Authors: Susanna Sonnenberg
When I was twenty-three or twenty-four, I went with a few friendsâmenâto a party and was pushed with great crowd
energy from the door into the swell of the party, a central room pressed to the walls with people, mostly known to me, men and their girlfriends. No one was married yet. I was living with roommates then, two women I hardly thought about. Men were my focus, for flirting, sex, information, example, and for friendship. I could observe them, advise and hector them, be mentored and trust their harmless ways. I'd never been taught to know their dangers. Noise rose from the garbled talk on the couches, bounced off the walls. Guests had their arms and elbows lifted to pass, glasses held under their chins, and I was suddenly face-to-face with an older woman.
“I know you!” she shouted. “Your mother ruined my life!”
“Join the club,” I said, thinking she was funny, but she was disgusted.
“It's Mina,” she said. “Remember? Your awful mother ruined my life.”
I remembered Mina, though this gloomy, worn woman bore no trace of that celebrity. I'd never seen her away from Barbados, where we used to go a lot. My grandmother had had an estate, a grand and annexed villa built into the coral cliffs above the sea, and Mina was part of my mother's set, the collection of young English and Americans who drew together each holiday. Once when I was a child, Mina had made an entrance at a Christmas party dressed as a present, sheathed in gold lamÃ© and sashed with red velvet tied in a bow at her hip. My mother adored the nerve. “Look at Mina, everyone! Darling, you're
!” and they hurled into obvious conspiracy, whispers pierced by malevolent surges of volume.
Staring at me, Mina waited, a grim challenge. She'd called my mother “awful,” and meant it, and I had an instant of schoolyard alert. I could tell she wanted me to hear, and I did want more, those specific, missing clues to the dominant woman of my life,
my mother who pulled and pushed, evaporated and materialized, careened, undid things, brambled my intentions; but, also, I didn't want that. I wanted to stop looking for her. Another report of her petulant explosions, her indifferent betrayal, her absolute disappearance? She was a prism against the window, rainbow shards copious but intangible. Who could sort that out? The objectâcut glass, the play of beveled edgesâwasn't mysterious; it was the sorcery of light and sway that beguiled. My mother's friendship with this briefly favored woman had ended, and we never heard Mina's name again. Shamed, I had the instinct to apologize, to say to her, “I was not as aware as I should have been,” but that wasn't my line. I excused myself and struggled through the crowd, away. Whatever she had to tell me, that burnt story of her brief fashion, how convinced she was they'd mattered to each other, how she'd been absorbed, then drained, cast off, her secrets used against herâI didn't need the news. It was in my blood. Women, my young mother had shown me, are the festival. Women are like this: fierce, supreme, capable. And devious and cunning. We lie, we win. And we're this: alluring, witchy. Women make throaty appeals, rant purely, persuade. We are right, but don't trust us. Prize loyalty, but don't count on me.
remember, if I concentrate, the clutter of children, can't see the teacher more than a smudge. She wrote our names on the blackboard, and
in chalk, like fabric in the fingers, is the texture of first grade.
Marjorie was not my friend, but so central, bossy, taller than the rest of us, I never forgot her. She wore white tights and a tartan jumper with large white buttons at the waist to fasten the green straps that crisscrossed her yellow shirt between her shoulder blades (I sat behind her). Her name is still woven into plaid, into my idea of plaid. She was the first girl I saw wear a headband, and she had white patent-leather Mary Janes. The hairband, shiny red plastic, made grooves in the strands at her hairline. I don't remember anyone else in first grade. She commanded all my attention.
I had a certain standing in the classroom, allowed to be off by myself. Sometimes I'd cry. Marjorie would walk over.
“What's wrong?” she said, looming over me, pigtails rooted behind her ears. She hardly ever talked to me.
“I miss my best friend. She died.” There was a pause. I'd suffered, had met the depths of life's mysteries.
“How did she die?”
