, reasonable, and functional, but am not.
August 23, 1977. I'm beginning to wonder if its simply a mistake that can be rectified. I wanted to call him. Mom advised not. If he really loves me, he'll call. We've been over it one million times, since she's my only friend and confidante. She says my mistakes were minor. His were gross. But, I keep asking in a farce of reasonableness, if I am the more mature, isn't it up to me to call him? She keeps saying that if he loves me, he'll call. "Even if I was very terrible?" I ask. "You did nothing wrong," mom says, and the circular conversation begins again.
August 24, 1977. Anybody else could have handled this better than me. Even mom had a severe disappointment, when a boy in Philadelphia whom everybody said would propose to her, went in the army and later married someone else. People get involved with people for a year or twenty, break up and bounce back. Not me. I'm in a hole and I don't know how to get out. Every time I start breathing normally and think I am out of it, another wave breaks over me and I start to cry.
August 27, 1977. He called, was regretful, but in a casual, jovial way. It is over and he is relieved, ready to go on to the next girl. Shall I send you this or that thing that you bought. No, keep them all. Or smash them in the sink. I will never write his name again.
September 20, 1977. I came back to Desiree. Imagined her here now loving me, filling that space he almost filled for a while. The only person I could ever trust. The one who shared everything she had with me. Desiree Stein is alive.
December 5, 1977. On Saturday, I went to Kings Plaza to do some Christmas shopping and ran into Lina Hanrahan. Brian was shot to death in 1972, I think. Lina hasn't re-married; she and her daughter Kimberleigh live with her parents. She was alone; Kim was home with mom. Lina never went to college, and was very impressed I am in law school. But she waved her hand, laughed, and said, "Everyone always knew you were the smartest." She is the least jealous person in the world. We went to the diner across the street and she talked about Brian for an hour. How beautiful he was, how much she misses him, how he had straightened up at the end and gotten a job pumping gas. I was already in a very melancholy mood---let's face it, I hate Christmas---and wanted to talk to her in return about Desiree. But when she finally stopped, it was as if she had used up all the air in the room, and I said nothing.
May 4, 1983. After writing the last, I put the book back in the closet under the sneakers. It was all whining. I'm a terrible person, everybody leaves me, waah. I found it there tonight and decided to give you an update.
I still live at home. Hard to believe, huh? I'm going to be thirty in October. But I have an excuse. For four years, since graduating law school, I've been an associate at Rooney, Castelli, Cohn and Henderson. I work 100+ hours a week, including every weekend day, and plan to be the first woman partner there. I'll be up for consideration in three more years: June 1986. I am a litigator, specializing in securities cases. A very good one I might add. I'm smarter than everyone else and work harder. Having an apartment or a life of my own would just impede my quest for financial security. So I continue to bunk at the hotel Stein, where mom, retired from publishing again, mostly takes care of things.
There have been a few more men since Captain Nemo, no-one serious, just a few more toys, jocks and jerks. No-one recently at all; it would impede my relentless quest for financial security. I've adopted a few rules which seem necessary but make it difficult to meet people.
I don't love the law for its intellectual challenge. I don't love it at all. I am very good at it. Being a good litigator involves being quick on your feet and able to channel your aggression. The first time I went to court by myself, it was on a conference conducted in chambers. When the judge beckoned us in, my adversary started telling his story, loudly, when he was still twenty feet away. The next time, I began shouting at twenty-five feet. During trials, I am faster than anyone here to bounce to my feet and make objections. I second-chaired thirty cases and became the designated objector after a while, mainly because there's no time to pass the partner a note, before the the moment is lost. My nickname: The Conscientious Objector. I am also very good at the series of innocuous questions, shading into the pointed, then the sarcastic, and finally the corkscrew to the heart. This year, they let me start first-chairing small trials, years ahead of schedule.
So, unless some totally unexpected bigotry kicks in or I screw up in some ridiculous way (for example, by breaking rules 1-3), I will be a partner here. And I don't expect them to be bigots when the chips are down, even though they are all sneering womanizers. Why? Because they are more greedy than they are sexist, and they know I make money for them.
I don't actually like any of the partners, but I know them inside out and therefore how to manage them. Rooney is a complacent jowly pig, his usual expression an insincere smile. He is a mild-mannered man, always extremely courteous, who would trade me for a bar of soap the minute I became of less value to him. My job is always to be the most valuable. But this is the one thing in my life that I have found that I know how to do without any question.
The proof of my importance here is that I have snarled at Rooney a few times without any consequences. I should have begun by saying that I don't have to suck up to anyone. If I'm too busy to talk to Rooney, I tell him and he comes back later. You can get away with an amazing amount if you work 100+ hours a week, have no personal life, win cases and don't fuck up.
They know that if they put me in a room with a pile of files, two hours later I'll be able to break it down for them: the facts, recommended defenses, trial strategy.
