By Julianna Baggott
Published by Washington Square Press
January 2002 (in paperback); 0743400836; 245 pages
One month before my father died in the fall of 1999, Church Fiske appeared at my door. I hadn't seen him since the summer my father disappeared with a redheaded bank teller from Walpole when I was fifteen, the summer my mother decided to teach me the art of omission, how to tell the perfect lie, or more accurately, how you can choose the truth -- with a little hard work and concentration -- from the assortment of truths life has to offer. But for me to truly appreciate her art, my mother knew she would first have to give me the bare, naked truth so that I could see how she'd altered it. Like a gangster who has to tell his child he doesn't play violin, that the case is used for concealing a semiautomatic, my mother, Dotty Jablonski, spent the summer of my father's disappearance opening violin cases, showing me her guns.
Of course, Church brought a lot of that summer back to me. We had clumsily lost our virginity together in a backyard pool in Bayonne, New Jersey. But I'd been deconstructing and reconstructing that summer ever since it happened and everything that I'd learned about my mother -- her weepy, fish-stained father and drunken, arsonist mother; her first love, Anthony Pantuliano, from the Bayonne Rendering Plant; the convent school where she almost drowned for the love of a polio-stricken nun; and why she married my father, her passive accomplice. And recently it dawned on me, nearly fifteen years later, that I am more like my mother than even my mother, that I have spent my life trying to live out her sordid life, taking on the various leading roles.
When Church showed up, I was living alone in downtown Manhattan in a tiny two-bedroom apartment with a bathroom so small you'd think you were in an airplane. My life was a disaster. I'd just kicked out a newspaper-found roommate -- a Korean stripper, self-named Kitty Hawk. Half the furniture was missing -- her beanbags and futon. There were big blank spots on the walls where she'd hung old movie-star posters -- Bette Davis and James Dean; she was a kind of fucked-up romantic. I was screwed out of half the rent for two months. I was fast approaching thirty and had just found out that I was pregnant, my bathroom shelf filled with pregnancy test sticks, pink and blue lines shining from behind their plastic-covered windows, all pointing out the obvious. I'd sworn off men, having just gone through a breakup with a married one, Peter Kinney -- who still didn't know he was the father.
It turns out that Juniper Fiske, Church's mother, had called to talk my mother into going to their twenty-fifth reunion at Simmons College in Boston where they'd been roommates their freshman and sophomore years studying nursing before they both got married. Although they both finished up the four-year program eventually, on their own schedules as the wives of Harvard men, they considered themselves, at least as far as reunions went, members of the class in which -- had certain life events not taken place -- they would have graduated together. Juniper had finally kicked the Valium habit and was into tai chi, self-help, and vitamins. My mother declined the invitation for the reunion on the grounds she thought reunions were creepy (Juniper Fiske being a perfect example) -- classmates having turned into themselves in such disturbing folds and twists, one element of their personality taking over until a tattletale becomes a cop; a nerd, a techie millionaire; and a cheerleader, an aerobics instructor.
My mother was comfortably back to the calm routine of life with my father as Dr. and Mrs. Jablonski in Keene, New Hampshire. My father came back, you see, at the end of his summer with the redheaded bank teller, and the three of us never spoke of that summer again, or of redheads, bank tellers, or anything to do with nearby Walpole. Once, when I was nineteen and bent on revealing my family's dysfunction at the urging of an inept nose-tugging therapist, my mother stated flatly, "You never really had a fifteenth summer. It was the summer that never happened." But I have to admit that although my mother never talked about that summer, it was always there between us.
Instead of going to the reunion, she prepared a statement that she mailed to Juniper for her to read to anyone who inquired about her at the roundtables for their year. Juniper called my mother upon receiving the letter. The conversation, according to my mother, went something like this:
"I don't feel comfortable with this," Juniper said.
"With what?" my mother asked.
"You say that you weigh one hundred fifteen pounds and you've never had a gray hair."
"Well..." -- Juniper hesitated -- "it isn't true."
"How do you know how much I weigh? We haven't seen each other in ages."
"I can tell in your voice. It's padded. It's a fat voice. Hear my voice? My voice is the voice of someone who weighs one hundred fifteen pounds."
"And I have a gray-haired voice, too? I sound like an old fat witch?"
Juniper went on. "You need to be honest with yourself. I wouldn't be telling all of this to you if I didn't think that our relationship deserved honesty."
"Oh, for the love of God!"
Juniper swerved away from the letter and the reunion and to a safer topic: the kids. It turned out that Church was finally heading to New York and wasn't Lissy still there and wouldn't she help Church out? "He's a bit of a lost soul these days," Juniper said.
