On Familiar Terms
n., descriptive, usually with direct objects. At the turn of the twentieth century, Hattie Little married a quiet, polite, hard-working Yankee who’d come south to find work, which he did, as a sawyer for a lumber mill, and also found her, a small woman with waist-length auburn hair, a spotless record of attendance at the Presbyterian church, and a love of dancing parties. They married and had three daughters (and two stillborn sons whose headstones were in the backyard). The first daughter became a librarian and married a man with orange groves in Florida. The second was a bit of a flapper, flirtatious and partial to the Charleston, and she eloped. The youngest, Eleanor, asked for violin lessons. She had learned to read music by copying the notes from her eldest sister’s piano étude books. Eleanor’s father, the Yankee sawyer and a fine carpenter, gave her an old fiddle that had belonged to his father. It was enough to learn on, but the sound was terrible. The New Orleans Times–Picayune ran a weekly essay contest; she won it weekly until she had fifty dollars and could order from the Montgomery Ward catalogue a new violin, with case, bow, and a cake of real rosin. The sound wasn’t altogether terrible it was fairly awful. Until then, she had scraped sap, dry and hardened, from pine bark. Her father was himself a serious aficionado of classical music, and because of that was considered a little strange, but Hattie was so well liked that the neighbors put up with the music. This was in Louisiana—bayou country—and then Mississippi.
In South Carolina, a lawyer who loved Shakespeare, frequently rereading the plays in his office when he was supposed to be working, married a woman seventeen years younger than he. She was slender and dark haired, with piercing eyes; he was redheaded, going gray, and eventually went white. She taught drama and mathematics. She was herself dramatic and told outrageous stories. She would have been a princess, she said, if an ancestor had not thrown away her crown to marry a Portuguese commoner. She told her children they were descended from John Marshall, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Huguenot ancestors had fled from Switzerland to Ireland. She began to believe her stories. The lawyer and the drama teacher had two boys and two girls. (The younger girl, discovering that their cat had had a litter of kittens in the rain, brought the kittens indoors and tried to dry them out by putting them in the oven. She had turned it on so they wouldn’t catch a chill.) The town held the lawyer in high esteem—“Judge” they called him—but he would work only for the defense and, sadly, Rock Hill had few people who needed defending. When his chief client—his brother(!)—died, the Judge went broke. Very broke. As broke as a rusted bike with no wheels, no basket, and no seat. No handles, either. Their youngest child, a boy, heard a violin being played, was ravished by the sound of it, and made one from a cigar box following directions from The Book of Knowledge. He’d thought a violin made the most beautiful sound he ever heard, but the violin he’d made for himself did not, quite. The sound was so disappointing that he immediately constructed another violin, this time from pine bark, using a penknife to carve the f holes. He got a job as a paperboy and saved his money until he could order an even better violin from Sears, Roebuck; it came with a cardboard case, a cake of rosin, and a copy of the National Tutor, a home-study method.
syn. Golden oldies.
Art and Eleanor
compound subj. As people do, Art and Eleanor began as individuals. Art was the youngest in a genteel family fallen on hard times in South Carolina. Eleanor grew up in a bayou in Louisiana, where white egrets were a dime a dozen. Separately each discovered the violin in childhood and never doubted what they wanted to do, and when, having met, they realized they could do it together, they married and started a string quartet. They had to go outside the family to find the cellist and violist.
In the beginning, they were very much alike, but time charged them with a consciousness of particular tasks. Nearly mute with shyness, Ellie learned to dicker with tradespeople. She checked and double-checked the household account. To save money, she rolled her own cigarettes with a little tin gadget. She urged Arthur to ask for a raise. (Teaching violin and theory did not pay well.) She went to work herself. Her boss chased her around the desk, but she managed to keep him at arm’s length. She started an insurance agency and then she and Arthur each had two full-time jobs, plus the string quartet. Plus: Art taught summer school, accepted a year-round job as music director for a Methodist church, and established the Commonwealth Symphony. Plus: Eleanor developed a method for removing wallpaper and tried to market it, but someone stole the idea. Plus: this, that, and the other. When could they parent? There was no time for parenting. The kids were smart: Ellie and Art let them parent themselves. Perhaps the kids were not quite smart enough to avoid borrowing strangers’ cars, reading during arithmetic, and getting bashed in the forehead with a baseball bat. Eleanor worked late at her day job. Arthur believed she was having an affair and pounded on the door to her office and yes, there was a man. A warm summer night. All the other offices dark. Art is quaking with rage, his voice louder than he himself has ever heard it. Are they having an affair? She says no, they are not having an affair, but the man says nothing, which Art takes to mean that they are having an affair. A fistfight is proposed, but Art is, after all, a violinist. His hands are important to him. Although she insists there is no affair, Ellie is annoyed that Art is unwilling to fight for her. The man, the man, the man—a corporal!—well, he walks out of the office and drives home, which leaves Art and Ellie facing each other under a buzzing fluorescent light tube. Where are their children? On Blueberry Hill? At a movie? A soda shop? Reading in their rooms? Hanging out with lowlifes? They could be squatting in a derelict basement, zonked on drugs, except this was two decades before the middle class squatted or got zonked on drugs. As the aunt who cooked the kittens said, “When parents love each other more than they love their children, everybody suffers.”