Though I do not like the lawyers here, and they don't care on a really intimate level for each other either, in a bizarre way they form a family, or at least a community of shared selfishness. Which I want to join. I remember my parable of the d.p. camp: the commandant walking through the field, saying, "You, you and you." It works for law firms too.
Rooney's favorite joke: Max and Charlie went to play golf on Wednesday morning, as they had for fifty years. That afternoon, Max shows up at their usual bar alone, white as a sheet. Ted the bartender asks, "Where's Charlie?", but Max can't answer until he's knocked back two whiskeys and wiped his brow with the bartender's rag. Then he says: "For fifty years we've played golf every Wednesday, and this morning Max up and dies of a heart attack on the third hole!" Ted says, "Terrible!" Max replies: "And wasn't it though! For fifteen holes, it was hit the ball and drag Charlie, all the way!"
The firm was founded ten years ago, by a group of exiles from a large white-shoe law firm where only Wasps could succeed. Rooney, Castelli, Cohn and Henderson: an Irishman, an Italian, a Jew and a token Wasp. I worked there the summer after second year (summer after Nemo). They asked me to come back after graduation, I accepted, and its been hit the ball and drag Charlotte, all the way.
When I make partner, I'll get an apartment, get a life, get married, win the lottery, move to Monaco.
There have been two deaths I didn't write about. One day in October 1981, I read in the New York Times that Eugene Sparrow had died in a boating accident. He kept a twenty-three foot sloop in Sheepshead Bay, and he took it out too late in the season. A storm came up, the boat jibed, he was struck by the boom and thrown overboard. Survived by his wife, Virginia Gregory, also an attorney. The name sounded familiar, and a day or two later, came back to me. It is that girl Shipwreck was in love with. Imagine remembering that after ten years. I thought about how I might have married Eugene, and confusedly wondered if he would still have been on that sailboat. Yes, I said, I am the great rescuer of the world, the one who could have saved Desi, my father, and Eugene. I haven't figured out how to blame myself for Brian Hanrahan. Still, it was a very eerie feeling to hear that someone who proposed marriage to me is dead. I could be a widow now, I thought, after everything else which has happened. I tried to call Eugene in my second year of college, two years or more after the proposal. He was already engaged. If he had been available, if he had returned my phone call, wanted to see me, I would probably have married him. He was my physical type, he was kind to me, and he had actually looked into my face at the accident site and in the hospital. I could have done much worse, and almost did.
The other death was my grandmother, Bethesda Davis, who passed away suddenly in her sleep three months ago. Mom actually found her; she has had a key to her house these last few years, and went over there when Betheda missed a lunch appointment.
I was the main beneficiary of Bethesda's will, which she last made in 1972, soon after the admiral died. She left a quarter of her estate for my father, but since he is dead, everything comes to me. She left me four hundred and fifty thousand dollars in bonds, stocks and mutual funds, and a house which may be worth another half million, if Orthodox Jews buy it (they are taking over that neighborhood, and pay top dollar.)
I am grateful that that fierce old woman, who was nothing to me when I lived in her house, came through for me in the end. It is not enough, after taxes, for that much-fabled financial security, but it will certainly help. Dad is aiding me in selling the house and I will just put the money away and forget about it for now.
And of course, today is the thirteenth anniversary of the killings at Kent State. Shipwreck with a bullhorn, chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win!" Desiree in the picket line, her face fierce and eager, waving an oak-tag sign and shouting. What did it say? Peace Now, I suppose.
February 8, 1985. I made partner, more than a year ahead of schedule. Here's how it happened.
A few months after I last wrote in 1983, clients of our firm started to be indicted for securities fraud, insider trading, and the like. A maniac prosecutor with political ambitions, named Rudy Giuliani, was going to brokers' offices in the middle of the day, arresting them in front of their co-workers, and walking them out in handcuffs. The partners got together and argued for an entire day about whether to add a white collar criminal practice to the firm. Some felt it was degrading to do any criminal law, but greed won out in the end and they didn't want to see their indicted clients go to other lawyers.
Accordingly, they attracted a former federal prosecutor, Jered Reuter, to join the firm, and he brought with him about another million dollars in business.
The call went out for an associate to be assigned to Reuter and learn this new area, and I was the only one willing to do it, as most corporate litigators felt that it would be a step downward to do criminal work, and make their skills less marketable.
Reuter, who was a remote, plump man who never bonded with the partners, taught me the trade and I second-chaired all his trials. A week ago, he announced that he was resigning from the firm to join a larger, white-shoe Wall Street practice.
