"The Only Girl in the Car: A Memoir"
By Kathy Dobie
"The Only Girl in the Car" by
In this remarkable memoir, a former '70s teen "slut" looks back on the mysteries of adolescent sex and the female quest for freedom.
By Laura Miller
March 19, 2003 | One of the great misfortunes of female sexuality is that nature's gifts come too soon and then they don't stick around long enough. Not only do women who want children have to settle on mates and start families earlier than men must, but the prime of a girl's allure usually arrives before she has the faintest idea how to handle it. By the time she's swept the gobbledygook of conventional romance out of her head and realized that the terrible bodily "flaws" she once obsessed over are actually pretty trivial, she's over the hill. The very rare young woman who understands her nubile sexual power and knows how to use it is a force to be reckoned with, indeed.
Kathy Dobie was not such a girl. The centerpiece of her new memoir, "The Only Girl in the Car," describes a brief period -- about a year -- during her teens when she stumbled into an archetypal role among a group of adolescents in her suburban Connecticut town: She was the slut. Her precocious exploits culminated in an awful night during which, as the titular only girl in a carful of boys, she was bullied (by the guy she considered her boyfriend) into having sex with all four of them. She'd just turned 15. Anyone who's ever been a teenager can imagine how quickly the news of that night spread among her cohort, and how brutally she was treated by them afterward.
Dobie isn't stupid -- she isn't now, and she wasn't then. But "The Only Girl in the Car" offers a perfect refresher course in how the naiveté and heedlessness of teenagers combines to make something very much like stupidity. Some girls get slapped with the "slut" label unfairly -- because of their class background, say, or because their breasts develop before anyone else's. Dobie earned her epithet fair and square. At 14 she became intoxicated with her sudden power to attract men and boys with provocative words or a look. After a few nervous false starts, she set about losing her virginity by arranging herself artfully in her family's front yard, dressed in a candy-striped halter top and platform shoes. (Well, it was the '70s.)
With this strategy, she landed a pockmarked, ponytailed 33-year-old who lived with his mother -- a "loser," she realized even at the time, but he served her purpose all the same. Dobie was thereby launched on a campaign of sexual adventure, proceeding through a couple of trysts with a man in his 40s and finally arriving at her nirvana, the local teen center, where she found an abundance of what she really wanted: boys, "the confident, aggressive, dirty-minded ones ... No cathedral could have filled a true believer with as much awe" as the Hamden Teen Center inspired in the 14-year-old Dobie.
The first half of "The Only Girl in the Car" makes an oblique attempt to explain how Dobie wound up in that teen center, nearly swooning in the miasma of fresh testosterone. Hers is not the background you might expect: no divorce, no neglect, no abuse. She was the third child of six, the oldest girl in a cheerful, wholesome clan that inhabited a big house with a swing set in the backyard, a basketball hoop over the garage door and a friendly sheepdog on the lawn, right next to the 14-year-old girl fishing for a deflowerer. The Dobie family was well organized, but not to the point of rigidity, and it was infused with her father's philosophy of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Except for being Catholic, the Dobies resembled the pop culture icon that one of Kathy's friends compared them to, the Brady Bunch.
Forget the obligatory dirty jokes about Catholic girls, the notion that when they go astray they do so with a vengeance, their passions fueled by the guilt they're defying. Dobie maintains that it took the ordeal of her night with those four boys and her subsequent ostracism by her former friends to instill her with any significant measure of sexual shame. You could even say that the lack of such shame -- the lack of any sexual education at all, of whatever moral orientation -- may have led in part to her mistakes.
Perhaps the adults around her, raising kids at a confusing time when the sexual revolution was assailing the conservative mores they were raised with, simply gave up. They tried, she writes, "to act like nothing was going on ... We understood. When it came to sex, we were on our own. The adults had left the scene, tiptoeing away, hoping, no doubt, that we would follow. Not a chance."
If it wasn't some obvious dysfunction that provoked Dobie to seek out the furtive, inexpert caresses of the "boy-men" of the Hamden Teen Center at a painfully early age, then what did? Her answer to this question is intimated rather than baldly stated, and it's complicated. Partly, she wanted to feel, as she did during her brief teen center heyday, "as alive, as bold, as free" as the bad boys around her.
When she began her career of seduction, her own exhilaration reminded her of a boy she once saw at a fair, a volunteer who stepped onstage when a man displaying a python asked if anyone wanted to come up and hold it. The boy, she writes, seemed "motherless, fatherless, a boy out of Mark Twain, a boy who joins circuses or travels west with a pistol and a dog ... That's how I felt at 14."