Ellie perhaps has always wanted Arthur to be more like her father, but for that to happen she would have to be more like a daughter, and she can’t be a daughter when she has to be a mother. Except that she can’t be a mother because she has to work all the time. Maybe she likes working, but that doesn’t make work not a necessity.
Arthur has a slightly different view; he thinks she needs him to keep her—in fact, the family—on an even keel. It is true that they seem to be always just one crisis away from catastrophe.
Several members of the nuclear family have on different occasions had the same thought: that someone among them loves drama. Loves the Sturm und Drang of it. But who could that be? There is nothing they would like better, they say—individually and collectively—than to live in peace and quiet. Before assuming that they are all guilty, we must remember that each has made strenuous efforts to escape the noise and confusion.
The Watchful Child
n. phr. The one who notices when Mother is angry, Father is hurt, Brother feels trapped, and Sis is scared. Or perhaps there is no Brother, no Sis, and the child must be a marriage counselor. Or perhaps Father has died, and the child becomes Mother’s friend. Or Mother has deserted the family, run off with the manager of a chain of sporting goods stores in another state, and the child tries to take her place, packs a school lunch for Sis, polishes Brother’s shoes at night as if the family lived in a hotel and not a house. Father lingers late at work, so the child helps Sis with her homework. Mother leaves her lover and returns on a train; she won’t say why she left him. Brother is angry with her. Mother fights with Brother—voices in the dining room, urgent, heated whispers, things said that seem incomplete, referential, so that the child will spend a lifetime puzzling them out—and when Mother flees into her bedroom and slams the door, the child listens to Brother’s story of how it was, their fighting, how it has been for as long as he can remember. The child can see the tears he does not shed. The child knows the Mother is a bright beautiful spirit eclipsed by circumstance. That Father is tenderhearted and wants more than anything for Mother to love him. The watchful child is the one who anticipates crisis and calamity, flinching when the telephone rings. The watchful child keeps a weather eye out, registering minute shifts in temperature and pressure. The watchful child has made plans to escape, but worries that to leave the past behind is to betray it. The watchful child is afraid to blink, lest everyone disappear.
Everyone. For starters, there is no Sis; there is no manager of a chain of sporting goods stores.
See also giving; caring; panic attacks; would rather be heard than seen.
(ex. “The watchful child, awake in the dark, glances at the Mickey Mouse clock on the nightstand. Mickey’s yellow-gloved hands point to ten and two.”—Unknown. ex. “The watchful child observes the flowering snow.”—Anon.)
syn. The child who writes everything down, to keep it safe. To keep it. The child who is afraid of being abandoned.
ant. A child who has been made welcome. The child who feels worthy enough to justify the parents’ appalling sacrifices, the constant hardship of their lives. Their lack of freedom. The necessary forfeit of their closeness—those fall weekends watching football with a shared blanket over their laps, those mornings when they slept late on the screened porch, laughing, trying not to give themselves away to the milkman settling his bottles on the stoop.
n., adj. The son. He holds two opposing ideas about himself: that he is a genius, and that he is a stupid person merely posing as a genius. The tests tell him one thing, and his fear of exposure tells him the other.
Other people’s expectations burden him, especially his parents’, but also his teachers’. He stops practicing the piano, because if he sticks with it he will have to become a great pianist, and he is not positive he has it in him to become a great pianist. He likes to draw and paint, but is he Michelangelo? Probably not. He likes acting, but really, how manly can an actor be, playing make-believe? He decides to become a writer.