Reuter, who respected my skills but never liked me, did not ask me to come with him, which was disappointing. However, the firm now had a choice to make. If it wanted to stay in the white collar criminal defense business, it had to come to me. If I wasn't around, our clients would all leave with Reuter. I knew Rooney was gearing up to tell me, in his sanctimonious way, how important I was to the firm, that I had a great future, etc. As a pre-emptive strike, I went in to him and resigned. The partners all adjourned downstairs to the back room at the Ottomanelli steakhouse. I sat in my office, fidgeting with files, with no idea whether I'd be a partner or out of a job that afternoon, feeling very light. Peace now. They came back up---the boys had obviously had a few drinks while yelling at each other. Rooney came in to my office, smilier than ever, to congratulate me. He wasn't angry; instead he seemed even more respectful than usual. Because he would have done exactly the same in my shoes.
January 10, 1990. I met Shipwreck this morning in court---David Solomon. The last time I saw him was the evening of the accident in 1970. Twenty years.
He knew me; I didn't recognize him. I was sitting in a federal courtroom waiting to argue a motion and I saw a man looking at me. I frowned to prevent him from approaching; second nature. He came over anyway and said, "Char? Char Davis?" I turned to him and saw an unfamiliar, unappetizing-looking man, with a receding hairline and an accountant's small mustache. "And you're...." "David Solomon." I must have exclaimed with surprise and we shook hands. Then they were calling the calendar, and he sat down next to me silently. He watched me argue the motion, and then we went across the street to the Greek restaurant.
He is a lawyer, specializing in computer cases. He doesn't litigate, but he came to court to watch a partner of his in action. I remembered being sweet on him, but the only thing I recognized about him was his keen hazel eyes.
We talked for an hour and even drank a glass of retsina together; and I never drink alcohol in mid-day. I asked if I could call him Ship, because it was really impossible to call him David. He assented, smiling as he told me that no-one had used that since he graduated high school.
I told him I am Charlotte Stein now and he said that he had heard that the Steins adopted me. He had come by the house twice after the accident and had been very disappointed I wouldn't see him.
I said that I wasn't ready to come back into the world then, and that in fact I never re-contacted any of the old crowd from Midwood High School. He said it was probably just as well; they were a no-account group. He had lost touch with everyone himself, though Coop had recently sent email to him.
I had spotted the wedding band immediately. I waited a half hour for him to mention being married; when he didn't, I asked him and he said, "I married another lawyer, Virginia Gregory, three years ago."
"I remember the name. That's the girl you were in love with on Cape Cod."
He was astonished I remembered that. "She was married to someone else first."
I didn't say I knew that too. Instead, I told him that I had had a crush on him in fall 1970. I had already had the retsina.
He was very flattered. "I really liked you too."
"Then how come we never got together?"
"I wasn't sure you liked me."
"You were the boy. You were supposed to make the moves to find out," I said.
"I only got together with girls who were forward enough to let me know they wanted me. I was very shy."
I remembered how I had made a plan to caress Ship's hand, but didn't have the courage. I looked at him now, and thought: he is not happy with the mysterious Virginia Gregory. He avoided the topic, and then when I brought her up, changed the subject as soon as he could. I have been with two married men, because they were discreet and safe and couldn't threaten my ruthless quest for financial security. I've come a long way since I was angry at Desi for sleeping with Brian Hanrahan. Ship is not a man I would pick out of a room; he is not good-looking any more. But he is kind and attentive, has stayed thin, and those hazel eyes are like a time machine. When we parted, we shook hands, and I paid him that little caress on his palm due from twenty years ago. It made me feel alive and sexy, and he looked at me, speculative and smiling.
I still do my make-up the way mom taught me to in 1971. I haven't even changed brands. It was a subtle, timeless look, as current now as it was then. I wore my bangs through the end of law school, but when I joined the Rooney, Castelli firm, I found a new, more sophisticated 'do, with the hair swooping over my forehead to cover the scar.
I wear pantsuits to work almost every day. I was never comfortable to be in a deposition or in court and catch someone, especially a judge, looking at my legs. My nails are short, manicured but clear. I dress very well, carry myself with poise, and know that I am still "striking". But I am mostly reduced to the good "lines" that mom told me I had, so long ago. I lost the freshness of complexion, the thing that really attracts men to women like bees to honey, years ago.
I never wrote about my earrings. When I first met Desi, she favored large, cluttered ones---feathers, parrots, fish. I had only one pair of small gold hoops, which I wore every day. Desi had diamond ones, which her Philadelphia grandmother had given her as a present. I admired them and she wanted to give them to me. I wore them twice, but wouldn't accept them, and put them back in her jewelry box. The following year, when I was thinking about going out of the house for the first time, mom found them and wanted me to wear them. I accepted because I remembered that Desi had tried to give them to me anyway.
Today I almost always wear them.
Rooney and the others have stopped thinking of me as a woman. I am not young, dewy, or flirtatious, am already more than ten years older than the women they periodically leave their wives for. I shout louder than them in meetings. They defer to me for all kinds of decisions on the criminal practice, which I own, and on litigation in general. When we go to Ottamanelli's and they break out the cigars, I smoke special cigarillos which I bring with me. That's the only time I smoke. I drink three glasses of white wine while they each have their three Scotches.