At home my mother handled the story. “Your very first friend died,” she'd tell me, and get sad, which made me sad. I loved to
hear it: the first attachment beyond family, a tragic ending, my early heart broken but petted and mended by my mother. Sophisticated pain was part of me, and so, too, the passions of friendship. “Her poor mother!” my mother would say. “Just imagine how awful.” I could not imagine, had no image of the woman, but could almost picture the girl, this golden wraith, this perfect beauty. Scarlet fever or a weakened heart, something sneaky, stole my beloved friend away. One day she was there, fine. I could remember us, just about, three-year-olds with chubby wrists and white tights, half a lifetime ago. The next day she was dead: the empty stroller. According to my mother, I was inconsolable at her disappearance. “Don't you remember? You thought she didn't want to be friends with you anymore. You cried and cried. You kept asking where she was.” She stroked the top of my head. “We used to push you in your strollers, side by side.” I searched for any sense of proximity, any warmth. Blond curls? Did we dig in the garden with kitchen things? Did she cry when she dropped Ritz crackers in the dirt? She wasn't mean, ever, of course not. She was the sweetest girl anyone had ever met, not like Marjorie, who scared me, whose voice grated, whose very name bullies my memory. My dead friend gave me her dolls, to keep. She wanted me to have them. She brought candy canes. We read Little Golden Books on the couch and sucked the peppermint. I followed her, waiting my turn as she pushed the clacking bubble toy over the flagstones. In the park we chose the swings, and our mothers stood behind us, didn't they, their doubled voices sweeping far and near. All this I imagined, so I could miss her, feel kin. I pictured her stroller on the sidewalk, the waist strap to hold her in, her Mary Janes kicking up. See her dark curls; she clutched a doll under one arm; her big eyes were hazel, like mine. I tried to cope under this net of confusionâsuggested drama, disappearing picture, willed memory.
“What's wrong, sweetie?” said the teacher, who left what she was doing with the others to come over, crouch next to me, palms down on her stockinged knees. Marjorie walked away.
“My friend.” I sensed longing in the word, but I couldn't quite touch it, arrive there. I needed more. “My friend died.”
“Yes, that's very sad, isn't it? When someone we love dies.”
Feeling better, I went back to the scissor table to work shapes out of construction paper. I kept pet mice, and one of them had died, too. So I knew. I really knew.
Marjorie wrote in big letters, so I started to write mine bigger. Her navy blue kneesocks. A gold pin in her skirt. My mother took me to Gimbel's to buy a tartan kilt with a gold safety pin. The fringe tickled my bare knees. On Mondays Marjorie looked different. Everyone else looked the same. Marjorie said, “You go there and you go here.” “Yes, Marjorie.” “What about me, Marjorie, pick me?” She didn't pick me. After lunch, we came back into our classroom, a slow rope of kids. Marjorie always went to her cubby, took out a white hairbrush and with a flick of fingers freed her pigtails, then brushed her hair.
The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass,
a chapter book I picked because his stern face and white beard haunted me from a classroom poster over my seat. I made a timeline of his life, and the teacher taped it up under the high window. Come see, Marjorie, I wanted to say. I wanted that badly. She had a tutu in her cubby one day, and I asked to have ballet lessons.
On Thursdays I got to leave school early for ballet. My mother at the classroom door, I hurried, got my coat, and we held hands in the hall, which retained the odor of lunch. She sniffed me, the air, asked, “What did you have?” Every Thursday we had baked beans. I'd push them into an island on the plastic plate, saving them for
last. I ate the lunch and the fruit cocktail and then allowed myself the syrupy beans.
One Thursday we had a fire drill at lunch, so loud and drastic it hurt my chest, and all of us stood right up and made a line by one door. The long-limbed second-graders were in giggling lines by other doors. In front of me, Marjorie's pigtails brushed her shoulders. “Shhh,” said the teacher. We filed down the stairs, hands on the shiny black banister, and our teacher led us out the front steps, walked us to a leafy tree down the block, where we stopped and waited. We weren't supposed to talk until we were back inside. Marjorie talked. Not to me, but I stood close. The drill over, we were to go back in, resume what we'd left behind, but we returned to the lunchroom, and I saw just the shock of bare table and that my beans, my favorite comfort, were gone. I decided,
From now on, eat your favorite thing first, in case it gets taken away.