Notice that the boy she envies is onstage, and there you'll find another answer to the question above. Growing up among six siblings only sounds like a loving romp to those who haven't done it; surely whoever dreamed up "The Brady Bunch" was, like Dobie's mother, an only child. Dobie doesn't regret her upbringing, but she remembers how kids in big families can feel undifferentiated, like part of "a pack of wild animals," close physically but "without really knowing each other." While Dobie's solidly middle-class family never went hungry, she remembers never getting quite enough of her mother's love. "To me," she writes, "The Family was an entity, a being with needs and desires, an appetite all its own. Often those needs and desires were quite different from mine."
It's not surprising, then, that Dobie found it so easy to be swept up in the desires of the "tribe," the "brotherhood" that she believed she had found among the boys of the teen center. As the only girl in the car, though, she was no longer a mere face in the crowd, but special, the one girl with the daring to act like a boy. The desire of the men and boys she had sex with must have felt like sweet compensation for the undivided attention she'd never had before.
The teenage Dobie was a breathtaking blend of tarty attitude and sheer ignorance. Riding in the back of her family's RV during a long road trip, she traded innuendo with male drivers. Any woman who's ever wondered why a trucker would hold up a sign reading "I Want to Eat Your Pussy" to a complete stranger in another vehicle should know that every so often there's a girl clueless enough to read this as a gesture of loneliness and flash back a sign reading "Meow!" When two men in a car teased her with a piece of paper reading "Jailbait," her response was "Want to Go Fishing?"
Yet even after Dobie's 14th year dissolved into a "storm of boys, fingers, tongues, dirty words whispered hotly in my ear," she didn't know that women could have orgasms, and she'd never had one herself. She didn't know what 69 was, though that didn't stop her from agreeing to try it. And she was impervious to many warnings about the social consequences of her recklessness. Boys she thought she was "going with" told her they had "real" girlfriends who wouldn't even kiss them.
And the girls who hung out at the teen center sent the usual harsh adolescent signals of disapproval, at first indirectly, but finally with a hostility as "thick as brambles": "They hated me for getting away with it, even though I was only 'getting away with it' in my own head. But that's what must have been so infuriating. To them I was trash -- it was obvious. Everyone knew it but me."
Not every boy she encountered was predatory. A friend's older brother deflected her advance when he found out her age. And, most touchingly, the four black boys who sometimes frequented the teen center invited her out for a drive in order to warn her that she had "to start being careful ... You're getting a rep ... You can't trust any of them."
"To this day, I marvel at it," Dobie writes. "Four boys in a car with me? They could've imagined a very different scenario -- but all they tried to do was protect me ... What did I have to offer them? A girl so foolish she didn't even know she was alone ... They saw danger approaching and took sides -- not with the pretty girls or the rowdy boys, but with the weakest link in the chain. A bravery wasted on me."
Bravery winds up being the shred of treasure Dobie takes away from her nightmarish experience with four much less decent boys a few months later. Even after her imagined "tribe" turned on her, it took several more cruelties before she realized how utterly she'd been forsaken and how grievously she'd miscalculated her "beautiful adventure." For nearly two years afterward she barely left the house for fear of running into her tormentors, and at the Catholic girls' school she attended, she stuck close to a funny and fearless black friend who shielded her from the mean girls who knew about her "rep." She's also lucky she didn't get pregnant.
Yet Dobie doesn't disown the impulse behind her brief foray into promiscuity, that headlong dash to freedom and exploration. The hankering to model yourself after "a boy who joins circuses or travels west with a pistol and a dog" is nothing to scoff at, even if the first time you take a stab at it you screw up badly. "The Only Girl in the Car" is a grownup's memoir, not a fetish of past miseries thinly wrapped in the pretense of having reached "closure." Dobie is not nursing grievances, but explaining that she continues to take chances (albeit different kinds of chances) even though she once paid a horrible price for doing so.
In fact, not all Dobie's memories from that time are muddled or scary or poisoned by later betrayals. She recalls one lover, a nameless "wanderer" from someplace else, "the most beautiful boy in the world," who by some miracle "didn't think that sex was his to experience alone." She let him in by the basement door late one night and never saw him again after he left, but he had, she writes, "stamped himself on my brain, and so he would resurface again and again through the years, in other boys and men. Once the mind knows something exists, there's no stopping it from finding that thing again, especially when that thing is a slow, practiced, shamelessly hot and tender boy. Occasionally he appears in my dreams -- he's always on a high wire, performing for a crowd. He wears a dusty bowler cap and will take no money for his show. He does it for the love of it; he's as light as air."