They so completely have forgotten I am female that they sometimes make gross comments about the young women associates in front of me. Once they were talking, actually rather compassionately, about the next oldest woman in the firm, a trusts and estates lawyer who is of counsel to us, not on the partnership track. She is physically rather similar to me, a fading woman with good bones who has never married, and they were wondering how it comes to pass that any moderately attractive woman doesn't find a man. Rooney has a daughter who is in the same situation. Only when he was well-launched into the conversation did his eyes flick to me. He looked for a way out of the sentence, finished it, and changed the subject. But he undoubtedly would tell himself that I am married to my work, have a hard personality, and intimidate men. All of which is true.
Its bad enough that I live with my parents, which they all know. In order to deter them from thinking I am a lesbian, which would be their immediate conclusion, I have brought dates to a few of the Christmas parties and other events, though I mostly don't.
One thing I promised myself the day I started at the firm was that whatever happened, I must never cry in the office. The moment I did, I would be pigeon-holed, off the partnership track forever. So I resolved to be very tough, and never to respond with emotion to defeats, even betrayals. The only time I have infringed this rule was when I was a fifth year associate. Rooney made me responsible for helping to train a young woman, who was smart and very eager but not aggressive enough to succeed in our firm. I knew she wasn't, but after a while I lost perspective and wanted to make her successful at any cost. I identified with her, I guess. When Rooney called me in to say he was going to have to let her go, I kept very tight control of myself but two or three tears escaped. We both ignored them. Rooney waited a week, then said that given how crucial I was to the success of the firm's criminal work, in the future he would only assign me associates who had already proven themselves in the commercial litigation department. He didn't think it was fair to ask me to train raw recruits. He is not a stupid man; he had found the perfect way to let me off the hook while saving my face and his. I won't forget that, so when I am with him and thinking that he is sanctimonious and vain, I remember the time that he helped me.
I actually do feel very safe here.
So its been all about finding two places in the world, one in the house, one outside.
Every time I find myself drifting into self-pity, I stop writing. So this will probably be my last entry for another five years or so. But I have to say the following: I think sometimes about sitting in the Caravelle Restaurant with Eugene Sparrow in 1971. He has just proposed marriage. A genie pops out of the sugar bowl and says, "You are probably assuming, as most girls do, that there will be other proposals of marriage, and from more interesting men. Take my word for it, nineteen years from now Eugene Sparrow will still be the only man who ever unequivocally said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with you." Of course, the rest of Eugene's life was only eight years. Or I imagine being in Nemo's apartment in Chicago, washing the vase I was about to smash. Out comes a genie and says, "Like most young women, you probably don't think that this man is your only chance. You assume that, whatever happens with him, no matter how hurt you are, sooner or later there will be another man who will want to be exclusive with you, who will kiss your palms and touch the scars on your cheek with his fingertips. Take my word for it, that another thirteen years will elapse and there will be other men, but no-one else like him." If I had been able to see the future, I probably would have wanted to kill myself again. Which is not to say I want to now. You get used to things.
If I had married Eugene and had a daughter two years later, she would be Desi's age today. I don't know how so much time passed. The years seem to be accelerating, taking me away from her, as if we were on two boats pulling away from each other. Sometimes I tell myself I must work hard not to let her fade. But she never has. I think about Desi every day and, most days, every hour. I think about her when I put my earrings on in the morning and when I take them off at night. When I see something beautiful, like flowers or a sunset, I think about how she would have exclaimed over it. At times, when I am alone in my (our) room, it still feels as if she is there with me, a quiet presence, keeping me company. Mom and I talk about her. Dad less often.
Of course, I still have many of her things. I have her picture from camp. Her poetry book: the pages are so brittle the corners break off if I turn them. It was published in 1959 and was dad's before it was hers. I finally disposed of the clothing in the closet---we gave it to Goodwill years ago---but I kept a few things, like the baseball cap with her name on it in script and the wood-handled hairbrush with her initials, DES. Desiree Evelyn Stein.
In 1971, at my request, we got rid of the swing set where she and I sat the first day. But the peaceful backyard, with the flowers which dad still labors over, reminds me of her.
For a year or two after Desi died, I used to talk to her in my mind about people and decisions. For a very short time, I could ask myself how Desi would have felt about things. Not that the "happy monster" was much of a moral compass. But she had good instincts about people.
Once, I saw her get entirely quiet, a very unusual thing. We were in a room full of college students. Sharp ones, not the waste cases we usually hung out with. Desi couldn't keep up with the conversation. After a couple of tries, she shut up and gave me a sheepish smile.
By 1972, I was one of those students. I already knew that Desi, as she last was, at seventeen, would have found me intimidating. I had already had experiences into which she could have no insights.
Today, Desi wouldn't recognize my world at all. I can refer nothing to her except sunsets and flowers.
