Tuesday, July 26, 2011
You can talk to the animals, and they can talk to you
The day of the big birthday party came, a clear Sunday right before spring, and we could already tell the food was going to be a smashing success. To get it across the street undetected, Val and I had to carry it together in batches at five am before any snoops were out of bed. She waited on the stoop while I brought her one armload after another; then I went back up for the ones I would carry. I had told Graham that I was catering a job under the table, but I sure hadn’t told him it was for Blondie. He had never met Val, and I wasn’t about to have him meet her now. I had enough on my plate without him hovering in the deli waiting for a glimpse of her up close. But it seemed he was just happy to have the tax free income coming in, so he didn’t ask too many questions.
As the guests rolled in, they were an interesting mix of ages and types, culled from among Spencer’s friends (Spencer was Val’s dad) and blood relations. Spencer was no taller than Val, blond and freckled, and had a neatly trimmed greying beard and brilliant green eyes. He was slim and a natty dresser, wearing a well-fitted tweed blazer with suede elbow patches and Oxford loafers, and covering his bald spot with an Ivy cap, which he hung on the hat rack when he came in.
Val’s mom, on the other hand, looked sad and harried, extremely thin and wrinkling at what seemed like an early age. She dressed in mouse grey, like a little nun, and in a style designed to conceal her figure, mostly sticking beside Val’s sister, Margaret. Margaret was a rambunctious, chestnut haired teen with a loud, contagious laugh and deep hazel eyes flecked with gold, and looked like a younger, joyful version of her mother. Val most closely resembled her dad.
I was doing double duty on kitchen prep and guest service, and was doing a magnificent job, if I may say so myself. Val had actually asked me to be a guest at this party in addition to catering, I remembered, but neither one of us had anticipated how elaborate the menu would turn out to be. I was only able to come out of the kitchen long enough to replenish platters or clear and wash stacks of used plates, carefully hand washing each one since they came from Grandma’s special Limoges.
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on the hand-whipped cream for the apple tarts and was thinking about how to arrange the candles on top, I heard the sickening pop of delicate glass hitting hardwood from the living room. I put down my whisk and grabbed a big towel, running out to see what had happened.
Val was standing over a stretch of hardwood floor with a saucer in her hand, tipped slightly forward, and her mom was glaring at her with an intensity that I didn’t like the looks of. Val and her dad were staring down at the floor sadly, both of them looking as if they wished that what was broken could be unbroken.
“I can’t believe you could be so clumsy,” Val’s mom said between clenched teeth. “Those cups are the same ones your grandmother had when your father was a little boy. How could you?”
“For God’s sake, Matty, leave the poor girl alone. It’s just a cup. She didn’t do it on purpose,” Spencer snapped, reaching over to touch Val’s hair. She pulled back.
“It’s OK, Dad, I just need a minute. I’ll be right back.” Val headed around the corner up the hall to her bedroom, tears beginning to stream down her face as soon as she hit the hallway. After I had swept up the broken bits, I went in to check on her. The party seemed to re-gather steam on its own, Spencer taking the wheel, Val’s mom retreating into herself and stepping around behind Margaret.
When I got back to Val’s bedroom, she was sitting on the all too familiar bed, intermittently sniffling and pulling herself together.
“Your Dad’s right, Val,” I said, putting an arm around her. “It’s just a cup. Can I get you some water? Your Mom sure flipped out, though. You can’t let that get to you.”
“It’s not her fault, Shel. She has a right to feel that way. There’s a whole lot more that’s broken than that cup.” The tears started streaming again, with Val struggling against them to the best of her ability.
“What does that mean, sweetie? Do you want to tell me?” I looked at her, waiting.
She looked up at me, suddenly calmer. “You know, I have just one, really two girlfriends, and they both know about me, because what I have to carry is too much for me by myself. I’m not proud of it. It’s something I’ve been fighting as long as I can remember. I thought it would end as soon as I was old enough to walk out. But it hasn’t. It hasn’t.” She paused, closing her eyes.
“My Dad and I have been sleeping together since I was 12, for the last 14 years.”