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The ballet teacher wore a long-sleeved leotard, pale tights, and a little flap of skirt tied on the side. We wore ballet slippers with graying strips of elastic to hold them on and black leotards that showed our arms. Madame's hair was stretched into a tiny bun. No matter how I brushed with my white plastic hairbrush, like Marjorie's, my bun was never that smooth and small, so I wore a ponytail, a minor defeat. Mothers sat outside in the hall, pocketbooks in shiny white or black patent leather in their laps. My father came to collect me, itself strange and wonderful because I didn't get to see him every day, and I liked this best about the class. Madame's voice beat at us, “
” and I looked again at the clock, the white chunks of five minutes, and
. At the end of the lesson, the insides of
my thighs clutching and hurting and my forehead tight from the pull of the ponytail, I checked the door for my father. Then he would come.
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In the fall I started second grade at a new school, ten epic blocks further north, and my old school, with its unique banisters, fire-drill routines, Marjorie, melted away. I no longer took ballet. I didn't miss it or miss anyone. What I saw was me, my existence central, the starting point on the timeline. I met Jenny and Gwen. My teacher, Joe, flicked the light on and off to quiet us. When I noticed him walking toward the switch, my stomach would jump. Here it comes, and was I the only person who understood the ache of anticipating? I liked to slip out to the gray hallway, seek the bathroom. I didn't want whatever was next, didn't want to sort dry beans into egg-carton compartments. I didn't trust the lunches of
arroz con pollo,
nor the long tables instead of desks. In the stall I latched the metal door and sat, aligning the toes of my black patent-leather shoes with the black-and-white tiled patterns on the floor.
I am seven,
I thought. I lay on the tiles to cool my face.
My parents are getting a divorce today, and I am the oldest I have been in my entire life. I will always be older than I've ever been before.
I thought I knew everything.
I didn't think much about the dead little friend, although my mother liked to bring her up; Marjorie didn't exist. Jenny and Gwen were real, every morning we hoped to be assigned the same table. I was riveted, documented themâJenny, her narrowed eyes, the jut of her chin, the brown hair in a blunt cut to her shoulders. She showed me how to subtract three-digit numbers, how to carry the one, her hand on my paper as she slashed a line through the zero, wrote in a tiny, precise
Gwen had string bracelets and the
ends of her braids bounced against her collarbone when she ran. We raced each other in the park during PE, trying to let the other one win. “Is Jenny your best friend?” my mother asked. “Or is it Gwen? Which one?” Jenny or Gwen invited me over and I went with them after school. I stayed for dinner, sent home in a taxi. Jenny's mother unloaded groceries, fridge door held open with a big hip, as she asked us which words we'd suggested for the classroom's homonym list. Weight and wait, I said. “Good job,” she said. Gwen's mother called me “lovie,” just as she did Gwen. She let Gwen bring home the turtles over the summer and one year the bunny, too. The fathers came home, elaborate noises of keys and voices we heard from the pretty bedrooms, and the girls rushed out. Men missing from the woken daytime and the solid life of schoolâtheir role was to appear.
One day on the way home, my mother and I stopped into a soda fountain. She had come to pick me up from school, where she dimmed the other parents who stood outside our door, as we put our chairs upside down on the tables and gathered for dismissal. I walked next to her down Madison Avenue, tried skipping, walked again, took her hand and inspected it. It was very sunny. She suggested in her sunny voice, “Let's get ice-cream sodas.” She ordered her special black-and-white, Coca-Cola with a scoop of vanilla fizzing it up. I got rice pudding. We sat at a table by the window, bright day on our faces.
I looked at the counter and there was Marjorie.
Marjorie, at the counter, with a woman.
How could Marjorie
? My departure from my old school had ended everyone. The school ceased. Butâhere, nowâMarjorie was still going, being tall, fiddling with the button on her jumper. Separate from me experiencing her, she had continued; she had her own timeline, was her own center. I looked at my mother and
shock flooded me: when my mother wasn't in front of me, she still
. New thoughts raced in, uninvited, an onslaughtâthe larger universe, experiences that were unknowable. I didn't know if I should keep eating my pudding, as everything had changed. The strange wisdom kept widening, ways of knowing altering the truth, and fattening mine.