About the writer
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon.
Reviewed by Carolyn S. Briggs
Sunday, March 16, 2003; Page BW13
Finally, here is a memoir from the easy girl, the slut, the one with the bad reputation. In The Only Girl in the Car (Dial, $23.95), Kathy Dobie writes of her sexually precocious adolescence with a keen, unsparing eye and avoids depicting herself as victim, a temptation few could resist. One of six children in a strict Catholic family, Dobie grew up loving books and the Virgin Mary. An observant, imaginative child, she was first drawn to the mysticism of faith, consumed with a "search for goodness, guiltlessness, my mother's approval -- and a desire to impress God, too." But she was pulled away by the lure of human intimacy. She was in a state of constant arousal while observing her parents and her girlfriends, not to mention the boys in her class; even her spinster aunt's dry, emotionally restrained life sent her into wild speculation.
Prepubescent, with an outsized interest in carnal knowledge, Dobie began experimenting with her ability to attract men. Her power to do so was at once thrilling and frightening, and she persisted. During the family's motor-home vacation, she sat in the back window, posing for truckers. She responded to a scribbled "Jailbait" sign with one of her own: "Want to Go Fishing?" Not long afterward, she made a calculated decision to lose her virginity at age 14 and swaggered suggestively down the street, dressed in hip-hugger jeans, gold hoop earrings and a halter top, looking for the first likely deflowerer. This was the beginning of a "storm of boys, fingers, tongues, dirty words whispered hotly in my ears."
After word leaked out of her participation in a particularly outrageous sexual act, Dobie was mocked by the boys who had shamelessly exploited her and, perhaps even more cruelly, ostracized by the girls, who hated her for her audacity and fearlessness in the adult world of sexuality. She withdrew from everyone, both peers and family, and tried to "inject some sense, some tenderness, back into my universe." Her compass became literature and her own ability to write. "I sensed another world, invisible but immense," she explains, "one to which I was hooking my fate through the act of writing." Dobie found sense and purpose in both listening to and reporting other people's stories; as an adult writer, she is able to see a "shuttered house" in a runaway girl's face. •
Carolyn S. Briggs is the author of "This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost."
Posted on Wed, Mar. 12, 2003
whispered then shouted
Justine Picardie reviews The Only Girl in the Car: a Memoir by Kathy Dobie
It sometimes feels as if this has been the year of harrowing middle-class American memoirs; modern immorality tales of Eden to the fall. First came Alice Sebold's account of her violent rape in Lucky; then the miseries of drug addiction in A Million Little Pieces by James Frey; and now we have Kathy Dobie's painful coming-of-age story, in which she describes how a good Roman Catholic girl came to have sex in the back seat of a car with four boys, thereafter to be spurned as the local small-town slut, at only 14.
Coming as they do in the wake of other American writers with similar stories to tell, it might be tempting to try to label this as a new kind of literary confessional, perhaps born out of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But whereas Eggers chose to subvert the conventions of the memoir, always aware of the potential absurdity in wading through a vale of tears, alert to postmodern inventions, teasing both the reader and himself, Dobie tells her story with an absolutely straight face. And you can understand why: having felt herself to have lost control of the narrative of her teenage life, as it was twisted and besmirched with so many ugly, angry words - "dirty words whispered hotly in my ear," she writes, "then shouted at my face" - it has become important to her sense of identity, both as a writer and an adult woman, to use precisely the right words to tell her side of the story.
So how did sweet-faced Kathy, the eldest daughter in a respectable Connecticut family of six children, go from being an aspiring saint at the age of eight to a teenage tearaway? It's a question that is never completely answered and maybe there can be no answer; not in real life, anyway, which lacks the perfect motives and plot of fiction. Dobie is good at building suspense: what will be the fate of the girl they call "jailbait"? But her writing is also vivid when she describes life at its most ordinary: or, at least, the apparently everyday details of childhood, which are nevertheless felt by children to be a kind of magic.
She recalls, for example, the top-floor bedroom she shared with her sister, Cindy, two little windows looking so closely into the next-door neighbour's attic, "it seems like the houses might be secretly talking to each other". Inside the room, they have dolls and trinkets and pictures of owls, and a hamster in a cage, constantly running on his wheel. "Between his running and the fact that he ate his mate after she ate all her babies, Cindy and I don't like him much, but what can we do? We have to live with this murderer, this monster, feed him pellets and water in the morning, clean his cage on Saturdays, and watch him exercise all day."