I knew there was no room here for me to cry or yell, although I wanted to do both. She looked so resolved, so strong, as if this were an immoveable object that she had no will against, no control over. This was obviously not a new confession for her, and she had the demeanor of someone who wanted to take a step, change her life, but was somehow caught in a web she didn’t know how to untangle.
“Are you getting any help for this?” I asked lamely.
“Oh, yeah, I go to therapy, except we don’t talk about the part when I was a kid. But just when I seem to be making progress, everything goes back the way it was. Nothing has happened between us for almost eight months now. But after what just happened – that’s the kind of thing that usually causes us – him - a setback.”
I looked at her a minute longer. “I don’t think therapy helps unless you tell everything. I’m no expert, believe me. But it might be better after all this time if you just started over, without your family. Has he ever bothered your sister?”
“No, but I’m afraid if I leave, he’ll try. She’s almost nineteen, and pretty soon I’ll feel good about her standing up for herself with me gone. In fact, she might almost be someone who could cold-cock him, even if he is Dad, if he ever tried a thing like that. She’s a lot like my mom that way. But not yet.” She blew her nose and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Come on, I’m sorry I laid my trip on you, but we’d better get back out there. I’ll be OK.”
I hugged her, and we went back out together, now seemingly sharing most of the major secrets of the twentieth century. But oddly, there was something about her that still held me at a distance, inexplicably, making it impossible to feel as if we had actually become friends, even after what she had shared with me. I wondered if that was the case with her other two friends, and whether she found it easier to be close that way with Ray – or if it was me who held her at a distance.
The whole situation with Ray suddenly fell into place for me, and although I still felt broken hearted for Nannette, who I hoped would never find out, I understood why Val couldn’t see what she had done with Ray the way I did. I resolved then that I would act like her friend, whether I felt like I was close to her or not.
When we got back out to the party, people were moving toward the dining room. Val’s mom and Margaret had gone into the kitchen and gotten the whipped cream and put out the apple tarts, and everyone was gathering around the big table to sing happy birthday. A friend of Spencer’s was lighting the candles with a lighter. Val got there just in time to start the chorus, nothing left of her tears but a little red around her blonde lashes. “Happy birthday to you . . .”
After he’d blown out the candles, Spencer gave Val a big hug and then planted a kiss right on her ear. I wanted nothing more than to grab a meat fork and jam it into his neck. But I figured that was probably illegal, so I suppressed the thought. Suddenly I wondered what Ray would do to old Spencer if he knew, but I figured I’d better put that idea away too. “Yay,” I said instead, along with all the others. “Happy birthday.”
It was hard not to think about all the people I’d known who were willing to pay a huge price just to be loved. Barb and I had both been there. So had all those Moonie kids who sold flowers under the freeway to earn their fake Father’s approval and a peanut butter sandwich. I thought about how hard Jacki worked for a guy she called Father, how she ran herself ragged for him, and hoped for her sake it was worth it. None of us was any different from Val.
After the guests had left, we cleaned up the party mess together, Val and I, wrapped up all the leftovers for her to keep, and washed and put away every piece of Limoges in the china cabinet, with only one saucer missing its cup.
“You know what?” I said, as she was drying the last soup bowl. “My grandma Daisy broke a china plate from her set once, and she found a replacement that was so good you couldn’t tell which one was the new one. You want me to ask my mom about how to get a new cup? She and I haven’t spoken in about two years, and this might be a good time to try.”
Val turned and looked at me. “You should talk to your mother whether you ask her about the cup or not. Two years? What’s the matter with you? But if you want to ask her about the cup too, I’d really like that.”
“Consider it done,” I said, and felt all at once that somehow that afternoon, at some moment I could not put my finger on, Val and I had become friends after all.
And two years. What WAS the matter with me? But that was a question for another day.
My portfolio, my professor told me, had a special quality, good enough that pieces from it would be featured in the Spring Show that the Institute put on each year close to graduation. To have your work shown at the Institute was an honor that not everyone was selected for, let alone a sophomore, an honor that one had to show significant promise to achieve.