I try to imagine how she would be had she lived. I have been moderately successful, because I have seen several women who reminded me of her. There is one lawyer; she is less big and imposing, but she has Desi's nose and eyebrows (black hair though.) She is a litigator; the research specialist who does not shout or pound on the table, but comes up to the stand to question witnesses when an arcane point of law must be established through their answers. Her personality is not at all like Desi's, but in her I can see Desi as a professional woman.
There is also an NYU alumnae, a professor of medieval history at City College. This would have been the most likely outcome, as a result of dad's influence. Serious Desi in the library with big glasses.
But I had an awful experience one summer when I took a weekend share on Fire Island. (What a mistake that was; I didn't even get laid.) I was in a bar by the beach and I heard a grating voice say, "Give me some sugar. Give me more sugar." I looked up and a fat, bleached blonde woman with a hawk nose and dark eyebrows was making the gay bartender kiss her. She said, "Give her some sugar. Give her more sugar," and he kissed her small, dark, ugly female companion. It was Desiree as an alcoholic lesbian, surviving marginally after being in and out of drug treatment programs. More or less the outcome Eugene predicted.
July 25, 1993. I took some of the money Bethesda left me, and I bought myself a house in Amagansett last October. Two years ago, I finally learned to drive, due to dad's incapacity; I had to be able to ferry him to doctor's appointments. Now, every weekend in the nice weather, I go out to my house. No-one will be able to say that I never owned anything, never lived by myself; I do, on weekends. This is a major compensation for the career I have endured and for the fact that at thirty-nine (forty in October) I live with my parents.
The house is my place. I come here for solitude, to be myself and alone, to escape sanctimonious Rooney and the weepy, fraudulent stockbrokers. Also mom and dad. It is a so-called "upside down house" with four bedrooms on the ground floor. The upstairs is a kitchenette and a living room, with a deck on either side. From the southern deck, you can get a glimpse of the ocean over the dunes. From the northern one, Napeague harbor. To the east, sand; west, a few more houses. It is a splendidly isolated place, and despite its advantages, it had been on the market for a while. The dunes are bleak, and the beauty of the place is not conspicuous. The house is an unremarkable gray wood. On all sides there is unruly beach grass. The first time I drove past it and saw the For Sale sign, I knew I had to have it.
I never wear make-up out here. I have a few pairs of old jeans, a halter dress or two, some books, dad's old telescope, and a VCR. There is no-one to meet or to impress, and I have carefully avoided getting to know my neighbors. I invite no-one from the firm or from the city.
Until last weekend. A summer associate, a young woman named Debbie Elfman, was assigned to me. Rooney did not break his practice of not burdening me with trainees; I volunteered in a meeting when no-one else wanted her and the trend seemed to be towards deciding we had made a mistake and letting her go.
She has worked for me since mid-June. She is a very good researcher, very smart and eager to learn, attentive and always going out of her way to make my life easier, to impress me so I will want her around. But she does this without insincerity; she sat in the chair opposite my desk the first day and said, "I want to make myself indispensable." She is smart, cold, very ambitious. Her black hair is close-cropped in a spiky cut; her oval face is regular and strong. She is probably Jewish.
Without pretension or sucking up, she started repeating to me what the other young lawyers say about me. There were no surprises here: the best litigator, no private life, married to the firm, cutting and sarcastic but usually very fair.
"What do they say about you?" I asked.
"They probably call me a man-hating bitch who would do anything to succeed as a litigator at the firm."
I wasn't sure how to reply to this, so I asked, "Are you?"
"Let's just say that I don't believe what's in a man's pants is the deus ex machina."
The following Friday, I mentioned that I was leaving early to drive out to the Hamptons. She made some comment about how lovely that must be, and on the spot I invited her. "You mean today?" she asked. "Yes, around three; I'll drive you past your place, and you can run up and pack." I knew she lived in the West Village.
"Actually," she said, "I could leave right from here. I'm already packed for the weekend." She asked to use the phone and called someone, I assume a woman, and explained that she had to cancel due to an invitation "from the partner I work for. Yes, I know, what a hassle, but it will be good for my career." She made a funny face as she said this, so I would know that she was not serious, even though we both knew she was.
We ate in the Clam Bar where Nemo and I had dined; my house is only a few hundred yards from it and from the hotel where we had stayed. Debbie, whom I knew had been nicknamed the Elfwoman by her peers, asked questions about the firm until she exhausted me. We drank two Coronas apiece, then unloaded our stuff at my house and walked down to the beach. It was a novel experience to have anyone with me in Amagansett, as I mostly see married men these days, and they never come out here.
I fell asleep and when I awoke, I could sense Debbie lying next to me on the big blanket. I was on my side and she was behind me, not touching me, but lying very close. I sat up and she was on her back, looking up at the blue sky, which was punctuated by a single lost cloud like in the Kertesz photo.