As Dobie brings the memory of childhood alive, she makes us feel the power of the large family - "To me, the Family was an entity, a being with needs and desires, an appetite all its own" - and her subsequent desire to break free, to make something for herself alone, that has nothing to do with the rituals and safe routines in which she has been raised. Her tragedy, and it does feel tragic, the visceral misery of her undoing, her losing instead of finding herself, is that she replaces the love of her family with the scornful desire of the town's teenage boys.
It's a story that will send a shudder down the spine of any mother of a rebellious daughter, for what makes this clever girl mistake promiscuity for empowerment? But out of tragedy comes eventual redemption, through writing and Dobie's discovery of the inside world of imagination and, finally, her emergence into the outside world again, through a move to New York and a career in journalism.
It's a journey that might sound like a cliché but Kathy Dobie makes it almost entirely without mawkishness. The happy ending of the book does not have quite the originality of its beginning, although that may have more to do with the fact that memoirs, if true to life, cannot invent grand finales, but the message remains a powerful one. The only girl in the car escapes at last, and finds the freedom she was always looking for; not least in her discovery, surprisingly, of something unalterable in the world she had sought to change.
"No matter what happened," she writes, "and regardless of whether I was happy or not, the world would go right on being beautiful. It would always be there, waiting."
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Book Review |
memoir of promiscuity and penance
The Only Girl in the Car
By Kathy Dobie
Reviewed by Carole Goldberg
Last year, French author Catherine Millet wrote a memoir that sought to explain why she, as a shy young woman, welcomed anonymous encounters with men - sometimes in groups - as a way of connecting.
For all its graphic detail, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. left many readers cold.
A warmer, far more accessible and simultaneously touching and disturbing memoir of a young girl's sexual awakening can be found in Kathy Dobie's The Only Girl in the Car.
Dobie grew up in a large and loving Catholic family as the rebellious 1960s morphed into the self-indulgent '70s, and she went on to become a respected writer for the Village Voice, Harper's and other publications. Her story shows us that it was partly to come to terms with her experiences as a teenager that she learned to express herself through writing.
The oldest girl among six siblings, she was, as a child, jealous of her mother's love and captivated by her bright and demanding father, who worked at Yale. She was closest to her two older brothers and a year-younger sister - all born within four years - and also had another little sister and a beloved brother, the baby of the family. Life was suburban and satisfying, and Kathy delighted in showing how selfless she could be by taking on household responsibilities and praying to a little shrine she constructed in her bureau's bottom drawer.
Then she turned 14.
The seemingly idyllic Dobie family had seen brother Billy begin doing drugs and running away regularly, driven by a need to get out from under the shadow of his almost-perfect older brother. Kathy finds her own way to rebel, although her parents take an incredibly long time to realize what she is doing.
Religious training and family values dissolve in a haze of hormones, and Kathy resolves to lose her virginity. Like a billboard screaming "jailbait," she plants herself on the front lawn in bell bottoms and a candy-striped halter top. In no time at all, a 30-ish loser named Brian screeches to a stop. Soon they have made a movie date. Unbelievably, her otherwise sane parents allow her to go.
Kathy soon discovers that she, like countless other good girls, is powerfully drawn to bad boys - to their physicality, their rebelliousness, their burgeoning masculinity. And the very innocence that attracts them to her complicates the situation.
Her naivete frees her to seek ever more encounters, but it prevents her from realizing what a dangerous path she is on.
Inevitably, word - and that word is slut - gets around to her peers, and soon her longtime friends cut her loose. The wilder girls, furious at her bold poaching of their boyfriends, become virulent enemies. It is her black friends who try hardest to dissuade and protect her when the others shun her. The miracle is that only her reputation suffers; despite her utter lack of precautions, she is spared pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
Finally, it all catches up to her, in a very ugly way, in the back seat of a car full of boys.
Then penance begins, in the form of isolation and regret. Salvation comes in learning she can conquer and transform her memories by writing - about gang members, skinhead girls, death-row prisoners, runaways... about herself.
This is a cautionary tale, a dizzying mixture of sunshine and shadows, lyrical and tough-minded. Dobie beautifully evokes the closeness of family life and the restlessness that drives some teenagers to fight free, no matter the cost. Her memoir explains the sexual education of Kathy D. in a way that earns the utmost respect, the very thing she lost that night in that car full of boys.