But first he wants to get in Susan Herring’s pants, and since her father is a Baptist preacher, he offers to take a turn at the pulpit to get in his good graces. He delivers an impassioned sermon on Daniel in the lions’ den. Mrs. Herring invites him to Sunday dinner. He and Susan do it in the church cloakroom.
He and Susan do it on one of the pews.
He and Susan do it in the choir loft.
He tells his parents that he is in love and wants to marry Susan. He is seventeen, Susan sixteen. His parents tell her parents. Susan, who wears polka-dot sundresses and white sandals and carries a drawstring purse (it is 1950), goes to Baltimore to live with her grandparents for the rest of the year. He finishes high school but arrives late for graduation because the transmission falls out of his jalopy and he has to run the last three miles.
His parents were there, for once.
The gifted child, when surrounded by other gifted children, may become nervous. There is a risk of no longer being the most gifted child in the room. He has already been drinking for a year or two to ease his anxiety, to smooth out the bumps, to stay cool. He likes to be in charge and most of the time is. He breezes through the draft board’s IQ test, deliberately scoring low, then, when the so-called monitor nods off, other students slip him their tests. He fills in the correct answers for half a dozen rural kids eager to go to Korea. Let’s hope they didn’t find themselves on Pork Chop Hill. He drops out of college, marries (not Susan), marries again (still not Susan), marries a third time (no, not Susan, never Susan), and finally stops marrying and just lives with women. He drinks from the time he gets up until he passes out for the night, but even so he writes a memoir and becomes briefly famous. A few years later he is getting rolled in a ditch on his way home from the liquor store, his fine watch gone forever. His daughter has a tough row to hoe.
But why in God’s name should anybody begrudge him a drink? He has always shouldered the responsibility for so much. His parents have never understood anything, not him, not the world, not themselves. He thinks Father should have fucked the daylights out of Mother. In other words, been a man. He stays in touch with his sister but thinks she is driven and an academic snob. He loves his daughter, but she lives with her mother, though her mother is always calling on him for advice on how to handle her. Everyone depends on him, and he has only so much to give. It’s like he has to carry the whole fuck-ass world on his shoulders. Even when he was a kid, he was always being called away from his friends and made to babysit his kid sister. Why couldn’t his parents stay home and do their own babysitting? Why does he always have to look after everybody, smooth things out, make things right, cheer the family up, kiss his sister on the cheek after she and her husband are pronounced man and wife (his father was too dazed and confused to understand that he was supposed to do that), teach his father to be a man, his mother how to be human?
Before he dies—early, of alcoholism—he takes to telling people that the only thing an IQ test tells you is how well you can take an IQ test.
syn. The son. The one who carries the cross.
ant. A free man. A man who has succeeded in disentangling himself from himself.
The Son’s Daughter
née Babette Bryant. aka BB.
syn. Nina’s niece; mother of Nina’s adopted daughter.
syn. Art and Ellie’s granddaughter; wife of Roy.
etym. Babette Bryant lives with her mother in Georgia and longs for her dad, seeing him only on holidays. She is a peach-colored baby with gray eyes that turn green as she metamorphoses into a little girl. By the time she is three, she is a stunner, with long chestnut hair, dark, skeptical eyebrows, and high cheekbones. People tell her how beautiful she is, but she doesn’t feel beautiful; she thinks they are trying to make her feel better about being hard of hearing. She wears a hearing aid. She negotiates the archipelago between childhood and being a teenager and, at twelve, she and her mother, Janice, fight about things like when she can date, her homework, the way she dresses (tight, hip-hugging jeans and tops that barely cover her budding breasts). She’s allowed a delicate, discreet tattoo on her ankle but Janice nixes the belly ring. She bumps into a guy while texting and walking and, not telling her mother, goes out with Roy Dante, an older man (twenty-two) who hangs out at the pool parlor and in gin mills but does not, as it happens, shoot up or snort anything, which is surprising, because he deals drugs. (In this decade, everyone knows about drugs.) He won’t let her use. He wants to make movies. He doesn’t know how he’s going to do this but he thinks about it all the time; he dreams up plots and figures out the camera angles. He tells her he will put her in his movies. She will be a star, her name in lights. She absorbs every word he says as if it is a kind of drug. She loses her virginity to him and whammo, she’s knocked up. She’s thirteen, but he really loves her. Babette hitches from Georgia to Connecticut to see her dad and tell him that she’s pregnant, but the woman he’s living with—in her house—won’t allow her to stay. Her father, Nina’s brother, ships her to Madison, Wisconsin, via bus, without informing Nina of the pregnancy. Babette is now fourteen, “going on fifteen,” as she explains. Her Aunt Nina will look after her until the baby is due. Roy visits her while she is there and they have sex again and talk about running off to Hollywood, but first she goes home to have the baby. She doesn’t even name it, refuses to see it, does not want to believe it is real. At her dad’s funeral, her mother gives the baby to her aunt, who will adopt her (“it” is a girl). While her mother is in Connecticut doing this, she and Roy take off for Hollywood, hitching most of the way. They have no money. Because of her, Roy has quit dealing. She says she can earn money for them. He is baffled until he looks her in the eye. “Forget it,” he says, in a voice that kind of scares her. “You are not going to turn tricks.” He gets a job in a studio mailroom, realizes there is no future in it, gets another job as a lowly assistant in an agent’s office, begins to make money, and takes classes for a high school equivalency degree.