I didn't know what to make of her or why I had brought her. We went to the movies in Easthampton, and when we came back, I opened another couple of beers and we talked in the living room. At eleven o'clock at night, we were sitting in chairs facing each other, our knees almost touching. We had been talking about her life; she told me about places, family behavior, and education, without ever confirming her sexual orientation. No mention of women, or men, in any romantic attitude She hadn't behaved coyly, touched me, or said anything suggestive. Yet I was absolutely persuaded I could reach out and gather her up. We became silent and she fixed her blue eyes on me as if to say: "Well?" They were merry but cold: she saw the humor in everything but was essentially heartless. I could smell her soapy scent and was very excited: my face was flushed and I could feel little vibrations chasing each other around in my breasts and down there. I said to myself, if I was a happy monster I would reach out and take her, because we will both enjoy it and there will be no consequences. Neither of us will fall in love, her heart won't be broken because she has none. There is a possibility, based on what I am feeling right now, that I will find this wild, different, very exciting. Can I think of a damn good reason not to do it? I could. It was a violation of rule no. 2 in my book: no associates. I had formulated that rule when that meant men my own age or a few years older. For years there had never been a hint, or an implication, of desire between me and the young men who were now a decade or more junior to me. Debbie was only 25, but harder than I was, more experienced, more sensual and even, in a way, corrupt. Not because she was gay, but because she did not love. An affair with a summer associate, if not perfectly hushed up, could be a career-harming move. Especially a lesbian affair. I hated categorizing myself for sniggering lawyers, inside and outside the firm, who would be happy to declare that they always knew what I was.
She was still looking at me, very impudently and with just the hint of a smile. I thought of Desiree, and then stood up and said, "Well, I guess I'm going to turn in." I did the right thing, but naturally I wonder what being with her would have been like.
October 21, 1993. Dad died on my birthday, peacefully, at home in his bed, after a long illness, as they say in the obituaries. He was eighty. He was dying for at least the last three years. First he became forgetful, then debilitated, then incontinent, then incoherent. I don't think that I mentioned that the year before I bought the Amagansett house, I had at last moved out---taken my own apartment on the Upper East Side at age thirty-seven. It was a strange, lonely, rather frightening experience to live alone in the city. On the other side of the bedroom wall was a married couple who fought ("That's not your television! My mother bought us that television!") The fights ended in violence; I could hear smacking sounds and her screams and cries. I would call the doorman, and once the police, but nobody would do anything. I had already decided to give it up when dad became much worse, and I went back home to help mom nurse him.
Other than a few words we exchanged when I decided to become a lawyer, dad and I hadn't had a fight in twenty-three years. He became a very aggravating infant at the end. Mostly he was in high spirits, lovely and accommodating, like a happy child, but he could be querulous sometimes. The biggest revelation was how easily he took to being taken care of. This should not have surprised me; mom, who also had a job, had always cooked for him, but it was 1970 when I came into their house and this seemed normal at the time. Mom was in her late fifties when the really bad times began, and she became curiously passive and left it to me much of the time to manage him. You couldn't keep him in bed; he would get up and walk carelessly around. He broke a hip and couldn't walk any more, but he would still try to get up. We had to restrain him sometimes at the end. We agreed we couldn't possibly put him in a nursing home, but took care of him all by ourselves for as long as possible. Towards the end, the NYU health insurance allowed us to retain private duty nurses, the last of whom was a young Hispanic man who specialized in the terminally ill. Demetrius, whom I nicknamed, in my thoughts only, the Angel of Death, lifted and carried Dad everywhere, fed him soup, played solitaire while Dad slept. Demetrius was a big believer in astrology, luck and games of chance; when he wasn't playing cards, he was usually studying his horoscope or making out lottery tickets. I was fascinated by the nexus he inhabited between chance and death.
Dad was very lucid sometimes even at the end, though he was often confused about what year it was. In one of our last conversations, he regretted allowing Desiree to get her driver's license at seventeen. For twenty-three years, without saying anything, he had blamed himself. He had told mom but never me.
The day before he died, he said I had been a very wonderful daughter. I said, "So was Desiree." He became perturbed, a little annoyed, and he said, "Desiree can be a very good daughter, and so can you. It isn't a contest." "I know that, dad." And I held his hand until he fell asleep.
Last night he was out of it and couldn't take in the fact that it was my fortieth birthday. Which we spent in the house. We had a little cake, which he thought was for him, but he was very peevish and Demetrius took him off to bed. We went in to see him settled, then out to the living room to watch Seinfeld. Demetrius left for an hour, to turn in his lottery tickets I suppose. When he came back we all went into the bedroom, and dad was dead.
A little while later, while Demetrius was telephoning for the doctor and mom was upstairs collapsed on my bed, I spent a few minutes alone with dad. I stroked his silky white hair and told him that I loved him.
The only diaper I have ever changed, was dad's.