Carole Goldberg is books editor of the Hartford Courant, where this review originally appeared.
Revisiting a reckless youth
REVIEW BY REBECCA DENTON
The year Kathy Dobie turned 14, she had one thing on her mind: boys. Teenagers, grown men, it didn't matter. She wanted them all, and she sent the message loud and clear with halter tops and swaying hips.
They took the bait and came running.
In her first book, a memoir called The Only Girl in the Car, Dobie describes the pivotal period in her life when the world of sex opened before her, and she plunged in with abandon. It was a heady time full of experiences far beyond the scope of her proper Catholic family, who didn't suspect a thing.
Dobie's upbringing was typical for the 1970s: a suburban Connecticut home, five brothers and sisters, a father who worked while her mother stayed home. Tired of being a dutiful daughter and big sister, Dobie rebelled against the wholesome image. She longed for danger and recklessness, spending her evenings at the smoky teen center, watching the guys play pool and imagining her body pressed up against them. Before long, she wasn't just imagining.
"As far as I was concerned, I was doing exactly what the boys were doing, which meant I was as alive, as bold, as free, as they were," she writes.
On an unforgettable March night, riding in a car full of those teen center boys, she got more than she bargained for. The experience resonated far beyond that bitterly cold evening, changing the course of her life forever.
With fresh, lively prose and a thoughtful delivery, Dobie manages to capture the eagerness and childlike trust that led her into danger, and the mental toughness and fortitude that helped her recover. What's striking about the book is that Dobie, who has written for Harper's, The Village Voice, Salon and other magazines, delves so honestly and fearlessly into a young girl's sexual experiences and attitudes. She doesn't shy away from the image she presents of herself as a reckless, eager teen with no regard for reputation or restraint.
Instead, by telling her story candidly, Dobie captures the complicated reality of a girl who's impulsive and dreamy, honest and true to a fault. Her memoir ultimately is more than a coming-of-age story. Eloquent and sharp, The Only Girl in the Car is a lyrically rendered, candid book about teenage sexuality, and one girl with enough courage to strike out on her own—and keep going.
Rebecca Denton is a newspaper reporter who lives in Nashville.
A girlhood of transgression, impulse
By Kate Bolick, 6/15/2003
The Only Girl in the Car By Kathy Dobie
Dial, 228 pp., $23.95
This story ran on page H9 of the Boston Globe on 6/15/2003.
''The Only Girl in the Car'' is the sort of memoir that is sure to delight critics of the genre. It is everything the anti-memoirists love to hate: shocking, confessional, indulgent. Even viewed generously, the event in question - the night a 14-year-old girl has sex with four boys in the back of a car - seems flimsy ground to build a book on. The lines are drawn: author as self-exploiter; reader as voyeur.
But in a good memoir, the bare facts of one small life illuminate larger truths - or so the thinking goes. The problem with Kathy Dobie's book isn't that she neglects to illuminate her tale - she does so with great discernment. In fact, in some ways Dobie's is a model memoir; there is an awful amount of hurt in her story, but there are no villains, no accusations, no secrets revealed save her own. Dobie is the agent of herself and knows this without a doubt. Which, paradoxically, finally weakens her insightful and gracefully written account.
The facts of Dobie's story are plain: It opens during the late 1960s in a big, gray house in suburban Connecticut. Dreamy and bookish, Dobie basks in the warmth of her large Catholic family, which she describes in loving detail. Her father was a gregarious administrator at Yale. Her mother stayed home to raise Dobie and her five siblings, and was given to exclaiming ''I love all of my children equally!'' The children themselves were ''a pack of wild animals, eating, drinking, ... running up and down the stairs, through all the rooms of the house, out the back door and over the green, green lawn like lions or birds or floods.'' It's a colorful, solid, middle-class childhood; ''The Brady Bunch'' as reality television.
But the tight fist of family love proves to be claustrophobic for a thin-skinned and free-spirited Dobie. By her 14th year, her urge to break away is too strong to ignore. ''I'd discovered another gaze, the gaze of boys and men, and in that shining light I felt myself blooming.'' Nubile, and by temperament deeply sensual, she chooses that well-worn escape route: sex.
Her first item of business is to lose her virginity, which she does by planting herself in front of the house one warm September Saturday, and simply waiting to see who will fall into her web. Sure enough, before the afternoon is out a neighborhood man - fairly unattractive, at least twice her age, and a bit of a loser, but a man nonetheless, which is the important thing - parks his car and ambles up the lawn. It's a crucial moment. As hoped, it launches Dobie into a ''storm of boys, fingers, tongues, dirty words whispered hotly in my ear.'' After a short spate of promiscuity, she falls in love with Jimmy and bombs around town at night with him and his friends, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, reveling in a teenage utopia.
