Authors: Helen Oyeyemi
Three colored teenagers, two girls and a boy, came in just after lunch and stayed for hours, just sitting by the bookshelves, reading. After they spent four hours without a purchase, I was ready to kick them out and went to ask Mrs. Fletcher’s advice, but she said: “Don’t you bother those kids.”
She didn’t seem to care that they weren’t buying anything, so I said: “They ought to be in school.”
“That’s your opinion,” she said. “That’s what you think.”
“Don’t blame me when it turns out some of your stock has been stolen.”
She stared at me as if I had three heads and she was curious about which one was boss. “Just don’t let the youngest eat apples around my books, that’s all.”
“How am I supposed to tell which one’s the youngest?”
“Don’t annoy me, Boy.”
I thought she was terrific, and hoped she liked me, but she was clearly very precise in the allocation of her affections, so she probably didn’t. At six-thirty, an hour after the store was supposed to close and only half an hour after the kids had put their books back on the shelves and sauntered out, I heard her hooting with laughter and put my head around the door of the back room, thinking I’d better take advantage of her good mood and ask if she wanted me to come back the next day. She was leafing through the obituaries section of the newspaper and wouldn’t let me in on the joke, but said: “See you tomorrow.”
I took a magazine quiz on the bus home, but I knew the result before I added the figures up. I wasn’t in love with Arturo, and I wasn’t going to be. You don’t need a quiz to tell you these things; they don’t escape your notice. The flag stuffed into the back of my wardrobe was there because someone had once draped it around my shoulders in such a way that the touch of his fingers made me feel like a million bucks. That’s not how it was with Arturo. He held me so tightly that numbness stretched all the way down my arms and only let go a few minutes after he did. It wasn’t as nice a feeling as the flag around my shoulders. But I felt more certain of it because it lasted longer.
eople—well, Mia and Webster—told me I should make Arturo take me out more. Webster gave me lectures. “You don’t seem to understand how quickly a man will stop treating you right if you let him. So when he gives you half-assed invitations like ‘Hey, why not drop by for potluck tonight?’ you can’t stand for that, Boy.”
Tra la la, I can and will.
She didn’t know about his grilled cheese sandwiches. I’d asked him what made them taste so good and he’d closed my hand up into a fist, wrapped his own hand around the fist, and told me: “This much butter.”
Webster’s lecture persisted, but my attention wouldn’t stick. She had a lot of powder on, which made me think of geishas. She was probably right, though; she was wise in the ways of getting what you want; she was walking on air and sporting an engagement ring with a rock so notable that I and the other boarding house girls took to including it in our conversations, addressing it as “Gibraltar,” demanding that it take sides.)
I made excuses. I was tired of my date dress. In fact I felt a little violent toward it. I’d open my bedroom closet and the red silk would shrink and shudder among the clothes hangers, as if it knew that I was on the brink of tossing it onto a trash heap. There was no need to go public with Arturo. I was happy to go to the Salome Club with Mia and a couple of her family friends, different ones each time. Her half brother came along one night too—her father’s son, a gangly fellow with a passing resemblance to Frank Sinatra. His name was Rocco, and he knew how to lean in and light a girl’s cigarette with a look and a smile that had me stubbing my cigarette out whenever his attention was elsewhere, just so he’d light up another one for me. It could have been the way he guarded the flame with his palm, the unexpected care with which he carried it up toward your lips; who knows what makes a man’s gesture attractive?
If you’re not afraid of a real night out, hit the town with guys who just got out of jail. They’re the ones who can’t be kept off the dance floor—they’ll dance till they drop, and even when they’re stretched out flat on the floor, they’ll still shake their ankles. Sometimes our companions didn’t speak much English and communicated with me through smiles and mimed gestures. It was nice. Their questions were some of the simplest there are.
Will you have another drink? Care to dance?
Simple to give clear answers to—
I sat out the meaningful slow dances and sipped my sarsaparilla with closed eyes, trying to squeeze every drop of meaning out of the love songs. According to Kitty Kallen, little things mean a lot.
