Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Don't Be A Baby

I stand next to my father and he sits comfortably in the armchair. I stand to his right, my head a little above his. He is dressed in a suit – white shirt with cufflinks, a tie, matching jacket and pants with a sharp crase. His hands are fleshy and broad. He wears a thick gold wedding band and a thin expensive round watch with a shiny sligator strap. My father likes hi things – his cufflinks, his watch, his wedding band, which never looked for a moment like anything to do with romance. My father’s wedding band was a bade of stability, of all-rightness, a middle-class man, educated, tasteful, married.

He told me to come to his room because my report card has come in the mail. I am not concerned. I am 9 years old and I’ve had plenty of report cards and they’ve always been very good and school has never been hard.

It is a Saturday. That’s why my father is home. This is his room. We don’t use it for anything else. When he is not here it stays empty. It is a green room: dark green drapes and a dark green spread on the single bed. The house came with these things. These are not things we have had before – drapes that go all the way to the floor and close with a cord, matching bedspreads. This dark green room looks like it’s the man’s room.

My mother’s room in this house is pink – clearly where the woman is supposed to go though there is nothing pink abut my mother. They had someone else in mind when they prepared this room, placing inside it not a desk and armchair like in the dark green room, but a glass-topped, kidney-shaped vanity with a stiff pink-and-white-striped skirt. My mother doesn’t sit at it though I wish she was the type who would.

This is the house we have moved into. It is a rented house with all the furniture inside, but it is small, like a doll’s house.

My father holds the white sheet of paper that is my report card from the school I started a few months ago. I like the new school. I like that I don’t have to come home, that I can live there. I like my friends there. I like all the playing we do and the fat letters we have started writing to each other during this Christmas holiday.

My father starts to read the report card out loud. He reads very slowly so that I can hear each word. He doesn’t look at me. The first teacher is saying that I am not doing well, that I need to try harder, that I am careless.

I wish I could leave the room and never come back, but I can’t. I can’t go until he says I can. My throat is hurting now like when I see a really sad movie.

My father starts to read the next part from the next teacher. This teacher also talks about how I am lazy and that my handwriting is sloppy.

I didn’t know my handwriting was sloppy. We write with fountain pens at this new school. We fill them up from the ink pots in our desks. I liked buying the new pen the nuns said I had to buy. I chose the red one.

Now and then my father lifts his gaze to see if I am paying attention. His eyes are sort of laughing, like he is making fun of me, but he keeps reading, sometimes stopping to ask me something like why hadn’t I done better on my exams.

I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.

The math has been hard, but math is always hard. At the new school they were doing fractions and I’d never done fractions. Once when I was doing my homework the teacher came up to me and was shocked because I was trying to find the answers by drawing pies and cutting them up into halves and quarters.

I want to cry and cry. But I must not. I. Must. Not. Cry. I must pretend this is all right, that we are having a normal conversation. I tighten up everything I can, and I know I am not hiding it perfectly. I wish I could hide it perfectly, and I fight and fight to hide everything, but I know he is winning, he is stronger. He can just sit there and keep reading with a bit of a smile on his face, and he can read all the way to the end and tell me I must find a way to do better, that this is not acceptable. He doesn’t yell. He says it in the same even voice he always uses so that my tears that keep wanting to burst out seem absolutely wrong and out of place.

Friday, October 02, 2009

When You Can't Hold It Back

That afternoon I was coming down the stairwell when a guy I hardly knew came in and said, “Where are you off to?” because it was only about 11 and I said I’d just been fired and that’s when the tears rushed into my voice. I didn’t want them to show. I hardly knew this guy. I’d only been at Fotonovel for a few months and I’d hated every minute of it – from the dullness of sitting at a phone that didn’t ring to having to watch the rich pretty blond I’d known vaguely in college 3,000 miles before, now the rich handsome boss’s girlfriend. But I hadn’t thought they’d fire me. And it made me feel like a little girl, sad, crying, trying hard not to show it, but not having the strength to hold it back in front of this almost stranger.