September 10, 1995. After dad died, I took care of mom. That meant inviting her to Amagansett every weekend, so that she would not be alone. I had to give up my weekend life. I also stopped seeing men for a while; not that there had been anyone important right before.
We went everywhere together as friends and in the meantime, I grew more irritated with her. I felt very mean and petty, but her goose-like qualities became increasingly apparent, and I had to stop and remind myself what a saint she has been.
Mom woolgathers, and frequently echoes back things you say, with a look of idiot surprise on her face. She gets sidetracked in the middle of tasks, so that there came a point when I wouldn't let her cook anymore. It was almost guaranteed she would be out on the deck looking at the sunset while the chicken was burning in the saucepan.
At sixty-two, she has stayed thin and trim and people who meet her generally think she is ten years younger than she is. She dyes her hair dark blonde, not a flashy color, and dresses more elegantly than she ever did. If I look at her from a distance, watch her talking to other people for example, I can feel attached to her and proud of her. But her behavior with me has become increasingly childlike, dependent and annoying. She picks up mail at the post office (they don't deliver mail to the house in our part of Amagansett) and loses it in the grocery on the way home.
In August, she went to Philadelphia for a week to see her mother, who lives in a home for the able elderly. I usually accompany her on her annual visit, but chose not to this year, eager to have some time alone in Amagansett. She called at the end of the week to stay she was extending her stay. I was so glad to be left alone that I didn't even think about what might be happening.
We sold the Brooklyn house six months after dad died. It was a wrench to sell that house but after much discussion we decided it would be best for us. We took an apartment together on East 69th Street in Manhattan. I was alone there for the first time, which I didn't mind at all. I was supervising the briefs for the appeal of several cases, coming home at ten o'clock at night, and it was very delicious to fall into a bath without having to entertain mom.
She stayed the rest of August in Philadelphia and when she came back, on a Friday morning, we drove right out to the island. She seemed a little strange and nervous, which I attributed to our not having seen each other in a few weeks. It was the longest separation we had had since I've known her.
She drove the first leg of the trip, to a gas station on the Long Island Expressway where we always switch. We went into the 7-11 to get sodas. I got behind the wheel and as I backed out, she panicked: "You're going to hit the car next to us!"
Mom has a few habits that really make me angry, and one of them is that she can never remember to leave the wheel straight when she parks the car. In the years I have now been driving, we have had numerous conversations about this, and she promises to be more careful, but never remembers. I snapped at her that if I had scraped the other car, it would have been entirely her fault for not straightening the wheel, and within moments we were shrieking at each other like a pair of witches.
The fight lasted less than two minutes, after which mom cried and apologized. Then I drove in silence the rest of the way. Before going to the house, we stopped for dinner at the Clam Bar. We ate tuna steaks and I had a Corona. Mom drank a third of my beer, another annoying habit. Finally, she said, "I have something to tell you. I am going to marry Larry Bernard."
I knew who he was: a childhood friend of hers who at one time she thought would propose to her but who went in the army instead. My first thought was that, if she closes the loop by wedding Larry, her forty years with dad will have been like a dream or a detour. My second or third thought was, maybe this means I can marry Ship, someday.
I said, "I thought Larry Bernard was married."
"His wife died a year ago."
"Do you love him?"
She got very restless and said, "Yes, I think so."
"You're not sure?"
"At my age, what does it matter? I like him, he likes me and finds me very attractive. He's lonely and has a big house. I have friends there, and we can have a nice life together. And I'd be closer to my own mom, who probably doesn't have that many years left."
"You'd live in Philadelphia."
I was at a loss for words. I remembered the song which I used to sing with Desi, Big Yellow Taxi: "Sometimes you don't know what you have 'til its gone." A moment before, mom moving out would have been my dearest wish. Now I was beginning to realize that after twenty-five years, I was about to be alone. I started missing her immediately and wasn't sure how I would do without her.
Mom was crying and starting to make a spectacle of herself, so I got her out of the Clam Bar and back to the house. We talked for hours, along the lines of "You don't have to do this," "I want to," and "I'm sorry I yelled at you," and "That has nothing to do with my decision." Finally we were too exhausted to talk any more, and went to sleep. In the morning, we went out on the beach. There was relatively little surf, and the terns were following a few bluefish around, screaming and diving to retrieve the scraps of bait-fish the blues left.
Our little beach never has more than twenty-five people on it at mid-day, and in the early mornings and late afternoons is usually deserted. I spread out the blanket and lay down; mom sat; after a little while, my head was on her knee. If there had been any spectators, the scene would have looked incongruous, even suggestive: a forty-two year old woman with her head on a sixty-two year old woman's knee. She played with the lock of hair that swoops across the scar on my forehead, and I told her how hurt I was that she was leaving me. I am not proud of my behavior at that moment. Finally, she said very quietly: "I won't marry him if you look me in the eye and tell me not to."
I thought about it before answering. But it would have been like wanting her not to have another baby. "I can't do that," I said.