"Sure thing," my mother said. "You know, Juniper -- I'd do anything for you. For better or for worse, you're like a sister."
And so it was arranged that Church would come to stay with me, for a while. Although I needed the rent money he'd be dishing out, it was a crazy time for Church to visit. My eyes were ringed with smeary eyeliner. I'd just gone to a yoga class, trying to center myself, but the room was lined with mirrors, and I tangled myself into pretzel contortions that forced me to stare at my bloated face and my widening ass at the same time. I left in tears. In addition to being pregnant and alone, I was feeling old, thirty looming. It had hit me that when my mother was my age, she had a nine-year-old kid, but I was incapable of any sort of normal lasting relationship. I'd started suffering from a recurring nightmare of winning Most Well-Preserved at a reunion of my own, only to find out in true Carrie-horror-prom-night fashion that it's a joke and I look ancient. I stumble around in the dream only able to chat with classmates about my walnut-sized bunions, my recalcitrant bowels, my imaginary husband's prostate, and how the palsied camera angles of these new cop shows make me dizzy. "Who's the cameraman, Katharine Hepburn?" I hear myself saying in this Billy Crystal-impersonating-his-grandfather voice.
When Church knocked, I was in deep: I was wearing a dress from 1987 that had once been sloppily big but now I couldn't zip. I was sorting out the shit Kitty Hawk had left behind -- spiked thigh-high boots and leather tap pants. I wanted to be drunk at noon, had searched the cabinets for liquor, but found only a bottle of peach schnapps. I carried it to the sofa but couldn't drink it. I was, after all, a pregnant woman.
I saw Church's face, distorted by the peephole -- that tiny rich-person's nose grown broad, eyes tightly packed into a pointed forehead -- and I could barely open the door, I was so weak. I scrambled through the ritual of locks and bolts, flung the heavy door open dramatically, and collapsed onto Church's tweed jacket.
"Jesus," he said. "And I thought I was fucked up."
Church was now twenty-eight. He'd been in and out of an assortment of fairly well-to-do colleges. Nothing Ivy League, but the almost-Ivy -- remote, small colleges designed particularly for the well-educated, if-not-extremely-naturally-gifted rich. Bowdoin comes to mind, Colby, Colgate. He'd been a ceramics major because he wanted to get dirty, a philosophy major because he wanted to be allowed to think dirty, a forestry major because he wanted to be one with the dirt, and a pyschology major because he wanted to help people deal with their dirt. But nothing suited him. To understand Church Fiske, you have to understand that he'd never liked being rich, although he came from deep pockets of family money; he was infatuated with the middle class. I hadn't seen him in nearly fifteen years, but we'd talked on the phone every few months, always picking up exactly as we'd left off, flirtatious, smart-ass teenagers. He'd say, "It's all bullshit. It's not real. Ceramics is about function in art, mutually exclusive. And philosophy about look-how-clever-I-am, and forestry run by bitter environmentalists pissed off because they're not rich, and counseling, well, it's the biggest crock of all -- how to fix fragile little wrecks like my mother." And now he had no job, no direction. He'd started the habit of looking for the perfect career way back, wanting to drive the big rigs when he was fourteen. More recently, he'd look at the want ads and circle things like lounge singer, tarot card reader, movie extras -- no pay. He kept saying that he wanted to be in the city to meet real people, to have an authentic experience, snorting, "Whatever that means!"
But there he was, Church in his tweed jacket, his hair rumpled and windblown, his cheeks ruddy, holding his suitcase, and I was relieved to see him.
"Thank God you're here, Church. Everything's turned to shit. The place is a wreck." I scooped up an armful of Kitty's clothes, more of her G-strings and spangled bras and Catholic schoolgirl miniskirts to clear a space on the sofa.
"What's this?" Church said, picking up something so skimpy and lacy that I wasn't really sure if I could identify it.
"Kitty," I said. "My ex-roommate's stuff. I promised to take it down to the Fruit, Cock, Tail Strip Club for her." I sighed. "Jesus, I'm in love with a real dickhead."
"I know. Love is the worst thing of all. It's how life kicks you in the balls." He put his arm around me. "But this guy's not worth it. I can tell. He's a son of a bitch." He didn't know anything about Peter, of course. He was just on autopilot. I certainly wasn't going to tell him I was pregnant. I couldn't believe it myself. "That's why I'm so glad I like women, Lissy. Men are such assholes."
And then Church stood up. "Let me help you. What can I do?" He paused. "Here," he said, picking up Kitty's underthings and overthings, "let me cart these down to the club for you."