But that moment on the lawn also reveals a deep understanding of - and belief in - her own potency. One of the chilling insights to be learned from this book is that sometimes we can be defeated by our own sense of strength. There is nothing arrogant about her fearlessness - her belief in herself is actually rather gorgeous to behold. But coupled with her profound need for love, Dobie's barely realized powers veer out of control. ''You might try too hard to connect. You might do something horrific and then be condemned to your solitude forever.''
And so, blinded by this voracious need, she finds herself in the back seat of a car one winter night, agreeing to have sex with Jimmy and his three friends. She tells the story simply, and without drama. ''That night began,'' she begins, ''as all our nights had once begun - Jimmy came for me with a carload of boys.'' As one boy after the next heaves his body onto hers, Jimmy holds her hand. In a matter of minutes, Dobie's proud self-possession vanishes.
But not for long. Because if Dobie's sense of agency helps land her in that car, it also enables her to move on, withstand the horrible harassment that is to come, and endure the stifling loneliness of social exclusion. It decides that she will tell nobody at all - not her family, not her friends - until her adolescence is far gone. It allows her to reinvent herself, and become a writer. And in time, agency teaches her how to write such a clear-eyed book.
But her sense of agency also - and here, in the end, is where the book weakens - narrows her gaze. The book goes on to describe Dobie's high school years and beyond, and bring us up to date on her career, but along the way she refuses to include others in her tale. Did she ever tell her siblings? Her parents? Who was the first person she revealed her secret to? And when? In order to truly understand not only how that night shaped her, but also how it took root and lived inside her, we need to know how it affected her relationships with her family and future friends and lovers. We may be masters of our own fate, but we are never the only characters in the story.
Kate Bolick is a writer in New York.
A House for Children
Let me show you the house of my childhood. a gray house, oyster gray with white trim, sitting on the intersection of Treadwell and Clifford streets in Hamden, Connecticut, neither grand nor mean, just a solid-looking house with a small backyard, a one-car garage with an orange basketball hoop set above the doors, and tiger lilies languid along the driveway. In the backyard, there's a red-and-green jungle gym and swing set that my parents bought at Sears and my father put together himself, kneeling down in the grass in his shirtsleeves, the instructions spread out in front of him, holding a metal rod in each hand, sweat pouring from his brow.
The front yard is moon-shaped and open to the street, giving it a wild and friendly feeling like you might get running down a hill or holding your arms out to someone else running down. On the right side of the house, there's a sunporch with a red-and-green striped awning, a fence and a privet hedge. Between the fence and the hedge, a dirt path has been worn through by my brothers, sisters and me, a shortcut, a children's way to go. The adults must plod up the driveway. There, our blue station wagon is parked under the basketball net.
A white picket fence runs between our house and the house of the family next door, the Wrights, who have a girl named Terry who is my age--eight on the day I'm picturing--and a tomboy. Terry takes trumpet lessons and so does my older brother Bill, and sometimes they take their trumpets and play out of the attic windows to each other, leaning out over the driveway below.
Terry also takes dance classes with me at Miss Marie's Dance Studio on Whitney Avenue. I like ballet, she hates it. Only tap is rough and noisy enough for her. Tap, tap, tap, jump and bang away on the wood floor. Once in ballet class, we had our legs up on the bar and Terry fell over backward. She stayed in the same pose, flat on her back but with one leg up and her toes pointed prettily in the air, did it because she thought it was funny to see Miss Marie and Miss Vera--who didn't give a damn about her--fuss and fuss because they thought she might be hurt, a hopeless dancer but still a tuition-paying daughter of somebody. When I want to play with Terry, I don't ring the doorbell, I stand at the back fence and yell, "Ohhhhh, Terr-eeeeee!" And sometimes to make her laugh I say, "When you're wright, you're wright."
Here's the attic of our house with its slanted, wood-paneled ceilings and the windows tucked under them. There are two bedrooms up here, my sister Cindy's and mine, and our older brothers' room, Michael and Bill's.