Mia’s “Secret World of Blondes” had been the subject of enough
letters to the editor for the paper to let her go ahead with a new piece. Her plan was to attend catechism classes with three girls and be an eyewitness to the preparations that led all the way up to each girl’s Mexican, Italian, or Irish Holy Communion. By the time she’d attended one class with each girl, she already had a title: “Lucrezia Borgia Never Died
So Mia was all right and I was to be one of Webster’s bridesmaids. I’d become respectable overnight, was greeted on the street with cheery variants of “What’s new?” instead of blank glances. Flax Hill had begun to see the point of me. Aside from bridesmaid duties, I was holding down a job at a bookstore notorious for having an owner who’d as soon fire her assistants as look at them. And I apparently had something to do with the renewed spring in Arturo Whitman’s step, as well as his tone-deaf whistling of show tunes.
I hear singing and there’s no one there . . .
All it would take was a single comparison to Julia Whitman and I’d be right back to square one. I didn’t add up to much when placed beside old J. W. I couldn’t think of many members of the non-movie-star population who did. I looked at photos of Julia, and listened to her voice on the vinyl recordings she’d made for her daughter. In a way they were practice for her. She was an opera singer; great onstage, but she’d signed a contract and was due to start work on her classical record once she’d recovered from having Snow. But in these recordings she didn’t sound operatic—she was a mother singing her daughter lullabies; her appeal was for love, not for admiration.
She’d left notebooks filled with handwritten recipes for the
wartime cook: four different kinds of butterless-eggless-milkless cake, tens of tips for stretching meat and sugar rations as far as they would go. She’d also left a list of all the names she’d considered giving to Snow. There were hundreds of them. She had wanted her daughter very much; anyone could see that. The multitude of names didn’t seem like indecision—Julia Whitman was trying to summon up a troop of fairy godmothers. Somewhere in among the names of all those mermaids, warriors, saints, goddesses, queens, scientists, and poets I could see a woman trying to cover all the bases, searching for things her daughter would need in order to make friends with life. Conscience, resolve, loyalty, the kind of far sight that Mia wanted, the fearlessness to cross strange borders, whatever it was that gave Alice the guts to stick up for herself when Tweedledum and Tweedledee informed her she wasn’t real. I sat with those names for hours while vaguely worrisome sheets of smoke poured out from under the door of Arturo’s workroom. I’ve always wanted to know whether Boy is the name my mother wanted for me, and if so, what kind of person the name was supposed to help me grow up into.
Julia and I wouldn’t have been friends. She looked like a bashful Rapunzel, dark hair pinned up high, doe eyes always downturned or gazing off to the side in every single photograph. I don’t trust anyone who poses like that any farther than I can throw them. I think I know the drill: Mrs. Whitman only let down her hair when Mr. Whitman had been a good boy. He probably even thought their getting married was all his idea. These were things I couldn’t really say to anyone. I’d have been able to say them only from a disinterested position. But I was
grateful too, grateful to Julia in yet another way I couldn’t tell anyone about. She’d left me her husband, who didn’t expect much from me. He’d had his great love. And now he was willing, determined even, to be amused, to belly laugh at the slightest provocation, to appreciate heart-shaped pieces of toast as tokens of my affection. On our first night together I kept thinking,
Do I, do I, do I, do I . . .
Do I what?
Something to do with wanting, or daring.
We sat facing each other, cross-legged on his bed, and the lamp light laid a strip of gold along his bare shoulders. I leaned forward so that there were mere inches between our faces and he could smell me. I smelt of soap and musk. I’d made sure of that. Not too animal, not too pure. The idea was that his reaction would show me what to do next.
He didn’t move. He didn’t even blink. We were both naked, and his arm was spread loosely across the bedspread; I’d moved so that his right hand was just behind me, less than an inch away. And he was aroused, he was visibly aroused. All he had to do to bring our bodies together was raise his hand to the small of my back. Instead of doing that he gave me this reserved but friendly smile. A smile from an official portrait—a politician’s.
Vote for me.