It was Los Angeles and it was summer, hot and bright on Sunset Boulevard, that dense part with all the billboards and Tower Records – just before it turns all hushed and green and Beverly Hills.

The sun though is harsh and I don’t live in that hushed green part of town. I live in the cement of West Hollywood, just below the fumes of Sunset. There are lots of plants and even trees clumped around my white L.A. cottage, but the drive there is never sweet. It is always harsh and headache and I am only here because my boyfriend wants to live here. I don’t know how to live by myself. Though I feel very by myself. It feels just a little safer to stay with this boyfriend who, when I say I am leaving, starts to cry. And that’s when I feel that hot tangible strap that binds us to each other. We have been together since I was 18, and I am 21 now. We have graduated college. We have driven across the country. We are sharing the white cottage and my mother and little sister are coming to visit this afternoon.

I have not seen them since I got here last year. They are coming and I have to show them a good time. They have come into town by bus. They are at a downtown L.A. hotel and they are waiting for me to come and pick them up.

Will I tell them I’ve just been fired? Yes, probably. But I won’t make a big deal about it. I’ll get another job. I’ll toss this off as another minor adventure. The tears are just for that almost-stranger, and for Jeffrey, the boyfriend, who has seen me cry a million times. Before him no friend had ever seen me cry.

It was one of the new things in my life when Jeffrey and I began. A boy I could cry with. I hadn’t known I had wanted to. Hadn’t imagined a place where crying would be okay to do that. But it was gloriously okay with this new boyfriend.

The first time I cried with him was a drizzly night and we were in a playground on the upper East Side, near his childhood apartment that we had to ourselves. Late night walks in New York City with a boyfriend was very new. I stood in the light rain, with him very close, his arms around me and it seemed that the only way to hold that comfort was to let tears come. I wasn’t crying about anything in particular. Just somehow the rain, the night, his arms – I wanted him to hold me forever, and he had held me and he had taken care of me like I was delicate all that night.

It’s gotten much more complicated since then. Most of the time I don’t want to be where I am – here in Los Angeles, with Jeffrey, in these awful office jobs. I always pretend to my invisible family back East – my two disjointed parents and my two little sisters who are still in school – that I am doing great – hip and cool and living in L.A.

I take Jeffrey’s car to go meet my mother and little sister – she’s about 12 years old. Jeffrey’s car is bigger than mine. It’s a boxy four-door Mercedes, a leftover from an uncle of his. No one in my family has ever owned a Mercedes or anything even close. I drive Jeffrey’s car so we can fit the suitcases, but also because it is proof of my new grown-up, non-family life.

A few blocks from the hotel in downtown bumper-to-bumper traffic the car leaps forward without my touching the gas. I jam the brake, lifting myself up to put as much of my weight down on the brake as possible, and just miss the car in front. I know the moment I let up the car will lurch forward, like a galloping horse. I’ve never heard of a car doing this.

The car engine is racing. I see just half a block ahead an indoor parking lot and I make it that far, turning into its dark entrance, thinking, here, out of traffic, I can turn the thing off. But once inside, the entrance slopes steeply downhill and now I can no longer hold the car back. I am careening downhill towards a cement wall. I see it rushing up towards me and I give up. I say I don’t care. Let it fucking happen. And we smash into cement.

Except it is not cement. It is thin sheetrock and we smash right through it. The car stops.

Now I am sitting in the tiny parking lot office with men who look at me like I’m crazy. I call Jeffrey, hoping he will not be too angry. He just spent $50 on a paint job for his car, the cheapest paint job in L.A., advertised on late-night TV. He asked the guys – way out in some forgotten part of the city -- for chocolate brown. They delivered army green, and Jeffrey did not complain. Not to them anyway.

And then I walk to my mother’s and my sister’s cheap hotel room, the one I know my mother cannot afford. My poor mother. My poor little sister. I must make them happy. I must or we will be washed away in this sadness.