In my brothers' room, two of the three windows look out over the intersection of Treadwell and Clifford. It's not much of a view, I suppose, gray and white houses going up along the block, smallish yards, telephone wires looping above the trees like a pencil sketching, a solitary traffic light bobbing above the intersection like a boat on a breeze; but to a child of the suburbs, the view from an attic window is like the view from a castle or a hilltop. Only three floors up but you're as high as almost any high suburban thing, up there with the treetops, the gray roofs and chimneys, the crows, the sparrows, the rain when it's coming down fast before it hits anything.
Michael and Bill have a nubby red carpet in their room, red-and-tan bedspreads, and twin beds that are always made up--we can't go downstairs in the morning without first making our beds. Their desks are already boys' desks, the ink blotters covered with graffiti, the shelves above lined with basketball trophies and not much more, none of the pretty little knickknacks that my sister Cindy and I have collected. Michael's the oldest in the family, a redhead, wiry and energetic, and that's his bed by the two windows overlooking the interesection, and his desk next to the third window in the room, the one that looks down on to the backyard with its swing set and jungle gym. Michael's ten and already confident of his place in the world. Or so it seems to me.
After we come home from church on Sunday, Michael makes the rest of us kids play Mass in the dining room--he is the priest and we are the parishioners, standing and kneeling and standing and sitting and kneeling all over again. We call him Captain Catfish because he's the firstborn and because we have a catfish in the tank downstairs that is the same coloring as Michael, an orangy red, like a flame.
Michael gets the window views but Bill, one year younger, blond and blue-eyed, the family wit, if you can be a wit at nine, gets the bigger desk and dresser. My parents try hard to keep things balanced between us.
"I love all of my children equally!" my mother says, so fervently and so often that I feel it should be inscribed in the house somewhere, above the kitchen doorway perhaps.
Here's the bedroom I share with my sister Cindy, who's one year younger than I--our twin beds with their white blankets, our blue-painted desks, hers covered with statues and pictures of owls and mine with bells and dolls. We have only two little windows, and they look out over the driveway and into the attic of Lori Wright's house, so close it seems like the houses might be secretly talking to each other.
A real live hamster lives in a cage on the shelf above Cindy's desk. His name is Mr. H., and when he's not hurrying and snuffling along the sawdust on the cage floor, he's running on the wheel, running and running and running, his long claws clicking on the wheel and the wheel making a rattling, whirring sound. Between his running and the fact that he ate his mate after she ate all her babies, Cindy and I don't like him much, but what can we do? We have to live with this murderer, this monster, feed him pellets and water in the morning, clean his cage on Saturdays, and watch him exercise all day.
The four of us older kids are only one year apart from each other--ten, nine, eight, and seven. We make up a little tribe of our own, a merry band, the Four Musketeers, and the attic is our domain and hideaway.
Up until this year, we all slept together in the boys' bedroom, but then my father and my great-uncle Lance built another room and we were divided, the boys and the girls, a division I think of as not unlike one of God's acts of creation in Genesis, which seem to me to be about making distinctions, separating the day from the night, the land from the sea, sending birds up, fish down.
We're very close, the four of us, and we manage that without really knowing one another. We don't talk about our feelings. We don't know the exact shape of each other's fears and joys, but we know the scent of each other when we sleep, the sharp, sweet smell and rushing sound of one of us peeing in the toilet bowl in the morning, the feel of Michael's stiff curly hair, springy on the palm of my hand, the shape of the whitish scar on Billy's knee where a long sliver of wood pierced it when he went sliding across a wooden floor one day, the sound of Cindy's dreams at night, the murmurs and quickened breath and sudden shouts of "Help! He's getting away! The frog's on the bridge!"
Our closeness is mute and sensual. We're like a pack of wild animals, eating, drinking, running, always running together until we rest together, running up and down the stairs, through all the rooms of the house, out the back door and over the green, green lawn like lions or birds or floods.
In the weeks after our parents separated us, the girls in one room, the boys in the other, we slept with our doors open, not wanting to shut one another out. Michael and Bill sang Cindy and me to sleep at night, or tried to. Mostly they sang church songs, rousing and mournful and not in any particular order, so their dirgelike rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" might be followed with their shouting out, "When the Saints Go Marching In." Cindy and I were so appreciative, and so worried that they wouldn't know how appreciative, that we felt obliged to applaud after each song and call out, "Encore! Encore!" It became what you call a vicious cycle--we couldn't sleep and they couldn't stop singing, and so after a while they gave it up. One night, the bedroom doors seemed to close of their own accord.