I had Bruno to thank for that. Bruno had taken me to the zoo one afternoon as promised, having acquired the day off for me from Ray, with pay. The guilt of planning to cater under the table behind Ray’s back, combined with what Valerie had told me that Sunday morning at her apartment, weighed heavy on me that day when I met Bruno, but it didn’t take too many meep-meeps and “Why so sad, Tranquilla”s before I was my old self again, settling into the warm, quiet place of trust and family that I always felt when I was under Bruno’s protection.
And that’s how I always felt when I was with Bruno – protected. I had never felt that way with anyone before, not with my parents, and certainly not with Bob and Graham, as much as I cherished their bright spirits and their elegant minds. Bruno’s very presence, his self-confident, gentlemanly demeanor, and that of his friends, made me feel as if no harm could ever come to me, as if the world could crash down around me and he would order it put back together for my pleasure, and it would be so.
So the pictures I took that day reflected my eye and my sensibility at their best, my mind unruffled by fear or uncertainty. Among them was a herd of camels, lined up with their long, powerful teeth enmeshed in the chain link fence that held them captive. A massive boar pinned to earth by his own weight, with a sparrow dancing lightly on his back. Two elephants side by side, one smaller, the trunk of the larger one slung around the shoulders of his petite companion as if they were old sweethearts on a date.
When I had spent all my film, Bruno bought a brick of pink popcorn for us to share, and took me over to the swings. We sat in one leather sling seat together, feet on the ground, rocking back and forth as the few weekday visitors frolicked and slid and dug in the coarse, rocky sand around us, their mothers watching cautiously. Late afternoon fog was beginning to fall, and the damp, bone-penetrating waterfront chill that haunted Sloat Boulevard in the springtime threatened to send us home soon.
“Tranquilla,” he began. “You know you’re my special girl, what you mean to me. Do you know?” He looked straight ahead as I glanced over at him, the damp sea air bringing a fresh color into his cheeks and making his breath form little clouds as he spoke. His body was warm against me, reminding me of how safe he made me feel. He hadn’t had a father to lean on himself growing up, and yet he had somehow figured out how to project a paternal strength like no other man I’d known.
“I do know, sweetie. And you are special to me. More than you know, I think.” As I spoke, he turned to look at me, and his ice blue eyes, usually charged with energy and a hint of bravado, were somehow soft and vulnerable.
“I don’t want you to live with Graham any more, Tranquilla. I’ll help you, if you need me. If it’s the rent, I can take care of that. But I need to know, for sure, that you are just for me. Will you let me help you find a place of your own? Please?”
My heart went out to him, and right then as I looked back at him I longed to show him that he was the only one. Right in that moment, an old familiar book finally slammed shut for me and a new one opened, a new book with a story inside that allowed me to be a woman of worth, someone who mattered, someone who was loved. My worry for his safety, after what Valerie had told me about Ray, only enhanced my protectiveness of him, and increased my loyalty. I longed to talk these feelings over with someone, with another woman, someone like Jacki. I missed her so much, and wanted desperately to reach her. Still, something made me stop short of calling the Temple.
I answered, “Really, I don’t know why I haven’t done it sooner. Graham and I have been just roommates for a while, and you mean more to me than to leave you wondering like that. I am just for you, Bruno, and nobody else. So I’ll start looking right away. And it’s not the rent. I can handle the rent on my own. I want to handle it on my own. This is something I want to do for me, and for us.”
We wrapped our arms around each other and he buried his face in my collar, his warm breath filling me up with comfort and sweet companionship. We drifted there for a few more minutes, until finally the bone-chilling air coming in off the beach was too much for us.
“Let’s get outta here, mia. But first I wanna ride the elephant train. I have just enough tickets left after the merry-go-round. Can we? Just once around.” He sounded so much like a little boy asking his mommy I had to laugh.
“Ok, Brunino, just once around, but we have to be home in time for dinner,” I jabbed, and he fake punched at me, smiling. Holding hands, we jumped up into the car with the blue elephant, his favorite, and nestled down into the seat, wiggling with cold and anticipation. And for that day, that precious day and a few more, we believed we had a lot to anticipate, all of it good.