It felt like time to put my clothes on again, then add an extra layer of clothes on top of those clothes, for additional modesty. I used to make fun of women who ask men the question “What are you thinking?” but that night I got dangerously close to becoming one of them.
I asked: “Should I . . . leave?”
“Do you want to leave?”
“No,” I said. “But . . .”
“Stay,” he said, in a comfortable tone of voice, as if this was just the kind of conversation he preferred. (Later I asked him about this and he said: “I had a feeling it was your first time and I was trying not to rush you. I thought I was doing so well.”)
I switched off the lamp and returned to the bed to find him stretched out on his back, breathing easily. I curled up beside him, found his ear, and whispered: “Tell me what you want me to do.”
“Boy . . .” He stroked my cheek with the back of his hand.
I described the options to him one by one. I devised a minimum of twenty, each new configuration of body parts arriving in my mind with some kind of diabolical inspiration before I’d even fully dealt with the previous image. I used language that would have made Webster fall down in a faint. I promised him that he could have me in any way that he wanted, then I went on before he could choose. He nuzzled my collarbone a couple of times, and laughed at some of my more outlandish descriptions; because we were so close together and couldn’t see each other clearly, it began to feel as if we were school friends plotting some ridiculous prank. He was a good listener. But I can’t remember now exactly when he stopped listening and I stopped talking, at what point our breathing changed, fingernails dug into skin, and he covered my mouth with his so that I cried out into him. The whole thing kind of astounded me. I’d expected to have to explain to him about my being Winter in Siberia, but in the end I got to keep that to myself.
So there was the man (I began to think of him as mine when I told him about the rat catcher and he half seriously offered to drive down to New York, kneecap him, and bring me back a slice
of pie from my favorite diner). And there was the home, with its long, low-ceilinged rooms. The floorboards were so snugly fitted that walking across them was like gliding across a bank of honey. There were no clocks, no real sense of time passing. It was the kind of house you went to in order to get well. Some nights I’d walk back to the boarding house from Arturo’s house and see the stars through the tree branches, nestled in between the leaves as if they’d grown there. It wasn’t just the man and the house, there was more. “I don’t mean much to you, do I?” Arturo teased. “I’m just . . . you know, Snow’s dad.”
What was it about Snow? Some days she was just another little girl who considered the presence of green vegetables and the absence of a Fluffernutter sandwich on her dinner plate such a great tragedy that she’d cry until her face was swollen. She wasn’t yet seven, but seemed a few years younger. Partly because she hadn’t yet learned to smile even when she didn’t feel like it, and partly because she was inattentive in the way that kids are when they’re still learning to speak—always looking above or behind you while you’re talking to them, their heads wobbling with concentration, as if they’re receiving secret information that’s much more important than anything you have to say. Her eyes were the shade of hazel that doesn’t seem able to decide whether it’s brown or green.
If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it. She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it. She’d pat your arm, and say, “Everything is okay. Everything is normal,” and you took her word for
it. Sometimes I think it was a trick of hers, deciding aloud what was going on so that everyone who loved her fell over themselves to make it so. Sometimes I think we needed her to be like that and she obliged. It’s sad if that’s true—I’m thinking of the time she crawled down the staircase on her hands and knees to announce that there was a troll in her room. Arturo asked her where exactly the troll was. Under her bed, in the closet? She said: “It is in all the room. Come see.”
I would have gone with her, but Arturo got mad at her for not saying please, of all things, and refused to indulge her.
That’s enough, Snow. Back to bed with you
. I added: “That silly old troll will be gone by the time you get back into bed. You’ll see.”
She said okay, and went back upstairs slowly, shivering. In the morning I asked her if the troll had disappeared like I’d promised. I asked real quietly, so Arturo didn’t hear. She used a few spoonfuls of applesauce to draw a smiley face on her plate, and when she’d finished, she said: “Mmm hmmm, no more troll.” She was lying, though; I could tell. As far as she was concerned, the troll hadn’t gone anywhere, and would remain just as long as it pleased. All she could do was try to sleep in spite of it. I hate the thought of her trying, trying. Not just with her troll, but with me too, right from the beginning.