Down the stairs we go, to the second floor, where my parents sleep, and little Beth, and where the baby will sleep, too, when he arrives. Beth Ann has a tribe of stuffed animals in her bedroom. She needs a tribe of them, I think, for she is a few years apart from the rest of us and so just a little outside of our merry band. I don't know if she's lonely. I know she's solitary, telling her secrets to her animals and her Mrs. Beasley doll. It makes me feel odd that she has an old lady for a doll, a blue-and-white polka-dotted lady, but old nonetheless with an apron and granny spectacles. Who is taking care of who here?
She's four and she will become Mommy's helper once I stop--the oldest girl and then the youngest, each stepping up in her own time to pound the cutlets, peel the carrots, measure the flour, run down to the basement and put the laundry in the dryer.
Beth Ann's real name is Elizabeth Ann. Our parents named her after the newest saint to be canonized, Elizabeth Ann Seton, but from the start they simply called her Beth Ann.
Beth Ann has long blond hair, which my mother or I brush back into a ponytail. The tail makes a corkscrew and bounces up and down just like a spring when she walks. She has tiny features, pink cheeks, blue eyes. This fifth child was born with arthritis in one leg, and before she even turned two, they made her wear a cast and then a brace for a year. So Beth Ann didn't stand and then walk the way other toddlers do. She got as far as standing, and then they put her in a brace and she had to go back down on the ground, pulling herself along with her arms. My father called her a "trouper." When she looked up at me from the floor, all wide blue eyes and pink cheeks, her little lips in a Cupid sort of bow, she looked like a cheerful storybook caterpillar.
Stephen isn't born yet. He's in my mother's belly. It's fall and he won't arrive until the middle of winter.
Let's take a morning, any morning, a school morning in the fall of that year. The second-floor hallway smells of Irish Spring soap and shaving cream. The bathroom door is open and the steam from my father's shower is still tunneling out and filling the cold autumn hallway with moist heat and prickly scent, like the tracks a big animal might leave, for my father has just finished his shower and left to begin dressing. From my parents' bedroom, I can hear bureau drawers being pulled out and slammed shut, their brass pulls clanking, closet doors opening and closing, the sharp, swift sounds of my father getting ready to go to work, his feet, in shoes now, tapping briskly across the wood floor, a readiness and an energy that puts my sleepiness to shame and thrusts me down the stairs--late, late, I can't be late! I'm always late, it seems, always one step behind where I'm supposed to be.
The hallway stairs lead into the living room, and both are covered in a blue and green shag carpet, an ocean of a carpet, all waving tendrils, lovely on the feet and the source of many games for us children, games I'm beginning to grow out of, like "shark," in which we must hop from one piece of the furniture to the other, never letting our feet touch the sharky sea of the carpet, lest we be eaten alive.
In the kitchen, the light is fluorescent bright on the white linoleum floor and the gray Formica table, and my brothers and sisters are already seated and bent into their cereal bowls, tucked in behind boxes of Cheerios and Kix and Lucky Charms, Michael and Bill and Cindy reading the backs of theirs while they eat, Beth Ann pretending to.
"Hi, honey," my mother says. "Did you have a good sleep?"
She is in her lacy pink nightgown, her green furry robe, her satiny slippers and white athletic socks, and still she shivers. The end of her nose is pink. Her short hair, a brownish blond, is tousled, her face is young, though varicose veins wind themselves around her slender legs, pushing out knots here and there as if a beautiful blue vine were putting out hard buds.
My mother spends her days in the kingdom of children. There, she is our queen, and also our most lowly servant. She was only nineteen when she married my father, dropping out of college against her mother's wishes, twenty when Michael was born, twenty-one when Bill came along, twenty-three and -four for me and Cindy. Her childhood was the exact opposite of ours; it's as if she was born in another country altogether. She was an only child, and fatherless, too, for her parents separated when she was two years old. Her mother had left her husband and driven halfway across the country from Oklahoma to Connecticut, where her sister Bert was living, and my mother never saw her father again. When she was a girl, she prayed to God for a brother or a sister just so she would have some company. Now, with five of us and another one snuggled inside, she's never alone, but she's shy around other adults, and when we are out among strangers I feel that we, her children, serve to cloak and protect her.
She's allergic to something in the morning air, and while she fixes our lunches and tells us to take our elbows off the table or get our pajama sleeves out of the milk, she furiously rubs the end of her nose and sneezes, always in groups of three, achoo achoo achoo. From behind his cereal box, my brother Bill says, "God bless, God bless, God bless you." And no matter how many times he has said that, and this must be the seven hundredth, my siblings and I marvel at his wit.
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