She makes a stab at acting lessons, decides she’ll never be a real actress but discovers that the camera adores her even without talent. She is one of the rare lucky ones. Roy meets people, makes connections, enrolls in film school. His minimal education is no hindrance in Hollywood. He has directed BB in every movie she’s made. He understands everything about her: the vagaries of her mind, what she can and cannot portray, the way morning light cups her profile and evening light exaggerates her eyes, the angles from which she looks her best. At his urging, she goes professionally by her initials: BB. On posters, on marquees: BB. That’s what he now calls her: BB. Even with the pressure, she and Roy seldom fight. He is the only man she has ever known. At thirty-seven she finds herself with child again, and she’s excited about it. Her skin glows. She smiles a lot, even when she’s by herself. Her boobs, still perky, grow fuller with anticipation. She and Roy tell their two best friends, Lola and Terry, but swear them to silence. Not even one paparazzo gets wind of it.
The baby girl is born prematurely. She is so miniscule that the hospital won’t let them hold her. They stand at her cradle side by side, feeling the warmth of the heat lamp on their arms. They sing to her: lullabies, Beatles, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin. They hold hands and try prayer. The baby seems to be making progress, then her heart stops. Doctors, nurses, crash carts pile into the room, reducing the parents to spectators. The noise, the crowd, the hectic dance of medical personnel frighten them. Their baby’s heart stays stopped. Now the hospital lets them hold their daughter, their very small, dead daughter. BB looks at Roy and says, over her daughter’s body, each word carefully carved and placed, “If you’re going to leave me someday because of this, do it now. If you try to do it later, I’ll kill you.” The look in her eyes is hard, reckless, and so unforgiving that he believes she would do it, but he knows he will never want to be with anyone but her.
He has directed a few well received movies, and now he finds the backing to make what he thinks of as “the big one.” He is charming and competent, well dressed in cashmere, silk, denim, and leather, wears a gold bracelet, and has an easy but forceful way with actors. It is his script he will be directing this time. The movie is set in Afghanistan, and they shoot in Mongolia. (The war in Afghanistan is in what can only be called its umpteenth year. The sky in Mongolia is broad and blue, and at night the moon so big it seems to be next door.) It’s a complicated film, with a cast only a little short of thousands, the logistics nerve-wracking. No digital backgrounds.
But yaks. Lots of yaks. Not in the movie. In Mongolia.
They are already famous enough, especially she—although she can’t bear to watch herself on screen and never looks at her rushes—to have an entourage of publicists and bodyguards. Sets are constructed, props flown in or purchased locally; the cameras roll. As the female lead, she has been made up to look as if she has just returned from a skirmish, with scratches on her high cheekbones and fake blood on her forehead, her camouflage shirt partly unbuttoned, the pants coming untucked from heavy black boots. She enters the cave, lays down her Kalashnikov rifle, and says, “We’re fucked.” She does this over and over again, the same two words, until Roy feels he has everything right—the angle, the light, her face, her inflection, every infinitesimal movement, the composition of the whole. When they wrap the scene, the bodyguards are playing poker outside the set. He joins them, expecting BB to hang around and watch them for at least a little while, but she has her driver take her back to the hotel.
