My new boy friend is named Alexander. He is a dumpling of a man. We have reached the point in our relationship where we have begun to speak our histories. So far I’ve limited mine— I’ve been selective. But when we are alone, some evening, some night, I shall slip, I know. I shall lapse into Ira’s adventure. Starting with the core of the tale, without losing its essence, I rethink it. I recall the times I’ve told the tale to lovers, to husbands, to groups at parties, and to half-strangers on airplanes. I realize that I have begun it at different points, sometimes when Ira assumes the new identity, sometimes starting with the purchase of the house by the lake, sometimes with an explanation of our lives. My explanations are a widening pool.
Alexander, I will say, have some coffee, have brandy, let me tempt you with a lemon-scented pastry. My brother Ira, I will add, had an adventure, a few perfect moments.
The point where an adventure begins is not easily determined. Life slides back and forth. I have loved various people, some worthy, some lacking in grace. I’ll outfit no one with blame.
Ira and I and the family we came from lived a life that was slovenly, cluttered, lunatic. I would have said it then, I say it now. I was age fourteen, and my nature was not melancholy. Our mother ran a business from the ground floor rooms of our house. She was Stella of “Stella’s Fashions—For the Large Woman.” Among the lies I used to tell is that everything would have been different if our father had not died. How can a man that peripheral to our daily lives have changed anything? I think of friends who have lost their fathers. The casual dying of American fathers must be endemic. I can’t speak for those friends, though. Perhaps their lives would have been different.
We lived in a dusty, narrow house off Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx on the very edges of commercial zoning. Around us were apartment houses, people looked down on us in our yard, staring, I believe, from darkened windows, and counting the leaves of our trees. Our mother had a reputation that spread from gossip—for I don’t believe she ever advertised. But women found her, heavy Russian-style women, fur-wrapped gryphons traveling from distant boroughs—coming for her drapes, her tucks, her folds. She was not cheap. The customers arrived mostly in long black cars, and their drivers would pace up and down in front of the house.
The business claimed the three best rooms of the house. All that was left to us downstairs was the kitchen and the enclosed back porch. The house had a bad smell. It was no more than the stench of women whitened with talcum spreading the luxuriant odors of their estrous cycles. Our mother herself sprayed the rooms with heavy perfumes. At night the heat sizzled at all times from radiators. Our mucous membranes withered, and our lungs exploded in catarrh. In good times, two old women chatting to each other in Polish came to help, working their Singers behind a curtain. No, no. Mother would shriek at them. Where are your eyes? Fix it, you idiots!
Think now of my dressmaker-mother. Bolts of material cushioning her walls. From scarlet to midnight blue, from rugs of velvet deep as molasses to finely veined silks. This stitcher of clothes never made me a dress. I swear that. She never took up needle and thread for us.
All right, I take away the blame. She was on her knees most of the day batting her eyes up at her clients. On the other hand, let me explain about slide fasteners that caught the flesh, brass pins that nicked the knees, pointed-tipped scissors pricking inward where bellies rested loop on loop. Sometimes the women would weep standing in the fitting room like apostates in thick pink corset satin.
I was a brilliant child. I say this without shame. My I.Q. was often tested. I was a fierce and ugly competitor. I was a striver and where did it get me? All those Best Papers. Ira was smart but lackadaisical. He spent his days playing baseball in Van Cortlandt Park. The worst time was when I was eight and skipped a grade. That put me in Ira’s class. He couldn’t stand that. It took him two years, but when he was eleven they finally skipped him.
I make our mother sound like a widow living in that house with the support of her children on her back. At the time the adventure begins she was married to our father, a former wartime sweetheart. There is nothing unusual in the marriage of my mother and my father. Their life was full of cowardices, omissions, bleating complaints. My father handled that by acquiring an American occupation. He traveled. Any advertisement that promised—Be able to leave at a moment’s notice—he answered.
When he was successful he made grand gestures. He bought me when I was ten years old a set of riding clothes—jodhpurs, high leather boots, a jacket, the right hat. When I put on those clothes I could hardly see my trembling reflection in the mirror. I developed dreams of sweat before my time. One year he gave Ira a complete American Flyer train.
The house by the lake, like the riding clothes or the American Flyer train, was not given in lieu of love. Not at all. Our father loved us, there are different frequencies of love. These gifts were part of his nature—he gave them whenever he could. Day to day life was hard for him. I can’t trace his past enough to explain. I can’t tell you what I don’t know. His name was Edward, and he was the last son of six children.
The spring I turned fourteen my father had a good year. He had been assigned the Maritime Provinces as his territory. On his way home he bought us the house by the lake.
Can’t you guess the reaction of Stella of “Stella’s Fashions”? She swore that she would have no part of it. Keep it, she said. Our father was home, and he wooed her, slowly, tactfully. And mother began to tell her customers that she was going up to her summer place. And that July we packed suitcases and boxes and filled the back of the station wagon that belonged to “Stella’s Fashions.”
Mother would do the driving. Me, me, me, she shouted. He’s left me with everything to do. The two of you will behave. Bad enough we have hours on the road—a woman and two children. I closed my eyes, riding most of the trip that way. It was the sensation of leaving that I was cherishing. The destination was not important.
When we arrived, the house rose up in front of us, a small grey palace. We gasped, and we rushed at it like raiders. My father had named the house like a boat. The Stella was done in red and yellow scrolls on a sign that hung from two short chains in the middle of the porch roof.
The house was the product of summer architect Miller Trumbell, circa 1920. A period piece with too many rooms for us. We were city children. We swam, we walked the beach, we were bored with in the week. We whined to go home, we raged against peace and quiet. The mosquitoes are killing me, Ira said. Their life replenished from his shoulders. The calamine kid, my father called him. I blistered my chest that first week. My body, I believed, responding to the environment, the sand, the lack of company. My red rose, my father said.