I started laughing and then he smiled his Church grin, knowing I'd nailed him. But the truth was, I was in no mood to see Kitty Hawk, and the club was just over on 14th Street, not far. It would give me a chance to throw the extra crap out of his soon-to-be bedroom. I said, "Okay, Church, you asshole, do me a favor and go to a strip club."
He packed the clothes up in a brown paper bag and headed out of the apartment like a proud six-year-old helping his mother with the garbage for the first time. And that's how he met Kitty Hawk and fell in love with her, which eventually led to their short, unstable marriage. Things were at their worst when Church showed up, and I'd thought he'd make it all better. Five hours after he had left for the Fruit, Cock, Tail Strip Club, he showed up again at my door. "And look who I bumped into..." he said, doing a drumroll on the doorjamb and then hitting an air cymbal. "The amazing...Kitty Hawk." He was drunk. She stumbled into the room in spiked heels and a short coat with a fur-lined hood, jabbing him with her elbow, giggling, "She no like me, Churchie-boy. I tell you."
He whispered to me in that loud, drunken whisper, "I think I'm in love!" He pressed one hand to his heart and batted his eyes. "I want to be a hopelessly romantic pervert when I grow up."
I said, "Welcome to adulthood." I felt a surge of nausea -- morning sickness, a misleading term, since it seemed to have a mind of its own, coming and going whenever it pleased. I scrambled out of the room to dry-heave over the toilet.
I'm sure there were some snags in the marriage, but at fifteen I wasn't aware of them. I can recall only that my mother didn't like the way my father whistled while washing his hands in the bathroom and that he complained her perfume was asphyxiating. Aside from these minor annoyances, they seemed happy. I remember seeing them kiss under mistletoe. They linked arms when out walking in town. But I didn't know anything, really, about my mother then.
It was all a surprise to me, beginning that one night when I stumbled from bed, a gawky fifteen-year-old girl (back when gawky was just on the verge of being sexy, but not quite yet) and found my mother in the kitchen, wearing a black bathing suit, standing in the glow of the refrigerator light. She was bent over, leaning in, her head slightly lifted to cool her neck. I can still see her lit up in the refrigerator in that pose, like an immodest starlet on an otherwise dark stage. She was thirty-five and buxom and had full red lips and slightly buck teeth. She'd been weighing her food for a month or so on a little Weight Watchers scale, eager to take off some of her extra padding, but I was jealous of the padding, the soft breasts and full rump. I was all limbs and had already spent many hours that summer eating peanut butter straight from the jar with a spoon, trying not to move, so I could put on some weight, willing it to just the right places, with no luck.
I was used to my mother, on her sleepless nights, rousing me from bed -- purposefully dropped toilet seats, ignored kettle whistles -- for "girl talk," as she put it. It was a term that by the time I got to college with my newfound feminism, I would find insulting, demeaning. I'd see it as a generational distinction between us. I remember constantly reminding her that the women who worked for my father were adults, that calling them girls made them sound like their mothers dressed them every morning in little lacy dresses, shiny Mary Jane shoes, their hair in Bopeep curls. But at fifteen, I loved the idea that my mother and I were equals. And now, looking back, I've come to love the words she chose offhandedly, because I think that in many ways, especially this one summer, we were both still innocent, each on the verge of becoming someone else or, maybe more accurately, growing more into ourselves.
Of course, my father, as a gynecologist, might have been the better choice for teaching me the anatomical goings on of my body. My dad had been raised in Boston by an uptight circle of women: his mother, whom I called Tati, and an unmarried aunt, whom I called Bobo, along with his three primly unattractive sisters. The Vietnam War had been his first experience living with men, aside from a scout camp where he'd lit firecrackers behind the scout leader's back and was sent home in shame, his eyebrows singed. I imagine he decided to be a gynecologist as a retreat, in a way, back to the gentler organs of the female body and the more protected world of his childhood. Despite his expertise in female anatomy, however, my mother never relinquished what she thought of as an educational duty. She was passing on a lifetime of womanly experience and found my father wholly unfit.
"My God, Lissy," she liked to say, "he's a dentist with no teeth, a psychologist without hang-ups. Would you trust a blind eye doctor?" I loved it when she talked to me this way, lowering her head, with her eyebrows lifted, her eyes half closed, the same way she talked to the ladies at the Keene Country Club. I loved it because I was a lonely kid, I guess, restless and bored. I loved my mother's confidential tone, even though at this point she hadn't really begun her confession spree. And I listened to her. I soaked her knowledge up like a dutiful sponge, tagging and filing all her little tips that I now find myself referring to as if they were scientifically proven, forgetting their offhanded, often illogical origins. For better or for worse, my dentist has teeth, my eye doctor has eyes, the only psychologist I ever had was insane, and my gynecologist has a vagina.