Ulan Bator (also known as Ulaanbaatar) is cold, with winds that seem to swoop down the streets like Genghis Khan and his terrifying, conquering tribe. In the hotel bar, a throat singer produces unearthly sounds, as if echoing a cry from a distant planet. BB turns her hearing aid off and orders a cognac. She has begun to think about their first baby, the one she gave away, the other girl. How is she? Is she working? Married? She would now be older than BB was when she gave birth to her.
What color are her eyes? Did they darken as she grew? What does she like to eat? What is her favorite song? (Though knowing Aunt Nina, she probably hears only classical music.) Her favorite color, favorite flavor of ice cream?
Her child wouldn’t remember her, but maybe her child’s flesh remembers her. Maybe she can sense that BB is thinking about her. Probably she doesn’t put it in words to herself, but maybe her body remembers having been in BB’s body. It’s not necessarily a crazy thought. New studies show that babies in utero are far more aware than anyone ever suspected.
The cognac makes her feel warm inside, but in her room—they have a suite—the cold lurks behind the drapes, weasels its way bedward. She puts on silk pajamas and slides under the covers. She thinks she can still hear the throat singer, but that’s impossible. Her hearing aid is in a case on the counter next to the sink in the bathroom.
The hotel is next to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. She knows she will wake to a view of a meadow dotted with edelweiss and a mountain toothpicked with pines. The furniture is antique, the floors are marble, there is local art on all the walls, some of it involving expensive fabric (silk, cashmere, camel hair). She has made use of the indoor pool, the fitness center, and the Asian spa, but tonight none of this interests her.
It’s too early to go to sleep, so she thinks some more about her first child. These are the first thoughts she has allowed herself to think about her first child in twenty-five years.
Not that she never caught herself thinking underneath her conscious thoughts. Brief images, glimpses, flashes, but she always shoved them back under, below the level of sentences. She never even stayed in touch with Aunt Nina.
She lies in the dark, thinking.
A few days later she decides to call her aunt in Wisconsin when she and Roy get back to the States.
Maybe she’ll tell Roy and maybe she won’t.
vb. Emphatically a verb. Tavy, green-eyed and stubborn, broke upon the earth like a tsunami. She was feisty, independent, demanding, impatient. Perhaps she bore certain qualities inherited from her great-grandmother Eleanor. From the beginning, Tavy’s interior life was a tumult. Emotions knocked her this way and that. But even as a child she knew what she wanted to do: In elementary school she learned, with the rest of her class, to make pictures with crayons, pastel chalks, and finger paints, but she made more pictures, used up more chalk, more finger paint than anybody else. In the fifth and sixth grades she worked with construction paper and collage, and she approached her projects with an odd seriousness, as if she were already thinking of their place in the record of her life, though of course she wasn’t. She was simply intense by nature. And though she didn’t know it, her mother knew that she was more focused than her grandfather, who had drawn and painted but was distracted by writing, theater, philosophy, mathematics, anthropology, chess, poker, Go, bars, women, and talk.
In her mother’s house books were everywhere, on shelves, stacked on the floor, in the kitchen, in the bedrooms, and Tavy loved to read. She had her own library card and checked books out every week, taking them back the next week. She held opinions about what she read and regularly delivered book reviews to her mother and father. Vocally. “This book is good. It doesn’t make me wish I were doing something else while I’m reading it,” she said.
In a book at home she saw a photograph of an object made by Joseph Cornell. She decided she would make one for herself. Her mother found for her an empty cigar box. “Not an easy thing to find in Madison!” her mother said, grinning, though Tavy did not know why her mother was grinning. (The educated denizens of Madison denounced and renounced smoking, though not smoking weed.)
Tavy began collecting objects—a blue pebble, a small pocketbook mirror, some blue scilla from the yard, two hickory nuts, a maple key, the stub of a pencil, a nail, a paperclip from her mother’s desk, a square of gold wrapping paper that she cut into a star, and a dead cricket. She showed the concoction to her mother. Nina studied it, especially the dead cricket, wondering if she should explain carnal decomposition to her daughter. It seemed much too soon.
Nina’s daughter the assemblage artist.
Her mother began bringing art books home from the university’s art library. Nina’s husband, who had legally adopted Tavy when she was five, took her to his office in the history department and let her flip through his books on Romanesque, Medieval, and Renaissance art.
In her coloring books, Tavy made bears yellow, rabbits green, the sky red. She drew in class when she was supposed to be paying attention, and at least once she was sent to the principal’s office because of it.