She reached in my floppy knit bag for my hairbrush. I sat up with my back to her. I always loved it when mom brushed my hair.
After a while, she said, "I think living with us is the reason you never got married. We got in your way."
I said, "Has it ever occurred to you that it was Desiree who got in my way, not you?"
"If that's true, it might have been better for you if you'd gone to Michigan to live with Aunt Betty."
She had never said anything this bitter before. "Do you mean you would have been happier?"
"No, I don't mean that. Victor and I needed you. But I think it might have been healthier. You would have forgotten Desi, forgotten us. You might have had room in your heart for other people, and had a different sort of life."
I had often wondered: Did I keep Desi alive in me by living in her room for all those years? Or would she have followed me anywhere I went?
Mom took the train home the next day, to pack for Philadelphia. When I took her to the station, she said, "I bet you get married soon after I do. I just have a feeling about it."
That night, I went out on the deck at sunset. It faces the ocean to the south. To my right, there were splashes of red and orange. The sun was crashing through a cloud, a ruined comet diving for the city. The sky shaded from red to dark blue to black. Where I was there was a pool of darkness. There were several circles of light before the other houses, and a few yellow window-shades with lively shadows behind them. I stared straight out and suddenly I could feel Desi to my right. As near as life. If I looked, I would see her, posed as I was, elbows on the wooden edge, looking towards the sea, her hair swept back in its blonde riot, her big lips in a sensuous smile. Alive in the sunset.
I knew for sure that mom was making the right decision a week later. I went to Philadelphia and stayed with her in Larry Bernard's house. He was a big gray walrus-man, with baby-smooth skin on his face and huge pouting lips. He had retired from a Mercedes dealership and played golf every day. Mom was now a golfer too. The house, in Cherry Hill, was enormous and ornate, and had an Olympic-sized swimming pool behind. I drove down the hill for a pack of cigarettes (I am sorry to say). When I returned, as I walked around the side of the house, I could hear high-pitched childlike giggling. It was mom, responding to Larry's clowning. I had never heard that laugh before.
July 16, 1996. The winter was very hard, though mom came up or I went there once a month. I reactivated a married man I had an affair with some years ago, just so there would be another voice in the apartment. I worked as hard as I could, took on more cases and more appeals.
I am very frightened of being old and alone.
In May, I met Lina Hanrahan with some people in the Clam Bar. She hasn't changed a bit in twenty years, but is still a vivacious, beautiful woman with a terrific smile. She remarried, and has a son Tod who is almost ten. He was with her, and is a studious looking boy, very polite but shy.
I felt less alone over the years, thinking of Lina out there somewhere as the other mourner, permanently circling the fact of Brian Hanrahan like I did Desi. Now I find I am alone in the sorority.
I am so well guarded by my routine that I only meet new people through little accidents and tricks of fate. One happened last week that has left me hopeful.
I installed a new fax line in the Amagansett house. I used it three or four weekends over a two month period. Then one day I couldn't get a dial tone. I picked up the handset and heard a man's voice with a French accent.
I called the phone company to report the problem. I then telephoned the mystery Frenchman and explained to him what had happened. I said I had made some long distance calls on his line; lengthy faxes I had sent to California in connection with an appeal to the Ninth Circuit. I gave him my address to send the bill to, and he said he was a neighbor of mine, around the corner on Osprey Road.
He came by the next afternoon to drop off a phone bill, and for the first time ever in Amagansett I was embarrassed not to be wearing my make-up. I recognized him immediately. When I take my afternoon walks on the beach, I see him fishing. He plants two surf rods in the sand and sits in a folding chair, smoking a cigar. He is a brown, light-haired man in his fifties, mustache, wrinkled brow over pale blue eyes. We talked for a few minutes. He is Swiss, not French. He sold his watch importing business and retired early.
The following Saturday, feeling ridiculous, angry with myself, hand trembling, I stood at my mirror and applied foundation, eye-shadow, eye-liner, lipstick, then went for my afternoon walk. He was at the usual place, but not alone. A young redheaded woman was with him, not older than 30, and for a moment, I still hoped it was his daughter. He greeted me, looking at my face very attentively, in fact, staring at me, trying to determine why I looked so different. The young woman possessively laid a hand on his back.
I went back home, feeling humiliated and very angry. But the next day he called and asked if I would have dinner with him.
I said, "What about your friend?"
"She was a weekend visitor. She is not important to me. In fact, there is no reason for her to come again."
I was silent and he said, "I hope you won't think poorly of me."
"I won't," I said, not very sure.
We are to have dinner at the Montauk Yacht Club this evening; I postponed driving back until early tomorrow. I feel absurdly light, though there is really no reason for me to be hopeful. Two things are sure, whether they happen tonight or next time. At some point, after drinking wine, I will talk obsessively about Desiree. And later, I will catch him peering curiously at my scars.