But I have to say that up until this one summer night in 1985, my mother's girl talk had been vague and generic. She'd told me not to sit on boys' laps because it gave them stomachaches; she'd mumble "blue balls," a term that, left undescribed, made me envision fragile Christmas decorations. When I got my period for the first time, she laid out all of the necessary hygiene items on my bed, a box of pads and tampons, even a pair of my underwear with a pad already in place. (Evidently, she'd been prepared.) She gave me a hand mirror to help me figure out where a tampon should go, and then she held me for a moment by the shoulders, looking deeply into my eyes. She tilted her head and smiled, then turned, picking up a basket of laundry, and left the room. She preferred to discuss the polishing aspects of lipstick. Occasionally she'd allude to sex and womanly issues, but she told distant blurry stories as if she didn't have sex and she wasn't a woman, really, but she had a good friend who did and was. I could tell that she wanted to give it to me straight, but she was a converted New Englander, tight-lipped and rigid, and, as in any arena, the converts are always the most firm in their beliefs.
That night when she heard me shuffle into the kitchen, she straightened up. "Do you think this suit is flattering?" She swiveled and pivoted, asking in a tone that suggested midday, ignoring any hint that she might have awakened me, no "Did I wake you?" or "Oh, you're up, too?" It was the beginning of summer vacation and, without the threat of early morning wake-up, the breakfast scramble and busstop hustle, there was no reason, really, not to be awake.
I told her that it was okay, but she didn't seem convinced and she shut the refrigerator. I reached for a plastic-coated kitchen chair in the dark and sat down, pulling my bony knees up into my T-shirt, where they stuck out in place of breasts, a knobby shelf for my elbows. I was ready for her to start our regular lessons. But this time, she lit a cigarette -- an occasional weakness about to become more than occasional. The kitchen was dark, a little light thrown in from the hall. The struck match lit her face for a second. She sat down at the table and said, very calmly, almost sweetly, "Your father, the bastard, is sleeping with a redheaded bank teller in Walpole. What do you propose we do about it?"
I wasn't altogether shocked by my mother's language. After all, no one can absolutely shake her roots. I certainly haven't. I had imagined her upbringing in Bayonne, her father's fish shop on Avenue C, where he'd made enough money to send her to a convent school for her last two years of high school and then on to Simmons, a pristine women's college in New England that tidied up anything overlooked by the nuns. But sometimes when she was angry or chewing gum, she became the fish-shop owner's daughter from Bayonne. This was one of those moments. She sat down and pushed back a cuticle with her thumbnail, waiting for my answer.
Once I had finally processed what my mother had said, my first reaction was disbelief. My father seemed too clumsy to be a doctor, much less to have an affair. Sex alone seemed thoroughly complicated to me, but to have it with someone with unfamiliar parts seemed nearly impossible. He seemed to lack both the necessary coordination and bravery. My mother once moved a coffee table three inches farther from the sofa and my father repeatedly nicked his wooden shin, and the real one was bruised for weeks. He was completely unhandy -- and handiness seemed necessary, for some reason, in pulling off something like an affair.
"He doesn't even have a toolbox." It was all I could think to say. "He keeps his screwdrivers in a cut-open milk container. Are you sure he's having an affair? How do you know?"
"He's your father. He gets frazzled pumping gas. You can imagine him in the midst of an affair." She sat down and crossed her legs. "He's all but written it in lipstick across his forehead."
Strangely, I didn't think my father was immoral. I didn't think of sin or anything of that nature. My mother was fairly religious, not above taking the Lord's name in vain, but a constant at weekly Mass and confession. The nuns at the convent school had made an indelible impression. She didn't speak of them often, but when she did, she was reverent. My father, on the other hand, was moderately religious, less likely to swear, but also less likely to attend church, and as far as I know, he never went to confession. We'd always attended a cinder-block church decorated in the fallout from the '60s, orange shag carpet, abstract renditions of the stations of the cross -- spiders on purple felt -- and a chubby Jesus that a parishioner-artist had volunteered to do for the cross, his loincloth so skimpy that whenever I looked up, I felt dirty, as if I were trying to catch a glimpse up his skirt and fearful, too, of what might pop out. In the church's basement, I attended the mandatory CCD classes where I was taught the Hail Mary before I could read. There was a posterboard with pictures of hailstones and the Virgin Mary and because someone didn't know how to draw grace, there was a picture of grapes. And we recited: "Hail, Mary, full of grapes." I went through a devout stage at thirteen, when I was confirmed. I chose Joan of Arc for my confirmation name. In the eyes of the church, my name is Melissa (Lissy) Katherine Joan of Arc Jablonski. The three other girls in the class chose Theresa, as in the Little Flower of Jesus, but she was much too subservient for my taste, finding God while scrubbing floors. But somewhere between my grandiose confirmation at thirteen and the summer of my father's affair when I was fifteen, my religious fervor began settling into murky disinterest, which has since turned into a detached appreciation for my failed attempt at spirituality. I thought that my father's affair was scandalous, incredible, but I wasn't really thinking of it as unethical. However, because of my religious upbringing, I felt comfortable thinking that his affair was so unbelievable that it was nearly miraculous.