She took up body painting. One day she entered Nina’s bedroom with a blue nose. Nina made a joke about people with blue noses. Tavy didn’t get the joke, but she took the attention as approval.
Her stepfather gave her a flat tin of watercolors, and brushes, and she filled the paper with bare, brown trees. She explained to her mother that she didn’t have to paint the snow, because the snow was the paper itself. What was in the rectangle was snow.
It was hard to choose between her art projects and reading. She missed stories! But more and more, when she made a picture, she felt as if she were flying. As if she were soaring above the world but also as if she had magic eyes that let her see the smallest detail on the ground.
After she started using charcoal and oil paints, Tavy always had smudges of one or the other on her face and hands.
Tavy had come to love her stepfather, but sometimes she wondered where her “real” father was. “Daddy is your real father,” her mother told her. “He’s the one who is flesh and blood and here, and he loves you.”
“Okay,” Tavy said, “where is the unreal one?” Her mother didn’t know.
Tavy did not ask her mother, who had adopted her even before her stepfather did, where her real mother was. She didn’t want to know. It would be too confusing, and anyway, she had decided that her real mother hated her. Why else would she give her away? Nina always told her that her birth mother loved her very, very much but couldn’t take care of her, but as Tavy grew older she found this more difficult to believe. Why didn’t her birth mother write? Why didn’t she call?
When Tavy was little, Nina had a tendency to excuse Tavy’s temper tantrums and contrariness as “high spirits,” but after Nina married Palmer, he laid down some rules. When Tavy lost her temper, she had to apologize. If she used a bad word, she wasn’t allowed to play with her art materials until she apologized. She became better about obeying rules, but she still broke them when she could get away with it. As soon as she began talking (Nina told Palmer), her word for herself was “stubber,” for “stubborn.” “I ’pol’gize,” she said when she was still little; “Tavy stubber.” She often referred to herself in the third person.
At an early age, Tavy had encountered death three times. She had seen her great-grandmother die in England; she had seen her dog die, sort of—she wasn’t present for his death, but she had seen him old and sick and knew he was dying; and her favorite teacher, Miss Lathrop, was murdered in the public library right in front of her. She still thought about it sometimes, the man with the gun, the man who tried to protect Miss Lathrop, and Miss Lathrop, her wonderful teacher with a gentle demeanor and soft voice. She assumed Miss Lathrop was in heaven, but she couldn’t understand why God had taken her there. She thought it was selfish of him to take Miss Lathrop so far away that she couldn’t even come to the library anymore.
In high school she went out with boys several times and necked with them and once went to third base but she didn’t have sex even though plenty of girls she knew did. In college, at Evergreen, in Washington state, she had sex with the same boyfriend for two years. He was gentle, for which she did not know she should be grateful. They drove through the snow-capped mountains, too many of them strip-mined, and stopped by rivers where salmon swam and spawned. The countryside was full of mule deer and bear, and once upon a time pronghorn roamed. (The Yakima nation have reintroduced pronghorn to their land.) She and her boyfriend said tearful goodbyes on the last class day of his senior year, but neither expected or wanted the relationship to continue. He went off to be an intern in public service for the summer. After she graduated, her parents let her come home to paint. There were galleries in Madison, and more in Chicago. She gave notice that she would move out when she had saved a small nest egg. She was twenty.
In Madison she hooked up with Zayed Mbawe. His parents had emigrated from West Africa, but he was pure America. He wore do-rags on his head, and jeans and a T-shirt and a hoodie, an intricately wrought silver necklace, and an earring in each ear. He taught her about jazz, rap, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues, all of which she knew would cause her mother to despair. She couldn’t get enough of him, was addicted to him, would climb on him when he stretched out on the couch, would waylay him when he did laundry, sent him cell phone photos of her almost-naked self (bra and panties, and once, just panties). Sex with him drugged her, made her dopey, made her want to run her tongue over every part of his body, made her think of him while she was painting, made her think of him while she was reading, made her kiss his eyelids, his earringed ears, his curly hair, his sculpted face, his lean, hard, young body, his smooth hands and the awesome architecture of his feet.
“My feet?” he asked, laughing at her. “You like my feet?” He stared down at his feet. “I guess they’re all right, but—”
Sex was a haze, a daze, a maze. All day her skin remembered his. Everywhere she went she felt surrounded by a sexual force field.
But he had a wandering eye, and she caught him looking at Jewel, and then Ondine, a girl she had known since kindergarten. A week later, someone told her Zayed had been spotted at a party with Coco Untermeyer. In her room at night Tavy sobbed until her eyes were dry and her throat sore, but everywhere she went she stood tall and erect and acted as if nothing bothered her.
Why wasn’t she on the pill? They used condoms, she had insisted on that, but maybe he’d been too slow putting it on and some drops leaked onto her or the condom broke. Two months passed without her period. She hadn’t told Zayed and was certain she never would. She thought about having an abortion; that was the sensible thing to do. But she also thought about how Nina had waited too long to have a child and had been unable to conceive.
She asked herself if she would have adopted the child she was then if she had been in her mother’s shoes and knew herself well enough to answer, no. She wouldn’t have set out to be a single mother. It was too much hard work. She had made her mother’s life hell, or at least she had caused her a certain amount of social grief. But if the child just showed up—Maybe it would be better to have a child now, while she was young, and if it turned out that she was stuck with a carbon copy of herself, well, at least she would not have gone to all the trouble of adopting only to end up with her own bratty being. Did that make sense? Probably not, but she was leaning toward having it. She could continue to live at home a while longer and nothing on earth would stop her from making art.
As for Zayed, as for boys in general, she did not want to be a wife. A mother, yes. A wife, no. If Zayed heard about her pregnancy, she might answer his questions, but she was not going to go out of her way to inform him that he was going to be a dad.
Through all of this, Nina ached on her behalf. She saw how her daughter was whipsawed by emotion and wished she could convince her that things would get better when she was older, but the words were meaningless to a young girl in the throes, the thrall, of love. A girl who did not yet understand how long a life could be. (Or how short.)
Nina explained to Palmer that their daughter would be living with them for a while longer. And that a new infant would be joining their household.
A Summary of the Begats
n. pl. Arthur and Eleanor begat a son, who was followed by a daughter, Nina. The son begat a daughter. The daughter, Babette, became pregnant by Roy Dante at thirteen and at fourteen begat Tavy, whom Babette’s aunt, Nina, adopted. Nina’s other child—and she did not hesitate to put it that way—was a salt-and-pepper cairn terrier with dark red whiskers and a delightfully fluffy butt. Having managed as a single woman after a short-lived first marriage, in her forties she married Palmer Wright, who taught medieval history at the university, a place of such specialized specialization that scholars did not have areas or fields or subjects or texts so much as they had page numbers. Professor X did his work on p. 119 while Professor Y did hers on p. 194. This had got to Palmer, as had the loneliness and boredom he experienced in the wake of his divorce. He wanted to expand his imagination, to think about English in a new way. He was no weak-chinned Casaubon. What he needed in his life, he felt, was a creative writer, and as it happened they were not hard to find, inasmuch as they could be found on the sixth floor. He picked his out, appropriate in age and gender, and so it was not altogether happenstance when he met her on the Square during the Merchants’ Parade, but he never told her that.
Nina often talked about her musician parents, but they never seemed entirely real to Palmer, since they were deceased by the time he met Nina. He supposed his ex-wife, though still living, might be correspondingly unreal to Nina, but when he suggested that, Nina said that on the contrary, she worried his ex was in the bedroom with them. He learned to stop making offhand references to Dorrie. After a few years Dorrie began to seem as unreal to him as Nina’s deceased parents did.
But Tavy was real. He sympathized with the little girl’s struggle to define herself. It would be hard, he thought, to have an aunt for a mother, a writer for a mother, and no grandparents. When Nina was working, he took Tavy for walks, helped her with homework, commented on the pictures she made and brought to him, and became well acquainted with the school principal, since the child was always causing trouble. He tried to maintain a stern mien when he collected her from the principal’s office, but in his heart he was rooting for her.
When he learned that Tavy was pregnant, his first thought was how great it would be to be a grandfather. His second was to find the guy and beat him up or at least make him marry Tavy. When Tavy said she didn’t want to marry Zayed, his first thought returned. When Tavy had morning sickness, he stood behind her and held her hair back from her face as she leaned over the toilet.