Often when I'm remembering my fifteenth summer and, especially, this one particular night, it's as if my mother and I are underwater. The kitchen takes on that thick, underwater feel, that slow, unsyncopated sinking. My mother and I are not strong swimmers. She learned eventually at the convent school to frog-kick with her neck stretched away from the surface like a collie's. And on summer vacations at Lake Winnipesaukee, she taught me the same awkward stroke. I can still see my father, a nonswimmer, on the dock, basking in a foldable aluminum lawn chair, his stump dangling, his fake leg propped idly against the arm of the chair, his good leg resting on its heel. My mother stands breast-deep, her shoulders pink from sun, pinched by the thick straps of her suit, her painted toenails dusted in lake silt. She waits for me, with her arms outstretched, to tip off the sandy shore and paddle into deeper water; my legs churn frantically beneath me, my hands pawing. I had always feared slipping under and settling on the bottom of the silty lake, and this is what I feel in the kitchen, underwater, next to the luminescent refrigerator and under the slow-motion ceiling fan. And although we were sitting there calmly, it's as if my mother and I are holding our noses, the air tight in our lungs, our clipped heartbeats racing in our ears, the panic of the water pressing in.
I remember I asked her straight out, "Do you love him?" I asked it because it seemed like an adult question, and I very much wanted to be adult or, at least, to have my mother respect me like one. And I needed to know. It seemed the most important thing.
My mother stopped and stared at me. On the one hand, she was the fish-shop owner's daughter, the girl who grew up in Bayonne, hard, no-nonsense, the identity she wanted desperately to shed but never really could, and on the other hand, she was the person she dreamed of becoming, that she was promised she could become, the person that I'd believed her to be, for the most part, when I was fifteen: the type of woman who taped down her nipples with Band-Aids under strapless evening gowns, who taught me how to pee without making a tinkling sound, who still believes that a woman should reveal as little as possible about herself. And yet this was when she started to crack; this was the moment, if I were pressed to choose one, that she decided to go ahead and reveal everything, and there was no turning back.
Her cigarette shook between her fingers, her eyes shimmered, and she whispered -- almost mouthed, "He breaks my heart."Copyright © 2001 by Julianna Baggott
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
Lissy Jablonski was fifteen during the summer of 1985. That was the summer her father, a soft-spoken, seemingly passionless gynecologist, up and left her mother for a redheaded bank teller. The same summer Lissy and her mother disappeared from their quiet New Hampshire lives to have an adventure of their own amid a cast of unlikely characters, including a Valium-addicted ex-debutante and a suspected mobster. The summer the reliably comforting "girl talks" with her mother began to reveal startling secrets. It was also the summer that Lissy's mother would ever after refer to as "the summer that never happened."
Now an almost-thirty-years-old advertising executive in Manhattan, faced with her father's imminent death and newly pregnant by her married ex-lover, an unmoored Lissy finds herself looking back across the years. Contending with her affections for an old boyfriend and his doomed marriage to a Korean stripper named Kitty Hawk, as well as the tangible legacies of that unmentionable summer with her mother, she realizes that she has become more like her mother than she ever could have imagined.
In her debut novel, acclaimed short-story writer and poet Julianna Baggott has woven a precise, smartly comic, and compassionate tale of discovery and desire. With a lyrical sensibility, Baggott reminds us -- through the witty and unsparingly realistic voice of her narrator, Lissy -- of the pleasures and sorrows that can come from the most unreasonable realities of the heart.
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Julianna Baggott received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1991. She has published dozens of short stories and poems in such magazines as The Southern Review, Chelsea, Poetry, and Best American Poetry 2000. A recipient of fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference, she won the 1998 Eyster Prize for short fiction.
She lives in Newark, Delaware, with her husband, poet David G.W. Scott, and their three children.