Strenuous Efforts at Escape
In some houses there are trapdoors. They turn up anywhere, everywhere. You are standing in the middle of a room, not worried about anything, just standing and looking around, and the floor gives way and you drop down. Now you’re under the house. It’s possible, even probable, that other family members are also under the house, but they are never on the same level you are on. So you are alone where you are, there, under the house. And the floor is never high enough for you to stand up without crouching. So you have to bend over and semi-crawl your way out. Yes, you live in a crawl space. You’d suppose you might run into someone sometimes but that never happens—not in a house of secrets. You crawl your way out, which takes an hour or a day or two or a month or a year, and then you reenter the house, and boom, another trapdoor opens and you have to go through the whole process again. Is this exhausting? It is exhausting. Do you want to escape? Of course you want to escape. It’s very strange, the fact that the house is always there and you are always in it. But that’s what houses with trapdoors are like.
conj. Callie, named for the muse—and for an instrument her mother remembers distantly hearing as a little girl—has her grandmother Nina’s preoccupied, soulful eyes but not her ivory skin. Callie’s skin is light olive. Her hair is dark and curly, surrounding her face like a nimbus. Like her great-grandparents, the first time she hears a violin (the Six-State Calliope Convention no longer convenes in Madison) she insists on lessons. She has an instinct for it, as a dog has an instinct to bark or a bird to sing. Nina, who is also her great-aunt, buys her a sixteenth-size violin, which she treats as tenderly as another child might a beloved china doll. She learns to play “Come to Jesus” in whole notes. She listens to Nina and Palmer’s and her mother’s CDs.
A sixteenth! How can it include a bridge, f holes, pegs, sounding post, string nuts? The whole thing is so tiny it looks like a toy. No, surely it is too delicate to be a toy. It looks like a piece of jewelry. It has been used, which gives it a warm sound. The ribs have been well seasoned. Soon Callie will play an eighth-, then a quarter-size violin.
How surprising that Callie, the daughter of a whirlwind, lives and moves in a patch of calm weather, as if insulated from tumult. Her mother has financial problems, artistic problems, boyfriend problems. Callie’s straight, narrow nose turns up at her mother’s antics. She loves her mother—and appreciates what her mother does for her—but even at five she seems to think fretting, crying, raging are time-wasters. Time, she was apparently born knowing, is both limited and valuable. How can she know this so early in her life? Or maybe she doesn’t really know it, maybe she’s simply gifted with inner peace the way she is naturally fitted for the violin? Maybe her serenity, her imperturbability stem from her having been born late in the scheme of things, after so much else has happened. From time to time she feels a bit sad, but when she is sad, she listens to music and then she is happy again. Even sad music makes her happy. At first she listens to ballet music, thrills to “Night on Bald Mountain,” is elated by “The Moldau,” and sings along with Carmen and Madama Butterfly, dropping down an octave when the music goes too high, but soon it is Mozart and nothing but Mozart, and then Bach, Bach, Bach, and when she arrives at the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, she feels she has found her true home, the one in which she can dwell undisturbed, as if on another planet, a green and gold planet from whose several silver moons issues a heavenly sound. Here she has the most intimate relationship of her life. She is one with the music. It moves her, it caresses, it enriches her. It makes her know things she cannot put into words.
Is it a dream, then, music? Does it separate you from people? It does, she thinks, and it doesn’t. Through music, she knows people, their innermost feelings. Music is a real and reckonable force in the world. It speaks to everyone, knows everything—or rather, some music does. Beethoven’s music does. She wants to be able to play the string quartets. And she wants to play first violin.
So her grandmother, who is also her great-grandmother, also her great-aunt and great-great-aunt, tells her about Art and Ellie, how they had their own string quartet and rehearsed in the living room and gave concerts. Nina tells her about Eleanor’s evening gowns and the tenement apartment building, about how handsome Arthur looked in dress shirt, white tie, and tails, how the room was fogged with cigarette smoke when they were practicing (and when they were not practicing, too). How there were ashtrays on footstools between the stands. How Eleanor would have a bottle Coke and a Hershey bar with almonds on her footstool, next to a pack of cigarettes, while Art always had a cup of coffee, with chicory and two spoonfuls of sugar, on his, until to save money he had to give up ordering chicory coffee from Louisiana. How they had such a good time practicing, but Eleanor vomited before every concert. How they loved to play together.
Callie registers some of this and forgets some of it, but it helps her feel that what she aims to do has been validated in advance. She does not yet have the words to say this, but this is what she feels and it is what she will carry into adulthood.